Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.Jordan Peterson
But the consolations of your [God’s] mercies upheld me.Augustine
I have never liked it when a parent, while scolding a child, demands that eye contact be made during the tongue-lashing. I recall with incredible vividness a time when, as a teenager, my father was reprimanding me, and I looked at my feet as he spoke with firm tones of rebuke. First I felt anger and then a passive intention to wait it out and mope around for the rest of my life, and then, I started to listen…. And slowly began to accept that maybe he had a point. Finally, as he concluded his administration of verbal justice, he said, “Now, look at me.” I looked up, and he proceeded to offer tempering mercy to soften the blows I had endured. He permitted me the proper stance of shame, and then raised me back up to the dignity of sonship. It was an initiation of responsibility formed of words and postures.
There is a fascinating paradox in Jordan Peterson’s chapter on his first rule for life: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” The paradox can be found in the primary symbol Peterson uses to explain the psychological value of physical posture – the lobster, whose posture is likewise improved by victory: “A lobster with high levels of serotonin and low levels of octopamine is a cocky, strutting sort of shellfish, much less likely to back down when challenged. This is because serotonin helps regulate postural flexion” (7). Even so, despite this insightful comparison, the fact is that a lobster, no matter how victorious, will never actually stand up straight with its shoulders back.
I do not say this to reject Peterson’s point. In fact, his rationale for focusing on the lobster resonates with an Augustinian principle when he says that lobsters “are worth considering” because they have “helped us understand the structure and function of the brain and behavior of more complex animals, including human beings.” This resonates with Augustine’s dicta in On Christian Doctrine that “obscure passages (of Scripture) are to be interpreted by those which are clearer.” Although Peterson is not discussing Scripture here, there is a similar pattern: humans, we might say, are the “obscure passage” of reality we seek to understand, and the simpler form of the lobster can help us to articulate some clarity in the midst of our own complexity. You could say that function (articulating clarity in the midst of complexity) is the essence of the function of a rule like “stand up straight with your shoulders back,” and as rules go, I truly think it’s a good one.
But I think it’s worth meditating on the fact that no animal can stand up straight with its shoulders back the way humans do. Bipedalism can be found in certain ways in the animal kingdom: there are hopping mice and kangaroos, and ostriches that run swifter on two legs than any human could. Some animals can stand up straight for a time but can’t move effectively that way—it may be useful to get a good look of the terrain, to fight an enemy, or for other purposes. But humans alone not only can stand up straight with their shoulders back, but must in order to move healthily. This is unique even among primates—it’s a difference in the very structure of our spines. While I agree that we can learn about features of our animal nature from other members of the animal kingdom, it seems like there are some things we can only learn from humans (of course something with which Peterson would agree), and that truth is written into the biological structure of the very basic activity of walking.
The Augustinian philosopher Boethius made this point in his masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy, writing in the final poem of the text about the physical witness of the image of God in humans that separates us from our fellow animals:
“In what diversity of shapes do living things traverse the lands!
[But].…Only the race of men lift high their lofty heads
And lightly stand with upright bodies, looking down so on the earth.
….You who with upright face do seek the sky, and thrust your forehead out,
You should also bear your mind aloft, lest weighted down
The mind sink lower than the body raised above.”Boethius, Consolation, bk V, p. 421
You could append Peterson’s first rule to that poem and it would seem to fit naturally. Indeed, in other places Boethius uses animal nature as a way to meditate on human nature, yet his mentor Lady Philosophy treats his Aristotelian definition of humans as “rational mortal animals” as insufficient – that distinction of posture, you might say, is at first missing.
It is significant that the image of the human Augustine starts with is where humans actually begin: as infants. Although he says he does not remember his infancy (as most, if not all, of us do not), Augustine imagines his infant self through testimony and through his observation of infants now: “So I threw my limbs about and uttered sounds, signs resembling my wishes…. When I did not get my way…. I used to be indignant…. I would revenge myself upon them by weeping” (Augustine, Confessions, I.viii). So much for the idyllic image of babies we sometimes cultivate (and cultivate dishonestly for anyone who has spent more than ten minutes with one). Yes, we excuse the behavior because the infant doesn’t know any better, but the very response of excusing the behavior shows it was not laudable: “You can prove this to be the case from the fact that the same behavior cannot be borne without irritation when encountered in some of more mature years” (Conf., I.xi).
