Jordan Peterson is a Canadian Existentialist

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Jordan Peterson speaking at an event in Dallas, Texas. By Gage Skidmore,
Jordan Peterson speaking at an event in Dallas, Texas in 2018. By Gage Skidmore.

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian Existentialist. Or at least that’s what I got out of hearing him speak for an hour at Robin Robin’s (aka Technology Marketing Toolkit) Boot Camp.

First, let me say, it was enjoyable, he has very memorable soundbites.

Second, this one-hour is all I know about Peterson. Maybe his books say something else — but I doubt it.

The entire hour of content could be boiled down to:

  1. Life is miserable, you must admit it and confront it.
  2. After you’ve admitted it, you should embrace it as the adventure that it is
  3. You have a moral calling to do good, which is essentially getting rid of the worst parts of you one layer at a time
  4. The point of the adventure of life is to explore and expand your (limitless) limits by doing good (as good is defined above) and finding and doing the things that make you happy

And he used a lot of words to get us there.

And a lot of those words are Christian-y. Faith, heaven, Abraham, Christ, God, Job, sacrifice, spirit, calling, pearl of great price, fool*, and so on.

But the message he gives is quite different. It is about finding meaning in the struggle of life.

Let’s break down a couple of the Christian-y things he says, and then briefly unpack some of the existential stuff he said.

First, his interpretation of Jesus’ command to seek first the kingdom of God:

The injunction [in the passage] was, put the love of God above all else. Well, what does that mean?

It means aim at the highest thing you can conceive of in all that you do. That’s your best bet practically. So orient yourselves in the most stringent and disciplined and hopeful and courageous and faithful manner possible in everything you do….

There’s nothing you can do that will make things work out better around you than that.

This is not what that passage in Mathew means. The passage is about going all in with God. That means to live righteously and have faith that God will provide for you in your daily needs. Most specifically for food and clothing, meaningful items in the poor society Jesus was talking to.

Sure, that’s practical, but it isn’t practical for practicality’s sake, it’s practical because God is good so He will provide.

Later Peterson says that we are called upon to confront “the entire burden of life, all of its injustices, its moral limitations, it betrayals,” and to:

“give up everything about yourself that isn’t worthy in your attempt to cope with the limited conditions in the fact of malevolence. Theres no difference between the spirit that dwells within you and God. That’s the same thing. That’s the core message of the Judeo-Christian enterprise, fundamentally, that if you’re willing to take on that burden, the more of what you’re willing to take on that burden the more of what it is within you to enable you to even celebrate that, the more that would become manifest within you.”

I think he means that “taking on” and “confronting” the “burden of life” is about admitting that those things are part of life, and may seem arbitrary, and that by struggling through those things in life you discover more of yourself. (Which is not the core of Judiasm or Christianity)

Later he said, “you’re going to bear the full burden of your existence one way or another,” and also vaunts becoming a person “who can bear up under the catastrophe of existence properly.”

What he doesn’t mean is “confront” in the sense of righting injustice in the world, standing up for those who are oppressed, or fighting an objective and tangible evil. (Which are tenants of Judiasm and Christianity)

He would go on to define heaven as “the highest good you can conceptualize.” Again, this isn’t a Christian idea, which believes in a literal, probably physical, heaven.

As he wrapped up he threw out:

You might say, “well I don’t know what the ultimate good is.” Well, you don’t and neither does anyone else, but you could probably at least to start to envision a good that is higher than the good you occupy now.

Finally, a very stark departure from Christianity, which very clearly believes we know what the ultimate good is, and how to aim at it. Also, an existential idea that we essentially create the good by deciding what the good is.

But lets allow him tell it:

If [a person] could have what [they] wanted, what would [they] aim for? And here’s the rule: aim for that which would satisfy you in your struggle. That’s the great aim. Life is very difficult and it’s rife with betrayal and it’s rife with travesty and yet there are times when it’s so rich that it delivers to us what we need and want in a manner that makes us appreciate that we’re alive.

Well, that’s what you need. You need an aim that would make you appreciate being alive if that was realized, what would satisfy you? And that’s going to depend on some degree to how much suffering you have to do. Some people have heavier loads.

It would also depend to some degree of how easily you are satisfied, but you can ask yourself, “what would be sufficient?” What would keep you going another day or another week or another year? Happily, without resentment — imagine that — without resentment. We lay out that vision, that focuses you. Your whole enterprise will fall into place behind that. Partly because this is how perception works. Once you specify an aim, you see a pathway forward.

So: Life (existence) is difficult and at the same time life (existence) is what makes life worth living, so define the things that make living worth it and go after those.

He’d go on to say that we need to do this “in faith,” but at this point it should be pretty clear that this isn’t faith in God, it’s faith that you can find joy in life during its struggles, and that is what happiness and self-realization is.

And if you think that all of this seems circular, well, he’s still easier than reading Kierkegaard.

At one point he said, “That’s why we celebrate Christmas, the notion that every child is a locus of divine possibility.” (Which is neither Christian nor existential)

I guarantee you no one ever looked at Santa to consider “the locus of divine possibility,” and second, that Christmas in the religious sense is about a single child who was the locus of divinity. In simpler words: Christmas is about Jesus, Jesus is God, and celebrating that Jesus-God came to earth.

*This is not a word used much in every day English, but is used frequently throughout the bible, and so in churches and similar contexts.


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