Authors: Jordan B. Peterson
Order is the stability of your marriage. It’s buttressed by the traditions of the past and by your expectations—grounded, often invisibly, in those traditions. Chaos is that stability crumbling under your feet when you discover your partner’s infidelity. Chaos is the experience of reeling unbound and unsupported through space when your guiding routines and traditions collapse.
Order is the place and time where the oft-invisible axioms you live by organize your experience and your actions so that what should happen does happen. Chaos is the new place and time that emerges when tragedy strikes suddenly, or malevolence reveals its paralyzing visage, even in the confines of your own home. Something unexpected or undesired can always make its appearance, when a plan is being laid out, regardless of how familiar the circumstances. When that
happens, the territory has shifted. Make no mistake about it: the space, the apparent space, may be the same. But we live in time, as well as space. In consequence, even the oldest and most familiar places retain an ineradicable capacity to surprise you. You may be cruising happily down the road in the automobile you have known and loved for years. But time is passing. The brakes could fail. You might be walking down the road in the body you have always relied on. If your heart malfunctions, even momentarily, everything changes. Friendly old dogs can still bite. Old and trusted friends can still deceive. New ideas can destroy old and comfortable certainties. Such things matter. They’re real.
Our brains respond instantly when chaos appears, with simple, hyper-fast circuits maintained from the ancient days, when our ancestors dwelled in trees, and snakes struck in a flash.
After that nigh-instantaneous, deeply reflexive bodily response comes the later-evolving, more complex but slower responses of emotions—and, after that, comes thinking, of the higher order, which can extend over seconds, minutes or years. All that response is instinctive, in some sense—but the faster the response, the more instinctive.
Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience—two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood (to the degree that they are understood at all) as personalities—and that is just as true of the perceptions, experiences and understanding of modern people as their ancient forebears. It’s just that moderners don’t notice.
Order and chaos are not understood first, objectively (as things or objects), and
personified. That would only be the case if we perceived objective reality
inferred intent and purpose. But that isn’t how perception operates, despite our preconceptions.
Perception of things as tools, for example, occurs before or in concert with perception of things as objects. We see what things mean just as fast or faster than we see what they are.
Perception of things as entities with personality also occurs before perception of things as things. This is particularly true of the action of others,
living others, but we also see the non-living “objective world” as animated, with purpose and intent. This is because of the operation of what psychologists have called “the hyperactive agency detector” within us.
We evolved, over millennia, within intensely social circumstances. This means that the most significant elements of our environment of origin were personalities, not things, objects or situations.
The personalities we have evolved to perceive have been around, in predictable form, and in typical, hierarchical configurations, forever, for all intents and purposes. They have been male or female, for example, for a billion years. That’s a long time. The division of life into its twin sexes occurred before the evolution of multi-cellular animals. It was in a still-respectable one-fifth of that time that mammals, who take extensive care of their young, emerged. Thus, the category of “parent” and/or “child” has been around for 200 million years. That’s longer than birds have existed. That’s longer than flowers have grown. It’s not a billion years, but it’s still a very long time. It’s plenty long enough for male and female and parent and child to serve as vital and fundamental parts of the environment to which we have adapted. This means that male and female and parent and child are categories, for us—natural categories, deeply embedded in our perceptual, emotional and motivational structures.
Our brains are deeply social. Other creatures (particularly, other humans) were crucially important to us as we lived, mated and evolved. Those creatures were literally our natural habitat—our environment. From a Darwinian perspective, nature—reality itself; the environment, itself—is
. The environment cannot be defined in any more fundamental manner. It is not mere inert matter. Reality itself is whatever we contend with when we are striving to survive and reproduce. A lot of that is other beings, their opinions of us, and their communities. And that’s that.
Over the millennia, as our brain capacity increased and we developed curiosity to spare, we became increasingly aware of and curious about the nature of the world—what we eventually conceptualized as the objective world—outside the personalities of family and troupe. And “outside” is not merely unexplored physical territory.
is outside of what we currently understand—and understanding is
and not merely
. But our brains had been long concentrating on other people. Thus, it appears that we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-human world with the innate categories of our social brain.
And even this is a misstatement: when we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-animal world, we used categories that had originally evolved to represent the
pre-human animal social world
. Our minds are far older than mere humanity. Our categories are far older than our species. Our most basic category—as old, in some sense, as the sexual act itself—appears to be that of sex, male and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through its lens.
Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the aforementioned
of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.
Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It’s the political culture, the corporate environment, and the system. It’s the “they” in “you know what they say.” It’s credit cards, classrooms, supermarket checkout lineups, turn-taking, traffic lights, and the familiar routes of daily commuters. Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly. It does so as the forced migration, the concentration camp, and the soul-devouring uniformity of the goose-step.
Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers. Chaos is
, origin, source, mother;
, the substance from which all things are made. It is also
what is the matter
—the very subject matter of thought and communication. In its positive guise, chaos is possibility itself, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm of gestation and birth. As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces.
Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters (unlike female chimps, their closest animal counterparts
). Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 percent of men as below average in attractiveness.
It is for this reason that we all have twice as many female ancestors as male (imagine that all the women who have ever lived have averaged one child. Now imagine that half the men who have ever lived have fathered two children, if they had any, while the other half fathered none).
It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date. Human female choosiness is also why we are very different from the common ancestor we shared with our chimpanzee cousins, while the latter are very much the same. Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are.
It is Nature as Woman who says, “Well, bucko, you’re good enough for a friend, but my experience of you so far has not indicated the suitability of your genetic material for continued propagation.”
The most profound religious symbols rely for their power in large part on this underlying fundamentally bipartisan conceptual subdivision. The Star of David is, for example, the downward pointing triangle
of femininity and the upward pointing triangle of the male.
It’s the same for the
of Hinduism (which come covered with snakes, our ancient adversaries and provocateurs: the Shiva Linga is depicted with snake deities called the Nagas). The ancient Egyptians represented Osiris, god of the state, and Isis, goddess of the underworld, as twin cobras with their tails knotted together. The same symbol was used in China to portray Fuxi and Nuwa, creators of humanity and of writing. The representations in Christianity are less abstract, more like personalities, but the familiar Western images of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the Pietà both express the female/male dual unity, as does the traditional insistence on the androgyny of Christ.
It should also be noted, finally, that the structure of the brain itself at a gross morphological level appears to reflect this duality. This, to me, indicates the fundamental, beyond-the-metaphorical reality of this symbolically feminine/masculine divide, since the brain is adapted, by definition, to reality itself (that is, reality conceptualized in this quasi-Darwinian manner). Elkhonon Goldberg, student of the great Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinization (the known, order).
He doesn’t make reference to the symbols representing the structure of the world in reference to this theory, but that’s all the better: an idea is more credible when it emerges as a consequence of investigations in different realms.
We already know all this, but we don’t know we know it. But we immediately comprehend it when it’s articulated in a manner such as
this. Everyone understands order and chaos, world and underworld, when it’s explained using these terms. We all have a palpable sense of the chaos lurking under everything familiar. That’s why we understand the strange, surreal stories of
The Lion King
The Little Mermaid
Beauty and the Beast
, with their eternal landscapes of known and unknown, world and underworld. We’ve all been in both places, many times: sometimes by happenstance, sometimes by choice.
Many things begin to fall into place when you begin to consciously understand the world in this manner. It’s as if the knowledge of your body and soul falls into alignment with the knowledge of your intellect. And there’s more: such knowledge is proscriptive, as well as descriptive. This is the kind of knowing
that helps you know
. This is the kind of
from which you can derive an
. The Taoist juxtaposition of yin and yang, for example, doesn’t simply portray chaos and order as the fundamental elements of Being—it also tells you how to act. The Way, the Taoist path of life, is represented by (or exists on) the border between the twin serpents. The Way is the path of proper Being. It’s the same Way as that referred to by Christ in John 14:6:
I am the way, and the truth and the life
. The same idea is expressed in Matthew 7:14:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them. We are adapted, in the deepest Darwinian sense, not to the world of objects, but to the meta-realities of order and chaos, yang and yin. Chaos and order make up the eternal, transcendent environment of the living.
To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure. When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice—it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos.
The subjective meaning that we encounter there is the reaction of our deepest being, our neurologically and evolutionarily grounded instinctive self, indicating that we are ensuring the stability but also the expansion of habitable, productive territory, of space that is personal, social and natural. It’s the right place to be, in every sense. You are there when—and where—it matters. That’s what music is telling you, too, when you’re listening—even more, perhaps, when you’re dancing—when its harmonious layered patterns of predictability and unpredictability make meaning itself well up from the most profound depths of your Being.