Reading Peterson 6 – Jordan B Nietzsche sits under the bodhi tree

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

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.]


44 thoughts on “Reading Peterson 6 – Jordan B Nietzsche sits under the bodhi tree

  1. Cartoon-Heidegger and Cartoon-Thomas Carlyle walk into a bar and see Jordan Peterson sitting at their table. Cartoon-Heidegger points to dasein that says “adults only” and tells him to get lost. Cartoon-Thomas Carlyle high fives Cartoon-Heidegger as JP slinks away and says “Great Man? More like grating man! Amirite?”

    True story.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. But on a more serious note, I have always struggled to understand how the evo-psych people have such a hate-on for Marxism (and seriously, what the hell is “cultural Marxism” anyway? major eyeroll there). Darwin and Marx wrote at the same time, the mid-19th c with its obsession with linearity, progress, civilization/barbarism and empire. Both theorists understand the world teleologically, evolving from lesser/lower to greater/more — one in terms of biology and adaptation, the other in terms of socio-economic structures and adaptation. Both are based around the idea of evolution.

    I have thought about it a lot and really can’t understand how their ideas hang together consistently.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’d go further and say that it amounts to “anything we don’t like is associated with Marxists, who we also don’t like.”

        I was in the Indigo at Bay and Bloor in downtown Toronto today and there was a middle-aged man fawning to his wife over the display of Peterson’s book at the front of the store. I couldn’t keep myself from rolling my eyes.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. At any rate, it seems to me more a matter of competing brands than even competing ideologies. Hooray for our side, and to hell with those guys. For every justification they make for hating on Marxism you can find regimes they’ve backed that did worse in the exact same areas. There’s also an element of hippie-kicking, I suppose.

          Liked by 3 people

    1. Evo-psych (as opposed to psychology consider in relation to evolution) was just another way of trying to sneak in biological determinism in, or worse a new way of dressing up old racial theories.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I guess I shouldn’t really expect logical consistency but I might have hoped for some attention to factual accuracy. This morning my high school friend posted an article about the internet and social media as being leftist safe spaces and like-villes created entirely by urban liberal men (he might as well have called them cucks). I thought about pointing out that in fact silicon valley tech guys are overwhelmingly libertarian — Peter Thiel hates government and society so much he paid people not to go to university and wants to build his own regulation-free island country.

        It’s awful because these same dudes who yammer on about liberal intolerance of different ideas literally flipped out and attacked/mocked/belittled me when I suggested a view different from theirs. There is zero chance that I will advance any discussion by interjecting the above fact into his post. But if I block and unfriend, well, there you go, proves I’m an intolerant liberal [gendered expletive redacted] who only wants affirmation. There is, quite literally, no discursive space available. Incidentally, my friend and his bros are big into evolutionary biology and hate sociology. Quelle surprise.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. @Regular —

        “Incidentally, my friend and his bros are big into evolutionary biology and hate sociology. ”

        Heh. Set me loose on their fantasies about what they imagine evolutionary biology says, and I’ll send them running with their tails between their legs. 😉

        Liked by 2 people

      1. There’s good science and there’s bad science. There’s good social science and bad social science. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make here. The neo-positivists’ appeal to SCIENCE!!!11111! is a root part of a lot of our current problems in failing to understand each other.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Marx does a pretty good job of explaining the mechanisms of capitalism. Most of the most problematic aspects of his analysis tend to have very little to do with his writings and a lot to do with a long legacy of anti-communism.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. I strongly suspect that most of those with a violent hate-on for Marixsm have never actually read Marx or Engels (who had a lot of interesting things to say and some insightful analysis, though many of their extrapolations turned out to be wrong). Most of the time, they haven’t actually read Nietzsche either. They only know the cartoon versions of all of them and their cartoon Marx looks a lot like Stalin with a wig.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Peterson’s moral prescriptions don’t seem bad (I would dispute Never Ever Ever Lie) but neither is “be excellent to each other.” How many people are going to say “Wow, I’ve never thought of these moral concept before!”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Regular Commenter, that’s the problem with Peterson’s talk of humility and avoiding totalitarian pride. It’s one thing to accept things like that as a general principle, it’s quite another to remove the beam from our own eye. The same Trump voters who declare they’re fed up with liberals judging them are perfectly fine with judging others.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s just so un-self-aware. Look inward and do things consciously is a good general precept across all sorts of faith traditions — buddhism, ascetic christianity etc. As a praxis, it’s harder to sustain than one might think on the surface; it takes discipline, humility, consistent practice and an openness to the idea that one still has things to learn.

      I actually kind of disagree with CF about the nature of this genre of self-help, self-improvement in the JP/manosphere. I think these guys are not looking for quick steps for improvement of their pole position. I think the market for these books are people who want to be affirmed in what they already think they are — which is to say, that these books are instead an in-group affirmation, a membership card. Their audience reads with recognition. “That’s me! I’m like this! The world just doesn’t recognize my greatness.” Sorry if I mischaracterized your thoughts there, CF. That’s my take on it.

