Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Pursuit of Virtue Over Happiness

I listened to a great pod cast by Psychologist Jordan Peterson on, "The Necessity of Virtue." You can listen to it on line for free at, Big Ideas Podcasts. You can access it here. This is a lecture that everyone will appreciate who is interested in understanding and solving our most basic human problem, suffering.

Peterson's point is that our modern pursuit of happiness is an invalid goal for life, because life is inherently about suffering. We might experience happiness, but only at unique and special times in our lives. We all get sick, suffer emotional and metaphysical troubles, and eventually die. There is no utopian life or magic button to press that can provide happiness as a sustained experience in life.

He explains that all the great world religions and timeless cultural stories teach us that suffering is endemic to life. Buddhism defines life itself as suffering. Judaism and Christianity teach that the fall of Adam and Eve brought suffering to us as a constancy, rather than an intermittent or exceptional experience.

In light of this fact we ought to pursue virtue, which can give us a sustained sense of fulfillment, or overarching satisfaction about life, in the face of suffering. Trying to transcend our own suffering by pursuing happiness as a goal for life will only lead to self loathing, despair, and anxiety. Then, as a consequence of this personal "hell" of despair, one digresses so easily in to doing evil.

He sites Nazi Germany as evidence that normal people can slip in to evil by not accepting life as it is. During the 20s and 30s in Germany, when life was hard and national pride had been crushed by the first world war, the German people chose to live as deluded cowards by not accepting their own suffering as part and parcel of life.

Could this very problem be a factor in the genesis of Jared Loughner's act of evil in Tuscon? It has been observed time and again, "There is a thin veneer of civility in all humans."

What Peterson means by virtue
is living a life of authentic goodness. To live such a life one must accept suffering as the price for life and transcend its despair by getting outside of self- consciousness and seeking to live truthfully in the context of the suffering life.

When one accepts that life "will be" a hard knock then there is no need to fool ourselves and others by trying to be something we are not, or cannot be. It is to accept ourselves as limited, finite, and vulnerable beings. Once we accept life as it is then we will be less prone to doing evil because we are finding fulfillment in being authentic and less self-absorbed.

As a Christian I appreciate Dr. Peterson's, accurate, honest, and realistic portrayal of life. It also happens to be very Biblical. It is the reason I became a Christian in the first place. Christianity has a satisfactory explanation for why life is the way it is and Peterson expounds it accurately.

However, while I think Peterson accurately identifies the problem, he offers an incomplete solution.
It seems to me that Peterson can only go so far as to encourage us to "fool" reality. In his concept of pursuing virtue over happiness he is teaching Existentialism 101. Watch a Woody Allen movie, such as Hannah and Her Sisters, and you will get an entertaining picture of man's problem of suffering and the Existentialists solution, which amounts to masking it. One can cover over personal and social problems with Peterson's solution, but the problem is still there and the destination of death is ever present. So, who are you really fooling?

Without taking anything away from Peterson, I would add that we accept our lot in life as suffering beings and after realizing it's stinging truth, accept the life saver that God offers us. The life saver is Jesus Christ, who suffered, died and was resurrected to provide a way for us to escape the ultimate destiny of this life; death.

True Virtue is to live our lives with the life saver in mind.
In this way we not only transcend suffering, but also its culmination of death.

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