The Jordan B Peterson Podcast | S2, E 37: “Struggle Between Chaos and Order”

by Glenn on December 6, 2019

I have been enjoying the Jordan B. Peterson Podcast a lot this year. It has become routinized this year around a weekly delivery on Sundays. I think the plan was for Dr. Peterson to interview people for these podcasts, but you learn through his daughter, the podcast host, that he has been dealing with some health issues this year—first with his wife, then himself. So, instead of interviews, there have been a number of talks he has given from his 12 Rules for Life Book Tour. What is extraordinary about this tour is that it’s not a scripted presentation. No talk is ever the same. As Dr. Peterson describes his process, he spends about 45 minutes before the show thinking about a problem he wants to solve. Then he walks out onto stage, states the question, and for 70 minutes or so tries to answer the question before answering audience questions at the end. It feels like a high-wire act.

I’ve heard him describe how he became a lecturer who could talk without notes while maintaining audience interest and, I might add, actually saying something coherent and edifying. He says it started with the three hours a day he spent over a period of fifteen years writing his first book, Maps of Meaning. He says he was pretty ruthlessly protective of those three hours. He could have been doing other things and he was frequently asked to engage in other things (including by family), but the time he spent thinking seriously about deep things, allowed him to get down to the bottom of some things. (Did he envision what those three hours would produce? Are there people who have spent an equal amount of time and it didn’t produce the kind of results that includes a best-selling book and a world-wide lecture tour? Is there more to the picture? I think it doesn’t hurt that he tried to wrestle with the hardest questions he could think of. And, clearly, the man is brilliant.)

Dr. Peterson has been a college professor for a number of years and he talks about how he learned to talk without scaffolding (i.e. lecture notes). As he lectured, he tried to get away from using notes to the point where, today, he can walk on stage and talk to an audience off the top of his head. It is a bit like a jazz performance (I think he has used that metaphor himself) where he knows his scales well and that allows him to take the performance in a different direction every night. On the surface, it appears as though he is winging it for a 70-minute talk. Most of us would need to spend hours preparing for that kind of talk. He has spent those hours, they are just in the past rather than in the days and hours before each talk.

A recent podcast—Season 2, Episode 37: “Struggle Between Chaos and Order”—I found particularly impressive and moving. The talk was given in Zurich, Switzerland. He had been interviewed earlier by some reporters and he was annoyed by a particular question—actually, he was annoyed by his answer to a particular question. He decided he would use this night’s lecture to give a better answer.

The question of the journalist was about chaos and order. In particular, why are men considered order and women considered chaos? I really enjoyed his answer. First of all he doesn’t think it’s his idea. It’s his observation of “how stories work.”

Aside: Dr. Peterson’s talk of stories is probably his greatest contribution for those of us in the Christian faith. We live in an age when—well, it’s a funny time—stories have never been more popular in one sense. We still go to see movies. We still read novels. We still attend church (ish). But we’re in this scientific age which attempts to reduce everything to facts, to the things we can measure, sense, and experience. Dr. Peterson has said that the path to truth does not come solely through science. Science gives us facts where stories carry values. Both are truth. And the stories we need as much, if not more, than facts. Further, we pay a price when we jettison those stories.

He thinks of thought structure as a map. “You want an accurate map to stay out of pits.” And one of his goals as a lecturer is not to convince people that he is right, but to make his map better. The better your map, the easier it is to move in the world. He says “a story is a kind of map … a way of perceiving the world and acting in it.” He believes stories are “so deep and important” you re biologically prepared to enjoy them. “Stories are at the bottom of everything.”

The fundamental metaphors of the world are chaos, order, and the force that mediates between the two of them. Order he describes as “when what you want is happening.” We have desires and the world is in order when those desires are being fulfilled. This is not to say that whatever you desire is right, but that we understand that things are in control when we’re getting what we want. The result is that “You’re not anxious.”

On the other hand, chaos is “antithetical . . . where all hell breaks loose.” Sometimes chaos comes from the outside—natural disasters bring chaos, but chaos can also come from interpersonal relationships—from betrayals. And chaos can come from within when we betray ourselves.

