A less-than-favorable review of Dr. Peterson’s recent book Twelve Rules for Life called it a “self-help book from a culture warrior.” Were this an accurate summary, I doubt that I would have finished chapter one, much less the entire book. This description is inaccurate in two ways, both of which expose the corrosive cultural narrative (one that, I think, the Right and Left hold, for the most part, in common) that distorts what Peterson is saying. Let me deal with the idea of a “culture war” first. I propose to do this by comparing Dr. Peterson to one of the West’s most influential authors whom you’ve never read, Peter Lombard. This comparison will illuminate the reasons why I consider Dr. Peterson’s appearance on the scene to be a hopeful development.
Lombard lived in the first part of the twelfth century. The European tenth century was one of chaos and brutality. Charlemagne’s empire collapsed as his heirs contended for power and Europe was attacked by Vikings from the north, Magyars from the east, and Saracens from the south. This political turmoil affected the cultural and intellectual life in the West. When Peter Lombard came of age, controversies dealing with Church discipline, theology, and political jurisdiction continued to be quite rampant.
One response in the midst of such controversies is to choose sides. This is the response of a culture warrior. It takes two related forms, a conviction that one side is possessed of the unadulterated truth, or that the other side is so dangerously wrong that they must be stopped at any cost, even at the cost of my own intellectual balance and honesty. This response is polarizing and dangerous. We see plenty of it in our own day.
One other problem with this response is that it tends toward an over-focus on discreet issues, not always seeing how they relate to other issues that are not necessarily being debated. This narrowing of focus frequently means that the culture warrior holds contradictory views, but lacks the interior calm to investigate his or her lack of consistency. On today’s Left, this might mean narrowly focusing on tolerance for groups identified as historically oppressed while showing little or no tolerance for groups deemed beyond the pale. On the right, this might mean focusing on pro-life as applied to the protection of the unborn while showing little or no regard for the human cost of a belligerent foreign policy. A culture warrior is prepared to live with this cognitive dissonance because so much emotional energy must be spent prosecuting the war, little is left for hammering out one’s own integrity.
Peter Lombard’s response was to go back to the sources, to something like bedrock. His four books of Sentences were collections of statements from the Scriptures and from the Church Fathers on as many topics as he could organize. This work became the foundation of the flowering of medieval philosophy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, hence my assertion of his major influence. Anyone who studied theology in the West had to become a commentator on the Sentences, therefore broadly informed about virtually every conceivable angle on theology and politics (a similar project, dealing with canon and civil law, was carried out slightly later by Gratian).
This approach allows as many persons as possible the opportunity to be heard. It demonstrates a robust faith that there is a truth to be discovered, and that this truth will win the assent of persons of good-will. It makes an act of faith that Truth will turn out to be benign, the key to a flourishing human life. This is an arduous way to proceed. The mass of material is intimidating, and it requires a personal intellectual humility. “Taking sides” in a culture war, in my opinion, often poses greater hazards. It makes it difficult to hear and sympathize with “the other side,” deafening me to what might be salutary critique. Praise on my side of the aisle as well as criticism from the opposite can be taken as vindication of correctness of my opinion.
[This is related to why Jonathan Haidt has strongly argued that each university must decide whether it will be an institution focused on truth or an institution focused on social justice. Social justice activity, as framed today by those most passionate about it, requires advocating for some groups and often demonizing of others. This is not a framework for the self-awareness required by a search for Truth.]
Jordan Peterson became a public intellectual thanks to his unorthodox stand against issues dear to the progressive left. One might imagine him to be, therefore, a cultural warrior aligned with the right. This would be a serious mistake and one that says more about the person making the judgment than about Peterson himself. He is, in fact, maddeningly eclectic. Like the Lombard gathering up fragments from Holy Writ and the wisdom of the ancients, Peterson cites Genesis, then Carl Jung, then a Disney fairy tale, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, and a variety of academic journals. His willingness to give some benefit of the doubt to the insights of ancient mythmakers is related to the same principle I highlighted in Peter Lombard: that truth is real, that we can discover something of it together, by giving others a chance to speak (a sneak preview of the argument why “self-help” is the wrong concept for his book), and that truth, when discovered, will be beneficial to us. Peterson aims at scrupulous fidelity to his principles, which require, among other things, “Always [to] tell the truth,” and “Assume that the person you are talking to knows something that you don’t.” These are chapter titles from his book.
His appeal to young men stems from his manifest interest in taking their point of view seriously, like everyone else’s. Where much of the culture tells struggling young men that their point of view is not wanted owing to the taint of patriarchal privilege, Peterson genuinely wants to hear what they have to say. He also wants to hear what young women have to say. He’s willing to talk to anyone, so long as that person is interested in hearing what he has to say.
The last Peterson/Lombard connection is a political one. Jordan Peterson’s rigorous efforts at self-knowledge and eclectic search for meaning were born as a response to grave political danger, as was (in my judgment) Peter Lombard’s. In the introduction to his first book, Maps of Meaning, he describes his own near-collapse from an honest effort to understand how American and Soviet leadership could threaten the world with the unfathomable evil of nuclear annihilation. He discovered, to his own horror, that the mindset of the leaders of the nuclear powers was one he shared at a deep level. Like Solzhenitsyn, he discovered that the line between good and evil does not divide one political group from another in a Manichean culture war. It runs through the heart of every human being.
Being outside the culture war needn’t mean embracing passivity; nor does the realization of the evil of which I’m capable require me to embrace defeatism. It is a call for solidarity of the best sort, making common cause with those who will call me to account. “Make friends with those who want the best for you,” is another Rule of Peterson’s indicating the help that we need from others. To this topic I will turn next.