Some Major Themes in Jordan Peterson’s Philosophy
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson was born in 1962 in tough, cold Alberta, Canada. In his youth he worked many and varied jobs and read obsessively. He grew terrified by the implications of a cold war between two sides who each deployed huge and fearsome nuclear arsenals. This terror gave rise to frightening dreams and troubling destructive urges. He read Nietzsche, Solzhenitsyn, and Dostoyevsky, trying to make sense of his unease and to explore the meaning of human existence. He also studied closely the pathologies of fascism and communism, coming to the unnerving conclusion that there is that within each of us which would have made us assistants to those evil regimes had we been unfortunate enough to be born in those times.
Graduating from University, Peterson first taught at Harvard and then Toronto, pursuing a teaching career in clinical psychology. At the same time he began writing a book in an attempt to resolve his doubts and fears and investigate the nature of meaning and human purpose. He worked on the book for fifteen years, rewriting each sentence many times in an effort to make it invulnerable to philosophical refutation. In 1999 he published it under the title, ‘Maps of Meaning’. It formed the basis of annual courses he taught at Harvard and Toronto and which have since become available on his YouTube channel.
To expound his thesis he used a Jungian framework, employing such concepts as Chaos, Order, the Dragon, the Hero and the Logos. To take ancient archetypical narratives as his authority in this way was to reject the shallow theses of the Marxism and Postmodernism predominant in academia.
In September 2016 he published on YouTube a criticism of a new Canadian law compelling people to use a variety of contrived transgender pronouns if requested. He let it be known that he would refuse to comply. This brought him widespread notice and was the first step towards the international fame he now enjoys.
To illustrate his teaching he draws on his experiences in psychiatric practice. He also uses an extensive knowledge of the structure and processes of the brain. In general, his teaching incorporates a remarkably rich weave of reference: including biological, personal, mythological, Biblical, psychological, literary and historical.
Peterson has designed a course to help undergraduates learn to write and also websites to help people discover their dominant psychological traits (understandmyself.com) and to explore their past and future moves towards a transformed life (selfauthoring.com).
Peterson’s focus on personal transformation is his answer to the disaster, as he sees it, of utopian idealism. His approach has resonated particularly with young males. As a mentor to the young, Peterson inspires loyalty and awe as well as a cult of humorous memes.
He has recently delivered a series of lectures on the symbolic meaning of the Old Testament stories. These lengthy and well-attended talks have attracted an astounding number of hits on his Youtube channel.
In January 2018 he published his second book, ‘Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ It quickly reached No.1 on the best-selling lists of most English speaking countries, and stayed there. His international book promotion tour has played to packed audiences.
Peterson’s teaching speaks to a growing need in our present culture. It has attracted many who would not ordinarily be interested in such ideas. Indeed, it might not quite be hyperbole to say that Peterson is almost single-handedly transforming the landscape of metaphysics and the significance of their everyday practice for a substantial segment of a whole generation.
Such is a brief account of Peterson’s appearance in 21st century intellectual life.
I am guessing, however, that central to the interest of those reading this article would be Peterson’s reflections on such transcendental realities as the divinity of the individual, the nature of God and Logos, and the way such aspects of truth point towards a Hero’s Quest. Further to this I outline the inner preparation Peterson underwent on his personal quest, the nature of his deepest inspiration and the vision he expounds of human responsibility.
Let us begin with how Peterson’s life prepared him for his present vocation (I should mention I have detected no connection of Peterson with any esoteric spiritual organisation). It seems his understanding was painfully accrued through deep, personal and wide-ranging study together with considerable exertion of mind. This is a mind of rare intensity, strong, retentive and fuelled by a consuming desire to understand the nature of such realities as evil, suffering, human malevolence and goodness.
The reality of human suffering is a key Petersonian theme. He posits this as a bedrock truth that not even Postmodern cynicism can dodge. When inevitable suffering is intensified by needless human malevolence, how can this be shouldered positively? For years Peterson puzzled over such questions.
He is obsessive and impossibly tenacious in his enquiry. At one point, triggered no doubt by such unrelenting concentration and one-pointedness, he became aware of a deep and mysterious part of himself repeatedly questioning his everyday psyche as to the truthfulness of what he was saying. He had discovered an inner Socratic Daemon. He took up its challenge by adopting an incredibly difficult discipline, namely to obey that voice and speak only truth, that is, what he knew with absolute certainty. This meant renouncing the vast majority of what entered his mind to say, knowing it as merely picked up from others.
