Anyone involved in Mormon Studies is keenly aware just who Daniel C. Peterson is, a quick look at his publication history at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship website shows a sustained effort in the area of Mormon Apologetics for two decades. Dr. Peterson is not merely limited to apologetics and faith promoting ventures however; he has also participated in the translation and publication of ancient philosophical texts under the auspices of the Maxwell Institute, a worthy contribution to a variety of fields covering History, Philosophy, and Near Eastern studies.
The industry of Mormon Apologetics rarely comes into contact with atheism or secularism, so when I came upon an essay written by Dr. Peterson entitled “Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism” that was published in the FARMS Review (2005), I was eager to read Dr. Peterson’s thoughts. Now it is important for me to mention that Dr. Peterson presented this essay that same year at a FAIR conference (Youtube video here and transcript here), because what I discovered both angered and disappointed me.
The essay itself isn’t enlightening, informative, nor entertaining, which is what disappointed me. Dr. Peterson’s criticisms of secular thought are shallow, but I found them largely unremarkable and seem to come straight out of the usual apologia-lite style of general Christian Apologetics like Lee Strobel or Norman Geisler. What had angered me was Dr. Peterson’s use (abuse really) of Albert Camus as a means to launch some of these criticisms.
At the start of the momentum building up to the Camus abuse, Dr. Peterson seems to be (at least) vaguely familiar with Camus and his work. As near I can tell, these examples of life tragically cut short and the observation about the finality of death is some kind groping towards Camus’ demonstration of the absurd in 'The Myth of Sisyphus 'and/or 'The Stranger'. Camus does meditate and work his way through two blunt facts that create the absurd; (i) a cold mindless universe that grinds on in the face of humanity’s dream of unity and peace and (ii) the destiny of death that each person must meet. From these starting points, Camus begins to construct a hermeneutic for how a human should understand his or her place in this world. Dr. Peterson sets it up in the following way:
I confess that I find those who rejoice in atheism baffling. It is not merely the thought of the atheist's funeral: "all dressed up with nowhere to go." I think of Beethoven, hiding down in the basement with pillows to his ears, desperately trying to save his fading sense of hearing as he was working on his majestic "Emperor" Concerto. Or, a little later, conducting the magnificent Ninth Symphony, which he never heard, having to be turned around by the concertmaster because he did not know that the audience was applauding him. I think of Mozart, feverishly trying to finish his own Requiem—dead at thirty-five and thrown into an unmarked pauper's grave. So many lives have been cut short, leaving so many poems unwritten, so many symphonies uncomposed, so many scientific discoveries unmade.
In fact, it is hard to think of anyone who has achieved his or her full potential in this life. Tragic foreshortenings do not only happen to geniuses. A neighbor and friend was stricken with multiple sclerosis in her midtwenties and now, in her thirties, lies bedridden in a rest home. Barring some incredible medical breakthrough, this is her life. Absent hope for a life to come, this is all she will ever have to look forward to. My own father, for the last six years of his life, blind from an utterly unforeseen stroke suffered during routine and relatively minor surgery, was incapable of any of the activities in which he had once found satisfaction and pathetically asked me, every few weeks, whether he would ever see again. What comfort would there be in saying, "No, Dad. This is it. Nothing good is coming. And then you'll die."
Of course, something may be unpalatable and unpleasant yet accurate. I can certainly understand coming to the sad conclusion that this is in fact the truth about the human condition: That we live briefly, then we die and we rot. That so, too, do our children and our grandchildren. And that so, also, does everything we create—our music, our buildings, our literature, our inventions. That "all we are is dust in the wind."
But I cannot understand those who regard this as glorious good news.
Of course, Camus would go on to reject the conclusions that Dr. Peterson is drawing here, but the abuse doesn't begin until immedtiatly after those conclusions:
Perhaps, on second thought, though, I can understand those who might see it as a liberation. "If there is no God," says Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "that means everything is permitted." Why? Because nothing matters at all. Everything is meaningless. However, this liberation comes at a very, very high price. "If we believe in nothing," said the great French writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus...
Dr. Peterson then gives us two Camus quotes to bolster this observation. The first one:
[...]if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.
At the point where it is no longer possible to say what is black and what is white, the light is extinguished and freedom becomes a voluntary prison.
