White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Epic Meditations in Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Augustine’s Confessions, 2: Self-Stewardship

Published Wednesday, March 3, 2021 By Anthony G. Cirilla

“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”

Peterson

“If only someone could have imposed restraint on my disorder.”

Augustine

In Book II of the Aeneid, Aeneas reports an account of the Trojans debating whether to bring the wooden horse left by the Greeks to Poseidon into Troy or not. An intense note of caution is sounded:

….those of wiser judgement, commanded us

to either hurl this deceit of the Greeks, this suspect gift,

into the sea, or set fire to it from beneath,

or pierce its hollow belly, and probe for hiding places.

Aeneid Book 2

But the young Greek lad Sidon tells his tale of the Greeks’ departure, and sea serpents devour the priest Laocoon, the most outspoken opponent of bringing the horse behind Trojan walls. Taking Laocoon’s fate as a sign, the Trojans invite destruction into their midst. Taking cues from serpents, Virgil and Genesis 3 agree, is ill advised.

Both Augustine and Jordan Peterson provide insights which might suggest that something more than bad judgment and unfortunate illusion undergirds the Trojans’ fatal embrace of the Greek-filled wooden horse. Just as the first chapters of Confessions and 12 Rules for Life start by defining the fundamental principle of human edification, their second step is to interrogate the human impulse for self-ruin. Mulling over a memory of his decision to steal pears he didn’t want from a pear tree he didn’t admire, Augustine introspects, “Now let my heart tell you what it was seeking there in that I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul and I loved it” (Conf., II.ix). This apparent, Poesque imp of the perverse goes even deeper than reveling in bucking social trends – it even involves bucking that which benefits the self: “I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself” (Conf., II.ix). Like Greeks in the belly of the Trojan horse, Augustine’s own impulse was to delight in tearing himself apart.

Peterson notes a similar paradox with a more contemporary observation: “Imagine that a hundred people are prescribed a drug… One-third of them won’t fill the prescription. Half of the remaining sixty-seven will fill it, but won’t take the medication correctly” (31). Here’s something really sick for you to know: as I was meditating on these chapters from Augustine and Peterson, I was also recovering from having four wisdom teeth pulled, and had been prescribed anti-biotics to ensure my gums didn’t become infected. While contemplating the precise way I wanted to approach writing about the second chapters of Augustine and Peterson on failures to take care of ourselves properly, I also forgot to take my anti-biotics correctly several days in a row. I didn’t even notice the irony until finalizing the final draft of this paper. Apparently, I have some enemies in my Trojan horse too.

Whether it’s stealing pears we don’t want or failing to take pills we know we need, there’s something in us that wants to misbehave when it comes to the moral demands of self-care. That is fundamentally what Peterson’s second chapter seeks both to explain and ameliorate. Of course, as an English professor and Tolkien scholar I am a bit inherently biased to appreciate his answer, which is to point us to the fact that “the world of experience has primal constituents,” “the necessary elements whose interactions define drama and fiction” (35). We encounter in our first-person observations the real experiences of order and chaos as genuinely (possibly more genuinely) as any scientifically observable field of sense data. Martin Buber called this dichotomy the “I/thou” vs “I/it” postures of observation – we can never get away from the material substrate of our experience, but we can also never get away from the personal implications of our vulnerable, conscious selves existing in a dangerous world.

Implicitly aware of our own vulnerability, Peterson argues, we may fall prey to treating ourselves just how we might treat someone else: bullies pushing victims around on the play-ground, where we are both the bully who pushes and the victim who is pushed. And as we notice ourselves not putting up a fight to this mistreatment, our resentment only grows. To combat this resentment, we have to “straddle that fundamental duality” between order and chaos: showing ourselves wise enough to implement regulations and brave enough to push into the unknown that we act out the same virtues we would like to see someone else exhibit. Augustine observes the fruit of failing to do this in his own youthful indulgence: “I became to myself a region of destruction” (Conf., II.xviii).

When offering counsel to a distressed student, I have often observed that she would not tolerate one of her friends speaking to another friend the way she talks to herself. I have also almost always immediately afterwards realized that I had been mentally berating myself for something in a manner that I would be appalled to hear someone using with another person. In reverse, though, I have also noticed that I let myself off the hook where I might offer rebuke to another person because I love her too much to let the rebuke go unstated. Peterson writes, “If we lived in Truth; if we spoke the Truth—then we could walk with God once again, and respect ourselves, and others, and the world” (58). Taking better care of ourselves might mean being kinder as we would expect others deserve to be treated – but it also might involve directing tougher language to ourselves we wouldn’t spare a loved one from – if we really loved that other person.

But Augustine points up a challenge in this process, in the very thing both he and Peterson have identified. Augustine admits, “At one time in adolescence I was burning to find satisfaction in hellish pleasures” (Conf. II.i). The tricky thing is that we don’t know if our vision for improvement is actually good. Sometimes, treating ourselves as someone else we are responsible for helping might have terrible results – if we are in the habit of thinking we are helping when we are actually hurting. Another way to articulate this problem is that while we surely are, as Peterson puts it, responsible for helping ourselves as if we were another person, to whom do we owe the responsibility? To the hypothetical other person that we also are, or to the immediate agency? To the potential self, or to the self we are capable of exhibiting now?

