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.
This is great, thank you! I’ve noticed many of these parallels as well. In fact, my first encounter with Peterson was through the stoicism community on Reddit (specifically this video, https://www.reddit.com/r/Stoicism/comments/64drfq/jordan_peterson_s_stoic_like_reaction/). I’ve since went to one of his talks (in the Netherlands) and I have read his book 12 Rules for Life, in which I continue to find great value any time I scroll through the pages. I also wonder if he is actually inspired by stoic philosophy, but I think it is just coincidence (of course, great ideas can pop up independently). Nonetheless, I find it refreshing that a psychology professor teaches people (mostly young men) to strengthen their character and morals and to explore what a good life means, instead of mindlessly pursue short-term “happiness” through money, sex, drugs and other vices (when in abundance).
If I could give JBP one tiny bit of stoic advice, however, I would urge him to control his emotions on social media. He has a tendency to lose himself when his critics say and write nasty and often libellous things in the media. See for example https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/23/jordan-peterson-rage-self-help-guru-cathy-newman-twitter. “You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.” Although I do understand his sentiment, it mainly plays in the hand of his adversaries and it weakens his message of self-control. He has been a controversial figure for long enough to know that critics take up any means to defame him. He should see it as an opportunity to show the world that he is unlike his opponents (“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” – Marcus Aurelius). Moreover, it is also through his critics that his message continues to spread around the world.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” – Marcus Aurelius
I see it as a valuable gift that Jordan Peterson shares his ideas with the rest of us and I hope that he will continue to develop them.
Peterson often brings up Dostoevsky and Nietzsche as references, which strikes a chord with me as it reminds me a lot of my teenage self. It seems to me he is more of an existentialist than anything else. It’s ironic to me that he rails against “Neo-Marxist Post-Modernists” and “leftists” and has chosen Christianity as his solution to his existential crisis.
I think he comically misunderstands both Marxism and Post-Modernism: Marxism is a critique of the system of capitalism, which it identifies as the cause of our alienation, while Post-Modernism is a (sometimes cynical) skepticism about all grand narratives including Marxism. It’s also ironic that his vitriol about “Cultural Marxism” echoes the Nazis and Fascists of the 20s and 30s given that he is anxious that those “Leftists” are out to recreate the Gulag and the Concentration Camp through their enforcement of “pronouns”.
As for his Christianity, he appears not to believe in it literally: it’s more a case of believing in it as a grand myth; it’s better to believe in it otherwise you are likely to go around murdering people. All very well – if it really is that which is preventing you from murdering people – but it doesn’t seem honest to me.
Overall, I am disappointed with Peterson; he makes a lot good points about personal responsibility and so on and I can identify with his references, but ultimately those points are all pretty obvious. His point about “Meaning” being more important than “Happiness” seems childishly pointless: surely you discover or create “Meaning” in your life because it will lead to “Happiness”, and in that sense isn’t “Happiness” analogous with Aristotle’s “Eudaimonia”. Sometimes Peterson seems to me like a kind of angry white male version of Oprah Winfrey but with loads of intellectual and academic references thrown in to impress his many fans.
Completely agreed. The benefits of Peterson’s work are the same of those of Stoic authors, so this parallel is very rightly made. But, those benefits merely scratch the surface of Stoic thought, and can only be extracted from Peterson’s work by a particular type of reader who will be sympathetic enough to look past a mountain of inconsistencies and glaring hypocrisies in Peterson’s work.
I might actually argue it’s a damn shame isn’t more of an existentialist– as you say, he’s more that than anything else; but he isn’t a very good one– because despite professing an admiration for Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, he really presents a comical case study in ressentiment. In Peterson’s world, everyone else is a part of some post-modern, neo-Marxist, conspiracy set about on holding white men like himself back. I think that were Peterson and his acolytes to walk back the victimhood complex– cue the Stoics mentioned above, or the rest of the Existentialist canon, or, heck, even just some entry level New Age mindfulness– the rest of his work on the psychology of male maturation could prove tremendously interesting.
