Nope, Jordan Peterson Ain’t No Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

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 here in the Stoicism Today blog, which takes a cautionary positive approach to Peterson, and draws parallels between his views and our philosophy. 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 “virtus” 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 disciplines, 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 fan 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 marshaled 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.

 

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

A Response To “How Stoic is Jordan Peterson?” by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

Last week in his Stoicism Today article Justin Vacula (the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast) stated that “there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson”. He was also right in saying that various members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group (led by our very own Donald Robertson) frequently share work from Jordan Peterson and are left wondering if he is a Stoic. In a response to Justin’s article (and the various comments that ensued on this blog and elsewhere in social media), we want to present our take on the likenesses between Jordan Peterson’s philosophy and that of Stoicism.

To do this, we explore some similarities and ask whether they are real or superficial. Perhaps the Stoics were just as interested as Peterson and his followers in antidotes to chaos. Perhaps, any resemblances are merely coincidental.

In order to unpack the parallels and divergences properly, it is first necessary to address an all too common misconception that “Stoic”, with a capital S, is a person that practices or adheres to being emotionally “stoic”. Whilst the philosophy certainly teaches the importance of resilience, the governing of one’s emotions and the value obtained in understanding the role of luck, it also emphasises virtue. In fact, the most fundamental tenet of Stoicism is that virtue, as made manifest in justice, courage, self-control and wisdom, is the only true good. This is because it is, in the Stoic sense, the only path that leads to a harmonious sense of happiness.

So with definitions out of the way, where do Peterson and his ideas fit onto the Stoic spectrum? For evidence, one can certainly point, as Justin did last week, to his cool demeanour in uncomfortable interviews, including the infamously hostile one directed by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.  One could also highlight his sense of calm during politically loaded conversations on national media with his own colleagues, following the C-16 amendment bill and the ensuing gender neutral pronoun scandal.

Leo and I, as two Stoic researchers, would even argue that it was Peterson’s stoicism in the face of an international news frenzy that catapulted him to the highest echelons of fame in the first place. Undoubtedly, his emotional detachment in the face of severe public scrutiny is something that the Stoics would have admired. Likewise, his sense of purpose to connect with and be a model (particularly) for young men intent of getting their life together, and the celebration of their achievements when they do, mirrors certain elements of what we would refer to, in modern times, as the Ancient Stoic pedagogical method.

In terms of his written work, we agree with Justin that Peterson’s widely successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos makes for markedly Stoic reading when it comes to his views on death, suffering, pain and anxiety. As with the Stoics, Peterson balances such realities by reminding the reader to develop character and take responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, instead of longing for superficial happiness. For instance, Seneca says in On Providence:

God himself is beyond suffering evil; you are above it. Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind.

Peterson’s criticism of “post-modernist” relativism is also a view that the ancient and modern Stoics would subscribe to. In fact, the Ancient Stoics were very much involved in these kinds of arguments against the relativists of their day – the Academic Sceptics. This philosophical school held that a wise person would never assent to anything erroneously, precisely because they would hold zero beliefs. This absence of belief was necessary, in their mind, because human beings cannot know if anything is really true, nor have any reason to believe something is true. In contrast, a Stoic, similarly to Jordan Peterson, would maintain that some things cannot be mere opinion, because there are facts that correspond to reality. Thus, where there are conflicting views, both may be wrong or one is right and the other wrong but, most definitely, they cannot be both right! Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was recorded to have said as much when he pointed out that the relativist Academics argue one thing and do something else.

Where the Stoics and Peterson’s philosophy significantly part ways is linked to how one identifies and solves inequality.  This was not picked up by Justin and was one of the reasons why his article came under fire.

Consequently, we would like to emphasise, to fellow Stoics and Peterson fans alike, that under a Stoic framework, it is not sufficient to state, as Peterson does in his interview with Richard Fidler, that hierarchy and equality is something that our nervous system is designed to deal with and adjusted to.

A simple counter argument of Peterson’s “natural” argument, based on the existence of, and access to, vaccinations and medicine already demonstrates that despite the fact that bacteria and disease has evolved alongside us and that our immune system has been designed to deal with them both, we have learned to override natural processes. In other words, humanity has not consigned matters of health to the “survival of the fittest”. Instead, we have used science to increase our knowledge and reduce uncertainty. We have built in societal structures to help us care for those who fall sick. In short, we have learnt to do better.

