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A Serious Man

On Jordan Peterson

Western Civilization is in crisis. Our faith in the Enlightenment—that bosom of our cherished values—has been shaken. Nefarious forces and groups are turning us against the very foundations of our society. So claims Jordan Peterson, who has recently capitalized on his internet celebrity by releasing a self-help book interlaced with these themes. Peterson went from being a relatively unknown psychology professor to being the leader of a burgeoning movement manned by adoring fans. All of a sudden, Peterson is everywhere: the BBC interviewed him, columnists weigh his potential social benefits, social media feeds are roiled by Peterson-mania. And he’s decided to cash in. His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is at the time of this writing the number one bestseller on Amazon. Peterson is being cheered on by both David Brooks and Mike Cernovich. James Damore, the disgraced former Google employee and reactionary matinee idol, also considers himself a fan.

Peterson, a kind of secularized televangelist, styles himself as a culture warrior in a battle with the forces of “postmodernism.”

Peterson, a kind of secularized televangelist, styles himself as a culture warrior in a battle with the forces of “postmodernism,” a worldview which, he says, is “an assault on everything that’s been established since the Enlightenmentrationality—empiricismscience. Everything. Clarity of mind, dialogue. The idea of the individual.” Suffice it to say, the type of dialogue favored by Peterson’s fans on the web does not always quite live up to the esprit of an eighteenth-century Enlightenment salon. If you tweet critically about him, you can expect comments like this, “Your essence has been accurately distilled to a single syllable—Cuck.” But this is only natural. To understand human interactions, Peterson asks us to consider the lobster, and to consider it as a cousin. Like the pick-up artists who make a killing from male anxiety about dominance and status, Peterson thinks humans are fundamentally wired for battle and hierarchy—simply think of yourself as living a very dull and dour life aquatic in endless battle with other crustaceans.

According to Peterson, men and women can’t really talk or debate, because when men talk they are really implicitly fighting: “when men are talking to the each other in any serious manner, that underlying threat of physicality is always there, especially if it’s a real conversation, and it keeps the thing civilized to some degree.” Men are at a disadvantage when talking to women; they are disarmed, presumably like a lobster with its pincers tied up with rubber bands. And, as we learn when we dip into Peterson’s higher-brow work Maps of Meaning, women are agents of chaos, constantly threatening male principles of order (which, for their part, risk becoming rigid). Sometimes this is creative chaos—as in women’s ability to create through birth—but often it is threatening, dangerous chaos—as in women’s ability to abandon their children.

Peterson’s view that the “idea of the individual” is the particular achievement of the Western Enlightenment is, to say the least, paradoxical, or contradictory if you are inclined to be more hard-headed. “Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that ever figured out that the individual is sovereign.” There seems to be some confusion about the meaning of the word “unconditionally” here. If the West has indeed figured out that only individuals matter, then presumably it can no longer feel any great pride about this collective achievement, since collective achievements aren’t as important as the lives and accomplishments of individuals. Here, as elsewhere, Peterson wants to somehow keep the Enlightenment intact as a positive value, without realizing its actual stakes or costs. Peterson, in effect, tells his audience, “You can pat yourself on the back as a sovereign individual and a Western man, just like the guy next to you.” His logic recalls the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the main character declares to the adoring crowd outside his window, “You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals” and they echo back, as one, “Yes. We are all individuals!”

Peterson—whose favorite medium is the fervent oration, rather than the tightly-argued treatise—is a strange figure to present himself as defender of rationality and critical thought. For one thing, most of his disciples find him through YouTube; of these Peterson estimates 80 percent are male. For another, his ideas and political views mirror not the grand ideals of the radical Enlightenment, but the tradition of reaction and conservatism associated with the Counter-Enlightenment, mixed with the accessible self-help style of pick-up artists like Neil Strauss.

When Peterson lambasts academia and writes off “postmodernism,” a term he uses to encompass a great deal of modern critical thought—from Marxism, to French post-structuralism, to contemporary gender and race theory—as “an assault on the metaphysical substrate of our culture, and I would say that the metaphysical substrate looks something like a religious substrate,” he doesn’t sound like the philosophes who spilled much of their ink skewering the Church and superstition. Instead, he sounds more like Edmund Burke objecting to the spread of Enlightenment thought that birthed the French Revolution:  

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.

