• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Jordan Peterson: The Modern Socrates

December 2018

In the busy agora of ideas that is our internet, the dizzying stoa and gathering-place of our unnaturally electronic lives, Jordan Peterson has emerged as the Socrates of our modern day.

The comparison is bold, but it’s apt. Of this, I’m convinced. Just like that meddling ancient Greek, to whom we owe an ironic tradition, an eponymous dialogue, and an abstruse Platonic ideal, Peterson is the consummate gadfly. He’s the thinker we’ve come simultaneously to love and to hate, to adore and to censure at once. He pokes his thumbs into notions preconceived, into taboos untouched, and fears not the return of their imminent blow. He transgresses the progressives and startles the conservative types. He ruffles feathers wherever they may be found—right, left, center, and around the world. All this he does in a verbally mesmerizing, an argumentatively compelling way that one can’t hope to ignore. No button turned to mute will silence the growing drumbeat of his thought.

Increasingly and now rhythmically, we march in line with his tune. Let us decipher his song.

He courts this, our self-professed “rational” society with an acumen that intimidates those we perhaps wrongly consider to be the most learned among us. Add to this a decades-long clinical and professorial experience in the field of psychology and, with it, an accumulation of data and hard science, and he’s become an insuperable, intellectual force. He can now wield his science as Achilles—a second, less philosophical but equally famous Greek—did his heavenly-rendered sword and is apt to do some real damage to the power-hungry and doctrinaire. His aim, should it prove straight, is to puncture cant and let bleed out all the uncomfortable, vitalizing, and regenerative truths that are immured inside this decadent society’s core.

Like Socrates before him, Peterson is committed to a path whose end may be truth, but no such venturesome philosopher can ever be sure of such unambiguous ground. Forever will that remain a territory incompletely known. One can only plant flags where they’re least likely to be moved by the changing of the winds. He therefore digs, as any man seeking roots in first principles might, to the bedrock upon which a system of thought, of argument, and of progress might be built. From that point, the general discourse might in time improve, the subtlety of thought might refine. A wiser, more just, more pious and veracious civilization might then stretch its neck and reach to the skies. We might even hope to elevate humanity along the way. Socrates, in his tireless pursuit of those very same things, wanted to build a tower equally grand.

Towers, though, are built not of one but of many hands. From every corner of the web, Peterson’s videos, lectures, and debates are grasped and heard by millions of such hands and ears with relish. Millions of others think them intangible, disreputable, and just plain gross. This second, often more vocal group receives these videos and lectures with a kind of increasingly hardened animosity and distaste. They think him a deliberate inventor of invective, a genteel misogynist in the garb of a psychologist. More predictably, perhaps, they’ve set upon calling him an outright fascist—the emptiest of all epithets that might still have a dying currency in our day.

But all hold him in one or another light. Of these multiple millions of viewers, and haters, and disciples, and trolls, not one among them can claim him or herself apathetic to Peterson’s views. After having imbibed his ideas and soaked in the torrent of his wisdom, if only for a brief while, one becomes intoxicated and driven to respond. Thus, of Jordan Peterson, our new Socratic sage of the internet, our new Canadian-Athenian thought leader setting the world ablaze, all hold an opinion, be it jaundiced or friendly, cold or warm.

Above all, regardless of the side of the fence upon which you land, you won’t convince a single soul if you deny being stimulated by what the good professor has it in his head to say. In this way, he can be described not only as eloquent—which melodiously and inarguably he is—but piquant as well. An otherwise inert mind will be forced to react to his expositions on God. A complacent atheist will be made to rethink just what a religious archetype implies. A couch-dwelling, welfare-collecting bum will be thrust to his feet after hearing his twelve rules for life. The flame will be lit for you further to inquire. You’ll want to delve much deeper into the startling profundity of his unconventional and, for that reason, controversial mind.

To everyone of an intellectual bent, Peterson, like Socrates, offers something—and many hours and dialogues of it. Seemingly endless are the minutes available of him speaking in front of students, leftists, opponents, and academics—or some combination of the four. Always panoptic if not overtly Socratic, Peterson has in store a great many of the answers we seek. Perhaps this is one of the few places where he and Socrates diverge. Trained in psychology but seemingly learned in every field, Peterson has a way of circumventing dialectic and cutting rather closely to the truth. Socrates is known to have rather obscured than illuminated whenever given the chance.

At this point, you’ll doubtless agree that Peterson—our modern and belated successor to Socrates—has infiltrated our internet-obsessed minds. More than that, he’s permeated our conversation and provoked us into unprecedented thought, and he’s accomplished this from every side. No friend of the left, yet no lackey of the right, he straddles two divergent political worlds. One foot on each, he stands astride a growing chasm whose mouth widens by the day. Upon witnessing and feeling this, one can’t help but be despondent. Nevertheless, there is a hope that Peterson can help arouse us to rationality, sincerity, intellectual honesty, decency, and strength. Unity, though, is likely beyond his or our reach. Yet we’re all unified in our veneration of Socrates and the knowledge that he lived. So too are we brought together around this most recent gadfly to appear on the philosophical stage. Jordan Peterson: our twenty-first century, internet-age, veritable Socrates.

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