Incidentally, this is a view that Peterson will most likely agree with, given his favouring of the more socialistic form of health care available in Canada, over the privatised version operating in the US. So, why not likewise advocate for and develop structural mechanisms that re-address biological factors of inequality, so that more people can prosper?

Stoicism can offer some insight into how we may advocate for the virtue of justice. As a philosophy it is as political as much as it is personal and it does, for example, lend itself well to political activism. For Stoics, the view presented by Peterson regarding the Leftist Marxist agenda versus the Right-wing Capitalist is a false dichotomy. Marxism should not be rejected outright, nor capitalism necessarily preferred. After all reason, or rational thought, has no political wing. As we explained in our Daily Stoic article, the Stoic progressor (and Sage) must always advocate for reason and take the side of the person expressing a reasonable argument, grounded in facts. Everything else is superfluous to a Stoic’s political identity. That said Stoics should strive to reduce proven, or potential, inequality brought about by immorality. This echoes Cicero’s argument in De officiis that:

for one man to take something from another and to increase his own advantage at the cost of another’s disadvantage is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain and than anything else that may happen to his body or external possessions.

Cicero’s viewpoint does not necessarily take away from Peterson’s claims that disparity between groups is natural because it is Darwinian in origin. However, it does mean that a Stoic should promote a more progressive stance because there are other elements at play, including luck. In addition, as we argue (alongside Greg Sadler and Chris Gill) in our open access paper, it is the human ability to communicate and corporate which makes us uniquely capable, among all other living species, of societal development. Others such as Jeremy Lent, in his book The Patterning Instinct, and Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus also make convincing arguments that it is our cooperative, rather than our competitive, ability that yields a greater Darwinian advantage, as evidenced by our successful (although not necessarily reasonable) domination of the planet.

The gender pay gap, a phenomena Peterson actively denies, can also be dealt with by looking into the nuances of the argument. For a modern Stoic, the debate should centre on whether we think it is reasonable for it to exist, and if that reason is warranted. It is clear from the UK Government’s multivariate analysis that women, on average, earn less than men, when doing the same job for the same length of time. What is unclear, and here lies the nuance of Peterson’s argument, is whether income disparity linked to cognitive skills and behavioural traits, should be used to justify women’s lower salaries or hinder their professional progression.

Stoics might reflect on why the capitalist job market prefers “masculine” behaviour. They would also bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour. When women adopt more aggressive strategies they are judged, in a negative sense, to be anti-female and domineering. They are certainly not promoted as archetypal women. A man on the other hand, is typically rewarded and championed for being strong. This kind of language is present in Peterson’s book, where he considers male bravado and daring to be “courageous”. Would he judge a woman by the same standards? If the answer is no, then Stoics would have grounds to suggest that the gender pay gap has more to do with gender, and how children are socialised into a gender role, than any particular given behavioural trait.

Such issues are not easy to address but do, to some extent, explain certain elements of the pay gap. They are also indicative of what needs to change in society, so we can collectively reduce any disparity in pay where it does, or potentially could, occur. One solution following in the Stoic tradition, could be for instance, the publishing and open discussion of people’s actual salaries so they could decide amongst themselves what is fair or unfair, and find out whether, in their workplace, the gap is real or not.

Likewise, Stoicism’s acceptance that knowledge must be based on science, and not merely conjecture, can be used to demonstrate where Peterson’s dismissal of the possibility of more than two sexes is erroneous, if, for example, chromosomal pairs are used to define if a person is male or female. Seemingly unbeknown to Peterson, there are some individuals that do not, in fact, fall neatly into the gender binary with the common Kleinefelter Syndrome (one or two born per 1000 live male births), resulting in a person possessing two female chromosomes (XX) and one male chromosome (Y). If a biological male possesses XY, and a female XX, then a person with three chromosomes is neither male nor female in the biologically or socially conventional sense. However, it isn’t just chromosomes that determine sex, so ascribing gender in a relative simplistic way, based on what a person looks likes, whilst suitable in most cases, lacks scientific rigour. It also, according to an article in Nature, ignores a lot of biological factors that determine not just physical sex but also gender identity.

