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How to read Jordan Peterson

How to read Jordan Peterson

In advance of a new book by Jordan Peterson – and, it seems, a new media storm – Nick Spencer looks at the world–famous author and clinical psychologist and asks how we should read Jordan Peterson. 26/02/2021

 1.

It is sometimes said that people who pick up Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species expecting to encounter the book that profoundly shook the foundations of Judaeo–Christian civilisation, are disappointed to find themselves reading about pigeons. Those who approach Jordan Peterson’s books via his own noisy reputation may be excused for experiencing something similar.

This is not to claim that 12 Rules for Life, his international best–seller, will inevitably disappoint or that it has shaken (or shored up) the foundations of anything as monumental as Judaeo–Christian civilisation (or, indeed, that The Origin of Species did). It is, rather, to observe that the book was extremely popular – as no doubt will be its follow up, Beyond Order, which is published this week; that the debate around Peterson is bitterly controversial; and that most people will approach the new book via this penumbra of ferocious praise and censure.

Peterson is “a fragile authority who spends his time dishing it out but just can’t take it,” according to Nesrine Malik in the Guardian. 12 Rules is “so intellectually low–cal that it would be hilarious were it not basically a to–do list for a generation of tiki torch–wielding neo–Klansmen,” wrote Richard Poplak in the Johannesburg Review of Books. Reading him is “like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong”, according to the writer Hari Kunzru. Showing a clip of his lectures to students is comparable to “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler”, according to one Canadian professor. And so on, and so forth.

But, his many critics reply, you don’t do anyone a service by refusing to call out a bad book, or a bad author, or bad ideas. Peterson is not shy of criticising others, sometimes severely, and he can react with bitterness every bit as undiluted as his critics. “You sanctimonious prick,” he responded to Pankaj Mishra, after a less than flattering review in The New York Review of Books that was knowingly titled ‘Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism’. You are “an arrogant, racist son of a bitch…if you were in my room at the moment I’d slap you happily.”

In any case, it’s hardly as if the response to him had been universally hostile; quite the contrary. Published in early 2018, 12 Rules has been translated in over fifty languages, sold over 5 million copies, and enabled a world tour of numerous sold–out stadia. It earned many positive and some glowing reviews, and touched an audience (disproportionally of young men) who do not normally enthuse about self–help books, many of whom aggressively lionise their hero as “a kind of secular prophet … in an era of lobotomised conformism”, to quote Melanie Phillips. You need to be able take the rough with the smooth. If you can’t take criticism, don’t give it.

It will be painfully clear from all this that Jordan Peterson has become the living incarnation of the culture wars: masculinity, free speech, gender, academic freedom, student activism, identity politics, religion, postmodernism, neo–Marxism, alt–right all wrapped up in one publishing (and YouTube) phenomenon. And it’s precisely the fog of culture war that makes it hard to read him fairly. If you like his work (especially if you are male) then it’s probably because you are among “Jordan’s platoon… sent to a training camp of bed tidying, [and] emerging back into society armed with the certainty that affirmative action is racist and that women only exist to suckle their young.” If you dislike him (especially if you are female) then it is probably because you are soft–thinking, rights–obsessed, man–hating, woke, cultural Marxist.

Some loudly resist the either/or. “Why the hell should I be obliged to decide, as seemingly every writer who encounters his work thinks they are, whether Canada’s most controversial professor is A Good Thing or A Bad Thing?” thundered Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian before showing that he wasn’t obliged to decide by not deciding. Nevertheless, most people, it seems, have. (I was struck by the fact that two of the people who first alerted me to Peterson, a man and a woman in their 20s, voiced strong opinions on him only subsequently to admit that neither had read his book.) This essay explores the writer and his ideas via his first two books (a review of the third will be forthcoming). There is a chance it will enable you to decide definitively whether Jordan Peterson is “A Good Thing or A Bad Thing.” But then again, I hope it won’t.

2.

Peterson began his academic life studying political science, before moving to psychology, and taking a doctorate on the psychological markers for the predisposition to alcoholism. He subsequently worked at Harvard and at the University of Toronto, where he co–authored around a hundred academic papers, on topics ranging from psychopharmacology to personality traits. His unusual breadth of interest was evident in his first, and before 12 Rules only, book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. In 500 pages of dense prose, Peterson argued that the great myths and religious stories of the past were primarily moral rather than descriptive, intending to show not what the world was but how humans should live in it. The book combined neuroscience, philosophy, literature and religious studies, and drew out two “constituent elements of the world” – order and chaos – that had, he argued, been “symbolically” depicted as masculine and feminine principles. The same dichotomy runs through 12 Rules and although I am in no position to adjudicate on how myth and literature have “imaginatively” correlated the masculine with order and the feminine with chaos, the parallel does leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth, giving rise to the sense that the feminine is somehow to be overcome or conquered (and giving rise to much criticism in the process; see Madeleine Davies’ fine essay The Strange Theology of Jordan Peterson for more on this).

