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The Hellenic Jordan Peterson?

Psychologist and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson1 has become a recent internet sensation, with publications from the New York Times to The Federalist to the National Review and The Atlantic covering his rise and videos featuring him going viral on YouTube.2

It is a rise that has confounded and concerned at least some on the political left as well as among the Christian intelligentsia. And in an age simultaneously (and incoherently) committed to a penchant for the grossest crassness and the most reality-distorting euphemizing, Peterson’s simple, direct message of personal responsibility and self-ownership appears somewhat out of place.

Part of Peterson’s draw seems to be that his “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” message (a message so consistent that it recently lent itself to satire) is couched within a broader rhetoric of empathy for the very real plight so many people find themselves in. When the kind of exhortation he gives is deployed by less serious persons, it usually ignores the reality of pain and suffering in people’s lives; Peterson does the opposite. On the other hand, recognition of suffering often gives way to a tacit or explicit endorsement of victimhood status and the supposed rights of the aggrieved that attend it; Peterson does the opposite of this, too (for an example of both, see this video).

Thus at least part of the reason for his appeal lies, I would argue, in his ability to give words to one of the most fundamental and difficult aspects of what it means to be human – namely, that pain and suffering are an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Such seriousness about pain and suffering was on display in a dialogue in which he participated on the meaning of life a month or so ago at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College and in which he was by far the most interesting of the participants; and one is struck not only by his seriousness about suffering, but also by the way in which he seeks to invest that suffering with significance, as an indispensable means to attaining wisdom. That is, Peterson connects pain and suffering to a theory of reality in which wisdom can be gained only through experience of those very things. For Peterson, then, the experience of the reality of suffering ought not to render a person a perpetual victim, paralyzed with bitterness and resentment; it is instead the crucible in which one attains to understanding.

Why has Peterson found such sudden popularity? Why has his message found such resonance? One reason, perhaps, is that it is not his message.

Instead, his claims about suffering and wisdom go back to the very springs of religion, mythology, and philosophy. They have a parallel in the Bible’s Book of Job; they received their most archetypal formulation in the Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ Agamemnonπάθει μάθος (pathei mathos), “Learning comes by suffering.” The word pathei means not only “suffering,” but also “experience,” and thus in the language itself the two are indissolubly linked. To suffer is to experience; to experience is to suffer; and that is how we learn.

The idea was taken up in ancient Greek philosophy writ large, which should be conceived of not as a set of abstract arguments or, worse, dogmatic conclusions, but rather as a way of life, of which argumentative discourse formed a part but not the whole. Thus Aristotle notes, at the beginning of his Metaphysics, the importance of experience for science and art.

The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings. Now from memory experience is produced in men; for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience. And experience seems pretty much like science and art, but really science and art come to men through experience.

More pointedly still, Aristotle’s teacher Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedo that “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death” (tr. G.M.A. Grube).

Heavy stuff. But when you put it that way, things get–well, real. In the West, the dilemma caused by the tragic pall cast over the brevity of a life marred by pain and anguish, both physical and mental or spiritual–Can such a life have meaning? Does the decision to act, to do anything at all, even make sense? Why?–goes back to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, as the hero debates whether he should live long in obscurity or risk the suffering of fighting and dying young.

But the provenance of this idea that true wisdom comes only through the cauldron of suffering, and that the attainment of a deeper understanding perhaps validates what otherwise can seem to be meaningless misery, is not a product of Western thought, despite how decisively it is brought to the fore in Greek drama and philosophy. That is to say, though the theme may have deep roots in the Western tradition, that fact is only symptomatic of its deeper provenance in the human condition itself. Thus the Greeks themselves found parallels in the East, particularly when the entourage of Alexander the Great encountered the famous gymnosophists of India – philosophers who would kill themselves by being burned alive and thus learn to undergo affliction of the worst kind. According to the early Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, the Stoic philosopher Zeno was allegedly so impressed by this that he claimed that “he would rather have seen one Indian roasted, than have learned the whole of the arguments about bearing pain.”

My point here is obviously not to endorse such a practice; it seems to me perverse to seek out such torment intentionally. Suffering comes in this life, at some point or another, whether one goes out of his way to find it or not. So let us take that as read. My point is rather to note the consistency with which Peterson’s theme is found in the most enduring works of ancient literature and philosophy, and to gesture toward why that is: it is like a Wagnerian leitmotif that marks not just one but each and every character in the human drama. However trendy Peterson may seem right now, therefore, his perspective provokes the shudder of recognition because it is (almost) as old as humanity itself; it reminds us of something we would much sooner ignore, but that nevertheless arrest us in rapt attention when someone speaks about it honestly–like it matters. And that “something” is that true wisdom can never be achieved through mastering the syllogism, say–much less through the facile devices we employ to mask all that is wrong and obscure it in a fog of trivial diversion–but must emerge from our concrete and lived experience of reality as a whole. That is a dangerous thing. Job comes in the end to a kind of understanding, albeit one that does not provide him with all of the answers he sought (and, indeed, his reconciliation to this aspect of reality is part of his wisdom). But one cannot attain to the wisdom of Job without walking the path of Job. And that path at times brings a man to the point of saying:

Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For my sighing comes instead of my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes.

And yet people listen, because it speaks to something deep within them. They know it to be true, and they are thankful that someone has had the courage to say so.

As pundits and commentators continue to debate the reasons for Peterson’s effectiveness, they should consider that one of its causes is therefore doubtless as simple as this: he gives forceful articulation to something at the root of the human condition itself. And whether his solutions are right or wrong, he is grappling with one of the most basic problems of any philosophy worthy of the name. That is, just as the most profound Greek thinkers did, Peterson pays his listeners the compliment of treating them like grown-ups. And–contrary to what we have any right to expect in our infantilized age–that will always find an audience.

  1. The photo credit for the image used with this post reads: “By Adam Jacobs (Peterson Lecture) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.”
  2. Most of this piece was written about a month ago, but its publication met with some delays. I post it now anyway in case anyone should find it useful.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.