Peterson claims to be a “classic British liberal” and also says that whenever the vocabulary of “power and privilege” is invoked, people should suspect that a murderous, Marxist ideology lurks close behind. But the rhetoric of opposing privilege considerably predates Marx. In fact, it’s part of the Enlightenment tradition. In the eighteenth century, it was liberals who explicitly protested and fought the inherited privilege of the aristocracy. Thomas Paine, opposing Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution in 1791, wrote that when the National Assembly declared itself as representative of the people of France, “It was the result of cool deliberation, and concerned between the national representatives and the patriotic members of the two chambers, who saw into the folly, mischief, and injustice of artificial privileged distinctions.” He thought that America at the time was admirable, because “there, the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged” (that is to say, they had not come by their riches through hereditary or arbitrary social advantage).

For all their Millian, free-speech high-mindedness, intellectuals like Peterson are remarkably pessimistic about our ability to alter our customs through rational critique.

The strange paradox we face today is that the Enlightenment is being invoked like a talismanic object to thwart the very questioning of political hierarchies and norms that, for Enlightenment thinkers, was necessary for humanity’s emergence from tradition and subordination. But even if the forces of Counter-Enlightenment may have now adapted the language of rationality to their own purposes, authentic Enlightenment thought has never been about building up the bulwark of tradition. As that other British liberal John Stuart Mill wrote, “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.” The great figures of the Enlightenment knew that the social and political revolutions of their day were aligned with their thought; there’s a reason that mild-mannered Kant toasted the anniversary of storming of the Bastille every year, earning him the not-so-friendly nickname of the “Old Jacobin.” For all their Millian, free-speech high-mindedness, intellectuals like Peterson, and writers for outlets like Quillette, which has ridden the back of figures like Peterson to style itself a great defender of Enlightenment values against the totalitarian left, are remarkably pessimistic about our human ability to alter our customs through rational critique.

In 1784, Immanuel Kant wrote in his essay Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment? that Enlightenment was humanity daring to use its critical faculties, to think for itself, without the support of tradition and authority. For Kant, the Enlightenment was a disposition rather than a dogma. Humanity, he argued, was in a state of self-imposed tutelage: our lack of courage meant we looked to authority figures to tell us what to think. Enlightenment meant a certain maturity—growing up and using our own reason.

Some of the Enlightenment’s most sophisticated practitioners understood this new independence as a trauma as well as a liberation: when one begins to question, where does one stop? In the nineteeth century, G.W.F. Hegel described the inherent destructiveness of critical reflection, understanding that it would inevitably rip up the traditional substance of societies and replace it with the less comforting strictures of cold reason. Thought, Hegel believed, was not edifying: it was a process of constant negation, “the path of despair,” as he called it.

In the twentieth century, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer—“postmodern neo-Marxists,” as Peterson would call them—thought that modern technology and scientific reason had outstripped humanity’s moral and political enlightenment. The powerful abstractions that allowed for scientific calculation and measurement levelled and liquidated when applied to humanity. They were appalled by the barbarity carried out in the name of progress and saw ancient myths replicated in the cult of reason. Yet for them, the recognition of Enlightenment’s failure led to a doubling-down on the project, an attempt to make rational criticism more aware of its own deficiencies.

Peterson’s use of the Enlightenment as evidence for Western superiority is all too precedented.

In a certain respect at least, Peterson’s use of the Enlightenment as evidence for Western superiority is all too precedented. Even as many Enlightenment thinkers were fierce critics of European imperialism, ideals of rationality and reason were used to justify grand adventures of conquest and oppression, of bloody violence and exploitation in the name of civilizing the “less rational” peoples of the globe. As Pankaj Mishra has powerfully argued, the Enlightenment exported promises of equality that were not meaningfully delivered on, and created the conditions for consumerism and malaise. Enlightenment ideas could also be used to support a profoundly hierarchical vision of gender relations, with the public realm of reason as the domain of men and the private world of sentiment the domain of women. (An especially bogus notion since much of the Enlightenment really took place in the supposedly private and sentimental realm of women, in the salons of Europe’s grandes dames.)

