Nope, Jordan Peterson ain’t no Stoic

People have been asking my opinion — from a Stoic perspective — about Jordan Peterson for a while now, and the time has finally come. The impetus derives from a recent article by Justin Vacula published at the Modern Stoicism blog, which takes a cautionary positive approach to Peterson, and draws parallels between his views and our philosophy. (See here for a response by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, much milder than the one you are about to read.) In this post I wish to push back against Vacula’s interpretation, explain why I think Peterson is not a good point of reference for Stoic practitioners, and more generally ponder what does it mean for X (where X is a person, a fictional character, or a position) “to be Stoic.”

First, though, a few preemptive caveats. Peterson, to my and Vacula’s knowledge, does not claim to be a Stoic, nor does he acknowledge any influence of Stoicism on his writings. So this is rather an exercise in whether, and to what extent, his ideas are “Stoic” in the broad sense of the term.

Also, several people, including Vacula, keep repeating that it is “un-Stoic” to criticize, and even more so to “insult” other people. They get that from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, where he repeatedly reminds himself to keep calm when dealing with annoying others, and to look first at his own shortcomings. This is certainly good advice, but it seems like we forget that the Stoics were very vocal in their criticism of other people’s philosophies (the Epicureans, the Aristotelians, the Academic Skeptics), as well as political positions (heck, Cato the Younger started a war to oppose Julius Caesar!). Not to mention that Epictetus often refers to his students as “fools.” What distinguishes Stoic criticism is not its alleged gentleness, but the fact that it is supposed to be done virtuously, that is in the pursuit of truth or justice (or both), and by deploying good arguments and whatever empirical evidence happens to be germane to the issue at hand.

Okay, now back to Vacula’s portrait of Peterson and his alleged Stoic leanings. Peterson is important because he is influential. As Vacula (and a recent New York Times article) points out, his YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, his 12 Rules book is an Amazon bestseller, and countless young people feel inspired by him. So, he is a cultural force to be reckoned with, and that’s why we are doing the reckoning. The question at hand is not whether there are some similarities between what Peterson writes and what the Stoics teach. Such similarities are indubitably there. Then again, “pick yourself up and do the right thing,” or “endure what life throws at you” are not exclusively Stoic concepts. They are found pretty much everywhere, in one form or another, from Christianity to Judaism, from Buddhism to Confucianism. And yet I’m not aware of anyone making the argument that Peterson is a Stoic-Christian-Judeo-Buddhist-Confucian. The issue, rather, is whether there are sufficient deep similarities between Peterson and Stoicism. I will argue that not only the answer is no, but that the sort of worldview Peterson advances is, in fact, anti-Stoic.

The first bit of Petersonian advice we encounter in Vacula’s post is “clean your room and get your life in order.” Which is good advice, the sort that my mom used to give me. But that didn’t make her a Stoic. The crucial part of the Stoic advice is that it tells us how to get our life in order: by practicing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance; and it explains to us why we ought to do it: because virtue is the only thing that is always good (it can’t be used for bad, by definition), as argued by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

Peterson, by contrast, gets this imperative from his adoption of Carl Jung’s views about the perennial opposition between logos and eros, where logos represents order, and it is masculine, while eros represents chaos, and it is feminine. From which Peterson further derives that it is both good and natural for men to control women (order has to overcome chaos). Why is it natural? Because Peterson buys wholesale the most crude version of evolutionary psychology, according to which gender roles have been pretty much fixed since the Pleistocene. From this perspective, according to Peterson, the apogee of American cultural life was back in the ‘50s, and we ought to get back to that place.

But all the above, so far as I can tell, is a lot of pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical nonsense. Jung pretty much invented wholesale entirely un-empirical concepts like archetypes, espoused certifiably pseudoscientific notions like that of “synchronicity,” and liberally borrowed from mythology and Eastern mysticism (he compared the logos-eros dichotomy to the yin-yang one). There is not a shred of evidence to think that any of this is a decent description of the actual human condition, and particularly of the differences between men and women (not to mention that there is no mention of other genders, which Peterson, again pseudoscientifically, simply denies out of existence).

As for evolutionary psychology, it is a rather controversial discipline, about which I have written in depth — as an evolutionary biologist — in both Making Sense of Evolution and Nonsense on Stilts. Suffice to say here that while some evopsych research is certainly well done and interesting, the field is highly speculative at best when it comes to the evolution of gender roles. And as any Philosophy 101 course will teach you, even if gender roles evolved by natural selection that tells us zero of interest about how we ought, ethically, to reconsider them in contemporary society. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker once put it, he chose a life without children in order to dedicate himself to his writing and his friends. And if his genes don’t like it, they can go jump into the lake.

As Vacula acknowledges, Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on how to climb social hierarchies, which he regards as natural and inevitable (the second characteristic obviously does not follow from the first one). He thinks that women ought to be dominated by men, and he maintains that white privilege is a myth. This is one of the most un-Stoic aspects of his thinking. The Stoics were among the first cosmopolitans, thinking that women ought to be educated in philosophy because they are just as capable as men, that all humans are equal, and that our duty is to cooperate — not compete — with fellow human beings. They imagined an ideal society, in Zeno’s Republic, that is very far from the capitalism that Peterson prefers. Indeed, it looks like an anarchic utopia, where wise men and women live in harmony because they finally understood how to use reason for the betterment of humankind.

Vacula, in his positive take on the Peterson-Stoicism connection, did not comment at all on political and social involvement. Probably because Peterson does not come out particular well in that department, and he certainly doesn’t come out as Stoic. Here he is, from 12 Rules:

“Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try: start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today… Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? … Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”

This sounds deceptively Stoic, but the deception is dangerous. First off, notice that we are told not to go out and make noise about changing the world until our own household is in perfect order. Well, then, since it will never be (we are not sages), I guess we are not authorized to invest time and energy into questioning our social systems and try to change them for the better. How convenient, for someone who clearly benefits from said social order.

