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.