“It has been almost twelve years since I first grasped the essence of the paradox that lies at the bottom of human motivation for evil: People need their group identification, because that identification protects them, literally, from the terrible forces of the unknown. It is for this reason that every individual who is not decadent will strive to protect his territory, actual and psychological. But the tendency to protect means hatred of the other, and the inevitability of war—and we are now too technologically powerful to engage in war. To allow victory to the other, however—or even continued existence, on his terms—means subjugation, dissolution of protective structures, and exposure to that which is most feared. For me, this meant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’: belief systems regulate affect, but conflict between belief systems is inevitable.
Formulation and understanding of this terrible paradox devastated me. I had always been convinced that sufficient understanding of a problem—any problem—would lead to its resolution. Here I was, however, possessed of understanding that seemed not only sufficient but complete, caught nonetheless between the devil and the deep blue sea. I could not see how there could be any alternative to either having a belief system or to not having a belief system—and could see little but the disadvantage of both positions. This truly shook my faith.”
Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning
“To the extent that the Academe remembers its ancient origins, it must know that it was founded by the polis’s most determined and most influential opponent.”
Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”
The consequences of Neil Postman’s 1986 prophecy-turned-truth has caused more chaos than he could have imagined: “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” Although it was television that was the target of this particular criticism—fearing the growing ubiquity of images, the constant 2-second camera angle flashes of the television screen—what would he have thought of Twitter culture which, more dangerously, makes no pretense of trading with linguistic complexity for imagistic simplicity, and has, as a result, flattened our words and our ability to make sense of ourselves and the world? As the online culture selects for bombast over nuance, transactions of epigrams over meaningful discourse, this may just be the logical extreme Postman envisioned over three decades ago: “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.” We are amusing ourselves to death, which makes the appearance and pursuit of truth a threat to be neutralized.
Creators of our major communication tools are only now beginning to understand the pernicious consequences of these powerful platforms. Just as greed is a great instigator of the profit motive, compulsive entertainment propels social media engagement. This is true not only with the images and videos on our televisions and newsfeeds, but it has become true for the use of words. Channel 4 recently tried to capitalize on this, using a gotcha-journalism tactic to confer intentions to and put words in the mouth of a thinker not bound to our age. There is an anomaly in our midst, holding a mirror to us in the form of questions. Why, indeed, tell the truth, in our age of fake news?
The famous pragmatist philosopher Donald Davidson suggested we approach interpretive dilemmas by following what has been called the principle of charity. Back in 1974 he wrote, “We make maximum sense of the words and thoughts of others when we interpret in a way that optimizes agreement (this includes room, as we said, for explicable error, i.e. differences of opinion).” This in part means that we assume, at least at the outset, that every person seeks truth and not error, and this truth is concerned with good and not evil, making the world more beautiful rather than unpleasant. As a student of philosophy, this notion has been invaluable. As a member of society at large, this principle could not, at this moment, be more unavailable to everyday discourse.
Articles abound on the University of Toronto’s clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. Most attempt to construct a myth of the man, a compelling simplification that deems him either a savior or a demon. Others recently are more overt reflections on the failure of traditional media to report his views coherently or accurately. It is no accident that a person like Donald Trump became president in our time: a distiller of white nationalist cliches and an expert of misdirection, he enthralled, energized, and disheartened disparate segments of the American population simply by riding the wave of unparalleled media coverage during the election season. Compare Trump, arguably the embodiment of the dangers of our time de jure, to the general outrage over Peterson, a man coming to public consciousness first by releasing a somewhat philosophical series of YouTube videos reflecting on the imminent passing of bill C-16, then exploding in popularity after a 3 hour long interview on The Joe Rogan Experience back in 2016. Many who rely on traditional media, and from it receive most of the information with which they orient themselves toward the world, are repelled by Peterson, believing he is some kind of self-help guru, popular only because he is an alt-right prophet and a popularizer of dubious positive-thinking psychology. They have only heard of him because of his recent book, 12 Rules for Life, and believe they know all there is to know about his work simply because they read a few hit pieces that intentionally misquote, misinterpret, and generally misrepresent the views of a man that cannot be contained in a five-minute video clip or 500-word article.
I discovered Peterson through his initial interview with Rogan, and I was immediately captured by his application of Darwinian mechanisms of selection to religious myths and his fascinating take on everything from politics to philosophy, from psychology to religion. Now that perhaps the man has been properly situated in our cultural moment, defending him against common misconceptions, by others more interested in that narrative than myself, I would like to outline the basic concepts that ground Peterson’s thought, manifesting themselves in one way or another in any particular interview or lecture. Having more than 300 hours worth of lectures online makes Peterson’s work a mountain so large that the climb seems impossible, if not, at least, only for the fervent. Why listen to a man many have already labelled a charlatan, a self-help guru, or worse, an alt-right prophet? One reason is because most have not placed his ideas in the context of his own work. My goal is to introduce his ideas to the average person without requiring that they spend a few months of their life figuring out his basic premises. What judgment they may pass on him is no concern of mine; I simply aim to provide an introduction that allow these judgments to be informed.
Our Maps of Meaning: Myth, Science, and Hierarchy
“Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique—is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable—remarkable, miraculous.”
How we map meaning onto the world and ourselves is not entirely self-evident, Peterson says. He refers us, here, to a problem Daniel Dennett has written eloquently about: The Frame Problem in AI. In short, the problem is that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret everything. How do we go about perceiving any thing as a thing? What constraints constitute the structures by which perception itself becomes possible?
