The professor with the massive social following isn't just doing pop psychology. He's trying to rebuild the West's moral order.
By TANNER GREER
March 22, 2018
The spectacular rise of Jordan Peterson has caught much of the world flat-footed. Discussions of the psychology professor from the University of Toronto tend to focus on the enormous popular movement his lectures have spawned, rather than the actual ideas presented in the lectures themselves. As a result, no one seems to know who the “real” Jordan Peterson is.
In a way, this is understandable. Peterson is a man of several personae. One Peterson is the inventor of an innovative and compelling neuropsychological model of human behavior. This is the Peterson presented in a dozen research articles reviewed and published by his academic peers.
Another Peterson dispenses pieces of practical advice and dispels progressive dogmas with a quiet, fatherly charisma. This is the Peterson made famous inpodcasts, television interviews, and his best selling self-help book.
But there is a third Peterson, the Peterson of his debut book, Maps of Meaning, and the annual 40-hour long lecture series that shares this book’s name. This Peterson is the bridge between the other two, the key to understanding both his agitations as a culture warrior and his work as an academic psychologist. This is also the Peterson that inspires a religious sense of devotion among his followers. They are devoted not just to the man, but to his project.
And this project is grand. It is nothing less than the revitalization of Western civilization itself.
Left or right, European or American, the one thing Westerners seem to agree on is that the Western model is failing. (See Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Has Failed, the biggest seller in political philosophy this year.) We are living through a crisis of faith in the liberal order. This crisis in political ideals comes on top of another crisis of faith—the crisis of faith, itself.
With declining faith in religious institutions and the collapse of trust in secular ones, the West is left bereft of shared moral bearings. Social order and community cohesion are either slowly dying or already dead (depending on your level of optimism). Some collective myths maintain the vestiges of cultural authority, but they are few and may not outlast the churnings of the current age.
This is the starting point of Peterson’s project. In essence, he asks: Is it possible to build up a new sense of moral order in a society that has stopped believing in—as he calls it—“the metaphysical ethic” of its youth?
Peterson insists that this undertaking is possible. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century are proof that new moral systems can be created and entire peoples can be convinced—or coerced—into believing in them. But those creations came at terrible cost. In his books and lectures, Peterson returns again and again to moments of horror and torture culled from the history of these regimes. He reads scenes from Gulag Archipelago or The Rape of Nanking to shocked students and asks: How do we account for this behavior? What makes someone act like that? Beneath it all is an unstated question: Without the guidestar of traditional ethical systems, how do we ensure that no post-modern society creates a “moral order” like that again?
Peterson suggests that Nietzsche foresaw the problem of our times when he declared that God was dead. From this starting point, Nietzsche hoped mankind might realize a new, shinier moral order absent all of the baggage of the “slave morality” he attributed to Christian ethics. Peterson agrees with Nietzsche’s diagnosis, but sees his solution to be fundamentally mistaken: By his lights, the path to totalitarian terror begins with this Nietzschean impulse to bend human society to the whims of human will.
Peterson takes great pains to prove that humans cannot simply “be” whatever they will themselves to become. We are hardwired to act and feel in certain ways. In his Maps of Meaning lectures and book special attention is paid to the neuroscience of emotion and the role emotions play in regulating human behavior. As Peterson tells it, humans, like all animals with relatively advanced brains, create mental maps of the world they live in. The correspondence between the map we make in our heads and the reality we live on the ground in is a prerequisite for emotional stability.
But the maps humans make are more complex than the maps a rat or cat might have in its head, for we endow our surroundings with social and sacred meanings. More important still, we must negotiate our maps with other humans. Customs, rituals, and hierarchies are, in Peterson’s view, the tools humans use to keep our shared maps of the world stable—and by extension, emotionally satisfying.
One implication of all this is that certain human behaviors—especially those related to creativity or the emotional drive to enact social narratives—are hardwired into the brain. They are just as much a part of human nature as the sex drive.
Peterson argues that the catastrophic mistake of the totalitarians lies here: They assumed that all nature, including human nature, could be subjected to dictates of human will. They never understood how much of human nature was innate and unmalleable. Peterson describes totalitarian movements a little bit like how nutritionists describe sugary treats: modern inventions that take the impulses of our evolutionary heritage to unhealthy extremes.
As he sees it, the totalitarians did create narratives and rituals to regulate behavior; they were excellent myth makers, and their rationally-constructed myths were wonderfully adapted to hijack the emotional drivers of the human brain. But in the end the gap between the mental map the totalitarians wished to impose on society and the actual society they lived in was simply too wide. It was their increasingly frantic attempts to force the territory to match the map that led to their acts of incredible brutality and destruction.
For Peterson, the totalitarian movements are a cautionary tale about the limits of a rationalist social order built from first principles. But Peterson also postulates that humans need a set of transcendent myths, narratives, and rituals to live an emotionally healthy life. If a metaphysical ethic cannot be rationally built from first principles, then where can it be found?
Peterson suggests that the guiding myths of the future will be found where they always were: in the great books, religious texts, and rituals of the human past. If we can admit that the ancients may have intuitively grasped aspects of human psychology that we are only just starting to discover through scientific methods, then there is a treasure hoard of material to draw from. As Peterson states in Maps of Meaning:
Thus Peterson’s lectures on Biblical stories and the large passages of Biblical exegesis in Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson does not read the Bible as the living word of a Living God, but as a series of archetypes that provide a pattern of order and structure for human life. The appeal this has to millennials who have lost faith in God but still yearn for order and belonging probably shouldn’t be surprising. Peterson’s aim is to take such myths and stories and reformat them as rituals that can be re-enacted in the modern day: the building blocks of a new moral order.
This is but a partial sketch of a much more complex thesis, a set of interlocking ideas that takes Peterson 40 hours of lectures and 300 pages full of diagrams and dense prose to lay out in full. The thumbnail is sufficient, however, to grasp both the scope of Peterson’s ambition and the myopia of his critics.
Yes, it’s true that some elements of Peterson’s quest to totalitarian-proof the Western world are shallow. His analysis of world mythology and religious imagery is built almost entirely on the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. This a painfully limited foundation for the task at hand. And yes, there are a hundred ways one might pick at Peterson’s civilization-revitalization project. What’s striking, though is that most of Peterson’s critics don’t even seem to realize that this project exists. The liberal commentariat’s collective horror with Peterson seems instead to be rooted in an instinctive revulsion for his followers. “Does it bother you, that your audience is predominantly male?” journalist Cathy Newman asks Peterson, as if a message that appealed to young men is inherently sinful.
But is it so surprising that young men have found inspiration in Peterson’s musings? They are heirs to a faith tradition they no longer believe in. They are citizens of communities who have lost their cohesion. They are members of a generation trained to be cynical but exhorted since birth to somehow find a life full of “meaning.” Peterson has compassion for these dispossessed and recognizes that bad things happen to societies full of brooding, listless, and hollow men.
Peterson has critics from the Christian right, too, who seem to be disappointed that the answer to how to build a new moral order is “not them.” Charlie Clark’s review for Mere Orthodoxy is the best of the genre. Peterson “is not the next C.S. Lewis” (which is true) and noting that, his book concludes that people can save themselves “without God’s grace.” (Also true.)
This distinctly Christian critique of Peterson is more thoughtful (and certainly more interesting) than the reviewers who condemn Peterson merely for having the temerity to push back against progressive pieties. However, there is in these protests a certain unwillingness to engage with reality of our present moment.
The “Great Awokening” was this generation’s Great Awakening. The dam has already burst; the post-Christian tide has already swept Millennials well onto the pagan course. There will be no return to Christendom—not in the short term. “Benedict Option” type solutions might preserve Christian communities in the midst of this deluge, but they are only half a solution. They leave unaddressed what sort of moral order conservatives should support in this new post-Christian world.
This question deserves to be taken seriously. If America is destined to be a pagan nation, it is in our interest to ensure that America’s pagans are of the virtuous, not vicious, variety. It is possible to live honorably and morally without Christianity—entire civilizations have flourished outside the auspices of Christendom. But it remains to be seen if our civilization can so flourish.
To this end, I must salute Jordan Peterson. It takes foresight to recognize that the moral order of your civilization needs patching up; it takes chutzpah to believe that you can do the patching. Peterson’s patches are not perfect, but they are a useful starting point for an effort that is long overdue.
Tanner Greer is a writer and analyst currently based out of Beijing.