“To give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation.” -Carl Jung
It has been disappointing to me to see the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson dragged into the culture wars. Those wars poison everything, including our ability to find the profound points of unity between conservative and progressive people of good will. These are not incompatible opposites, so much as polarities which are always in need of balance. One reason I am disappointed, is because many people thereby fail to see the great depth in Peterson, beyond the divisive wars of politics.
For some of us, so much of what Peterson says is a repetition. We have heard the essence of these thoughts many times before. I say this as praise. During my undergraduate days I attended a party with a friend, who is now an academic. We were introduced to a philosophy student, dressed in post-modernist chic, and when my friend mentioned that he was mostly interested in Aristotle, she exclaimed with contempt, “Aristotle is so passe!” That attitude marks so much of postmodern philosophy: ideas as fashion items. Ideas as postures, ideas as signals of intellectual or moral status, ideas as markers of cool. The tradition which Peterson, at his best, represents, by contrast, is the ancient practice of paying attention to reality beyond oneself. And learning from, and carefully handing down, the wealth of wisdom built up through countless generations prior to our own.
This tradition is unafraid of new insights or paradigms, but it takes a synthetic approach. Peterson is deeply influenced by the psychologist Carl Jung. This means that he engages in a rapprochement between ancient wisdom - both philosophical and mythological - and modern science. An example of such synthesis is the notion that the insights about life, character, tragedy, morality, and so on which are embedded in traditions and passed down culturally, also represent the distillation into symbols and practices - or archetypes - of accumulated human experienc, encoded into our bodies and minds through the slow process of evolution. In short, much of our wisdom for living is unconscious. Some of that is in the domain of the personal unconscious - your particular psyche versus mine - but much of it is at the level of the collective unconscious, which is to say it is universal among human beings. It is our evolved wisdom. As I often say to my counselling clients who are bereaved and who fear that there is a process to grieving which they will get wrong: for the most part you don't need to know, rationally, how to grieve, in order to get it right - you already know unconsciously how to do this, so focus on listening to and understanding yourself rather than imposing a theory of grief on yourself. This notion of unconscious, symbolic wisdom is why, regardless of your perspective on religion, Peterson’s recent lecture series on The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories is so interesting. Peterson often speaks of problems as "religious," and by that he is expressing an insight best articulated by the philosopher Wittgenstein, that our perspectives and the the things we then believe and say, reflect basic outlooks which precede evidence and argument.
One of the early points that Peterson makes in that series is that Being is good. It is at moments like this that Peterson shows he is a true philosopher in spirit, for here he combines that rare capacity to invest deeply in an idea - to live it out - while also maintaining not only wonder but shock that it might be possible to believe such a thing! The assertion that Being is good, such that it is also good to exist, has a lot going against it. The world has always been a bloodbath of tragedy and evil. And as Nietzsche noted a century ago, it is now a place where the old belief systems, which nevertheless enabled faith in the goodness of Being, have collapsed. “God is dead.” It seems we are spinning in nihilism.
We live in that age which Nietzsche described, where at one level value is theorised out of our lives, because at a deeper level the old structures which held it in place have crumbled. This has serious consequences. It is no accident that the rate of suicide has risen 40 per cent since the 1970s. One thing that is so wonderful and important about Peterson for our moment in time, is that he does not counter this nihilism with a mere theory. The world is already full of armchair intellectuals and chatter. Nor does Peterson, at his best, respond by attacking others and things outside oneself, as many people do. Rather, like the Buddha three thousand years ago, he appeals to your experience to prove his assertion of the value of existence: he invites you to live a certain way, and so to find out for yourself.
The only proof that life is worth living despite all that is terrible, lies in living in such a way that the assertion of its goodness becomes fundamentally and experientially true. Philosophical nihilism then means nothing, for it is not an intellectual question but rather a lived one. Peterson invites you to “come and see”, to transform yourself from within, and through how you live in the world. I often see depressed clients who want me to convince them philosophically that life is meaningful. They are expressing the belief that their problem is an intellectual one. And partly it is, but partly it isn't. To an important degree. It is an intellectual, emotional, active, interpersonal, transcendental problem - a problem in living. Connect to meaningful things, let them into into you, and you will find life increasingly meaningful.
The philosopher Plato believed that a richly meaningful life might be based on the contemplation of certain things. He thought this because he saw that contemplation means paying attention, and that sustained attention transforms us. You can find an example of this idea in his dialogue The Symposium. You can also find the idea repeated and worked out by philosophers like Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and the Australians Raimond Gaita and Christopher Cordner. This is not an intellectual notion of attention - a claim that thinking will transform you - for often thinking paralyses you or provides an excuse or cause for inaction. It is a far deeper notion of attention, which grips one's whole being: you act out what you love.
Those philosophers are among my greatest influences, both professionally and personally, and in this connection all of them often speak of three values as the highest things we can conceive of, and the best things to pay attention to, shining through the particulars of life: truth, beauty, and goodness. Let us consider the first value. One of the ways that Peterson invites us live, one of the things he says will transform your life and make it worthwhile in the face of the world’s tragedy, evil, and nihilism, is speaking the truth.
If you are an agreeable person like me, then you may let many things slide in order to keep the peace. Perhaps you secretly fear that you will rejected for speaking your mind. Or that you will unnecessarily hurt others. Violence or other abuse in your family, or your parent's family, might have made you like this. But you may feel, thereby, that you have been weakened by being this way. You may have been harmed through it, taken advantage of, and you have even have become a little resentful in consequence of this. The answer to this problem is age-old: the truth will set you free. As Peterson says. In words which the DJ Akira the Don put to music. Speaking the truth will untangle many of the knots in your life, both within yourself, and between you and others. It will lead to clarity, for much of the distressing confusion in your life is a consequence of your failure to be truthful. Speaking the truth will make you stronger and more courageous. You will gain the respect of others and even become a force to contend with.
Truth-speaking is fundamental to counselling work, or certainly to my counselling. I believe in truth. As Peterson himself insists, and as any philosopher knows, truth is a complex concept, a difficult thing to wrestle with. Nonetheless the effort must be made. Pop-philosophies like relativism may seem easier to preach, but not only are they dogmatic and incoherent, they lead to meaninglessness and eventually despair. We speak the truth to gain clarity. To gain insight. To gain courage. To make things happen. To create justice and goodness in life. For this reason counselling is a heroic endeavour. It is transformative because truth is transformative. Peterson has spent decades studying totalitarian oppression and has much to say about the importance of truth in speech at the political level, but as a Jungian psychotherapist he also points to the fruits of truth-speaking in our personal lives. These fruits include clarity about the unconscious forces that shape your life. For example Peterson points to the fact that we all live out certain stories, or myths, and warns us that, were we to actually examine it, we might not want to live out the particular script which currently directs our life. Perhaps you are living out a tragedy and you don’t want that to be the case?
I was powerfully struck by this idea years ago, during a very dark time in my own life. My family going back generations were always very poor, and more than that...I have a collection of newspaper articles involving fists, knives, guns, and fights with police in Carlton streets (the same suburb where today I have my counselling office). My grandfather met my grandmother in an orphanage. When World War Two broke out he lied about his young age and fought on the front lines until 1945. He was left a broken man. But he was also a brilliant man. Before he died young, my grandfather spent time in hospital due to his physical and mental afflictions, and for occupational therapy he painted. He produced The Wreck of the Hesperus, a depiction of a shipwreck. My mother was three years old at the time, and he said that the painting was intended for his first grandson - me. He never painted the ropes on the ship because he died, only a few years older than I am now. That painting sits on my wall, beautifully framed. As a stared at it one evening, during a time of personal tragedy and despair in my own life, I realised that I was living out a repetition of my grandfather’s story; that I had become identified with him within my family - or certainly in my own mind - designated to carry forward his story as the talented one but that somehow - it’s hard to verify these intuitions, but they are real if you know how to pay attention - this meant suffering a tragic fate too. And I did not want that. So I made a conscious choice. I handed my grandfather’s fate back to him, where it belonged, with the old inchoate sense of tragic destiny which had accompanied it within me, and decided that I would aim for a different story with my own life.
It was during this time that I realised, that although I was a good and kind person as I had striven to be, yet various problems in my life stemmed from not integrating the darker parts of my psyche and using those forces productively. I was too agreeable, too self-sacrificing, and needed to become more of a fighter. In Jungian terms I needed to integrate the healthy warrior archetype. I was compensating for the violence and trauma in my family’s past by trying to burn away the evil within, rather than accepting its inevitable presence as force and turning its energy to good use. Among other things, I realised that my need for a stronger, more substantial way of being included the need to start speaking the truth, no matter what the cost. No matter what it cost me personally or professionally. This led me on an adventure, which in my case included growth through the psychological and spiritual use of Jungian archetypes, a journey I am still very much on. As an example of this change, I sat down with my father some time back and spoke out everything I have held to myself, about how I think he sees me and about the burden I have carried all my life because of that. I told him that I did not need a reassurance, an agreement, an apology, or anything - I simply needed to speak the truth of my experience to him. Fortunately he responded well and helpfully, and I achieved a certain freedom from some internal struggles which have plagued me all my life. Which is a highly significant thing! As a further consequence I am now closer to my father than I have ever been before - failure to speak truth put a distance between us. Interestingly I am now also more confident around other men (and women) too. The truth sets you free, in so many ways. It builds you up.
I have gone on a bit of a journey in this reflection, touching on just one (major) point that Peterson makes. Imagine what your life might be like, if you made a commitment to telling truth no matter what. I am not talking about expressing your intellectual ideas or joining political protests - these can be important, though just as often they constitute mere distractions and avoidance - rather I am talking about how you live with yourself, foremost, and then with others, at a personal level.
Imagine also, if you spent time getting clear on what the highest, deepest good(s) is that you can live out, that you can dedicate your life to, and if you then sacrificed whatever it took to serve that. Who would you be, five, ten, twenty years from now? Truth, beauty, goodness...you will hear these words with Peterson, just as with Plato and many of the great sages. He is repeating an age-old ethos, a profound spirituality. Centre your life on these and see what happens....