Given these facts, it is very likely that a Stoic would advocate for the gender neutral term “they” to address a person who does not have a clearly ascribed sex and who requires time to process their condition. Peterson, in adopting a more Stoic position, would then need to concede the use of “they” on scientific grounds. Furthermore, and as a Stoic aside, if one considers the importance of grammar in the Ancient teachings, Peterson’s issue that the use of “they” in the singular would only generate confusion loses credibility when one considers that the word “they” is used to refer to sports teams (where it does not mean the individuals that make up the team, but rather the team as a single entity). In addition, the word “you” in the English language does not distinguish between the collective (you all) and the addressing of a specific person. It relies on context or the speaker’s clarification. The question for a Stoic, once the issue of being understood is dealt with, comes down to, would a modified use in a pronoun reflect reality and result in progress towards socially just acts? The answer is “yes” on both accounts.

Despite these discrepancies, Peterson’s ideas appeal to millions of people. In our opinion, and as Justin rightly identifies, some of the 12 Laws draw interesting parallels with Stoic thoughts and practices. A great deal of Peterson’s work, although not Stoic in intent, is certainly not un-stoic. His Stoic elements have, undoubtedly, improved the lives of countless individuals by making them more responsible and resilient. They have turned people’s attention away from the pursuit of momentary happiness and directed them towards the search for the life well-lived.

In short, Jordan Peterson has worked hard to change many people’s worlds for the better and, perhaps, if he were more Stoic-leaning, he could open up the invitation to those currently alienated by his ideas. At the same time, the tension between the left and right political agenda would be replaced with more progressive values.

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable materials and Stoicism. He will be speaking at Stoicon 2018. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting.

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.

Jordan Peterson and Stoicism by Justin Vacula

Clinical psychologist and Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson has had a major impact on public discourse evidenced by his presence in online publications, his extremely popular YouTube channel with almost one million subscribers, and acclaim surrounding his new book ’12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ which is currently the #1 bestselling book on Amazon.

Members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group share work from Jordan Peterson including many of his classroom and public lectures and are left asking if Jordan Peterson is a Stoic identifying parallels between the work of Peterson and Stoic authors. Fans of Jordan Peterson who are unfamiliar with Stoic Philosophy can benefit a great deal from engagement with Stoicism.

People find a great deal of inspiration and practical solutions to personal struggles while becoming more familiar with the work of Jordan Peterson and engaging with Stoic Philosophy. People hunger for a new approach to life, guidelines by which to structure themselves, especially after personal tragedy or stagnation. People are moved by messages of self-improvement and character-building found within Stoic content and Jordan Peterson lectures which urge that growth, positive change, is possible if a good effort is made.

When I use the word “Stoic,” I reference the practical philosophy of life popularized by Ancient thinkers including Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius I’ll later detail – not a common usage which people may understand as merely being resolute in the face of challenge (see Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman in which he maintains such a undaunted disposition) or a severely misguided interpretation – one being detached from positive or negative emotions.

I don’t recall Jordan Peterson mentioning influence from Stoic thinkers or Stoic Philosophy in his content, but I see many parallels between his work and central themes in Stoicism. Perhaps Jordan Peterson won’t identify as a Stoic, but he can surely find himself in general agreement with major Stoic themes and appreciate the philosophical tradition – now undergoing a modern rebirth – which resonates with segments of Peterson’s audience.

Let’s explore the parallels and differences between Stoicism and the work of Jordan Peterson. I’ll use examples from Stoic texts and lectures of Peterson in addition to recurring themes in Stoic works and Peterson’s thoughts to discover the degree of Stoicism within Jordan Peterson.

Clean Your Room/Get Your Life In Order

Stoicism challenges us to be accountable, to take responsibility in our lives, so that we can work toward a life of contentment pursuing virtue. Self-improvement; having a proper mindset; and working to rid ourselves of unproductive desires (i.e. want of fame, wealth, jealousy) and intense negative emotions (i.e. despair, hatred, and anger) is required for a properly-oriented life on the Stoic view. Stoic writers  focus on common human concerns which continue to exist in our modern era. (If you wish, you can listen to past episodes of my podcast, including #47, #36, and #31 , focused on coping with guilt, negative emotions, and death.

Applying Stoic wisdom to everyday life can help modern people, as Jordan Peterson would say, rescue their fathers (and themselves) from the belly of a whale or be reborn like the mythical pheonix. (I talk more about being reborn like a phoenix following tragedy in episodes 44 and 22 of my podcast). Peterson urges individuals to be self-reflective and work to fix their lives rather than being resentful, complaining, and being critical of the world while not working to change one’s own mindset or improve their condition.