We can almost see this process at work as he speaks. It is what gives such power to his utterance. We watch him struggling moment by moment to be true to his own deepest understanding, and this oratorical power is surely one factor leading to his enormous and sudden following. To see him in interviews with fellow intellectuals is to witness the difference between mere competence and the memorable expression of transcendent conviction.
Another feature of his talks is how he continually sharpens his formulation. His public statements are rarely read or repeated from previous talks, but are attempts to express his ideas ever more clearly. We feel ourselves part of this process as he stops to reach from his immense vocabulary for the correct words, then states the truth as he has seen it (so far), expressed with a confidence we strongly recognise yet feel at the same time we have waited all our lives to hear.
One theme in Peterson’s account of reality is that of the narrative in which we necessarily live. This is so all-pervading and enveloping we are rarely aware of it, though we act from it all the time. This is true not only of our personal narrative but also of the social and civilizational narratives in which we also participate. In his university courses Peterson analyses and expounds the earliest narratives of humankind, showing how they encapsulate in symbolic form a deep wisdom painfully acquired over hundreds of thousands of years of human social evolution.
One of his major concerns is that we are losing touch with the specific narrative that is our birthright and the inheritance of the West. In his Biblical lectures he shows how this ancient story, even up until quite recently, has kept alive concepts without which the West cannot survive.
Underlying most ancient narratives is what could be called the ‘Foundation’. This comes close to what our culture has called ‘God’, but which Peterson often calls ‘Being’. In an extraordinary statement of Easter 2018, like a prophet of old, he enumerated the axioms constituting the foundation of our civilization:
There are holy things that cannot be touched except at mortal risk. These things that cannot be touched are the very foundation of the community… The community must be arranged around what is untouchable and unshakeable… Something must be axiomatic, or everything shakes and falls. The axiomatic cannot be expressed fully in words. The axiomatic, untouchable and unshakeable, is instead what makes communication possible.
This is the elusive source and origin of all. It emerges and shows itself in two ways; first as the Logos and second as the divinity at the core of each human being.
Peterson understands Logos as the principle of spoken and creative truth. It is the Word that speaks forth the universe. It manifests in the human being as consciousness with the power to convert chaos into order and also to revitalise any system that has degenerated into tyranny, whether that tyranny is societal or exists within the individual’s own psychology. Such endeavours reflect the otherwise untouchable and ineffable Foundation.
Parallel with the Logos is the divine core of the individual. Peterson said in one interview:
The capacity that human beings have for creative consciousness is best regarded as divine and is part of the divine essence of Being, and… we have a primary moral obligation to manifest that consciousness in the best of all possible manners.
Peterson likes to point out that the understanding of the individual in English law as being sacred, being considered, for example, innocent until proven guilty, is a reflection of the Old Testament concept that man is made in the image of God.
This principle has enabled Western civilization to advance and flourish to an extraordinary degree. Thus in his lecture on Abraham he says:
Our entire legal system, our society, our mutual expectations, all of that, are conditioned to the final degree by our presupposition that each of us has an intrinsic value that transcends the local conditions of our being.
These three factors, the untouchable Foundation, otherwise known as the Goodness of Being, the Logos which expresses that Goodness, and the very same divinity dwelling at the core of the human soul, work together to justify a key Peterson concept, namely:
‘The idea of the divine individual – that is the West.’ (Prager film, ‘No Safe Spaces’).
The Search for Meaning
The present crisis of the West can be seen as a crisis of meaning, or rather of its lack. This lack ultimately arises from our culture’s abandonment of its foundational narrative. This, together with a denial of the existence of a transcendental principle and of the axioms which would follow from the existence of such a principle, has led to our impoverished overall narrative and a corresponding diminution of aim and meaning. For meaning is found in fulfilling an aim. This is simple enough, almost self-evident, but the importance of aim is no longer assumed or appreciated. It is neglected and no longer fostered in our parenting and educational systems. This leads to such personal and social disorders as aimlessness, nihilism, resentment, increasing addictive behaviour and, in the absence of constructive intent, an increase of destructive impulses.
By contrast, Peterson admonishes his followers to aim for the highest they can conceive, with careful consideration for how this affects those around them, both in the present and the future. He claims that meaning is the antidote to life’s inevitable suffering, saying in an interview:
Life is suffering. That’s true. There’s malevolence; that’s true. Meaning is the antidote to that. Yes. And it’s not some kind of fragile epiphenomena. It’s the deepest thing. And people need to know that. It’s so important to know that… People say, meaning isn’t real. No. That’s wrong. It’s actually the most real thing. It might even be more real than suffering and evil. (Dave Rubin interview)
In a Toronto University talk he offered a seven line summary of his teaching on meaning:
Being is suffering, tainted by malevolence.
