What can we learn about truth from fire?

where we are

To start a fire, we must provide enough energy to break a sufficient number of bonds to make the burning process spontaneous. The amount of energy required to initiate this scenario varies for different materials. Dry wood requires a low amount of energy to ignite. Something like stainless steel, on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Not that it won’t burn, but it needs either a tremendous amount of oxygen or a large amount of heat and fuel to start and sustain burning. 

In life, things that manifest and propagate across a culture or society at large, behave much like fire. Items that are close to the truth are like dry wood and catch without trouble. This notion is to say, assertions or ideas close to reality require little to no coercion or force to begin widespread propagation. The term spread by the internet era that explains this phenomenon is that of something going “viral.” Both viral content and truths spread similarly. It is, however, paramount to note that fact remains while strictly mindless viral content quickly falls away to be overtaken by the next piece of content. 

“You see, it is true that people don’t want the truth, because the truth destroys what lack of faith erects, and the false comfort it contains. It is not possible to live in the world that you wish could be, and in the real world at the same time, and it often seems a bad bargain to destroy fantasy for reality. It is desire for lack of responsibility that underlies this evasion, in part – but it is also fear of possibility.” Pg. 355 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

Much like playing with fire, when we realize the truth, it burns. Living in a fantasy world padded with empty lies is much easier than coming to the realization of the world as suffering. However, denial of the real world does not make it go away, nor does it make it easier to deal. When we look away from the truth of our reality, it makes things worse. All problems start small, but if we set them in a place where we do not look, they will grow to an astronomical proportion. We then have a real dragon of chaos on our hands. 

We can find the tools that we need to fight this dragon from historical texts. However, because we as a “modern society” or as CG Jung states “modern man” deny the existence and importance of history, we have been left as warriors without a shield. Since life is continually filled with problems from the domain of chaos, we need such tools to survive. 

“If you realize that history is in some sense in your head, and you also realize that you know nothing of the significance of history, of its meaning – which is almost certainly true – then you must realize that you know nothing of the significance of yourself, and of your own meaning.” Pg. 356 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

where to aim

“The human purpose, if such a thing can be considered, is to pursue meaning – to extend the domain of light, of consciousness – in spite of limitation.” Pg. 363 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

If a postulate, idea or ideology is not catching on, perhaps it is like attempting to burn stainless steel, in that it is far from the truth. Maybe, trying to impose opinions on to others is similar to igniting a piece of steel with a blow torch. If we run out of fuel with such a tool and the steel returns to it’s cold and hardened state, we can learn from this. Maybe this is telling us that the conquest we are on is not correct.

A glaring example is the tyranny of socialism. The only way to prop up such a system predicated on equality of outcome is through dictation and lies. In times past these systems have always failed miserably. However, people in modern time, divorced of historical fact, seem to think that “if I was to be the leader of a socialist system that I would do it better, right, correct, etc.” This idea is naive at best. To think that we can do anything better than anyone else is predominantly far from the truth. If we can do it better than anyone else, this still does not answer the question of “should we be doing this?” Because after all, we are humans who are perfectly capable of corruption and evil under a particular set of circumstances. Socialism happens to have those criteria set up for complete success (creating evil people) every time that approach is attempted. If such systems focused on strictly benefiting the group at the sacrifice of the individual do not work, then where might we turn?

“Social and biological conditions define the boundaries of individual existence. The unfailing pursuit of interest provides the subjective means by which these conditions can be met, and their boundaries transcended. Meaning is the instinct that makes life possible. When it is abandoned, individuality loses its redeeming power. The great lie is that meaning does not exist, or that it is not important. When meaning is denied, hatred for life and the wish for its destruction inevitably rules. [...]

The wisdom of the group can serve as the force that mediates between the dependency of childhood and the responsibility of the adult. Under such circumstances, the past serves the present. A society predicated upon belief in the paramount divinity of the individual allows personal interest to flourish and to serve as the power that opposes the tyranny of culture and the terror of nature. The denial of meaning, by contrast, ensures absolute identification with the group – or intrapsychic degeneration and decadence. The denial of meaning makes the degenerate or absolutist individual desperate and weak, when the great maternal sea of chaos threatens. This desperation and weakness makes him hate life, and to work for its devastation – in him, as well as in those around him.” Pg. 364 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

From this long-winded quote, perhaps we can conclude that there is a balancing act between the importance of the group and the individual. We can only come to a balance when we have two diametrically opposing poles with equivalent weight. This concept can be thought of like a teeter-totter. If one person is heavier on one of the sides, then the system is unbalanced, and there is no harmony. Therefore, it seems as though we must take the responsibility that is required to be an individual. This idea includes having the mindset of becoming educated about the past, and from that about the truth. 

A key point to note here is that this is not a capital “T” Truth. Capital “T” Truth is an unsubstantiated notion, that is to say, predicated purely on faith and often taken as universal. Truth in this instance is lowercase because it is contextual. This idea is not to say that it is arbitrary, because that is a downward spiral into nihilism. Instead, there are guideposts set in place at which for us to aim as individuals. It is up to us to interpret and to come as close as possible to those guideposts. Because the complexity of these truths transcends words, these guiding lights are always symbolic and challenging if not impossible to transcribe purely into words. Therefore, it is our job as a human to become unrelentingly hungry to find the truth and to act appropriately. This journey could very well start by understanding that keeping the appropriate questions nearby is more important than the answers. This concept arises because answers are again contextual, specific due to space and time. Questions, however, are timeless tools of exploration and inquiry. The problems that we pursue are unique to us as individuals. 