Peterson posits that one way we do this is our bodies: we do not primarily view the world as a field of objects, but rather as a forum for action. And what is primary in our conception of the world is not things or objects, but rather tools and obstacles. To know the meaning of a thing is to know how it relates to us and our aims: to know its functional significance. Consequently, the ways in which things affect us tend to be identified with the things themselves. Consider how nonsensical it is to feel fear about encountering a wolf in nature and not also identify the wolf as a thing to be feared. The function of the wolf, here, is predator. One reason for the framing problem is that AI (at this point) is something like a brain in a vat (though this is changing): it is disembodied. Precisely the ostensible strength of common conceptions of AI—its lack of physical limitation—is perhaps its undermining weakness at this point. Peterson wants to bring us back to the relevance of our physical circumstances as embodied persons and how our ideas and ideals evolved from this fact.
And, yet, the great feat of science is that it has stripped affect from objects. Since the Enlightenment, as it dispensed with religious doctrine as necessary for understanding the world of objects, western civilization amassed commodities and propelled innovation to previously unimaginable heights. This also has had some unintended consequences. Whereas the unconscious is about the nervous system that connects everything together, the conscious deals with separation and surface qualities of the external, and the scientism that pervades secular critiques of religion has resurfaced a perennial problem in a particularly intense way: when consciousness looks upon itself as an object of experience, it is susceptible to separating itself from the unconscious. When this occurs, we fall prey to lurking pathologies. Archetypes are conceived of by Jung as something like “patterns of instinctual behavior;” and repressing or suppressing these drives leads to rationalizing behavior that, on a deep level, are motivated by these unknown, instinctual forces. “There is no lunacy people under the domination of an archetype will not fall prey to.” This leads to one of Peterson’s central notions: “Ideas are embodied before they’re abstract, and abstracted as a drama first.” We cannot be directly led by the concept of good to a good world, however good the world is conceived, because we are motivated by more than merely rational forces.
The automatic attribution of meaning to things is codified in myth and narrative, which are instantiated in religion, integrating the functional significance of things in the world with cultural hierarchies. The structures of religious myth is the grammar of this world and these hierarchies: “A religion is a set of stories that comes very close to the grammar of stories. They aren’t stories you can dispense with.”
Carl Jung thought that myths did not aim to explain the world, as in how the rain falls or how the position of the stars relate to the earth, but rather operated within the affective identification of objects with the self: myths are projections of the “inner unconscious drama.” This, on the face of it, draws a line between the world of myth and the world of science.
The problem of the relation between myth and science is unbelievably complex, and, as indicated by Peterson when he recognized it, seemingly inescapable. Science and religion appear to be in conflict, and as science increases its knowledge, the mythic structures of religion must be necessarily left behind. Yet, “If the religious realm and the scientific realm exist, they have to be unifiable at some point.” For Peterson, this connection consists in the grounding of the archetypes of the collective unconscious in Darwinian evolution.
If it is true that the world is conceived best as primarily a forum for action, then what counts as our environment, in terms of Darwinian structures of adaptation, does not entirely, or even necessarily, associate adaptive traits to the objects of the world, but at least also to the tools that enable us to live and thrive in multiple environments among multiple groups of people. Our environment, in evolutionary terms, is not only natural, adhering to processes of cause and effect in nature, but also social, providing aims that achieve sustainable social relations with other people.
Grounding these social aims is a non-negotiable motivator of action: one very important thing that separates us from chimps is that the females of our species select for sexual reproduction and are not consistently obtained by the brute dominance of males. The selective mechanisms of females qualify what counts as good aims and bad aims, and therefore the beliefs and character traits that are functionally relevant or good and increase the probability of reproduction and functionally useless or bad that decrease the probability of reproduction. These aims and traits form into hierarchies of competence, which act as “a distributive computational device,” allowing females to “externalize the cognitive problem [of deciding male worth for reproduction] to the structure itself.” Dominance hierarchies, which are a more basic form of this, have been around for over 300 million years, dating back to at least lobsters. In other words, the competence hierarchy is established by the pressures of sexual selection to sort-out whose genes are “worthy” of reproduction by valuing some character traits over others, and rewarding the attainment of the good traits over the bad. This selective mechanism creates a multilayered instability to our environment. Indeed, because we are not just reactive beings, and operant conditioners merely make certain actions more or less probable, group size is correlated to brain size. We must stand within multiple frames to act in and understand the world. What makes a man evolutionarily fit, as a result, is not merely physical strength, but, as we will see presently, moral strength.
The competence hierarchy is optimized for two functions: (1) scalability, it must be possible to make it to the top; and (2) status payoff, climbing the hierarchy improves social status and falling diminishes it. Men, adapting to the hierarchy, have become better at climbing it, thereby improving the probability of leaving behind genetic material. One way men have done this is by paying attention to men who have risen to the top and by telling stories about them. These men who scale the hierarchies are the heroes of our stories and myths. The competence hierarchy selects for heroes and breeds them: men imitate the heroes of myths, and this enables them to climb competence hierarchies.
That the hero has reached the top means he is admirable, and has noble principles, which introduces the possibility of reprehensible or disgraceful principles: those traits of men at the bottom of the competence hierarchy. Daniel Dennett has briefly articulated a similar evolutionary grounding of our notions of right or wrong, so this direction of thought is not entirely foreign to Darwinism, as novel and suggestive as it may seem, whether Peterson beat Dennett to this conclusion (and has taken it further) or not. From the traits of nobility and reprehensibility we ground the ideas of good and evil, and we can abstract from ten heroes a metahero: the saviors or enlightened ones of the major religious traditions across the world. Imitating the savior produces skills that give one the greatest probability of climbing the set of all competence hierarchies. This is why Jordan Peterson believes we cannot get rid of myth: it distills not just information about sexual selection, but has developed to such a complexity that it grounds our conceptions of what it is to be good and, consequently, how to live a meaningful life.
Peterson sets the religious symbols of myth within Darwinian evolution, thereby laying the groundwork for a unifying theory of science and religion. The main contribution of this theory is that it enables us to abstract the functional significance of religious myths, and, thereby, provides a way in which to understand how religion has given rise to the modern world. To extrapolate more specifically how this is so, we turn presently to an explication of the good and meaningful life in Peterson’s demythologization of religious symbols of myth.
