Two years ago, Jordan Peterson was a relatively obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto with but a single book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 564 pp., $73.95), and a quiver of scientific papers to his name on political psychology, personality, alcoholism, and other mainstream psychological topics.
Today, Peterson is famous. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House Canada, 409 pp., $34.95), published in January, quickly topped Amazon’s best-seller list. His public lectures are sold-out affairs, his YouTube videos have garnered more than 40 million views, and he has more than 500,000 Twitter followers. Some 8,000 supporters give him more than $66,000 a month, or an average of $10.93 each, on the crowdfunding website Patreon. In return, they receive an exclusive bimonthly Q&A session with their mentor on YouTube.
The psychologist’s mass appeal hinges on his ability to speak to what one might call the spiritual crisis of masculinity in the West: the deep sense of uselessness and emasculation that an increasing number of men claim to feel due to globalization, technological change, and civil rights gains by feminists and various ethnic minorities. Pundits including Tyler Cowen and David Brooks call Peterson the public intellectual of the moment. They may be right. But his celebrity is a symptom of the very crisis he claims to help solve. And his style and its success replicate in miniature form the politics of authoritarian populism now surging across the West.
Peterson’s mediocre new book of rules isn’t especially radical. Most of them come from ancient ethical traditions or are just common sense. Rule No. 3, for example — “Make friends with people who want the best for you” — is entirely reasonable but also a commonplace aphorism dating back to the writings of Aristotle and Confucius. Far more interesting than the text itself is Peterson’s accompanying stage show: the lecture tour, the self-help website, the internet memes, and social media presence.
The international marketing campaign to support the launch of 12 Rules for Life reached a fever pitch over matters largely ancillary to the book itself. In January, a Channel 4 interview in which Peterson caught the presenter, Cathy Newman, flat-footed after she questioned him about his apparent refusal to respect pronoun preference for transgender people went viral. Peterson’s followers quickly spread clips online, giving them gloating titles such as “Jordan B Peterson crushes Transgender debate rendering TV News host speechless.”
Peterson is practiced at such jousting. A 13-part television series based on his 1999 book, Maps of Meaning, offered viewers an early glimpse of his thinking and persona, but it was a series of videos targeting political correctness, released on YouTube in 2016, that first drew widespread attention. His rise to fame continued in 2017, when he appeared at a Canadian Senate hearing and denounced Bill C-16, which stipulated that Canada’s 1977 Human Rights Act add gender identity and gender expression to prohibited grounds for discrimination. Peterson portrayed it as the latest attempt by elites to undermine Western civilization. “One thing I won’t do is use the made-up words of postmodern neo-Marxists, who are playing a particular game of gender identity as an extension of their particular reprehensible philosophy,” he said at an event sponsored by Harvard University’s Open Campus Initiative in April 2017. He soon faced both condemnation as a bigot and passionate praise as a free speech hero.
Peterson’s philosophy is difficult to assess because it is constructed of equal parts apocalyptic alarm and homespun advice. Like the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whom he cites as an intellectual influence, Peterson is fond of thinking in terms of grand dualities — especially the opposition of order and chaos. Order, in his telling, consists of everything that is routine and predictable, while chaos corresponds to all that is unpredictable and novel.
For Peterson, living well requires walking the line between the two. He is hardly the first thinker to make this point; another of his heroes, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, harking back to the ancient Greeks, suggested that life is best lived between the harmony of Apollo and the madness of Dionysus. But while Peterson claims both order and chaos are equally important, he is mainly concerned with the perils posed by the latter — hence his rules.
In his books and lectures, Peterson describes chaos as “feminine.” Order, of course, is “masculine.” So the threat of being overwhelmed by chaos is the threat of being overwhelmed by femininity. The tension between chaos and order plays out in both the personal sphere and the broader cultural landscape, where chaos is promoted by those “neo-Marxist postmodernists” whose nefarious influence has spawned radical feminism, political correctness, moral relativism, and identity politics.
At the core of Peterson’s social program is the idea that the onslaught of femininity must be resisted. Men need to get tough and dominant. And, in Peterson’s mind, women want this, too. He tells us in 12 Rules for Life: “If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men.… If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.” “Healthy” women want men who can “outclass” them. That’s Peterson’s reason for frequently referencing the Jungian motif of the hero: the square-jawed warrior who subdues the feminine powers of chaos. Don’t be a wimp, he tells us. Be a real man.