Peterson’s advice plays into one of the worst stereotypes about Stoicism, that it is an inward-looking, quietist philosophy. But it is not. The virtue of justice requires us to try to change things for the better, for everyone. Historical examples like those of Cato the Younger, as well as recent ones lie Nelson Mandela (who was inspired by Marcus’ Meditations) are obvious pointers. When Peterson tells us that self-improvement is “more important than any possible political action” he is simply wrong. For Stoics the two go hand in hand: we improve ourselves as we improve the world, and vice versa. Cosmopolitanism, not egoism.

Vacula then claims that another similarity between Peterson and the Stoics is that they both tell us to overcome obstacles by way of a strong mindset, and to be courageous. And isn’t endurance a Stoic attribute? Is courage not a Stoic virtue? Yes, but Stoics believe in the unity of virtue, which means that one simply cannot talk about courage as isolated or distinct from justice (and prudence, and temperance). But as we have just seen, there is little if any talk of justice in the Stoic sense in Peterson. Being courageous for a Stoic doesn’t just mean to “pick up your damn suffering and bear it,” as Peterson puts it. That’s yet another false stereotype about Stoics: the stiff upper lip caricature. We are supposed to endure because it is the virtuous thing to do in order to be able to help others, not to show ourselves just how tough and “manly” we are.

Speaking of manly, Peterson is very popular in the “men’s rights” movement. These are people that are appropriating a distorted view of Stoicism as they love to point out that virtue comes from the Latin “vir,” meaning man. They seem to forget two other crucial bits of information. First, that “vir” was the Latin translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence, and is not limited to men. Second, as I have already pointed out, that the Stoic virtues are a package. One is not virtuous if one is courageous but lacks justice, temperance, or prudence.

Peterson does say a number of fairly sensible things, like “If a lot of human beings have done something terrible, you can be sure that being a human being that you’re capable of it. … Had you been there [in Nazi Germany], the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.” Indeed. But this is far from an original concept. It’s what philosopher Thomas Nagel famously described as “moral luck” in a classic paper published back in 1979, and of which Peterson seems to be entirely unaware.

Vacula praises Peterson for questioning popular opinions, again drawing an analogy with the Stoics in this respect. But questioning popular opinions is not an intrinsic good, it depends on which opinions one is criticizing and why. And here we come to the infamous case that actually catapulted Peterson to fame: his public criticism of Canada’s bill C-16, because of its stultifying political correctness. The bill added gender expression and identity to the list of criteria one cannot not be discriminated by in accordance to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that C-16 would compel him to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution. This is simply and utterly false. Here is the full text of the bill, so you can check for yourself.

What about Peterson’s cool head in the face of hostile (and certainly unprofessional) questioning by the host of a famous Channel 4 interview that went viral, thus further increasing his fame? Good for him, but as Don Robertson often remarks, that’s stoicism, not Stoicism. It’s always commendable not to lose one’s temper, but this is not a philosophical position, it’s just commonsense.

Vacula is somewhat regretful that Peterson initially rejected the “men going their own way” (MGTOW) movement, only belatedly agreeing that they have a point in wanting nothing to do with relationships and marriage because, you know, society and the law are so unfair to men these days. Setting aside that it is entirely ludicrous to even suggest that women in contemporary society are unjustly preferred over men (I guess that’s why there is still so much violence against women, pay inequality, discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotion, etc. etc. etc.), it is most certainly un-Stoic to want to create divisions from other human beings. Every Stoic we know of has emphasized the importance of relationships, and Seneca has gone so far as suggesting that marriage (or a committed relationship, in modern terms) is a major occasion to become more virtuous and to help another human being to do the same.

There are a number of other decidedly un-Stoic aspects of Peterson’s opinions, like his strange idea that conversation is made possible with men (but impossible with “crazy” women) by the always present threat of violence:

“I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassing against me. And the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women. And so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. … There’s no step forward that you can take under those circumstances, because if the man is offensive enough and crazy enough, the reaction becomes physical right away. Or at least the threat is there.” (full transcript here)

What sort of cardinal virtue, I wonder, is Peterson deploying here?

The Stoics were great logicians. They believed that one has to make careful arguments based on empirical evidence in order to arrive at the best judgment a human being can muster. And arriving at good judgments is the whole point of one of Epictetus’ three discipline, the discipline of assent. Here too Peterson fails miserably. I mentioned above his reliance on mythology, which he takes from Jung. One interviewer finally asked him why people should believe in myth. Here is his response (longer transcript in the article by Robinson linked below):

“Well, what are you going to take seriously, then? You’re going to take nothing seriously. Well, good luck with that, because serious things are coming your way. If you’re not prepared for them by an equal metaphysical seriousness, they will flatten you.”

This is an egregious example of really, really bad reasoning. Peterson is committing not one, but two logical fallacies that I train my students to spot and avoid. First, the idea that if one does not take myths seriously then one does not take anything seriously is an obvious non sequitur, it simply does not follow. Second, the suggestion that serious things are coming (which serious things, by the way?) is a red herring, a distraction. Sure, “serious” things may be coming (e.g., financial collapse, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war?), but that has nothing at all to do with whether it is sensible for people to take myths seriously or not.

