Jordan Peterson is all the rage as of late, propelled to fame on the front lines of cultural conflict by his stand against Bill C-16 in Toronto, which put fangs in gender pronoun wars. The university world came down on Peterson like a hammer on an anvil but soon found out that he was a match for PC culture. He came to the fight armed with something they had not expected – scholarship, research, a deep familiarity with both literature and culture, and an ability to maintain his cool while reloading his cannons of philosophical and psychological knowledge. He can take it. And then he can not only dish it out but leave no one standing on the field of battle.
He has been a sight to behold. His book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” has rocketed to #1 at Amazon, which I have not read. A bit less accessible is his work “Maps of Meaning,” which I have read as a resource for my philosophy classes. Many consider Peterson at this point in time the #1 intellectual in Western civilization. Males are flocking to his lectures, for he makes a large place for the historical role of the male as hero. Peterson’s disgust for the feminization of men is energetic and epic. He has become so prominent that the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker feels compelled to respond to him and assure his audience that he is no Jordan Peterson fan.
Peterson is even making his way into the church, though Peterson makes no religious commitments. Indeed, his heavy reliance on evolution, Jungian psychology, and mythic archetypes with a sprinkling of Freud is not the usual fare of conservative Christians. And yet they see in him a support for what they see in the Bible.
I am in general appreciative of Peterson’s pushback against the totatalitarianism of progressives and PC culture. Yet I know that what he asserts is rooted in models of thinking that have some darkness at their edges, and maybe in their center, as well. Pankaj Mishra’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism,” shines some light on it. If you are a Peterson fan, it is worth a read.
He writes, “Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.” There is some truth here. The 1800s on the European continent saw the burgeoning of what is often called “national romanticism.” It was a move away from the Enlightenment project in which all was mind, reason, logic, intellect. What was being destroyed and disrupted was tradition, culture, belonging, replaced by the ever constant and increasing demands of better, more, and sharper. The old ways would not do anymore. We were men made new. And, of course, the Enlightenment project meant there had to be winners and losers, those who got it right and prospered and those who got it wrong and straggled behind, the opposite of the medieval feudal village with its stability and belonging.
The mind of artists and the intellectual class turned from the idolatry of reason to the world of romanticism, of myth, fairy tale, mystical place and nation. It was the world of Hans Christian Anderson. Out of this milieu came a fascination with tribe and place as centers of meaning, not science, commerce, trade, university. It wasn’t long before this developed a darker edge – a national romanticism that demanded loyalty, soul, and manhood in its defense, the hero, as it were.
The work of Freud and Jung fit into this time and historical meaning. Pankaj Mishra again. “In 1910, Romain Rolland summed up the widespread mood in which progress under liberal auspices appeared a sham, and many people appeared eager to replace the Enlightenment ideal of individual reason by such transcendental coordinates as ‘archetypes.’ ‘The gate of dreams had reopened,’ Rolland wrote, and ‘in the train of religion came little puffs of theosophy, mysticism, esoteric faith, occultism to visit the chambers of the Western mind.'”
Soon we were to see appear on the European stage heroes that embodied the mythic, the strong, the earthy, the tribe. This is the darker edge of Peterson’s world, the one which he must know but gives little time exploring. I think Peterson is right to see that there are truths about us that come out of our past, out of Eden, as it were, that reason alone cannot explain nor support. These truths are so real that to defy them is to be crushed by them. We are not self-constructed. To put it directly “We Are.”
Where do we find the definitions of who this “we” is? This is Peterson’s project. For him to complete it, he would be more helpful to make clear that this project can go into some very bad places.