We have grown up and seen with more experienced eyes the complexity of the Enlightenment’s legacy, and the difficulty of living up to its demands as an ideal. Today, when norms that were enforced as fundamental and even supposed to be inscribed in nature itself, like gender, seem to be rapidly breaking down under probing criticism, and “all that is solid is melting into air,” we can clearly see how earth-shattering the process unleashed by the Enlightenment truly is. (For Peterson, terms like “gender identity” and “gender expression” are “absurd, dangerous, totalitarian,” the “propositions of radical social constructionists.”) Soon, with advances in genetic engineering, the line between nature and human, blurred by the advancement of technology, will become nearly nonexistent. When we can alter the world at our will, the question becomes: what should we will for ourselves and our fellow human beings? Do we become solipsists, and treat others merely as projections to be willed away, or do we respect the dignity of their aims and desires, as ends-in-themselves, like us?

Such anxieties no doubt are the most high-minded reasons that figures like Peterson have gained so much traction recently. But he promises an easy way out, peddling lazy science and comforting platitudes as substitutes for a real confrontation with these problems. Peterson calls upon the psychoanalytic theory of Carl Jung, who is a creature of the Enlightenment inasmuch as he dressed up his psychology with scientistic rhetoric. But Jung is really a Counter-Enlightenment figure, stressing man’s need to connect to the imaginative, mythical, and unchanging sources of himself. Underneath Jung’s archetypal myths Peterson attempts to insert a hard core of natural fact, saying that mythic symbols spring from an “innate psychobiological basis.” More strangely still, Peterson tends to take Jung’s symbolic categories of masculine order and feminine chaos and affiliate them with the actual traits of men and women. For Peterson, such mythical systems form the unchanging substratum of our society—Enlightenment ideas of reason feed upon these mythical and religious moral values. Peterson here again echoes an early critic of Kant and the Enlightenment, Friedrich Jacobi, who in 1787 wrote that all of what we usually think of as rational is based on an irreducible, fundamental act of faith.  

To Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, Enlightenment belief in universal reason and criticism was naive at best, and at worst destructive.

To the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, like Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Joseph de Maistre, Enlightenment belief in universal reason and criticism was naive at best, and at worst destructive. They stressed that the source of knowledge and social harmony was in poetry rather than prose, as it were: not in the sciences and rational debate, but in imagination and feeling. They turned to myth, the revelations of scripture, to custom and tradition, to the unique spiritual patrimonies passed down through national character and language, and to nature, understood not as a realm governed by regular scientific laws, but as the hieroglyphic expression of spiritual essences and forces. Hamann summed up the traditional view of the cosmos he felt he was recovering, where “every phenomenon of nature was a word, – the sign, symbol and pledge of a new, mysterious, inexpressible but all the more intimate union, participation and community of divine energies and ideas.” In the nineteenth century, some of these Counter-Enlightenment ideas would mutate into the monstrous hybrid of Enlightenment science and Counter-Enlightenment irrationalism: the ideology of scientific racism.

But in the beginning, the Counter-Enlightenment was driven by the intuition that the realm of the spirit could not be adequately summed by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” and that to be truly human was a deeply felt affair, not just based on the exercise of reason. The proponents of this tradition, with all of the valuable points they made against the one-sidedness and sterility of the Enlightenment, never for a moment forgot they were working to criticize the Enlightenment project and its political corollaries of critique and revolution. Pretensions to rationality would not impress these poetic souls. “I look upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks upon a love letter,” Hamann said.

Peterson represents the banalization of this louche countercurrent in Western thought. To the everyday situation of not being able to get a date, he applies the melodramatic rhetoric of mythical struggle between chaos and order. Peterson imbues life with a sense of lurking danger: the world is liberally peopled with sociopaths and psychopaths and the dullest of academics are actually ideological shock troops in a cosmic battle. One must be constantly on guard!  He frightens, in order to be able to better soothe.

The quotidian itself is a danger to Peterson: In his Maps of Meaning, he says we should invert Hannah Arendt’s famous thesis on the banality of evil and worry instead about the “‘the evil of banality”: “Our petty weaknesses accumulate, and multiply, and become the great evils of state.” The appeal of this is not hard to fathom: suddenly, by simply being an obnoxious pedant or a nuisance to our neighbors, we can fancy ourselves freedom fighters against encroaching totalitarianism.

The people who challenge Peterson’s picture are not just wrongheaded, but sinister, part of a conspiracy to assault the very foundations of meaning.

Today’s Counter-Enlightenment prophets benefit from our unprecedented interconnectedness. They can share their ideas as quickly as the latest outrage from student activists can go viral. But they are following a well-trodden path. Moments of ideological crisis and conflict create fertile soil for charismatic intellectuals like Peterson, who provide their acolytes something resembling a unified worldview and counter-narrative to progressive Enlightenment demands for social change and a broader understanding of who is fully recognized as a person and a citizen.

During another period of political upheaval in the early twentieth century, Max Weber, the German sociologist and great heir to Kant’s dictum of critical self-interrogation, cast a skeptical glance at the appeal of other such self-styled prophets. He castigated intellectuals who “furnish their souls . . . with antique objects that have been guaranteed genuine.” But Weber had no patience for the pseudo-religions of academic prophets. They can produce only “fanatical sects, never genuine community.” He instead suggested that such would-be prophets “return to the welcoming and merciful embrace of the old churches—simply, silently, and without any of the usual public bluster of the renegade.”

In the face of a shifting world, where meaning is subject to intense dispute and no longer fixed by tradition, Peterson quite literally maps out meaning, providing an immutable set of values for his followers, supposedly rooted in the chthonic origins of mankind. One Peterson fan tweeted, “After reading Maps of Meaning and watching his lectures, I was able to watch a new movie like Logan and be able to transpose all of his ideas onto it and understand it on a mythological level. That’s useful for me.” What could be so gratifying in doing this rote translation into Peterson’s schema? A clue can be found in Simone de Beauvoir’s description of the “serious man” in The Ethics of Ambiguity:   

The serious man gets rid of his freedom by claiming to subordinate it to values which would be unconditioned. He imagines that the accession to these values likewise permanently confers value upon himself. Shielded with “rights,” he fulfills himself as a being who is escaping from the stress of existence. . . . [The serious man] chooses to live in an infantile world, but to the child the values are really given.  The serious man must mask the movement by which he gives them to himself, like the mythomaniac who while reading a love-letter pretends to forget that she has sent it to herself.

Peterson’s core conceptions cannot just be thoughts like any other, subject to error or dispute, revision or rejection; no, they are made from the very stuff of reality itself. Doubt, ambiguity, and all the terrors of existence are banished, the meaning of all is revealed, our location in the cosmos is established. But this is not just some harmless reassurance: The people who challenge this picture are not just wrongheaded, but sinister, part of a conspiracy to assault the very foundations of meaning.

De Beauvoir’s serious man, living in his “infantile world” of absolute values that he cannot bear to see as contingent or conditioned, shares the quality of immaturity that Kant applies to pre-Enlightened humanity. The notions that are uncritically hung onto by the serious man can be pulled from nearly anything.  As de Beauvoir writes, “The serious is not defined by the nature of the ends pursued. A frivolous lady of fashion can have this mentality of the serious as well as an engineer.” Science, nature, psychology, Western civilization—even “the Enlightenment”—they can all provide serious men with the alibi that lets them off from the need to think for themselves. Peterson, combining his cheesy, Dad-like, self-help advice (“Make your bed,” “clean your room,” “Sort yourself out, bucko”) and his mythical worldview, tells these just-so stories. (In a rare moment of lucidity, David Brooks, in his New York Times op-ed on Peterson, understands the man as a kind of surrogate father—although, being Brooks, he thinks that kind of surrogacy is appropriate and desirable.)

To people searching for spiritual nourishment, Peterson functions as a kind of huckster, handing out quick fixes. Charlatans like him are unfortunately all too common today. If Peterson really is the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now,” as Brooks writes, we have reason to worry. It is not the duty of intellectuals to be reassuring and edifying, to create a serious world for adult children to wrap themselves up in: they are supposed to be critics not clerics. Their job is to provide tools to weather the sometimes enervating, painful, and confusing path of reflection and thought, not to allow for its easy interruption with images of glory. And their task is certainly not to turn individuals into adulating crowds. In the hands of false prophets, the crowd quickly becomes a mob.