Stoic writers and Peterson advocate for an attitude of gratitude – appreciating what is going well and not overlooking positive elements of life – and note that complaining, especially about things outside of our control, is largely unhelpful. For Peterson and Stoic writers, instead of complaining, taking action to improve ourselves and create order in our lives can be an antidote or response to chaos.

Similar to Stoic writers, Peterson focuses on finding personal fulfillment in excellence of character and success, but there is divergence in that Peterson – unlike Stoic authors – often focuses on climbing what he calls dominance heirarchies, engaging in completion to rise to the top of a field of focus. Dominance hierarchies are absent from Stoic texts which mainly focus on character excellence through virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom seeing virtue as the only good or prime good, doing good for goodness’ sake regardless of who may be watching, a reward, reputation, or status. One may ascend to the top of hierarchies through hard effort and achieve mastery by following Stoic wisdom, but this is not the focus for Stoics.

Marcus Aurelius, in Book VII of his Meditations, talks about changing our mindset to remove unproductive, negative, inaccurate thoughts so that we can improve our lives. He writes:

it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame […] To recover your life is in your power.

We can avoid “being moved by the desires as puppets by strings” as Marcus notes in Book VI by taking action, taking on responsibility, and evaluating our lives so that we can improve – to notice our shortcomings and create a plan of action.

Epictetus, in Book IV Chapter IV of his Discourses, titled “To those who have set their hearts on a Quiet Life” urges us not to procrastinate or spend forever preparing to change, but rather to take action, use our time well, and act before it is too late. He writes,

…read, hear, prepare yourself. You have had sufficient time for that […] Come now to the contest. Show us what you have learned, how you have trained.

Taking action to improve our lives rather than making excuses, even if starting with small steps, will offer many benefits and is preferable to misery.

In his letter “On Wisdom and Retirement,” Seneca calls for us to recognize our past deficiencies and work to make changes in the present, without procrastinating, to live a better life. He writes,

Let us do what men are wont to do when they are late in setting forth, and wish to make up for lost time by increasing their speed – let us ply the spur. Our time of life is the best possible for these pursuits; for the period of boiling and foaming is now past. The faults that were uncontrolled in the first fierce heat of youth are now weakened, and but little further effort is needed to extinguish them.

Jordan Peterson, talking about making positive changes in our lives, says,

Put yourself together and then maybe if you put yourself together – you know how to do that – you know what’s wrong with you if you’ll admit it. You know there’s a few things you could, like, polish up a little bit that you might even be able to manage in your insufficient present condition.

Peterson further encourages us to take a self-inventory, similar to the urging of Stoic authors, in order to rid ourselves of vice and personal shortcomings,

You also have to allow yourself to shake off those things about you that you might be pathologically attached to, habits and people for that matter, ways of thinking, all of those things. You have to allow yourself to shake those off. […] You let all that nonsense burn away.

Life Is Not A Dance, But We Can Prevail And Find Meaning Amidst Suffering

Many of Jordan Peterson’s lectures focus on the horrors of the 20th century including genocide and war. Reflecting on experiences in his clinical practice, Peterson discusses suicidal intentions, depression, trauma, drug abuse and many significant personal challenges people face in modern times. Suffering, Peterson notes, reflecting on the human condition, is a necessary part of life; we’ll all experience personal challenges, pain, loss of loved ones, and other struggles.

Peterson urges us to acknowledge our suffering, work to improve ourselves, help make the world a better place, help others, and not languish in a role as a defeated victim. We can rise above suffering to be heroic, Peterson argues, drawing upon characteristics of role models – fictional and real – and engaging in important personal quests to respond well to suffering. By helping ourselves, we can help others.

Stoic authors and Peterson call for acceptance when considering suffering in a life including change, difficult people, tragedy, and death. (See episode 17 of my podcast which explores Stoic ideas on acceptance). Such suffering in life is inevitable and natural given the nature of existence; the frailty of the human body; lack of wisdom; and element of chance, fate, or fortune.

Stoic authors and Peterson would agree that we can rise to challenges in life by viewing inevitable adversity as a means to better ourselves, test our resolve, and develop effective means to cope rather than engaging in unproductive thoughts or maladaptive coping skills. We can see, as author Ryan Holiday, echoing themes within Marcus Aurelius’ writings, the obstacle as the way, something we can overcome.

