Jordan Peterson: Advocate for Spiritual Freedom
"To be free is to be capable of thinking one's own thoughts - not the thoughts merely of the body, or of society, but thoughts generated by one's deepest, most original, most essential and spiritual self, one's individuality." - Rudolf Steiner
In the last five years, Jordan Peterson has captured the world's imagination with one simple message which I paraphrase as follows - "the more responsibility you take for your own desires, feelings, and thoughts in life, the more degrees of freedom and inner meaning you will accrue to your soul." Peterson himself often remarks on how this simple message is known to "any psychologist worth their salt". He also remarks on how this message is stunningly absent in the Western consciousness, despite its overwhelming simplicity and self-evident, Self-fulfilling truth value. It's as if millions of people, across many different political, social, economic, and cultural dimensions, have been waiting for a personality like Peterson to ignite a simple spark which helps them remember what they already knew but had long-forgotten. That in no way diminishes the painstaking effort Peterson has put into his 'craft' over many years, quite literally sacrificing his own physical well-being to flesh this message out for millions of people. Peterson sacrificed many pleasurable qualities of life, along with professional and personal relationships, to the Spirit as an offering of "choice meat", and through that sacrifice many souls have discovered, regained, and enriched their own qualities of life and meaningful relationships.
Peterson also became known for his rather mysterious and penetrating spiritual views over time; his deeply passionate, yet enigmatic questions and comments about what it means to "believe in God" . Throughout his lectures on the "psychological significance" of the Bible, we can see these are not feigned attempts to market his brand. Rather, Peterson actually wrestles deeply with all matters of the Spirit, just as the Hebrew prophets did, and refuses to reduce them into either the superficial terms of "personal psychology" or the rigid dogmas of historic Christian theology. These two aspects of the 'Peterson phenomena' - his simple message of personal responsibility and his enigmatic spirituality - are deeply related. What makes his spiritual perspective seem so mysterious and enigmatic is also what makes the simple thread of thoughtful responsibility running through his message feel so utterly foreign, yet also nostalgically liberating, to the average Western mind. To observe this connection more deeply, and thereby discover its inner logic for ourselves, we will take a look at another enigmatic spiritual thinker who was writing and lecturing at the turn of the 20th century - Rudolf Steiner - as well as some of his own inspirations who overlap with Peterson.
There are higher degrees, and nature has more splendid endowments for those whom she elects to a superior office; for the class of scholars or writers, who see connection where the multitude see fragments, and who are impelled to exhibit the facts in order, and so to supply the axis on which the frame of things turns...
Some reply to these questions may be furnished by looking over the list of men of literary genius in our age. Among these, no more instructive name occurs than that of Goethe, to represent the power and duties of the scholar or writer... Goethe was the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with this rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and, by his own versatility, to dispose of them with ease...
In the menstruum of this man’s wit, the past and the present ages, and their religions, politics, and modes ofthinking, are dissolved into archetypes and ideas. What new mythologies sail through his head! The Greeks said, that Alexander went as far as Chaos; Goethe went, only the other day, as far; and one step farther he hazarded, and brought himself safe back. There is a heart-cheering freedom in his speculation.
The Devil had played an important part in mythology in all times... [Goethe] stripped him of mythologic gear, of horns, cloven foot, harpoon tail, brimstone, and blue-fire, and, instead of looking in books and pictures, looked for him in his own mind, in every shade of coldness, selfishness, and unbelief that, in crowds, or in solitude, darkens over the human thought, — and found that the portrait gained reality and terror by everything he added, and by everything he took away.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Goethe; Or, the Writer (1850)
Our first connection with Peterson comes via Goethe, author of Faust. Steiner explicitly draws on the archetypal philosophy and science of Goethe (1749-1832). He was the first personality in the modern age to systematically pursue a scientific phenomenology of Nature. Goethe brought his immense mind to bear on diverse fields such as zoology, botany, metereology, and color theory. In this quest, he rescued the concept of the "archetype" for the Western imagination; a concept which has since percolated into the fields of history, philosophy, and psychology. His epistemology directly challenged the dominant Kantian paradigm of his day, in which the phenomenon was considered forever estranged from the "things-in-themselves". Instead, Goethe's maxim was Res Ipsa Loquitur, i.e. "the-thing-speaks-for-itself". Peterson has also spoken very highly of this phenomenological approach when referencing Husserl, Heidegger, Binswanger, and Boss in his personality lectures. The essential meaning of the word "phenomenon" is "that which shines forth" to our senses and cognition in the world of appearances. This meaning is what Goethe, Steiner, and Peterson all want us to pay careful attention to. Peterson perceives how all phenomena in our experience are expressed through the ceaseless interaction of two archetypal forces, which he has labelled "Order" and "Chaos", and here we come upon the second connection.