The Life that Justifies Suffering
“There is something irreducible about suffering.”
“That which you most need will be found where you least want to look.”
The world is best conceived as a forum for action, where its basic constituents are tools or obstacles, kin or predator: when we encounter strangers, our predator circuitry processes their appearance, and when we hear familiar words or see friends and family, a completely different physiological process frames the world and our situation in it. Two fundamental categories, then, delineate our basic situation in the world. The fight, flight, or freeze response, abstracted, situates us in the category of chaos, whereas the world of order and family, where our intentions cause expected consequences, brings us to the category of order. Chaos and order phenomenologically structure our worlds (this, perhaps, first discovered by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane).
Chaos is not the place you want to be. It is where you are when all the skills you’ve learned from tradition or competence hierarchies, where everything you believed to be good and true, and where all that has worked well in the past, no longer work or make sense of where you find yourself. In chaos, your brain stops thinking about the future, initiates emergency preparation mode, shifts cortisol levels, activates left and right cortices, disinhibits limbic and motivational systems, causing you to sweat and lose sleep. Chaos is the underworld of mythology: the dragon’s lair, or the belly of the whale.
Order is the place you are when everything works exactly as you expect, within the ordering of the competence hierarchy, and in turn your beliefs about what is true and good provide sufficient aims for action. You can glide in this place, as your amygdala rests and your pattern recognition takes over. People will protect their competence hierarchies, even as they don’t benefit, because it’s better to be a slave and know what is going on than it is to be thrown naked into the jungle in the middle of the night.
These fundamental categories set the stage for our bodily, intuitive understanding of the world (which Peterson believes is primary to all thought); our brains are adapted to these metarealities—hierarchies and archetypes—as opposed to simple realities of objects and things. What sets our environment, at any given time, is not necessarily the objects or beings that surround us, but whether we are positioned in chaos or order.
These metarealities introduce an irresolvable tension at the center of human experience. Chaos is a terrible place to be, and order, by simplifying the complexity of the world, can also render us vulnerable to the shock of novelty. The constant back and forth between order and chaos is the bedrock of the problem of evil: is existence worth the suffering? Peterson, here, distinguishes between tragedies, like natural disasters of nature, and suffering, caused both by our disposition toward the world as a whole and the reality of malevolence (the fact that sometimes people pursue the suffering of others for no reason). Responses to tragedy are not necessitated by the tragic events themselves, despair is not compulsory, for sometimes we face tragedies heroically. The true problem of evil is the problem of suffering.
The possibility of suffering presents itself in different forms in both order and chaos. When in order, it’s archetypally represented symbolically as the tyrant father. Sometimes what is true today isn’t true enough to serve life: to allow for genuine human flourishing as the potentialities of the future are actualized, changing the present. When this is the case, the realm of order is tyrannical. Another problem with order is it tends to simplify the world into shallow categories that don’t adequately account for the reality that confronts us. This simplifying relates to the evil figure in myth as the one who is hyperrational, like Lucifer, or the snake in the garden, who falls in love with his own creations and pushes out the possibility of the transcendent. Here, Peterson places the origins of ideology. The very idea of the transcendent is operative in our everyday lives when we act in the world as if it’s full of potentials rather than final realities; and when these realities are reduced and simplified into basic, unchanging objects, the possibility of change, and therefore growth, development, and progress, is excluded at the outset. Opposed to this, a correct conception of order is more like the Garden of Eden: no matter how perfectly society is set up, there will be something you don’t want that comes in—the serpent. As an agent of chaos, the serpent essentially undermines lasting stability. Order can become chaos in an instant.
Mythology has figured out, especially Christianity, that the worst snake isn’t a real snake, but rather the internal “snake” of malevolence: the snake inside a person. And this, he thinks, partially explains the origin of our idea of evil: First the snake was external, then internal to people, then the snake inside person A and B became identical, then we had the idea of Lucifer, and finally the concept of evil. When we are confronted with chaos, there’s a way of acting that is better or worse: simply imagine the worst possible thing, then act so that will not happen, and you are acting to create a better world. Yet people who find themselves in chaos, if they have gotten there by choosing what is expedient over what is worthwhile, by lying to themselves and projecting their inadequacies onto the world and others rather than being honest with themselves and paying attention to how their beliefs might not account for reality or how their actions might be making things worse, will despair in times of suffering.
We are inclined to cling to order, or close our eyes in chaos: we all know of men who never grew up, who have the emotional intelligence of a twelve-year-old but the musculature of a brute in its prime. Clinging to order makes us resentful, for who we thought we were, and the values that grounded our perception of reality, no longer provide anything to orient ourselves with. We do all the “right” things but we never reach the promised land: the land of achieved aims. It remains convenient for people to divide the world into the righteous and the damned so that whatever resentment and bitterness and hatred is in their hearts can be ignored, and so too can every way in which they participate in the problem they’re trying to overcome. Despair says: “It is better if it never existed at all.” People who act out this belief make suffering worse: despair ignites the flames of revenge, to strike back at being for the crime of existence. This disposition is an embodiment of Lucifer who says all that I know is all that is necessary to know, a counterfactual to the exploratory world-creating hero of myth.
Caught within the contradiction of believing one knows everything there is to know and a dawning chaos, we act to project this inner battle onto the world: to turn against being all around us and seek to destroy it. When we suffer, we delight in the suffering of others; the origin of suffering is the awareness of our own vulnerabilities, where malevolence is the intentional exploitation of the vulnerabilities of others. “Evil is the production of suffering for its own sake.” Chaos is an ocean of darkness, and the deeper we descend, the more primal the monsters we discover.
When in chaos, Peterson calls us to pay attention, because sometimes the thing that we most value is the problem, because the world is systematized and viewed by reference to our values. Under these circumstances, to sacrifice the thing most valuable to us, as a religious principle, is the idea that a complete conversion is sometimes what it takes to live well, to be a good person. In this way, life demands the best of us, which sometimes means sacrificing who we are for who we may become. Is nothing better than something: would it have been better had being never existed at all? The God of myth says no, which is another way of saying our myths have answered this question of suffering for us, and shows us the kind of life that overcomes suffering. This is the meta-hero archetype, or the notion of the savior. The battle between good and evil isn’t between states or between individuals but it’s an internal and moral battle: between malevolence and benevolence.
The idea of the sacred itself is functionally, for Peterson, about the essential nature of existence. What we believe about the divine throughout the centuries has been a projection of what we take the meaning of existence to be. One of the conclusions of Christianity is that if we act towards the divine as if it’s nothing but good, then it is more likely to be true in the world. This takes both courage and faith: courage because it is not self-evident that suffering is ever overcome, and faith because it is possible that suffering may never, indeed, be overcome. But the idea of faith is that you make the case that being is good by acting that way, and to act as if being is good and play that out until the end.
This inner battle of the psyche, borne out in myth, provides the profound problem of life with a profound language. Peterson believes that we can’t create our own values because values have evolved with us, implicit in competence hierarchies, then articulated in our myths and, now, abstract concepts. He finds Plato’s idea that all knowledge is remembrance true in a deep, even Darwinian, sense. We weren’t born just thirty years ago, but we’re also the product of human language and history, and over 12 billion years of evolution. We are descendents of the great heroes of the past. So Jung’s idea is we have to go back to the myths and extract the archetypes. Peterson’s claims essentially boil down to making Jung’s ideas more rational and articulate: “I’m trying to resurrect the dormant logos.”
What is this logos? It’s one of the oldest ideas and Peterson thinks its use in Christianity is particularly significant today. Though his characterization of logos is somewhat idiosyncratic, he has good reasons for believing the logos should be articulated this way: speaking the truth, ordering the world by the manifestation of truth in speech. When you enter a dark, familiar room, with no light, what do you do? You grope in the dark until you find an object by which to orient yourself. Kant thought that this notion of orientation could be abstracted to thinking in general, that thinking was an orientation. Peterson thinks telling the truth is how we orient ourselves in the world when we are confronted by chaos, or “the unknown,” the domain where the consequences of our actions are not self-evident and the situation in which we find ourselves has no obvious cause. Telling the truth situates us. “Chaos is transformed into order by the word…. If you want chaos to be turned into hell, then lie. If you want chaos to be transformed into heaven, then tell the truth.”
The role of truth is, in terms of value, fundamental for overcoming the problem of suffering. We have noted, already, that Peterson tells us to pay attention, because the very things we value the most might be the very things that cause us suffering (this, indeed, is the notion of idolatry in Christianity). “The truth is something that burns. It burns off deadwood, and people don’t like having their deadwood burnt off; often because they’re like 95% deadwood. Believe me, I’m not being snide about that. It’s no joke. When you start to realize how much of what you’ve constructed of yourself is based on deception and lies, that is a horrifying realization, and it can easily be 95% of you.”
On another note, truth, Peterson believes, is the progenitor of the good. “The reality you bring out of potentiality with truth is good. That’s one of the most profound discoveries of humanity. How can this be so? Peterson believes he derived his understanding of truth from Nietzsche: “Truth is that which serves life.” The things that are most true are those which, over the years, have produced, sustained, and amplified life. This makes sense, as well, of Peterson’s position that there is nothing truer than these archetypal ideas of religion: they’re some of the oldest ideas we have. Peterson’s question of truth is not merely whether a thing or proposition corresponds to reality, but whether the thing or proposition is true enough to serve life. We speak the truth in words, and thereby actualize potentiality by the truth, and it is necessarily good, because it will serve life rather than death, good over evil.
Words are very important to Peterson, for we’ve evolved so that our ideas can die rather than ourselves or other people. We had to act out killing as will of God for millennia before we could abstractly derive this idea. “Myths of the fall and redemption portray the emergence of human dissatisfaction with present conditions—no matter how comfortable—and the tendency or desire for movement toward ‘a better future.’” Rather than being merely a tyrannical father, the realm of order, and the prevalence of tradition, can also be something like a wise king. You can bargain with being (with reality) because what you encounter is partly the world and partly the abstract social system (when you make a promise, sacrifice, exchange money). This idea is a rational articulation of the deeper concept that the sacred is personal. One of the best comportments we can have toward tradition is therefore to view it as something to be negotiated with, rather than as something that predetermines the future. “Through fire all things are renewed. And one of the deepest ideas of Christianity is that you should burn everything off that’s part of you that isn’t part of that thing that can die and be reborn.”
The message of Jordan B. Peterson is no mere self-help guide: he does not think that life is simply good, nor does he think the journey to the good entails avoiding all which is evil or destroying something outside ourselves called “evil.” Rather, the path to completion is the embodiment of the monster, which means to recognize your capacity for evil and control it. “If you understand who you are, then you understand Nazis. And who wants to understand nazis?“ It’s a dreadful thing to realize that you’re human, which comes with it the tremendous potential to be good and a soul-snatching capacity to be evil.
One way out of the burden of consciousness it to return to unconsciousness (anesthetize, refuse to grow up). Another way to go is to become more conscious. Heighten your consciousness so that everything becomes integrated enough so that this integration is its own medication. You have to get people to stop avoiding the terrible things, this is the goal of psychotherapy: “Voluntary confrontation with what you’re afraid of.” Pay attention, and it’ll lead you to places you don’t want to go, but they will be places that make you better and wiser.
