A Response To “How Stoic is Jordan Peterson?”

There has been quite a debate about Jordan Peterson, so we thought we would add to it.

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This article originally appeared on the Modern Stoicism website in May 2018. It was co-authored with Leonidas Konstantakos.

Last week in his Stoicism Today article Justin Vacula (the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast) stated that “there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson”. He was also right in saying that various members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group (led by our very own Donald Robertson) frequently share work from Jordan Peterson and are left wondering if he is a Stoic. In a response to Justin’s article (and the various comments that ensued on this blog and elsewhere in social media), we want to present our take on the likenesses between Jordan Peterson’s philosophy and that of Stoicism.

To do this, we explore some similarities and ask whether they are real or superficial. Perhaps the Stoics were just as interested as Peterson and his followers in antidotes to chaos. Perhaps, any resemblances are merely coincidental.

In order to unpack the parallels and divergences properly, it is first necessary to address an all too common misconception that “Stoic”, with a capital S, is a person that practices or adheres to being emotionally “stoic”. Whilst the philosophy certainly teaches the importance of resilience, the governing of one’s emotions and the value obtained in understanding the role of luck, it also emphasises virtue. In fact, the most fundamental tenet of Stoicism is that virtue, as made manifest in justice, courage, self-control and wisdom, is the only true good. This is because it is, in the Stoic sense, the only path that leads to a harmonious sense of happiness.

So with definitions out of the way, where do Peterson and his ideas fit onto the Stoic spectrum? For evidence, one can certainly point, as Justin did last week, to his cool demeanour in uncomfortable interviews, including the infamously hostile one directed by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.  One could also highlight his sense of calm during politically loaded conversations on national media with his own colleagues, following the C-16 amendment bill and the ensuing gender neutral pronoun scandal.

Leo and I, as two Stoic researchers, would even argue that it was Peterson’s stoicism in the face of an international news frenzy that catapulted him to the highest echelons of fame in the first place. Undoubtedly, his emotional detachment in the face of severe public scrutiny is something that the Stoics would have admired. Likewise, his sense of purpose to connect with and be a model (particularly) for young men intent of getting their life together, and the celebration of their achievements when they do, mirrors certain elements of what we would refer to, in modern times, as the Ancient Stoic pedagogical method.

In terms of his written work, we agree with Justin that Peterson’s widely successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos makes for markedly Stoic reading when it comes to his views on death, suffering, pain and anxiety. As with the Stoics, Peterson balances such realities by reminding the reader to develop character and take responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, instead of longing for superficial happiness. For instance, Seneca says in On Providence:

God himself is beyond suffering evil; you are above it. Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind.

Peterson’s criticism of “post-modernist” relativism is also a view that the ancient and modern Stoics would subscribe to. In fact, the Ancient Stoics were very much involved in these kinds of arguments against the relativists of their day – the Academic Sceptics. This philosophical school held that a wise person would never assent to anything erroneously, precisely because they would hold zero beliefs. This absence of belief was necessary, in their mind, because human beings cannot know if anything is really true, nor have any reason to believe something is true. In contrast, a Stoic, similarly to Jordan Peterson, would maintain that some things cannot be mere opinion, because there are facts that correspond to reality. Thus, where there are conflicting views, both may be wrong or one is right and the other wrong but, most definitely, they cannot be both right! Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was recorded to have said as much when he pointed out that the relativist Academics argue one thing and do something else.

Where the Stoics and Peterson’s philosophy significantly part ways is linked to how one identifies and solves inequality.  This was not picked up by Justin and was one of the reasons why his article came under fire.

Consequently, we would like to emphasise, to fellow Stoics and Peterson fans alike, that under a Stoic framework, it is not sufficient to state, as Peterson does in his interview with Richard Fidler, that hierarchy and equality is something that our nervous system is designed to deal with and adjusted to.

A simple counter argument of Peterson’s “natural” argument, based on the existence of, and access to, vaccinations and medicine already demonstrates that despite the fact that bacteria and disease has evolved alongside us and that our immune system has been designed to deal with them both, we have learned to override natural processes. In other words, humanity has not consigned matters of health to the “survival of the fittest”. Instead, we have used science to increase our knowledge and reduce uncertainty. We have built in societal structures to help us care for those who fall sick. In short, we have learnt to do better.

Incidentally, this is a view that Peterson will most likely agree with, given his favouring of the more socialistic form of health care available in Canada, over the privatised version operating in the US. So, why not likewise advocate for and develop structural mechanisms that re-address biological factors of inequality, so that more people can prosper?

Stoicism can offer some insight into how we may advocate for the virtue of justice. As a philosophy it is as political as much as it is personal and it does, for example, lend itself well to political activism. For Stoics, the view presented by Peterson regarding the Leftist Marxist agenda versus the Right-wing Capitalist is a false dichotomy. Marxism should not be rejected outright, nor capitalism necessarily preferred. After all reason, or rational thought, has no political wing. As we explained in our Daily Stoic article, the Stoic progressor (and Sage) must always advocate for reason and take the side of the person expressing a reasonable argument, grounded in facts. Everything else is superfluous to a Stoic’s political identity. That said Stoics should strive to reduce proven, or potential, inequality brought about by immorality. This echoes Cicero’s argument in De officiis that:

for one man to take something from another and to increase his own advantage at the cost of another’s disadvantage is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain and than anything else that may happen to his body or external possessions.

Cicero’s viewpoint does not necessarily take away from Peterson’s claims that disparity between groups is natural because it is Darwinian in origin. However, it does mean that a Stoic should promote a more progressive stance because there are other elements at play, including luck. In addition, as we argue (alongside Greg Sadler and Chris Gill) in our open access paper, it is the human ability to communicate and corporate which makes us uniquely capable, among all other living species, of societal development. Others such as Jeremy Lent, in his book The Patterning Instinct, and Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus also make convincing arguments that it is our cooperative, rather than our competitive, ability that yields a greater Darwinian advantage, as evidenced by our successful (although not necessarily reasonable) domination of the planet.

The gender pay gap, a phenomena Peterson actively denies, can also be dealt with by looking into the nuances of the argument. For a modern Stoic, the debate should centre on whether we think it is reasonable for it to exist, and if that reason is warranted. It is clear from the UK Government’s multivariate analysis that women, on average, earn less than men, when doing the same job for the same length of time. What is unclear, and here lies the nuance of Peterson’s argument, is whether income disparity linked to cognitive skills and behavioural traits, should be used to justify women’s lower salaries or hinder their professional progression.

Stoics might reflect on why the capitalist job market prefers “masculine” behaviour. They would also bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour. When women adopt more aggressive strategies they are judged, in a negative sense, to be anti-female and domineering. They are certainly not promoted as archetypal women. A man on the other hand, is typically rewarded and championed for being strong. This kind of language is present in Peterson’s book, where he considers male bravado and daring to be “courageous”. Would he judge a woman by the same standards? If the answer is no, then Stoics would have grounds to suggest that the gender pay gap has more to do with gender, and how children are socialised into a gender role, than any particular given behavioural trait.

Such issues are not easy to address but do, to some extent, explain certain elements of the pay gap. They are also indicative of what needs to change in society, so we can collectively reduce any disparity in pay where it does, or potentially could, occur. One solution following in the Stoic tradition, could be for instance, the publishing and open discussion of people’s actual salaries so they could decide amongst themselves what is fair or unfair, and find out whether, in their workplace, the gap is real or not.

Likewise, Stoicism’s acceptance that knowledge must be based on science, and not merely conjecture, can be used to demonstrate where Peterson’s dismissal of the possibility of more than two sexes is erroneous, if, for example, chromosomal pairs are used to define if a person is male or female. Seemingly unbeknown to Peterson, there are some individuals that do not, in fact, fall neatly into the gender binary with the common Kleinefelter Syndrome (one or two born per 1000 live male births), resulting in a person possessing two female chromosomes (XX) and one male chromosome (Y). If a biological male possesses XY, and a female XX, then a person with three chromosomes is neither male nor female in the biologically or socially conventional sense. However, it isn’t just chromosomes that determine sex, so ascribing gender in a relative simplistic way, based on what a person looks likes, whilst suitable in most cases, lacks scientific rigour. It also, according to an article in Nature, ignores a lot of biological factors that determine not just physical sex but also gender identity.

Given these facts, it is very likely that a Stoic would advocate for the gender neutral term “they” to address a person who does not have a clearly ascribed sex and who requires time to process their condition. Peterson, in adopting a more Stoic position, would then need to concede the use of “they” on scientific grounds. Furthermore, and as a Stoic aside, if one considers the importance of grammar in the Ancient teachings, Peterson’s issue that the use of “they” in the singular would only generate confusion loses credibility when one considers that the word “they” is used to refer to sports teams (where it does not mean the individuals that make up the team, but rather the team as a single entity). In addition, the word “you” in the English language does not distinguish between the collective (you all) and the addressing of a specific person. It relies on context or the speaker’s clarification. The question for a Stoic, once the issue of being understood is dealt with, comes down to, would a modified use in a pronoun reflect reality and result in progress towards socially just acts? The answer is “yes” on both accounts.

Despite these discrepancies, Peterson’s ideas appeal to millions of people. In our opinion, and as Justin rightly identifies, some of the 12 Laws draw interesting parallels with Stoic thoughts and practices. A great deal of Peterson’s work, although not Stoic in intent, is certainly not un-stoic. His Stoic elements have, undoubtedly, improved the lives of countless individuals by making them more responsible and resilient. They have turned people’s attention away from the pursuit of momentary happiness and directed them towards the search for the life well-lived.

In short, Jordan Peterson has worked hard to change many people’s worlds for the better and, perhaps, if he were more Stoic-leaning, he could open up the invitation to those currently alienated by his ideas. At the same time, the tension between the left and right political agenda would be replaced with more progressive values.

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