Burning off dead wood

What is a human being and how does it grow? Two men offer helpful and constructive answers can be found below. To be human is to be the sort of creature whose mind can incorporate struggles and trials into itself to become more. Marcus is commenting on the Stoic concept that human beings are rational animals, Peterson is commenting on Scripture in the first quote and on Jung’s understanding of Solve et Coagula[1] in the second. I hope what follows is helpful and encouraging:

Marcus Aurelius

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces— to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it— and makes it burn still higher. (Aurelius Meditations, Hays Translation 4:1)


Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. (Aurelius 5:20)

Jordan Peterson

It’s not just a little linear, it’s step-wise, right? It’s that the you that emerges as a consequence of your latest catastrophe is everything that you were before plus something more. And that actually constitutes what you might describe as measurable progress, right? And that’s another argument against moral relativism, because if you can do everything that you could do before, and you can do some more things we could just define that as better. It’s not a bad definition. And then we have enough. It’s like, what you’re trying to do is to differentiate the world and differentiate yourself and every time you undergo one of these revolutions then hopefully both of those things happen. And then there’s a moral to that story, too, which is do it voluntarily and maybe do it don’t wait for it to happen catastrophically. Keep your eyes open and when something goes a little bit wrong that you could fix it. Don’t say, “No, that doesn’t matter.” Maybe it does matter. Maybe it is matter. Maybe it’s exactly the matter out of which you should be built.[2] 


[confronting the unexpected and undesired good is…] It’s a forest fire that allows for new growth, and that’s how those things are put together and, and it’s useful to know too because if you burn something off you might think well there’s nothing left. That’s not true! If it’s dead wood, then you have room for new growth. And you want to be doing that on a fairly regular basis. That’s the snake that sheds its skin and transforms itself, right? That’s the death and resurrection, from a psychological perspective. It’s exactly the same idea! Now, we don’t know the upper limit to that, right? Because we don’t know what a person would be like if they let everything that they could let go let go and only let in what was seemly, let’s say. But you can see, that’s funny we know that to some degree you can see people vary from you can see people start to do that, it’s not a rare experience. And people improve very rapidly. They can improve their lives very rapidly, a lot of it is low-hanging fruit. If you just stop doing really stupid things that you know are stupid your life improves a lot so and it frees you up. It also means there’s a there’s an element there that’s also associated with pride because people tend to take pride in who they are, and that’s a bad idea because that stops you from becoming who you could be because if you’re proud of who you are you won’t let that go when it’s necessary you won’t step away from it you know and then you end up being your own parody That’s also a very bad idea. You want to be continually stepping away from your previous. Part of that too is that you have to decide, are you order, or are you chaos, or you the process that mediates between them? If you’re the process that mediates between them you are the thing that transforms. And that’s the right attitude for human beings because that’s what we are. The thing that voluntarily confronts chaos and transforms. That’s what we are. And so, for better or worse, you know, that’s our deepest biological essence, you might say. So, you can let things go if you know that there’s more growth to come.[3] 



Aurelius’ meditations and Peterson’s broader argument provide a helpful rationale for learning the dialectical arts, adopting asceticism, and a more positive approach to life’s trials.


[1] One of my dear friends was deeply interested in Jung and before his tragic death wrote the song linked above.


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