Review

Paging Dr. Peterson

“Langt langt borte saa han noget lyse og glitre” (Far, far away Soria Moria Palace shimmered like gold) (1900), 68.8 x 45.4 cm oil on canvas by Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914), located in Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design in Oslo, Norway.

Photo: Public Domain.

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened at the famous Grauman’s Chinese theater on Hollywood Blvd. to the sound of nervous trepidation. There was some concern that the fantastic project featuring robots, little green aliens, and Merlin-esque wisemen would be an embarrassing flop. However, as box office receipts came in and fans were mesmerized by such immediately iconic figures as Darth Vader, Han Solo, and R2D2, Star Wars like Star Trek before it, became more than a movie: it became a cultural phenomenon. 

One of the principal reasons for its success is Star Wars creator George Lucas’s use of Joseph Campbell’s magnum opus, the 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a work popularly known for its chronicle of “the hero’s journey.” Although Christians might object to much of the “synchronist” and New Age content of the book, it nonetheless contains several curious pearls of wisdom regarding the fundamental archetypes that structure of human consciousness and human stories.   

Drawing from Campbell’s concepts, Star Wars, although now reaching unbearable levels of ‘wokeness’ and parody in the hands of Disney, began as a story that spoke to the very heart of what it means to be human. During our own era of chaos, confusion and decadence, not completely unlike the late 1970s when Star Wars was first released, there is a man who still promotes the heroic vision of Campbell and the ability for humans to transcend the slavish mediocrity to which modernity has reduced us. That man is Dr. Jordan Peterson. 

A popularizer of many of the ideas of Joseph Campbell as well as Carl Jung and others who helped to develop the archetypal approach to psychoanalysis (as well as literary and cultural theory), Peterson has become the world’s foremost public intellectual, having helped the lives of numerous individuals drowning in the morass of defeatism and resentment that marks the lives of so many living in the postmillennial era. 

Like Campbell and Lucas (and Jung), Peterson’s vision of evolutionary biology as well as his reading of the Bible (and other texts) through an archetypal lens may draw the criticism of Christians (like some other Jungians, Peterson appears to hold ‘Christ’ as primarily a symbol as opposed to the Incarnate and Living God). Nonetheless, much of Peterson’s thought regarding self-discipline, strength, industriousness and social intelligence are deeply needed in an era in which many young people feel desperately lost and confused. Indeed, it is precisely because Peterson (for the most part) advocates for a restoration of the world via the embrace of traditional human notions of courage, order, and self-control, that he is so despised by the Left, which thrives on chaos, weakness, and intemperance. 

In his recent work, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, crafted in the wake of Peterson and his wife’s struggle with serious health issues, he lays out twelve more rules for ennobling, disciplining, and encouraging people around the world worn down by COVID. As Peterson remarks in the “Overture,” his second major popular book is written with the benefit of his own personal suffering as well as the feedback he received after the release of his 2018 12 Rules for Life

On one level, Peterson fans will find many of his examples and analyses in Beyond Order very familiar. At the same time, however, there are a number of deeply sagacious comments that are, without exaggeration, life changing. 

With his first rule, “Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement,” Peterson takes aim at the resentment that has come to mark Westerners, who have been taught the ironic posture of mocking and belittling the achievements of their ancestors as well as the social structures that they take for granted. Those who seek to remake the world as a utopian and egalitarian paradise are at least sometimes driven more by hatred and resentment than they are for true social justice. There will inevitably be a hierarchy in any social system. However, this structure does not have to be oppressive or tyrannical, nor does it have to be a chaotic bellum omnium contra omnes. Rather, both the human personality and human society can maintain order and stability via a moderated hierarchy, which can enable true human flourishing. 

Other rules, such as Rule III, “Do not hide unwanted things in the fog” are especially poignant in an age of information overload in which it is exceptionally easy to avoid even important emails and texts. Dragons can only be defeated by being confronted. The passive aggressive posture is often not the best method for solving problems, and a leaky faucet can quickly turn into a terrible flood. As Peterson hints, one of the greatest dragons oppressing the world is fear, and humans are, as the Greek philosopher Aristotle noted, most afraid of what they do not know and what is hidden in the fog. 

Other rules such as “Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens” and “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible” have the character of “life hacks,” but as with much of Jordan Peterson’s wisdom, there is much below the surface. There are enormous reservoirs of human talent that lay untapped due to the fear of failure and a belittling sense of worthlessness that pervades the culture—especially for Western males. Much of human success, however, has come from hard work as much as it has from talent. Moreover, something as simple as beautifying one’s dwelling, as the late Roger Scruton continually emphasized, has a tremendous effect on one’s psychology and happiness (in Beyond Order, Peterson tells a humorous story of an elaborate scheme to beautify his office at the University of Toronto). 

Beyond Order may not add a tremendous amount of new material for Jordan Peterson fans. It also is not a work whose principles entirely ally with Christian theology. Nonetheless, Beyond Order is full of nuggets for the discerning reader and is a gift to the world from a man who has suffered and consequently learned that among the greatest virtues are humility and strength. For a world in desperate need of them, these virtues need to be taught and shared.

Jesse Russell has written for a number of publications, including Front Porch Republic, Catholic World Report, and Dappled Things.

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