What's in a word?
Or more specifically, what's in a translated word? Well, as the reader may come to see after reading this article, sometimes, quite a bit.
There were many things that I heard regularly growing up in my church background that, although they provided a solid framework for me from which to think and act (and for that I am grateful), I have since come to evaluate ultimately as, however well-meaning, a bit off the mark.
And "render to Caesar" is one of those verses/mantras.
In a similar vain to another article that I have written (regarding Jesus and the topic of divorce), I will present in this article also a very different view of "render to Caesar" that, because of a lack of nuance, has been missed by a large segment of Christendom and biblical scholars.
And the first clue that takes us on this very interesting journey will boil down to a word (or two) and the different way translations have "rendered" it (no pun intended). As the reader will discover, it is my contention that only the NIV (New International Version) has gotten it right (or at least quite close).
Taxation and the Roman Imperial Cult
As they tried regularly with Christ to trap him on other topics, so also the Pharisees knew that there was one extremely controversial topic that, if there was anything that would perplex him, it must be this: The issue of Roman dominance over the Jews. Among the Jews, this issue was a lightning rod.
To understand this better, one has to understand the Roman Imperial Cult, and the polytheism of the Romans, in contrast with the Jews. Quite frankly, although tolerated to a great degree in many aspects of society, the Jews were looked at very strangely by the Romans (and vice versa).
For the Romans, worship of deities was more a way to honor themselves and their exploits. For instance, if the Romans were engaged in war, they would worship and honor Mars, the god of war. And in so doing, they would honor their own war efforts, and seek fortune/support from that god.
Or if they were engaged in agriculture, they would honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, as aay to honor themselves in that pursuit, and to seek the blessings of a good harvest.
This was quite different from the Jews, who worshiped only one God in all things, and rather than seeking to honor themselves in that worship, sought to submit to this one God as far greater than themselves (as was established by the great prophets Abraham and Moses). And being a Jew himself, it was this tradition that Jesus emerged from.
But quite interestingly, it was only a few decades before Jesus birth, that the Romans began to, instead of just honoring the gods, actually started raising Emperors themselves to an almost-god-like status (particularly Julius Caesar), and basically worship him as divine after his death. And it was this that no doubt would have been a massive affront to the Jews.
Essentially, between the Romans and the Jews, was a major conflict of VALUES. They were fighting for very different perspectives. You can read a short summary of the Roman Imperial Cult here.
And so, although they were able to live in relative peace for quite sometime (that is, up until the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD), many more devout Jews were quite antagonistic under the surface.
And this underlying antagonism really came to the surface in the issue of taxation. For the Jews (with the exception of the more secular Jews), being forced to pay taxes to this regime which was the antithesis of their values, was a really hard thing to bear. And what made it worse, was this new development in which the Romans blasphemed all decent morality (in the Jews' eyes) by exalting their Emperor to an almost God-like status.
It is within this context that the Pharisees came to ask Jesus:
"Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (Luke 20:22)
And in a sense, the Pharisees were quite right that this issue would reveal clearly not just where Jesus stood on the particular issue, but what his underlying values really were.
"Nice coin you got there... Whose face is that on there?"
Now that we have established the general context and the no doubt resentment that must have filled many Jews, in the face of the outright blasphemy of their forced subservience, we can begin to see the nuance that Jesus carefully navigated through in giving his listeners a response.
In the NIV, Luke chapter 20:20 reads like this:
"Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they may hand him over to the power and authority of the governor."
This makes a lot of sense in light of the historical context. It must have really bothered the Jews to see someone like Jesus, who seemed quite aloof to the issue of politics. And so, having a more direct interest in their own political slavery, naturally wanted to embroil Jesus in the issue as well. But Jesus fundamentally had other concerns.
Verses 21-22 continue:
"So the spies questioned him:
'Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?'
He saw through their duplicity and said to them,
'Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?' "
Now notice Jesus' immediate response and how he didn't answer their question directly, which he knew for which there was no "safe" answer.
Instead of entering into the political fray about paying taxes, he brought attention to the means by which Rome demanded payment, namely, the currency, and in this case, the Denarius.