This machismo is of a piece with Jung but also a caricature of Nietzsche’s philosophy, particularly the thinker’s Übermensch (superman), who escapes the stultifying effects of a culture in decline. “I am no man,” Nietzsche once claimed. “I am dynamite!” Dynamite, from the Greek dunamis, meaning “power.” That is what Peterson’s acolytes are after. It is no accident that one of his video lectures is titled “How to Rise to the Top of the Dominance Hierarchy.”
But though he decries the ideology of victimhood, Peterson is apt to literally weep when talking about the plight of young men in contemporary Western culture. He describes them as objects of a vast postmodernist conspiracy, cast adrift in a world in which they are denigrated as embodiments of an evil, oppressive, patriarchal order by pathological, man-hating harpies.
Peterson’s tears reveal the sleight of hand involved in the self-help framework of his work. By insisting his listeners are in need of guidance, Peterson sets himself up to make claims on what social theorists call “charismatic authority.” Max Weber, who introduced the concept around 1920, defined it as a “certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers.” Charismatic leaders like Peterson promote themselves as visionary heroes, lone voices crying out in the wilderness. Unencumbered by self-doubt or self-criticism and impatient with intellectual caution, their rhetoric is grand, sweeping, and apocalyptic.
This is the style in which Peterson both addresses and feeds the insecurities of men who see their traditional identities slipping away and are resentful of the prospect of being displaced by members of marginalized and subordinated groups. Ensnared in a web of performative contradictions, he decries identity politics, championing the “sovereignty of the individual,” but his rhetoric shores up the traditional group identity of his white male followers against the muddy tide of “postmodern” chaos. He condemns the (feminine, postmodern) culture of “victimhood” while encouraging young men to see themselves as victims. And he shows contempt for the so-called academic echo chamber while reveling in the ways his devoted fans on Twitter and other online forums echo his own rhetoric.
But charismatic leadership has never been about logical consistency or even rational coherence. Charismatic leaders serve a function in times of rapid social change, when long-standing social identities are threatened. They advertise a glorious future in which the group they minister to will take its rightful place and their enemies will be vanquished. In return for these promises, charismatic leaders elicit worshipful, even delusional, devotion in their followers.
Peterson is no exception. “Taking a course from him was like taking psychedelic drugs without the drugs,” one former student told the Chronicle of Higher Education in January. “I remember students crying on the last day of class because they wouldn’t get to hear him anymore.” On his Patreon page, Peterson displays testimonials from his YouTube viewers, such as, “It’s heartbreaking to finally see the light and look back at 41 years of suffering,” and, “Your lectures are pure inspiration to me.” Instead of resisting this idealization, Peterson encourages it. “I think I have learned and discovered things that modern people desperately need to know,” he writes on Patreon. “My students, and my video audience, seem to agree.”
There is, of course, an intimate connection between charismatic leadership and political authoritarianism. Peterson, as an academic with a deep professional interest in propaganda and psychoanalysis, ought to be acquainted with a seminal paper, “The Psychology of Propaganda,” by the British psychoanalyst Roger Money-Kyrle, who visited Germany in the run-up to the 1933 election. After hearing Adolf Hitler speak, Money-Kyrle concluded that charismatic authoritarian leaders first elicit depression and despair in their audience, then paranoid terror of a deadly enemy, before finally offering salvation though a redemptive order that abjures reasoned discourse. Money-Kyrle thought that our anxieties make us vulnerable to this sort of rhetoric — anxieties that charismatic leaders exploit. Beneath his academic veneer, Peterson in this respect resembles populists such as U.S. President Donald Trump.
Unlike Trump, Peterson at least gives lip service to intellectual subtlety, singling Nietzsche out for praise as a nuanced thinker. But he fails to give this nuance sufficient consideration. For Nietzsche, power was a source of redemption, but he rejected the mindset of revenge and victimhood. This is clearest in Nietzsche’s attacks on the figure of the Christian priest, the quintessential charismatic leader, who appeals to the downtrodden beaten down by external forces. Nietzsche understood the temptations of assuming leadership over such men by encouraging their resentment. Unlike Peterson, however, Nietzsche acknowledged the personal and social costs of doing so.
Peterson would be wise to give a closer reading to chapter 78 of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, titled “The Ass-Festival.” Here we find Zarathustra, the original teacher of the Übermensch, at the end of his lecture on self-reliance and perfectionism, surrounded by a mass of devotees ready to bow down to their new master. Zarathustra, at the rostrum, knows he is whipping his followers into a frenzy — and he hates everything about it. At the end of the festival, a disgusted Zarathustra abandons his followers. But before departing, he shouts a warning: “Forget not this night and this ass-festival, ye higher men!” It is a reminder that a hero’s journey can too easily inspire blind hero worship.
Forget not, Dr. Peterson.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of FP magazine.