Of course, read in Piaget and others as he is, Peterson knows developmental psychology better than I do (and better even than Augustine did), but I think this remains a crucial point for the Christian to remember: in some sense the regrettable infant selfishness and lowliness is something the human never fully loses in this life. Yes, “as we grow up, we eliminate and set aside such ways” (Conf., I.xi), but no matter how mature we become, we remain only “a little piece of your [God’s] creation” (Conf., I.i). But it is in recognition of this lowliness that we can then cultivate a deeper longing for the capacity to praise the height of God’s glory: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Conf., I.i).
Like Peterson, Augustine knew that establishing a meaningful target lifts the human spirit more than learning a host of rules does. Augustine writes in On Christian Doctrine about tedious rules in grammar and rhetoric, “It is just as if a man wishing to give rules for walking should warn you not to lift the hinder foot before you set down the front one, and then should describe minutely the way you ought to move the hinges of the joints and knees. For what he says is true, and one cannot walk in any other way; but men find it easier to walk by executing these movements than to attend to them while they are going through them, or to understand when they are told about them” (OCD, bk. 2, ch. 37). Peterson’s rule about posture, like all of his rules, avoids this pedantry by providing a specific, useful correction to behavior that, when implemented thoughtfully, can provide a range of improvements to mental and physical health.
And I think the advice Peterson gives here can particularly serve as an antidote to complacency Christians may have with their spiritual lives borne of a misguided, if understandable, fear that striving for excellence in life always translates to legalism, materialism, or pride. Saint Paul tells us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23), and “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). It is thus in keeping with Christian living, as Peterson recommends, to “choose to embrace Being, and work for its furtherance and improvement…. Thus emboldened, you will embark on the voyage of your life, let your light shine, so to speak, on the heavenly hill… Then the meaning of your life may be sufficient to keep the corrupting influence of mortal despair at bay” (28). A tyranny of low expectations does not belong in the Church any more than other kinds of tyranny.
But an Augustinian approach to this rule and its attendant perspective must situate it within the recognition that the human person begins in a humble infant body, a body which learns to stand up straight but never achieves total mastery over the transcendent. Instead, it is the childlike heart in awe of the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God which realizes that grace initiates our upright posture: “You raise us upright. You are not scattered but reassemble us. In filling all things, you fill them all with the whole of yourself” (Conf., I.iii). Once, I was too weak to hold my head upright, and to try and do so without help would have been dangerous. But because of “my nurses with all their knowledge,” parents and grandparents and others, my head was held up until I could hold it myself. So it is fitting to put away the infant’s lack of responsibility, but assumption of responsibility is rooted in gratitude for a God who has “taken on the small physical size of a child as a symbol of humility” (Conf., I.xxx). In Christianity, you might say that the “top lobster” let himself be defeated, that we might have victory in him.
Augustine, like Peterson, agrees that his infantile posture had to be abandoned, particularly by development of his ability to speak, so that he “entered more deeply into the stormy society of human life” (Conf., I.xiii), a metaphor perhaps drawn from the pages of Virgil whom he loved to read so much (though he regrets it as distracting him from God). When we first meet Virgil’s hero in Book I of his epic poem, Aeneas doesn’t sound too victorious. Out at sea after Troy has fallen, he finds himself in the grips of lamentation at his fate as a storm conjured by Juno harries his ship:
Instantly Aeneas groans, his limbs slack with cold:
stretching his two hands towards the heavens,
he cries out in this voice: ‘Oh, three, four times fortunate
were those who chanced to die in front of their father’s eyes
under Troy’s high walls! O Diomede, son of Tydeus
bravest of Greeks! Why could I not have fallen, at your hand,
in the fields of Ilium, and poured out my spirit,
where fierce Hector lies, beneath Achilles’s spear,
and mighty Sarpedon: where Simois rolls, and sweeps away
so many shields, helmets, brave bodies, of men, in its waves!’
Neptune, God of the sea, hears this lament and comes to stop the storm. It is true that this constitutes failed leadership on Aeneas’s part: for the sake of his men, Aeneas should stand up straight with his shoulders back. But that posture wouldn’t have stopped the real storm. Real divinity does not reach out to save us from our victory; it reaches out to save us from our defeat. My father treated me with dignity when he let me stand in an abject posture that allowed me to feel my shortcomings honestly, and then he brought me to better posture so that I could walk with better clarity about what behavior to avoid.
We can’t try to fix ourselves as always in an upright and open posture – that is the posture of the cross, which only Christ as Savior can fully bear (and even his sinless body could bear it for only so long). As it is written, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). Humbled by our own disgraceful victories and exalted by Christ’s victorious abasement, we can walk straightest with our minds most upright when we kneel with heads bowed before God and He tells us through His Law and the Gospel, “You have fallen short of My glory, and for this you crucified My Son on the cross. Now, look at Me.”
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.