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12 Rules for Life – Some Preliminary Thoughts

Have our readers (or my fellow bloggers) been introduced to the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson? Peterson is a psychology professor and clinical psychologist who has become something of a darling of conservatives, wayward young men, and anti-PC folks of all political persuasions who appreciate Peterson’s willingness to take on the Left’s shibboleths and fight tough. His YouTube videos, which have made him famous, have over a million views and his Patreon website collects over $50K each month (for roughly the past year.) As an academic psychologist (first at Harvard and now at the University of Toronto) he had previously written only one rather dense book summarizing his thought (which is heavily influenced by Jung and Nietzsche, two thinkers that normally raised red flags for me) but he decided to write a more accessible book, 12 Rules for Life, which came out earlier this year and has been a best seller ever since.

I bought the book (I’m about two-thirds through the book, so consider this a partial review) inspired by one of my friends who is a big Peterson fan and we just saw him speak in Chicago as part of his lecture tour promoting the book. I haven’t watched any of his YouTube videos all the way through – I find I’d much rather sit down and read something or watch something amusing than watch an ‘educational’ lecture (although if I am going to watch an educational YouTube video it is always going to be an apologetic video from Lydia or a lecture by Ed Feser first!) I did however, enjoy this infamous interview with Cathy Newman on British TV and recommend you take 20 minutes out of your day and watch the whole thing if you haven't just to see him in action.

It is hard to summarize Peterson in a short blog post, so I’ll cheat and borrow here from one of the most interesting secular bloggers around who read the book himself and was surprised at how much he liked it – from Scott Alexander’s "Star Slate Codex" blog review:

Twelve Rules is twelve chapters centered around twelve cutesy-sounding rules that are supposed to guide your life. The meat of the chapters never has anything to do with the cutesy-sounding rules. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” is about slaying dragons. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” is about a heart-wrenchingly honest investigation of the Problem of Evil. “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding” is about neo-Marxist transgender lobsters stealing your precious bodily fluids. All of them turn out to be the General Prophetic Method applied in slightly different ways.

And a lot of them – especially the second – center around Peterson’s idea of Order vs. Chaos. Order is the comfortable habit-filled world of everyday existence, symbolized by the Shire or any of a thousand other Shire-equivalent locations in other fantasies or fairy tales. Chaos is scary things you don’t understand pushing you out of your comfort zone, symbolized by dragons or the Underworld or [approximately 30% of mythological objects, characters, and locations]. Humans are living their best lives when they’re always balanced on the edge of Order and Chaos, converting the Chaos into new Order. Lean too far toward Order, and you get boredom and tyranny and stagnation. Lean too far toward Chaos, and you get utterly discombobulated and have a total breakdown. Balance them correctly, and you’re always encountering new things, grappling with them, and using them to enrich your life and the lives of those you care about.

Chapter Seven is called “Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)” and was also the subject of the talk Peterson gave in Chicago. Peterson as a speaker is remarkable – he talked non-stop for almost two hours and kept me (and it seemed like most of the audience) spellbound. He is a compelling story-teller and while he remained intense throughout the evening, he does have a dry sense of humor that comes across from time to time – he knows that a well placed bon mot can help ease the steady stream of talk of suffering, sacrifice, human evil, etc. What is meaningful for Peterson? He closed his talk, in all seriousness, by saying to the audience that we need to pick up our "cross" and walk with it on the road the Heaven. But as I'll explain below, these concepts for Peterson seem to be more metaphorical than literal. For Peterson, the answer to life's meaning comes from all of the classic themes of Western Civilization – one such theme being sacrifice (for the future, for your family, for the community):

The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, [a story we tell ourselves, Peterson says earlier, to deal with the problem of suffering] fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptualization and action well-matched to that nature. In the Garden of Eden, prior to the dawn of self-consciousness—so goes the story—human beings were sinless. Our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, walked with God. Then, tempted by the snake, the first couple ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, discovered Death and vulnerability, and turned away from God. Mankind was exiled from Paradise, and began its effortful moral existence. The idea of sacrifice enters soon afterward, beginning with the account of Cain and Abel, and developing through the Abrahamic adventures and the Exodus: After much contemplation, struggling humanity learns that God’s favor could be gained, and his wrath averted, through proper sacrifice—and, also, that bloody murder might be motivated among those unwilling or unable to succeed in this manner. [Pages 159-160 in the Kindle edition]

Peterson is almost obsessed with suffering and its related problem, the problem of evil (it is one thing to suffer a tragedy but when another human being willingly inflicts suffering on someone else – that takes the problem of suffering in the world to another level.) As you can see in the above passage, he is respectful of the Bible, but is not a believer – in some sense the Biblical stories are equivalent for Peterson to the great works of literature of the Western tradition (e.g. Tolstoy’s novels or Goethe’s plays.) They contain great moral and philosophical truths, but if you asked Peterson if he believed in God or he thought young men should believe in God (or go to church, or pray regularly) I’m quite sure the answer to the first question would be no and I suspect he would equivocate on the second question.

Scott Alexander compares Peterson to C.S. Lewis (having previously reviewed Lewis’ book The Great Divorce) because they both have a talent for taking simple, even cliched ideas and making them fresh. But Alexander thinks Lewis would have hated Peterson because:

His [Peterson’s] Heaven is a metaphorical Heaven. If you sort yourself out and trust in metaphorical God, you can live a wholesome self-respecting life, make your parents proud, and make the world a better place. Even though Peterson claims “nobody is really an atheist” and mentions Jesus about three times per page, I think C.S. Lewis would consider him every bit as atheist as Richard Dawkins, and the worst sort of false prophet.

However, much more interesting to me is the push back Alexander got on this idea from one of his commentators:

I realize that your talk of C.S. Lewis ‘hating’ Jordan Peterson is hyperbole, but it’s well worth realizing that he was actually a man of broad friendships and, much though he later rejected his youthful flirtations with non- or anti-Christian ideas, a broad personal experience. I mean, the man had variously been a dabbler in the occult (something he rejected with particular ferocity, after one of his spiritualist friends went insane), an idealist, and an atheist materialist, before he became a Christian, in part through the long intellectual influence of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton (two very different figures) and in part because of a late-night conversation with Hugo Dyson and the very Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien. Of his friends throughout his life, one of the closest was the anthroposophist Owen Barfield, and another, Charles Williams, was, well, it’s rather hard to figure out, but at least eccentric.

In fact, Peterson sounds, whenever I hear him described, as a kind of prophet of what Lewis called ‘the Tao’ in The Abolition of Man. Lewis is not, so far as I can see it, using the word in the technical sense–this is not Tao as ancient Chinese doctrine–but instead borrowing a word to refer to the basic sense of right and wrong, truth and goodness, and, at least to some degree, beauty and order as reflections thereof. It is, in other words, the natural law, understood not as an arcane system for judging morality in the abstract (the unfortunate impression some less-talented writers leave), but as it is really is: the basic moral order imprinted in the universe itself and in the hearts of mankind.

The central problem of The Abolition of Man (and a central problem also of the novel That Hideous Strength, which was likewise published in 1943 and is very close to it in thought) is the failure of modern education to teach that sense of right and wrong: its tendency to produce ‘men without chests’, or people whose actions are not grounded in the law of nature, in what is true and good, but ultimately only in their own preferences. From this perspective (or so I infer–I don’t have the book in front of me and I don’t remember whether he treats any kind of sophisticated utilitarian thought), utilitarianism, though it purports to judge what is moral, must fail, as it is not ultimately beholden to what is actually right in and of itself. At best, the utilitarian, despite his doctrine, still acts on the basis of his ingrained sense of rightness, and that sense of rightness needs to be shaped to the Tao, or it is nothing.

So, where does this leave Jordan Peterson? Not, I think, straightforwardly on the outside. I doubt Lewis would see in him a proto-Christian, since Peterson knows scripture and rejects Christian orthodoxy, but he is at least–or so it seems–a man with a strong apprehension of right and wrong, who is trying to grow the chests of people, especially young men, whose morality has been stunted. He is, as it were, on the side of the Tao.

To any Christian, and Lewis was one, there is a danger here, of course, and that is that Peterson is nevertheless still not on the side of God. Morality simply is not, because it cannot be, a matter of self-help and self-improvement. There, I think, your own characterization of Lewis goes wrong. He is not part of a “vast humanistic self-cultivation tradition”; though he does draw on ancient philosophy, he is a Christian lay theologian, and therefore believes in human frailty and the need for divine grace. ‘We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts’, he wrote in Mere Christianity. ‘It has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it was fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, He will do it in us and for us.’

One cannot speak for a dead man, and others know Lewis’s works better than I do. Nonetheless, I suspect that he would see in Jordan Peterson a man who sees clearly some of the worst errors of his own age, but who can only be a kind of stop on the way to the full truth, who is (of course) Christ himself. Like the world’s moral traditions which, Lewis believed, reflected the truth of the Tao, he might prepare for the Gospel; but making of his teaching a Gospel–treating it, that is, as if it really could make people good enough–would simply be to pave yet another path that leads away from God and real health of the soul.