Wisdom allows us to deal honorably with the tragedy of life. A good aim is to look back and see if there’s less suffering because you existed. “The purpose of life, as far as I can tell from studying mythology and from studying psychology for decades, is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant; or maybe that it’s even acceptable. I would say as well that people know when they’re doing that. You know when you’re doing that in part because you’re no longer resentful. You say, ‘Geez, I could do this forever.’ There’s a timelessness that’s associated with that state of being. From a mythological perspective, that’s equivalent to brief habitation of the Kingdom of God. It’s the place so meaningful that it enables you to bear the harsh preconditions of life without becoming resentful, bitter, or cruel. And there’s nothing that you can pursue in your life that will be half as useful as that.
Humanity is torn between order and chaos, between the known and unknown, between the past and future. This is the basic situation to which we have adapted. And the fundamental framework for thinking about what it means to be human and for overcoming the basic problems of human existence is to look at how we have acted these meanings and solutions out and articulate them as lucidly and truthfully as we can. Peterson’s call to do so by situating religion and myth within a Darwinian framework is as novel as it is important. You can ask what perspective toward religion is the most scientific, and Peterson answers that it is the Darwinian rather than the post-Enlightenment: whereas the Darwinian views religion as another systematic means of contending with our own subjectivity (as serving life), the post-Enlightenment, Peterson thinks, merely looks to taxonomize facts about religion. This exploration of the subjectivizing influences on our systems of thought has shed some new light on the meaning of religious symbols and their bearing on our day-to-day lives. In fact, the conclusions Jordan Peterson derives from the explication of myth amount to something like the ultimate balancing of subjective meaning with objective truth, selfishness and selflessness, facts and norms. “Personal interest – subjective meaning – reveals itself at the juncture of explored and unexplored territory, healthy individual and societal adaptation.” “Loyalty to personal interest is equivalent to identification with the archetypal hero.” The hero always has one foot in chaos and one foot in order.
“Telling the truth is a gamble on the benevolence of being. So the idea is you tell the truth, you don’t manipulate the world to make it give you what you want, you try to articulate yourself—and articulate the manner of your being, as clearly and as comprehensively as possible—and then you see what happens.
And you decide—this is the act of faith—you decide that no matter what happens, if you tell the truth, that that’s the best possible outcome.”
Situating the Controversies of Peterson: Postmodernism, Marxism, and Speech Laws
“There is something else going on. If there wasn’t something else going on a relatively obscure professor’s amateurish youtube videos, on a relatively obscure piece of canadian legislation, wouldn’t have had any effect. It would have just disappeared. But it didn’t. And that’s because there’s more going on than the straightforward issue surrounding the pronoun use.”
Lastly, I want to turn to Peterson’s political positions. Now that liberals (a group I have, until recent years, felt at home within) who have never read Peterson yet feel compelled to take a disparaging public stance against him, and academics who, with an air of elitism (and perhaps jealousy), ridicule and dismiss him for his success as a New York Times Bestseller, have both come out of the woodwork, it is time to place Peterson’s politics within the development of his own thought, rather than a pseudo-contextualizing purgatory that places him in company he has never considered and within a conception of history to which he stands diametrically opposed.
In his fourth podcast episode, “Religion, Myth, Science, Truth,” Peterson walks us through the development of his political perspective. His first degree was in political science because the causes of social conflict interested him. Every explanation for social conflict was grounded in some kind of economic theory, placing resources (whether resource scarcity, resource production, etc.) as the central motivator for conflict. Peterson found these theories dubious, because they didn’t take into account the relation between belief and the individual.
Around this time (the second peak of the Cold War), he was obsessed with and terrified about the possibility of nuclear destruction. It all had just seemed gratuitous: that groups of people would inch closer to the potential annihilation of the human race for no apparent reason. Peterson believed the cause of this had to, as a result, be deeper than the empirical level: it had to be metaphysical. To make people as miserable as possible and to be counterproductive concerning your own ends, individually and politically, is just inconceivable without some kind of malevolent or irrational intent.
One of Peterson’s heroes, the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, made a connection between the lies individuals tell and the pathologies of the state. Psychologist Sigmund Freud, another hero, theorized that pathologies in individuals were caused by repressions, which are, for Peterson, forms of lying. It’s not just rational elements that drive people to war, as a result. There is something deeper, and perhaps irrational.
One of Peterson’s diagnosis of the social ills of society is that they derive from stripping subjectivity from the world. This erasure causes us to lie about what we’re actually doing, what we’re actually aiming at, and the repression (and absence) of truthful speech which orders our intentions is replaced with a hiding of intentions, and a grabbing-onto objective group goods that confer hierarchy status and ostensible intentionality. What follows from this, which is our present situation, is either nihilism or totalitarianism. All meaning is objective. In a “perfect” society, to acquire the social status desired and all material goods that are good to have is to live a good life. But then to suffer is to be illegitimate. Is there a suffering that goes beyond material possession and social group identity? Yes, and we repress it, lie to ourselves about it, in our pursuit of social aims and material possessions. This is the problem Peterson confronts and aims to, if not cure, provide an antidote that might help some.
Peterson’s fame came with his criticism of Bill C-16, in a series of protracted YouTube videos. His main contentions circled around (1) the idea that the law required the recognition of nonscientific positions as factual truth, effectively legislating truth by political power, and (2) compelled speech. On the first issue, Peterson has said the bill rests on the claim that there is no biological basis for gender identity, gender expression, and sex: that they vary independently, though these three are correlated upwards of .95. The second issue of compelled speech is important to Peterson for a few reasons: (1) he’s not “willing to cede linguistic territory to postmodern radicals;” (2) he doesn’t accept that those who have spoken on behalf of LGBTQI people politically represent them, since there have been no elections; and (3) he doesn’t believe legislating compelled speech is democratic. None of this means, however, that he’s unwilling to accept the reality that some people are in fact LGBTQI, or that he’d refuse to use the proper pronoun for these people. Ultimately, because Peterson’s reservations and critiques follow from his understanding of postmodernity, and its connection to Marxism, it will be instructive to briefly explore this relationship presently.
Although Peterson receives a lot of flack for his use of the term “postmodernism,” what he means by it actually coheres with the definition in Encyclopedia Britannica: “a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” This is what he means by postmodernism, and he has said as much. Many friends I have, and many commentators I see online, disparage Peterson for not adequately engaging with Postmodern thinkers in writing such as Derrida or Foucault. Whereas I agree with their basic point, and think Peterson is not as far away from these thinkers as he believes he is, the fact still remains that people he engages with, who show up to protest his speeches and events, hold the positions he calls “postmodern,” and this fact perhaps outweighs, though does not exonerate, Peterson’s lack of academic critique of serious postmodern thinkers. He doesn’t need to be a scholar of Derrida or Foucault or Deleuze to use “postmodernism” descriptively and to say something meaningful about it.
But he has not kept silent on thinkers like Foucault, although his most in-depth exposition of postmodernism comes by way of Derrida in his discussion with Joe Rogan. The basic narrative Peterson tells is this: Jacques Derrida is the central villain of postmodernism. A Marxist to begin with, as Marxism fell out of favor in the 1970s, when no intellectual could deny its evil deeds, he shifted his Marxism and began playing identity politics, grounding the Marxist oppressor/oppressed conflict on identity rather than on economic grounds. The way Derrida did this was to focus his philosophical project on the framing problem: the recognition that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret a finite set of objects, which means there are an infinite number of ways to interpret a text, which means the world is subject to an infinite number of interpretations as well. What follows is the claim that there is no right or correct way to interpret the world. From this claim, Derrida (as the paragon postmodernist) derives that those who have interpreted the world do so in a way that facilitates acquisition of power. Thus, we get identity politics: All people do is play power games based on their identities.
As we can see, Peterson’s equation for marrying postmodernism with Marxism is relatively simple. On the empirical level, people who show up at protests against him carry the clean, commodified hammer and sickle flag. On the theoretical level, Peterson believes people who make claims of group identity do so under the influence of a latent, ideological Marxism. He cannot be faulted for this kind of conclusion, given the role of ideology in protests against him. According to Peterson, those who have fallen prey to the postmodern ethos do not believe in dialogue with those they oppose because dialogue, like all else, is grounded in power. Claims of truth are, as a result, claims to power: to control the narrative about what truth is.
Peterson thinks they’re wrong because what you extract from the world is a game you can play. From the things we encounter in the world and the values we contend with in the social sphere we extract a set of tools so that we we don’t suffer too much and people will cooperate with us in a sustainable and reciprocal way. The best functional aim is to live and thrive in multiple environments among multiple people. And Peterson thinks these are actual constraints on interpretations.
The major issue Peterson has with postmodernism, then, is that it aims to destroy what he believes we have gained from millenia of trial and error: the ethical substructure that grounds our social values that derived from myths. Whereas the ethical substructure based on myth aims at, for the most part, solving the problem of suffering by presenting a turning inward as its solution, political ideologies that interpret every ethic as a power game relegate the problem of suffering, and therefore its solution, to an outward phenomenon: the state. If we lose the concept of truth to its reduction by power, or discussion to its reduction by identity, then we lose what we gained from the distillation of the Enlightenment: rationality, empiricism, science, clarity of mind, dialogue, and the individual. Why speak the truth if it might offend: why not proceed by a lie and construct the perfect state with ends that will justify the means? Why tell the truth if a lie will make the masses feel better momentarily while we work on the perfect organization of society? Hannah Arendt’s answer is very close to Peterson’s:
“The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion. (It is this capacity for an ‘enlarged mentality’ that enables [hu]man[s] to judge…. The very process of opinion formation is determined by those in whose places somebody thinks and uses his own mind, and the only condition for this exertion of the imagination is disinterestedness, the liberation from one’s own private interests.”
The only way to obtain this “impartiality,” which means the liberation from one’s private interests alone, is to tell the truth, to be honest with oneself: “truth and truthfulness have always constituted the highest criterion of speech and endeavor.” Lying, on the other hand, simplifies the world into basic images, as in political propaganda which says there is one simple solution and one simple problem and if you don’t stand on the side of the good you are evil. This inhibits us from both empathy and thinking. This is precisely Peterson’s point, and, he believes, the rejection of science and myth amounts to the victory of the lie and of the state over the truth and the individual.
If you think this is too far, Peterson has debated with a professor of Transgender Studies who claimed “it’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex.” Many think Peterson uses hyperbole to heighten the stakes of his claims unrealistically. But for those who have followed a least a small percentage of his interactions with his critics, what’s at stake does indeed appear to be the values of the Enlightenment itself.
Peterson is infamous for his love-affair with the Christian myth. One reason for this is that he thinks the story on which western civilization is founded in the Christian myth. This claim bears some explanation, as its importance is not entirely apparent today. Jacques Ellul has noted that Christianity differs from religions that came before it because it did not rise with a culture, but came to fruition within well developed cultures (Roman and Jewish). Christianity was used in turn to explicitly shape and order the empires that followed it. It was a reversal of the historical marrying of culture and religion, placing the latter before the former chronologically.
So what does it mean, other than the chronological note we have made, that Christianity is the story on which western civilization is founded? This is a primary claim of Peterson’s, following in part from his conception of the origin of religion and his awareness of history. He means this quite literally. The story of the Old Testament, he thinks, which he gets from Northrop Frye, is that the solution to suffering is the construction of the perfect state. But the New Testament answers differently, placing the individual as the site of salvation: the individual that tells the truth, the incarnation of the Logos. And it is this Christian insight on which the west stands.
This is, in effect, the summation of Peterson’s politics: How are you going to change the world when you can’t even keep your room clean? Fundamentally, his challenge is to not perpetuate your pathologies socially by participating in politics as a means to overcome your suffering, but first get yourself in order. He believes with Jung that “…if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption.” And he doesn’t think postmodernism allows for this kind of ordering and, rather, subjects the individual to the tyranny of ideology. Why tell the truth, anyway, if by the truth we offend another, or discover physical limitations to idealized harmonies we aim for in our utopian visions of the state? Why tell the truth when truthful speech can be violent?