The reaction to Maps of Meaning was limited but broadly positive, at least until 12 Rules was published and a few critics delved into the back catalogue to bury rather than praise it. In the intervening time, Peterson discovered the website Quora, which invites contributors to answer questions, which are then viewed, commented and ‘upvoted’ according to their popularity. He made a few contributions, one of which – a list of rules in response to the question “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” – did very well. He was surprised by his success although the experience confirmed his longstanding conviction that by losing the traditions of meaning that had given shape to the Western mind, people were “increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness.” (xxxii)

As he was writing for Quora, he got embroiled in an angry dispute concerning the Canadian government’s bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, which added gender identity and expression to the list of protected characteristics. Peterson claimed that this would legally compel the preferred use of pronouns for transgender people, thereby infringing others’ freedom of expression. He became the ‘Professor against political correctness.’

All of this – Peterson’s scientific training, his interest in myth and literature, his fascination with the Bible, his concern for meaning and respect for tradition, his success on Quora, his interest in Order and Chaos, his antagonism to the liberal consensus, his willingness to take an unpopular stand – was on show in his breakthrough book 12 Rules for Life but it can nonetheless be distilled into two simple ideas: suffering and the individual.

Life is suffering, Peterson repeatedly reminds his readers. “Pain and suffering define the world. Of that, there can be no doubt.” (172) “Suffering is real… that became the cornerstone of my belief.” (197) It is the message of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, Adam cursed to till stubborn earth, Eve to pain in childbearing. It is the fact of human prehistory. “Hunter gatherers…are much more murderous than their urban, industrialised counterparts” (121). It is the gruesome truth of humanity’s murderous 20th century. It is the reality of our daily news and our daily lives, however much we enjoy comparative comfort and peace in our time. “Life is suffering. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth”. (161)

Facing that suffering demands a great deal but, if we understand ourselves rightly, humans are capable of achieving a great deal. Specifically, if we understand ourselves as individuals, moral agents standing tall, holding our shoulders back, taking responsibility for our lives, refusing the easy option of group think (though he does at one point acknowledge the crowd is “typically right” (242)), avoiding the pitfalls of hedonism and nihilism – if we do that, we can face the reality of suffering and make our lives navigable and our world better. It is “through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path” (xxxiii) that we can find the answer.

This sounds more or less like standard fare for the self–help genre. After all, there are only so many ways you can help yourself. What makes Peterson and 12 Rules unusual, and also hard to pin down, are two elements that are, again, distinct but linked. The first is his wide range of styles. Some of 12 Rules is tinged with winning whimsy and irony, most obviously several of his rules/ chapter headings (“Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”, “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”) but also moments within the text (“You truly know you are the Son of God when your dicta apply even to crustaceans” (9)).

At other times, his prose slips into weirdly grandiloquent mysticism. In the introduction we are told “the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being.” (xxxv) “What shall I do with my wife?” he asks rhetorically in the book’s coda. “Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God, so that she may give birth to the world–renowned hero.” (360)

There are moments at which his writing might have slipped from the pages of a scientific journal, footnotes directing readers to journal articles on “Serotonin and aggress: insights gained from a lobster model system and speculations on the role of amine neurons in a complex behaviour”, or “Male coercion and the costs of promiscuous mating for female chimpanzees.” There are places where he is pure Karl Jung (“we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls” (195)) There are touches of Deepak Chopra – “you have a spark of divine in you (60)…let your light shine, so to speak, on the heavenly hill, and pursue your rightful destiny” (28) – as well as touches of the evangelical sermon: “every person is deeply flawed. Everyone falls short of the glory of God.” (62) There are a few moments, particularly in Rule 11, when he writes like a Victorian family manual – “a man should look after a woman and children… but a woman should not look after a man… he must not be dependent” (330), or, worse, a Games Master’s report from a Victorian public school – “Men have to toughen up. Men demand it, and women want it.” (331) (Do they? Really?). And then, of course, there are stretches of recognisable self–help material. “Dare to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself.” (90) “You must walk through your psychological house with [your internal critic] and listen judiciously to what it says.” None of this makes it hard to follow – Peterson generally writes very clearly – but it does make it hard to judge. Are we supposed to be evaluating his writing as religious exhortation, secular self–help or scientific reasoning?

