Jordan Peterson is a controversial and polarizing figure. Two of my brothers are fans of his, and this post is prompted by a conversation I had with one of them, not long ago. I just wrote a short piece on Peterson and that encouraged me to complete this – When Jordan Peterson was More Fun and Balanced
Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, but he has become a potent social and cultural critic. He gives every indication that he relishes this new role.
New Yorker magazine has a good article on Peterson – it is less than sympathetic, but a good overview nevertheless. It concentrates on the political and cultural battles that Peterson is best known for, but it gives a good picture of Peterson the philosophical media star. The piece is precipitated by the recent publication of his second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I suspect that Peterson believes that the world can and should be less messy and less complex than it already is. Hence we require an antidote to chaos. I think he is wrong in that basic assumption. Chaos is the mother of existence and it can never be tamed or treated with an antidote no matter how well intentioned. I prefer Carl Jung’s formulation:
“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”
Peterson is a provocateur That can be a useful function in society, but I think he is wasting a lot of his thinking and his good ideas, by making them less accessible to those he could inform or influence. Like so much of the internet, and the present world of ideas generally, he is preaching to the choir – his choir. He is certainly deepening the understanding of some people, and perhaps many people, but I question how much influence he really has beyond producing a rallying cry and a body of thinking that resonates with his group of supporters who are numerous and not afraid to engage others to the point of acting like jerks – at least on line. Isn’t the purpose of communication informing and perhaps influencing? And that requires acting with respect and civility.
Peterson has a huge amount of respect for Carl Jung, and is certainly influenced by Jung and his writing. He’s interested in a broad range of writing and ideas and he can bring together a wandering, yet coherent story.
I have two issues with Peterson that makes him a less interesting intellectual figure for me.
Firstly, he plunges into the political arena. As a former eager political follower myself, and a highly opinionated one at that, I now find that nothing turns me off a thinker more now, than a highly political commentator. As a student of Jung’s ideas, I find that politics is so full of the shadow and projections, leading to virulent tribalism, and combat, that it becomes a swamp that I have no interest in visiting. I can discuss politics with a friend or two over wine, but I value the wine much more than the politics and I am now content simply to give my opinions, while listening to others. I no longer attempt to change anyone’s mind or opinion – exchanging insights and opinions is my goal in these conversations. Politics involves too much of our unconscious to be a useful public exercise for me.
Ultimately politics is about power, making it a complex subject that, for me, can only be discussed intelligently in small groups and even then one must be respectful and willing to listen at least as much as speaking. No shouting permitted. For me, any psychological discussion or any psychologist in the media who spends a lot of time in politics is much less interested in real psychology that is useful to the individual, which ultimately leads to the social changes they seek, and more interested in polemics. They are usually preaching to their tribe and more interested in validation than adding to the world of wisdom. But to each his own. I respect other people’s passion for politics and debate, but I now actively avoid it.
Secondly, Peterson is speaking very much to a masculine audience in his content and in his style. I have no particular problem with that, although it again speaks to his aiming at his audience and tribe, and being less interested in spreading his ideas where they can achieve more. I don’t suggest that women can’t or won’t appreciate what he has to say, or that it cannot also apply to women, but his style is very masculine and I think that is a conscious decision on his part.
As a man I find it easy to relate to his style, but I prefer a more balanced approach. Peterson is appealing more to the mind and less to the heart. He is full of ideas and “logos” – order and knowledge rather than “eros” – mysticism and the imagination. Jung himself stressed the importance of opposites and few are as fundamental as logos and eros. So for Peterson, who so admires Jung, to be so centered in logos is a disappointment for me. I’m also concerned that Peterson does not adequately explain or present Jungian ideas because of this masculine centered style and content. I am speaking here not so much of gender, but the masculine approach and perspective, which is more dominated by logos. Of course women contain the masculine as well and men contain the feminine. A woman can be just as “logical” as any man and any man can be infused with eros or emotion as much as any woman, but there is a certain style that is masculine and one that is feminine. The goal of each of us is to become more integrated, using each when appropriate for our goals and the expression of our Selves.
Peterson, himself, says that the majority of the people who watch his many YouTube videos are men. Peterson can speak with passion, but largely within the field of logos. He is not attempting to broaden the reach of his ideas. That does not mean that I would expect nor want him to water down his ideas – only to expand the range.
It is not as easy to speak to eros in our culture. Most people in our culture are more interested in ideas than imagination and mythology – the world of eros. But I am disappointed that Peterson seldom moves beyond the world of ideas even to inform and remind his audience of the great importance of the world beyond logos. Art is seldom discussed, which is an enormous oversight given his respect for Jung ,and Peterson’s apparent desire to be considered a broad and deep thinker.
This leads to my discussion with my brother. Listening to Peterson can be very entertaining and interesting, but my brother is looking for inspiration and guidance and in talking with him I came to some important conclusions about myself and Peterson. My brother is looking to make changes in his life and that has been my own goal for decades and in the last few years in particular. As a person drawn to science and the world of ideas – logos – I have spent much of my time collecting, pondering and exploring ideas. I have certainly grown and changed over the years, but less than I would have liked and I am more eager to grow and change now than ever before.
As I have absorbed more Jungian thinking, as well as others’, I have come to realize just how sterile logos is without eros. And logos is not enough to change – to evolve. Most people’s problems are not centered in the world of ideas, but in the expression of those ideas and to change that, you have to enter the world of eros and do the work, beyond thinking and even beyond simply acting. Mythology, emotions, spirit can change a person and lead to valuable ideas being put into service, but simple knowledge of an idea, even an extensive knowledge, is not enough. At least it hasn’t been for me. I am now doing the emotional and soul work that allows ideas to flow and have an effect, but it is not easy. It is not nearly as easy as absorbing or learning a new idea.
Very few people don’t have a pretty good idea of what they need to do for a better and more fulfilling life – at least in material terms. The challenge, even for the material things in life, is to put those ideas into practice and that’s the hard part. Reading another self-help book of ideas or listening to another YouTube video seldom leads to real change that makes a difference or lasts, unless you’ve also addressed the emotional and spiritual content, within yourself, attached to those ideas. I haven’t found any button to push, or lever to pull, to accomplish those changes so many of us seek. I haven’t found any book or video that has led to enlightenment and change through ideas appealing to my logical mind, except to the extent that they inspire me to go deeper into myself to address the real issues beyond the ideas and knowledge of logos – into the land of eros.
This leads to what I think is most indicative of Peterson’s oversights and limited views. Carl Jung’s most personal and most important book is The Red Book. Peterson does not seem to speak of it at all – certainly he has no significant references to it that I have found and he has many Youtube Videos and nothing of it on his book lists – one and two. The Red Book is in neither list. There are total of eleven books by Carl Jung on the lists. This is not meant to be a criticism necessarily of Peterson as a thinker, but I do intend it as a major criticism of Peterson as a Jungian thinker and as an honest advocate of Jung and his ideas. In the first list Peterson is revealing the most important books that shaped his own first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief and one of Jung’s book is in that short list – Modern Man in Search of a Soul. For that short first list Peterson warns people that: “Trigger warning: These are the most terrifying books I have encountered.” So he is not afraid of challenging books and The Red Book is certainly all that and more. Yet he says nothing of this, the most significant book of Carl Jung.
From what I have found so far, you cannot be a serious student of Jung without seriously considering The Red Book. I’m not suggesting that Peterson is not such a serious student – he may be in private. But if he is really an advocate for an improved human condition and if Jung is central to that, then I think he has to be an advocate for The Red Book in some way. He has to at least point to it – help to direct people to it. He should discuss it in a way that introduces it to people. If he really wants people to understand and know Jung and his perspective, then The Red Book cannot be ignored.
I am not saying that The Red Book is some sort of intellectual or moral litmus test for a Jungian – there can and should be no such thing. But if you are seriously interested in Jung then you cannot avoid The Red Book. For someone trying to teach and bring people to a greater understanding of their lives through Jung, confronting and opening people to The Red Book is imperative.
For Jung it marked his journey in crisis and in confrontation with the major elements that make up his body of work – the soul, the Self, the unconscious, archetypes, active imagination etc . There is a belief in Jungian circles that all of Jung’s later work really arose out of his confrontation with, and exploration of these elements that he documented in word and paintings in The Red Book. As I explore The Red Book on my own, I am coming to the same conclusion. Without The Red Book, Jung can turn into another logos-centered teacher, but he is much more than that, which is what the world needs.
I am like Peterson in that I think in words as well – logos. I’m working to expand my consciousness to embrace eros. Logos is not enough and that is my major problem with Peterson. He has part of Jung down and teaches that, but I find that part of Jung is not Jung. Jung is a whole body of a perspective that is so broad and deep that one must honor that breadth and depth. And The Red Book is central to that. Jung deserves a better introduction and advocate than Jordan Peterson.
Everyone finds their own path and Jung stressed that above all. The Red Book showed us Jung’s path and we cannot ignore that, as we make our own way if we are use that path to help to guide us in a general direction, but not to follow in Jung’s or anyone else’s footsteps. I would love to see and hear Peterson embrace that and spread Jungian ideas. The tension and polarity of logos and eros is not optional. I think that Jung discovered fundamental aspects of what it is to be a human, navigating in this physical reality. You certainly don’t have to be a student of Jung to successfully be on the path of evolution and fulfillment. But I do think that Jung discovered, or rediscovered aspects of our reality that cannot be ignored. Eros and logos are among the most important of those discoveries. We are drowning in this ocean of logos in our modern culture. Eros rises.