White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Epic Meditations in Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Augustine’s Confessions, 4: Temple Building

Published Wednesday, June 2, 2021 By Anthony G. Cirilla

Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

Jordan Peterson

For I did not know that the soul needs to be enlightened from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth.


When Aeneas first lands in Carthage after fleeing fallen Rome and a succession of false starts, he is immediately struck by the grandeur of the city: “Aeneas marvels/at the enormous buildings, once mere huts,/and at the gates and tumult and paved streets” (Aeneid I.598-600). Such admiration is not inherently bad, and in fact running the city is the competent, dedicated, wise Dido, “building a shrine for Juno,” who knows not merely how to run a city effectively but to make it beautiful and inspiring for its citizens.

According to Peterson’s rule, profitable comparison stems from paying careful attention to oneself, and that is precisely what the temple does: it provides a standard by which the citizens can measure the totality of their labor. Peterson says of the productively self-critical individual, “Instead of playing the tyrant, therefore, you are paying attention… You are negotiating, instead of playing the martyr or the tyrant” (110). Virgil compares Dido’s well ruled city to a bee nest: the workers are busy and the yield of their labor is sweet. And this is in no small part due to Dido’s decision to beautify the temple at the city’s center, which puts the citizens in touch with a meaning that allows their efforts to transcend busywork.

Aeneas has a different reaction to the temple, looking at the engraved images of fallen Troy it depicts: “With many tears and sighs he feeds his soul on what is nothing but a picture” (Aeneid I.658-659). Aeneas is stunned not only by these recollections of the past, but also because of a counterpart ruler’s manifested ideals. Meanwhile Dido, “in her joy, moved among the throng as she urged on the work of her coming kingdom” (Aeneid I.710-711). Aeneas has become ensnared in the temptation of comparison: after all, like Dido, he is a destined ruler, one who is tasked with the building of temples in the midst of cities—but in Rome, not in Carthage. And their stories are different—Aeneas, harried at sea by the same raging Juno who had a hand in toppling his lost home of Troy, simply has a background too different from Dido’s to productively compare himself to her.

The comparison is inevitable, however, and not only because Dido is a rival ruler. She is also a romantic interest, and the hero’s journey inevitably transforms romantic attraction into a standard by which the love-sick hero judges himself. As Peterson says, “we must compare ourselves to others, because standards are necessary” (89). We must compare ourselves to those we are interested in romantically because our par amor needs to meet standards we prize for the relationship to be possible—but, in recognizing the standards we expect of the one we love, we also discover standards we are called to meet if we are to be worthy of our beloved’s affection.

The combination of Aeneas’s attraction to Dido as a beautiful, hospitable, and wise woman, and a competent, ambitious ruler, understandably confuses his mission. Aeneas has been called by the gods to found Rome, and he sees in Dido many of the ideals he will be called to manifest as a ruler in that context. Indeed, Virgil often calls him “pious Aeneas,” and one of the first things we learn about Dido is that she has called her citizens to virtuous, harmonious living through the temple’s location in the city. His attraction to her, and his temptation to thereby judge his own excellence by his capacity to attract her, is by no means shallow. But therein lies the tragedy: Aeneas has a destiny, and Dido doesn’t figure into it. He has failed, so to speak, to heed something like the injunction from Paul: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Aeneas is yoking himself on the basis of Dido’s current status in Carthage being equal with his eventual status in Rome, in spite of the fact that the comparison, in addition to being inherently stretched, also ignores the fact that the overall target of their missions in life are simply not commensurate. That’s a necessarily doomed foundation for a relationship, and Aeneas ignored those caveats because he failed to compare himself to who he is called to be when he got caught up in the comparisons of romantic ideals.