We should avoid, Stoic writers note, creating problems for ourselves by amplifying our personal struggles or having thoughts – impressions – which do not align with reality. With a proper mindset, we can more effectively overcome daily challenges, be more resilient, and find purpose in life. Here, Stoic thought and Peterson’s general message greatly overlap. Stoic writers and Peterson urge people to overcome adversity by having a strong mindset, making changes where possible, and being courageous.

Seneca, in his letter titled “On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus” from his Letters to Lucillius urges us to self-reflect and improve even amidst what seem to be hopeless situations. Seneca writes:

regulate your character, rouse your courage, and stand firm in the face of things which have terrified you.

The ideal Stoic sage, one who has embodied Stoic wisdom to be resolute amidst suffering, may appear “unterrified in the midst of dangers, untouched by desires, happy in adversity, peaceful amidst the storm” as Seneca writes in his letter titled “On the God Within Us.”

Marcus Aurelius, in book VII of his Meditations writes:

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.

Rather than lamenting certain happenings in life, merely complaining, we can work to “[b]e like the promontory against that which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it” as Marcus notes in Book IV encouraging an attitude of resilience – responding to suffering we ought to, Marcus says, “bear it nobly.”

In responding to suffering, Peterson notes: 

Pick up your damn suffering and bear it and try to be a good person so you don’t make it worse. […] There’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die. You know, you too, and there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way and lots of it’s going to be unfair. It’s like, yah, no wonder you’re resentful. It’s like act it out and see what happens. You make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse.

Peterson, acknowledging that there is a great deal of suffering in life, says,

So what do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself. What good are you? Get yourself together, for Christ’s sake, so that when your father dies, you’re not whining away in a corner and you can help plan the funeral and you can stand up solidly so that people can rely on you. That’s better. Don’t be a damn victim.

Humans Have The Capacity To Strive Toward Good (and Evil)

Jordan Peterson, reflecting on World War II, notes that many concentration camp guards were, at least at one point, common people like us. Might we, like them, follow orders instead of rebelling and take part in or directly commit great atrocities given certain pressures? Given a degree of courage, instruction, and commitment, both Stoic thinkers and Peterson believe that we have the capacity to achieve a life of virtue, to strive toward a good life instead of embodying the darker parts of human nature. Peterson mentions influence from psychologist Carl Jung – our shadow side, the darker sides of our personalities, this potential monster within.

If we align ourselves with positive characteristics – “following nature” or “living in accordance with nature” as Stoic writers mention – using our reasoning capacity to have proper judgments about the world and putting right principles into action, we can actualize potential and strive toward the highest good (virtue). It’s important to recognize our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, so that we do not descend into chaos.

Peterson, like the Stoics, does not believe that people are unchangeable or that progress is impossible. He aims to help others, educate people about what a good life can look like, inspires people to make positive changes, and helps people set realistic goals in the process of self-improvement. Peterson and Stoic authors note that although change can be difficult and gradual, we should embark on journeys of transformation to better ourselves while being mindful of and avoiding pressures from society which can lead us astray.

In recognizing that people have the capacity for good and ill action, we can better deal with difficult people, pity them, avoid certain people, and surround ourselves with the best of friends setting personal boundaries, being careful in our interactions, and carefully evaluating others’ character.

In Book III, Chapter 25 of Epictetus’ Discourses, titled “To Those Who Fail to Achieve Their Purposes,” Epictetus notes that “good fortune and happiness itself” is at stake when considering determination toward progress. It’s in our power to improve ourselves, to strive toward good, and “even if we falter for a time, no one prevents us from renewing the contest.”

In his letter titled “On Self-Control,” Seneca talks about how people can exercise moderation and orient towards a good life. People may choose to engage in poor behavior rather than make better decisions. He writes of people falling short of the good life:

It is because we refuse to believe in our power. Nay, of a surety, there is something else which plays a part: it is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. We mortals have been endowed with sufficient strength by nature, if only we use this strength, if only we concentrate our powers and rouse them all to help us or at least not to hinder us. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.

Peterson, talking about humans’ capacity for wrongdoing, reflecting on people who think they would have resisted Nazi power if they were present in Nazi Germany, notes,

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, the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.

