In a very brief time, Jordan Peterson has become almost ubiquitous. The professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, now on leave in order to tour the world, has been cultivating a growing following on social media and YouTube for years. But 2018 is his moment.
Peterson’s until recently modest fame has been increased by recent high-profile appearances on international television and the release of his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which combines self-help and stories of suffering.
Peterson sells out auditoriums. His book has sold over a million copies. He receives $80,000 per month in donations from fans alone, solicited via the website Patreon, where admirers subscribe and offer their cash to those who entertain or edify them, and which combines the essence of capitalist audience-pleasing with the overtness of the virtual begging bowl.
His fans paint Peterson as a new and revelatory thinker. Opponents call him a huckster, trading on academic credentials which he stretches to capacity.
His books are saturated with mythic and historical references, from the Eden of the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost to the terrors of totalitarian states in the twentieth century.
His history is also tempered with myth. Peterson writes about primordial fears and conflicts. He identifies and defends hierarchies which he claims are natural – and essential to the nature of life on earth. This is not so much historical as prehistorical. But examples from history, particularly the bloodiest episodes perpetrated by modern totalitarianism, serve to illustrate Peterson’s claims about the abhorrent nature of tyranny and the incredible damage done by chaos, in its elemental and embodied forms.
Peterson’s admiration of Dostoevsky, Jung and Solzhenitsyn situates him in history. His horror at the totalitarian state is, like that state itself, a uniquely modern phenomenon. But his essential beliefs can be traced back further. Peterson is of a conservative temperament. He dances around the subject of religion, never quite endorsing its supernatural claims, but asserting that its value – both as an attempted answer to the questions posed by existence and a propagator of morality – is undeniable and obvious.
The world Peterson envisions is truly brutal and harsh. Its terrors are inherent, but made worse by failing to succeed within acceptable patterns of behaviour. We must be our best or face social and sexual rejection, moral degradation, abjection and even early death. There is beauty in the world, but it is transient and self-created. Myths and stories, as detailed in his earlier book Maps of Meaning, are our way – as mortal creatures prone to error – of reconciling ourselves to failure and oblivion. We cling to sanity if we serve society; otherwise, everything goes to hell.
Peterson’s credo is bizarre and, to some, intoxicating; the latter effect is generated and maintained by his uncommon prose style – a mixture of demotic rural slang and even occasional emoticons followed by page after page of harsh, interrogative rhetorical questions, excoriating the reader, attempting to force the author’s point again and again.
One historical current seems to echo much of Peterson’s thought – in both rhetoric and worldview. This is the Tory evangelical strain visible in early 19th century Britain. Its logic is caught well in the conclusion to Corn, Cash, Commerce by Professor Boyd Hilton of Trinity College, Cambridge.
In Hilton’s second book, The Age of Atonement, the subject receives its definitive treatment. Hilton defines an evangelical school of thought popular among some Tories in the early 19th century, some of whom later became Gladstonian liberals.
In Corn, Cash, Commerce, Hilton notes the formative effect of Thomas Chalmers, who was an inspiration to George Canning and William Husskison. “His preaching moved [them] to rapture, sometimes even to tears”, Hilton writes. Politically, Chalmers supported Catholic emancipation, a property tax, and free trade in corn.
Thomas Malthus’s gloomy predictions about overpopulation presented a challenge to utopianism and even optimism. Chalmers successfully fused Malthus and morality. He argued that the checks of hunger on population growth was an opportunity to exercise moral freedom to do good. The prospect of hunger could force a population to be restrained, abstemious, efficient.
Tory evangelicals saw the world as a largely self-acting, morally self-regulating mechanism, a mechanistic universe “illuminating the wisdom and glory and goodness of its Creator”.
This belief in the goodness of God led to an absolute faith in the value of struggle. The universe was seen as mechanistic and unyielding, requiring both moral goodness and hardness of character to survive and reap rewards. The evangelical injunction to moral goodness was backed by an implied threat: one must be good or suffer the consequences – in the afterlife and, if necessary, on earth as well.
Tory evangelicals glorified the struggle of being. Peterson, in 12 Rules for Life, suggestively capitalises the first letter to elevate existence to “Being”. He suggests that only by taking responsibility for oneself and attempting to embrace the vicissitudes of “Being” can one pursue true meaning. Evangelicals believed that the harshness of the world was justified by the promise of divine compensation.
They were conflicted about the uses of charity, with some arguing that it distorted the nature of the way God had created the world and provided incentives for people to demand help. Evangelicals disdained people who made rather than earnt money. They decried “speculators” who were considered both dishonest and immoral. Speculators were believed to shirk hard work and the rewards it can bring, and thus to deny themselves the possibility of doing good.
Peterson, likewise, is adamant that living life without struggle is no way to get to the heart of “Being”. There are consolations to both ways of conceptualising the world. Early evangelicals were sure of God’s truth. For Peterson, coming closer to understanding “Being” justifies all immediate suffering and strife.
The Tory evangelical movement did not solely manifest itself in moral hardness and cold, flinty brutality. As time passed, it mellowed. Hilton observes that by the 1840s and 50s, kind treatment was advocated for “animals, children, lunatics, and paupers”. Duelling was banned, as it was “more chic to apologise than to fight”. At the same time, limited liability shareholding, which once would have been decried as immoral speculation, became commonplace.
This was accompanied by a move in theology away from fear, towards love. The love of God was less to do with the death of Christ and his atonement, and more to do with the love God feels for everyone. This suggested that evangelical religion was being socialised, secularised, and softened. The influence of early nineteenth century evangelicalism persisted. It can be found in the politics of Gladstone, once an evangelical Tory, but latterly a Liberal. His belief in the mechanistic universe justified economic liberalisation.
Evangelicalism also seeped into the modern self-help industry, notably in Samuel Smiles’s book Self-Help, which first appeared in 1859. Smiles argues that betterment and salvation are possible, just difficult to attain. His book irreducibly links morality and conduct with prosperity and success. It serves as a de facto justification of liberal economics built on the evangelical model.
In so many ways, these are Peterson’s antecedents. He too finds meaning in suffering and links morality to success; he too criticises those who live life without struggle. At times, Peterson’s rhetoric approaches the evangelical. So, too, does his view of the world we inhabit.