“Peterson consistently invokes the Schopenhauerian-Nietzschean trope that the most important thing is to strengthen the self against the suffering of the world. The stronger one becomes, the greater and more worthy of respect and emulation by those around him.”
Author’s note: The following is excerpted from an early chapter in our forthcoming book Myth and Mayhem, which analyzes 12 Rules for Life.
Alongside Chapter One, the most important political ruminations in 12 Rules for Life appear in Chapter Six “Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World.” This is a theme Peterson comes back to quite consistently, particularly with regard to youthful social justice advocates. This is also the Chapter where Peterson’s inclinations towards a Burkean-style ordered liberty approach to politics become most transparent. He continuously insists that the complexity of the world is so vast that individuals who do not fully even have their own lives in order have no right to assume they can improve it. Thus, it is far better to adopt the cautious approach of conforming to the expectations of the external social world, while working to develop one’s self worth and success from within.
Peterson’s justification for this position is, in fact, highly consonant with the cautious and even pessimistic conservative philosophies articulated by figures like Leo Strauss, Russell Kirk, and others. Though as always, political dimensions of such inclinations are less explicitly brought to the surface than in the work of those seminal thinkers. Chapter Six opens with a chilling analysis of the Columbine killers motivation, echoing the concluding sections of Maps of Meaning on the problem of evil. He points out how the killers appointed themselves judges of existence itself (and the human race in particular) and found them wanting. Their response was to take revenge against existence through a spectacularly impotent act of violence. Peterson points out that these figures (and evil in general) emerge because life in the world is invariably hard. Like the pessimistic conservative Schopenhauer before him, at points, Peterson comes very close to accepting the wisdom of Silenus: that the best thing in life would be to have never been born—and the next best thing would be to die quickly. As Peterson puts it early in the Chapter:
“Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction. Sometimes suffering is clearly the result of a personal fault such as willful blindness, poor decision-making or malevolence. In such cases, when it appears to be self-inflicted, it may even seem just. People get what they deserve, you might contend. That’s cold comfort, however, even when true. Sometimes, if those who are suffering changed their behavior, then their lives would unfold less tragically. But human control is limited. Susceptibility to despair, disease, aging and death is universal.”
Given all this, it is understandable that some people may come away from the evils of life with a desire to do great evil themselves. But Peterson also points out that some may emerge from even tremendous tragedy without being defined by resentment and anger. They may come away with the conviction to do good, though what that means is not necessarily clear.
Instead, we should recognize that life inevitably involves suffering—and do our best to mitigate it for ourselves before we take any significant strides towards eliminating alleged socio-political and economic causes of harm. What does this entail? It means taking care of the “small things” in our life and recognizing the opportunities we have available to us. We should focus on issues such as are you working “hard on you career, or even your job, or are you letting bitterness and resentment drag you down?” Am I treating my loved ones with care? Am I taking care of my responsibilities. Am I trying to “make things around (me) better?” If I am not doing all I can to perfect myself in these local areas, then I have no business attempting to blame anyone or anything else for what I am going through. Am I saying or doing things that make me “weak and ashamed” or am I only saying and doing things that make me “strong”? It also means not just using our judgement—but recognizing the contributions of our “culture” and that the “wisdom of the past” passed on by our “dead ancestors” have useful things to teach us. As Peterson puts it in the conclusion to the short Chapter:
“Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left (thanks), or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility? If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you.”
If we accomplish this task, our soul will become “less corrupted” and able to bear the inescapable tragedy of life without it degenerating into “outright hellishness.” Our anxiety, hopelessness, and resentment and anger may recede. We will see our existence as “genuine good,” even in the face our own vulnerability and perhaps even become a more prominent example for others. Our ability to set our house in order will inspire others to strive to make the world a better place. This mantra of caring for yourself first and foremost (which results in indirectly caring for others) is not unique to this Chapter. Peterson also brings up this point in another bastardization of Biblical principles, when he claims in the Coda that the proper response to the poor man’s plight is to strive through right example to be an inspiration to him. Or how he insists that Jesus’s efforts to show compassion to the prostitutes and sinners indicates only that he is the perfect man, while our own ambitions to improve their lot are motivated by a desire to “draw attention to…inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good will.” In each circumstance, the proper interpretation of Christian doctrine is apparently: do what one can—but only after looking after yourself first and if it is expedient and undemonstrative.
The Limitations of Depoliticizing Suffering
When you boil it down, Peterson’s positions on these points often look like a jazzed up variant of WASPY wisdom. Our first obligations are always to ourselves—and to those immediately around us. If something is going wrong, then it is likely either natural, or we, ourselves, are to blame for it. Even if there may be cause to combat injustice at the social level, we should only do so if we have put our own life into order first. The underpinning logic of this Chapter is that there exists a tension between looking after one’s own life and engaging in political efforts to rectify injustices. But this, by no means, seems clear to me.
First, Peterson largely ignores that—while the existence of suffering generally may indeed transcend politics and be ineradicable—the specific cause of someone’s suffering may well have political and economic roots.
First, Peterson largely ignores that—while the existence of suffering generally may indeed transcend politics and be ineradicable—the specific cause of someone’s suffering may well have political and economic roots. Consider Peterson’s typical denunciation of the resentment people may feel throughout their career or in their job, discussed above. Invoking and criticizing unhappiness in the workplace as “resentment” is a fairly typical approach by conservative authors. What it misses is, as Fredric Jameson points out in his critique of Nietzsche, that people may have justifiable reasons to be angry at the structural conditions of their workplace, which hold them back. This can take a huge number of different forms. A Marxist might point out that one can feel exploited, if the value created by my labor is appropriated by others for little compensation: for instance, how Walmart employees are paid minimum wage, while the Walton family enjoys hundreds of billions of dollars worth of inherited wealth. A Rawlsian might observe someone inhibited from advancing their socio-economic status because they were born into a poor family. And then this Rawlsian might criticize a social system which does not ameliorate these conditions and, rather, offers tremendous advantages to those born into affluent circumstances. Characterizing these concerns about exploitation and unfairness as mere resentment is highly reductive, and demanding that figures in such circumstance just focus on their own life ignores that the basis of their problems may rest in injustices we have moral responsibilities to end.
Peterson may reply that even if all this were granted, people will still be better off just trying to improve their lot than rectifying such titanic problems. But this brings me to my second point. Many people may resolve their problems through “criticizing” and changing the world, and, as an added point, they would also resolve these problems for others, rather than just themselves. The aforementioned person who feels exploited at work may do a great service to himself and others by starting a union: an act which can take a great deal of courage in today’s corporate climate. Someone concerned with their “health and well-being” may indeed be advised to quit their bad habits. They might also demand things like access to superior taxpayer funded healthcare. They might point out that two huge predictors of engaging in the aforementioned bad habits—everything from smoking to eating bad food to excessive substance abuse—is a lack of education and poverty. So perhaps much can be gained by improving education and taking efforts to end poverty beyond just serving as an example to the poor. An individual who wants to treat their spouse and children with “dignity and respect” might respond that this is exceptionally difficult to do, given the stresses of precarious employment, stagnating or declining real wages, and the blurring of the work/life divide under the conditions of technological change.
Peterson has little to say on these issues, which may appear more as a mundane oversight than a reflection on his work. But this very lack of engagement is quite telling. It isn’t that Peterson is disinterested in issues of redistribution and political agitation, instead focusing on individual human psychology and efforts. Instead, he wants a focus on individual human psychology and efforts to be the aim of politics: individuals can make efforts and strive to become personally better off, but individuals should not take efforts and strive to make society better off, except in extremely qualified circumstances. This is deeply reflective of the implicit but pervasive conservative ordered liberty approach to politics underpinning much of Peterson’s advice on how to live well.
The Dark Underside of Cleaning One’s Room
This Chapter is also where some of the major theoretical tensions in Peterson’s work emerge, though these are very rarely explicated clearly. This is perhaps for the best, since when they bubble up they reveal a more disturbing dimension to his work. Peterson consistently situates his work in a mélange of Judeo-Christian traditionalism and liberalism, which despite his protestations in Chapter Eleven about having some left-wing views, is usually very consonant with middle-of-the-road North American conservatism. One is almost tempted to label it a form of neo-Fusionism, after the synthesis of Protestant Christianity and capitalism enacted by William Buckley, Frank Meyer and the early National Review. But there is also a darker dimension to his work that is more interesting—but also highly problematic. In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson shares little of the optimism that occasionally emerges in the work of fusionist thinkers like Frank Meyer or William Buckley, who either emphasized the creative potential of freedom or the joys that flowed from Christian grace. While the emphasis on individual creativity occasionally spruced up Maps of Meaning, the 21st century Peterson often gives into the kind of reactionary pessimism well criticized by Corey Robin in The Reactionary Mind. At these points Peterson comes very close to leaping past the Christian tradition and into what is sometimes referred to as perfectionism. Peterson consistently invokes the Schopenhauerian-Nietzschean trope that the most important thing is to strengthen the self against the suffering of the world. The stronger one becomes, the greater and more worthy of respect and emulation by those around him. This is, of course, dramatically in contrast to the Christian tradition Peterson invokes elsewhere, as both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche well knew. Jesus would not likely insist, as Peterson does in Chapter Eleven, that compassion can be a vice. The Lamb of God we are to imitate would never resent people for “walking all over” him. In fact, one suspects the truth of Christianity lies much closer to Shūsaku Endō’s interpretation in his classic novel Silence. When a believer is faced with having to trample on an icon of Christ to save dozens of believing Christians, Jesus’ voice rings out after years of silence to proclaim:
“Trample, trample. It is to be trampled on by you that I am here”
This tension in Peterson’s thinking points to what is darkest in his work. What Peterson puts forward in these moments isn’t so much a kind of fusionism, as an effort to blend Nietzschian doctrines about superior people and an admiration of strength and power with a form of Christian traditionalism. He is not the first to aspire to draw from both wells; they were quite common in right-leaning circles in early 20th century Europe. Like Peterson, critics such as T.S. Eliot and Carl Schmitt often shared the modernist admiration of the strong and willful individual on the one hand, while drawing on traditionalism to castigate the materialism and nihilism of the modern era. They also shared Peterson’s distaste for social agitation and efforts to achieve greater equality, combining the elitist disdain for the mass with the snob’s appeal to historical authority. Underpinning each of these theories was, of course, a tremendous fear, often framed in the same apocalyptic language presented in 12 Rules for Life. The world was conceived of as a dark and wicked place, and only superior men with a deep understanding of history could restore value to the world through their efforts to rise above the mass. Politically, this, of course, meant that efforts to extend democracy too far, to tolerate too much, or to redistribute power and wealth were to be looked upon with extreme suspicion as a kind of leveling. The natural hierarchy is not to be upended but restored to its proper parameters. One might claim such an association is unfair, but it is hard to tell how else to interpret passages such as the following in Chapter Eleven, where Peterson explains the attraction of right wing populism:
“The populist groundswell of support for Donald Trump in the US is part of the same process (of growing attraction to hardness and dominance), as is (in far more sinister form) the recent rise of far-right political parties even in such moderate and liberal places as Holland, Sweden, and Norway. Men have to toughen up. Men demand it, and women want it, even though they may not approve of the harsh and contemptuous attitude that is part and parcel of the socially demanding process that fosters and then enforces that toughness. Some women don’t like losing their baby boys, so they keep them forever. Some women don’t like men, and would rather have a submissive mate, even if he is useless. This also provides them with plenty to feel sorry for themselves about, as well. The pleasures of such self-pity should not be underestimated. Men toughen up by pushing themselves, and by pushing each other.”
Passages like these show that even if Peterson doesn’t entirely care for the emergence of these occasionally sinister right-wing movements, he certainly sympathizes with elements of their program. Sometimes the expression of these sympathies comes to the fore through the application of varying standards, as when he is willing to empathize with Heidegger in spite of his Nazism but cannot forgive the bastardization of Marxism decades after Marx’s death. But in Chapter Six, it is considerably more subtle. When he is at his worst in 12 Rules for Life—as across all of Chapter Six—the difference between Peterson and these more dangerous right-wing figures past and present is more a matter of degree than substance. The mass of people must recognize that their life will mostly consist of suffering—and not try to do much to change the social system and its already fragmenting cultural traditions to improve their lot. This will enable the exceptionally few competent people to rise to the top of the natural hierarchy where they belong. The most substantial differences between these past and present right-wing critics and Peterson is that Peterson occasionally flirts with a kind of elitism more akin to Ayn Rand than T.S Eliot, celebrating the creative superiority and contributions of the capitalistic rather than to the political sovereign or the artistic. Peterson also (mostly) decries the use of individual or social violence to maintain the natural hierarchy (though, of course, there is an explicit acceptance of state violence to maintain the status quo if necessary). But these differences of degree are likely little consolation to people who are told not to change the social system, even if that would substantially mitigate the suffering that is our unequally shared burden.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof