A Brief History of Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson’s message is simple: "evil" is endemic to humanity, and the domination of some people over others is biologically grounded.

Jordan Peterson is quick to caveat his bolder pronouncements, making hasty assurances that the edges of order will always be smudged by chaos, but he maintains, however evasively, that Western habits, traditions, and customs are good and endangered. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In the beginning, there were lobsters. Then there was man. And man, like the man-lobsters before him, was stronger than woman, who only liked the strongest of men. Then there was God. Then God died. Then there was ideology. Millions died. Then there was Jordan Peterson.

In the beginning, child Jordan Peterson went to church. There, there was God. Teenage Jordan Peterson abandoned God and joined a “mildly socialist” political party. There, there was ideology. No one died, but the group attracted losers: people without jobs or families who were motivated only by resentment of the rich. Peterson discovered that people — or “Homo sapiens,” as he sometimes calls them — are bad, and ideology is worse, allowing humans to hide their inherent badness from themselves. By “ideology,” Peterson means Stalinism and Nazism, and also Marxism, which includes postmodernism. All ideology tends toward the concentration-camp-gulag, a single entity in Petersonland where transgender rights activists, Pol Pot, Jacques Derrida, and Adolf Hitler are not always easily distinguishable.

After his misguided political dalliance, young man Jordan Peterson began a psychology degree. Bereft of his previous convictions, he felt anxious and was beset by apocalyptic nightmares. One drunk night he painted Jesus on the cross. Then he discovered the work of Carl Jung, whose descriptions of ancient belief systems subtending psychic life resonated with his experiences. Peterson narrates his encounter with Jung as personal, not professional — something between therapy and religious epiphany.

Jung departed from Freud in his insistence on the existence of a “collective unconscious,” a psychic substrate containing a trove of mythological archetypes shared by all, older and deeper than what he called the “personal unconscious.” To read Jung is to venture into this Mordor-ish world of elfins, wizards, witches, alchemists, and dragons guarding hoards of gold. It’s a world in which some of the men who post feverishly on Peterson Reddit threads might feel aesthetically at home.

Peterson, like Jung, daubs his texts with terms like decline, decay, deterioration, dissolution, disintegration, distress, degeneration, and decadence. Order threatens to be engulfed by chaos, the old by the new, the masculine by the feminine, the familiar by the strange, the known by the unknown. There was a serpent in the Garden of Eden, planes flew into the Twin Towers, and women are always cheating on their husbands. Jung communicates in a register of unwavering bombast appropriate to his epic mist-enveloped landscapes, whereas Peterson deals in both platitudes and brimstone. Abysses yawn, voids gape, primordial monsters growl, but his evocations of the fiery depths of hell often swerve into the mundane; infernal flames lick the pencil shavings of your untidy desk. Reading Peterson is like watching a Muppet Lohengrin.

Peterson is quick to caveat his bolder pronouncements, making hasty assurances that the edges of order will always be smudged by chaos, but he maintains, however evasively, that Western habits, traditions, and customs are good and endangered. Peterson logic goes something like this: we — not an inclusive category — are skating on thin ice, and under the ice are dragons, and under the dragons are women, and women are chaos, and chaos is foreign, and the foreigners threaten to smash the ice and steal the ice skates of Western civilization that it took thousands of years to create … but, like, a bit of melting is okay, and if you were stronger, you’d be better at ice-skating, loser.

Peterson’s prose might be more shambolic, his anecdotes more bathos-prone, his archetypal examples more pop cultural (I do not recommend his three-hour lecture “Carl Jung and the Lion King”), and his primal monsters as likely to reside in the brain as the unconscious, but the Jungian influence is palpable. For all his insistence on the universal aspects of psychic life, Jung’s work similarly addressed a white, male, Christian subject unmoored from the safe harbors of tradition. Writing in 1937, Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany five years previously, observed that Jung’s psychology offered a therapy reserved for the “Aryan soul” alone.

Some commentators note that Peterson’s writings are less sinister than his critics on the Left suggest. 12 Rules for Life is not emblazoned with swastikas, they say, it’s full of innocuous anecdotes about squirrels. Moreover, it helps people. But Peterson doesn’t just say, stand up straight, tidy your room, and don’t be a loser; he casually insists that “evil” is endemic to humanity and that domination of some kinds of people over others is biologically grounded. Peterson drains the violent history he claims he wants to understand of any specificity, and the antecedents of his violent vision of the primordial psyche are forgotten in the process.