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Essay Excerpt: Jordan Peterson as Humanist
A selection from the anthology Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson
This excerpt from my essay “The Image of Christ: Jordan Peterson as Humanist” is shared with the kind permission of Ron Dart and Lexham Press. To read the full essay, purchase the anthology Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson here.
“What a work is man!” exclaims Hamlet, and well might we exclaim it with him. Man is “the beauty of the earth.” He is the crown of creation, the culmination, the summit. His measure is incalculable. It could hardly appear less to anyone with eyes to see.
But the scientist is unmoved. Shakespeare is very lovely, but his claims are neither testable nor falsifiable. So Charles Darwin takes it upon himself to bring us all back to earth: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.”
There are few more devoted pupils of Charles Darwin than Jordan Peterson. For many of the doors into Peterson’s thought, Darwin holds the key. In the first chapter of 12 Rules, he famously invites us to consider the lobster. Why? Because if we could roll back Darwin’s reel of human evolution, ancestor by ancestor, we would eventually confront that ancestor that we share with the lobster. We are all connected in the great Tree of Life. Unless we understand the lobster, we cannot understand ourselves. Unless we understand Animal, we cannot understand Man. This Peterson regards as unassailable fact.
Yet unlike Darwin, Peterson sees no hubris in Hamlet’s self-evaluation. Indeed, as we have seen, he believes that creation literally revolves around the human individual. It does not seem like an exaggeration to say that, like the poet, Peterson stands in awe of the work that is Man. How, then, can these things be reconciled in his mind?
Perhaps Peterson’s clearest answer to this question can be found in his first book, Maps of Meaning. There, he writes:
It is the subjective aspect of individuality—of experience—that is divine, not the objective. Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique—is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable—remarkable, miraculous.
A whole history of ideas is contained in this one paragraph. Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer aptly described this history as a schism between the “lower story” of objective facts and the “upper story” of subjective values. In the Western mind, science rules the realm of facts, myth the realm of values. Like his peers, Peterson accepts this split as a matter of course. He believes science provides the standard evolutionary framework for man’s origins, while myth is the proper classification for the Judeo-Christian tradition that man was specially created in God’s image. Yet it is only in this “myth” that man finds purpose. It is only here that he is dignified, raised above the animals to stand a little lower than the angels.
Peterson candidly confesses his inability to synthesize these two narratives, these two stories. He fails to see how “the fact … that we’ve crawled our way up from the sludge and the mud” can “coexist” with the Genesis “myth.” Yet he observes that even if we say we are no more than highly advanced primates, we certainly do not act like it. At least, he argues, most people don’t act like it most of the time. Those times in history when evolutionary reasoning was taken to its fully logical conclusion on a mass scale still haunt Peterson’s dreams. The “opinions and opportunities” of these moments were the opinions and opportunities of malevolent men, and humanity’s value was judged accordingly.
Yet if we are indeed “created from animals,” then from the materialist standpoint, the value of the human individual is in flux, as an animal’s value is in flux. Thus, to the extent that even the most strident secularist instinctively acts as if there is something intrinsically valuable about the human person, he acts more like a Christian than an atheist. This is why Peterson concludes that “scientific” or “material” truths are not the most true things: They do not govern our lives. We may think we live in the lower story, but if we could open our eyes, we would see that we have been living in the upper story all along. David Berlinski sums up: “The idea that man was created in the image of God remains what it has always been: And that is the instinctive default position of the human race.”
“I plan on taking my own life very soon. Why shouldn’t I?”
It was a question Peterson had doubtless heard many times before, though never in quite this context. The evening was late, and his energy was flagging as the Q & A portion of his lecture stop in Indiana wore on. But if this was a serious question, it required a serious answer.
He begins by saying what any clinician worth his salt would say: Think about the ones you’ll leave behind. Don’t assume they would be better off without you. Tell people who care about you how you’re feeling. Check yourself into the hospital. Talk to a psychiatrist. Find out if you’re suffering from a treatable condition. Consider trying antidepressants: “I’m not claiming they’re a panacea. But they certainly beat the hell out of suicide.” Don’t assume you have nothing to offer to the world.
At this point, a different element comes into Peterson’s answer. He begins to stop sounding like a typical clinician: “You have intrinsic value, and you can’t just casually bring that to an end. You’ll leave a hole in the fabric of Being itself.” These are strong, countercultural words: Intrinsic value. Can’t. A hole in the fabric of Being. His final words are even more striking: “Don’t be so sure that your life is yours to take. You know, you don’t own yourself the way that you own an object. You have a moral obligation to yourself as a locus of divine value, let’s say. You can’t treat that casually. It’s wrong.” He repeats this point for emphasis in a summing-up of all the reasons he’s given for why the questioner should not end his life soon, or at all: “Don’t underestimate the fact that suicide is wrong.”
This response could not be more contradictory to the spirit of our age, which prizes autonomy above all else in the hierarchy of values. Our first instinct may be to stop the man on the bridge, but what if he were to tell us that he had thought things through very carefully, that he had consulted with doctors, and that all things considered he would still rather not go on living? We are told that the man’s life is his to do with what he wills. If we restrict his autonomy over his own body, we are the ones who are morally culpable. And if our assistance should be required, we are obliged to render it. As Charles Krauthammer wrote in his chillingly prophetic 1997 essay “The Dutch Example,” “When you see someone on a high ledge ready to jump, you are enjoined by every norm in our society to tackle him and pull him back from the abyss. We are now being asked to become a society where, when the tormented soul on the ledge asks for our help in granting him relief, we oblige him with a push.”
By contrast, Peterson says we do not own ourselves and our lives are not ours to take. Compare with the apostle Paul: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19–20 ESV). Or C. S. Lewis’s hierarchy of possession, as described in The Screwtape Letters: Screwtape would love nothing more than for humans to believe the word “mine” means the same thing when they say “my body” as when they say “my boots,” or “my dog.” The body is a vessel that we hold in trust, a gift we have been allowed to make use of for a limited time until we shuffle off this mortal coil and receive a new, incorruptible body. Peterson has expressed particular fascination for the reverence of the body that flows from the Christian insistence on a bodily resurrection: “The idea that the body is resurrected is a valorization of the value of the particular here and now and of the body, and an emphasis on the fact that that has divine value as well, and needs to be attended to and cared for properly.”
But who is the benefactor? Peterson cannot say. He knows only Auden’s “singular command” to “bless what there is for being.” What else are we made for?
 Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844, ed. Paul H. Barrett et al. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 300.
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Taylor & Francis reprint, 2002, originally Routledge, 1999), 481.
 See, e.g., Escape From Reason, Chapter 4.
 Jordan B Peterson, “Swedes want to know: take 2: Ivar Arpi interviews me again,” YouTube video, March 9, 2018, 1:03:30-1:05:00.
 David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), 179.
 toothandsticks, “Jordan Peterson 12 Rules Live in Indianapolis (06-15-2018),” YouTube video, 2:35:02, June 16, 2018, 1:21:31-1:27:14.
 Charles Krauthammer, “The Dutch Example,” The Washington Post, January 10, 1997, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1997/01/10/the-dutch-example/71fb58d5-58d4-4a76-855b-3f46ed922b45.
 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 97–98.
 From Jordan B Peterson, “Responsibility, conscience and meaning,” YouTube video, 1:38:16, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10QsBmawqxg&, 1:24:20–1:24:40.