      I am reading Paulo Freire’s last book “The Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage”. Overall it is pretty repetitive, but I loved it when I read his view that we should have “an awareness of our unfinishedness”, and says that unfinishedness is “the essential human condition”. He also has a line where he writes that ” “our being [in the world] is a being with”. Isn’t that just lovely and defiant and embracing and angry all at the same time?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think Peterson has very little concern for empirical truth and hence finds it easy to avoid spotting the contradictions. So he can honestly believe in ways he can try to be better but what he’s doing is just ramping up his ego.

        I guess it is another way that this a kind of recipe for radicalization. if you are bigoted shit bag, ‘self-improvement’ can make you a BIGGER bigoted shit bag.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. RC writes:

      I think the market for these books are people who want to be affirmed in what they already think they are — which is to say, that these books are instead an in-group affirmation, a membership card. Their audience reads with recognition.

      I think this is wrong but in an interesting way. I’m bingeing on this series of posts, so it hits me that what Peterson and Cernovich and VD are doing is negging their anticipated, largely male readership. Whatever self-help itself is, self-help guruhood is pickup-artistry.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. I feel obligated to note that the “Nietzsche split with Wagner because of nationalism and antisemitism” canard simplifies and dignifies a split that was bizarre, incoherent and rather embarrassing. Nietzsche certainly mentioned them as reasons–but this was in tirades that included accusing Wagner of not being a real German, and implying that he had Jewish ancestry. Nietzsche’s attitudes towards nationalism and antisemitism were… well, as contradictory as the rest of his work. In the end, his arguments with the Christian Socialists–the 19th century’s very own proto-Nazis–boiled down to the opinion that they were doing nationalism and antisemitism wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The Germany party founded in 1878 as the Christian Social Worker’s Party, which then became the Christian Social Party. They provided a model for Hitler, right down to the “rabid antisemitism as a party platform” and “Insist you’re a right-wing answer to socialism, because it’s in the name, see?”.


        1. I see. When I think of Christian socialists, I tend to think of persons like the early Kier Hardie, which gives totally different associations.


      2. Keir Hardie was a Socialist who was a Christian and saw his faith as reinforcing his Socialism.

        The Christian Socialists were… well, not.


  6. Just reading “Nietzsche appears in Jordan’s book […] ten times more than Jesus” is enough to put anyone sensible off this book. Yikes.

    Love the cartoon, though.

    Those extended quotes you provided seem to be in English, but not quite. If I’d written an essay that muddled in high school, the paper would have come back with so many red marks it would have looked like it’d been used for target practice. His wandering in the Descartian/Gautaman wilderness sounds like every other booze- or pot-fueled dorm room discussion by 18 year old boys. You don’t write a book about that in maturity; you’re embarrassed you ever said that and wish you’d passed out earlier in the drunken session. I appear to be calling Peterson adolescent.

    And in the end… his god hates everyone and everything he hates. I must quote the famous religious thinker, The Church Lady: “Well, isn’t that conveeeeenient!”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. So if I’m following correctly, Peterson agrees that people need to replace the values of “shallow” Christianity with new ones (and isn’t that revealing of what portion of humanity he’s interested in) but takes the view that these values need to be discovered/uncovered from some primal source rather than invented? And by a remarkable coincidence here he is writing his rules for life down for us, based on his revelation that suffering is some sort of universal law. I can see this getting very self-aggrandising very quickly.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.” — Unless you are a woman, in which case, your suffering is part of the natural dominance hierarchy and you must be kept in your place in it, so shut up because lobsters.

    (Cultural Marxism is the idea that just as Marx supposedly wanted the government to control and own everything and tell people what to do, so do cultural Marxists supposedly want to impose a set of strictures on art, culture, innovation and behavior that totally control people through society and government as to what to think, enjoy, etc. so that it is all the same and all politically correct and the government controls people’s minds, and so forth. And they feel sometimes that there is a grand conspiracy of cultural Marxists working on that endpoint. Sometimes that conspiracy may be run by Jews, sometimes by Free Masons, or feminists, or whatever. It is essentially the claim that calls for equality and change against bigotry and discrimination are a threat that is seeking dominance control. And it invokes the old Cold War dichotomy, that helps get the older people, while enticing them that the social democracy innovations of Europe, say, are stealing their golden destinies as rightful lordlings — Nietsche’s super-man.)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I want to thank you for this series. I don’t agree with all your interpretations but you definitely are doing a good and honest job of going through what is actually in the text and it makes for interesting reading.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. ”Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.” The cornerstone of his belief is not that you should avoid causing suffering and work for a society where there is less suffering, but only that actively (”artfully”) torturing people is wrong? That is a very limited rule of behaviour.
    And later, the expression ”unnecessary suffering”. What kind of suffering is necessary then?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “What kind of suffering is necessary then?”
      Obviously the kind of suffering that trans and genderqueer people (among others) suffer at the hands of Peterson and his fellow prescriptivists. Only he and his are fit to define peoples’ lives at them. How dare they stand up for themselves and request others to use respectful forms of address to their faces? This clearly forces Peterson to suffer unnecessarily by making him confront the uncomfortable fact that queer people are still people.

      Liked by 2 people

Comments are closed.