Internet chatter about Jordan Peterson continues unabated. I was hoping to write a slow and leisurely commentary on the phenomenon of his appearance, but I’m not sure one has that luxury. So I am going to jump in a say what I find hopeful about his ideas and the response to those ideas, and then offer some critiques of the same. Afterward, I may take the time to unpack the different themes in his writing and lecturing, particularly in the ways in which his approach and startling insights can help those of us tasked with spreading the Gospel.
Here, in bullet-point form, are the ideas that I find hopeful and helpful:
- Life is lived in a fruitful tension between chaos and order. Too much of either robs us of the meaning and joy of life. We can’t eliminate chaos because we don’t know everything yet. Every time we meet a new person or situation, we experience, personally, the intrusion of chaos.
- We bring order out of chaos by speaking. For this reason, it is extremely important to learn how to speak carefully and truthfully. “Tell the truth–or at least do not lie,” is one of Peterson’s Twelve Rules. We create unnecessary chaos when we cheat, exaggerate, fib. Worse, we make underlying chaos a fixture of our reality, conditioning future choices. Ideology is lazy thinking grown to monstrous proportions. It may stem from an anxious desire to sort things too quickly.
- Since our words and actions contribute either to a) playful meaning and a workable order or to b) uncontrollable chaos and/or brutal and repressive mockeries of good order, each individual has a monumental responsibility. Each of us moves the world closer to heaven or hell by our decisions. This is an ennobling insight, and perhaps the one that most attracts dispirited millennials stuck playing video games, abusing drugs and pornography, and terrified of committed relationships. All is not lost! All that you need to do, in a sense, is to start telling the truth, even if it hurts.
- And, you know what? Life will hurt. But some suffering is worth undergoing because it makes for a more meaningful future. Not all goods are worth the same amount. What are you willing to give up to get something better? Life may also bring incredible beauty, but to find it, I may have to sacrifice who I am and what I have today to obtain a better version of myself and the world tomorrow. Such is the meaning of sacrifice, as Peterson rescues it from flat dismissals of crude visions of bloodletting (yet, see objections #4 and #5 below).
- We can find our way to this better world, not so much by rational thinking, but by realism and attentiveness. Ivan Karamazov can’t reason his way through suffering; Alexei his brother (and monastic novice) gains insight from a contemplative awareness of the world, a “noticing” in Peterson’s words.
- This discipline of noticing extends to other people, even long-dead people. Peterson has many rich things to say about myths because he takes the people who wrote them and who learned from them seriously.
- The way of wisdom is gratitude and humility. I benefit from the countless sacrifices of persons who lived before me in conditions often much more challenging than my present situation.
All of that I find quite acceptable, even good. It’s a shame that we priests haven’t been able to tap into the deep longing for just this kind of wisdom. Moreso is it a shame because there are elements of Peterson’s approach that are problematic. Let me outline a few as best I can, and again, hopefully, with the aid of some responses and comments, I can clarify with greater rigor at a later time.
- He’s trying to rescue liberal modernity from inside. He doesn’t seem to see the inherent contradictions in being an heir of the anti-tradition Enlightenment while appealing to traditional ways of thinking. He really does promote a kind of “self-help,” while trying to help others. He is fiercely on the side of the individual against collectivism, and yet he’s oddly at the forefront of a kind of mass movement. In my opinion, he recognizes this incoherence at some level. But:
- His non-stop public appearance schedule seems to have robbed him of the interior space required to address these paradoxes. He’s in danger of letting public criticism set the agenda and of becoming defensive.
- He could use a crash-course in metaphysics. He has an interesting take on Being and Becoming. Being is something like his name for what others call “God.” His take on Becoming is problematic because it is divorced from a teleological notion of human nature. In laymen’s terms, “If Becoming is a weighty moral responsibility, what exactly should I become?” I’m not sure that Peterson answers this. Which is to say that he really is part of liberal modernity, which wants to maximize for each individual the possibility of whatever future he or she wants. The lack of a clear goal is also the reason that Peterson does not talk about virtue, while he dances all around it.
- I would also be interested to see what would happen if he would broaden out his dialogue partners. His take on myth would be enriched (and improved, I think, though his own ideas are creative and richly rewarding) by an engagement with the writings of Réne Girard and Girard’s many followers. This last point is one where I have a lot of work to do. It seems that Dr. Peterson is returning to a paganized understanding of myth. According to Girard, this would require a scapegoating of a victim or victim class. This, I think, is why lots of commentators accuse Peterson of dog-whistling for the alt-right. His discussion of myth would be less open to this (legitimate) critique were he aware of the work that others have done in this area.
- His contrast between thinking and noticing would be enriched by a similar broadening of sources. Josef Pieper and many others in the Catholic tradition have pointed to a contrast between ratio and intellectus, covering much the same ground but with greater rigor. I am grateful that Peterson’s gifts as a writer and speaker have gained a different audience that needs to hear what he is saying. Lost Millennials are not likely to stumble upon a copy of Leisure, the Basis of Culture and benefit from it right away. But Dr. Peterson could ground his own insights more securely by reading it (and Aristotle and Aquinas) himself.
- This is all to say that he’s a bit simplistic at times, and this corrodes his effectiveness. His insistence on the correlation of chaos with femininity and order with masculinity is, hmm…, maybe accurate….from a self-interested male standpoint.And, of course, men wrote all the old myths. This sort of simplification really is a shame. I want to emphasize that because his intuition that men’s views of the world differ from women’s views, and that this difference should be noticed and honored, is so needed right now. I’d hate to see his eloquent confirmations of the goodness of manhood and womanhood undermined by a headstrong defense of this counterproductive reading of old myths.
To conclude: there is a lot to learn from Peterson’s achievements. He has discovered a way to reach persons desperate for meaning in a way that traditional religion has largely failed. He has reminded us of ways to read ancient myths with appreciation and profit. He’s demonstrated that religion (broadly understood) and science can coexist in an integrated psyche. I hope that he will continue on this trajectory and be open to further insights. In the meantime, I’d like to see Catholics step up and creatively engage within the spaces he’s opened for us in popular culture.