The great stories of the world talk about order and chaos. The opening of Genesis is the one I am most familiar with. Genesis 1:1 describes order:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Then verse 2 introduces chaos:

“The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters.”

Now, at this point, order sounds like a good thing and chaos is bad, but this is too simplistic a view. Initially, the former seems like a positive and the latter is a negative, so that men are good and women are, you know, chaos—a pejorative. A simple answer is that chaos and order are not good vs. bad; they are opposites. Dr. Peterson reminds his audience that we need both order and chaos. Too much order actually means you have tyranny. He references the Exodus story from the Hebrew Scriptures. They left the oppressive tyranny of Egypt but then found themselves in chaos. I love the psychological application he brings to the Biblical stories, like the departure from Egypt: “You’ve escaped from pathological tyranny and now you’re trying to orient yourself.” That’s chaos. It’s not good or bad, it’s reality. It’s important to know if we are in order or chaos, though “We’re constantly moving between the two things.” The truth is you’re neither completely in order or chaos. When you participate in the process of the movement between these states, you find meaning in life.

There is a cycle: Order is followed by collapse, which introduces you to chaos, which leads you to the Underworld, where you re-constitute yourself and re-emerge with a new order. (This pattern is based on ancient stories he will re-tell momentarily.) The result is a good:

“When you put yourself back together, you’re more together than you were.”

Here’s a truth:

“Life is punctuated by painful bouts of learning.”

The next step of his explanation is that we tend to experience order and chaos as personalities. Our distant ancestors wrote stories that captured this. He references three of them, from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Genesis, the latter which he describes as a variant of the Mesopotamian story. He goes into some detail telling the Mesopotamian and Egyptian stories, explaining how they relate to order and chaos.

In the process he introduces a story about a grizzly bear that is grimly funny, but a captivating reflection on how you can think you are one place (in order) but instantly find that you were “off the path.”

He relates these stories to actual living. They are not simply stories from the distant past, but stories about how life works. The application of the Egyptian story is “when things fall apart, open your eyes … see what’s in front of you.” The dilemma is found in a question: “What’s in front of you? That which you don’t want to look at.” Dr. Peterson says,

“It’s your moral duty to keep your eyes open. The consequences are fatal.”

Dr. Peterson explains that there is something worse than death: “a lot of suffering, followed by death. … There’s plenty of hell if you’re incautious.”

The last part of his talk is the difficult connection he wants to make—how does order get associated with men and chaos with women? As far as order, hierarchies have been male. Until recently, women had a hard time competing with men because of their vulnerability in the area of reproduction. Though there are some women more dominant than some men, the most dominant humans are males. But this “doesn’t mean that women didn’t contribute or that men are exclusively masculine.” But there is a masculine quality to hierarchies.

Why is chaos represented as a feminine trait? Because “new things emerge out of the feminine.” And what follows is a really interesting but complicated discussion of natural selection and sexual selection. Encounters with either may throw you into chaos.

The end result is that he is “just trying to understand … symbolic patterns that have manifested themselves in gendered form.”

Near the end, Dr. Peterson offers a helpful prayer :

“What can I see
that I’m unwilling to see
that would guide me out of the hell.”

The reality is that “you will be in chaos … You won’t want to, but you can see if you want to … It’s useful to know that you can be in chaos … Open your eyes, it can be a place of renewal.”

I thought the Q & A for this talk was particularly insightful. Here’s this line: “I would rather have my corporations greedy than virtuous.” That’s one to chew on, though he gives some other thoughts about it. He notes this about the political left and the political right. The political left is deeply suspicious of large corporations; the political left is deeply suspicious of large government. What do they have in common? “Both don’t like large.” He referenced that phrase, “too big to fail,” from the financial crisis and turned it into a truism: “so big it will fail.”

There’s a strong moral message at the end of the Q & A:

“The more powerful we become, the more ethical we have to be.”

The decision of what we are going to do is made at the level of the individual. And Dr. Peterson believes “the direction of the world rests on your shoulders.”