But at least, says Vacula, Peterson rails against the damn post-modernists. Surely the Stoics would agree, as they battled the post-modernists of their time, the Academic Skeptics. As a scientist and philosopher I am no fun of post-modernism (see chapters 10 and 11 of my Nonsense on Stilts), but here is a pretty good example of post-modernist obfuscatory language, let’s see if you can guess the author:

“Procedural knowledge, generated in the course of heroic behavior, is not organized and integrated within the group and the individual as a consequence of simple accumulation. Procedure ‘a,’ appropriate in situation one, and procedure ‘b,’ appropriate in situation two, may clash in mutual violent opposition in situation three. Under such circumstances intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict necessarily emerges. When such antagonism arises, moral revaluation becomes necessary. As a consequence of such revaluation, behavioral options are brutally rank-ordered, or, less frequently, entire moral systems are devastated, reorganized and replaced. This organization and reorganization occurs as a consequence of ‘war,’ in its concrete, abstract, intrapsychic, and interpersonal variants. In the most basic case, an individual is rendered subject to an intolerable conflict, as a consequence of the perceived (affective) incompatibility of two or more apprehended outcomes of a given behavioral procedure. In the purely intrapsychic sphere, such conflict often emerges when attainment of what is desired presently necessarily interferes with attainment of what is desired (or avoidance of what is feared) in the future. Permanent satisfactory resolution of such conflict (between temptation and ‘moral purity,’ for example) requires the construction of an abstract moral system, powerful enough to allow what an occurrence signifies for the future to govern reaction to what it signifies now. Even that construction, however, is necessarily incomplete when considered only as an ‘intrapsychic’ phenomena. The individual, once capable of coherently integrating competing motivational demands in the private sphere, nonetheless remains destined for conflict with the other, in the course of the inevitable transformations of personal experience. This means that the person who has come to terms with him- or herself—at least in principle—is still subject to the affective dysregulation inevitably produced by interpersonal interaction. It is also the case that such subjugation is actually indicative of insufficient ‘intrapsychic’ organization, as many basic ‘needs’ can only be satisfied through the cooperation of others.”

It’s from Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, in the section entitled “The Great Father.” And as far as I can see — and I looked hard — there is no meaning in the above (if you think you can do better, by all means, please translate into English). It could easily have been produced by the online postmodern generator. How is procedural knowledge generated by “heroic behavior”? What on earth is “intrapsychic conflict”? Why does all of that necessitate “moral revaluation”? What does it mean to “brutally rank order” behavioral options (as opposed to nicely rank order?)? Which behavioral options? Why is “war” in scare quotes? How can it be both concrete and abstract? Are outcomes “apprehended”? By whom? Why is “moral purity” in scare quotes? Oh no, wait! Now “intrapsychic” is in quotes too. Because it means something different from intrapsychic without quotes? What does it mean to be subject to “affective dysregualtion”? And now even “needs” is in scare quotes? (Oh, and “phenomena” is plural, not singular.)

Finally, the Stoics practiced humility, because we are all unwise, always making mistakes, everyone of us metaphorically drowning because we still have not gotten to the surface, where the sage dwells. Not so Peterson, who is absolutely convinced of the immense value of his discoveries. In a letter to his father included in Maps of Meaning he writes:

“I don’t know, Dad, but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can see only parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing.”

Well, I can agree on two things: whatever he saw, he did not see it clearly. And he certainly did not convey it comprehensibly.

I hope to have martialed enough evidence to show that Jordan Peterson is no Stoic, and that his philosophy is, in fact, anti-Stoic. Why, then, is he so influential? Why are we spending so much energy and time talking about him? I really can’t do any better than put the answer as commentator and critic Nathan Robinson did recently in what is the best and most in-depth critique of Peterson I’ve seen so far:

“If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like ‘if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of’ or ‘many moral values are similar across human societies.’ Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured.”

You know what Socrates used to call this sort of person? A sophist. And he didn’t mean it as a compliment.

_____

P.S.: since I’ve been exposed to Peterson’s supporters a number of times over social media, I can anticipate some of the obvious objections: (i) If you think that I mischaracterized him or quoted him out of context, it is entirely useless to simply say so and walk away. Please, provide a detailed explanation of why you think so, as well as a better, more fair interpretation of the same passages I quoted, or the same notions I described. (ii) If you think Peterson is being criticized out of “envy” then you have no idea of critical discourse works. It’s still a criticism, and it needs to be answered, regardless of the real or imaginary motivations you attribute to the critic. (iii) If your response is along the lines of “yes, but he has made a difference for many young people,” that may be true, but there are positive differences and negative ones, and there are good and bad reasons why young people are influenced. The goal here is to steer them toward the good ones and away from the bad ones.

P.P.S.: please stop using lobsters as idealized examples of how human beings should behave, just because they are hierarchical animals. It’s really, really bad biology (and bad science is another un-Stoic thing). Lobsters are invertebrates, incredibly evolutionarily remote from us. And they don’t have shoulders. Plus, those t-shirts really look silly.

Advertisements

44 thoughts on “Nope, Jordan Peterson ain’t no Stoic

  1. Ted Petrocci

    Bravo Massimo, I ve been experiencing deep and profound “intrapsychic” pain since Peterson has come on the scene.I thought perhaps there was a procedural flaw in my knowledge of post-modern Iron John myth.
    Ted Petrocci

    Liked by 5 people

  2. farmdetective

    Great, thanks for taking this on. As regards Jung, the feminine/masculine thing is not referring to women/men respectively, but rather, to a potential for balance within each human of extreme elements, and points to a sense of wholeness possible for the self through being open to cultivating and discovering hidden parts of the self. Literal reading of his “feminine” as being “women” points to a lack of understanding and deeper interpretation of the intended meaning. My guess is that he has not read Jung, as it seems pretty obvious to me in reading Jung that he is not saying that. I am sorry to see stoics jump to discredit Jung so quickly. My feeling is that his encouragement of exploring the shadows of the self has tremendous potential for evolution of humankind. The archtypes have also been studied by Joseph Campbell and are discoveries, more than inventions of these two scholars. Mho.

    Like

  3. Massimo Post author

    farm,

    thanks for the clarification. Yes, I did get the impression that Peterson uses Jung rather casually, shall we say. That said, as a philosopher of science, I’m not too impressed with either Jung or Campbell, but that’s another conversation.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. d y

    Thank you for your excellent post and thank you for supplying the link to Nathan Robinson’s article.

    Just finished reading it and I can’t decide whether I’m too old for this sh*t and should hide in a cave until it all blows over (or I die) or whether I should hang in there until the bitter end. Because if those who should know better don’t know that this guy is a fraud what’s left? Whose voice is loud enough to consistently drown out the siren song of selfishness that Peterson peddles?

    I despair that those who struggle each day to better themselves and the world around them can’t even begin to make a dent in the vastness of humanity’s selfishness. There appear to be brief periods of lucidity but then it all turns into a giant game of Whack-A-Mole. Eventually, I fear, the moles will win.

    I’m glad I’m not young anymore. I’m going to go find a cave now.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Ryan Purcell

    Mossimo, have you engaged much with Peterson’s work firsthand (YouTube lectures, books, interviews), or is most of your analysis based upon other’s reviews? I am a fan of Peterson, and can certainly find some of the criticisms of him to be valuable, but I have never in my life seen more unfair, biased and slanderous reporting about a public figure. All who care about a civilized society should be appalled at the quickness of those in the media who label anyone to the right of Hillary Clinton to be a racist, fascist Nazi.

    One thing that I appreciate about Peterson is that his philosophy addresses a weakness in Stoicism, namely, the lack of myth or mythical element that is in my opinion its biggest shortcoming. If people truly wish to see Stoicism become more than an internet fad or life-hack for a bunch of Silicon Valley a-holes, it needs to realize that the mythic quality is what makes religion a more attractive alternative to a purely philosophical school. Peterson, in the same tradition as William James and the pragmatists, identifies a distinction between functional truth and scientific truth. Peterson contends that our religious and mythical stories are the compiled wisdom of mankind and provide a blueprint for a life “in the world”. You certainly don’t need myth for this, but good luck finding a human being who doesn’t live and think in this paradigm, it’s so biologically ingrained in our DNA. I love much of Stoicism, but the lack of the mythic, the dramatic, the communal (which are all found in our Western religious tradition, Christianity) make it hard to have it be the primary mode of articulating my understanding of reality. Peterson sees his task as making the ethical structure of Christianity believable in a secularized world that is unable to take the Bible as literally, scientifically true. I doubt Peterson would have disagreement with your description of the importance of ethics and virtue, he perhaps has a more zany approach to how to live “the Good Life”, but at least he is telling young people to TAKE LIFE SERIOUSLY AND AS IF YOUR ACTIONS MATTER. Personal responsibility, truthful speech, selfless action, doing what is meaningful and not just easy. As you say, not purely Stoic principles, but I’d think someone committed to seeing the spread of virtue-ethics be at least tepidly praising of Peterson. Honestly, what other public intellectuals are actually telling young people these timeless truths? Isn’t the fact that people flock to him proof that young people, especially young men, are being raised in a pathologically nihilistic culture whose highest virtue is a flaccid “tolerance” and condemns any that dare question the orthodoxies of the day? People rightly see our society as coming apart, and yet we are told that one of the dangers is men like Peterson for reminding people that not every idea from before 1969 is awful, and that, give the evidence, we should question the assumptions our culture has regarding sexuality, gender, work, relationships, religion, etc.

    Lastly, ironic that you mention Peterson’s views on gender relations, given that they would be more agree-able to the Stoics than your own views. I know you’d say that the Stoics were not infallible, curious though that where Peterson and the Stoics would align and you would differ, you take the side of what I see as an obviously un-sustainable model for human interactions. Btw, Peterson thinks women should have equal access to education, so not sure why you mentioned that in regards to the Stoics.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. montanawildlives

    Could not disagree with you more Massimo (I only seem to post when I disagree–so we can assume 99% agreement). The question you have answered is whether or not Jordan espouses stoic principles per se, or whether he adheres to stoic doctrines (he doesn’t), but the interesting question is whether or not his ideas are consistent with a stoic approach (I feel that they clearly are). I think this is why many people are asking you about this–because they see a consistency between Jordan’s ideas and those of the stoics. Individual responsibility. Focusing on the things you can control. Becoming the best version of yourself that you can. Living a life that is consistent with your principles. The core stoic principles are clearly represented in Jordan’s ideas, despite variations in the details.

    It seems to me that the bulk of your argument is based on a series of straw men you have constructed. For example, it is easy to criticize the lobster analogy (as any analogy). By your same logic, we should dismiss the dog-cart analogy from stoicism. After all, we are not dogs, right? But the stoics were not saying that we are dogs, only that there is something that can be learned from this analogy. Jordan is not saying that we are lobsters, only that there is something that can be learned from the analogy. I am sure that if he were presented with the stoic dog-cart analogy, Jordan would say “spot on!” Justice RBG on the other hand might question who constructed the cart, whose interests were served by it, and how government could best intervene to disassemble the cart and distribute the materials equally among the workers. Lenin, Marx, and Mao would be proud of RBG, and Jordan and the stoics would be appalled.

    Being politically incorrect when called for despite massive social pressures (from the NY-LA coastal elites and politically correct mainstream media), espousing principles of individual responsibility, and trying to help people to flourish as individuals are about as stoic as you can get.

    I hope your readers will review the Vacula article and read or listen to Jordan in his own words. In particular, I would recommend a very entertaining and enlightening exchange between Russel Brand (the progressive social justice warrior) and Jordan on youtube.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. d y

    @ Ryan Purcell – please click the link to Nathan Robinson’s article. You may not like what you read, but it clarifies exactly why the majority of what Peterson sells is questionable. And it’s not just what, it’s how and to whom.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Massimo Post author

    dy,

    thank you, you’ve just described how I feel most of the times. As Carl Sagan put it, reason is a candle in the dark. It will never illuminate the whole place, as it should, but it is uncumbent on us to keep the flame alive.

    have you engaged much with Peterson’s work firsthand (YouTube lectures, books, interviews), or is most of your analysis based upon other’s reviews?