I recommend everyone who wants a basic understanding of the thrust of Peterson’s politics to read C. G. Jung’s very accessible and very brief work The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society. There one will find the beating heart of Peterson’s political faith and the monsters he hopes to fend against:
“In order to free the fiction of the sovereign state—in other words, the whims of those who manipulate it—from every wholesome restriction, all socio-political movements tending in this direction invariably try to cut the ground from under the religions. For, in order to turn the individual into a function of the State, his dependence on anything beside the State must be taken from him. But religion means dependence on and submission to the irrational facts of experience. These do not refer directly to social and physical conditions; they concern far more the individual’s psychic attitude.”
We can immediately see the parallel in this indictment with Peterson’s. Religion for Jung does not mean institutionalized rituals or holy sites, but it means the individual’s relationship to a superordinate principle that sits outside everyday contingencies and orders life and its circumstances by its compelling force. This is the same for Peterson, especially the notion of “God.” Whereas if when religion (in this technical sense) wanes, political fanaticism intensifies, it follows that a regrounding in religion protects against the onslaught of totalitarianism or nihilism which institutes the state as the superordinate principle. Many more people than Peterson have arrived at this conclusion, and it bears some serious reflection. It is not a stretch to think that when he spoke out against Bill C-16, effectively standing up for “free speech,” Peterson understood himself to be in the circumstances Jung described some half-century ago:
“The State has taken the place of God….But the religious function cannot be dislocated and falsified in this way without giving rise to secret doubts, which are immediately repressed so as to avoid conflict with the prevailing trends towards mass-mindedness. The result, as always in such cases, is overcompensation in the form of fanaticism, which in its turn is used as a weapon for stamping out the least flicker of opposition. Free opinion is stifled and moral decision ruthlessly suppressed, on the plea that the end justifies the means, even the vilest. The policy of the State is exalted to a creed, the leader or party boss becomes a demigod beyond good and evil, and his votaries are honored as heroes, martyrs, apostles, missionaries. There is only one truth and beside it no other. It is sacrosanct and above criticism. Anyone who thinks differently is a heretic, who, as we know from history, is threatened with all manner of unpleasant things. Only the party boss, who holds the political power in his hands, can interpret the State doctrine authentically, and he does so just as suits him.”
Final Remarks and an Attempt at Responding to Peterson’s Detractors
Jordan Peterson is now somewhat infamous, regarded from an elitist (and ignorant) point-of-view as “the stupid man’s smart person,” and from a political stance as an alt-right prophet. To begin with, I think to get beyond most criticisms of Peterson (which for the most part have nothing to do with the substance of his ideas but rather with a conferral of intentions onto him based on either his audience or, at times, deliberate misinterpretations of his words), one just has to simply accept this proposition: If Peterson says something true, it doesn’t follow that Peterson has said it in the best way, nor that Peterson is the only authorized person to make that point. Accepting this proposition has improved my appreciation for his ideas, despite my disagreement with the ways in which he frames things and, at times, the way he behaves.
On another level of analysis, there is a large swath of detractors who level criticisms at Peterson based on some kind of constructed history, placing him in a narrative of masculinity promulgation. More specifically, these commentators don’t make a distinction between dominance and competence. In turn they interpret Peterson’s influence on men to be fundamentally pernicious as opposed to edifying. They simply ignore his work, I claim, and the way in which the ideas he promotes today fit into the context of his work as a whole, especially Maps of Meaning. I hope to have answered some of these concerns in this brief essay and provide a somewhat (though bare) adequate schema to understand Peterson’s claims.
Yet another common criticism is that Peterson is some kind of self-help guru, unplaceable in any strict academic discipline. If compared to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Erich Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or C. G. Jung’s Man and His Symbols, one would find in Peterson a similar line of argumentation: the diagnosis of social ills by personal pathologies and meaning-making behavior. This is where Peterson’s work fits.
And so, we end where we began. The technologies that diminish our capacities to think can be manipulated for other ends: Jordan Peterson’s popularity has skyrocketed, and his videos and interviews are noticed by more and more people. Indeed, we might call this “The Jordan Peterson Moment.” As a thinker, he sits firmly within the philosophical traditions spurred by Nietzsche, William James, and Jung. And as an influence, he’s a cultural force that we will not soon forget. Why tell the truth in our age of group-think and Twitter epigrams? Well, it’s our only hope for survival, and the only way for the hero, who speaks a freeing word that organizes chaos into novel order, to emerge. As Peterson concludes in Maps of Meaning:
“The point of our limitations is not suffering; it is existence itself. We have been granted the capacity to voluntarily bear the terrible weight of our mortality. We turn from that capacity and degrade ourselves because we are afraid of responsibility. In this manner, the necessarily tragic preconditions of existence are made intolerable.
It seems to me that it is not the earthquake, the flood or the cancer that makes life unbearable, horrible as those events appear. We seem capable of withstanding natural disaster, even of responding to that disaster in an honorable and decent manner. It is rather the pointless suffering that we inflict upon each other—our evil—that makes life appear corrupt beyond acceptability; that undermines our ability to manifest faith in our central natures. So why should the capacity for evil exist?. . . But how can we put an end to our errors? What path can we follow to eliminate our blindness and stupidity, to bring us closer to the light? Christ said, Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. But how? We seem stymied, as always, by Pontius Pilate’s ironic query: What is truth? (John 18:38)
Well, even if we don’t know precisely what the truth is, we can certainly tell, each of us, what it isn’t. It isn’t greed, and the desire, above all else, for constant material gain; it isn’t denial of experience we know full well to be real, and the infliction of suffering for the purpose of suffering. Perhaps it is possible to stop doing those things which we know, beyond doubt, to be wrong—to become self-disciplined and honest—and to therefore become ever more able to perceive the nature of the positive good.