The question should now arise: Why did Jesus do this?
Because this was no "ordinary" coin. This was "tribute money".
It could be read on some coins:
“TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS,” an abbreviation of “TIBERIVS CAESAR DIVI AVGVSTI FILIVS AVGVSTVS” — “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.” (more details can be found here)
As mentioned above, full-on Emperor worship had not yet been fully instituted. But the Romans were well on their way. And by the time of Emperor Nero, it would take on new blasphemous proportions, with him claiming to be basically God in the flesh, someone to be directly worshiped.
And so it was rather obvious to Jesus that the coinage already was in violation of the Second Commandment of the Law of Moses, that you shall not make a graven image. The coin claimed Tiberius had authority over worship, and essentially raised him to the status of a god.
Did you notice how Jesus didn't have "tribute money" on him, but that he had to ask for it?
There's probably a good reason for that... from a Jewish point of view, he was probably disgusted by it. And by implication, he wanted to draw the Pharisees' attention to their lack of shame over their usage of it.
He basically asked his listeners:
"Whose idolatrous graven image is on this coin?"
And then, having been shamed by this truth they seemed to have forgotten, they may have quite sheepishly replied:
"Render"? Or "give back"?
What is in a word, as mentioned at the beginning of this article? Well, in light of this context, a lot.
Most translations render Christ's next words as: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's", or just "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's". And without being aware of the historical context, it can seem that Christ is just simply exhorting his listeners to pay whatever taxes are owed. And indeed, this seems to be the most common interpretation within Christendom.
But if this was the case, why did he ask about the image and inscription? It would seem then that Christ advocated direct subservience in taxation to whomever had taken power, and to pay with their coinage, no matter how blasphemous their images were.
But this simply doesn't mesh with the context. And if we use instead the NIV, it all comes together much more clearly and has much higher explanatory power.
"He said to them, 'Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.'"
It is my contention/conclusion in this article that Jesus is suggesting going far beyond just "paying taxes to Caesar". He's actually suggesting repudiating all physical currency that violates the Second Commandment of Moses, by giving it all back to Caesar and no longer using it.
It seems to me to be bordering on subversive in a sense, but yet, because no doubt Caesar would "receive" the coins in Jesus "teaching", it would not have been a "red flag" teaching that would have gotten Jesus in immediate trouble with the authorities.
To be clear, I don't think Jesus is saying to abandon the currency entirely, just the pieces that violate the Jewish law.
It truly is a remarkable answer. Jesus was able to get to the heart of the matter the Pharisees were glossing over, and yet was able to easily evade being painted as a threat to Rome. No wonder they said in verse 26:
"They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent."
Regardless though of if Christ had any subversive political motivations, there seems to be quite a significant principle here: Participating in the monetary system, no matter how difficult it may seem to get out of it, amounts (in at least some degree) to your support of the regime that has instituted it.
The Pharisees resented Rome, and yet they carried Caesar's graven image in their pocket (in contradiction to the guidelines laid out in their own Jewish law). They carried the particular pieces of currency that violated their own lawbook.
It was of course this hypocrisy of the Pharisees that Jesus was speaking to. Although the context does more clearly paint an informative cultural perspective of Rome becoming increasingly blasphemous in Jewish eyes (and thus sets the stage for the inevitable conflict between Rome and Jerusalem), the direct principle we can extract here is a simple one:
Make sure your own personal expedience doesn't trump your own proclaimed religious convictions (and if does, it may be time to have a re-think).
And although one may find support in other parts of the Bible to "pay your taxes" (particularly St. Paul), this passage is not one of them.
In verse 3, it says:
"Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?'"
I think one of the most important parts of this passage is the description of the Pharisees motive in inquiring about divorce. Like in many other places, their objective was to test Christ.
Content of the Law? Or Reason for the Law?
In light of seeing their motive, Christ's first response doesn't actually answer the question (which he knew was a trap), but rather takes aim at the fundamental concern behind the question. The Pharisees were primarily concerned with what the *rules* were ("Is it lawful?").
No doubt, in Christ's day, all the different sects of Judaism must have been arguing about how to interpret the Torah (the Law of Moses).