    I find it funny that many fans of Peterson ask the same question. The answer, as I say clearly in the post, is that I have watched several of his YT videos and read fairly good chunks of both books. And I’ve read plenty of both positive and negative reviews, to help orient myself. If that’s not enough, I’m sorry, I don’t have the time or any good reason to do more.

    All who care about a civilized society should be appalled at the quickness of those in the media who label anyone to the right of Hillary Clinton to be a racist, fascist Nazi

    I don’t believe I said anything of the sort.

    One thing that I appreciate about Peterson is that his philosophy addresses a weakness in Stoicism, namely, the lack of myth or mythical element that is in my opinion its biggest shortcoming

    I would have hoped that humanity has progressed to the point where we don’t need myths to help us out. Apparently not, but I will resist any movement in that direction, which I believe is backwards.

    Peterson, in the same tradition as William James and the pragmatists, identifies a distinction between functional truth and scientific truth.

    Never been a fan of James.

    Peterson sees his task as making the ethical structure of Christianity believable in a secularized world

    I think of that project as profoundly misguided.

    Personal responsibility, truthful speech, selfless action, doing what is meaningful and not just easy. As you say, not purely Stoic principles, but I’d think someone committed to seeing the spread of virtue-ethics be at least tepidly praising of Peterson

    The problem is that my mother told me the same platitudes. Which are fine, but they are platidudes nonetheless. What makes somethign Stoic is the emphasis on the four virtues. So far as I can tell, Peterson is missing out on all of them. He does not know what is truly good or evil for him (practical wisdom), his courage is not ethically informed, he has a warped view of justice, and his frequent bouts of anger and implicit invocation of violence shows that he is not temperate. So no, I don’t see anythign Stoic about his approach.

    Isn’t the fact that people flock to him proof that young people, especially young men, are being raised in a pathologically nihilistic culture whose highest virtue is a flaccid “tolerance” and condemns any that dare question the orthodoxies of the day?

    I don’t see anything flaccid in the idea of tolerance. And that clearly is a Stoic principle (tolerance, that is). As for the fact that he is so popular with a lot of mostly white and angry white males, I find that problematic, not at all a comfort.

    we are told that one of the dangers is men like Peterson for reminding people that not every idea from before 1969 is awful

    That’s hardly what he does.

    ironic that you mention Peterson’s views on gender relations, given that they would be more agree-able to the Stoics than your own views. I know you’d say that the Stoics were not infallible

    Exactly. But I don’t pull that out of a hat. The Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism is logically incompatible with any differential treatment of any human being, man, woman, trans, white, black, or whatever. Very clearly not what Peterson is after.

    Peterson thinks women should have equal access to education, so not sure why you mentioned that in regards to the Stoics.

    It’s hard to say what he believes, because his videos are a hodgepodge of contradictory ideas. Certainly educated women are rather incompatible with his concept of forced monogamy, for one.

    Liked by 5 people

  9. Massimo Post author

    montana,

    the interesting question is whether or not his ideas are consistent with a stoic approach (I feel that they clearly are). … Individual responsibility. Focusing on the things you can control. Becoming the best version of yourself that you can. Living a life that is consistent with your principles. The core stoic principles are clearly represented in Jordan’s ideas, despite variations in the details.

    Superficially, which is my point. Let’s take them one by one:

    • individual responsibility: yes, but for what? informed how? Peterson sense of ethics and justice seem to me at odds with the Stoic ones.
    • focusing on what is under your control: defined how? I think Peterson has an expansive view of this compared to the Stoics, who thought the only things under our control are our judgments and values.

    • becoming the best version of yourself: again, according to which criteria? Without filling in the details the advice is empty.

    • living consistently with your principles: not if your principles are unjust and unethical, as some of those expoused by Peterson clearly are, to my way of looking at things.

    So, no, the variations are not details, they are reflective of fundamental differences.

    it is easy to criticize the lobster analogy (as any analogy). By your same logic, we should dismiss the dog-cart analogy from stoicism. After all, we are not dogs, right?

    The problem is in what the analogy wants to teach us. The cart and dog analogy does not refer to dogs as models for human beings, it is simply a way to convey, in a florid manner, the limits of our agency. It works within certain limits, like all analogies. By contrast, as a biologist I can tell you that there is precisely zero we can learn by looking at the social hierarchies or behaviors of lobsters. Not a thing.

    Being politically incorrect when called for despite massive social pressures

    “when called for” is a big caveat, which does not apply to Peterson’s socio-political views.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Paul Braterman

    Massimo, if I can (sort of) defend Peterson, I have read his defence of “enforced monogamy” in which he explains that he means socially enforced, and one wife [spouse? partner?] at a time. From brutality to banality, tripping up one’s critics by bait-and-switch.

    Impenetrability, as Humpty-Dumpty said.

    Like

  11. Massimo Post author

    Paul,

    that is a perfect example of what I’m talking about: Peterson says questionable, or even despicable things, yet cloaks them with plausible deniability.

    But let’s even concede that he means “socially enforced” monogamy. First off, why should society “enforce” monogamy? Second, how, exactly, is such enforcement going to take place? Third, why monogamy, anyway? Genuine questions, if anyone cares to comment.

    Like

  12. JD Gamboa

    Here, we can understand the problems of commiting to an external philosophy and herd mentality.

    I feel certainly influenced by stoic ideals, but I am no Stoic. I have certain appeal for some of Peterson’s ideas, but I’m certainly not a Peterson-ist.

    First, I must say that NOWHERE in the lectures I’ve watched, I’ve heard Peterson say that men must dominate women. If you have explicit evidence of it, I surely want to see it and I will stand corrected. But doing mental gymnastics to get to that specific conclusion is ridiculous.

    Now, I have a big disdain for Peterson’s typical support of simple minded Conservatism, the pedestal in which he puts that terrible disease called Christianity, and his unscientific, psychoanalytical-based philosophy, which he unleashes as if it were divine truth revealed. From his book, I must say that a 30% is Christian propaganda, 30% is Jungian bullshit, 20% is common sense knowledge, and only some 20% is solid advice.

    Yet, there are some other problems with your reasoning throughout this post, and they do seem influenced by modern political correctness in the United States (how unsurprising) and that is the sort of things that people like Peterson and odd, disgusting figures like Donald Trump feed on. Example:

    There are a number of other decidedly un-Stoic aspects of Peterson’s opinions, like his strange idea that 
    conversation is made possible with men (but impossible with “crazy” women) by the always present threat 
    of violence:
    

    As odd it may seem, I cannot help but find a certain truth in this claim. Are women unable to hold guns? Do they not possess opposable thumbs to wield a knife? It certainly didn’t prevent my mother from threatening to kill me with a drill or swinging a knife to my father whenever they would argue. Yet it was easy for the police to always blame us the men. If you had the same sort of confrontation with a man, you would be expected to defend yourself. With a woman? Not so much. “A woman should not be touched, not even with a rose petal”, is a common saying in my country. Society patronizes women, the LGBT, the blacks. They apparently are uncapable of evil. Isn’t Stoicism about understanding evil and the ignorance from which it steems?

    “Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” Maybe Marcus should have put an asterisk next to that, and in a footnote it would say “only applies to white straight men. The others are always good, of course”.

    Also, as a man that is decidedly single (although refusing to accept a label or claim membership of a group with a name as ridiculous as “Men going their own way”), I must say that the paragraph in which you argue against these loose individuals feels wrong. For example, when you consider that the violence women endure usually come from the men they choose as partners (something about taking responsibility for your own actions does ring a bell here. Feel free to call me a mysoginistic pig for that last claim but I will not take it back: evidence does show that more aggressive males have more sexual partners), that pay inequality doesn’t stand a multivaried analysis considering there can be no control condition in this experiment (for instance, there are hardly any equal jobs), and that hiring discrimination doesn’t make sense, from a simple economic fact like if women actually earn less money, every company would hire more of them and lay off the men and reduce to that so-called 75% their payroll expenses.

    Peterson also uses something called the big-five to explain Newman part of this. Besides his pseudo-scientific bullshit. The big-five categories aren’t something exclusive to Peterson. They are core of current mainstream psychology. And Peterson diligently explained Newman, based in them, why men usually earn more even though women are a bigger part of a market share. It is in the infamous interview people talk about and that you mentioned, so you can go watch it.

    Anyway, I usually enjoy your writings so I will continue to visit your site if this extended rant doesn’t get me banned. It has been the case in other places, you know, but I would expect something better from someone that call himself a Stoic.

    Like

  13. Massimo Post author

    JD,

    as you can see, you have not been banned. I rarely ban people, and that only when they use abusive language and don’t even try to make a constructive point.

    NOWHERE in the lectures I’ve watched, I’ve heard Peterson say that men must dominate women

    So you genuinely think that his talk of social hierarchies and of enforced monogamy has no implication in that department? How exactly does the idea of enforced monogamy (however done) not imply domination over women? By the way, several examples of this sort of language are found in the articles and videos linked from the OP.

    From his book, I must say that a 30% is Christian propaganda, 30% is Jungian bullshit, 20% is common sense knowledge, and only some 20% is solid advice

    Well, just based on that, I don’t see why you are disagreeing so much with my take. Even if I give you that 20% (I’m being generous) the guy is still full of crap, and given his large following, needs to be properly criticized.

    there are some other problems with your reasoning throughout this post, and they do seem influenced by modern political correctness in the United States (how unsurprising

    I really find it amusing that I am alternatively criticized by some for being “obviously” politically correct, and by others for being insufficiently so, to the point of having unceremoniously been told several times, on Twitter, to go fuck myself by people who think I’m not sufficiently critical of the likes of Peterson. Go figure.

    As odd it may seem, I cannot help but find a certain truth in this claim. Are women unable to hold guns? Do they not possess opposable thumbs to wield a knife? It certainly didn’t prevent my mother from threatening to kill me with a drill or swinging a knife to my father whenever they would argue.

    I’m truly sorry to hear that. But I don’t think anyone ever argued that women are incapable of violence (talk about a strawman!). The idea, rather, is that it is women who are overwhelmingly subject to male violence, statistically speaking. And also that the very notion, which Peterson holds, that in order to have a good conversation one has to be able to hint at violence is reprehensible.

    “when you consider that the violence women endure usually come from the men they choose as partners (something about taking responsibility for your own actions does ring a bell here”

    Not over here. It simply speaks to the inability of victims to stand up to their oppressor. A well known psychological problem that in no way justifies the oppressor.

    evidence does show that more aggressive males have more sexual partners

    First off, I’d like to see such evidence. Second, and more importantly, the question isn’t descriptive, but prescriptive: should we condone such an approach? I would say no, from a Stoic perspective.

    pay inequality doesn’t stand a multivaried analysis considering there can be no control condition in this experiment

    That is simply not the case. Plenty of good analyses have been carried out, and the idea of pay inequality stands. There is a large literature on the topic, and Google Scholar is a good first approach.

    hiring discrimination doesn’t make sense, from a simple economic fact like if women actually earn less money, every company would hire more of them and lay off the men and reduce to that so-called 75% their payroll expenses

    That’s a very goo point, but you are assuming that people who hire function as ideal economic agents. They don’t, they tend to be men whose decisions are informed by their inherent sexism. They truly believe that women are inferior, and therefore deserve less, regardless of the company’s bottom line.

    Besides his pseudo-scientific bullshit. The big-five categories aren’t something exclusive to Peterson. They are core of current mainstream psychology

    Indeed, but that doesn’t excuse Peterson when he uses them.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Will Lorca

    I’m situated in the Philippines. Post-modernism has crept up into many disciplines especially in the humanities and the social sciences. Our philosophy department office in my uni is right beside the ‘Religion and Women Studies” department. Literature (and other humanities) majors make use of the concept of ‘white privilege’ and tag “mixed-race” students and (foreign) professors with it here–which is pretty much weird (most of us have mixed ethnicity and heritage). Sociology, anthropology, and philosophy conferences are peppered with homilies. For such a young country and younger academic sprouts, this is not the best way to go. It’s like being back to Sunday school; cringe-y to say the least.

