In recent weeks, I have become mesmerised by a clinical psychologist who is the darling of the alt-right. That is not a sentence I ever thought I’d have cause to write, but Jordan Peterson is something else.
I had seen some of his lectures before that notorious interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in January, the one that gave him particular notoriety in the UK for his comments on the gender pay gap. As Stephen Bush wrote last week, Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is at base a self-help guide, and like every other contribution to that bloated canon contains a mixture of the persuasive and self-evident.
His gentle, erudite embrace of Christianity, and thumping dismissals of the hard left have made him beloved of Trump fans, but he has other attributes that might be considered attractive. One is sheer magnetism. The first time I saw him on screen, I thought it was Jeremy Irons; he is charismatic and exceptionally articulate. And if there is something masterful about him, it comes from a formula similar to Matthew Arnold’s: “For the creation of a masterwork of literature, two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment.”
Jordan Peterson’s genius is one of timing. This 55-year-old has gone from practising psychologist to internet sensation at a time when masculinity is up for grabs. This is mostly the result of beneficial social changes that have jumbled social roles, including the rapid rise in the female proportion of the modern workforce.
Another change relates to the consequences of liberalism. After the vanquishing of rival totalitarianisms in the 20th century, a victor emerged on the ideological battlefield, and this was the idea that, so long as nobody is harmed, we should be free to do as we please.
Naturally, many societies signed up to this admirable principle, but it made us uneasy about the idea that life should be lived a certain way and, by extension, that some lives were nobler than others. The loosening grip of religion in some parts of the West accelerated this flight away from prescriptions for how to live well.
I have often thought what a shame it was that John Stuart Mill’s greatest work was so misnamed. On Liberty wasn’t principally about liberty; in fact it was chiefly about the higher principles that lead to human flourishing, or what Aristotle called eudaemonia. Liberty, for Mill, was a means to an end, not an end in itself. He wrote of experiments in living. For Aristotle, living in accordance with the virtues were what led to arete, or excellence of character.
As for Mill and Aristotle, so for Peterson. His work is also predicated on the notion that some lives are better than others, and it comes at a time when liberalism has retreated from the recommendations for how to live that Christianity and other faiths were comfortable with.
It also coincides with men staying children for longer. Since 1971, the average age at which British men get married has risen from 24.6 to 32.7 years, and from 22.6 to 30.8 years for women. In a generation we have added a whole new chapter to our lives. Economics explains some of it: lucrative jobs are scarcer; student debt is a swelling burden; it can take two salaries to get a mortgage. But it’s also driven by culture: a belief that one’s twenties should be a decade of experimentation (perhaps Mill would have approved) – in careers, living arrangements, and partners. Where some locate the resonance of Peterson’s life lessons in the collapse of the traditional family, or the retreat from a stiffer conception of fatherhood, I think this new period in young men’s lives has much to do with it.
I am 34. For more than a decade, my mates and I enjoyed a youthful freedom – maybe excessively so. It didn’t always make us happy. In fact, the softening attachments of family or the pleasure in devotion to a meaningful career that have come years after we abandoned raving and all-night benders have provided a purpose that liberalism’s victory in the 20th century had little to do with.
Peterson is a new kind of public intellectual, using YouTube to spread ideas infinitely wider than predecessors such as Bertrand Russell or Isaiah Berlin. But “the moment” is all. He’s filling the hole out of which my generation has just clambered. His essential message that men should grow up is a way of saying, it’s cool to be free – but to what end?
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry