Why do so many People find Jordan Peterson so threatening? I think a clue can be found in the bitter argument between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud that led to their parting of ways, way back in in the early 20th Century.
Freud was looking for a rational, causal explanation for the subconscious world, which he reduced to taboos, family romance, sex and death drives. Being a hard-nosed 19th Century empiricist, he was skeptical, or perhaps even terrified, of esoteric phenomena; he told Jung to beware what he saw as a ‘black tide of mud’ in mysticism. But Jung was a mystic, and his interest lay precisely in the world of the unseen and occult.
The etymology of the word ‘occult’ is something like: ‘what is hidden, concealed, or covered over’. Being so apparently rational, Freud had no room for occult speculation: he seemed to view mysticism as a neurotic disease, or at least something that should be understood in scientific terms. My sense is that this same Freudian fear and loathing of mysticism — a certain terror of the irrational, the dark, and the unknown — is what people fear in Jordan Peterson, who is a scientist but also a Jungian mystic. It is therefore no surprise that Pankaj Mishra’s recent hit piece is entitled: ‘Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism’.
This fear of ‘the black tide of mud’ continues on in the culture wars. The ‘hard-nosed rationalists’ are at war with the ‘mystics’. People like Sam Harris, whose view is that ‘intelligence is a matter of information processing in physical systems[i]’ seems similarly worried about mysticism. Neuroscientist and psychoanalyst Iain McGilchrist, on the other hand, believes that this is a reductive view: “Is consciousness a product of the brain?’, he wrote. ‘The only certainty here is that anyone who thinks they can answer this question with certainty has to be wrong[ii]’. Freud and Jung fought this same eternal war between reason and mystery, and the conflict rages on.
Certainly, fear of fascist mysticism is not unfounded: after all mysticism, the occult, and the ‘collective unconsciousness’ are terrifying because we don’t understand that much about them — and some doors are best left shut. Nazism, for example could be thought of as a kind of pre-rational mysticism, and Hitler a kind of negative mystic monster. However, was Jung a Nazi, as Pankaj Mishra seems to suggest? Actually, such rumors have since been proved unfounded: Jung actually risked his life in a conspiracy to bring down Hitler[iii].
Peterson, Jung and Archetypes
Jordan Peterson is a student of Jung, and like his teacher has genuine mystical qualities. This may be one of the reasons why he is quite threatening to those rationalists like Freud, and now Sam Harris, and others who believe that we need to outgrow religion. And Peterson is doubly threatening to extreme scientific reductionists because he is highly empirical, and a scientist to boot. It should be pointed out that Jung was also a scientist and more empirical than many people give him credit for.
Personally, my original interest in Peterson started from listening to his very practical interpretations of Jung’s rich and inaccessible writings. Jung is very hard to understand, and Peterson has read the complete works — an achievement in itself. These days Jung is taboo almost everywhere in official circles — while being loved by independent minds and all kinds of artists and storytellers.
My own professors warned me against Jung, which just made me more curious about him. Jung himself said that he would have been burned at the stake in the middle ages — that his view didn’t fit into orthodox theology. He freely studied ‘heretical texts’, from the gnostic gospels, to Kabbala and Nietzsche. Despite his detractors, Jung isn’t going away soon: whether we like it or not, his concepts of the shadow, the collective unconsciousness, and the archetypes have endured.
An archetype, as Peterson has describes it, is a limit. For example, Christ is an archetype of the ultimate hero, Lucifer of pure evil, Judas of betrayal, Cain and Abel of the warring brothers, and Adam and Eve of the fallen man and women. Archetypes are representations of a complex reality — the grammar or code with which we understand and compose the human story. Like piano chords, some are dark and some light, some major and some minor, but each has a certain axiomatic quality. The amount of archetypes are limited but they can be arranged in limitless ways — just as the few notes of the western scale contain the possibility of infinite variation.
William Blake understood archetypes before the word was in circulation. He called The Bible ‘The Great Code of Art’, which is another way of saying that The Bible is the book that contains the archetypes. This can be understood, with or without religious belief, because enduring stories are existential, rather than merely moralistic or religious — atheists can benefit from knowing the mythopoetics of The Bible, as well as believers.
Peterson, Atheists, and Traditionalists
Incidentally, it is interesting to note, that Peterson has a lot of atheist fans: people who have suddenly re-discovered Christian archetypes without being formally Christian or having any professed belief in God. That’s because, as Peterson has pointed out, atheists, very often, are actually struggling with the God ideal, sometimes more deeply than uncritical believers; they are asking profound questions, and simply being honest in saying that they cannot believe. This is another Petersonian idea: that faith is shown in our actions, not in our affiliations or beliefs.
The Jewish born Christian mystic Simone Weil was an atheist when she had what she described as a religious awakening. She subsequently asked herself: how could this happen to a non-believer? She came to an interesting conclusion: that it was only though honest skepticism could she have found God: “One of the most exquisite pleasures of human love” she wrote “ — to serve the loved one without his knowing it — is only possible, as regards the love of God, through atheism.[iv]” In other words, the person serving the highest truth under whatever banner is more ‘godly’ than the unthinking, dogmatic ‘believer’. And even more radically, a loss of faith might be necessary for the birth of a genuine spiritual awakening. Perhaps our post-modern loss of faith is necessary for a more genuine future mysticism to be born.
Peterson, following Jung, doesn’t often speak about religious belief. In fact, both Peterson and Jung, don’t seem to be after mere belief, but actual spiritual enlightenment. When asked if he believed in God once, Jung replied ‘I don’t need to believe. I know’[v]. Peterson, on the other hand, gives a humbler answer: ‘That depends on what you mean by God[vi]’ or ‘I don’t believe in him, but I am afraid that He is real’. Peterson has revived the notion that we should fear God and Hell. This is appalling to progressives, who want to imagine the world John Lennon sang about ‘with no hell below and above us only sky’. But Peterson understands what the mystic Gurdjieff meant when he talked about the necessity to understand ‘the terror of the situation’. Perhaps mysticism cannot be born prior to a certain salutary terror.
The cruelties ascribed to the dark ages — remember the cruelties is Voltaire’s famous phrase — have not gone away as a result of material progress. This world, whether there is an afterlife or not, is still full of numberless heavens and hells. A world with no notion of Heaven and Hell may be a post-modern flatland (Ken Wilber’s oft used term) with no spiritual depth. Moreover, unfortunately or not, the biblical God and his stories, keep coming back to haunt us — and people are more religious than ever, despite the scientific revolution.
Peterson has shown a lot of skeptics that biblical stories are not that simple — that they are deeply realistic. The bible is not an ‘opiate for the people’ but a truly terrifying text with true literary realism. It has a happy ending for the chosen few, but it is also full of heart-wrenching tragedy for many. The proof of the veracity of biblical stories is in how many centuries they have endured. But the bible does not offer an easy road to salvation certainly — the old testament god Yahweh especially can be pretty monstrous. There is good reason to fear Him. And, ironically, atheists fear him a great deal.
Peterson has also tangoed with traditionalists like the Catholic pundit, Patrick Coffin[vii]. In their YouTube interview Coffin asks Peterson why he speaks about heretical thinkers like Nietzsche and Jung. At one moment Coffin almost seemed to be trying to convert Peterson to Catholicism, suggesting he is a ‘future catholic’. Peterson replied: ‘maybe Jung and Nietzsche are heretics, but what makes you think you aren’t one?’. This silenced Coffin. Imitation of Christ — which Jung described as the hero journey — is no easy task. And membership in a religious organization obviously doesn’t make one holy. A sort of total humility, total surrender to the investigation of truth does. Peterson did not fall into Coffin’s Christian triumphalism, nor did he allow himself to be told which books to read.
Peterson, Intellectuals and Leftists
So who else fears Peterson? Intellectuals and leftists, obviously. The ‘black tide’ they fear is their own shadow — the shadow of utopian dreams. The world of perfect equality has often led to a world of perfect horrors, as the 20th Century has shown us. We don’t want to see this shadow because it contains all the potential horrors that we are capable of, despite our professed compassion for the world. Pankaj Mishra’s violent — and yes racist — description of Peterson as ‘romancing the noble savage[viii]’ is a good illustration of that very shadow. He is an anti-racist who, despite himself blurts out racist epithets. Is he unaware of his own intolerance and resentment, and perhaps of his own envy — the envy of an intellectual for a real embodied philosopher? At least that’s what it seems like to me.
The ‘leftists’ call Peterson fascist because he holds up a mirror to their own fascistic desire to control the conversation. The language police want to control and compel speech — and are particularly humorless. Perhaps they have no connection to the ‘deplorables’ or lower classes who they are trying to liberate, and are envious because Peterson has climbed down from the ivory tower to speak directly to the masses. Another one of Peterson’s sins is being popular — he is not an elitist. As I have joked before, he is leading the real revolution of the proletariat.
Pankaj Mishra throws a lot of nasty words in Petersons direction: ‘misogyny, antisemitism, islamophobia, capitalist’ to name a few of the nicer ones; he associates Peterson with notorious fascists like Richard Wagner and Julious Evola and all the major hate crimes of the twentieth century — despite the fact that Peterson has spent decades warning people about the dangers of fascism. The fact that there isn’t the slightest scrap of evidence that Peterson is a bigot doesn’t seem to matter him — one can attack a person through mystical association. The dark mud here, or dark envy — the negative mysticism — seems to belong to Mishra, who appears to be unknowingly animated, and indeed possessed, by a totalising, devouring ideology — so he cannot tell the difference between a reasonable man and a fascist.
Peterson’s mysticism and his strong celebration of masculinity are an affront to what Jung called the ‘devouring mother’. The devouring mother wants to keep men boys forever — manhood is feared. The direct, passionate, and rational man is dangerous to the devouring mother, because he has real power that can’t be controlled. I have speculated that this attack on masculinity may be one occult cause of the biggest ‘gotcha’ moment of the 21st Century — the election of Donald Trump. Progressives — and I include myself in that category — got got. The point is: if you constantly undercut the ‘good man’ archetype in the culture, then the tyrant you constantly project on others rises up from the shadows.
Each person has a shadow to reckon with — the shadow of the left is the devouring mother; the shadow of the right is the tyrannical father. The former wants ‘safety’, the latter ‘control’. And the really difficult reckoning — which Jung brought forward and which Peterson has popularized — is that wisdom comes from acknowledging the dark aspects of our soul, which no one really wants to do. To know that the worst lies hidden in ourselves is a terrifying realization. But the alternative, as Peterson keeps saying, is much worse: to remain an overgrown child, or a tyrant, or a devouring mother, or a disembodied intellectual; it is to become disassociated with the body and possessed by various ideological cults on the left and on the right. The alternative, as Peterson has said, is indeed hell.
Conclusion: Belief and Gnosis
So why about why people have such strong — and sometimes even hysterical — reactions to Jordan Peterson. I’m not sure I’ve gotten to the bottom of this subject, but my central thesis — which I have attempted to flesh out in this essay — is that Peterson is a genuine mystic. And nothing threatens the status quo more than a mystic. That doesn’t make him Jesus or The Buddha however — he has his faults — but I would say he is at least a bodhisattva. I say that hard mystical realism and spiritual illumination is what can heal the various divides in our hearts — but again, this is something I cannot prove empirically. I don’t have to believe it, I know it.
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Jordan Peterson vs Iain McGilchrist
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In Defence of the Cult of Jordan Peterson
[ii] McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.