    Peterson offers opposition and it’s easy to gravitate towards such but closer examination (like reading his “original” work) would show that his opposition uses so many bad routes for thinking. It’s like fighting post-modernism with post-modernism; Critical Theory with Critical Theory (superseded (not even) science instead of another superseded (not even) science; using Jung mostly instead of Freud mostly). It’s like captain obvious wearing a dog poo costume.

    It’s just that Peterson’s work is easy to get behind for, easy to “understand” via interpreting any of it to your own liking, and passionately (and confidently) packaged. It’s a good PR stunt. He has some good points but his thinking is lazy.

    His tirades and public discussions are fun and funny; I should admit. But it is intellectually vacuous. Taking a punchline from Mr. Churchland, I think Peterson is “emasculating” psychology, biology, and philosophy. His is not a work equivalent to that of someone like Gustav Holst in music. It’s a distasteful use of auto tune. His rhetoric is spot on though. I can’t help but admire that skill. Breathtaking.

    And yes, those lobster shirts are awful. Maybe I should get one because it’s funny.

    Thank you, Massimo. About time! 😉

    Liked by 5 people

  15. Ketil Malde

    “Peterson claimed that C-16 would compel him to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution. This is simply and utterly false. Here is the full text of the bill, so you can check for yourself.”

    Surely, you are aware that the issue is a bit more complex than that? Here is (allegedly) the letter Peterson received from his employer. Perhaps you feel this is not in any way threatening, but it seems clear to me that at least the University disagrees with your opinion that using dispreferred pronouns is completely legal.

    https://www.scribd.com/document/328664490/Letter-to-J-Peterson-18Oct2016

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Massimo Post author

    Ketil,

    thanks for the link to the letter. It does sound mildly threatening, though not quite as dramatic as the idea you get from Peterson himself and his supporters. I have read the full text of C-16, and honestly it sounds pretty mild to me. The caveat, I suppose, is in the case by case interpretation of “discriminatory.”

    For a nuanced view of that episode and of Peterson in general, see this, from a former friend and colleague of his:

    https://www.thestar.com/opinion/2018/05/25/i-was-jordan-petersons-strongest-supporter-now-i-think-hes-dangerous.html

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Dennis Johnston (NunPunch3r)

    Great article. I always found it odd that when Peterson talks about men and women, he somewhat indirectly implies that men have no self-control. He did this when he was talking about forced monogamy and also in the quote you highlighted where he says”There’s no step forward that you can take under those circumstances, because if the man is offensive enough and crazy enough, the reaction becomes physical right away”, basically forgetting that the majority of domestic offenders is men.

    I also feel that he doesn’t have a good grasp on why laws are made for people in the first place. Men may be unfavored by law, but that is because men are usually doing what the laws were made to prevent. Maybe it is why he has such a hard-on for Murray/Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve ?

    Liked by 2 people

  18. labnut

    Massimo,
    They don’t, they tend to be men whose decisions are informed by their inherent sexism. They truly believe that women are inferior, and therefore deserve less, regardless of the company’s bottom line.

    I am supportive of your position but my experience as an employer is different. First, ALL of our HR employment consultants in the HR Division were women. Second, nearly half of our programmers were women and they were on EXACTLY the same pay scale as the men. I was their manager and knew this. Thirdly, their performance was every bit as good as that of the men. I did their performance evaluations and knew this. Fourth, they were better in one respect and that is their interactions with our internal customers was more sensitive and understanding. Our male programmers tended to be wickedly dismissive nerds who angered our internal customers. I really struggled with trying to change this culture. Finally though, the women had a rather higher turnover because of marriage and child bearing. This was unsettling because of the constant retraining of newcomers and the loss of heuristic knowledge(which matters a great deal). We dealt with this problem by offering the maternity leavers very generous incentives to work from home. These were mostly accepted and we were extraordinarily surprised by the productivity and effectiveness of these stay-at-home mom workers. I suppose we expected that the demands of child rearing would be too distracting but that was not the case.

    I can only speak for my experience in the large international conglomerate where I worked.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Massimo Post author

    labnut,

    good for your company! But the national and international statistics tell a bit of a different story, as yet. Hopefully things are changing in the right direction.

    Liked by 4 people

  20. JD Gamboa

    “They don’t, they tend to be men whose decisions are informed by their inherent sexism. They truly believe that women are inferior, and therefore deserve less, regardless of the company’s bottom line.”

    That’s a thoroughly unscientific (unfalsifiable) unempirical claim, basically like every single one you often find in the published paper about the subject I have read. If you can point to a single decent one, I’d be glad to read it. “We have no idea what this data tells us, so let’s assume this and make it a reality”.

    Just an example, this claim in a random article I read while writing this comment:

    “An analysis between 1950 and 2000 of the average salaries and occupations found that when women enter a field, the wages drop, even for men in that field, because the career is considered less valuable when more women do it.”

    Whaaat?

    “While women are at home taking care of the domestic work, men are able to have longer continuous work hours, which research shows is given a pay premium in the workforce.. “So this unpaid second shift that women are doing,” says Miller, “is subsidizing men’s work.””

    Again, whaaat?

    I look forward to actual evidence. I must state that I originally believed in it but had to back off because whenever I would read about it it would make less and less sense.

    Like

  21. Massimo Post author

    JD,

    There is plenty of empirical evidence. I looked. Traveling to Athens right now to give a talk (on Stoicism!) at the local TEDx, ill look up a couple of links as soon as i have a moment.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Ketil Malde

    One thing that is puzzling, is that while you purport to discuss Peterson’s views with regards to the Stoic philosophy. But a large part of your argument seems to be about Peterson’s views on Jungian theory and gender. Is this really relevant? Is it a Stoic proposition that genders are equal? Does Stoicism hold particular theories regarding psychology, evolutionary or otherwise?