A careful reader would immediately notice that Dr. Peterson’s citations come from 'The Rebel', which comes chronologically after 'The Myth of Sisyphus' and requires the reader to be aware that Camus has already analyzed the absurd condition of humans and came to the conclusion that one shouldn’t kill themselves in despair (physical suicide), nor adopt any transcendent and religious doctrines (philosophical suicide), but bravely face this absurd condition:
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. This lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn (1).
It is from this conclusion in the final chapter of 'The Myth of Sisyphus' that 'The Rebel' builds upon. If human existence is absurd and the only answer is to grimly face it in defiance, how are we to understand the act of murder? It’s interesting to note that Dr. Peterson’s first citation (#46) comes from the introduction to 'The Rebel' where Camus is taking pains to properly explain this problem of murder (in light of the absurd) to the reader. Below is the text Dr. Peterson reproduced for his essay (bolded), but in a much fuller context:
But, for the moment, this train of thought yields only one concept: that of the absurd. And the concept of the absurd leads only to a contradiction as far as the problem of murder is concerned. Awareness of the absurd, when we first claim to deduce a rule of behavior from it, makes murder seem a matter of indifference, to say the least, and hence possible. If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.
We shall then decide not to act at all, which amounts to at least accepting the murder of others, with perhaps certain mild reservations about the imperfection of the human race. Again we may decide to substitute tragic dilettantism for action, and in this case human lives become counters in a game. Finally, we may propose to embark on some course of action which is not entirely gratuitous. In the latter case, in that we have no higher values to guide our behavior, our aim will be immediate efficacy. Since nothing is either true or false, good or bad, our guiding principle will be to demonstrate that we are the most efficient-in other words, the strongest. Then the world will no longer be divided into the just and the unjust, but into masters and slaves. Thus, whichever way we turn, in our abyss of negation and nihilism, murder has its privileged position.
Hence, if we claim to adopt the absurdist attitude, we must prepare ourselves to commit murder, thus admitting that logic is more important than scruples that we consider illusory. Of course, we must have some predisposition to murder. But, on the whole, less than might be possible, as we can so often observe, to delegate murder. Everything would then be made to conform to logic- if logic could really be satisfied in this way.
But logic cannot be satisfied by an attitude which first demonstrates that murder is possible and then that it is impossible. For after having proved that the act of murder is at least a matter of indifference, absurdist analysis, in its most important deduction, finally condemns murder. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises. According to absurdist reasoning, such a solution would be the equivalent of flight or deliverance. But it is obvious that absurdism hereby admits that human life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible and since, without life, the absurdist wager would have no basis. To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive (2).
One can immediately see how poorly out of context citation #46 is and that the portion quoted by Dr. Peterson was actually Camus setting up the conditions to show a contradiction that arises when trying to be indifferent about murder, even if one is mired in an “abyss of negation and nihilism” murder still has some kind of value placed on it. Dr. Peterson attempts to make citation #46 appear to be the legitimate opinion of Camus when in fact Camus almost immediately repudiates that very opinion. To demonstrate again just how out of touch Dr. Peterson is with Camus’ thought, take a look at this passage just a bit later in his essay, when he attempts to criticize an atheistic worldview:
But on what basis can a materialist, whose universe is exhausted by material particles and the void, claim that something is objectively wrong? Do right and wrong not become matters merely of personal preference and, perhaps, of power? Not only existentialists but many superficial "life counselors" suggest that we should construct our own "meaning" for life. But is such a self-constructed meaning really meaning at all?
Dr. Peterson poses this challenge, even though at this juncture he has cited ‘The Rebel’ three times, and within just a few pages of his own citations, not even one third of the way into ‘The Rebel’, we read this:
If the individual, in fact, accepts death and happens to die as a consequence of his act of rebellion, he demonstrates by doing so that he is will to sacrifice himself for the sake of a common good which he considers more important than his own destiny. If he prefers the risk of death to the negation of the rights that he defends, it is because he considers these rights more important than himself. Therefore he is acting in the name of certain values which are still indeterminate but which he feels are common to himself and to all men. We see that the affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason to act (3).
Why does Dr. Peterson bother to introduce Camus, with selective quotations naked of any relevant context, only to ask rhetorical questions and ignore the fact that Camus himself tried to answer those very same questions? Why not simply engage Camus’ writings instead of making it appear as if Camus agreed with the well worn (and often misunderstood) notion that if God doesn’t exist, anything is permissible? Speaking of Dostoevsky, here is citation #47 in a fuller context (with Dr. Peterson‘s actual citation bolded):
Because his mind was free, Nietzsche knew that freedom of the mind is not a comfort, but an achievement to which one aspires and at long last obtains after an exhausting struggle. He knew that in wanting to consider oneself above the law, there is a great risk of finding oneself beneath the law. That is why he understood that only the mind found its real emancipation in the acceptance of new obligations. The essence of his discovery consists in saying that if the eternal law is not freedom, the absence of law is still less so. If nothing is true, if the world is without order, then nothing is forbidden, to prohibit an action, there must, in fact, be a standard of values and an aim. But, at the same time, nothing is authorized; there must also be values and aims in order to choose another course of action. Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty, but no more does absolute anarchy. The sum total of every possibility does not amount to liberty, but to attempt the impossible amounts to slavery. Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom exists only in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom. If fate is not guided by superior values, if chance is king, then there is nothing but the step in the dark and the appalling freedom of the blind. On the point of achieving the most complete liberation, Nietzsche therefore chooses the most complete subordination. “If we do not make of God’s death a great renunciation and a perpetual victory over ourselves, we shall have to pay for that omission.” In other words, with Nietzsche rebellion ends in asceticism. A profounder logic replaces the “if nothing is true, everything is permitted” of Karamazov by “if nothing is true, nothing is permitted.” To deny that one single thing is forbidden in this world amounts to renouncing everything that is permitted. At that point where it is no longer possible to say what is black and what is white, the light is extinguished and freedom becomes a voluntary prison (4).
To give readers some needed background to fully understand this portion of text (something Dr. Peterson failed to do for his own readers and listeners), this paragraph comes from Metaphysical Rebellion, part II of 'The Rebel'. The particular section Dr. Peterson quotes from (and not for the last time either, as we’ll see later) is called Absolute Affirmation. The section just prior to Absolute Affirmation is called The Rejection of Salvation where Camus directly interacts with Dostoyevsky’s characters Ivan Karamazov, his brother Aliosha, and the parable told by Ivan about the Grand Inquisitors. The Rejection of Salvation is largely about how a rebel comes to rebel against the metaphysical ideal of God. The last two paragraphs read:
By then the prisoner has been executed; the Grand Inquisitors reign alone, listening to “the profound spirit, the spirit of destruction and death.” The Grand Inquisitors proudly refuse freedom and the bread of heaven and odder the bread of this earth without freedom. “Come down from the cross and we will believe in you,” their police agents are already crying on Golgotha. But He did not come down and, even, at the most tortured moment of His agony, He protested to God at having been forsaken. There are, thus, no longer any proofs, but faith and the mystery that the rebels reject and at which the Grand Inquisitors scoff. Everything is permitted and centuries of crime are prepared in that cataclysmic moment. From Paul to Stalin, the popes who have chosen Caesar have prepared the way for Caesars who quickly learn to despise popes. The unity of the world, which was not achieved with God, will henceforth be attempted in defiance of God.
But we have not yet reached that point. For the moment, Ivan offers us only the tortured face of the rebel plunged in the abyss, incapable of action, torn between the idea of his own innocence and the desire to kill. He hates the death penalty because it is the image of the human condition, and, at the same time, he is drawn to crime. Because he has taken the side of mankind, solitude is his lot. With him the rebellion of reason culminates in madness (5).
Camus feels that Ivan’s rebellion is intellectually justified, just as he feels the atheist’s rebellion against the idea of God is intellectually justified, but it can appear that the rejection of God can put the rebel/atheist in a weird space. Christ had come to set humanity free, but because he left no instructions on what to do with this freedom, madness ensued and humanity needed The Grand Inquisitors to kill Christ and restore order in exchange for freedom. This madness of Ivan appears to be a symptom of this freedom, can this same madness be avoided when we reject God as some kind of ultimate metaphysical grounding for everything?
Camus investigates different strategies to avoid the fate of Ivan in Absolute Affirmation, the very next section. Here, Camus investigates two thinkers in particular; Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche. The section that Dr. Peterson drew his quote from came in the middle of Camus’ treatment of Nietzsche’s philosophy. So what we are reading isn’t exactly the product of Camus’ own personal philosophical thinking as much as it is Camus exegeting Nietzsche’s work in light of the absurd ideal.