But as is clear to me now, Christ was interested in a far more interesting question.
And so he responded:
"Haven’t you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (verses 4-6)
So what is Jesus doing here with this answer?
He's taking the listener back in time and forcing them to consider a more fundamental question than the one they were asking, which is:
Why is there a marriage custom/law to begin with?
And his answer to his own question, is essentially that the union between a man and a woman is a very mysterious one where two individual humans become "one flesh", or in a sense, one person. In other words, they become "intertwined" and connected, on a very deep level.
And this "union" is how the human race was "designed"/made to be, and is the nexus from which children ought to be born. In more modern/scientific terms, we would call this "pair-bonding". And this "bond" is a deeply psychological/spiritual/ chemical etc bond that can't be easily broken, that is, without causing extreme distress.
No doubt among other psychological factors, modern science has recognized a peptide hormone called "oxytocin" that plays a role in "bonding" a man and a woman together.
So instead of answering their question about the law, or the "rule", Jesus pointed them back in time, and pointed out that: "Hey! Maybe there is a really good reason for the rule to begin with!
If Two People Become "One Flesh", What Then of Divorce?
In light of this original ideal, and the nature of the union of marriage, the Pharisees then asked what to them would have been a pretty obvious next question:
"Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (verse 7)
They're essentially saying "If marriage is such a strong union and connection, why allow divorce at all then?" Jesus then, with his authority and insight, responded:
“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery.” (verses 8-9)
This answer of course is very important, and it is where many people (including myself) have misunderstood Christ, and taken him far too literally, with not enough nuance (and suffered the consequences of unjustified guilt and shame). So let's try and illuminate what Christ is really getting at here.
A New Rule about Marriage and Divorce?
I used to read this verse fairly straight-forwardly (like reading a newspaper), without considering the context, and why Jesus said what he did. In essence, I took Jesus as saying this:
"Here's the old rule you guys have been following. But I have come to give you a NEW RULE!"
I see now that this interpretation couldn't have been further from the truth. The one thing that Jesus was not doing in this verse, was laying down a new "rule" for people to follow, at least not at the fundamental/essential level.
He's essentially tempting the listener to a question:
"If pair-bonding/marriage is such a strong and binding thing, what does that imply about the nature of divorce?"
And the answer to that question should then become pretty apparent to us: Ripping apart that union has tremendously difficult immediate and long-term practical consequences, of which we should all be wary.
"Because Your Hearts Were Hard"?
And now we can get to Jesus' direct answer of "Moses permitted you to divorce your wife because your hearts were hard".
Let's first explain what this does not mean. He was not saying that if anyone ever initiates a divorce, that it implies that the initiator necessarily has a "hard heart". He is not saying that you should never get a divorce, lest it be found out about you that you have a hard heart and are a bad person. In fact, this has very little to do with the initiator of the divorce (who could be doing so for a whole myriad of reasons, good or bad).
Jesus is essentially saying this (paraphrased):
"Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of people's hearts, which tragically, sometimes, made divorce necessary."
Yes, Jesus is basically admitting here that, tragically, because your "hearts were hard", divorce, with all it's heartache and misery and displacement, was sometimes necessary.
The "hardness of hearts" Christ referred to, was the state of mind people get into, where they are so stubbornly committed to all manner of destructive attitudes and behaviours, where it makes it impossible for their partners to continue on in a union with them. And so then they are stuck in a situation where they have to choose between two "evils"; to continue in the destruction/abuse/adultery of their partner, or leave, and suffer the heartache of that separation. Both options are horrific, but tragically, divorce/separation is sometimes better, or a "lesser of evils".
And that's why Christ then immediately followed it up with
"but it was not this way from the beginning."
He's essentially juxtaposing our fallen world, where divorce is sometimes tragically necessary, with the original ideal of how, in light of what the marriage union was/is, since the beginning. And how, in light of this, being concerned about what "the law" says, is just really short-sighted.
"Causes Her to Commit Adultery", or "Commits adultery"?
It's the next sentence of Jesus that really confused me though for quite sometime.
It was as if Jesus is being unequivocal about interpreting the "rules" laid out in the law of Moses:
In Matthew 19:9, he says: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery."
But we need to compare this with another passage in Matthew where Christ addresses the same issue, but with a slightly different answer. In Matthew 5:31, Jesus says "whoever divorces his wife...causes her to commit adultery".
In order to understand this, we need to keep in mind the immediate textual context described above, and the way that Jesus uses the word "adultery". It should be more apparent now from the context that he doesn't mean it in the same way as the Pharisees were caught up with; which was a moralizing-based rule. But we can see in the original greek (from greek scholars), that Jesus was using the passive version of the word "adultery", and that passive sense implies a lot!
And this passive sense is also illuminated by the cultural context. It's important to understand the state of affairs that women lived under in Greco-Roman times. Unlike the modern west, there was no help for women from the State. There were no welfare programs, women's programs, child benefits, etc. And to make matters worse, a woman's word in the law system was worth much less than a man's. For women, a divorce could imply the destruction of her way of life, and even possibly death!
A woman in this situation would feel immediate pressure to marry another man almost right away, because for her, that meant security and safety from poverty/death.
So we can see then that Christ is taking issue with the Pharisees' preoccupation with the "rules", and how they are not even apparently considering the welfare of the divorced woman, who would be subject to immense difficulty immediately after receiving a "certificate of divorce". It's the coldness of the Pharisees that is the real concern to Christ here.
And so to summarize, there are two things which illuminate the meaning here:
"Adultery" in a Non-Moralizing Sense?
And this brings us to the conclusion. In light of Christ's emphasis on the nature of the "one flesh"/pair-bonding nature of the union between a man and a woman, and in light of the practical danger that he was highlighting of the woman being pushed into a dangerous situation where she would basically often be forced into being with someone who she was not "bonded" with (and all it's subsequent destruction/danger), it becomes clear that Christ's use of the word "adultery", is not the same as how the Pharisees were using it.
He was not laying down a new rule. He was challenging the listener to think more deeply about what exactly the union between a man and a woman is, on a practical level.
What is pair-bonding? What is the spiritual/psychological/biological nature of a man and a woman becoming "one flesh"?
Once one considers these deeper questions, the silliness of the original question (pressing about the "rule") becomes a little more plain. And the danger of taking the marriage/sexual union lightly, also becomes plain.
Christ's use of the word "adultery", obviously now, is referring to the consequences (physical, spiritual, psychological, etc) of the breaking of a deep union. It has very little to do with "moral rules", or "obeying God".
Christ is warning us that, once you've "pair-bonded" with someone else, that union cannot be broken without causing damage. It doesn't matter how much you don't like the person, or even if they are causing you great pain. Breaking a union has severe consequences, which we should all try avoid as much as possible.
Now that Christ has pointed us back to the more original questions, we may then find ourselves saying along with the Pharisees:
"If this is the case, it is better not to marry!"
And Christ would no doubt also say to us in return:
"Let him who can accept this, accept it."
I really like Dr. Jordan Peterson. I have been a fan of his for many years, long before his ascension to infamy after the notorious Bill C-16 controversy in Canada (I myself am Canadian and am very sympathetic to his brave efforts to stand against this totalitarian effort).
I was long fascinated by his many lectures on youtube, and dove into many of his concepts, particularly his lectures based on his “Maps of Meaning” book. Long before the world knew him, I benefitted greatly from his works and poignant lectures.
Particularly as someone who grew up in a religious environment, and who struggled with my faith for many years (eventually rejecting my former fundamentalism, but keeping the door open for a more novel and profound extrapolation), I naturally gravitated towards this man (among others).
All along though, something in me was quite ambivalent about Peterson, and it was going to take me quite a long time to put a finger on it, and finally articulate just exactly what the hell it was that was bothering me.
And so here I am now, writing this. It is important to me that the reader understands that this is no knee-jerk reaction to his works (of which, generally, I am quite grateful).
I am, however, at this point, quite critical of a central point of his entire work, and I hope this brings that (otherwise seemingly obscured) point to light.
