Jordan Peterson has left the cultural space that he had inhabited for years. Suffering from a physical dependency to benzodiazepine and most recently coronavirus, he has understandably receded from the limelight.
Yet many have felt his absence—something difficult to achieve unless his presence had already made a deep impression on the souls of many. Evidence of this statement follows from a simple Google search for “Jordan Peterson” and the news articles that result from the query or from social media.
While some readers may have immediately made up their mind at this point about the article and Peterson himself since he represents (according to some) extreme-right views or some other unfavourable position, I would ask you to pause. I am not here to talk about Jordan Peterson nor to analyze his way of being in the world.
I want to talk about why so many people have listened to Jordan Peterson and why his absence has made an impression on so many. While Peterson undoubtedly knows how to speak to hearts, I do not think that alone explains why he affects so many people. The answer is more fundamental.
What he supplies, people feel that they need.
So what does he provide?
Why should a message as mundane as “clean your room” or take responsibility for your actions take deep root? These are common sense after all? Why should a message that takes into account statistical differences between male and female experience connect with so many?
What is he doing? What do people get from him? Note: I am not talking about whether Peterson correctly speaks or not. I am saying that some gap, some need exists among many people.
Recent CDC statistics give some insight into this need. While the pandemic certainly influences the numbers, the CDC reports that 10.7% of Americans seriously considered suicide over a 30 day period. Note: this accounts for serious consideration—not the regular depression of anxiety over life that many feel.
Yet this high number follows from years of an increase in suicide numbers. And these numbers, importantly for this discussion, reflect high numbers of male suicides. The CDC reports: “In 2018, the suicide rate for males was 3.7 times the rate for females (22.8 and 6.2, respectively).”
Some sickness has embedded itself among us—and in males particularly. I remember during my high school days that three male acquaintances of mine died—one due to suicide and the other two seem to have resulted from self-destructive behaviour.
I saw the problem up close. And whatever the exact need is, we can at least say that it drives many people to despair. Jordan Peterson provides some thing that brings people out of despair and into stability. At least, many seem to think so and testify to the fact.
What causes this despair?
We still have work to do if we want to identify the source of this despair. And it may be the case that we cannot provide an exact answer. But once we give a plausible answer, then we will be able to explain better why so many people listen to Jordan Peterson.
I believe the answer involves our fear of death, which of course sounds like a contradiction with the drive to suicide that I mentioned above. It is not. Let me explain. Since all of us live in a mortal condition, we attempt to extend our influence or life in various ways: work, family, children, accomplishments.
While much of this is natural, the fact that we die turns such natural tendencies into acts of preservation. Consider the words of Tim Keller, a Christian theologian and pastor, who recently noted: “The very core of any gospel presentation is to show people that in some way or another they’ve been trying to save themselves, and they are failing.”
He here draws on a deeply Christian and natural insight: everyone tries to save themselves, and every one fails to do so. The scriptural story repeats this idea through its narratives—kings rise, kings fall. And it took Jesus to liberate us from the fear of death. As Hebrews notes, humans “were held in slavery by their fear of death” until Christ came (Heb 2:15).
Ernst Becker also recognized our fear of death. He speaks of human culture as a hero making culture (1973: 7). One major motivator for our pursuit of meaning and heroism is the “terror of death” (1973: 11).
Everyone knows they will die. Everyone attempts to save him or herself. Everyone fails. The problem that we now face, however, is that the traditional way to stave off mortality—at least for men—has been replaced by something new and less satisfying.
A man used to provide and protect his family. He worked. He went to war. He knew his family would benefit as well as his nation. He lived beyond himself. As the ancient mothers would tell their sons who went to war: “Come back with your shield – or on it.” The reason is simple: die on the shield, die for others. To save one’s life by dropping the shield would be cowardice—to run away. No one could live a happy life who did that—at least the ancient Greeks thought so.
I believe that they were right, since happiness does not mean an emotional constellation which our body produces but rather the satisfaction of living a good life. Only the kind of death we die will tell us if we lived a happy life or not.
This wisdom is ancient but many experience the truth of it in their lives. Men in particular thrive when they can create heroism for themselves. But heroism, that brave creation of meaning in the mundane things of life (war, construction, fatherhood), has slowly eroded in the 21st century.
Men no longer rule the workplace—women now have an equal or near-equal place. Women now exceed men in college enrollment. They have received their liberation, yet men have not adjusted well.
Men no longer provide for our families exclusively. Where is their purpose? Men no longer rule in the work sphere. Where is their purpose? Wars have lost their heroic mythic nature in the West. Where can I create meaning?
I am not here making moral judgments but explaining how things are. Men have no way to handle their fear of death—mortality. The terror of purposeless, of lack of impact, reigns in our hearts.
So Peterson provides order and heroic meaning
That listlessness kills men by suicide. Men (and women) need purpose and meaning. We need to cope with death. It is naturally good to do so since death is an evil presence in nature. To fight evil is good. And that makes life happy. And when we die, we can die well knowing that we fought a good fight.
Peterson intuits something of this. His basic reordering of life—clean your room—begins the heroic quest for meaning in the little things. We create it—being in the world as we are. (I should note here that I do not think this does much more than allow us to cope with death). So we create myths for ourselves which our personal responsibility for our life reinforces.
Everyday we wake at 4:30AM like Jocko; we have one more win. Every day we work hard; we have taken one more step up the ladder of heroism. We fix problems. We protect. We help. We are strong. We cope with death.
Peterson gives that to men in particular, although women also need to cope with death. I am focusing on men because of the male problem of suicide and despair, but it would be appropriate to include women here too.
What should we do?
Peterson has a message: live well to cope with the terror of death. He uses language like chaos and order. But the point is the same. Bring order (life) to chaos (death). We should appreciate this insight because across cultures death persists, and all struggle to overcome it.
But coping with death and so dying happily in the Greek idiom only goes so far. So what? We feel satisfied. We die well. Death still wins.
The message of Christianity is that death loses. Christ rose from the dead, and so do we all in him. That is one reason why Christianity is so attractive. Our very mortality testifies to the truth of Christianity—or at least its potential to fulfill human longings for immortality.
But there is only one who is immortal: God. Therefore, only by “eternal life” can one share in that immortality. And that is exactly what Christ offers as the immortal God in mortal flesh. He kills death so that we can live.
Peterson’s order does not necessarily conflict with the cross. We all have to live, knowing that death comes. But what if we lived knowing that death has been overcome and that death is our victory?
We would no longer be creating myths and meaning through our work. Myth fades because reality is here. Our work matters. It has eternal significance. We not only gain (not create!) meaning through ordering the chaos (mortal world), we also work for great reward.
More here could be said, but I have said enough. People listen to Peterson because they are terrified of death. We can appreciate that because it is true. Peterson also provides guidance on creating heroic meaning in light of the chaos of existence. We can do more than that. We can gain real meaning and significance in light of the hope of resurrection.
We have both identified the same problem. Peterson offers help. We offer life from death.