The Jordan Peterson phenomenon Print E-mail
Word on Fire
Thursday, Mar. 15, 2018 -- 12:00 AM

This article is the first of a two-part series.

Like many others, I have watched the Jordan Peterson phenomenon unfold with a certain fascination. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t spend a lot of time on social media, for Peterson, a mild-mannered psychology professor from the University of Toronto, has emerged as one of the hottest personalities on the internet.

He is followed by millions of people, especially young men. His lectures and presentations — cool, understated, brainy, and blunt — are avidly watched and commented upon. And his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is a number one bestseller all over the world.

Moreover, Peterson’s spirited and articulate opposition to the imposition of speech codes in his native Canada has made him a controversial political player, a hero of free speech to his supporters, and a right-wing ideologue to his detractors.

His interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, during which Peterson’s interlocutor revealed herself as a hopelessly biased social justice warrior, has, as of this writing, been viewed 7.5 million times.

The collective unconscious

In many ways, Peterson is doing for this generation what Joseph Campbell did for the previous one, namely, reintroducing the archetypal psychology of C.G. Jung in an appealing and provocative manner.

Jung’s theorizing centered around what he termed the archetypes of the collective unconscious, which is to say, those primordial instincts, insights, and memories that influence much of our behavior and that substantially inform the religions, philosophies, and rituals of the human race.

The Jungian template enables Peterson to interpret many of the classical spiritual texts of Western culture in a fresh way — those very texts so often excoriated by mainstream intellectuals as hopelessly patriarchal, biased, and oppressive.

It also permits him to speak with a kind of psychological and spiritual authority to which young people are not accustomed, but to which they eagerly respond .

His new book, an elaboration of 12 basic psychological rules for life, makes for bracing and satisfying reading. Peterson’s considerable erudition is on clear display throughout, but so is his very real experience in the trenches as a practicing psychotherapist.

His advice is smart indeed, but it never seems abstract, detached, or unrealistic. In the course of this brief article, I can only hint at some of his fascinating findings and recommendations.

A theme that runs through the entire book is that of the play between order and chaos, symbolized most neatly by the intertwining fish of the Tao image.

Fragile human consciousness

Human consciousness itself, Peterson argues, sets one foot in the former and the other in the latter, balancing the known and the unknown, the settled and the unexplored. Too much of one, and we fall into complacency, routine, and at the limit, tyranny; too much of the other, and we lose our bearings completely, surrendering to the void.

The great myths of the hero — from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker and Bilbo Baggins — typically recount the story of someone who leaves complacent domesticity behind in order to venture into the dangerous unknown, where he manages to find something of enormous value to his family or village or society.

One key to psychological/spiritual fulfillment is to embody this archetype of the hero, to live one’s life as an adventurous exploration of the unknown.

So Peterson tells his readers — especially young men, who have been cowed into complacency for various reasons — to throw back their shoulders, stand tall, and face the challenges of life head on.


Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org