It is interesting how Peterson can get so much right and yet, as this commentator put it – remain “only a stop on the way to the full truth.” The night I saw him speak I was lucky enough to stay after the official talk for a VIP question and answer session. One young man Peterson called on asked why more churches weren’t willing to analyze Biblical stories with the depth and insight that Peterson seemed to do in his Biblical lectures and in his book – he specifically used Peterson’s analysis of the story of Jonah and said something like “my fundamentalist church will only teach the surface details and won’t get into the psychological details like you do?” Peterson’s answer was revealing – his first statement was to defend fundamentalists – he argued that their moral systems were strong and that (no surprise) this impressed him as an excellent antidote to ‘chaos.’ Then he started to talk a bit about how much he loved the story of Jonah and how rich it was in psychological insight and dealt with many of the themes from his book. But as he was talking about the story, at some point he said, “of course, no one really lived inside a whale for three days” and my heart sank. Why not Doctor Peterson – why couldn’t the creator of the heavens and earth violate your precious materialist world-view for a blip in time and miraculously allow Jonah to survive in the belly of some giant sea creature for a couple of days? The dismissive tone in his voice was so disappointing – if he’s going to reject the miracle of Jonah how could someone like that possibly believe in the Resurrection of Christ?

So what should traditional Christian conservatives think of the Peterson phenomenon and specifically the ideas in his book? Jordan pitches himself as an antidote to chaos (that is literally the subtitle of the book) and if we think of chaos as catching some sort of cold then I would characterize Peterson as an effective over-the-counter remedy to help stabilize the patient – but we all know the only real cure is faith in Christ Jesus – which is the one drug Peterson is intrigued by, respectful of, perhaps he’s even jealous at times at those willing to take the undiluted medicine; but he himself is trapped in a materialistic worldview that won’t open the medicine cabinet and take his prescribed pills. Pray for Doctor Peterson.

Comments (15)

It may be helpful in this to elaborate a bit on Peterson's epistemology. Bluntly put, it's kind of messed up. He hews to the pragmatic view that "truth is what is useful." We have an automatic cap on our knowledge, a horizon beyond which we do not and cannot see. All we can do in our limited way is to act out on what knowledge we have that is relevant to our survival as a species. Of course, this prompts the question: Dr. Peterson, if Christ rose bodily from the dead, do you suppose that might be relevant to our survival as a species? Discuss.

It's interesting to me that he said flatly here, "Of course the story of Jonah didn't really happen," because on the resurrection, he has not been so definite. In fact, he's said repeatedly that he refuses to "close the door" on a bodily resurrection and leave it in the realm of mere metaphor. But he doesn't understand it well enough (and certainly hasn't looked into the evidences) to give a more definite answer. So the most honest thing he feels he can say is that he simply doesn't know.

I'm thinking of the character of McPhee in That Hideous Strength. There's an example of someone who is a skeptic but serves the Tao and whom Lewis regards as an ally of the good guys. When it comes to a straight-up fight between good and evil, when demon-worshiping totalitarians try to take over England and the world, McPhee is found on the right side. Though, as the character Ransom says, "What he'll do if we win I have no idea."

I have listened to the first eight of Dr. Peterson's Biblical Series lectures, and as this post states, his view of the Bible is that for the most part it is a "true myth." I won't bother with restating everything that this post already mentioned, but in summary, yes, as a psychologist and quasi Christian (Dr. Peterson never directly states his beliefs, but tends to accept Christianity as the most successful of organized religions) he definitely approaches the Bible from an almost Gnostic perspective. The weirdest things I have heard him say (on a few occasions) deal with hallucinatory drugs and hinting that they may have played a part in the visions experienced by some of the Old Testament authors. So for me (I take a fairly conservative Catholic view of Scripture) those comments are very off-putting, are without any shred of evidence, and are irresponsible to state. However, in some other regards, he validates the historicity of much of the OT and believes that the stories go back thousands of years (whether or not he is right or wrong) and cannot be brushed off as just circa 600 BC "documentary hypothesis" story amalgams. In one of the first lectures of the series, an audience member asked Dr. Peterson what he thought of St. Paul's statement that if the Resurrection is in vain, our faith is in vain. Dr. Peterson did not directly respond to the question, but certainly left open his possibility of accepting the Resurrection as describe in the Gospels. So in that regards, it was good to see him not immediately dismiss it as some kind of appearance or legendary embellishment of Jesus. Overall, I have enjoyed listening to the lectures and the few criticisms I have are minor after considering that Dr. Peterson is not a Biblical scholar and may not even be a practicing Christian, but he does hold Scripture in very high regard and believes that modern society can certainly learn from its wealth of teachings.

I don't have any experience of Peterson except one lecture video, so I am not going to pretend I can speak with authority about him. With that caveat: anyone who employs the biblical stories to explore and explain the human psyche, and human right and wrong, has the potential to get a great deal right. But anyone who does so while persisting in thinking of those stories as almost wholly made of psychological "home truths" writ into man's story of himself is very, very likely to ultimately misunderstand both the stories and the home truths, unless he is incredibly lucky. For example:

Mankind was exiled from Paradise, and began its effortful moral existence. The idea of sacrifice enters soon afterward, beginning with the account of Cain and Abel, and developing through the Abrahamic adventures and the Exodus: After much contemplation, struggling humanity learns that God’s favor could be gained, and his wrath averted, through proper sacrifice

You can't effectively be agnostic on the literal existence of the God of the Bible, and yet hold forth that man is the sort of thing for which sacrifice to a "god" is a right way to live, without being in a sense condescending about human right living. Does he end up meaning "yes, you simple people should be the sort of people who sacrifice to your god, because it is psychologically healthy to do so, it helps you keep your world in balance" while also saying (to himself) "but of course, I know that it really doesn't matter whether there is a real god out there who hears your supplications, it is not the having been heard that is important, it is the offering of those prayers that makes you people 'whole' "? The person saying this is implying that he himself stands outside of the stream of humanity for whom it is a good to believe in their god. But a person who puts himself into the shoes of "right human actions" in terms of believing in a god and sacrificing to him cannot sacrifice to just any old god and leaving to chance whether it is the God of the Bible or some other.

The problem for Peterson is that the insights of the Bible are not fully separable from the One who speaks through the Bible, the One who reveals Himself in it, the One whose authority is behind it. They cannot be considered sound and reliable without the attestation of One who is Himself sound and reliable. And if such a One is really the source of the Bible's rightness, then a psychologist cannot forever remain aloof from the question of what he owes to the One from whom the Bible came forth. Not only is Peterson's set of views a stepping stone to the Truth, he himself must step forward on that path to greater truth than the psychological insights therein. The Greeks like Aristotle rightly stated what right living - virtue - looked like, in large part, and Peterson may be expanding on their insights. But Aeschylus and Aristotle could be agnostic on grace and redemption, and their picture of the world was thus incomplete in an important way; once Christ has been announced, we are no longer free to remain so, and TRYING to avoid the issue is likely to deform the true picture. My sense is that eventually either Peterson will embrace Christ, or that his philosophy will warp and twist so that he justifies not having to do so. My guess is that the reason Peterson was ambiguous in answer to the comment about St. Paul's statement that if the Resurrection is in vain, our faith is in vain is that he is himself highly ambivalent in his own mind about Christianity, and still trying to see his way through the thickets. We should pray for him, because there is only one solid pathway through that forest.

His bold and courageous refusal to obey a non-existent law was enough for me. This may be of interest to some:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/03/the-intellectual-we-deserve

“Meaning is manifestation of the divine individual adaptive path” ????

Good Professor Leiter also has some opinions on Peterson

Pace Paul, this is my full contribution to this thread as one either figures out that Peterson is a charlatan or not in a few paragraphs (if not sentences). Anyone who buys into the IDW thing is likely hopeless.

Here is a review of the book over at CNA if anyone is interested. I honestly haven't read or listened to him all that much, but it is interesting to see the varying opinions of this thought.

Al's faith in the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal is cute. Al -- you are nothing if not a reliable negative indicator -- when you say "up", I know I should go down. "Current Affairs" fancies itself as a highbrow version of "The Nation", so buyer beware. That doesn't mean the review of Peterson couldn't, in a remarkable and unique once in a life-time event, be fair and interesting; but I'd put better odds on me winning the Lotto next week. Some recent article descriptions from their website include: "The U.S. failure to acknowledge the causes of Palestinian suffering…" AND "The market doesn’t care about individuals…" AND "What is Star Trek without the socialism?"

Also, there is nothing good about Professor Leiter.

I read the CA piece, and while the author certainly makes some valid points, the whole thing strikes me as something of an exercise in protesting too much. If Peterson really is the charlatan and buffoon that the writer says he is, do you really need acres of dense prose and huge block quotes to demonstrate it?

I've not read Peterson yet, so can't comment one way or the other, but it sounds like he's got some folks a little panicked. He seems to be a species of classical liberal, and one who talks a certain amount of sense about some things. And I say this as a person who's no great fan of "classical liberalism."

I read the CA piece, and while the author certainly makes some valid points, the whole thing strikes me as something of an exercise in protesting too much.

Nice, I was going to say the same thing about the CNA article. But I just ran across yet another critique, and it hits a lot of the same basic criticisms.

https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2018/05/jordan-peterson-shepherd-of-the-easily-freudened/

I don't know anything about American Affairs, other than that they sound kind of post-post-modern (i.e. fed up with post-modernism). That could mean almost anything, but they seem to have Rusty Reno on the Board of Advisors, so they could have at last a tiny tendril of connection to reality.

I must admit, I found Dr. Peterson's Biblical Series lectures interesting at first, but after listening to the ninth installment I am getting a bit fatigued. I think that he truly enjoys reading and learning from Scripture, but he is unable to do so without filtering it all through the lenses of 19th and 20th century psychological theories. But he really goes off the rails when he beings theorizing about the Old Testament prophets using hallucinatory drugs or when he makes comments like "the androgynous Christ" that stem from the very postmodernism that he tries to fight.

I read the American Affairs piece but I'm still not sure. I plan to read 12 Rules for myself and have ordered a copy from the library. It does seem a bit odd to me that critics are diving deep into Peterson's older book to explain the new one, since the vast majority of the people who've read the former will never read the latter. Frankly, the idea that the subversive/corrosive message of the older work is necessarily hidden in and therefore transmitted by the newer one strikes me as a stretch. The argument seems to be: "Well, Peterson's new book seems okay, but if you read the older one you'll see what he's really getting at." That critique may be appropriate if the new book were simply a popularized version of the old one, but I don't get the sense from these critics that that's so.

I have listened to the first eight of Dr. Peterson's Biblical Series lectures, and as this post states, his view of the Bible is that for the most part it is a "true myth." I won't bother with restating everything that this post already mentioned, but in summary, yes, as a psychologist and quasi Christian (Dr. Peterson never directly states his beliefs, but tends to accept Christianity as the most successful of organized religions) he definitely approaches the Bible from an almost Gnostic perspective. The weirdest things I have heard him say (on a few occasions) deal with hallucinatory drugs and hinting that they may have played a part in the visions experienced by some of the Old Testament authors. So for me (I take a fairly conservative Catholic view of Scripture) those comments are very off-putting, are without any shred of evidence, and are irresponsible to state.

Mark P., I have the same response. The people who put the the whole of the Old Testament in a completely different category than the New Testament (in terms of whether they speak to historical reality), saying that the OT is essentially "myth-making" while allowing that at least some of the NT is essentially reporting actual events, undermine any claims of historicity of the NT. A large part of the force of the claims of Christianity - on the bones of the NT - to being accepted as true is that the NT events (reported accurately in the NT) are the fulfillment of both the words of prophecy and the types, (i.e. prefigurements) present in the OT events reported as if they were historically real. The point is that, unlike we limited humans who make stories (like myths) but cannot make reality "fit" into a story we want to tell, God can do exactly that - He can cause the actual events of history to tell the story He intends to present. The force of the claims of Christianity are thus damaged if nothing in the OT is reporting real history.

Of course, if Peterson isn't a Christian, he may not care a fig for Christianity as such. But then I would submit that relying on his work to support a Christian framework of wholesome mind, soul, and life might not be a good idea. He might have a good truth here and there, but it is unlikely that his whole construct is helpful. Anyone who has read the Bible carefully and in depth, and rejects Christianity, can't possibly be neutral: he is going to have real differences between what he holds as the truth about the world and what Christianity asserts.

Having read about halfway through "12 rules" and watched a couple videos, I'm under the impression that Jordan Peterson is a biological reductionist, a true believer in evolutionary psychology, and a man whose views on ethics are essentially utilitarian. He's hardly a real defender of C.S. Lewis's "Tao." He offers young people a practical guide for living a better life, but once you see through his phony invocations of the Old Testament, he has nothing truly inspiring to offer. Like Donald Trump, one tends to sympathize with him not owing to his merits but because he tends to make the right enemies.

L Ron Hubbard once speculated on creating a religion and proceeded to do just that. Drum over at Mother Jones links to an interesting article in the Toronto Star.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/2018/05/25/i-was-jordan-petersons-strongest-supporter-now-i-think-hes-dangerous.html

I assume most you don't frequent things left, so I thought I would pass it on. The cult potential in the whole Gamer Gate - MRA - Incel thing is huge. Peterson sort of reminds me of Angus McDonough.

" Like Donald Trump, one tends to sympathize with him not owing to his merits but because he tends to make the right enemies."

Pas d'ennemis à droite is a sad sign of these degenerate times.

Vox Day thinks Jordan Peterson is Satanic.

Brian Leiter considers him a charlatan.

So he's got this going for him: all the dunces are in league against him.

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