On Peterson’s view, we can avoid the darker impulses within human nature by “aiming at the highest possible good.” He says:

If you manifest yourself properly in the world […] there is no more effective way of operating in the world that to conceptualize the highest good that you can and strive to attain it. There’s no more practical pathway to the kind of success that you could have if you actually knew what success was.

Question Popular Opinion

Jordan Peterson, in addition to receiving praise, has been vilified in popular media following his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16 concerning what he dubbed government-compelled speech in regards to gender pronouns; criticism of modern feminist positions; opposition to what he calls neo-Marxist postmodern leftists; identity politics; and political correctness. Peterson spends a considerable amount of time constructing arguments supplementing his skepticism and notes the danger of popular opinion which could lead people astray from reason.

Peterson diverges from Stoic writers when engaging in name-calling or ascribing ill-motives towards groups of people he disagrees with. For example, Peterson has noted that left-leaning individuals are not well-intentioned and want to destroy society – perhaps in a self-admitted state of anger (Peterson notes he has struggled with this), being quick to judge, and considering the most extreme examples of certain groups Peterson falters.

Peterson also castigated individuals branding themselves as MGTOW or men going their own way – those who have decided to walk away from marriage, cohabitation, and traditional relationships with women noting laws they see as heavily biased against men, unfair legal systems in the Western world. MGTOW talk about men finding their own purpose in life apart from getting married, having children, and sacrificing their own wants and needs for the benefit of women in a society they see as gynocentric – focused on women. Like Peterson, MGTOW question common opinion.

Peterson called MGTOW “pathetic weasels” and seemed to shame MGTOW noting, “maybe if you made the right sacrifices you wouldn’t have so much trouble with women […] it’s not the women, it’s you.” Later, Peterson said he was too dismissive of MGTOW noting agreement with their arguments against laws in the West, but then talked about MGTOW being “pernicious” consisting of bitter and resentful young men who are looking for a rationale to write off all women because of rejection they faced in dating.

Peterson mentions clients in his clinical practice who have experienced ruin following divorce and said of MGTOW, “they have a point […] the court systems are staggeringly anti-male, absurdly, horribly anti-male.” Can Peterson have more compassion for men who have gone their own way and better understand their perspectives? Stoic authors call for a less judgmental approach than one Peterson deployed when talking about MGTOW.

A more Stoic response would be to refrain from name-calling and simply responding to ideas. Peterson could engage more with MGTOW listening to, for example, content creators SunriseHoodie and huMAN, to get a better idea of the community and ideas he is dismissing. Even better, finding solutions to injustice, particularly relating to law, or warning people about dangers they could face, further dissuading them from engaging in risky situations like marriage would be optimal. After all, one of the cardinal Stoic virtues is justice.

Peterson, a married man with children who seems to have a successful, fulfilling relationship and family may be quick to write off perspectives of MGTOW who instead see relationships and marriage in current society as a significant threat to personal fulfillment. Stoic authors, after all, encourage us to challenge our impressions, the way we view reality, to have an attitude of humility and open-mindedness.

Stoic writers and Peterson, remind us that what is popular is not always right and can lead to disastrous consequences. (I talk about Stoic perspectives on the dangers of prioritizing popular approval in episode #40 of my podcast.)  Should we prioritize the wrong things – not have proper aims in life – we are more prone to squander our time, compromise our character, be taken advantage of by others, harm others, and have distorted beliefs. Without a solid foundation from which to draw, perhaps just doing what feels good or mindlessly mimicking others, we can find ourselves unfulfilled and without direction.

We might fail to, as Peterson encourages, speak the truth and not voice disagreement or even question commonly held beliefs because of potential social consequences. Peterson believes that not speaking out carries its own risks – we might be complicit in a lie and compromise our own standards. Speaking the truth, questioning popular opinion, can be liberating and lead to social good although there may be initial or ongoing discomfort.

However, as Stoic writers note, we’re to carefully pick our battles, be prudent, and not be chiefly concerned with approval from others or appearing to be agreeable.

Seneca’s letter “On Crowds” talks about the dangers of engagement with the masses:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger […] you should not copy the bad simply because they are many.

On the topic of conforming merely to fit in, to gain approval of others, especially when we act unvirtuously, Seneca urges us to “scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority.”

In Book IV Chapter 8 of his Discourses, Epictetus quotes a Philosopher who says, “I knew that what I did rightly I did for my own sake and not for the spectators.” Seneca urges us to be our own spectators and seek our own applause in his letter “On the Healing Power of the Mind.”

