By Matt Boulter
Have you ever heard a podcast, or seen a YouTube video, that threatened to change your life, in a good way? I’ll never forget the first time I heard a certain interview posted online back in 2007. CBC Radio One’s David Cayley was interviewing two Anglican theologians, John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, whose books I had begun to read about a decade before. This scintillating conversation rang all my existential bells: philosophy, theology, language, mysticism, liturgy, and why the modern Western world seems so insanely broken and befuddled. Not since an undergrad class on Kierkegaard and Derrida had I been so headily enthused. Do I regret coercing scores of my friends to listen, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this interview? Not at all. All these years later, mine is not the only life “shook” and shaped by this interview.
Last month, it happened again, this time in the form of a YouTube video. (At the age of 45, I find it harder and harder to achieve the same intellectual high.) This time, though, the interviewer was none other than the viral provocateur Russell Brand cross-examining Jordan Peterson, the Jung-and-Nietzsche-quoting prophet of the post-political-correctness movement and a clinical psychologist teaching at the University of Toronto. In the last 30 days, Peterson’s YouTube channel has been watched more than six million times.
How does the interview commend itself? Why is it worth watching? There are three reasons, which I will present as big themes: ideology as parasitical to religion; the conundrum of social equality, which unmasks the poverty of our culture’s left/right discourse; and the necessity of “wisdom as a way of life” for the modern individual trying to find a way through the ruins and relics of Western culture.
One of Peterson’s most pervasive emphases is that modern and contemporary ideologies, religious and secular, are in reality agenda-driven power plays that, like a parasite, feed and live off the “borrowed capital” of the great, primordial religions of humanity. This claim is a riveting fusion of Jung on religious myth and Nietzsche on ideology as power play. (When was the last time you saw these two fruitfully juxtaposed?)
Stopping just short of identifying as a Christian, Peterson is rallying to make religion respectable again, as demonstrated by his recent series, The Psychological Significance of Biblical Stories. Peterson takes these narratives significantly more seriously than your typical Jungian pop psychologist, and yet he knows that the millions of late modern denizens who constitute his audience are many levels removed from even the possibility of traditional religious belief.
In their podcast, Brand heartily agrees with Peterson in this advocacy of traditional belief systems, giving him multiple high fives, and expressing his attraction to the Christian Bible and its treasure trove of stories and meaningful wisdom. But the religion Peterson champions has little or no truck with the various fundamentalisms that dot our cultural landscape. His is a vision fully embracing the evolutionary biology that he believes gives rise to religious thought, all the while refusing the reduction of religion to biology, a move made by proponents of some ideologies on the militant secular left.
For Peterson, responsible thinkers should see the great mythologies of premodern man as the result of evolution “all the way down.” And yet when it comes to the lived reality of mystical experience, Peterson says, “There is more.” Evolution alone is not fully explanatory.
This merger of Jungian and Nietzschean themes leads to a second accent in the Brand/Peterson discussion: the conundrum of equality in our sociopolitical landscape, which indicates the poverty of our current left/right discourse. You see, Peterson often draws the unfortunate label alt-right, but this designation drastically fails to do him justice.
Peterson argues — with the left-leaning and libertine Russell Brand in hearty agreement — that the pernicious inequality against which our democratic, Enlightenment liberal philosophies wage war is a problem that runs far deeper than the surface of our partisan skirmishes. Human societies and cultures — from the native Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of (mainly) British Columbia to the Victorian culture of 19th-century England — have been oppressing the vulnerable among us since before the dawn of the caveman, so to speak. Peterson thinks that this urge is in our evolutionary genes.
The aim of his anti-PC campaigning is not to undermine the ideal of equality; rather, it is to acknowledge the severity of the problem. The kind of linguistic Band-Aid proposed by the Canadian Parliament’s C-16 bill last year is woefully superficial. Real admission of our problem, both Peterson and Brand agree, requires more.
If there is a therapy for this political cancer, both of these profound pop philosophers agree, it must occur at the individual level. Here lies the third theme of the interaction. Is this stress on the individual human psyche one more version of the kind of rugged individualism that calls sufferers to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? I fear the answer might be Yes, especially in Peterson’s case. And yet my charitable reading of him chooses to see Peterson’s brand of individual psychology, propagated in his recent bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, rather along the lines of what Pierre Hadot calls “philosophy as a way of life.”
Peterson, channeling the spirit of ancient Stoicism, is saying that the level of the individual person is primary — the primary cure for what ails us — because it is the only level on which each of us has control and responsibility, as a spiritual being in the world. Brand agrees with this protest against all collective political movements, as demonstrated in his recent bestseller Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions, a book in which he, nakedly baring his addicted soul to the world, insists that the kind of shalom and sobriety in AA is, for him, the only way to fly. Neither Peterson nor Brand, then, is necessarily saying that a narrow focus on individual soul formation — psychology in either the ancient or modern sense — is anything like “first philosophy” from a theoretical point of view. Instead, they argue that, if justice and equality are ever going to thrive, then the surest path to that end is for me to start with myself. And so also for you.