This links to the second distinguishing element of his work: there is a wide range of styles throughout the book because there is a wide range of source material. Indeed, one of the appeals but also slight perplexities of 12 Rules is the sheer range of intellectual disciplines that Peterson brings to his argument. He talks about evolutionary history on one page and the Taoist symbol of chaos and order on the next (11–12); about the yoni and lingam of Hinduism in one paragraph and the hemispheric structure of the cortex in the next (42). He uses evolutionary psychology to show how “complex defensive and aggressive behaviours [are] built into [the] nervous system” (5), and Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty to illustrate the “palpable sense of the chaos lurking under everything familiar.” (43) He draws on neurochemistry to talk about the ubiquity of hierarchy and Alexander Solzhenitsyn to illuminate the ubiquity of sin. (47)

The success or otherwise of this will be a matter of taste. Some will see it as intellectual versatility, others as showmanship; commendable broadmindedness or mere dilettantism. I am largely agnostic on this particular question although, again, it does make Peterson’s work a bit harder to evaluate: it is never quite clear whether the foundation of his advice is psychological, or evolutionary, or humanistic, or religious. On what basis am I supposed to read, evaluate and judge his rules?

Perhaps the answer is all of the above. After all, good advice will be good for a variety of reasons. “Beware of single–cause interpretations – and beware the people who purvey them,” he rightly remarks in Rule 11. If a rule helps humans flourish, it’ll do so for a variety of reasons. We are, after all, evolved, and cognitive, and embodied, and social, and narrative beings.

And, of course, spiritual, or – more provocatively – religious beings. For one of the most striking things about Peterson’s workis quite how much religion there is in it. 12 Rules is a self–help book, published by a Canadian professor of psychology, which has sold millions of copies in the apparently secular west, that takes Christianity very seriously. What on earth is going on?

3.

Peterson explained, in Maps of Meaning, that he was raised “under the protective auspices” of the church. In reality, his father was agnostic, his mother culturally Christian, and neither was very interested in discussing religion. He was forced to attend confirmation classes, where he did not like his classmates, did not like the atmosphere, and could not swallow what was taught. Looking for an excuse to leave, when his minister was unable to give a satisfactory answer about how to reconcile Genesis and modern science, Peterson was gone. Religion, he was convinced, was for the “ignorant, weak and superstitious”.

Despite being the default position for many among the West’s educated elite, this view did not satisfy him (and if his popularity is any indication, he may not be not alone in this). The alternatives, he wrote in 12 Rules, proved “equally insubstantial”. (196) God, however indescribable, indiscernible and incredible he may have been, left a gap which drew the adult Peterson back to a more subtle and sophisticated reading of the texts he gleefully abandoned as a teenager.

Whether that amounted to a return to Christian belief is unclear (certainly to me but also, I sense, to Peterson himself). According to one interview with Tim Lott in the Observer, Peterson “is a devout Christian”, although he was far more agnostic about basic Christian beliefs, like the resurrection, in the YouTube interview with Lott, as he was in discussion on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable. In a sense, however, whether he ‘literally’ or ‘factually’ believes in such things misses the point altogether. Taking the cue from his interpretation of religious texts in Maps of Meaning, the question (for him) is not so much ‘Are they true?’ as ‘Can they help you live well?’ to which his answer is a forthright yes. “Careful, respectful study [of the Bible] can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.” (104)

As this commendation suggests, Peterson writes respectfully, intelligently and creatively about the Bible, in particular some of the better known stories from the Old Testament. He discusses the significance of God speaking order into being in Genesis 1 (268), and of how “Being brought into existence through true speech is Good” (56). He writes of how, in the Adam and Eve story, “the worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil,” (47) and how this manifests and multiplies in the conscious revenge of Cain and the spiral of violence of Lamech. (Gen. 4.22) He writes sympathetically of the idea of Original Sin (55), and how there is a “sense of existential guilt that pervades human experience.” Indeed, his sense of human fallibility and capacity for evil is powerful enough to make St Augustine blush: “Each human being has an immense capacity for evil.” (197) “It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default.” (125)

He writes winsomely on faith, that it is not a childish belief in magic but “the realisation that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.” (107) He is clear that we should pursue meaning rather than happiness, and equally clear that doing so demands sacrifice, a theme as central to the biblical narrative as any. He even defends religious dogma, recognising its importance in its own right but also how there is a dynamic set up within Christianity in which “the dogmas of the Church was undermined by the spirit of the truth strongly developed by the Church itself.” (192)

Peterson’s recognition that the Bible’s story – or at least bits of it – are written as moral or existential truths rather than proto–scientific ones helps us get out of the hopeless cul–de–sac that so many conversations about Genesis or Exodus end up in. His recognition, with the help of Dostoevsky, that the human condition is irreducibly religious will irritate some but is certainly defensible in the terms he is using the word. And his singular focus on the reality and enormity of suffering and evil excuses him from any charge of naivety or wishful thinking.

It is small wonder, then, that so many Christians have seized on and celebrated his work. And not only Christians. “I am a lifelong atheist,” Lott wrote in his interview with Peterson, but “for the first time [after reading 12 Rules] the Bible started to make symbolic sense to me.” I would wager a similar reaction among many of those who read Jordan Peterson thinking the Bible was only for the ignorant, weak and superstitious. And yet, in spite of all this, there is, I think, a serious problem with Peterson’s reading of Bible and Christianity, which goes right to the heart of what (I think) is a serious problem with his overall argument.

4.

A few critics have pointed out that Peterson’s engagement with the Bible is selective. This is a perfectly fair observation although one that, on the surface of it, is less serious than is sometimes claimed. After all, short of writing a systematic theology, most use of the Bible is selective. The real question is what are the criteria for selection.

As far as I can see, for Peterson it is The Way The World Is, as understood through evolutionary theory, psychology, neuroscience, and the like. As his opening discourse on lobsters drives home, competition and hierarchy, dominance and subservience, victory and defeat are woven into the very fabric of existence and have been for ever. “Dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years.” (14) This is the world in which we live, The World As It Is and not as we would like it to be. It is the world that shaped the human brain and behaviour, and the one that thereby has given form to the stories we tell ourselves. Failing to recognise this, is little more than self–deception.

It is also, therefore, the world that generated the biblical stories that Peterson so respectfully explores. Thus, tellingly, in his commendation of the Bible quoted above, the preceding sentence runs: “The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time.” (104) At face value, this is demonstrably true. The Bible is made by humans and humans are made by evolution. But in this formulation, it effectively denies the idea that the Bible is in any way revelation, in the sense of revealing to us something fundamentally different to or Other than ourselves. The world is as it is, marked by suffering, competition and hierarchy. Ancient texts like the Bible are an accumulation of profound human wisdom drawn from generations of experience and reflection on this truth. And therefore, if we want to navigate this particular world successfully, we should pay respectful heed to the Bible.

It’s an appealing approach, far more so than the familiar patronising dismissal of the Bible as boring, irrelevant or infantile, and it is clearly capable of generating some insightful and sophisticated readings of the text. But it does ultimately mean that the criteria for interpreting the text is The World As It Is, and presumably ever shall be.

By contrast, the fundamental Christian claim is that The World As It Is, is not the world as it should be, and not, ultimately, as the world as it could or will be. Things can be different. Indeed, the claim is somewhat stronger than that. It is that things have been made different by the death and resurrection of Christ, and it is this profoundly strange, troubling and humiliating act of self–sacrifice that should be the template for a different future, not only the criterion for our inevitably selective reading of scripture but, far more importantly, for our subsequent approach of how we should live. The self–sacrifice of Christ is the first step to changing the world, rather than coping with it.

The challenge this presents to Peterson’s approach is clear to me in what I think are the two most telling sentences in the book, highlighted below in italics. They come in a discussion, in Rule 3, about the temptation of people to become friends with those who aren’t good for them simply because they want to rescue them.

“But Christ himself, you might object, befriended tax–collectors and prostitutes. How dare I cast aspersions on the motives of those who are trying to help. But Christ was the archetypal perfect man. And you’re you. How do you know that your attempts to pull someone up won’t instead bring them – or you – further down?” (78)

Peterson is not talking nonsense here. If you want to rescue those in the existential mud, you will get dirty, and will need considerable strength not simply to get sucked in yourself. But his instant detachment of “you” – the ordinary, broken fallible person of history – and Christ – “the archetypal perfect man” – is completely anathema to the spirit of Christianity.

