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.