Life is suffering. That’s clear.
There is no more fundamental, irrefutable truth. This idea goes back to the beginning of the Bible and the beginning of recorded history.
It’s basically what God tells Adam and Eve, immediately before he kicks them out of Paradise. When God puts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, everything is perfect. Food is abundant, and the garden is beautiful.
God puts two trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells Adam to take care of the garden. He tells him not to eat fruit from the two trees.
Satan (disguised as a serpent) enters the Garden and tells them to eat the fruit. Eve believes Satan instead of God. Choosing short term pleasure over long term prosperity, Eve eats the fruit and gives some to Adam – this is the first human sin.
God curses Adam and Eve.
In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes:
"When engaging in sacrifice, our forefathers began to act out what would be considered a proposition, if it were stated in words: that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present. Recall, if you will, that the necessity for work is one of the curses placed by God upon Adam and his descendants in consequence of Original Sin. Adam’s waking to the fundamental constraints of his Being—his vulnerability, his eventual death—is equivalent to his discovery of the future.”
The story of Adam and Eve foreshadows what the Bible would later make explicit through sacrifices to God. The most profound discovery of humankind the discovery of the future. Sacrifice now, gain later. This idea is not innate; it had to be discovered.
"Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present—regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others—could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist."
The animal will not sacrifice the part to preserve the whole. Something valuable, given up, ensures future prosperity; something valuable, sacrificed, pleases the Lord. This idea touches the foundation of Western thought.
The Death of Socrates
During a recent visit to the MET, I was struck by The Death of Socrates. The painting tells the story of the execution of Socrates, from the perspective of Plato. Socrates is convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings and is sentenced to death.
Socrates dies willingly but uses his death as a final lesson, an opportunity to uphold the principles he holds dear. He ventures towards the cup, points toward the heavens and speaks of the immortality of the soul. In the midst of his suffering, seconds before his death, Socrates places meaning over expediency, and dies in the name of truth.
2,500 years later, the Western World is still guided by his decision.
The pursuit of what’s meaningful grounds our roots in long-term aims, and not the desires of the day or the textures of the time. What is expedient works only for the moment. It’s immediate, impulsive and limited.
Stories to Sentences
As Peterson advises:
"Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that…. The person who wishes to alleviate suffering—who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who wants to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on Earth—will make the greatest of sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world.”
By eating the forbidden fruit, waking up, and opening their eyes, Adam and Eve were granted (and cursed by) the knowledge of Good and Evil.
Years later, Socrates acted out what would become the pillar of Western thought: the pursuit of truth is the ultimate virtue.
Jordan Peterson has compressed these timeless teachings into a single sentence: Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
This post was adapted from 12 Rules for Life, written by Jordan Peterson.
Rule #7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).