It was last spring when I first discovered the works and character of Professor Jordan B Peterson. At the time I was vaguely acquainted with him — I understood, for example, that he was the latest target of fanatical left-wing ideologues — but many people are targeted by fanatical left-wing ideologues, so he slipped under my radar as it were. Eventually Peterson re-appeared in my horizon and I began consuming his content vociferously (and with great pleasure.) I quickly realized that I had stumbled upon a man of noble character and scholarly intellect with a penchant for fighting political extremism. That’s when I decided to start paying attention.
But as great as Jordan Peterson is, it is still a mystery as to why he has cultivated such a following. Tens of thousands of dollars in Patreon donations, sold out theaters for lectures on the Bible (of all the bloody things), a million freshly made beds, and all of this despite the fact that he cannot seem to sort out his damn audio quality. But the thing that is so odd about the Jordan Peterson phenomena is that it seemingly breaks with historical precedent. Many men have made rousing calls to bear one’s suffering nobly and live virtuously — especially in the conservative religious community — but no one else has generated a cultural moment around their sole personality as though they were the center of the cosmos. So I’m going to provide three reasons for why Jordan Peterson is resonating with so many people and I hope that will, in turn, help us to see the deficiencies of our civilization at large.
I am hijacking the first reason from my friend Paul Rhoads who thinks that the charm of Jordan Peterson is a consequence of how he transmits “old time values” through a modern perspective. In other words, Peterson appeals to young men’s inherent sense of duty and desire for excellence in order to make them reconsider the old religious traditions, but he does this through the medium of Darwinism, contemporary psychology, and modern philosophical treatises like existentialism and pragmatism. This generates a dynamic, fun, and credible re-telling of old ideas as he weaves in the old with the new and shows how the old ideas cannot be simply discarded. But even more importantly, he is trying to do what so many nostalgics of the past have done before: he is trying to cultivate a synthesis between the old and the new. He is trying to rectify Nietzsche’s Death of God. To be clear, I am not fully convinced that this synthesis can be done, and I worry about the philosophical underpinnings of Jordan Peterson’s method, but this is not the time to criticize the great man; the current moment requires that I sing his praises. So despite whatever misgivings I might have — as a fellow interlocutor of the ancient past — I am continually pleased by Jordan Peterson’s success in communicating these old ideas to my generation. And I must admit that it probably could not have been done except by speaking OUR language, that is to say, the language of modernity.
Jordan Peterson’s appeal to modern psychology is especially worth mentioning. The clinical psychologists who he references are something like self-help gurus for the soul, and to be clear I mean that in the most laudatory way possible. Without straying too far into the murky depths of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, I think it will suffice to say that his work on the psychology of religious stories has had a marked impact on Jordan Peterson. Jung is something like the intermediary between the old and the new or religion and science, or psychology and God. Jung’s work is, therefore, the intellectual foundation stone for Peterson’s philosophy. Carl Jung is what allows us to see the eternal in this age of supposed progress.
Jordan Peterson is able to effectively communicate old time values because of his personality, which brings me to my second point: Jordan Peterson, as a man and human all too human, is the very model of moral character. So that a pair of unlikely features have crystallized in the form of Jordan Peterson: personal excellence both intellectual and moral alongside a noble message that we are starved of. Jordan Peterson’s very demeanour betrays his status as a man of moral striving who cares deeply for the world. He has integrated his shadow, which gives him an acute posture of humility, and he has cultivated the deeply Christian virtue of love for the world and desire to make Being better. Which is exactly why Jordan Peterson has been looked up to as a benevolent father figure. He doesn’t want chaos; he doesn’t want to simply win the argument; and he doesn’t want to pillage his enemies of all their self-respect. He loves existence and wants to see it made better, even if he isn’t entirely sure how to do that short of individual self-responsibility. All of this is because he has come to understand just how bad things can become when men of virtuous disposition renege upon their duty to serve the highest good. He fully understands what happened in the 20th century and he payed attention when Solzhenitsyn wrote that the reason for Russia’s collapse into nihilistic communism was because “men have forgotten God”.
Peterson is further characterized by his inveterate seriousness. He breaks into tears on a regular basis as he becomes emotionally overwhelmed by the whole majesty and tragedy of the position he has found himself in. And this emotional appeal is made more effective by the fact that our culture eschews seriousness and occasionally mocks it. Children are no longer told to confront life but instead to “don’t take yourself too seriously”. (Personally I detest that phrase — and I can’t figure why on earth you would not take yourself seriously. Are you of so little worth that your life is a mere joke, or are you just the playthings of the Gods?) We should recover the old Roman virtue of seriousness and I think that is one of the messages that Jordan Peterson has communicated implicitly through his actions. My point in describing Peterson’s moral character and emotional demeanour is not an exercise in flattery, but to show why it is that the medium is sometimes the message. Certain men are more capable of transmitting lofty notions with grace and charm, so that it seems clear to me that Jordan Peterson IS the man for the job.
The third and final and most important reason for the good doctor’s success is to be found in his politics. Now I know that Peterson eschews politics in favor of individualism, and I have much sympathy for his position, but we cannot simply disregard politics if we take Aristotle seriously when he said that man is by nature a political animal. The fact is that politics remains an ever-present feature of human life. The 20th century was as much a political malfunction as a moral malfunction — and oftentimes the diseases of moral character stem from the noxious vines of politics or vice versa. So we must understand both Jordan Peterson’s particular political stances, alongside his more tentative political philosophy.
He was brought to fame by opposing Bill C16 or the Canadian legislation that outlaws hate propaganda and discrimination against Trans folks. Through a series of videos, Peterson explained how this legislation was using guidelines which were little more than an attempt to wedge compelled speech into Canadian federal law. The injustice of this legislation, and the outlandish response to Jordan Peterson’s criticisms of it, revealed in full view just how radical we’ve become in our politics. Which leads us directly into Jordan Peterson’s political belief that ideology is toxic because it attempts to bring the kingdom of God down to earth, and what’s more he showed how the progenitors of this legislation weren’t simply well meaning defenders of trans people, but radical leftists ensconced in a post-modern zeitgeist. Professor Peterson correctly identified the radical left as a vestige, or more accurately a torch bearer, of the misguided marxists of the 20th century. And then he also revealed Post-Modernism to the world when I think it was still hidden to most people, myself included. He has, therefore, DE-masked the political malaise that plagues the West: moral relativity.
What makes him different, however, is that he hasn’t been subsumed by this conflict and he has therefore evaded the tribalism of identitarianism and has been able to speak across the aisle by appealing to people’s individual sense of justice. Jordan Peterson would never attach himself to a political ideology, and he can therefore circumvent the blind partisanship of many people and make them aware of our present dangers without forcing them to drink from the cup of doctrinal politics. He is, therefore, a mediator between politics and the individual or man and his city.
Just as an aside, I would like to respond to my critics in advance. Cynics will say that this video is sycophantic or idol worship of some cult leader. I think this is all nonsense: cult leaders don’t preach self-responsibility. But I would also add that there is no nobility in refusing to call a spade a spade; you aren’t a nuanced thinker just because you refuse to praise the praiseworthy. I believe firmly in the reality of ethics, and therefore I recognize that some people are excellent, and others aren’t. Jordan Peterson is excellent, and men of excellence deserve our praise. He is not perfect, but I try to evaluate men on whole and cannot be bothered to criticize their every mistake.
I began by praising Jordan Peterson for his message of individual responsibility, and conclude by praising his politics of prudence. He is a man for the times, and a thinker for the ages. And I wish him all the best in his efforts.