While this is heartbreaking for Aeneas, it is devastating and fatally destructive for Dido. When Aeneas receives a pulse-elevating reprimand to carry out his mission from the messenger god Mercury, he leaves Dido broken in many ways. She is broken hearted that Aeneas abandoned her. She feels the sting of his implicit rejection of her values imbedded in Carthage. She has broken her own vow not to remarry after the tragic death of her beloved Sychaeus. Furthermore, she lied to herself about whether her intimate involvement with Aeneas was an actual marriage because she, too, had been caught up in the trap of comparing herself to him: “How confident he looks, how strong his chest/and arms! I think–and I have cause–that he is born of gods” (Aeneid IV.12-14). Her sister, Anna, unhelpfully compounds this legitimate personal attraction with Dido’s public goals as a leader: “if you marry Aeneas, what a city/and what a kingdom, sister, you will see!” (Aeneid IV.144-145). So when Aeneas leaves, as he inevitably must, Dido’s formerly profound and impregnable interior temple of value crumbles because its foundation has been rotted out by comparison—and, tragically, Dido cannot face the import of her self-betrayal and chooses death instead.

Peterson writes, “The conditions of our lives become more and more personal and less and less comparable with those of others” (89). We might acknowledge some comparison here or there when the point of contact seems roughly commensurate, but always with the caveat of that realization that even a great deal of apparent similarity may not hold up under more careful consideration. And as it probably doesn’t, the personal dissatisfaction we feel when we observe the life situations of others compared to our own is more likely than not illegitimate for a number of reasons.

Augustine likewise went through a phase of comparison to his betters that he eventually had to transcend in the effort of becoming individuated. He admired an “orator” who “was of the type which I so loved that I wanted to be like him” (Conf. IV.xxiii). He realizes eventually that what drew him to wish to be like the orator wasn’t inherent skill but a desire to receive the same praise he received from others: “If, far from praising him, they had vilified him, and had given a critical and scornful account of his work, my interest would not have been kindled and aroused. Certainly the actual facts would have been no different, nor the man himself” (Conf. IV.xxiii). A young Augustine had no reliable means of assessing whether the orator was actually admirable—he was dependent upon “the winds of gossip” that “blow from the chests of people ventilating their opinions; so the soul is carried about and turned, twisted back again” (Conf. IV.xxiii). He was like Dido’s Carthage with no temple and no ruler to build it—and every persuasive encounter invited him to destruction as a result: “our life was one of being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving” (Conf. IV.i). This admission expands the dangers of comparison: not only can undue comparison of self to another destroy you; it can also set up others to fail, as Aeneas did to Dido. Augustine found himself having precisely this effect when he led a Christian away from his faith through the power of his liberal arts learning: “So under my influence this man’s mind was wandering astray, and my soul could not endure to be without him” (Conf. IV.vii). Addicted to being another’s temple, Augustine was struck with grief when the other man died and he realized the folly of setting himself up as an idol.

Herein lies precisely the possible problem nested within Peterson’s rule—and I say this believing it is a good rule. Taking care to measure myself now against my past self has indeed helped me in many dimensions of my life—as an academic, as a writer, and even in my devotional life. But the proliferation of personal pronouns in the previous sentence yields insight into the concern. How do we discern self-improvement from self-aggrandizing? How do we, for that matter, establish our positive standards for the future when the example of our past self is so undeniably negative? For that, we need a real temple in the Carthage of our lives, and that temple can’t simply be a potentially better self in the future because the future self will need to participate in the ideal which transcends it. Augustine wrote, “I had become to myself a vast problem, and I questioned my soul ‘Why are you sad, and why are you very distressed?’ but my soul did not know what reply to give” (Conf. IV.ix).

In the middle of the chapter on this rule, Peterson makes what seems to be a digression, puzzling over the oft-asserted dichotomy of the judgmental, angry God of the Old Testament and the loving, forgiveness-emphasizing God of the New Testament. I don’t have the space to fully dissect that somewhat tired bifurcation here, but suffice it to say that Christ as savior was typologically predicted in Moses precisely because God is always a saving God—God promises to forgive iniquity in the Old Testament and Christ teaches that it’s better to chop off your left hand than to persist in that iniquity. The real, full Testaments do not fall into so easy a polarity. But the more important issue here is: Why does Peterson think this dichotomy matters for the question of proper comparison?

I think it is precisely because the Old Testament, divorced from the New Testament meaning (even where it can be found within its own pages), means something like: The impossible standards set by those whom we admire, because we cannot be them, make us feel hopelessly inadequate to the task of fulfilling our highest potential. Meanwhile, the New Testament, divorced as a symbol from the Old Testament severity of judgment which exists even within its actual pages, means something like: Don’t worry about how much you’ve failed—you’re off the hook, there’s no responsibility because God took care of it for you. The former fills us with despair; the latter with disgust for ourselves (how could we accept such undeserved generosity?) and for God (how could His own standards mean so little to him?). Well, for one thing, that means we need to stop reading the books of the Bible as symbols and actually read them as events and teachings about those events. In Peterson’s own words (and in keeping with his biblical lectures), we have to pay attention to the texts in a deep, sustained way in order to make sure we’re actually reading them.

Peterson writes that the New Testament God “wants nothing for us but the best. He is all-loving and all-forgiving. Sure, He’ll send you to Hell, if you misbehave badly enough. Fundamentally, however, he’s the God of Love” (105). He attempts to reconcile his readers to this image of God—or rather craft a higher resolution, a more precise depiction of God—by saying that it isn’t that God is soft and sentimental in one Testament and hard and condemnatory in another, but rather that the harshness of maximal personal responsibility can be sweetened when broken down into the discrete actuality of what specific aptitudes we have meet the specific demands in our lives we can actually be responsible for. After citing Luke 12:22-34, Peterson writes, “In other words, you decide to act as if existence might be justified by its goodness—if only you behaved properly.” In that framework, “You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely” (110).

All of that is beautiful, true, and useful. But note again the proliferation of pronouns. Where is the temple? Yes, as Paul tells us, our own bodies are temples. But as Peter tells us, so is the whole body of Christ. Augustine asks God, “Without you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” (Conf. IV.i). Peterson rightly warns us against measuring ourselves against the standards of others because the variables are too many. But as a standard, James tells us, God is “without variableness or shadow of turning.” Christ tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Talk about a despairing standard: be as holy and blameless as the living God, and then you will be acceptable in God’s sight. This is why, as Augustine correctly teaches from biblical wisdom, “when our support rests on our own strength, it is infirmity” (Conf. IV.xxxi).

Personal virtue can be developed by comparing it to past vice to some degree, but virtue is a function of the soul’s pursuit of the good, and just as a temple cannot be built for the worship of the temple but the deity who dwells in it, the self cannot ultimately be virtuous without reference to the author of virtue. The temple, as a building, stands in virtue of its objective participation in standards of structural integrity that are real regardless of whether the temple is there or not. Just so, “When you [God] are our firm support, then it is firm indeed” (Conf. Iv.xxxi). Thus, feeling disgust at forgiveness makes little more sense than feeling that a support structure within the temple must be repaired—you are repaired by God’s grace not to abrogate justice but because God’s justice will not admit imperfection in His kingdom. So even if you have broken your temple through sin and folly, if your hope is in Christ, your home persists not because of the architect’s weakness but because of his might: “We have no fear that there is no home to which we may return because we fell from it. During our absence our house suffers no ruin; it is your eternity” (Conf. IV.xxxi).

Compare yourself to who God always is, and lamenting say, “Woe is me, for outside of you I have no refuge.” And then, as Peterson writes, “If you ask, as if you want, and knock, as if you want to enter, you may be offered the chance to improve your life, a little, a lot; completely—and with that improvement, some progress will be made in Being itself” (111). If we place the emphasis of our attention not on ourselves but on the architect of being, then “There is the place of undisturbed quietness where love is not deserted if it does not itself depart” (Conf. IV.xi).

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.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla