I really like Dr. Jordan Peterson. I have been a fan of his for many years, long before his ascension to infamy after the notorious Bill C-16 controversy in Canada (I myself am Canadian and am very sympathetic to his brave efforts to stand against this totalitarian effort).
I was long fascinated by his many lectures on youtube, and dove into many of his concepts, particularly his lectures based on his “Maps of Meaning” book. Long before the world knew him, I benefitted greatly from his works and poignant lectures.
Particularly as someone who grew up in a religious environment, and who struggled with my faith for many years (eventually rejecting my former fundamentalism, but keeping the door open for a more novel and profound extrapolation), I naturally gravitated towards this man (among others).
All along though, something in me was quite ambivalent about Peterson, and it was going to take me quite a long time to put a finger on it, and finally articulate just exactly what the hell it was that was bothering me.
And so here I am now, writing this. It is important to me that the reader understands that this is no knee-jerk reaction to his works (of which, generally, I am quite grateful).
I am, however, at this point, quite critical of a central point of his entire work, and I hope this brings that (otherwise seemingly obscured) point to light.
The Dividing Line – Friedrich Nietzsche
Many years ago, I was introduced to the works of Friedrich Wilhem Nietzsche. Nietzsche (like Carl Jung) was the son of a Christian pastor, and so not only his writings, but also his past, from where he emerged (I too am the son of a pastor), and his style of writing (his often grandiose style, particularly in his “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, resonated with the religious styles I had grown up in), fascinated me.
And my interest in him was peaked even further by Dr. Peterson’s frequent reference to him and his various works/quotes.
Very rightly, I think, Peterson uses Nietzsche as not just a source of ideas or knowledge, but also a bouncing/sounding board off of which to clarify his own ideas, and I have benefitted from him doing so.
However, starting relatively early on, something bothered me about his use of Nietzsche. The more I read/listened to both of these men’s works, the more I started to notice a sharp distinction, and a radical divergence. And eventually (where I’ve come to now), a total antipathy and even outright ideological hostility.
Now someone might object… "Ok, so Nietzsche and Peterson disagree. What does it matter? Did not Peterson himself talk about how sometimes people can be 'helpfully wrong'?"
And that brings me to my fundamental objection/criticism of Peterson: He simply isn’t straight-forward/honest enough regarding the degree to which he disagrees/diverges from Nietzsche in his fundamental ideas. And contrary to what some may claim, this is really important. For someone who references Nietzsche as much as he does, this negligence is really problematic.
Nietzsche as Anti-Christ?
It is well known that one of Nietzsche's last works was "The Anti-Christ". What many people don't know, however, is that this work is, although indeed a critique of Christianity, not at all the type of critique that many modern so-called "atheists" would make.
It is not an attempt to historically prove that Jesus didn't/couldn't have physically risen from the dead, or walked on water, or turned water into wine, healed the sick, etc.
Nietzsche himself had in fact very little interest in the metaphysical question of whether miracles ever happen, or if "God" literally existed, or the like. His criticism of Christianity (among other things) consisted mainly of an attack on it's moral presuppositions, that is, on it's value judgments.
To put it
more succinctly: instead of critiquing the idea that Jesus died for your sins
and literally rose again from the dead to save you from “the world”, and
“worldly” things (an idea clearly established by St. Paul), he aimed his heavy guns at the very presupposition itself that "the world" was, in fact, "worldly", or "bad", or "evil". He took issue with the operating assumption/value system on which the whole "redemption narrative takes place!
As he summarized in Zarathustra:
“There is much filth in the world; that much is true. But that does not make the world itself a filthy monster.” (my own emphasis added)
This is indeed a very careful distinction. Now I am not arguing that Peterson is anywhere trying to make the case that the world is indeed a filthy monster (or that it is not). My point is to first set up the underlying point, which is that Nietzsche, although indeed a doubter of the miraculous claims of the Bible, had very little interest in debunking them. He just simply took their antithesis (that they didn’t literally happen, but, in his view, probably represented something else) for granted.
More Than Just Anti-Fundamentalism
In one of Peterson’s lectures (direct link to be added soon), he implies how, historically speaking, in the last century particularly, religious fundamentalism has been made impossible to the scientific thinker (someone thinking in the “scientific domain”), and I very much agree with this.
But he also noted that we didn’t really need to attack fundamentalism (or even debunk/rebuff it at all), because Nietzsche, in his works, had done that for us already.
This is a very important juncture in Peterson’s interaction with Nietzsche (the more important one yet to come).
As is finally clear to me now, there is, of course, a strong element of truth in what he is saying at this point. Nietzsche did spend much of his time railing against Christianity, but, as mentioned above, the manner in which he did so was not primarily anti-fundamentalism (a topic he had little interest in, and only brushed aside).
Rather, as mentioned already, Nietzsche primarily aimed his guns at the question of VALUES.
To illustrate the point, I think it is quite clear that Nietzsche would be found to say something like the following:
“You say you don’t believe in God, or the miracles in the Bible. Well, good for you. But do you still believe in the ethics of the new testament? Do you believe that we ‘ought’ to ‘love our neighbour’? Do you believe that we ‘ought’ to ‘tell the truth’? Do you believe that we ‘ought’ to try and help the ‘less fortunate’?”
It is very important to be honest here about the central critique of religion that Nietzsche lays out, and that is this:
If you still do accept all the moral judgements that lie underneath all the religious metaphysics in the Bible (particularly the New Testament), Nietzsche considers your position absolutely disastrous, and indeed, that you are a danger to the future of the human race!
Not to say though that Nietzsche wants to change religious people's minds, but that he just very presciently sees that the question/problem of “oughtness” (how humans “ought” to live their lives) has previously/historically been based in religion, with all it’s metaphysics/fundamentalism built into it. That the “will to live” has been historically based on the notion (however religious) that humans exist “on purpose”, that our existence is not “accidental”.
And that, without this dogma, humans would collapse into despair and nihilism (hence the despair, not the jubilance of the mad man's declaration of the "death of God" in Nietzsche's infamous "Gay Science" or "Joyful Wisdom"), and instead of casting aside religion, we would indeed become MORE religious, but that we would just “switch religions”, to things like socialism and communism and fascism and “equality”, etc. (and lo and behold, that is precisely what has happened in the last century).
So, when so-called “new atheists” attack religion and then turn around and say that that we all “ought” to help one another, and “tell the truth”, and support “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, they are, in Nietzsche’s view, being totally blind to their own subconscious internalization of their previous religion (whether their own individually, or their culture’s own internalization), and its accompanying ethics.
To put it simply, in Nietzsche’s view, it is not at all “common sense” or “self-evident” that humans “should be kind to each other”. Because this notion has been based upon the previous religious dogma that our lives have meaning because we EXIST ON PURPOSE.
Without this previous dogma (what Nietzsche disparagingly calls “the equality of souls”, whether “true” or not), the reason for acting “ethically” (and I use scare quotes on purpose here) totally falls apart, in Nietzsche’s view. And so then, we are then at a crossroads. We need to create NEW values (create a whole new value system/way of looking at ourselves and our history), or our species will self-destruct and disintegrate.
Whether or not the reader agrees with Nietzsche is not my concern here. But rather just to make the point that this is Nietzsche’s fundamental problem/challenge that is at the core of all his writings.
And to give credit to Mr. Peterson, he sees and understands quite clearly Nietzsche’s point. And it is here where we reach the main divergence between Peterson and Nietzsche.
New Values, or Old Values?
At many points in his lectures, after very rightly recognizing Nietzsche’s fundamental point, when faced with the question of “creating new values”, Peterson responds by saying that it’s simply “not clear” how in the world we would go about doing that. And to his credit, he is very much correct that this is an extremely difficult problem. And that it seems that there is no answer.
And so Peterson seems to conclude that, in light of the extreme difficulty/impossibility of creating new values (and in light of how this task seemed to make Nietzsche go mad himself), we do not need to create new values, but rather we need to re-discover the old values, and understand them in a more scientific (less dogmatic/fundamentalist) way.
And this brings me to my main criticism of Peterson’s work. It is precisely at this crossroads that Peterson TOTALLY PARTS WAYS with Nietzsche. This point is a complete separation/divergence. It is at this point that Peterson and Nietzsche become, in fact, ideological enemies. And from my perspective, this divergence/antipathy is simply not that well articulated/admitted by Peterson.
To Peterson’s credit, he does come out and say that he thinks Nietzsche was wrong in his insistence to create new values. Instead of siding with Nietzsche, Peterson seems to more side with Dostoevsky (who still maintained his Christianity, albeit maybe not exactly ‘orthodox’, despite his similar wrestling with the crisis of nihilism).
But even still, it needs to be stated that this rejection of Nietzsche’s hope, is, in fact, a total rejection of everything Nietzsche was working towards. Just the very title alone of one of Nietzsche’s later works, “Beyond Good and Evil, a Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future" indicates quite clearly the direction he is going. And in my opinion, Peterson is not very frank about how he became an ideological enemy of Nietzsche.
And it is at this point that we ourselves need to ask a very careful question:
How much does this rejection of Nietzsche’s direction, matter? To Nietzsche? And to us?
After years of reading Nietzsche, it seems apparent to me now that this rejection matters a great deal. So much so, that it is difficult to understate just how much it matters.
IF (and this is a big “if”) Nietzsche was indeed correct in his general notion that simply adopting or just re-affirming the ethics of our previous religion (Christianity in particular), while discarding its metaphysics, was extremely dangerous, then Jordan Peterson could in fact represent one of the most dangerous people living today (no matter how much I like him, and how much good he has done for so many people). For it is quite possible that no one has embraced, articulated/extracted, and modernized the ethics and morality associated with our prior fundamentalism, like he has.
Peterson is quite insistent, for instance, that we should “never lie” to anyone, that we should always be absolutely honest (as far as we understand “honesty”). And in light of how such horrible totalitarian regimes (fascist, communist, etc) have decimated/destroyed hundreds of millions of lives through extreme deception in this last century alone, this position is understandable.
But let’s not mince words: This is totally anti-Nietzschean. Nietzsche was NOT an absolutist on “honesty” in every situation. In fact, he thought there was sometimes a sort of “good faith” behind people’s intentions to “deceive”. And if one reads Nietzsche right, it’s not so much that great tyrants come to be because they (and their people) deceive others so much (although that’s obviously a huge part), but rather that mankind is itself facing a crisis of meaning that we are running from. That our impulse to “lie” is rooted in something else much more important, that desperately needs to be addressed (and that if we addressed it, the impulse to lie would go away).
For Nietzsche, it is our moral *assumptions* (“love thy neighbour”, etc) that we have “carried over” from our previous religions, that is so incredibly dangerous. For Nietzsche, to actually “love your neighbour as you love yourself” has never actually been possible before, because humans have never been able to truly love themselves before.
As he said in “Zarathustra”:
“Love ever your neighbor as yourselves- but first be such as love themselves.”
This is really Nietzsche’s great “critique” of Christ, if he ever had one. That although Christ was quite a remarkable figure (who Nietzsche respected), he viewed some of Christ’s teachings as naïve, because they were based on premises that are dubious (do we actually love ourselves to begin with?).
Resolving/understanding your dark side.
As Peterson has very well noted many times, the phenomenon of “evil” is undoubtedly real. Nietzsche wouldn’t disagree with him on the existence of this “phenomenon”.
Nietzsche though had great hopes that someday in the future, mankind would be able to understand their “dark side” through discoveries of science (the reason for his “Gay Science”, or “Joyful Wisdom”).
And this was one reason he disdained religion so much, because its followers seemed to always just take for granted that such a thing is totally impossible (only in the “next life” is such a thing possible, to them).
But for Nietzsche, we had to go “beyond good and evil” eventually. In this life.
Foolish and impossible?
I very much appreciate and respect the writings of both Nietzsche and Jordan Peterson. They have both been important parts of my life and thinking, and have helped me immensely.
But I have come to the conclusion that humans do indeed have to “go beyond” our basic moral presuppositions (and their accompanying self-reflection and subsequent self-loathing), which we have (often unknowingly) borrowed from our prior religions.
And as unbelievable/crazy it may sound to the reader, I think the way may actually now been made available to us.
Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith has presented a synthesis of the human condition that is extremely powerful, accountable, and compassionate. It brings love to our dark side, but without condoning destructive acts (of which this last century in particular has been full).
His latest book, “Freedom, the End of the Human Condition”, is his magnum opus work, which unpacks this remarkable idea. I myself have had some criticisms of Mr Griffith's works over the years, but I simply cannot deny that his central explanation of the human condition (his explanation of instinct vs intellect), in it's simplicity, is extremely powerful!
Nietzsche, in his "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", often spoke of "The Ubermensch", or the Overman.
The burning question for me now, is this: Will future generations be able to actually attain to the Overman? Is there a massive glorious potential for our human species that we have yet to begin to even fathom?
Humanity is undoubtedly at a crossroads. Things have never been so dangerous/polarized, and yet so full of potential. I think it may now indeed be time to “re-value” the past (and by so doing, possibly transform the future). Is it possible? I will let the reader decide.