Thanks for this comment, Richard. I agree with all the points you mentioned. The other thing about him is that he seems to be starting a new religion and his 12 rules is like his New Testament. One thing about all dominating religions throughout history is their power of mobilisation which he totally has and his appeal to young males mostly whites is another indication that he has a long term agenda with his intellectual enterprise. Just people who are ignorant about history can’t see this.
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Jordan Peterson a Stoic? This is a man who considers compassion to be a “weakness”(and therefore he is adulated by the neo-Nazis!) and who thinks Donald Trump is a “highly intelligent, moderate liberal.”
Peterson also has a near hysterical melt down whenever he receives criticism of any kind. Can you image Epictetus or Marcus behaving in such a fashion or holding such repugnant views?
I think you might be confusing some stuff. Dr. Peterson doesn’t consider compassion a weakness as such, as far as I understand, his whole point is making the public understand that there is evil in all of us. Failure to recognise our evilness and flaws make us vulnerable to it. He tries to illustrate when mentioning the holocaust; that there is no systematic difference between us (say you, me and virtually every human out there) and Hitler supporters – given that the holocaust and Hitler ideas were horrific, one of the worst things in humanity – we ought to realise that the ignorance of our short-coming make us vulnerable to outside manipulation, because that wickedness is definitely in us.
I can’t comment on the Trump statement, haven’t seen it anywhere. However, highly intelligent really means nothing.
I think you can profoundly dislike Peterson and be against every single work he has ever done. But one thing you can’t take from him is his strength of character. He has been yell at, misinterpreted, his words has been transversed right in from of him and he has kept his cool and tried his very best to get the point across in a intelligent manner. Hate the dude as much as you want, but if there’s absolutely anything you should learn from him is prob how he presents himself in challenging scenarios!!
How challenging it is, to maintain a sense of Stoic equanimity and indifference, upon seeing the pages of Modern Stoicism darkened by the names of Jordan Peterson and MGTOW. First off, I want to say that I believe that Modern Stoicism should, first and foremost, remain a forum for philosophical discussions related to self-improvement. Politics should therefore be avoided, if possible. But when anyone brings such politically radioactive individuals and groups like Peterson and MGTOW into the discussion, then they should expect some blowback.
Regarding Peterson: if one were only to read the reasonable things he says, then he sounds, well, reasonable. But when one explores the wider field of his world-view, he comes off as a conspiracy theorist and a crypto-racist. Peterson seriously believes that the few gray-haired Marxists remaining at English-Lit departments, hurling toward forced retirement, somehow constitute a serious threat to the moral fiber of future generations of western leaders. More disturbing, however, is his contention that “white privilege doesn’t exist.” Nearly every day, young black men and women have the police called on them, are arrested — or far worse — for sitting in Starbucks, taking a nap on a college campus, being seen at a Air-B&B house they rented in white neighborhood, etc. To then suggest that this is not some specific discrimination aimed at blacks, one which white people are not subject to, is either foolish or disingenous. As Peterson is no fool, one can only conclude that he is pursuing some other agenda. The most effective means of making white racism socially acceptable is to deny that it exists. Even if it is true that Peterson himself is no racist, he certainly plays into the hand of those who are.
Regarding MGTOW: after the most cursory examination of their “philosophy,” it is hard not to gather the impression that they are a misogynist self-pity circle for pseudo-intellectual incels. (It came as a slight shock to discover that Greg Sadler had granted them an interview a few years ago; one can only hope Greg was not familiar with the full scope of their ideas at the time.) After the revelations of the Me-Too movement, after considering how wage differentials and proportional representation in parliamentary assemblies, executive boards and management positions remain all out of balance to the detriment of women, how could anyone claim that we live in a “gyno-centric” society? This too is an attempt to lend credibility to stuctural misogyny by denying its existence.
