Jordan Peterson, the Sacred, and the Therapeutic

What makes Jordan Peterson so popular? There are scores of popular pundits who attack political correctness, many with more aplomb than the professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. The estimable Mark Steyn comes to mind, or Heather Mac Donald, or Dennis Prager, among many others. I’ve attempted my own diagnosis of the PC disease, as existential dread and as a witch hunt in response to the tragic failure of too many black Americans.

Dr. Peterson, though, is the people’s choice as champion against PC madness for the time being.

A full 80% of Americans think that political correctness is a problem in their country, according to polling data, and a reaction against the excesses of the new Savonarolas has been gathering for some time. But why choose Dr. Peterson as the poster-boy for this reaction?

I believe that his enormous and sudden popularity stems from his use of the language of therapy to attack the symptoms of a therapeutic society. His 2018 bestseller Twelve Rules for Life is a self-help book, not a work of politics, philosophy, or cultural criticism.

Therein, I think, lies Dr. Peterson’s great appeal. The four-fifths of Americans who think that PC has gone too far do not want to undo the great cultural transformation of the past half-century, which has placed self-esteem at the center of human concerns at the expense of traditional virtues. We no longer wish to do what is good and upright in the eyes of God; who does this God think He is, sitting in judgment over us? We want to be our own little gods and make ourselves into whatever we would like to be. We have, as Justice Kennedy wrote in the Obergefell decision, a right “to define and express [our] identity.” That is the purpose of therapy, which asserts that healing comes from within, that man is the measure of all things, and our own sense of self-esteem and well-being is the gauge against which our behavior must be measured.

Of course, there are limits to our ability to define and express an identity. We may identify as an octopus and drown, or identify as a bullfinch and plummet to our deaths from a height. The progressives haven’t yet rallied to the cause of octopus-and-bullfinch identifiers, but they have done something equally ridiculous, namely to attempt to outlaw the second most pronounced differentiation in nature, namely male vs. female (the most pronounced is alive or dead). That does a horrible disservice to the tiny minority of people who cannot rid themselves of the belief that they were born into the wrong gender. Sufferers from gender dysphoria believe more fervently than anyone in the absolute nature of gender difference, but they want to be on the other side of the gender divide.

Like the Jacobins in the French Revolution, the LGBTQ warriors pushed the therapeutic revolution beyond the point at which most people could sanction it. The originator of the therapeutic revolution, Sigmund Freud, proposed greater access to sexual gratification, but he abominated homosexuality, which he considered a perversion. The vast majority of Americans have drifted way beyond Freud, and support same-sex marriage and the validity of gay relationships in general. But they don’t like boys who say they are girls in the girls’ room, or boy athletes who say they are girls taking the trophies in women’s sports, or “zhe” as a substitute for “he” and “she,” and other excesses foisted upon them by the progressives.

Dr. Peterson gained celebrity by refusing to butcher the English language in obeisance to gender identification, and became a star by pointing out that human biology has an impact on psychology. There really are differences between boys and girls, as any person in possession of his faculties will aver. Peterson, so to speak, observed that the emperor has no clothes, and, moreover, has male genitalia, which distinguish him from the empress.

Otherwise his twelve rules are either banal, misleading, or wrong. One wants to ask: With this, this Peterson makes a living? “Make friends with people who want the best for you.” That’s a revelation: I always thought one should befriend sociopaths. Per rule number twelve, do not pet a cat if you meet one on the street. Street cats are most likely to scratch if unknown humans attempt to pet them. One might, from a respectable distance, proffer a fist, and see whether the cat wants to approach and nuzzle it.

Nonetheless, the book has sold over two million copies. Dr. Peterson has found the sweet spot in the market, the balance between the therapeutic-cultural delusion that we can remake ourselves according to desired specifications, and the sober realization that there really are limits to our self-invention.

Some of what Peterson offers is repugnant, particularly his reliance on the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961). During the late 1920s and 1930s Jung viewed the re-emergence of paganism in Germany as a salubrious revival of the “Wotan” archetype that lurked at the foundation of German consciousness. By 1936, to be sure, Jung broke with Hitler, but he remained convinced until his death that Germany should return to its primeval archetypes and reject the foreign cultural influences (namely Christianity) that repressed the collective Teutonic unconscious. Jung, though not quite a Nazi, contributed to the cultural environment that made Hitler possible.

Peterson’s use of Jung, to be sure, is more benign. It’s about feel-good. Freud, Peterson explained in a YouTube video, thought that the Oedipus story was the fundamental myth. The trouble is that “the Oedipal myth is a failed hero’s story”; the failure occurs because “people are consumed by the family drama.” By contrast, “Jung thought that the successful hero story is the fundamental human myth.” It’s easier to sell successful hero stories than failed ones, but the heroes of the Teutonic myths that attracted Jung are quite as tragic as the Greeks. Siegfried is stabbed in the back. The great reviver of Teutonic myth, Richard Wagner, made sex-and-death the staple of European theaters during the 19th Century. As I wrote in a 2018 review of a new Freud biography:

Wagner’s heroines expire in an erotic paroxysm; Freud’s wake up the next morning hysterical and hope to be guided back to the ordinary unhappiness of everyday life. He might’ve been a snake-oil salesman, but he sold a potion to cure what ailed the world: disgust at life disenchanted. That explains why Freud’s influence grows in inverse proportion to his credibility.

The post-religious world is not in the market for clinical proof or historical consistency. What it wants is a palliative for the hysterical misery it derives from unrestricted sexual gratification and arbitrary self-invention.

Freud famously offered “ordinary unhappiness” as an alternative to hysterical misery; Jung proposed a reversion to pre-modern archetypes. The late Joseph Campbell proposed that everyone can invent their own hero’s journey and “follow their bliss” to self-discovery. Jordan Peterson offers an updated version of this product.

As it happens, the journey as metaphor is central to American self-understanding, but it is a radically different sort of journey than Joseph Campbell or Jordan Peterson have in mind. In a 2016 essay “Americans, the Almost Chosen People,” I argued that America had adopted the King James Bible as its national epic and the entry of Israel into the Promised Land as its national story. Our national character could not be understood as the slow accretion of practices and attitudes over the centuries, but rather as a revolutionary transformation in emulation of biblical Israel.

But we are not Israel, and America’s journey can have no endpoint on this earth:

By the turn of the 20th Century, the journey had become a cliché in American culture, from Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on the frontier to Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1943 epic poem “Western Star” with its opening motto, “Americans are always on the move.” Hollywood made migration to the West a metaphor of redemption, as in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach. The American journey differs from journeys of earlier literature. It is not the journey of Joseph Campbell’s hero. The heroes of past fiction travel in order to come home, enlightened in the case of Gilgamesh, honored in the case of Odysseus, and lucid in the case of Don Quixote. In picaresque fiction from Lazarillo de Tormes to Simplicius Simplicissimus, the protagonist is a foil for the people and situations he encounters.

The American journey, by contrast, is an existential event in the life of the traveler. It is not the destination but the journey that matters, and it is a journey that by its nature cannot reach its destination. Huckleberry Finn resembles picaresque fiction only superficially. Twain’s novel and American narrative prose in general have even less resemblance to the European Bildungsroman. The purpose of the journey is not the perfection of the personality but redemption. Wilhelm Meister is as alien to the Mississippi as Huck is to the Elbe.

The American proposition demands self-transformation; it is unimaginable without a religious foundation. Our character is stamped indelibly by the antinomian individualism of radical Protestantism. We have only one sort of protagonist in our stories, the loner who has an authority problem, from Natty Bumppo to Huck Finn to the Continental Op to every character played by Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood. The goal of the American journey cannot be of this world. The earthly city never embodies the Heavenly City.

The sina qua non of the American character, what one might call American normality, is a highly specific sense of the sacred: That the goal of journey lies beyond any earthly horizon, which sacralizes the journey itself. The core of our character is radically incompatible with the therapeutic. I am gratified that there has been a rebellion against the extremes of political correctness inside the therapeutic camp, and I suppose that we should be grateful for any relief that comes our way. But it isn’t who we are, or what we need.