Thursday, January 3, 2019

Jordan Peterson and Tough Guy Humanism

Jordan Peterson continues to be a big subject of discussion in my house, where some think he has much to teach us and others think he is just the patriarchy all over again. This keeps me reading about him, and if nothing else his constant engagement with the oldest texts and the biggest themes provides an opportunity to revisit philosophical and religious fundamentals.

Peterson is fascinated with religion and teaches a whole course on the Bible, but he doesn't seem to have much faith. If Peterson believes in a God, it must be an abstract sort of spirit who set the universe in motion but otherwise has better things to do than worry about us. For all practical purposes, we are on our own. Micah Meadowcroft, a religious traditionalist, sums up Peterson's theology like this:
There is no grace, and Jesus is just an "exemplar of human strength."

No one has come to save you; you will have to save yourself.
Freedom is everything; the one thing we have, or at any rate the one meaningful thing, is the freedom to choose.
Peterson's world is suspended between order and chaos and our choices and responsibility allow us to navigate that tension, to walk the narrow way between them in our fullest participation in Being.
I would call Peterson a humanist, in the basic sense that he thinks "man is the measure of all things." Like many humanists, Peterson thinks that the lack of a God who regularly intervenes in our lives is an opportunity. Since it is ultimately up to us, our choices have a deeper meaning than they would if God were in charge; I suppose that is the fundamental teaching of Existentialism. Freedom can be bleak, but it is not meaningless. You are on your own, but your very aloneness is the secret to your significance.

As with everything else about Peterson's teaching, I connect this to his role as a therapist. The two thinkers I think he most resembles are M. Scott Peck and Judith Viorst, two other therapists with a philosophical bent. All three focus on you – the patient, the person, the hero of your own quest – and your confrontation with a world that feels cold, dark, and hostile. Well, they all say, maybe it is cold and dark, but that means any spark you can strike shines all the brighter. Maybe it is hostile, so sharpen your weapons and stand up strong to fight it. The emptier the void around you, the more freedom you have to act and the more important your actions; the greater the obstacles you face, the more glorious your victories.

As Meadowcroft says, Peterson's particular take on our situation has to do with order and chaos. It is sometimes hard to parse out exactly what he means by these words, but it seems related to a belief in work. What you should be doing, says Peterson, is working hard to make your world better. Symbols of this effort include proper posture, a clean room (common retort in my house: "go clean your room!"), a regular schedule, financial independence, and a sense of direction based on goals you are working toward. More deeply this could include seeking love and building a lifelong marriage, raising children, a successful career, working as an activist on causes that matter to you. If you think about Peterson's patients, who seem to include lots of young men doing nothing and going nowhere, I think you can see where this is coming from. On the one hand is an adult life of action and responsibility, on the other a listless drift through depression and addiction to drugs, porn, or video games. It also exactly replicates the main teaching of Peck in The Road Less Traveled, where he says among other things that love is work, that is, you love someone to the extent that you are actively working to make that person's life better. Peterson's teaching also has the vaguely political implication that life is more meaningful when it is built around rules and clearly defined roles, which provide some of the clarity that keeps everything from being a sad muddle.

This all resonates with me. I am an agnostic about the sort of God who wrote the equations for the universe, or who just is the equations of the universe, but I have never had any sense of a supernatural presence so I agree that in practical terms we are alone. With respect to God, that is; the thing that bothers me most about all three therapists I have mentioned is that they focus so much on the lone person. I personally think that we are social beings as much as anything else, and that a good life has to involve deep and lasting relationships with others. Peterson's models of the lone hero is I think a flawed one, because it implies we could win these cosmic battles on our own. He seems to think that there is us, and then outside us somewhere are society and other people, but I think other people are part of our inmost existence, and that a good life in one in which we are fundamentally not alone.


Michael said...

"There is no grace, and Jesus is just an 'exemplar of human strength.' No one has come to save you; you will have to save yourself."

This is, obviously, a non-traditional (heterodox) view of Jesus. For Christians, Jesus us the Divine/Human - not merely an exemplar of human ability.

Self-salvation is the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid (grace).

JustPeachy said...

I dunno. I too am kind of fascinated by Peterson and his wild popularity. But I do recall him talking about the need to go out and build relationships, and to mend (where possible) fences with family, if that's lacking in your life. So it's not like he leaves that out. It's just not his main focus. I think it makes sense. We *are* social animals, but if you're an unreliable and boring person (and if your life revolves around pot, porn, and video games, you are both of those things), then it's hard to have any relationships. Sometimes personal change has to come first, and relationships follow.

I find his religious views fascinating because I *don't* happen to subscribe to them. I appreciate that he doesn't just write off Christianity (or religion more broadly). He seems to be still grappling with religion and religious ideas-- and I think an honest engagement with what you don't understand is probably better than a settled but unexamined belief. I think he's searching, and I want to see how that search ends.

G. Verloren said...


Sounds like this philosophy is mostly aimed at trying to combat the problem of young, disaffected young men full of too much testosterone who need some guiding purpose to keep them out of jail / the army / terrorist and extremist groups.

In that regard, I think I can understand where those in your house who view it as patriarchal are coming from. It's very much kin to the sort of message that a young Winston Churchill surely had hammered into him from his earliest days, urging him to seek excellence and glory and fame and success and all the rest, in the name of bringing order to a chaotic universe, and finding intrinsic value in work rather than seeing it as unfortunately necessary toil.

"Forget faith, forget religion, just get out there are be an active worker bee, and you'll be happy and all your dreams will come true! All that matters is shaping the world around you, and bending it to your will! Spend your whole life struggling to build a mighty castle in the sand! Nevermind the tide! The tide only troubles failures and layabouts! If you work hard enough, your works will weather it!"

It's the sort of mentality which is based almost entirely on defiance of the universe, rather than acceptance of it. Hence, I almost reflexively disagree. I firmly believe that a healthy individual needs to balance both views. Life cannot always be struggle, any more than it can be apathy and indifference. It's just as insane to try to be John Galt as it is to try to be The Buddha.

So while I agree with certain aspects of the argument presented here, I also disagree with others.

G. Verloren said...


I do think that the only meaning we will ever find will be the meanining we make for ourselves. But I also posit that meaning is largely overrated, and we frequently obsess over it to a destructive and unhealthy degree, and should instead work to accept that life can be rich and good even without real meaning or purpose.

I also think that Order and Chaos are both flawed extremes to push toward, with each possessing great virtues but also great evils. Too much order leads to rigid, draconian, mechanical, stifled existences. Too much chaos leads to anarchy and insanity. It is only by striking a balance between the two that we can enjoy the benefits of each, and avoid the pitfalls of both.

I also don't agree with the emphasis on Freedom to such an absolute degree. We shouldn't always desire to be utterly free - we should recognize that the individual does not exist in a vacuum, and that the very nature of sharing a universe with others necessitates that many potential freedoms remain unrealized.

"There’s a price for everything. There’s nothing that does not have its cost. Joy and inspiration and mere pleasure have a market value precisely computed in terms of their opposites. The cost of youth is age, the cost of age is death. You want love? The cost of love is independence. You want to be independent, do you? Then pay the price, and know what it is to feel alone. Your mother paid for you with pain. Nothing nothing in this living world is free. The free air costs you the life consuming effort of breath. Freedom itself is priced at the rate of the citizenship it earns and holds." ~Orson Welles Commentaries — 7/28/46

Freedom itself is not intrinsically good or useful - and to be a healthy, sane individual, one must be able to accept compromising potential freedoms in order to achieve other ends.

If you live in a society, you inevitably have to follow society's rules. You can't just run a red light in an intersection because you want to exercise your freedom to drive however you please. You can't just not pay your taxes, or simply refuse to pay for goods and services, or solve every interpersonal dispute with gunfire. Technically you do have those freedom, but we all expect people to not exercise them, and if they do there are certain consequences and the rest of us take certain actions against them.

So while advocating for Freedom certainly can be useful, and has great value - in as much as giving people in general more options and opportunities in living their lives is almost alwasy preferable to fewer - we still should be very careful not to treat it as some kind of be-all and end-all of life, as Peterson seems to do.

David said...

Peterson, in the way you're presenting him here, shows a curious feature that, in my experience, he shares with many other existentialists. He propounds the basic existentialist faith--we are forced to live as if there is no God, and thus we must choose our own morality and make our own meaning. He then proceeds to chart a more or less elaborate and definite system of morality and meaning which he thinks his readers *should* follow. So far as I can tell, the major reason offered--always implicitly--for following the morality is to earn the esteem of a sort of hypothesized external audience (often consisting in practice of the existentialist philosopher in question). That is, if you don't do right, we (or they, or I, or "people") will think less of you.

If this method helps lost young men, so much the better. But is it not a little shallow, philosophically speaking?

Then again, I can't at the moment think of any deeper response. And it probably reflects the way most societies actually teach morality and meaning. Perhaps what a writer like Peterson does, in effect, is try to recreate the basic social process of ethical formation.

Anonymous said...

Lobster, meet cuttlefish.

Pretty much that's my take on Peterson, after rather too much reading of his stuff.

On first read through, it sounds quite convincing. On second read--I don't think Peterson has ever found a selective argument he wasn't willing to throw out, once anyone got his back up against a wall.