Of course, the answer is to some extent “both,” but the Augustinian problem stands that we get bewildered about what constitutes the seat of final responsibility: “Confusion of the two things boiled within me” (Conf., II.ii). In the passage, Augustine seeks love, and in seeking love he fell into lust, because “[c]louds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air,” and so he really couldn’t see the difference between the two. As far as he knew, helping someone out might involve encouraging them in their lust—in fact, that’s exactly what Augustine’s father did: “When at the bathhouse my father saw that I was showing signs of virility and the stirrings of adolescence, he was overjoyed to suppose that he would now be having grand-children” (Conf., II.vi). His father’s idea of helping someone else involved perceiving Augustine’s sexual promiscuity as wonderful, but this same promiscuity became an intolerable burden to Augustine’s heart. If our idea of helping another person is fundamentally bankrupt, however good willed it may feel, it might actually not be so good to apply that standard to ourselves. As Augustine says of his immature friends who goaded his sinful desire to pointlessly steal the pears, “Friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation” (Conf., II.xvii).

I don’t mean this to be an assault on Peterson’s wisdom in his rule or the attendant chapter – as I have written, I have benefitted from personal meditation on the truths it contains (and as my anecdote above indicates, I continue to need the reminder). But the Augustinian in me can’t help but grow nervous when Peterson writes, “Perhaps heaven is something you must build, and immortality something you must earn” (53). I think this concept, for all of its merits, might end up looking more like building a Tower of Babel than a temple of worship. It might, if one isn’t careful, lead to a personality more like the Pharisee thanking God for making him better than others than a personality like the tax collector who beats his chest and says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Certainly, Peterson intends to help us face our capacity for mayhem – “Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering,” and so “no one understands the darkness of the individual better than the individual himself” (55).

Commendably, Peterson’s rule seems to mirror Christ’s second greatest commandment (Love your neighbor as you love yourself), helpfully reminding us that if we are to be a help to others we must implement the same strategies that mitigate against our own destruction as we would recommend to others. But I also worry that the chapter might, for Christians, obfuscate the subordination of the second commandment to the first. Peterson writes that awareness of our own capacity for destruction in the world, our personal partaking of the knowledge of good and evil, is “the transformation of Being itself into a moral endeavor—all attendant on the development of sophisticated self-consciousness” (54). But lack of self-consciousness wasn’t Augustine’s problem when he stole the pears: he knew he was being evil, and he relished it.

Peterson mentions Tolkien’s Shire as an idyllic representation of the desire for order: “peaceful, productive, and safely inhabitable” (37). In the third section of his prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien writes, “There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king at Fornost… But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years… Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king” (FotR Prologue, sect. 3). Peterson builds into his discussion of his rule much commentary on Genesis, and something essential to Genesis 1 is the role of human stewardship of the earth. In a fallen world, where the king seems to be away, stewardship is all the more important, something even Hobbits recognize: “For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just” (FotR 30).[1]

Articulating the ancient justness of the rules of bringing order out of chaos, you might say, comprises much of the work of Peterson’s efforts: “the answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to Embody the Image of God—to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good—but to do so consciously, of our own free choice” (57). But when Peterson writes that “the Taoist path of life” is “the same Way as that referred to by Christ in John 14:6 I am the way, and the truth and the life,” I have to say, “Hold on buddy!” Because while Christians certainly believe they can learn things from other traditions, Christ is excluding other ways in that assertion – even ways which might affirm the responsibility of Being, even ways which participate in the Jewish tradition in which he speaks, or even ways which might seem to follow Christ Himself.

And the distinction of stewardship is precisely where, though it may seem subtle, the Augustinian must differentiate himself from the Petersonian, even if that differentiation is mostly additive rather than subtractive in nature. Yes, we must treat ourselves as if we are someone we are responsible for helping, but beyond that, we must help ourselves and others by standards not of our own making. What’s more, helping others is not the highest responsibility: rather, it is to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. Love of neighbor, and the healthy self-love upon which that neighborly love must be modelled and enacted, must be subordinated to love of God. As such, we must help ourselves as if we did not belong to ourselves—we must be stewards of ourselves as if we were someone else who belonged to God—because we do.

Of course, the objection to this is that commitment to loving God as Christ teaches in the first great commandment can be (rather, most certainly will be) rife with unhelpful projections into the divine of our worst ideas that can also be found in the second greatest commandment. But here Peterson’s phrase “as if” can also be useful: what if, in acting as if we were someone we were responsible for helping, we also acted as if that was because we owed allegiance to someone greater than either ourselves as caretaker or ourselves as beneficiary of that care? To best reverence the image of God may require an act that seems too simple to tolerate: reverencing above the image of God that God which the image reflects.

Augustine wrote that “the soul fornicates when it is turned away from [God] and seeks outside [God] the pure and clear intentions which are not to be found except by returning to [God]” (Conf. II.xiv). Peterson helps to break us out of the comfort of soul-fornication when we see ourselves horizontally decentered as a neighbor – and Augustine calls us to likewise decenter our self-image vertically as stewards who have heard of the king: “one must not depart from you, Lord, nor deviate from your law” (Conf. II.x). Peterson’s rule reminds us to treat ourselves as neighbors in the trials of Being; Augustine reminds us to treat ourselves with the dignity of someone restrained by the order of the loving lawgiver of that Being. If we acted that way, we might be on better guard against the impulse to invite traitorous defeat into our souls in the Christian race for the crown of victory. Who knows, we might even take our medicine.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.


[1] For the sake of this discussion, I think it best to leave aside questions of soteriology from Calvinist, Arminian, or other perspectives – here let free will simply mean the personal responsibility of agency.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla