The Center of the Cathedral: The Allure of Jordan Peterson

Some time ago, a person asked me, “what is it with young men being obsessed with Jordan Peterson?”

Well, I thought, I’m a young man, and I’ve historically been obsessed with Jordan Peterson. Allow me to share my personal experience.

At the beginning of his book 12 Rules for Life, Peterson recounts a dream he once had. It’s a long passage, but it needs to be digested in full. He writes: 

I dreamt one night during this period that I was suspended in mid-air, clinging to a chandelier, many stories above the ground, directly under the dome of a massive cathedral. The people on the floor below were distant and tiny. There was a great expanse between me and any wall—and even the peak of the dome itself. 

I have learned to pay attention to dreams, not least because of my training as a clinical psychologist. Dreams shed light on the dim places where reason itself has yet to voyage. I have studied Christianity a fair bit, too (more than other religious traditions, although I am always trying to redress this lack). Like others, therefore, I must and do draw more from what I do know than from what I do not. I knew that cathedrals were constructed in the shape of a cross, and that the point under the dome was the centre of the cross. I knew that the cross was simultaneously, the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic centre of the world. That was not somewhere I wanted to be. I managed to get down, out of the heights—out of the symbolic sky—back to safe, familiar, anonymous ground. I don’t know how. Then, still in my dream, I returned to my bedroom and my bed and tried to return to sleep and the peace of unconsciousness. As I relaxed, however, I could feel my body transported. A great wind was dissolving me, preparing to propel me back to the cathedral, to place me once again at that central point. There was no escape. It was a true nightmare. I forced myself awake. The curtains behind me were blowing in over my pillows. Half asleep, I looked at the foot of the bed. I saw the great cathedral doors. I shook myself completely awake and they disappeared. 

My dream placed me at the centre of Being itself, and there was no escape. It took me months to understand what this meant. During this time, I came to a more complete, personal realization of what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot. Existence at that cross is suffering and transformation—and that fact, above all, needs to be voluntarily accepted. It is possible to transcend slavish adherence to the group and its doctrines and, simultaneously, to avoid the pitfalls of its opposite extreme, nihilism. It is possible, instead, to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience. 

How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything. But the alternative—the horror of authoritarian belief, the chaos of the collapsed state, the tragic catastrophe of the unbridled natural world, the existential angst and weakness of the purposeless individual—is clearly worse.

This passage has lodged in my psyche, and I believe it contains the core of his irresistible message. 

Peterson is something of a Rorschach test. His writing is so metaphysical and prismatic that different people can walk away with completely different interpretations. The following is mine.

The central message that necessitates his 24 rules is this: life will fuck you up. And not just you, but everything: your friends, your town, your society, your civilization. Entropy will rip everything and everyone apart. Things fall apart. There is no exception to this law. There is no escape.  And the only thing that can prepare us for that fact — the only thing that gives us a prayer of weathering this life with any measure of grace — is self-knowledge and integrity as an individual. That is the only thing that will keep entropy from tearing us apart at the center of that cathedral, and it’s the only way to create a better world with less suffering.

You might notice how resonant this passage is with my Satanism, which valorizes the Miltonian and Romantic Satan as the unbowed will rising up against insurmountable odds. The image of the lone individual hanging at the center of the cathedral, threatening to be torn asunder but for his integrity strikes me as tantalizingly Satanic.

In the world of Jordan Peterson, the brutality of life is not merely socially constructed. It is not simply a matter of privilege, and social injustice, or powerful people doing bad things. It is an intrinsic part of reality. Social injustice is generated by the continual decay of reality itself and the inherent unfairness of the world.

I think people — and especially young men, for some reason — see this message and feel like they have encountered something fundamentally true and real. I certainly feel that way.

When I was 19 years old, I survived a shooting. Two of my friends were murdered in front of me. This experience plunged me into a world that was completely alien to my peers. Suddenly, reality was divided between people like me who had witnessed crazy, senseless violence, and those who hadn’t.

I live with mental illness. I live with the knowledge that it might, someday, strike me with such intensity that I may never recover. I’ve tried to construct a lifestyle that guarantees that I will never have to live through another episode, but I know that chances are high that my brain will turn on me. 

My brain is broken, reality is broken. No amount of social redistribution will change that fact. I have to hang suspended in the center of that cathedral and live with the weight of my own mind. Peterson’s writings on despair, anguish, and choosing to be good anyway speak to me in a way that most creators on the left simply don’t. 

In leftist spaces, there is a lot of talk about socially constructed horror, but not much talk about the innate horror of existence and how to confront it with nobility. On nearly every lefty YouTube channel, in every lefty blog and podcast, there is an awful lot of talk about how society is fucked up and how we can fix it, but not much recognition that reality can be innately fucked up, too. Nor is there much advice from leftists about how to exist with dignity in the face of injustice and ugliness. If capitalism is so bad, it would be helpful to have a tutorial on how to exist in it without descending into nihilistic despair. If the relationship between bosses and workers is inherently exploitative and a form of material and spiritual rape, it would be helpful to know how to handle that while having to, you know, work.

Natalie Wynn made this point in her video about Jordan Peterson:

I also like that you tell people how to live their lives. I mean I personally hate taking orders outside of the bedroom but clearly the sheep need a shepherd, and you’ve really stepped up  with these twelve rules. You know on the left we don’t really tell people what to do, we tell them what not to do; don’t exploit the workers, do not do blackface. I guess we tell people what pronouns to use for trans people, but that’s a pretty small rule compared to some of your rules like how to raise your children or when it’s okay to criticize things. (…) I do think an education that only teaches people about oppression is inadequate. We spend four years teaching undergraduates why capitalism is bad, and then we say “well you’re educated now, good luck getting a job under capitalism bye!” And that really kind of sucks.

Don’t misunderstand me: we must create a better world. That fact is non-negotiable. We need to eradicate transphobia, racism, and systemic oppression. We must overcome climate change and create a global system that doesn’t perpetuate violence and inequality. But these goals don’t, in and of themselves, teach us how to live in the face of horror. They don’t teach us how to act nobly in the face of the inherent ugliness of reality. That is what Jordan Peterson tries to teach his young audience. That is why I, a young man, was drawn irresistibly into his orbit.

It took a long time for all of this to fall into place for me. I often find myself inexplicably drawn to figures that others would prefer I not become infatuated with, be it cult leaders, serial killers, Marilyn Manson when I was an evangelical teenager or Jordan Peterson as an adult progressive. But time has taught me that I’m usually drawn to these figures for a reason, and attempting to shame myself for liking them does no good. Instead, a curious investigation about why I and others are drawn to a particular figure will yield some valuable insights.

Once I realized what I was getting out of Jordan Peterson, I was able to let him go. And I’m glad I have: I believe he indulges in pseudoscience, conspiracy-mongering, and right-wing propaganda.

But I’m also glad that I’ve gone on this journey with Jordan Peterson. I’m glad I took the time to investigate my infatuation with him, rather than denying it existed altogether. 

A final word: many people I know are utterly baffled by the rise of Jordan Peterson. They cannot comprehend why so many people – especially young men –  are pulled into his orbit. They settle on haughty bemusement or overly simplistic answers like “young men need a daddy figure” without examining the deeper nuances of his texts that might draw people to him in the first place. 

To which I want to respond: you can read him, you know. There are answers to these questions, and you could take the time to find them out. This isn’t some sort of cosmic mystery like, “what is dark matter?” or “what happens after we die?” You could put in the effort to find out. It would probably greatly benefit you to do so, because Peterson is not going away, and it might be helpful to understand why people around you are so drawn to him.

P.S. – You might have noticed that the question that prompted this post — “why are young men drawn to Jordan Peterson?” — remains unanswered. You’ll have to ask other young men. I can only speak for myself.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or on my discord server, and don’t forget to become a patron if you enjoy my work. 

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