Jordan B. Peterson has achieved a meteoric rise to intellectual stardom over the past two years from the relative obscurity as a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. His book (12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos) went five weeks unchallenged atop the best-seller list of The Times earlier this year after its publication in January. It has since been translated into over 35 languages and sold in excess of two million copies. He continued his world-wide promotional tour, filling the Edinburgh Playhouse on a chilly winter evening.
The unequivocal success of 12 Rules, and its accompanying speaking tour, is for the most part down to the surprising resonance of a prescriptive message of self-help and its unassuming messenger. Peterson, whose only previous publication, Maps of Meaning, was a burdensome intellectual tome on the psychology of ideological belief, has written a book which is easily accessible and popular.
He centered the evening’s lecture on rule number eight: ‘Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie’. Acknowledging the importance of truth neatly encapsulates Peterson’s core philosophy of adopting personal responsibility in individual action as a path to life’s meaning. He repeatedly refers to ancient mythology and biblical examples, their relevance and psychological significance to the 21st century audience, particularly amongst a disaffected millennial youth. Peterson calls the modern individual to embody the protagonist of the ‘hero-myth’ in reaching into the potential of the unknown, to map out the future, in the task of improving oneself into the best form possible. As such, lies – where the truth is knowingly avoided – are ‘false maps’ which will produce weak outcomes.
Peterson’s brand is not without controversy. His philosophy of individualism and the importance of traditional moral virtue is deliberately positioned against the ‘moral-relativism’ he sees as the present source of society’s troubles. Indeed, he spent the first five minutes of the talk waxing lyrical over Europe’s cultural heritage, symbolised by cathedrals and medieval towns, as opposed to the concrete monstrosities of 1960s university campuses in North America. And his infamous interview on Channel 4 News with Cathy Newman earned him equal scorn and adulation in contesting the liberal stance on transgender issues and the gender pay-gap.
A more realistic critique of Peterson than as a poster-boy for the ‘alt-right’ would be to point to the unoriginality of his message. As Melanie Reid of The Times put it, once the ‘verbiage and cerebral preening’ has been peeled back, there is little more left than a ‘self-help manual’ promoting self-reliance, good behaviour and hard work. Peterson, at times, appears almost enamoured by his experience as the hero of his own mythology.
However, no one can deny Jordan Peterson his global publicity achieved primarily through nurturing an online following – a 56-year-old professor with a 1.5 million strong subscriber base on YouTube. He is a thoughtful agitator who has been successful in packaging up and putting forward traditional messages of individual responsibility in an age of deep cultural division.