Dear Jordan Peterson and MGTOW fans: If you have read this far, you are no doubt chomping at the bit to set me straight about your heros. But you should spare yourselves the effort. I have learned enough about Peterson and MGTOW to know they don’t deserve any more of my time. But here’s an idea: why don’t you write two open letters instead? You could address one letter to black New Stoics, and explain to them how white privilege is a figment of their imagination. In the other letter, you could inform female New Stoics that they now dominate society, and must no longer fear any sexual harrassment or professional hurdles based on their gender.
Ye gods! What’s next? A blog post on how National Socialism is like Stoicism? (They too railed at societal decadence and feminism run amok.) If you find such a comparison exaggerated, consider that, despite his disavowals, Jordan Peterson remains extremely popular among the “Alt-Right” (better known as Neo-Nazis.) Pace, fellow New Stoics, I too believe that we should keep an open mind. But — to borrow a phrase — not so open that our brains fall out. Racism, misogyny, and paranoid consipiracy theories should have no place within the Modern Stoicism movement, as well as, one would hope, on the pages of this blog.
If you choose carefully, almost any ideological system can be made to sound honorable, and this carefully cherry-picked article is no exception. This is actually part of the problem with the alt-right, which I cited in one of my articles, in that they pick and choose the parts of Stoicism they like but ignore other essential elements. There are some in the Stoic community who regard that however anyone comes to Stoicism, even by erroneous sources, is good enough. I disagree. If you come to Stoicism with false notions of what it is, you’re not learning Stoicism and it will take longer to unlearn what you’ve learned. That’s what I think this article is really for, which is revealed in the last paragraph. It’s to use Peterson as a stepping stone to attract his fans towards proper Stoicism. The article is a very measured praise of Peterson that mostly points out how some of things he says can be referred to Stoic doctrine. More of the article is citation from Stoic sources than citation of Peterson.
Well, you know me. I grant interviews to people from all sorts of ideological perspectives. Some left, some right. Some hardcore theist, some equally hardcore atheist. Sometimes I even manage to disagree with the hosts, and get some useful messages out. Here’s a list with links of the various places I’ve done interviews or guest appearances – https://reasonio.wordpress.com/interviews-and-guest-appearances/
Let’s be clear though. You’re off base in the claim that “Greg Sadler had granted them an interview a few years ago; one can only hope Greg was not familiar with the full scope of their ideas at the time”. There was no “Them”.
I gave some interviews with ONE member of that movement, the Groundwork of The Metaphysics of MGTOW, who – if you watch the videos or even check out his channel – you very quickly realize is critical of his fellow MGTOW people on all sorts of points.
For an actually useful critique of Peterson, this article is helpful:
Yeah, I read that piece when it first came out a few months ago, and commented on it in my social media. There’s plenty of critiques of Peterson available, some useful for some types of people, others useful for others. Glad you found one that suits you well.
Thanks for setting me straight on that, Greg, and apologies if I created a false impression.
I definitely agree that Peterson’s discussion of the far left often sounds highly conspiratorial, and I think the author of this piece rightly pointed out that this is probably his greatest flaw. Nonetheless, like most of Peterson’s critics, you obviously have not listened to more than a few clips of him speaking here and there. I don’t blame you; he is dense and long-winded. But if you listened to any of his academic dialogues, his personality psychology lectures, or his Biblical lecture series, you would no doubt realize–as with everyone who takes the time to do this–that he has been badly misrepresented in the press.
To begin, he is about as far philosophically from the alt-right as one can get. (That is, assuming we mean “alt-right” to refer to white nationalists and their ilk, and not old-school classical liberals or social conservatives.) His worldview is (to a fault, in my view) obsessively centred around the individual. The alt-right is a group-based movement centred around white or European identity. If you actually take a look at their YouTube pages, Reddit pages, etc., you will quickly find that they actually despise Peterson. And he despises them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmcQ6WHaSks
No wonder; he is extremely critical of identity politics on both the left and the right, and a central theme in his work is how group-based identity politics–and the failure of individual conscience–is precisely what caused the Holocaust (among the other horrors of the 20th century). That’s a pretty standard view among historians and social psychologists, so it’s hard to see what’s so controversial about that. (It also happens to be consistent with what the Stoics believed.)