“Each individual, constitutionally unique, finds meaning in different pursuits, if he has the courage to maintain his difference. Manifestation of individual diversity, transformed into knowledge that can be transferred socially, changes the face of history itself, and moves each generation of man farther into the unknown.” Pg. 363 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

The analogy of fire here can be continued by realizing the spontaneity of the heat traveling through the propagation of the flame. If we find the truth, then the fire will propagate naturally. This transformation moves the atoms of the material into an “excited” state. This idea is to say they have more energy than previously was the case, which seems to be the same when we stumble upon some truth. We become excited, even invigorated as we face the appropriate challenge and learn from being pushed to a new domain. If we take the power of the question and place it in our toolbox, perhaps we can find more ways to propagate our flame. This propagation comes when we transform the chaos of the unknown through truth into the order that will benefit both us as individuals and society at large. 

How to get from here to there

If our contemporary issues are folks running around trying to light steel on fire, then what is it that we are to do? In my opinion, the process is twofold:

The first idea starts at the notion that we have created a society where if something is not working out, we have been taught to “will” it into existence. Perhaps, we should take a step back to realize that we only have a strong or weak will and that there is no purely “freedom of will.” This notion stems from the myriad of interrelated systems that we mostly unknowingly live in every second of every day (biological, psychological, and social). They directly impact our “will” to do things both in terms of our willingness and ability. 

The ancient Taoists realized the complexity of the many interrelated systems that we face. They saw life like a flowing and ever-changing river. They created a term, called the Tao, or “the way.” The Tao is everywhere, always, and forever. It is the flow of existence itself. It is as elusive as trying to capture a cloud in a bottle. Those who claim to know, do not, those who do not know are the true knowers. Maybe we should try to realign our life to flow along with and down the river instead of trying to fight upstream continually. Fighting against the Tao is like trying to burn steel. Soon the fuel will run out; soon we will tire. Going with the Tao is not to give up on goals; it instead is merely a different way of looking at pursuit. There is an added ease to the journey by knowing that we will face challenges. We can couple that mindset with a willingness to surmount them when they arrive. This approach can lead to a place where there is no mental anguish about what we do or do not deserve.

Some people who do not understand the truth of reality think of themselves as unquestionably benevolent without the capacity to do harm or evil. These folks have a messiah-like (morally righteous) complex; they are here to “save the world.” They see all of the wrongdoings, deem themselves above that, and proceed on a conquest of telling others how to act morally. The issue here arises from the relative nature of reality. One man’s heaven is another man’s hell. If I am free to do what I deem right, we’ve paved the way to torment and suffering. This scenario arises when we, collectively as a society, walk away from systems created to deal with the reality that is much older and more complex than we are. These guidebooks are arguably as old as civilization itself and are an agglomeration of many, many authors. 

“Mythological renditions of history, like those in the Bible, are just as “true” as the standard Western empirical renditions, just as literally true, but how they are true is different. Western historians describe (or think they describe) “what” happened. The traditions of mythology and religion describe the significance of what happened (and it must be noted that if what happens is without significance, it is irrelevant).” Pg. 356 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

There is so much input to these texts that they become a representation of the collective unconscious of humans. The unconscious is the much more significant part (as compared to our conscious mind) of our psyche that we cannot directly experience. It is from these text-based beacons that there is much to learn about ourselves. These guideposts also serve as common pillars of truth from which we can construct a society that is firmly rooted in and aligned with the human psyche. It is so quickly that we forget we are all human, and that we must take into account all of our shortcomings and pitfalls to create a prosperous society. We can begin to learn something about our current selves when we look at the past. 

“An honest profession of modernity means voluntarily declaring bankruptcy, taking the vows of poverty and chastity in a new sense, and - what is still more painful - renouncing the halow which history bestows as a mark of its sanction. To be “unhistorical” is the Promethean sin, and in this sense modern man lives in sin. A higher level of consciousness is like a burden of guilt.” Pg. 198 C.G. Jung, Modern Man Iin Search of A Soul

The result of our current individual mindset is due to all historical events. Because of that, we cannot deny that we are in some way, ancient creatures. However, the “modern man” denies this fact and tries to live on his or her own. This cleavage from the understanding of the makeup of our psyche is detrimental. This idea does not mention the denial of the ability to learn critical moral truths about our current situation from historical and mythological works. 

“We must never forget that the crooked paths of a neurosis lead to as many obstinate habits, and that, despite any amount of understanding, these do not disappear until they are replaced by other habits. But habits are only won by exercise, and appropriate education is the sole means to this end. The patient must be, as it were, prodded into other paths, and this always requires an educating will.” Pg. 45 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

what does the journey mean?

We live in a society where the systems have been glorified over the individual. As an attempt to get back the individuals sense of independence, we as “the modern man” have atomized ourselves from the historical lineage that makes up a great deal of our psyche. We must be willing to accept these lessons from the past as part of our present. It is not until we make this about-face that we can free ourselves from this “Promethean sin.” It is for this reason that many of us will spend our precious life force, our energy, our fuel for our fire trying to heat steel. We will spend our energy on the hamster wheel of more. We will spend our lives devoid of truth which denies us meaning. It is not until we begin to pursue what is truly meaningful to us in an appropriate manner that we will be relieved of such a burden. This approach, like burning wood, takes a tremendous amount of effort to initiate the flame; however, once this process has been started, the propagation is spontaneous. The point of transformation of wood into ash is the crux of change from chaos to order. This point is where we, as humans, have been designed to reside and be appropriately challenged. If we face to much turmoil, we will become bitter, angry, and resentful at the world, if we face too little, we will become flaccid, and weak. Let us take a lesson from something as powerful as fire. When harness it appropriately, it brings us a tremendous amount of utility when deployed for destruction doom ensues. This concept is much the same with the human psyche; it is our choice to lead an impulsive life in wonderland or to face the harshness of a reality filled with suffering. It is only then that we can do our best to bring a small glimmer of light into the world in the hopes of lighting it ablaze.