ON EXPERIENCING JORDAN B PETERSON
NOTE: THIS IS AN UNFINISHED DRAFT OF A COLUMN I WILL NEVER FINISH.
When Jordan Peterson went to Wellington, I went down to see him. In truth, I did know an awful lot about his philosophy or views before that night. I have an audiobook of 12 Rules for Life but have never been able to manage past the first few chapters.
My impression was mixed. People accuse him of being priest-like but his manner of presentation was unlike that of any cleric I’ve ever met.
Peterson wandered to and fro across the stage as he spoke, telling a long story about a childhood friend of his who succumbed to despair and self-loathing. Along the way, he would digress into this topic or that and then work his way back to the central narrative.
It was a genuinely sad story, roughly told. Peterson may make a lot of money as a speaker but he’s not exactly polished. From time to time he’d get the pseudonym for his friend muddled up, for example. Perhaps that is part of the charm.
The audience were mostly, but not exclusively, men. A lot seemed to be attending in pairs although more than a few were there on their own. People laughed loudly at his jokes, sometimes much harder than the jokes merited. They cheered and clapped him in parts, including several standing ovations.
As for the content, it didn’t really hit home for me personally. Having failed to be engaged by his book, it could be that his message just isn’t a fit for me. As I have no desire to watch any long YouTube videos on subjects other than fan theories about upcoming Marvel movies, I think I have missed the Jordan Peterson craze.
Accordingly, what follows is not exactly fair, as it as an assessment of his message that has the very serious defect of not being based on any detailed consideration of his work. On the basis of what I have seen, heard and read, however, it seems to me that Peterson is not so different from other self-help gurus.
Unless I am wrong, it seems to me that the basic thrust of Peterson’s advice is this: life is worth living, take the living of it into your own hands. That’s not a bad message in the least. Recognising that your life has value and that you are responsible for making the best of it is necessary.
Necessary but not sufficient.
What Petersonism doesn’t offer is any sense of the indispensability of grace. That is to say, he wants us to find the strength to fix ourselves from within ourselves. I believe this is very clear from his biblical exegesis, which tends to run along the lines of lessons about proper conduct rather than the relationship we have with the architect of creation.
My views on such things are a secret to nobody. I was brought up to believe the freely given and undeserved help of God – which may of course be directed through the instrument of other people — is essential for those seeking to live the good life. You need to believe in the availability of that grace, I think, to not fall into despair over your own, repeated screw ups.
That’s not something that Peterson talks much about. This is why some writers have compared him to Pelagius, the British monk of late antiquity who supposedly taught that free will was enough for man to live a virtuous life. St Augustine thought that this placed too great a burden on the fallen nature of individual human beings.
I am with Augustine on that one, which may explain why I have found it hard to connect with what Peterson says.
In summary, it is clear to me that for some people who are disenchanted with postmodernism, Jordan Peterson has sparked in them a desire to find something to live for. That’s good. However, I do worry that some of those seeking redemption from the 12 rules risk finding themselves more broken than every before.
But maybe, for some, it will spark a search for something more, and will lead to something more. Perhaps the same, ultimately, will be said for Peterson himself.