As for his rejection of the notion of “white privilege”: It’s far more nuanced than a casual observer would think. His point isn’t to deny the fact that some people have certain unearned and undeserved advantages over others; he actually repeatedly acknowledges this fact (both about himself, and as a general point about human societies). Rather, he takes issue with characterizing this fact in racial terms. That is, it’s not that there’s white privilege per se, but rather that there is majority privilege; whites happen to be the majority in certain places. From a social scientific perspective, it’s not obvious that any advantages they have are better explained by their whiteness rather than their being part of the majority. (It’s almost obvious that it couldn’t possibly be explained by whiteness per se; would there still be white privilege in a society that was exclusively white?)
And obviously there is no white privilege in China, or India, or Nigeria. (Although, I suspect that in those countries, the unearned privileges probably go to a majority group based around ethnic, tribal, or linguistic identity rather than race.) To call the advantages white people in the West have “white privilege” rather than “majority privilege” implicitly accepts an underlying theory about the merits of explaining large-scale social phenomena in exclusively racial terms. That is both a bad approach to social science (since no feature of a society can be explained according to a single cause, let alone race) and an endorsement of identity-based approach to politics (which he rejects on both left and right, as explained above).
All of this is pretty basic stuff when you think about it. “Majority privilege” is a better concept because it explains the advantages white have in the US, but also the advantage that ethnic Japanese people have in Japan. And it also acknowledges the sorts of unfair disadvantages faced by many black people in America. So, contrary to your suggestion, denying the existence of “white privilege” does not imply rejecting the reality of disadvantages faced by many black Americans. Hence my observation that Peterson is misrepresented in the press.
Regarding your point on Marxist professors: The reality is actually quite worse than you imagine. Even as far back as 2006, almost 1 in 5 social science professors self-identified as Marxist (http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2015/03/the_prevalence_1.html). But Peterson uses the word more loosely to refer to anyone whose political orientation is grounded in Marx’s central theoretical claims. They might not call themselves Marxists, but this likely includes many of the self-identified radicals. Indeed, it often happens with many great thinkers that people endorse their ideas without knowing their historical or philosophical origins. Even a reasonable person like you endorses the notion of “white privilege” without realizing how it’s a concept rooted in Marx’s oppressor-vs.-oppressed interpretation of history. So when Peterson rails against the influence of Marxist professors, he’s in part railing against people like you who unknowingly endorse Marxist-influenced ideas.
Please don’t take this as a rabid Peterson fan coming to his defense; I am highly critical of much of his work, and I take interest in it largely owing to its originality and interdisciplinarity. His work is extremely rich, and like many great thinkers, there is much to learn from him, even if you disagree with most of it. That’s why I particularly enjoyed this article: There is indeed much in common between Peterson and the Stoics, and I think it’s quite fascinating when such disparate philosophical traditions converge on certain central themes. Kudos to the author for taking the time to outline some of this for us.
No white privilege in China or India? You should perhaps try to read more about situations in other countries before asserting that there is ‘obviously’ no white privilege in non-white majority nations. That is categorically false.
Where is your evidence? I’ve googled it and having a difficult time finding something that isn’t written from a left perspective. Or, it is person speaking as a white person minority in a non-white majority country. The narrative would buttress the “majority privilege” idea more so than “white privilege.”
The term is certainly derisive and used as a means to club away argument. At least from my experience.
Yes, thank you–I have spoken too quickly. I know, for instance, that there is, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa for instance, a certain kind of preferential attitude toward white people. And I am familiar with the widespread use of skin-lightening products in India. Are these the sorts of things you had in mind?