So what is the meaning?
There is pain to alleviate.
There is chaos to confront.
There is order to establish and revivify
And there is evil to constrain, not least in our own hearts,
And that’s meaning enough for everyone.
In his Biblical lecture about Noah he expounded in more detail how the adoption of an aim brings our life, both inner and outer, under an organising principle:
You’re an aiming creature. You look at a point and you move towards it. It’s built right into you. And so you have an aim. Well, let’s say your aim is the highest possible aim. Well, then, that sets up the world around you. It organizes all of your perceptions. It organizes what you see and you don’t see. It organizes your emotions and your motivations. So you organize yourself around that aim. And then what happens is the day manifests itself as a set of challenges and problems. And if you solve them properly, then you stay on the pathway towards that aim.
The Hero’s Quest
Peterson stresses not only that our aim should be the highest relevant to our personal circumstances but that the burden we hence pick up should be the heaviest we are able to bear. Here is a potent source of meaning in an individual’s life, and this is indeed a job for a hero. It certainly explains the influence Peterson exerts over previously despondent young men. He has the effrontery to suggest they begin their Hero’s Quest by cleaning their room, though maybe they should first make sure they’re standing straight with their shoulders back. I’m not sure which comes first:
You have to look around you within your direct sphere of influence, and you fix the things that announce themselves to be in direct need of repair. And those are often small things. They can start with things as simple as: your room. Put it in order. It’s not important that you put your room in order necessarily, what is important is that you learn to distinguish between chaos and order, and that you learn to be able to act in a manner that produces order… It’s… a divine act.
Peterson points to another supernatural aspect to this quest, saying that whatever presents itself to be done at any moment, however seemingly mundane, is a divinely ordained step in a journey of transformation. Following Jung, Peterson even suggests, in a lecture called ‘The New Media’, that this inner guidance comes from a larger Self calling to us from our future, that ‘the mechanism’ directing your present attention is ‘your future self attempting to manifest itself in the present world’. In a TED talk he gave what is essentially the same idea a slightly different take, saying of ‘the things that manifest themselves to you, that shine forth as interesting’:
Attention is transformational. He went on to say:
As you pursue the thing that guides your interest, more and more information is revealed. Then by absorbing that information, which is learning, essentially, you build yourself into a different person – a stronger and more informed person, and a more intact person, a person with more integrity and with more strength and with more direction… So as you approach your specific goal… the learning that you do along the way transforms you. And it transforms the nature of your goal.
Coda: On Christianity
Interviewers often try to pin Peterson down on his belief in God and whether he himself is a Christian. Rightly in my view he says it depends what you mean by God or even by ‘belief’.
He claims that his Biblical lectures offer a psychological rather than theological interpretation of Judeo-Christian teachings, yet his frequent reference to the Sermon on the Mount and other scriptural passages, and his admonitions to the imitation of Christ, suggest he is more than just a student of comparative religion.
Again, his reluctance to come down on the side of one specific religion or branch of Christianity serves him well in dealing with a society which for several generations has cultivated atheism and religious scepticism. On the other hand the number of religious conversions brought about by his work is high and rising.
Though coy about his personal faith, he has spoken of a mystical experience he had after finishing a sculpture expressing the nature of music (a construction depicted on the cover of his first book and used as a trademark for his videos). He relates: “It was as if the heavens opened up… as if something living, awe-inspiring descended on me and changed me.” And, “The only real way I can think about that experience was that it was a revelation… an experience of God.”
He has also described a dream of heaven in which he conversed with God.
This openness to religious possibilities is refreshing. It heralds a breakout from the present nihilistic logjam blocking the forward flow of the human spirit. It is suggestive of revolutionary new cultural departures.
Peterson has been called ‘a one-man renaissance’. I share the hopes of many that his unprecedented advent on our cultural scene will assist in halting the drift towards ideological dictatorship. I hope also that it will prompt the beginning of a renewal of the soul and of the world it speaks into existence. History and current observation show that in the absence of such a renewal both soul and world must inevitably grow ever more shallow, aimless, unlovely, and dull. The endpoint of that progression, Peterson warns, is the condition the poets call hell.