Jesus’ first followers would no doubt have agreed that Jesus was (in some sense) perfect and that they (in most senses) weren’t. But that was neither here nor there when it came to how they should live. They did not refuse to pull others up for fear that those others might bring them down. You cannot read the New Testament without seeing, time and again, how the first followers of Christ saw it as their calling and their duty to become like him in everything they did, a calling so impossible that it could never be achieved and only even attempted with the help of his own spirit. “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” Paul wrote to the Philippians (3.10–11) “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God,” he exhorted the Colossians (3.2) “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” he said to the Corinthians (11.1)

Nor was this a Pauline quirk, an obsession that this particular apostle brought to his churches. ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 16.24. Or, as 1 John 3.16 puts it, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Not without reason is one of the bestsellers of Christian history called The Imitation of Christ.

The call to imitate Christ in his self–giving, to love because we have first been loved, is, then, unavoidable. But Peterson does his best to avoid it because the ethic of Christ is profoundly other to The Way The World Is, and wholly alien to his own ethic of the heroic individual standing bravely against the abyss of suffering. Accordingly, Peterson’s attitude to self–sacrifice is lukewarm, to put it mildly. “Those who are only or merely compassionate and self–sacrificing…cannot call forth the genuinely righteous and appropriately self–protective anger necessary to defend themselves”, he says in Rule 1, going on to explain that those “who refuse to muster appropriately self–protective territorial responses are laid open to exploitation”, and justifying it by claiming that “the willingness of the individual to stand up for him– or herself protects everyone from the corruption of society.” (23–24)

Perhaps so, but the ethic of compassion and risky self–sacrifice and refusing simply to protect my territory describes precisely the ethic that Christ taught, lived and called his followers to. By Paul’s acute analysis, it is weakness rather than strength that is ultimately redemptive, however much strength might enable us to live well now. It is kenosis – self–emptying – rather than self–defence that effects our healing. Christianity does not claim that society will be redeemed by individuals willing to stand up for themselves. Nor does it imagine, really, that we are individuals all. Rather we are persons, made by love, redeemed by love, and only satisfied by love – love limned only in the act of self–giving.

Peterson might respond to this by saying you can’t give yourself away if you don’t possess yourself, and there is certainly something in this. You can’t give away what you don’t have, and all too often, we humans prefer to deceive ourselves by preaching high morals and occupying moral high ground rather than going through the painful process of attending to our own relationships. But it is also a serious mistake to imagine you need to be in full possession of yourself in order to give yourself away. Indeed, some of the most poignant acts of self–giving are from those who are broken and poor themselves, existential equivalents of the widow in Luke 21 who gave everything out of her poverty.

5.

On 18 March 1943, the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote to the wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, thanking him for his mention of his collection of essays Scholasticism and Politics in the latter’s best–selling Christianity and Social Order, and remarking, in passing, that he was “especially happy that you indicate your agreement on the discussion between Personality and Individuality”.

That distinction was essential to Maritain’s work, would be influential in Temple’s, and has played an important role in (some) post–war theology. For Maritain, humans (like other things) could be “individuals”. The word “individuality” was based on the “principle of individuation…by which that which is here will differ from what is there”, and could therefore be used legitimately of “man and beast, plant, microbe, and atom.”

Humans, however, were also “persons”, constituted not by their distinctness from one other, but by their relationship with each other and with God. Whereas beasts, plants and microbes could be individuals, only beings with the cognitive and social capacity of humans could be persons. (Whether we might now also extend that to higher primates is a fascinating question for another time). It is, I think, a valuable corrective to the vision of the healthy, even heroic, individual that underlies so much of Peterson’s thought. We should seek to be persons, forged through relationships that demand self–sacrifice and love, rather than individuals forged through confident and courageous self–control.

This is not, I should make clear, to claim that Peterson’s approach is simply wrong. It is surely better to be a self–controlled, responsible, hard–working, meaning–seeking person than the many alternatives available to us today. Nor is it to claim that the ‘personal’ and ‘kenotic’ approach I have outlined above, is wholly alien to Peterson’s ideas. He does, after all, put a significant stress on the need for sacrifice. He recognises the impossibility of simply lifting ourselves up by our moral bootstraps: “I cannot merely order myself to action… I cannot merely make myself over in the image constructed by my intellect” (193) And he acknowledges that it is through others, and in particular through the exchange of truthful speech, that we become ourselves: “Persons organise their brains with conversation…It takes a village to organise a mind.” (25)

It is, however, to claim that the undertaking to be an individual will ultimately be unsatisfactory, unlikely to bring peace to ourselves, let alone the world. The “soul of the individual” hungers not for “the heroism of genuine Being”, but to be known and to be loved.


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Image: Gage Skidmore

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 26 February 2021

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