These certainly do complicate the issue, but I am not sure if characterizing these sorts of things as evidence of “white privilege” is helpful. (Perhaps “shade privilege” is a better way of characterizing the issue, since this seems to exist at least across South Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa.) I thought the notion of “white privilege” included some kind of structural or systemic source, which is plausible in white-majority countries, but highly implausible in white-minority countries. My suggestion was that you would be hard pressed to find institutionalized advantages accrued to white people in white-minority countries (like China and India, even if there are some contexts where the fact of one’s being white is seen in a preferential way, or South Africa, even though white people hold a disproportionate percentage of wealth).
I was not chomping at the bit to respond to your views on MGTOW but would like to add a comment. If you are Stoic I’m sure you do not seriously mean to dismiss open and frank discussion even from a MGTOW.
I am a practicing Stoic. I have taken the red pill though I am married. I intend to continue to support my household until such time as my children are independent. I will then hand over all possessions and assets to my wife and leave to reclaim the remainder of my life as a MGTOW. I figure 25 years of loyal servitude long after the flame of passion has extinguished is long enough. I will then try to live as Epictetus did, in simplicity, study and in accordance with my own divine nature.
This is not something I envisioned many years ago when I married a person I swore to remain with “till death do us part”. It is not something I wanted.
Without falling for the angry rhetoric that pervades the Manosphere I feel that both Stoicism and MGTOW paths are entirely compatible.
MGTOW is a rational response to a disequilibrium that exists in society. I as a man no longer feel the equal partner in a relationship with women. I feel entirely disposable and utilitarian in purpose in marriage. The emotional, spiritual and financial stakes are too high therefore it is better to mitigate those risks and avoid marriage. I’m glad I married however as marriage has taught me much, as did military service and other challenges I’ve met.
I have nothing against women but feel that society is stacked up against men in the west. I once actively supported Feminism and have been a strong supporter of true Feminist movements like the YPJ in Kurdistan which in my view is true Feminism. Third wave Feminism in the west however in its current forms is far too misandristic. In addition it largely ignores the fact that men and boys are in crisis. There is a pervasive culture of guilt associated with being male. I worry for my teenage son. I see my Nephews choosing to not get in to relationships but remain single and in control of their lives. They have unconsciously taken the red pill.
In my country the disparity is getting worse in the marriage courts. I personally know men who have been so badly burnt in relationships they have been ruined and some have taken their own lives over the years. Some were veterans who already grappled with PTSD and the rigors of transition to civilian life.
If one chooses to “go there own way” and seek self possession and self mastery remaining true to Stoic virtues then so be it, good luck to them. They are being Stoic. Many Stoics lived as productive hermits happily, Epictetus being the primary example.
You should be advised that there are many shades to the MGTOW phenomena. I personally have not witnessed the ugly side though I can understand why many men are angry. Much of the literature I have read take a Stoic view reminding the reader that it is not the thing external to us that harms us but our reaction to it. Women are not to blame, the system is therefore one can take reasoned steps to minimize their exposure. Is that not Stoicism?
There are full blown red pills and more lax purple pills. There are those that seek relationships with boundaries and those that are entirely celibate and seek a life of solitude and minimalism.
Injustice is ubiquitous in society. To deny one group justice and equality because they form a subset of a “privileged” demographic or gender is not a Stoic view. Peterson has a right to his views as do MGTOW as do you and I.
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Thank you Justin for writing this. I enjoyed your take and the response piece by Kai and Leonidas.
My opinion is that while some of the criticisms of Peterson are valid, in this toxic political climate people tend to overreact to things. I have enjoyed the more reasoned and insightful comments on both this and the follow up posts, it’s made me think.
Peterson seems to loosely draw on Aristotle, so you are probably right to associate him with some strain of virtue ethics, if not Stoicism per se.
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