The truth seems painfully simple—so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can ever be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself—not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates you above him, but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.
It is said that it is more difficult to rule oneself than a city, and this is no metaphor. This is the truth, as literal as it can be made. It is precisely for this reason that we keep trying to rule the city.”
 Maps of Meaning, 460.
 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics.”
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
 Ibid., 92.
 This is true but not in the way normally intended. See Christian Chensvold’s article for more: https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/06/jordan-p-peterson-self-help-guru-father-figure/
 Maps of Meaning, 467.
 Ibid., 4.
 Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” 19.
 Jung,”The Concept of the Collective Unconscious,” 44.
 Ibid., 48.
 Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.”
 Yet even in chimps, it’s not the brute that gets sexual dominance, Peterson has said, because if the brute has an off day, then two beta males will tear him from limb to limb: it is better, at least, even in chimp communities, to be tolerant and cooperative than to merely be a brute.
 Recently Peterson has been using this phraseology instead of “dominance hierarchy,” which you will hear in most of his lectures and interviews. He means the same thing by these, but he no longer uses the word “dominance” (at least not consistently) because what he wants to indicate by these hierarchies is that you climb them with skill rather than with force.
 Peterson’s fixation on lobsters is famously idiosyncratic, and this claim is everywhere in his work.
 Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson. Peterson repeats this claim and similar ones, with different examples, in nearly every presentation I’ve heard. For an extensive, academic treatment, see Maps of Meaning.
 Of course, there are older conceptions of evil than what Christianity presents, however Peterson thinks Christianity has the most robust conception of evil because it combines older conceptions with the notion that the solution to evil is to confront it, as an individual, and choose against it: to not simply recognize its objective reality in events or groups or others, but its subjective reality within the self, and then to choose whatever leads us away from suffering and evil.
 See below for further exposition.
 Peterson traces a genealogy of the logos in his biblical lectures.
 Maps of Meaning, 465.
 One difference between this heightened consciousness and, for instance, the kind of consciousness Buddhism advocates is that this kind of heightened consciousness isn’t to show how everything is illusory, but to show that everything is in fact really real: the most basic reality is suffering, and to overcome suffering isn’t to show how to become detached from everything, but to become really attached to them, and choose them, and say that no matter what happens this is good. It’s more of a Albert Camus thing than a Sam Harris thing.
 Maps of Meaning, 447.
 There was a public demonstration of this phenomenon in the political science literature. It was described as “Mutually-Assured Destruction.” The concept itself developed out of classical, realist foreign policy ideas. The basic concept was that if two countries had the capacity to destroy themselves and the world, and that capacity continued to grow, that the two countries wouldn’t actually do it, for fear of destroying the human race. This is exactly what happened between the United States and the Soviet Union. While it seems irrational on the surface, there was deeply logical reasoning behind doing this, for if each country made the use of nuclear weapons impossible, the potential for peace was inevitable. Peterson’s point would, I think, be that what is questionable is not, then, a realist-stand-off about the possibility of launching the nukes, but the creation of the nukes in the first place. What kind of drive would cause humans to create a weapon that could destroy everything, if even by accident? He has, in some places, pointed to our loss of the notion of truth as that which serves life to be part of the problem.
 “We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.”
 See https://torontoist.com/2016/12/are-jordan-petersons-claims-about-bill-c-16-correct/ for a commentary on Peterson’s views of C-16 in particular. My aim here is to simply outline how these views are simply instantiations of his overall philosophical project about the problem of suffering and its solution.
 See my article on this issue: https://reasonrevolution.org/rise-identity-politics-indicates-decline-religion/.
 See Kierkegaard, who presents the very same solution, in The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion.
 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” from The Portable Hannah Arendt, 556.
 Jacques Ellul, The New Demons.
 C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society, 56.
 For one of the best representatives of this tactic, see: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism/
 This is a fairly good article drawing the distinction: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/05/jordan-petersons-gospel-of-masculinity
 Maps of Meaning, 454-455
“The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than would have appeared in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content.”
“I think the secular humanist movement would be better off, especially in its relation to religious people and its understanding of religion and religious belief, if it sidestepped the question of the existence of God and asked what it means to say that God exists and what it means to believe or have faith in God. It seems to me that this change of emphasis must be granted purely out of the principles of charity and skepticism; the principle of charity because to arrive at a position about religion and religious belief, we have to engage with the best religious thinkers who do ask these questions; and from the principles of skepticism because we have to be skeptical of our own assumptions and ideas about what religion and religious belief are.”
“As social media continues to shape our discourses by selecting for epigrams over nuanced discussion, Bradbury asks us if we will become like Mildred, whose words are like those “heard once in a nursery at a friend’s house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air,” or whether we will become like the talking, depthless faces of anchors operating distraction machines like Fox News or CNN: “the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.” May we find the words that wrestle and struggle with the challenges of life, without strangling or flattening them, and, consequently, diminishing the possibility for genuine human flourishing.”
“As a thinker, he sits firmly within the philosophical traditions spurred by Nietzsche, William James, and Jung. And as an influence, he’s a cultural force that we will not soon forget. Why tell the truth in our age of group-think and Twitter epigrams? Well, it’s our only hope for survival, and the only way for the hero, who speaks a freeing word that organizes chaos into novel order, to emerge.”
The difference between Dennett and Harris is not only in the frameworks from which they analyze the problem of free will, but in the consequences that follow from their methods of analysis. To accept both projects as legitimate, which I think we should, would mean that we should work both to be linguistic innovators and also social revolutionaries. We should be attentive to the ways in which language shapes thought but also be open to using the tools of science to move beyond mere argumentation and hermeneutical innovation to improve society.
On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson