I have taken the Peterson Plunge; that is, over the past week or so I have immersed myself into the complete (over 30 hours)* lecture series The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories by Dr. Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a University of Toronto psychology professor who is becoming something of an internet phenomenon. I only became aware of him through a recent post by the Bionic Mosquito.
The aim of the series was to take a rational approach to the Bible stories through the latest understanding of neuroscience, psychoanalysis (Peterson is also a clinical psychologist), evolutionary biology, philosophy, literature (the wisdom of our civilization), and art (a window into the transcendent). He often refers to among many others Freud, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and especially Jung.
The overarching theme is that these stories, quite strange to a modern person, contain the concentrated essence of human experience that is encoded in our subconscious and physiology. In effect they are true, in that “truth” is what is consistent with human experience. Because human beings are conscious of the future, of their own death, they are unique among animals and all individuals must play out their own adventure story of leaving the known to explore the unknown.
We can know Peterson by his enemies; he detests Marxism and postmodernism. For example, in Lecture VI: The Psychology of the Flood, he has an excellent critique of the modern university during the question period when he also describes his entrepreneurial concept for an online university. In Lecture VII: Walking with God: Noah and the Flood (corrected), he skewers the intellectuals and their arrogance.
There is not much directly concerning economics, but in Lecture VIII: The Phenomenology of the Divine, he alludes to how the Tower of Babel was so big it had to fail, or should fail, like the big corporations in 2008. At another point he states that social engineering often results in the opposite of intention a la von Mises. In Lecture X: Abraham: Father of Nations there is an economic discussion that posits trust between persons in a society is extremely valuable toward economic exchange.
Peterson often refers to Vikor Frankl and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and their insight that the horrors of 20th century were only possible because individuals had been acquiescent. And why, because as Nietzsche observed “God is dead” and thus the bloodbath would commence. In a recent LRC article David Gordon described the spiritual crisis in Europe as diagnosed by Eric Voegelin:
This might stave off immediate disaster, but as I suggested earlier, a deeper problem—spiritual crisis—finally had to be confronted. Voegelin believed that order in society is much more than a political problem in the conventional sense. Besides the everyday world, there is a transcendent realm: human beings exist in tension between it and the world we grasp through the senses. Voegelin calls this tension the In-Between or, using a term of Plato’s, the Metaxy. The transcendent cannot be described in language that is literally true: myth and symbol are our only recourse. As he puts the point in his philosophically deepest book, The Ecumenic Age, Plato “is aware of the limits set to the philosopher’s exploration of reality by the divine mystery. . . . Since the philosopher cannot transcend these limits but has to move in the In-Between, the Metaxy, . . . the meaning of his work depends on an ambiance of insight concerning the divine presence and operation in the cosmos that only the myth can provide.”
But what has all this to do with politics? Voegelin thought that the rulers of a society must mirror their society’s conception of cosmic order in the way they organize the government. In doing so, it is vital that the governing authorities preserve the tension between the human and divine realms.
This certainly fits in with much of what Peterson describes in his lectures though he never referred to Voegelin. And I might add, that is why these topics are important.
Why has Dr. Peterson become such an internet phenomenon? He is a public philosopher and scientist who takes the bible seriously and respects it as a foundation of our civilization; the civilization the marxists and postmodernists want to destroy. He teaches the truths about responsibility and preparation for the future that conflict with the zeitgeist (e.g., listen to the Grass Roots Let’s Live for Today). I believe he first became well known in Canada for contesting new laws of political correctness. He has a Canadian style, including his accent, phrasing (eh?), and modesty that is appealing. Talking about truth and morality as part of a description of the structure of reality, and from the wilderness of the academy, Peterson is a lonely, but becoming a more powerful (perhaps he might say authoritative) voice that appears to find the eager ears of many young people.
His focus on the subconscious and dream analysis do not resonate with me. For example, I have had discussions with those who have experienced everything from the truth of Christianity, to exorcisms, to Egyptian gods, to the 5th dimension (whatever that is). My usual response to these personal stories was to confess that they are beyond my personal experience; but I would add in these typically pub discussions while knocking on the bar (like Samuel Johnson’s famous refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism with a kick) “ … but I know that human life is not only material.” Even more, at my age (I am older than Peterson) my dreams are not likely to be transcendent, but more like those of Theodore Dalrymple who dreams of going to the toilet because he needs to.
But why spend so much time listening to one person, and on the Bible no less. I suppose it is that I have come to many of the same conclusions and have the real experiences of life that he alludes to (the tragedy and suffering), to affirm the truth of what he describes. So I will continue to follow Dr. Peterson, he is focusing on the important things to those in the wilderness who need guidance.