The Dividing Line – Friedrich Nietzsche
Many years ago, I was introduced to the works of Friedrich Wilhem Nietzsche. Nietzsche (like Carl Jung) was the son of a Christian pastor, and so not only his writings, but also his past, from where he emerged (I too am the son of a pastor), and his style of writing (his often grandiose style, particularly in his “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, resonated with the religious styles I had grown up in), fascinated me.
And my interest in him was peaked even further by Dr. Peterson’s frequent reference to him and his various works/quotes.
Very rightly, I think, Peterson uses Nietzsche as not just a source of ideas or knowledge, but also a bouncing/sounding board off of which to clarify his own ideas, and I have benefitted from him doing so.
However, starting relatively early on, something bothered me about his use of Nietzsche. The more I read/listened to both of these men’s works, the more I started to notice a sharp distinction, and a radical divergence. And eventually (where I’ve come to now), a total antipathy and even outright ideological hostility.
Now someone might object… "Ok, so Nietzsche and Peterson disagree. What does it matter? Did not Peterson himself talk about how sometimes people can be 'helpfully wrong'?"
And that brings me to my fundamental objection/criticism of Peterson: He simply isn’t straight-forward/honest enough regarding the degree to which he disagrees/diverges from Nietzsche in his fundamental ideas. And contrary to what some may claim, this is really important. For someone who references Nietzsche as much as he does, this negligence is really problematic.
Nietzsche as Anti-Christ?
It is well known that one of Nietzsche's last works was "The Anti-Christ". What many people don't know, however, is that this work is, although indeed a critique of Christianity, not at all the type of critique that many modern so-called "atheists" would make.
It is not an attempt to historically prove that Jesus didn't/couldn't have physically risen from the dead, or walked on water, or turned water into wine, healed the sick, etc.
Nietzsche himself had in fact very little interest in the metaphysical question of whether miracles ever happen, or if "God" literally existed, or the like. His criticism of Christianity (among other things) consisted mainly of an attack on it's moral presuppositions, that is, on it's value judgments.
To put it
more succinctly: instead of critiquing the idea that Jesus died for your sins
and literally rose again from the dead to save you from “the world”, and
“worldly” things (an idea clearly established by St. Paul), he aimed his heavy guns at the very presupposition itself that "the world" was, in fact, "worldly", or "bad", or "evil". He took issue with the operating assumption/value system on which the whole "redemption narrative takes place!
As he summarized in Zarathustra:
“There is much filth in the world; that much is true. But that does not make the world itself a filthy monster.” (my own emphasis added)
This is indeed a very careful distinction. Now I am not arguing that Peterson is anywhere trying to make the case that the world is indeed a filthy monster (or that it is not). My point is to first set up the underlying point, which is that Nietzsche, although indeed a doubter of the miraculous claims of the Bible, had very little interest in debunking them. He just simply took their antithesis (that they didn’t literally happen, but, in his view, probably represented something else) for granted.
More Than Just Anti-Fundamentalism
In one of Peterson’s lectures (direct link to be added soon), he implies how, historically speaking, in the last century particularly, religious fundamentalism has been made impossible to the scientific thinker (someone thinking in the “scientific domain”), and I very much agree with this.
But he also noted that we didn’t really need to attack fundamentalism (or even debunk/rebuff it at all), because Nietzsche, in his works, had done that for us already.
This is a very important juncture in Peterson’s interaction with Nietzsche (the more important one yet to come).
As is finally clear to me now, there is, of course, a strong element of truth in what he is saying at this point. Nietzsche did spend much of his time railing against Christianity, but, as mentioned above, the manner in which he did so was not primarily anti-fundamentalism (a topic he had little interest in, and only brushed aside).
Rather, as mentioned already, Nietzsche primarily aimed his guns at the question of VALUES.
To illustrate the point, I think it is quite clear that Nietzsche would be found to say something like the following:
“You say you don’t believe in God, or the miracles in the Bible. Well, good for you. But do you still believe in the ethics of the new testament? Do you believe that we ‘ought’ to ‘love our neighbour’? Do you believe that we ‘ought’ to ‘tell the truth’? Do you believe that we ‘ought’ to try and help the ‘less fortunate’?”
It is very important to be honest here about the central critique of religion that Nietzsche lays out, and that is this:
If you still do accept all the moral judgements that lie underneath all the religious metaphysics in the Bible (particularly the New Testament), Nietzsche considers your position absolutely disastrous, and indeed, that you are a danger to the future of the human race!
Not to say though that Nietzsche wants to change religious people's minds, but that he just very presciently sees that the question/problem of “oughtness” (how humans “ought” to live their lives) has previously/historically been based in religion, with all it’s metaphysics/fundamentalism built into it. That the “will to live” has been historically based on the notion (however religious) that humans exist “on purpose”, that our existence is not “accidental”.
And that, without this dogma, humans would collapse into despair and nihilism (hence the despair, not the jubilance of the mad man's declaration of the "death of God" in Nietzsche's infamous "Gay Science" or "Joyful Wisdom"), and instead of casting aside religion, we would indeed become MORE religious, but that we would just “switch religions”, to things like socialism and communism and fascism and “equality”, etc. (and lo and behold, that is precisely what has happened in the last century).
So, when so-called “new atheists” attack religion and then turn around and say that that we all “ought” to help one another, and “tell the truth”, and support “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, they are, in Nietzsche’s view, being totally blind to their own subconscious internalization of their previous religion (whether their own individually, or their culture’s own internalization), and its accompanying ethics.
To put it simply, in Nietzsche’s view, it is not at all “common sense” or “self-evident” that humans “should be kind to each other”. Because this notion has been based upon the previous religious dogma that our lives have meaning because we EXIST ON PURPOSE.
Without this previous dogma (what Nietzsche disparagingly calls “the equality of souls”, whether “true” or not), the reason for acting “ethically” (and I use scare quotes on purpose here) totally falls apart, in Nietzsche’s view. And so then, we are then at a crossroads. We need to create NEW values (create a whole new value system/way of looking at ourselves and our history), or our species will self-destruct and disintegrate.
Whether or not the reader agrees with Nietzsche is not my concern here. But rather just to make the point that this is Nietzsche’s fundamental problem/challenge that is at the core of all his writings.
And to give credit to Mr. Peterson, he sees and understands quite clearly Nietzsche’s point. And it is here where we reach the main divergence between Peterson and Nietzsche.
New Values, or Old Values?
At many points in his lectures, after very rightly recognizing Nietzsche’s fundamental point, when faced with the question of “creating new values”, Peterson responds by saying that it’s simply “not clear” how in the world we would go about doing that. And to his credit, he is very much correct that this is an extremely difficult problem. And that it seems that there is no answer.
And so Peterson seems to conclude that, in light of the extreme difficulty/impossibility of creating new values (and in light of how this task seemed to make Nietzsche go mad himself), we do not need to create new values, but rather we need to re-discover the old values, and understand them in a more scientific (less dogmatic/fundamentalist) way.
And this brings me to my main criticism of Peterson’s work. It is precisely at this crossroads that Peterson TOTALLY PARTS WAYS with Nietzsche. This point is a complete separation/divergence. It is at this point that Peterson and Nietzsche become, in fact, ideological enemies. And from my perspective, this divergence/antipathy is simply not that well articulated/admitted by Peterson.
To Peterson’s credit, he does come out and say that he thinks Nietzsche was wrong in his insistence to create new values. Instead of siding with Nietzsche, Peterson seems to more side with Dostoevsky (who still maintained his Christianity, albeit maybe not exactly ‘orthodox’, despite his similar wrestling with the crisis of nihilism).
But even still, it needs to be stated that this rejection of Nietzsche’s hope, is, in fact, a total rejection of everything Nietzsche was working towards. Just the very title alone of one of Nietzsche’s later works, “Beyond Good and Evil, a Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future" indicates quite clearly the direction he is going. And in my opinion, Peterson is not very frank about how he became an ideological enemy of Nietzsche.
And it is at this point that we ourselves need to ask a very careful question:
How much does this rejection of Nietzsche’s direction, matter? To Nietzsche? And to us?
After years of reading Nietzsche, it seems apparent to me now that this rejection matters a great deal. So much so, that it is difficult to understate just how much it matters.
IF (and this is a big “if”) Nietzsche was indeed correct in his general notion that simply adopting or just re-affirming the ethics of our previous religion (Christianity in particular), while discarding its metaphysics, was extremely dangerous, then Jordan Peterson could in fact represent one of the most dangerous people living today (no matter how much I like him, and how much good he has done for so many people). For it is quite possible that no one has embraced, articulated/extracted, and modernized the ethics and morality associated with our prior fundamentalism, like he has.
Peterson is quite insistent, for instance, that we should “never lie” to anyone, that we should always be absolutely honest (as far as we understand “honesty”). And in light of how such horrible totalitarian regimes (fascist, communist, etc) have decimated/destroyed hundreds of millions of lives through extreme deception in this last century alone, this position is understandable.
But let’s not mince words: This is totally anti-Nietzschean. Nietzsche was NOT an absolutist on “honesty” in every situation. In fact, he thought there was sometimes a sort of “good faith” behind people’s intentions to “deceive”. And if one reads Nietzsche right, it’s not so much that great tyrants come to be because they (and their people) deceive others so much (although that’s obviously a huge part), but rather that mankind is itself facing a crisis of meaning that we are running from. That our impulse to “lie” is rooted in something else much more important, that desperately needs to be addressed (and that if we addressed it, the impulse to lie would go away).
For Nietzsche, it is our moral *assumptions* (“love thy neighbour”, etc) that we have “carried over” from our previous religions, that is so incredibly dangerous. For Nietzsche, to actually “love your neighbour as you love yourself” has never actually been possible before, because humans have never been able to truly love themselves before.
As he said in “Zarathustra”:
“Love ever your neighbor as yourselves- but first be such as love themselves.”
This is really Nietzsche’s great “critique” of Christ, if he ever had one. That although Christ was quite a remarkable figure (who Nietzsche respected), he viewed some of Christ’s teachings as naïve, because they were based on premises that are dubious (do we actually love ourselves to begin with?).
Resolving/understanding your dark side.
As Peterson has very well noted many times, the phenomenon of “evil” is undoubtedly real. Nietzsche wouldn’t disagree with him on the existence of this “phenomenon”.
Nietzsche though had great hopes that someday in the future, mankind would be able to understand their “dark side” through discoveries of science (the reason for his “Gay Science”, or “Joyful Wisdom”).
And this was one reason he disdained religion so much, because its followers seemed to always just take for granted that such a thing is totally impossible (only in the “next life” is such a thing possible, to them).
But for Nietzsche, we had to go “beyond good and evil” eventually. In this life.
Foolish and impossible?
I very much appreciate and respect the writings of both Nietzsche and Jordan Peterson. They have both been important parts of my life and thinking, and have helped me immensely.
But I have come to the conclusion that humans do indeed have to “go beyond” our basic moral presuppositions (and their accompanying self-reflection and subsequent self-loathing), which we have (often unknowingly) borrowed from our prior religions.
And as unbelievable/crazy it may sound to the reader, I think the way may actually now been made available to us.
Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith has presented a synthesis of the human condition that is extremely powerful, accountable, and compassionate. It brings love to our dark side, but without condoning destructive acts (of which this last century in particular has been full).
His latest book, “Freedom, the End of the Human Condition”, is his magnum opus work, which unpacks this remarkable idea. I myself have had some criticisms of Mr Griffith's works over the years, but I simply cannot deny that his central explanation of the human condition (his explanation of instinct vs intellect), in it's simplicity, is extremely powerful!
Nietzsche, in his "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", often spoke of "The Ubermensch", or the Overman.
The burning question for me now, is this: Will future generations be able to actually attain to the Overman? Is there a massive glorious potential for our human species that we have yet to begin to even fathom?
Humanity is undoubtedly at a crossroads. Things have never been so dangerous/polarized, and yet so full of potential. I think it may now indeed be time to “re-value” the past (and by so doing, possibly transform the future). Is it possible? I will let the reader decide.