    The main reason Peterson is so controversial, is that he argues against beliefs that are held as axioms by a large part of the liberal elites, and which simultaneously are felt to be in the face of reality by another large part of the population. For instance, it is pretty self-evident that the causes of the pay gap are complex, and to a large extent rooted in inherent differences between sexes. But the only publicly acceptable explanation of difference in outcome seems to be discrimination, and the only remedy seems to be more discrimination, but in the other direction.

    Below is one study, btw, which calculates the pay gap of 17% is reduced to less than 1% when comparing like to like. Another one reduced it from 22% to 2%. So something like 95% of the pay gap is due to women making different choices, and reaping different benefits. Unfortunately, assertions that “they tend to be men whose decisions are informed by their inherent sexism” is not uncommon. There is no convincing evidence that it is true, however, and I think you will find that women are not significantly more generous to other women than men are – and often quite the contrary.

    https://www.kornferry.com/press/as-us-equal-pay-day-approaches-korn-ferry-issues-gender-pay-index-analyzing-reasons-behind-inequalities-in-male-and-female-pay/
    https://www.payscale.com/data/gender-pay-gap

    Like

  23. Chuchu

    Nice! 👏😀 so glad to hear there are companies like yours out there!

    I had the most interesting encounter with the last company I worked for. It was an engineering company. The second day I announced that I was pregnant, I caught my boss checking on maternity policies – first time ever he needed to deal with this. 😂 where I live we get very decent maternity leave: 1 year off with 4 months paid for by the government. However, since my job involved a huge amount of maths modeling, I asked if I could come back in 6 months but starting with some days at home? My boss went to ask his boss, who then called me over nervously, telling me he also wasn’t sure as “there was no predecessors”. Oh right, apparently I was the first pregnant engineer they had to deal with. I thought, fine, I will just come back in a year, but I was still an angry pregnant woman!😁 Then there was this huge change within the company and I could see they were reducing the R&D department. I thought again, fine! First you don’t want me to work from home, now you will probably put me to a lame position (I was rather unreasonable, I know). So after making a huge matrix on future options evaluation, I decided I’d go back to university to pursuit a PhD. I’ve had a question brewing in my head for a few years and I really wanted to examine it academically.

    Oh the story hasn’t ended! A few months after I had the chat with my boss’ boss and decided to apply for university, the head of HR (a lady) came to me and said :”I was just told of your request. Of course you can work from home some days starting from whenever you feel comfortable with! If we didn’t allow this, we will never get any woman to stay in engineering.” But it was too late!!!! I was already accepted by university! 😑

    Honestly I was really grateful for everyone from that company. It was not anyone’s fault that I ended up not staying. However, I remember some statistics when I was in engineering school : 40% female engineering graduates stop being an engineer in 5 years. This is mostly a rumor floating in classes, no one ever fact checked it and I thought of it as a joke. I’m not so sure anymore, haha 😂, as I know at least 4/7 (yes 7 in totally, seriously not joking) girls from my class are NOT practising engeering at the moment. I lost contact with the other 3.

    So labnut I’m so very glad to hear that your company is progressing towards looking after the females!

    Because

    Liked by 4 people

  24. labnut

    Traveling to Athens right now to give a talk (on Stoicism!) at the local TEDx

    Now that is something to look forward to!

    Liked by 2 people

  25. labnut

    good for your company! But the national and international statistics tell a bit of a different story, as yet.

    Yes, I know it is not the norm, but at least notable exceptions do exist.

    Liked by 3 people

  26. labnut

    And now a change of subject. I did a Google query for ‘the Stoic virtues’ and first three results were from How To Be A Stoic. See this screen shot: https://bit.ly/2LLvFCk

    Well done Massimo, Google recognise you as the expert on the subject!

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Massimo Post author

    labnut,

    Well done Massimo, Google recognise you as the expert on the subject!

    More likely that reflects Google’s limitations, but appreciated!

    Ketil,

    One thing that is puzzling, is that while you purport to discuss Peterson’s views with regards to the Stoic philosophy. But a large part of your argument seems to be about Peterson’s views on Jungian theory and gender. Is this really relevant?

    As I explain in the OP, it is relevant because the Stoics put a high value on good reasoning and empirical evidence, both of which are missing from Jung and, derivatively, Peterson.

    Is it a Stoic proposition that genders are equal? Does Stoicism hold particular theories regarding psychology, evolutionary or otherwise?

    Stoicism holds that women and men are intellectully equal, there is plenty of textual evidence for it. They also ought to be treated equally, as a consequence of the doctrine of oikeiosis and the related notion of cosmopolitanism.

    Yes, Stoicism did have an embryonic theory of psychology, and in particular of cognitive-moral psychological development. The basic notions have held up to modern empirical research, as I’ve written a few times on this blog. No, obviously they did not have a notion of evolution, but, again, criticism of evopsych falls under the general heading of accepting only things that are well supported by reason and evidence. Many of the evopsych notions Peterson subscribes to are not.

    it is pretty self-evident that the causes of the pay gap are complex, and to a large extent rooted in inherent differences between sexes.

    First off, the literature does not support the existence of significant cognitive differences between men and women (physical differences yes, quite obviously). Second, there is a confusion here between description and prescription: even if there were such differences, women ought to be treated the same way as men. That applies to other groups of people as well in our society, for instance disabled people, who cannot and should not be discriminated against.

    I really don’t want to turn this post into a discussion of the gender pay gap. As you say, it’s complicated and multifactorial, but for every link you post here I can easily counter-Google another one that says otherwise. Let’s not play that game, it’s fruitless, in my experience.

    Liked by 4 people

Comments are closed.