Jordan Peterson Sermonizes Again
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Jordan Peterson Sermonizes Again

Ben Sixsmith

Jordan Peterson was on top of the world. His book, 12 Rules for Life, straddling the genres of self-help, mythology, and psychoanalysis, was an immense bestseller. His lectures were attended by thousands in person, and watched by millions online. He had innumerable donors on Patreon. Then he disappeared.

Rumors swirled. Peterson’s wife had cancer and he was struggling with a cruel dependency on benzodiazepines, taken to deal with his anxiety and depression. He attempted to reduce his intake but ended up suffering debilitating withdrawal symptoms. Somehow, he contracted pneumonia and was placed in a medically induced coma in a Russian clinic. People wondered if he would recover.

Well, he has. Like a prophet emerging from the wilderness, he has returned—into a world which, in his absence, has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the tempestuous 2020 US election. He is bearing a new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. What has changed?

Not much. The book avoids being explicitly political. It contains no mention of Trump or BLM, and COVID-19 is referenced only when Peterson says he is not going to talk about it. His travails are discussed in a brief and grueling introduction and then disappear without leaving an imprint on his work. This refusal to be bogged down in the present is refreshing, in the sense that Peterson is unconcerned with the marketer’s fetish for relevance, but also leaves, for this reader, a trace of unreality.

Peterson addresses you far more than we or us. He reminds this reviewer of an austere Anglican priest—not a raging American evangelical, for sure, but a cleric for whom moralism rides an anecdote or a cultural reference. He is good at saying obvious things that people need to hear. For example:

The attractive potential of a directionless but talented twenty-five-year-old starts to look hopeless and pathetic at thirty.

And again:

It is a bad idea to sacrifice yourself uncomplainingly so that someone else can take the credit.

And again:

You do not have a life with someone when you have an affair with them.

It is obvious, and yet its obviousness escapes people enough that it is worth saying. Human beings are talented at rationalizing unhealthy and irresponsible behavior, so simple truth obtains an odd profundity. “It is helpful,” as Peterson says, “for everyone to be able to represent explicitly what they already implicitly understand.” True. In a time when people are often divided from their loved ones, and adrift from churches and civic institutions, Peterson has functioned as a sort of pastor-by-proxy.

Unfortunately, Peterson also suffers from two vices that characterize the stereotypical sermon: repetition and a certain windiness. “Life is what repeats,” he says. Later: “Life is, after all, mostly composed of what is repeated routinely.” Life, and to some extent this book. Some of his advice, meanwhile, would have benefited from the editing he might be famous enough to have transcended. That a married couple need mutual empathy and imagination to maintain a healthy sex life as the years go by is true, of course, but pages of suggestions—“how about trying to set up the whole situation in the romantic manner that you might imagine, if you were imagining having an affair”—could have been trimmed to a manageable paragraph.

One can be too cynical. If you had told conservatives in 2010 that one of the world’s most famous public intellectuals at the turn of the next decade would be a man who promoted marriage, the family, and respect for traditional institutions, and opposed Marxism, libertinism, and iconoclasm, they would have been at least glad that it was not the opposite.

Nor do I think one should write off Peterson’s work on the basis of his personal struggles. Perhaps there is a morbid irony in the fact that someone known for telling people to clean up their habits and order their lives fell to pieces in a haze of pharmaceutical addiction. Still, to repurpose a quote from Kenneth Tynan, a critic is someone who may not drive well but still knows the way. Peterson may have given advice in his 2018 book, but as far as I know, he has never claimed to be its ideal practitioner.

His personal humility, indeed, is an endearing feature of his work. He salutes his father-in-law’s scrupulous care for his dementia-stricken wife—Peterson’s mother-in-law—and says, “I am by no means convinced that I could have fared as well.” In a video about his “comeback”, Peterson thanked his friends and said, “I am certainly not convinced that I would have the character to provide for any of them what they have provided for me.” It is unreasonable, not to mention cruel, to jeer as if Peterson’s medical history contradicts his work.

Peterson can be poignantly and laceratingly self-critical. He writes that he has been so focused on his work, throughout his adult life, that he has not been appreciative enough of his surroundings and the people he loves:

Perception has been replaced for me with functional, pragmatic memory. This has made me more efficient, in some ways, but the cost is an impoverished experience of the richness of the world.

Do not just clean your room, in other words, but make it beautiful. This is a valuable message in a time when much of our attention is directed away from our environments and towards screens. Again, it is a simple one, but it is important and worth saying. I think people’s appetite for being lectured varies. A colleague of mine was gifted a copy of 12 Rules for Life, opened it to the contents page, skimmed through the “rules,” and tossed the book aside with the cheerful announcement that he had seen everything he had to see. But others loved it. They cannot get enough Peterson.

Still, the focus on the individual has its limits. For example, Peterson wants people on the lower rungs of the career ladder to appreciate their jobs, and to earn appreciation for it. He writes about going to a restaurant and meeting a young waiter who told him that reading his book and listening to his lectures had given him an optimistic outlook on his work that had led to promotion. “He started to see possibility and opportunity,” Peterson writes:

[W]here before he was blinded, essentially, by his pride. He stopped denigrating the social institution he found himself part of and began to play his part properly. And that increment in humility paid off in spades.

Now, this could be wise advice depending on the circumstances. Sometimes we want to begin at the top of our profession—much as a young guitar player wants to be Jimi Hendrix before they have learned scales—and we have to be humble enough to accept our temporarily low status. Sometimes, too, we fail to appreciate unheralded but essential jobs: not just those of plumbers and electricians but of street cleaners and shelf stackers. We may not even notice them, but we would if they decided to stay at home.

Yet there are limits to the extent to which an individual can change their perception of their work. Not even a hypnotist could persuade someone who works in cold calling that their work has deep social utility, and the potential for career development in many professions is limited if not non-existent. It is good to develop one’s capacity for humility and long-term gratification, but the sad truth is that one may not have the key to professional fulfilment and success within oneself. This is where the emphasis on individual virtue can be patronizing and expose people to disappointment. (To touch on another subject debated at length elsewhere, people with the skills to “become invaluable in a workplace” now might lose them as automation advances.)

What does it mean to go “beyond order”? Peterson is not just interested in making people clean their rooms. He is interested, in this book, in the “tension between respect for tradition and the necessity for creative transformation.” There is tension, but there is also a relationship. I think of T.S. Eliot and his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). Of this partnership, he writes, “The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

Peterson correctly argues that mastery tends to flourish from apprenticeship. He also wittily illustrates the point that working in the confines of pre-established rules can make one more, rather than less, creative, by pointing out how boring chess would be if pieces had limitless movement. I recall, to use a more childish example, how much I loved the computer game Age of Empires as a boy before I worked out all the “cheats” and the game seemed pointless. Why build up an army of knights and archers when I could magic an almost impregnable machine gun-firing car into existence?

But what to do with one’s creativity and ambition? It is very common nowadays for critics to diagnose secular phenomena as being “religious.” Liberalism is religious. Socialism is religious. Alternative medicine is religious. Science is religious. Perhaps calling things “religious” is itself a religion. Of course, there is nothing wrong with pointing out the similarities between secular and religious phenomena, which are common and multifarious. The problem is that the diagnosis is used as a clever-clever slam dunk on what we happen to dislike.

Jordan Peterson’s ideas have often been called “religious,” but what I find interesting is how areligious they are. The man has a clerical bearing, and makes copious references to scripture and mythology, but his work has no explicit supernatural implications, and, what’s more surprising, he heavily emphasizes the functional and utilitarian. Counterintuitively, Peterson’s ideas might be less religious than those of his atheistic debating partner Sam Harris, who is fascinated by the mind-altering potential of meditation and psychedelics.

Take Peterson on art. He says insightful things about the artistic process, such as that “artists must be contending with something they do not understand.” True, I think, though I would have added a “fully.” But when Peterson discusses the value of art there is an element of misplaced practicality. He says that if you turn to art,

You will develop depth, gravitas, and true thoughtfulness. You will speak more precisely, and other people will become more likely to listen to and cooperate productively with you, as you will with them. You will become more your own person, and less a dull and hapless tool of peer pressure, vogue, fad, and ideology.

Can art achieve such things? Of course. It certainly adds depth and richness to our perceptions. But this bold, sweeping pronouncement obscures the extent to which art can contain a specific rather than general form of wisdom—and to which beauty, which art also aspires to achieve, can exist independently of wisdom. Is a literary scholar specialising in Shakespeare necessarily a clearer speaker and a more cooperative collaborator than an IT technician specialising in Top Gear? No.

This areligiosity also makes itself evident when Peterson discusses ethical dilemmas. Speaking, for example, of clients who talk to him about being tempted by, or being involved in, extramarital affairs, he appeals to their sense of fear by invoking the prospect of divorce and family separation. That might be an effective deterrent for an individual but is a separate consideration from that fact that giving in to such an urge would make them a cruel and gutless liar. It is separate from the question of whether it is inherently wrong. I am sure that Peterson believes it is, but that is not what he refers to.

Ultimately, most of Peterson’s thought—with all its references to legends and psychoanalysis—is directed towards maintaining stable bourgeois existence. That might sound like damning criticism, but I do not think that it is. Given how much of human existence has been directed towards barbarism, there have been many worse ideas. Most if not all of us want to maintain a high level of safety, convenience, and companionship. Still, there is a lingering sense of anti-climax.

Can religion survive once it is acknowledged, even in defense, to be an “ancient evolved function” rather than a system of thought and practice united around the existence of the divine? I can get my teeth checked out of the grudging acceptance that it is probably for the best, but it would take passionate conviction to deliver me into a church’s ranks. Personal experience tells us that the love of our friends and family, and the love we have for them, can be the bedrock of an individual life, but can it be the animating force of a civilization?

Perhaps that is an unfair question to ask. Peterson has not set himself up as an all-knowing, all-answering guru. As a clinical psychologist, he is most at home counseling the individual. Social media has given him a lot of individuals, with a lot of local concerns, who need a wise man’s counsel. Much of it is good: sober and surprisingly humble for a man who rocketed to fame. But there is a hole at its center—a hole at the center of life, perhaps, but a hole nonetheless—inviting the reader to their next question, and the next ideas, beyond whatever order they have inhabited.

Featured image: Photo of mini golf course in Rochester Cathedral via Twitter.

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland who has written for The Spectator USA, First Things, Quillette, the Washington Examiner and others.