Insisting on the truth in times of chaos — Jordan Peterson
“This man could single-handedly save Western Civilization, if people would listen.”
A typically bombastic quote from a Youtube commenter on one of Jordan Peterson’s online lectures. But in the last week of listening to him, I’ve come to think that he might have a point.
Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. I would say that what gives his words such impact is the way he combines the deep insights into the individual human psyche he has gained from clinical practice — working with people in states of psychological crisis and personal transformation — with a deep engagement with the ideas and thinkers who have most clearly grappled with the deepest existential questions of the human condition.
And more than that, his is a voice deeply engaged with the problems of the present moment, and he himself believes that the stakes are high: “I do believe we are in a period of chaos — and in a period of chaos the time horizon shrinks — because the outcome is uncertain … sometimes the outcome is catastrophe.”
In the last few weeks, I suddenly started hearing the name Jordan Peterson everywhere, on mailing lists, discussion groups and from friends’ recommendations. I checked out one of his lectures and suddenly I was hooked.
Youtube has made his ubiquity possible — his philosophy is tied into the concept of truth as a performance, an embodiment of aligning oneself with the creative principle itself — so watching and listening cannot be replaced with articles like this one. But I’ve transcribed a lot of his words as an introduction for others, and quote him extensively below — with links at the bottom for the curious to go and listen to the lectures.
I have rarely if ever felt so clearly that one person’s thinking resonated so deeply with me, that his words were both crystallising thoughts that were partially formed in myself, AND felt like they were cutting new tracks in my brain at the same time. Even more importantly — that this was an essential voice for the times.
And I’m clearly not the only one, as he says in a different lecture:
“That’s another hallmark of truth, is that it snaps things together. People write to me all the time and say it’s as if things were coming together in my mind. It’s like the Platonic idea that all learning was remembering. You have a nature and when you feel that nature articulated it’s it’s like the act of snapping the puzzle pieces together.”
In a way he applies Darwinian evolutionary theory to the history of ideas (memes). In particular he brings an understanding and appreciation for mythology and religion and the deeper truths hidden inside them, and explains how it is essential to understand the mythological structure of western society — and how not understanding it has led to ideologies that caused untold suffering in the past, and may well do again.
Since discovering him I have been bombarding friends with clips and links — I am writing this as a brief introduction to his thinking, with transcribed quotes from him, with some of my interpretations, with links and references to allow anyone interested to go and listen to the man himself.
And you should go and listen, because the core of his philosophy is about learning to embody truth more and more in yourself, becoming more and more aligned with this truth which gives your words more power and impact. That actually this process is the hidden message of the unfolding story of western culture that goes back millennia. Listening to him speak is to hear that process itself unfold.
“Truth is something that burns”
He distils the essence of his religious and mythological thought to the point where even atheists online are saying that they finally have an appreciation for religion — but it is also deliberately challenging to many — especially a set of ideas on the ‘left’ that have hardened into a kind of distinct ideology — often called post-modernism or post-structuralism.
He sees the process of arriving at truth as a process of personal growth and transformation which can be extremely painful to undergo. It’s a harder-edged version of the spiritual idea that we must overcome the ‘ego’ to arrive at the truth of our being.
“The truth is something that burns. It burns off dead wood. And people don’t like having the dead wood burnt off often because they’re 95 percent dead wood. Believe me I’m not being snide about that. It’s no joke. When you start to realise how much of what you’ve constructed of yourself is based on deception and lies, that is a horrifying realisation. It can easily be 95 percent of you and the things you say and the things you act out.”
Listening to Peterson is to begin, or continue this journey of self discovery — to dare to learn just how much of yourself is made up from ideas you have inherited from others, and how many of the words you speak and thoughts you think are not your own. Are you ready for that journey?
As a Jungian psychologist he explicitly links this journey to the concept of the encounter with our personal ‘shadow’ — the part of ourselves we repress or deny. He also links it to the great stories of mythology from prehistory onwards — how the hero goes into the underworld, encounters the dragon and comes back with the gold. Echoes of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.
How do we do that? We begin by really paying attention the things that we say:
“If you’re not using your own words, you’re the puppet of an ideology or another thinker or your own impulsive desires. You can tell when you’re speaking like that because it makes you feel weak — it makes you feel weak and ashamed, and you can localise that feeling physiologically if you listen to yourself talk. When you are speaking properly you will experience a feeling of integration and strength and when you’re speaking in a deceitful or manipulative manner you’ll feel that you’re starting to come apart at the seams. What you need to do is practice only saying things that make you feel stronger. At first you’ll notice that almost everything you say is a lie. It’s either a lie or someone else’s words. It’s very hard to find your own words — and you don’t actually exist until you have your own words.”
Peterson’s journey was highly influenced by the Cold War, and the sense in the 80s that we were potentially only moments away from annihilation. This sparked something of a personal crisis in himself and he looked closely at how ideologies were created, how totalitarianism seemed to result regularly from these ideologies.
Though he himself says it’s almost impossible to simplify his thought — a speech earlier this year came closest to doing it:
“There’s a principle at the heart of western civilisation and it’s older than Christianity and it’s older than Judaism, although Christianity developed it to a great degree. It’s the idea of the Logos — which means something like coherent interpersonal communication of the truth — and from an archetypal perspective it’s the action of the logos that extracts order from chaos.
We make order by articulating truth and then we inhabit the order. The order is the negotiated social agreements we come to to live among each other without tearing each other to shreds — which is basically what chimpanzees do to each other — so we need to negotiate the social order and we do that through articulated speech.
What Christianity did was take that proposition — derived partly from Mesopotamia, partly from Judaism and partly from Egypt and turn it into a symbolic doctrine — taking the figure of Christ, who from a psychological and archetypal perspective is the ideal man — an image of the ideal — which is the word made flesh, the instantiation of the logos in the body so that it’s acted out in the world. It’s the fundamental proposition of western culture — and we’ve lost it, and we will not survive without it.”
Rise to fame
His current moment of fame started in at the end of 2016 when a couple of Youtube videos he made about changes to the law in Canada went viral. The law was enacted supposedly in favour of transgender rights, and which in effect would compel people to use specific gender pronouns under the threat of the law.
He argued that — far from just opposing oppression and discrimination, the law was in fact built on a set of assumptions about human nature that were not only controversial, but also highly dangerous, a form of postmodern ideology that had echoes of totalitarianism. A longer explanation of how this controversy played out is at the start of this podcast with Joe Rogan.
“So then the argument started in the media and online as well; “What the hell was going on, was I just this bigoted transphobic fossil dinosaur, or was something else happening?” And I believe when I made the videos that the legislation itself and the policies were signifying a crisis, a disjunction in western society — of which the gender pronoun argument was only a tiny tendril. I put my finger on a nerve.”
This is a central feature of his thought — that the universities in particular (and culture at large) have fallen under the sway of a new version of Marxist thought — hidden inside a worldview of ‘opposing oppression’. How even if this worldview has elements of truth, and is followed by people driven by compassion and a desire for justice — it has become a fixed and divisive ideology.
And also that the vast majority of people who use the language of the postmodernists, the arguments of ‘power and privilege’ and oppression, are unwitting exponents of a neo-Marxist ideology which is essentially identical to the worldview that caused mass murder wherever it was implemented in the 20th century.
My reading of him is that he isn’t saying he thinks it is likely that this ideology will take over the world in the same way that communism did (although the Canadian law he objected to was a real world example of it being put into practice) — more that it’s a prison of the intellect — an enfeebling of the powers of reason — that corrupts the individual — taking a generation of ‘left-wing’ or ‘progressive’ students out of the game — leaving the field clear for the authoritarian right.
“The best you can do with postmodern philosophy is emerge nihilistic, at best. The worst case is that you’re a kind of anarchical social revolutionary who is directionless apart from that you want to tear things down. Or you end up depressed, which I see happening to students all the time because the postmodernists take out the remaining structures of their ethical foundation.”
In particular the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as truth, only competing truths hiding oppressive power structures, has hollowed out western thought.
He convincingly argues that this ideology has enfeebled academia — the humanities in particular — to the point that 80% of all academic papers that are now written are cited (referenced) only once by anyone else — meaning that as a contribution to the progress of knowledge they are basically worthless.
“The old Marxist notion was that the world was a battleground between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. That failed to have any philosophical or ethical standing after the working class actually saw its standard of living massively elevated as a consequence of Western free enterprise democracy. Also as a consequence of the revelations of everything terrible that happened in every country that ever dared to make equality and the Marxist communist dogma part of their fundamental structure. It resulted in nothing but murderousness and oppression.
By the 1970s it was evident that game was up — the postmodernist Marxist just basically pulled a sleight of hand and said OK if it’s not the poor against the rich it’s the oppressed against the oppressor. We’ll just redivide the subpopulations in ways that make our our philosophy continue in its movement forward. And that’s where we are now. And so for the post-modernists the world is a Hobbesian battleground of identity groups. They do not communicate with one another because they can’t — all there is is a struggle for power.
They believe that logic is part of the process by which the patriarchal institutions of the West continue to dominate and to justify their dominance. They don’t believe in dialogue. The root word of dialogue is Logos. Again they don’t believe that people of good will can come to consensus through the exchange of ideas. They believe that notion is part of the philosophical substructure and practices of the dominant culture. So the reason they don’t let people who they don’t agree with speak on campuses is because they don’t agree with letting people speak. You see it’s not part of the ethos.”
He argues that very few people consciously realise that they are ‘mouthpieces for the value system of a dead philosopher.
“You might say well does every social justice warrior activist know this? No of course not.
Not any more than every Muslim knows the entire Muslim doctrine or Islamic doctrine or every Christian knows the entire Christian doctrine. You know it’s fragmented among people. But then when you bring them together the fragments unite and the entire philosophy acts itself out.
They regard that if you’re in one power group and I’m in another — the idea that we can step out of that group, engage in a dialogue, have our worlds meet and produce some sort of understanding — no that’s part of your your oppressive patriarchal game — that whole idea is part of your game. So if I even engage in the dialogue and playing your game you win.
People don’t understand that postmodernism is a complete assault on two things. One it’s it’s an assault on the metaphysical substrate of our culture, and I would say that the metaphysical substrate looks something like a religious substrate. So it’s a direct assault on that. And the second thing it’s an assault on is everything that’s been established since the Enlightenment — rationality - empiricism — science. Everything. Clarity of mind, dialogue. The idea of the individual.
It’s not only that it’s up for grabs, that’s not the thing. It’s to be destroyed. That’s the goal — to be destroyed just like the Communists wanted — to destroy the capitalist system. It’s the same thing.”
He then examines the psychological underpinnings of the postmodern worldview
“There are no shortage of flaws in the manner in which we’ve structured our society and compared to any hypothetical Utopia is an absolutely dismal wreck. But compared to the rest of the world and the plight of other societies throughout the history of mankind we’re doing pretty damn well and we should be happy to be living in the society that we’re living at.
So the first thing that you might want to note about postmodernism is that it doesn’t have a shred of gratitude. And there’s something pathologically wrong with a person like that. It doesn’t have any gratitude especially when they live in what so far is the best of all possible worlds.
And so if you’re not grateful you’re driven by resentment, and resentment is the worst emotion that you can possibly experience apart from arrogance. Resentment, arrogance and deceit. There is an evil triad for you and if you’re bitter about everything that’s happening around you despite the fact that you’re bathed in wealth, relatively, then there’s something absolutely wrong with you.”
If the ideology of postmodernism and ‘oppression’ is partial, and mistaken in many key aspects, what is the truth?
He argues that the reduction of western society to mere ‘power games’ is a gross simplification and a distortion.
“I use the words dominance hierarchy because that’s a shorthand. People understand what that means. It’s not clear that hierarchies are in fact dominance hierarchies. And one of my insightful colleagues once told me that I shouldn’t use the words dominance hierarchy because Marxism is built into that conceptualization — that the reason that hierarchies exist is because of power.
And I thought. Jesus, that’s probably true. And it was quite a devastating criticism in some sense. It could easily be that the reason that hierarchical structures were formulated as dominance hierarchies was because the biologists who were doing the investigations and the people who were formulating the ideas had already been saturated with the Marxist view of power relations.”
He argues, drawing on the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, that society works by mutually agreed upon games of cooperation, not dominance.
“Post modernists also don’t take into account the fact that value heirarchies — or power structures for that matter can be predicated on competence and not just oppression — competence and ability — skill and talent and beauty and all sorts of things that seem to be intrinsically worthwhile. AND also that there’s a multiplicity of value structures within a complicated society like ours — so even if you are oppressed by one standard — which is almost certain to be the case. Because you’re too ugly, or too fat, or you’re too stupid, or your skin colour disadvantages you, there’s an indefinite number of ways that you don’t measure up and that society is somehow set against you with a critical eye. But then there’s a very large number of games you could play — and just because you are a loser in one of them, or two of them — or ten — doesn’t mean you have to be a loser in all. The post modernists don’t take that into account. they consider THE value structure — that’s the patriarchy — and it’s universally oppressive and all the victims are the same. No, no they are not. It’s wrong. it’s foolish — it’s unidimensional, it’s low resolution, it’s pseudo-intellectual. It dominates the universities — because you can learn it in about a week — you sound like an intellectual to outsiders — and you don’t have to do any real thinking. Perfect solution.”
He explains how — contrary to the conspiracy theory of the oppressive society — societies based on the games we willingly play with each other will always beat those that are in some sense imposed. Forcing people to play a certain game takes far more energy because it incurs a “coercion cost”. Which is why a company or society that is run by motivated and self-directed people will always out-compete one that is dictatorial and authoritarian. One wastes energy in enforcing order.
(One way of looking at social structures is that) “…I get you to do something you wouldn’t choose to do. And you could say well the person who’s best at doing that is the winner. And I would say no that’s wrong. That isn’t how the evidence stacks up. Because the problem with being the person who gets the other person to do something by force is you have to enforce it. And that’s costly and you can be killed. You can be overthrown. And so even the most effective tyrannies suffer during times of power transition. Right. It’s unstable. That’s the problem is that a hierarchy built on power is unstable. It isn’t operating as a consequence of the will of the masses.”
He is both pessimistic and utopian — recognising the limitations and moral flaws in human nature that influence Conservative thinking, but also with a sense of the possibility of optimism and personal liberation that informs the best of left wing thought.
In the first of these he has similarities with the philosopher John Gray, who argues persuasively that our idea of progress is a delusion. As a psychologist Peterson would agree that the idea of moral progress is an illusion. No matter the technological advances of society — each human being starts again from zero at birth — and has to learn anew the moral lessons and how to live, with the same propensity to fall into habits of thought and belief structures that are influenced by the worst aspects of ourselves.
He also strongly criticises the ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for what he calls their naivety about the relationship between religion and science. And implicitly blames them and other materialists for the self interest and pathological tendencies of western corporate culture.
“This is why I have such frustration say with people like Sam Harris, the sort of radical atheists, because they seem to think that once human beings abandon their grounding in the transcendent that the plausible way forward is with a kind of purist rationality that automatically attributes to other people equivalent value. I just don’t understand that.
What the hell is irrational about me getting exactly what I want from every one of you whenever I want it at every possible second? Why is that irrational and how possibly is that more irrational than us cooperating so we can both have a good time of it. I don’t understand that.
I mean they talk as if the the psychopathic tendency is irrational. There’s nothing irrational about it. It’s pure naked self-interest. How is that irrational. Why the hell not every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost? It’s a perfectly coherent philosophy and it’s actually one that you can institute in the world with a fair bit of material success if you want to do it.
To me I think that that the universe that people like Dawkins and Harris inhabit is so intensely conditioned by mythological presuppositions that they take for granted the ethic that emerges out of that as if it’s just a rational given. And this of course was precisely Nietzsche’s observation as well as Dostoyevsky’s observation.
I’m not arguing for the existence of God. I’m arguing that the ethic that drives our culture is predicated on the idea of God and that you can’t just take that idea away and expect the thing to remain intact midair without any foundational support.”
Call to action
Most of all his philosophy links always back to the individual, the listener (or watcher). To learn and journey within oneself to understand oneself before acting in the world.
“My sense is that you don’t get to complain about the structure of the world until you stop falsifying your relationship with it, because you don’t know to what degree the pathology of your being is associated with the falsification, because it’s inherently bound up with your subjective experience.
What you’re doing is you’re twisting and bending your value structure. And that’s what determines the focus of your perception and your emotional responses. All of that. So get your aim right. Well what’s the aim. Truth. And I think it’s that has to be nested in love, and love is something like the notion that despite its suffering, Being is good and you should serve Being. And that’s what I try to do in my therapeutic practice.”
“I think the solution is an individual one. Because the other solutions are collective and the collective solutions are in some sense the problem. Now why do people become ideologically possessed. OK well some of it’s just confirmation bias. Temperamental bias. Then you can add ignorance to that. Then you can more specifically diagnose historical ignorance. There are things that we need to know in order to set ourselves right. And the people that I’ve found that have been most useful in that regard have been Dostoevsky and Nietzsche and Carl Jung and a smattering of others but I think they have their finger on the pulse.”
He talks about the support he has had for his statements from other professors and academics who say that they are too afraid to speak out themselves.
“One of the things that indicates is that it’s almost impossible to provide people with enough protection so that they feel safe to speak. OK, so we’ll address that directly. It is not safe to speak. It never will be. But the thing you’ve got to keep in mind is that it’s even less safe not to speak.
It’s a balance of risks — do you want to pay the price for being who you are and stating your mode of being in the world, or do you want to pay the price for being a bloody serf — one that’s enslaved him or herself. Well that’s a major price. Man that thing unfolds over decades and you’ll just be a miserable worm at the end of about 20 years of that.
No self-respect, no power, no ability to voice your opinions. Nothing left but resentment because everyone is against you because of course you’ve never stood up for yourself. Say what you think. Carefully pay attention to your words. It’s a price you want to pay if you are willing to believe that truth is the cornerstone of society.
The truth is what makes the world. The truth is what redeems the world from hell. And that’s the truth. And we saw plenty of hell for the last hundred years you know and we haven’t learned a bloody thing from it. It’s like wake up.”
Jordan Peterson on the Joe Rogan Show (3 hours) — great introduction to the outlines of his thought.
Jordan Peterson interview — Ideology, Logos and Belief (2 hours) — Brilliant interview with a fellow academic.
Do you Believe in God (5 mins) —Brilliant extract from the above interview.
Jordan Peterson — Message to Millenials (30 mins) — beginners guide of how to start to think and orient yourself.
Jordan Peterson Roasts Sam Harris (8 mins) — short critique of the new atheist worldview
I have ripped many of these lectures into a Google Drive folder for anyone who cares to download them here: