Jordan B Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos does not have a chapter on Nietzsche. I guess if it did it would be RULE 13: Have a short intense career and the descend into syphillitic madness and afterwards your sister will appropriate your work for the Nazis. Nietzsche is not a top notch model for how to live a fulfilling and succesful life. His work is deep, intense and not suffused with hope. Yet Nietzsche appears in Jordan’s book 43 times, nearly twice as often as Dostoevsky and ten times more than Jesus. His appearance is not surprising.
I’m not an expert on Nietzsche, his interests are not mine but I’m interested in philosophy and it is hard to avoid Nietzsche. His role and influence on European thought is undeniable and yet unclear. He very publically split from Richard Wagner because he saw him as becoming to steeped in German nationalism and anti-Semitism, but his posthumous legacy (partly due to his sister) became entwined with the growth of Nazism. His work can seem full of despair about the possibility of truth and ethics to the extent of him being associated with nihilism and yet nihilism is what he sought to oppose.
Actual-Nietzsche is secondary to my little project. What Actual-Nietzsche said and thought may be of great interest and provide great insights but I’m interested in why Nietzsche is in Peterson’s book and how a iew of Nietzsche in general fits in with ‘the thing’. So, if you will forgive me, let me introduce a different character Cartoon-Nietzsche. He is just like Actual-Nietzsche but drawn more simply which makes him more easy to discuss.
Cartoon Nietzsche’s views can be summed up like this: the modern world killed God and it is no longer possible to expect people to be moral simply based on the authority of religion. Life is a struggle and we are all in danger of despair. But great men can do great things by striving to become a better kind of person.
Cartoon Nietzsche is similar to but different from a related character Nazi-Nietzsche. Nazi-Nietzsche sounds similar but the empahsis on individual will and an ultimate superior human is seen as a physical objective rather than a psychological one.
Cartoon Nietzsche connects with self-improvement in multiple ways. The idea of a hostile world, the sense in which people feel lost and alienated by modernity, the idea of being in need of rescue from nihilism, the emphasis on the individual and individual drives and the idea of becoming a great person – a doer of things and a creature of nobility and drive.
Cartoon Nietzsche’s übermensch (as opposed to Nazi Nietzsche’s übermensch) is an Ayn Rand hero – a Howard Roark or a John Galt – dynamic, willfull, decsive. It is a character that is an aspirational goal for management seminars.
Peterson’s interest in Nietzsche goes beyond Cartoon Nietzsche. The influence of Nietzsche was significant in the strand of psychology that runs through Sigmund Freud to Carl Jung. Nietzsche emphasis on the indiviudal and the introspective, the notion of subconcious drives as well as his cultural criticism and appeal to mythic archetypes are part and parcel of the psychological tradition that Peterson sees himself belonging to. So Nietzsche appearing so often in his book is no surprise.
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Nietzsche is scattered throughout the book but rather than Jordan Peterson writing a clear view of why he think Nietzsche was important, we instead get repeated themes and references*. However, in Chapter 7 there is a concentration of Nietzsche and a longer discussion of his role:
“Nietzsche described himself, with no serious overstatement, as philosophizing with a hammer. His devastating critique of Christianity— already weakened by its conflict with the very science to which it had given rise— involved two main lines of attack. Nietzsche claimed, first, that it was precisely the sense of truth developed in the highest sense by Christianity itself that ultimately came to question and then to undermine the fundamental presuppositions of the faith. That was partly because the difference between moral or narrative truth and objective truth had not yet been fully comprehended (and so an opposition was presumed where none necessarily exists)— but that does not bely the point. Even when the modern atheists opposed to Christianity belittle fundamentalists for insisting, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is objectively true, they are using their sense of truth, highly developed over the centuries of Christian culture, to engage in such argumentation. Carl Jung continued to develop Nietzsche’s arguments decades later, pointing out that Europe awoke, during the Enlightenment, as if from a Christian dream, noticing that everything it had heretofore taken for granted could and should be questioned. “God is dead,” said Nietzsche. “God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?” The central dogmas of the Western faith were no longer credible, according to Nietzsche, given what the Western mind now considered truth.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 188). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Now, yes, that doesn’t make a lot of sense and it is easy to get distracted by the way Peterson peppers any passge with throwaway nonesense. Western philosophy’s engagement with the concept of ‘truth’ long predates Christianity and it is unlikely (unless truth is utterly subjective) that modern ‘atheist’ conceptions of truth would have been different if Christianity hadn’t been the hegemonic religion of Europe for several centuries. Peterson isn’t trying to have a dig at atheists, rather he is inconsistently using a cultural-relativistic concept of truth to oversell the idea that the loss of fiath in religious instutions in the 19th century created a philosophical crisis.
Peterson eventually points to a flaw in Nietzsche’s approach:
“It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth (as both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche predicted they would). Nietzsche, for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death. But this is the element of his thinking that appears weakest, psychologically: we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls. This was Carl Jung’s great discovery— made in no little part because of his intense study of the problems posed by Nietzsche.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 193). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Put another way – Peterson thinks we can change ourselves but we have to have our values from somewhere else. It is no surprise that those values should be, according to Peterson, traditional values. Now to me this seems like a long digression into ‘God is dead’ to ‘let’s stick to the old ways’ but Peterson’s goal here is to emphasise a path from despair (aka ‘chaos’ or ‘nihilism’) to salvation. It’s the old preacher’s trick but now with continental philosophical angst.
No salvation homily is complete without the preacher themselves describing their own journey through the valley of death and out to the otherside. Still in Chapter 7 Peterson gives his own account. This time he invokes Rene Descartes (don’t we all) but I suspect he is trying to model his account in Nietzschean terms i.e. a discovery and struggle against nihilism. It goes on a bit so I’ll quote it in fragments:
“In 1984, I started down the same road as Descartes. I did not know it was the same road at the time, and I am not claiming kinship with Descartes, who is rightly regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. But I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking. The socialism that soon afterward became so attractive to me as an alternative proved equally insubstantial…
I was simultaneously tormented by the fact of the Cold War. It obsessed me. It gave me nightmares. It drove me into the desert, into the long night of the human soul. I could not understand how it had come to pass that the world’s two great factions aimed mutual assured destruction at each other. Was one system just as arbitrary and corrupt as the other? Was it a mere matter of opinion? Were all value structures merely the clothing of power? Was everyone crazy? Just exactly what happened in the twentieth century, anyway? How was it that so many tens of millions had to die, sacrificed to the new dogmas and ideologies? How was it that we discovered something worse, much worse, than the aristocracy and corrupt religious beliefs that communism and fascism sought so rationally to supplant? No one had answered those questions, as far as I could tell. Like Descartes, I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing— anything— I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it…
…What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 197). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
And at that moment Jordan Peterson became the Buddha – OK, I jest but I do wonder if an early conversion of Peterson to Buddhism would have saved us all a lot of trouble. Shortly after he also becomes Jesus when he ‘grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.”’
From this insight Peterson figures that we can know suffering and hence we can identify evil in ourselves (when we inflict suffering on others) and hence we infer goodness by it being the opposite of evil. And you know – that’s not a half-bad bit of thinking even if it isn’t that original and we had to wade through a lot to get their. It sort of reads like a kind of ‘how to be good for psychopaths’ – tap into what Peterson calls the ‘immense cpacity for evil’ that we all have and then not do those things. Let’s face it, given other rightwing gurus calling on people to actively TRY to be psychopaths, Peterson does get over this admitedly very low bar.
So at last we get to a statement by Peterson of what he regards as being good:
“It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency— your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people. Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. To place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. That’s a state, and a state of mind, at the same time. “- Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 198). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
So its a bit of Kant, a bit of utilitarianism but mainly an insight into Peterson’s own demons. I’m sure readers with some familiarity with Peterson are looking at that list a bit slack-jawed in astonishment. Humility? Avoiding causing unnecessary pain? Not judging others? I don’t know if Peterson actively lies but my time spent in his book makes me think he isn’t somebody who cares very much about truth.
But look back at Peterson’s method.
His definition of good was based on his view of what is evil. His view of what is evil was based on the idea that a person has that evil within them. He found what was evil by INTROSPECTION.
Let’s use different terminology. Peterson is trying (and failing) to reason about ethics and his only sources are Jungian psychology, Nietzsche and his own garbled understanding of Christianity. What Peterson has actually done is identified his own personal vices and from there defined the virtues he wants negatively i.e. do the opposite of his vices. Of course he can’t live up to this because the vices he lists are actually deep ingrained habits of his mind best exemplified by:
“Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you.”
He writes this in a book in which he happily accuses others and bemoans the fabric of the world and he phrases it so that it ends with “you” rather than “me” i.e. Jordan B Peterson. He literally found a deep personal insight and expressed it and manged to miss his own point. Instead of using this insight to change his vices and adopt the virtues, he launches a campaign with his book to tell us all that his vices are actually OURS.**
Next time –
*[I forgot to mention that in the edition I have all the indexed references are out by 1, so note 76 is actually the note for 77 and so on.]
**[OK, I guess I share some vices (arrogance) with Peterson but not all of those.]