As we can see, Camus thinks that Nietzsche would reject Dr. Peterson‘s little maxim he attributes to Dostoyevsky:
A profounder logic replaces the “if nothing is true, everything is permitted” of Karamazov by “if nothing is true, nothing is permitted.”
Careful readers will note that Dr. Peterson’s quote reads, “If there is no God that means everything is permitted” but Camus has it, “if nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Dr. Peterson’s modern source better renders the original Russian, while Camus probably confused this passage from Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morals’ with what Ivan was expressing (italics mine):
When the Christian crusaders in the Orient encountered the invincible order of Assassins, that order of free spirits par excellence, whose lowest ranks followed a rile of obedience the likes of which no order of monks ever attained, they obtained in some way or other a hint concerning that symbol and watchword reserved for the highest ranks alone as their secretum: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”- Very well, that was freedom of spirit; in that way the faith in truth was abrogated (6).
In the footnotes, Walter Kaufmann (translator) remarks that the phrase “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” did not come from Nietzsche, nor did Nietzsche get it from Dostoyevsky.
I think it has become painfully apparent that citations #46 and #47 come from contexts that originally set out to repudiate the very idea Dr. Peterson wishes to advance with his use of Camus. I’ll continue this investigation of Dr. Peterson’s use of Camus in a sequel post, but as to how to properly understand Ivan’s notion of “If there is no God that means everything is permitted”, I merely want to quote the idea in it’s fullest form from ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and allow the reader to decide for himself/herself.
The following monologue is the Devil speaking to Ivan in a dream and comes from the same translation that Dr. Peterson cited:
"...'There are new people now,' you decided last spring, as you were preparing to come here, 'they propose to destroy everything and begin with [cannibalism]. Fools, they never asked me! In my opinion, there is no need to destroy anything, one need only destroy the idea of God in mankind, that's where the business should start! One should begin with that, with that—oh, blind men, of no understanding! Once mankind has renounced God, one and all (and I believe that this period, analogous to the geological periods, will come), then the entire old world view will fall of itself, without [cannibalism], and, above all, the entire former morality, and everything will be new. People will come together in order to take from life all that it can give, but, of course, for happiness and joy in this world only. Man will be exalted with the spirit of divine, titanic pride, and the man-god will appear. Man, his will and his science no longer limited, conquering nature every hour, will thereby every hour experience such lofty delight as will replace for him all his former hopes of heavenly delight. Each will know himself utterly mortal, without resurrection, and will accept death proudly and calmly, like a god. Out of pride he will understand that he should not murmur against the momentariness of life, and he will love his brother then without any reward. Love will satisfy only the moment of life, but the very awareness of its momentariness will increase its fire, inasmuch as previously it was diffused in hopes of an eternal love beyond the grave?' ... well, and so on and so on, in the same vein. Lovely!"
Ivan was sitting with his hands over his ears, looking down, but his whole body started trembling. The voice went on:
"'The question now,' my young thinker reflected, 'is whether or not it is possible for such a period ever to come. If it does come, then everything will be resolved and mankind will finally be settled. But since, in view of man's inveterate stupidity, it may not be settled for another thousand years, anyone who already knows the truth is permitted to settle things for himself, absolutely as he wishes, on the new principles. In this sense, "everything is permitted" to him. Moreover, since God and immortality do not exist in any case, even if this period should never come, the new man is allowed to become a man-god, though it be he alone in the whole world, and of course, in this new rank, to jump lightheartedly over any former moral obstacle of the former slave-man, if need be. There is no law for God! Where God stands—there is the place of God! Where I stand, there at once will be the foremost place ... "everything is permitted," and that's that!' It's all very nice; only if one wants to swindle, why, I wonder, should one also need the sanction of truth? But such is the modern little Russian man: without such a sanction, he doesn't even dare to swindle, so much does he love the truth…(7)"
(1) The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus, translated by Justin O’Brien and published by Vintage International Vintage Books, 1991 , page 121.
(2) The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt by Albert Camus, translated by Anthony Bower O’Brien and published by Vintage International Vintage Books, 1991, pages 5-6.
(3) Ibid, pages 15-16.
(4) Ibid, pages 70-71.
(5) Ibid, page 61
(6) Basic Writings of Nietzsche by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann and published by Random House (Modern Library edition), 1992, page 586.
(7) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published by North Point Press, 1990, pages 648-649.