Jordan Peterson occupies a unique place in the cultural sphere. Grounded in the small Alberta town of his upbringing, the University of Toronto professor of clinical psychology has been elevated to the status of Canada’s foremost public intellectual.
An almost mythic figure to some, Peterson is a pariah to others. For those who worship at the altar of woke ideology, he represents an existential threat. In one example, after Random House announced it would publish Peterson’s latest book “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” it had to contend with the outrage of multiple staff members.
This is nothing new to Peterson. Since he arrived on the scene through a series of YouTube videos exposing the problems with Bill C-16, the Liberal government’s gender identity rights legislation, he has been a lightning rod for criticism.
But Peterson has proven himself a force to be reckoned with, selling out lecture halls across the world and calmly dismantling the arguments of conceited journalists along the way. He has engaged in robust debate with the likes of American liberal podcast host Sam Harris and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, while sounding the alarm about the influence of Marxist thought on campuses and in corporations.
Last year, his meteoric rise was derailed by a devastating descent into prescription drug addiction, illness, and depression. Just as quickly as he rose to prominence he disappeared from the public eye, leaving a noticeable void in the conservative sphere. And now he is back, or at least on the upswing, having published his new book this month and once again engaging publicly through interviews and podcasts.
Philosophy of Action
Peterson’s ideas are at once straightforward and complex. Underscoring deep philosophical and psychological thoughts are practical, actionable ideas like his exhortation to “clean up your room,” a saying that earned him meme status. It’s a simple proposal that is hard to actualize, as anyone who has seriously attempted to set their lives in order can attest. Peterson prescribes nobility and humility in this elementary endeavour, contrasting it with those who agitate to change the fundamental institutions of Western society while unable to sort out their own lives.
“Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life” contains chapters of similar practical wisdom, with titles such as “Imagine who you could be and then aim single-mindedly at that,” “Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated,” and “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.”
Far from being trite, these principles require a high degree of self-awareness. They take grit, persistence, and sacrifice scarcely exercised in our modern age of creature comfort. But adopting them out of choice and not necessity can set one apart from those looking to shirk personal and social responsibility.
Instead of promoting unconditional optimism, Peterson recommends embracing the full brunt of reality, even as it swings toward your head. In typical self-help books, one would be hard-pressed to find a similar suggestion to this one from his 2018 book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”:
“It is necessary to be strong in the face of death, because death is intrinsic to life. It is for this reason that I tell my students: aim to be the person at your father’s funeral that everyone, in their grief and misery, can rely on. There’s a worthy and noble ambition: strength in the face of adversity.”
Implied in that ambition is the prerequisite that you must have your life sufficiently together to be a pillar of strength to buttress the hardships that will inevitably come along.
Peterson’s audience is largely male, judging by attendance at his lectures and the demographic of his YouTube audience. This has been a point of criticism for some, who equate it as evidence that he is somehow fortifying patriarchy. But this is the wrong lens in which to view the Peterson phenomenon.
Anyone who has taken the time to actually read his work or listen to his lectures would have difficulty finding anything explicitly misogynistic.
The crux of his message could be summed up in the sentiment that meaning is more fulfilling and less fleeting than happiness, and adopting maximum responsibility is the greatest means to actualizing one’s spiritual and psychological potential.
The reason this seemingly obvious message has resonated so profoundly is because it is sorely needed in the modern age, but rarely articulated. It flies in the face of our current obsession with identity politics and moral relativism, which are at odds with the virtues of self-reliance and moral responsibility.
The current value-neutral and “follow your bliss” approach to life is not leading to fulfillment for young men who have been educated to believe their essential masculine traits are inherently toxic. By promoting masculinity as a virtue instead of a vice, Peterson has found an audience hungry for encouragement and reassurance so that they can ennoble themselves through refining those same characteristics into a force for good in the world.
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.