Stoic authors, like Peterson, also rail against vice, advocate for moderation in life, urge us to question our desires, not look for happiness in external things, and identify that which we should avoid. Peterson and Stoic authors do not see happiness as a hedonistic pursuit; they warn of the dangers which can come about in being overly focused on wealth and material goods.

Although Jordan Peterson does not consider himself a Stoic or mention Stoicism as an inspiration, there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson relating to getting one’s life in order; prevailing amidst suffering; capacity for people to strive towards the good; and questioning public opinion. Surely, fans of Jordan Peterson’s work and even Peterson himself could benefit from study and application of Stoic Philosophy.

I welcome feedback from fans and critics of Jordan Peterson. Perhaps Jordan Peterson would be willing to engage with the Stoic community.

Justin Vacula is the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast. He also serves as an counselor-in-training intern in a school-based behavioral health program while studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Marywood University in Scranton, PA. He hosts monthly meetings for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, and plays poker at various casinos in the Eastern United States.

Modern Stoicism Now Has A Patreon Page For Contributions

Modern Stoicism Ltd. now has set up a Patreon page – for anyone who would like to make a regular monthly contribution to assist the organization in its many ongoing activities, here is the link to that page.

As many of Stoicism Today’s readers may know, last year the Modern Stoicism team incorporated officially as a not-for-profit organization (you can read about that here).   Every member of the Modern Stoicism team is a volunteer, so it is largely donations and contributions that allow us to carry out the work and projects helping people get introduced to, and then deepen their understanding and practice of, Stoicism in the contemporary world.

For a number of years, supporters of Modern Stoicism were able to make contributions via the Paypal link.  Now with Patreon, it becomes possible to make a regular monthly contribution, and also to receive some perks as a donor as well.  We will be continuing to build out the Modern Stoicism Patreon page more fully over the next week or so – so keep an eye out for that!

As mentioned, Modern Stoicism is involved in a number of projects.  This blog you are currently reading – Stoicism Today (containing over 500 articles on Stoicism) – is one of them, as is this larger Modern Stoicism website itself.  If you are considering becoming a Patreon supporter you might well wonder what else we do.  Here are our main activities:

  • We host an annual Stoic Week online course, in which 7,000 people participated last year.
  • We also carry out a longer and more intensive Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) research project, testing the effectiveness of training in core Stoic psychological strategies, in which thousands of people have participated around the world.
  • There is also a Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) research project, which gathers and analyzes data on Stoic questionnaires in order to make comparisons with established psychological measures.
  • We hold an annual Stoicon conference on Stoicism in modern life.  In recent years, it has been hosted in Toronto, New York City, and London, and it offers an opportunity for people engaged in Stoicism as a way of life to hear from leading academics in the field.
  • Videos, transcripts, and summaries from talks and workshops at Stoicon are compiled and made public in our course site and in Stoicism Today.
  • We also help to promote the annual Stoicon-x mini-conferences, which take place around the world each year, giving newer speakers an opportunity to discuss Stoicism with a wider audience.
  • Publishing the series of Stoicism Today books containing articles from our contributors as well as detailed online reports explaining our research findings is another main service we provide to the worldwide Stoic community

Our team of nine active members on the steering committee includes psychotherapists,  philosophers,  researchers, authors, course developers, and content producers  (many of the team members wearing more than one hat!) – and they work together to further the goals of the Modern Stoicism organization, which are:

  • to disseminate knowledge and encourage discussion about Stoic philosophy and practices and their applications to modern living
  • to reach as many people from around the world as possible with our work and provide opportunities for them to explore Stoicism, whatever their orientation or interpretation with respect to Stoicism
  • to provide accurate and reliable information about Stoic philosophy and practices, and in doing so to maintain continuity with classic forms and sources
  • to focus on the application of Stoicism to everyday problems of living in the modern world
  • to conduct philosophical inquiry into, and empirical research on, Stoic philosophy and its applications to modern living, in order to advance our knowledge of its benefits
  • to represent a broad spectrum of views on the subject by including people who approach Stoicism from different theoretical perspectives, personal backgrounds, and religious, political, or cultural commitments;

These points encapsulate what Modern Stoicism as an organization is all about – and will continue to focus on going forward.   If you view these goals and projects as valuable – or if you benefit from the activities of the Modern Stoicism organization, consider becoming a supporter on Patreon!