Last week, I had the great good fortune to sit down for a Zoom interview with Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau, and John Vervaeke. As I’m sure you know, Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, is one of the most influential figures in the culture today. Pageau is an artist and iconographer working in the Orthodox Christian tradition, and Vervaeke is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. All three of these gentlemen have a powerful presence on social media. The topic of our conversation was a theme that preoccupies all four of us—namely, the crisis of meaning in our culture, especially among the young. To kick things off, Peterson asked each of us to give our definition of meaning and, more specifically, of religious meaning. When my time came, I offered this: to live a meaningful life is to be in purposive relationship to value, and to live a religiously meaningful life is to be in purposive relationship to the summum bonum, or the supreme value.
Following the prompts of Dietrich von Hildebrand, I argued that certain values—epistemic, moral, and aesthetic—appear in the world, and they draw us out of ourselves, calling us to honor them and to integrate them into our lives. So, mathematical and philosophical truths beguile the mind and set it on a journey of discovery; moral truths, on display in the saints and heroes of the tradition, stir the will into imitative action; and artistic beauty—a Cézanne still-life, a Beethoven sonata, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—stops us in our tracks and compels us to wonder and, in turn, to create. To order one’s life in such a way that one consistently seeks such values is to have a properly meaningful life.
Now, I continued, the perceptive soul intuits that there is a transcendent source of these values: a supreme or unconditioned goodness, truth, and beauty. The fully meaningful life is one that is dedicated, finally, to that reality. Thus, Plato said that the culminating point of the philosophical enterprise is discovering, beyond all particular goods, the “form of the good”; Aristotle said that the highest life consists in contemplating the prime mover; and the Bible speaks of loving the Lord our God with our whole soul, our whole mind, our whole strength. Jordan Peterson, echoing Thomas Aquinas, put it as follows: Every particular act of the will is predicated upon some value, some concrete good. But that value nests in a higher value or set of values, which in turn nests in a still higher one. We come, he said, eventually, to some supreme good that determines and orders all of the subordinate goods that we seek.