Anyone who knows of University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson will find it somewhat strange that someone with such traditional, even unoriginal advice should have gained such enormous celebrity. Peterson has 1.1 million YouTube subscribers and his new book, “12 Rules For Life,” has been a top Amazon seller throughout the English-speaking world.
Peterson enjoins his audiences of young people to clean their rooms, stand up straight, face evil, and do what’s meaningful and right, not what’s expedient. It’s undoubtedly noble. But Admiral William McRaven said something like it much more succinctly when he told the University of Texas class of 2014, “If you wanna change the world, start by making your bed.”
What makes Peterson’s message importantly different and provocative is not the content of his advice and rules, but rather the manner and strength of his rationale. Peterson is, at least at his best, a rational traditionalist: he stakes a claim for Western tradition based not, as Michael Oakeshott says of the conservative temperament, on a preference for the familiar simply because it is familiar, but rather on reason, scientific evidence, and his experience as a clinical psychologist.
Traditionalists feel a personal belonging to and affinity for their collective heritage. Through passed down institutions, art, codes of conduct, celebrations, and stories, the traditionalist is uniquely connected to a way of life that is greater than any one individual. He does not care for his tradition because it accords with any particular abstract ethic, such as because it produces happiness, pleasure, or freedom. Rather, he cares to preserve his tradition because it is his heritage. A traditionalist about marriage, for example, may well believe it is good to give equal rights to gay people, and yet want to preserve marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.
Rationalists do not have this sense of personal belonging, They follow abstract ethical ideals, such as pleasure, happiness, and freedom, that are not tied to any particular tradition. Rather than deciding what to do with tradition based upon preservig a way of life, the rationalist asks whether it will work toward the ethical ideal.
Without tradition we move in the abstract space of ideals; without rationalism we remain bound by tradition. Even if they are dogmatic, the loss of our traditions is the loss of our way of life, our living history, our great supra-individual body. But the loss of our rationalism would mean the inability to change our traditions so they can better serve the individual. We want to revivify our heritage while maintaining a way to discriminate between aspects of our tradition; to say, in an abstract sense, what is good and what is bad.
Peterson helps resolve this conflict by basing a defense of Western tradition upon rationalism. He doesn’t say you should be monogamous because it’s bad to experiment or because that’s just the way it is, but because monogamy is the best long-term solution to the problem of sex and companionship. His criticism of socialism is based on his reading of history and on the demonstrable tendency of socialist policies to result in totalitarian regimes, and the tendency of capitalism to raise standards of living.
His lectures on the Bible do not attempt to claim that Judeo-Christian religious stories offer metaphysical or natural scientific truths, but that they can be read as literature to show profound psychological insight. His lecture on Cain and Abel, for example, does not hinge on the factual existence of two men born to the real Adam and Eve. Rather, he focuses on the psychological state of Cain, a man who, like John Milton’s Satan, is possessed by resentment against God and existence itself, and destroys his own ideal.
Since it is unlikely that true traditionalism will return, it is possible that Peterson’s manner of defending the West is the only way that our traditions can survive. With our habitual rationalism we tend to evaluate the nation and our economy based not on whether they are traditional but upon how they affect the individual’s self-interest. So despite his rationalistic orientation, Petersen can be an ally for traditionalists by providing an articulate and reasoned defense of their way of life.