Jordan Peterson is a Garden Variety Christian Existentialist

by Benjamin Studebaker

A few people have asked me lately–what do I think of Jordan Peterson? Peterson is a Canadian psychologist who has written a book called 12 Rules for Life. He’s become very popular on YouTube and generated something of a following. I can see why–the particular kind of philosophy he’s advocating is unfamiliar to many people and feels transgressive in a modern context. But it’s an old kind of philosophy which dates back to the 19th century and takes its inspiration from Soren Kierkegaard. It’s called “Christian Existentialism”. Here’s how it works.

I sometimes like to divide theories of the relationship between the individual and society into three categories:

  1. Materialism, in which the individual is produced by material conditions mediated through cultural and ideological systems.
  2. Idealism, in which the individual is produced by cultural and ideological systems mediated through material conditions.
  3. Existentialism, in which the individual self-produces and is personally responsible for what they become.

One might class both materialism and idealism as forms of “collectivism” insofar as they take individuals to be so thoroughly embedded in social systems that it’s not possible to talk about them as wholly distinct from the systems of which they are part, and therefore it’s not possible to wholly blame them for the way they turn out. Left wing theories tend to be either materialist (like Marx) or idealist (like the Frankfurt School) and right wing theories tend to be existentialist, but there are some idealists who claim to be right wing (like Curtis Yarvin) and some existentialists who claim to be left wing (like Jean-Paul Sartre). These people have inconsistencies deeply embedded in their theories–it’s really hard to be a left existentialist or a right idealist without having made some obvious mistake.

To make these abstract categories clearer, here’s how they’d answer the question of why Jordan Peterson isn’t a socialist:

  1. Materialists would answer that the capitalist system has yet to exhaust itself in Canada, and because capitalism still has the capacity to develop Canadian productive power it retains the confidence of the Canadian people, including the confidence of Peterson the individual.
  2. Idealists would answer that the capitalist ideology still has a strong grip on Canadian culture (including the schools, the art scene, the media, etc.), and because of this it continues to produce Canadians who are willing to perform capitalist productive roles and may even see no viable alternative to them. Once in these roles, this socialization is reinforced by the demands of the role. Peterson is one such Canadian, subject to and produced by these cultural influences.
  3. Existentialists would answer that Peterson isn’t a socialist because he chooses not to be one. End of story.

Hegel was the first modern idealist, Marx the first modern materialist, and Kierkegaard the first modern existentialist. Hegel came first, and the other two reacted against him. While Marx and Hegel argued about how society shapes individuals, Kierkegaard wanted to get the individual out of all this.

For Kierkegaard, to allow oneself to be the production of material or cultural conditions outside of one’s control is to be in despair. The only escape from despair is Christianity. Through Christianity, the individual can learn to hear the will of God and to choose whether to obey it. The choice to obey or disobey, to give into sin or to hold firm, engenders a feeling of anxiety. This anxiety includes both a dread of the burden of eternity, and an exhilaration in the freedom of choice.

Embracing Christian existentialism takes one away from the worldly concerns of the collectivists. It returns to spiritualism and it reasserts a sense of agency and individual freedom.

This is all over Peterson’s work. You can see it in his 12 rules, which are:

Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping

Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today

Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie

Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

Rule 10 Be precise in your speech

Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding

Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

All of these rules are rules for the individual and they mainly concern the individual’s own conduct and interpersonal relationships. Note the 6th rule in particular–“set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”. For a materialist or an idealist, it is impossible to get your house in order without engaging with the world–one’s house is part of the world, and the flaws in it are inextricably linked with the flaws in the world. Poor and marginalised people are poor and marginalised because of economic and social systems which put them in position to fail and trap them in failure. That’s what the left says. But instead the existentialists demand these individuals take responsibility for their failure and focus on making themselves into better people. Look at rule 4–“compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today”. This rule deflects people away from examining social unfairness.  If they examined social unfairness, they might feel that their situations are the product of unfairness and that might cause them to criticise the world before setting their houses in perfect order. We can’t have that!

It’s clear that this is existentialist–it puts the individual at the center of everything. We know that Peterson is a Christian–in a recent interview, he said so:

Yes. Which is a form of insanity. The ethical burden is ridiculous. God might swipe you down even though you’re doing the right thing. But it’s your best bet. There is a great level of reality out there which we don’t know and don’t understand. We can bargain with it, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything and God can turn on you. That is the thing about life. There’s no guarantee of success.

That sounds very Kierkegaardian to me. Listen to what Kierkegaard says in Purity of Heart:

You have surely noticed among schoolboys, that the one that is regarded by all as the boldest is the one who has no fear of his father, who dares to say to the others, “Do you think I am afraid of him?” On the other hand, if they sense that one of their number is actually and literally afraid of his father, they will readily ridicule him a little. Alas, in men’s fear-ridden rushing together into a crowd (for why indeed does a man rush into a crowd except because he is afraid!) there, too, it is a mark of boldness not to be afraid, not even of God. And if someone notes that there is an individual outside the crowd who is really and truly afraid – not of the crowd, but of God, he is sure to be the target of some ridicule. The ridicule is usually glossed over somewhat and it is said: a man should love God. Yes, to be sure, God knows that man’s highest consolation is that God is love and that man is permitted to love Him. But let us not become too forward, and foolishly, yes, blasphemously, dismiss the tradition of our fathers, established by God Himself: that really and truly a man should fear God. This fear is known to the man who is himself conscious of being an individual, and thereby is conscious of his eternal responsibility before God.

If you buy the central premises of all this–that we have free will, that there is a God, that he wants things from us, that we are responsible to him, and that looking at our problems and ourselves as socially caused is giving into despair–Peterson might seem sensible enough. But he’s certainly not original. Kierkegaard died in 1855 in Denmark. You can modernise the text and pop it in the microwave, but it’s still the same old sandwich.

For my part, I can’t buy the premises. They strike me as an abdication of our collective responsibility to and for each other, and as a denial of fundamental facts about the human condition. We are not self-creating beings, we are subject to material social forces, and we can only thrive when we understand those forces and use that understanding to improve the situations of ourselves and those around us. In a good society, it’s easy to be good because the forces that guide our lives are aligned in ways which help us out. Demanding that people transcend their situations and be good in spite of every obstacle isn’t realistic for them, and it encourages us to judge, blame, and shame them. It isn’t realistic for ourselves either, and it produces a life of purposeless self-flagellation. We have to help each other put everyone in position to do well. We all need each other’s help. No one succeeds alone.

Existentialism is seductive, because it tells us a story that puts us back in control. But the control is a lie. Social systems can’t be transcended. They can be understood and, through understanding, improved. But to run from them is not to gain independence from them–in denying them, we only ensure they dominate us completely. Only those of us who can see the forces can try to do something about them. The rest are stuck living under them, deluding themselves that they do otherwise in a bid to make themselves believe, for a moment or two, that they really do enjoy the exhilarating freedom of true choice. That exhilarating freedom can sell many thousands of self-help books, but it can’t pay your student debt or your health insurance. You have to be willing to look at your chains if you ever hope to break or bend them.