Goethe also identified the underlying forces of "archetypal phenomenon" to be polarities which oppose each other and thereby constitute one another (as in the 'poles' of a magnet). For example, in his color theory, which directly challenged Isaac Newton's color theory (still used today), Goethe concluded, by way of careful experiments, that all the seven colors of the spectrum were manifested by the interweaving forces of Light and Darkness. When darkness is perceived through lightness, said Goethe, we perceive a shade of the color blue (as in the 'blue sky' we perceive during the day). When lightness is perceived through darkness, we perceive a reddish-yellow shade (as in that of the 'sunrise' or 'sunset'). The sunrise is a symbol of the 'ordering principle', as the Light of day-consciousness (knowing awareness) is shed on the darkness of the 'collective unconscious' during sleep. Likewise, the sunset is a symbol of the ordering principle once again submerging into the chaotic realms of the 'collective unconscious' before it will be reborn again in the day. Peterson mentions these symbolic connections often while he also critiques the "Newtownian" worldview adopted in the modern age, in which the world is viewed as a place of static quantitative "things" rather than a forum for ever-evolving qualitative meanings and actions.
"The wingless bird or dragon prevents the other from flying. They stand for Sol and Luna, brother and sister, who are united by means of the art. In Lambspringk’s “Symbols”, they appear as the astrological Fishes which, swimming in opposite directions, symbolize the spirit / soul polarity."
- Carl Jung, Mysterium Conunctionis (1955)
Related to this more qualitative and fluid "Darwinian" understanding of the world, we come to the third connection between Peterson and Steiner, which is that of depth psychology in the Jungian tradition. The ancient Greek word psyche has always referred to the qualities of the human soul and spirit since those ancient times, and both Jung and Steiner understood it in this way. They are the living and conscious activities of human beings which cannot be reduced to physical structures and fixed "laws of nature", despite the many failed attempts to do so in the modern age. Peterson has often brought attention to the "hard problem of consciousness"; a problem which neuroscience has made absolutely no progress towards solving in its attempts to find physical mechanisms which explain either the initial development or the ongoing experience of phenomenal consciousness, i.e. what it feels like "to be" in the world. Jung shared these same suspicions of the mainstream reductonist approach and that was a key factor in his divergence from Freud. We find this conviction clearly reflected in what he refers to as the 'objective psyche' or 'collective unconscious' of humanity, which acts as a transpersonal human soul-spirit. Although Steiner was critical of all analytical philosophy and psychology due to its intellectual abstracting tendencies, he clearly recognized the major advances which Jung had made in this nascent field beyond the rationalist and reductionist approaches of Freud and Adler.
Jung says: there are two types of people. In one type feeling is more developed, in the other thinking... Thus an “epoch-making” discovery was made by a great scholar. Scholarship says in such a case: the one who feels his way into things sends out his own force into objectivity; the other draws back from an object, or halts before it and considers. The first is called the extroverted type, the other the introverted. The first would be the feeling man, the second the intellectual one. This is a learned division, is it not? ingenious, brilliant, really descriptive up to a point — that is not to be denied!
In his subconsciousness man is connected with an entirely different world, of which Jung says: the soul has need of it because it is related to it, but he also says that it is foolish to inquire about its real existence. Well, it is this way: as soon as the threshold of consciousness is crossed, man and his soul are no longer in merely material surroundings or relations, but in a realm where thoughts rule, thoughts which may be very artful.
- Rudolf Steiner, Psychoanaysis in the Light of Anthroposophy (1917)
In 1895, Steiner wrote a little over 200-page book called, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. It was a phenomology of perception and cognition, in which he made no metaphysical assumptions or relied on any interpretations of modern science (the latter hardly existed at that time in relation to perception and cognition, but have since confirmed much of what Steiner concluded). Steiner built on the foundation of Goethe. The latter had taken the standards for his scientific inquiry from the phenomena he was studying, rather than his own abstract concepts of how the world is or should be. He did not impose his own thoughts on the phenomena until they first disclosed to him what sort of thinking could make sense of their manifold manifestations in the world. Steiner, who also worked extensively on compiling and organizing the Goethe archive, then developed a broader philosophy of how our thinking activity confronts the manifold sense-perceptions of the world. Our purpose here is not to summarize the entire work of Steiner in this regard, although it is undoubtedly a philosophical work unlike anything which has come before or since, and one which all should deeply contemplate at least once. Instead, we will summarize just enough of his philosophy to give context for the fourth and most important connection between Steiner and Peterson.
Steiner first observed that the world will confront our senses as a manifold set of disconnected perceptions - in the words of William James, another 20th century explorer of the psyche, it will appear as a "blooming, buzzing confusion". These manifold perceptions are then brought into a meaningful relationship with each other by way of our thinking activity which 'attaches' the appropriate concepts to their corresponding percepts. That is how we come to then perceive meaningful constellations of ideas in the world of phenomenal experience. In this way, our bodily organization tears asunder the totality of World Content into two halves. One half approaches our senses from without as bare percepts and the other half approaches our inner cognition as meaningful concepts. We then put back together with our thinking activity what our bodily organization originally tore asunder - we manifest Order from Chaos. Naturally the question arises, why do we fragment the World Content in this way to begin with? Peterson answers this question very helpfully as he explores Chapter 3 in the book of Genesis, when the primal human pair of "one flesh" ate fruit from the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil", and consequently the "eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked."
Self-awareness only became possible when the original Unity fragmented into differentiated forms. What can be gained from this self-awareness is the entire phenomenal world and all qualities, virtues, and values it can instill within the individual soul's experience before it is reborn and ascends to rejoin its spiritual companions within the Kingdom of God. What all of that actually means, at its deepest level, can only be unpacked over the course of many lifetimes. The purpose here is only to briefly illustrate the involutionary (differentiation) and evolutionary (reintegration) development of the psyche-soul which makes sense of our current circumstances in the phenomenal world. In these hyper-fragmented and complicated circumstances, the modern soul is lost in a maze of interweaving perspectives and needs to find its way back to the archetypal phenomenon which it relies upon for the nourishment of meaning. Where should it look for this quintessential 'needle in the haystack'? Kant said, "don't bother looking anywhere, because it doesn't exist". Schopenhauer added, "you can look for it in the 'blind Will', but don't bother thinking about it". Many other brilliant thinkers proposed many similarly nihilisitc answers, and the rest of them stopped asking the question altogether.
That is, except for Steiner. He found and clearly conveyed where we can immanently find the needle - our own thinking activity. When we perceive the phenomenal appearance of our willed activity, such as bodily movements, they are far removed from the compicated array of forces which gave rise to them. The phenomenal manifestations of our feeling activity, although less removed than the willed activity, is still mired in complex networks of interpersonal relations which are difficult to trace back to their origins. It is only in our immanent thinking activity where the phenomenon and noumenon are truly united. One need only observe their own thinking to reach this conclusion. For all other perceptions, even those as simple as a colored surface, we can ask ourselves, "why do I perceive this color? what is the meaning of the color? what stands behind my perception of the color?". For our own thought-forms which we perceive, such as that of a "triangle", those questions are immediately answered by the nature of thinking itself. I know why I percieve the thought-form of "triangle" because I willed it into existence; I know what this thought-form means because it is my idea of "triangle" projected into it; I know that it is my own thinking activity which is standing behind the "triangle".
Here we have a very small corner in the totality of World Content which we can completely explain without ever going beyond ourselves; the very tip of the iceberg which is the entire phenomenal world. In fact, the field of psychology in the 20th century would never be possible or necessary if the above was not true. It is implicitly assumed by all psychologists that the sources and reasons for a patient's desires (will), feelings, and most thoughts are deeply concealed and can only gradually be revealed by grasping a firm corner of their inner experience, by way of thoughtful contemplation, and broadening out from there. Peterson frequently emphasizes this point when he remarks, "we are not transparent to ourselves in the least". The problem is that these same psychologists also fail to understand the full extent of why their method produces remarkable results and what the implications are for the soul's spiritual development at large. I do not consider Peterson to be one of the aforementioned psychologists, as his spiritual insights clearly go far deeper than those gained only from clinical practice. I suspect, however, that he is not explicitly aware of Goethe's scientific work, or Steiner's work in general, since he has never mentioned them before in this context. Perhaps one day he will read what is written here and that will change. Now we begin to conclude this exploration into Peterson's advocacy for spiritual freedom with a fifth connection between Peterson and Steiner.
"No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell." - Jung
More than 120 years after Steiner publised his phenomenology of Thinking (which he also refers to as "Spiritual Activity"), one of the most puzzling questions which remains is how so many brilliant minds continue to completely miss, or only tangentially mention, the role which our Thinking plays in the co-creation of the phenomenal world? The answer to that question is no more complicated than Peterson's simple message referenced at the outset. What happens when one admits the phenomenon and noumenon - the appearances and the 'things-in-themselves' - are united in our own Thinking activity? That is, what logical conclusion naturally unfolds, in fact must unfold, once a "truth-seeker" grabs hold of a firm corner in his own Thinking experience where the appearances are completely explained by his own activity? Then that indivudal must become a truth-seeker without the quotes. He is then obligated to take responsibility for uncovering ever-expanding constellations of noumenal relations - the true sources of our meaning in life - from that firm corner within himself. His own displine, effort, and introspective thought becomes the only means by which he can raise himself up and rediscover meaning in the phenomenal world. The genuine truth-seeker must then nod his head in agreement with Steiner:
"What a pitiful creature man would be if nature offered him satisfaction from outside! All lamentations about an existence that does not satisfy us, about this hard world, must disappear before the thought that no power in the world could satisfy us if we ourselves did not first lend it that magical power by which it uplifts and gladdens us. Satisfaction must come to us out of what we make of things, out of our own creations. Only that is worthy of free beings."
- Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science (1897)
Since all threefold (Triune) essences appear in polar opposite relations (such as the primal Order-Chaos relation), we will end our consideration here with a final sixth connection. In the same year Steiner wrote the above-referenced phenomenology of Thinking, he also wrote a fascinating book entitled, Friedrich Nietzsche: Fighter for Freedom. Peterson, like Jung before him, maintains a profound respect for Nietzsche's thought and, more importantly, for the spirit in which Nietzsche freely thought. There is a popular video on YouTube where Peterson speaks for "45 minutes on a single paragraph of Nietzche's 'Beyond Good Evil'". Steiner envisioned Nietzsche as a thinker who was "not in harmony with his time... a fighter against his time". After the Germans won a decisive victory in the War of 1870, Nietzsche described the victory as insanity, which was dangerous because "if [the insanity] should become dominant within the German nation, the danger would exist of transforming the victory into complete defeat... an extirpation of the German spirit in favor of 'the German realm'". Peterson also notices the stunning foresight of Nietzsche illustrated in the latter's comments on the rise of totalitarianism and nihilism in the 20th century, which would then lead to the deaths of millions of souls. As Nietzsche laid in a catatonic state in his mother's home, Steiner was allowed to visit him many times
I am thankful to Frau Foerster-Nietzsche that during the first of my many visits (to Nietzsche's home), she led me into the room of Friedrich Nietzsche. There on a couch he lay in spirit-night, with his marvelously beautiful brow, that of artist and thinker in one. It was early in the afternoon. Those eyes, which even in thir dimness gave the effect of soul penetration, still took in a picture of the surrounding, but this had no entrance into the soul. One stood there and Nietzsche was unaware of it. And yet one could have believed that this spiritually illuminated countenance expressed a soul which had formed thoughts within itself all morning, and now wished to rest for a while. A deep inner shudder which siezed my sou ... transformed itself into an understanding for the genius whose look was directed toward me, but which did not meet mine...
Nietzsche's sister requested, after learning of Steiner's involvement with the Goethe archive, to "arrange the Nietzsche library". While he considered the task, Steiner was permitted to spend several weeks in the Nietzche Archive and remarked as follows - "His spirit lived in the impressions these volumes made. ... A book by Emerson, covered with marginal notes, bore traces of the most devoted, intense study." For reasons which are not altogether clear, but could be related to Steiner's mistrust of the sister and her antisemitic sentiments - sentiments all too common in Europe at that time - Steiner declined the offer. Nevertheless, his respect for this spirital fighter for freedom ran deep. For all of the remarkable thinkers we have mentioned here - Goethe, Nietzsche, Steiner, Jung, and Peterson - the path to inner freedom by way of the deepest Self-knowledge is of the utmost significance in their writings and lectures. It is my conviction that many millions of people will find their own inner freedom in the near future as they also stand on the shoulders of these spiritual giants. So, to conclude our journey, I would like to describe my relationship to both Peterson and Steiner as the latter described his own relationship to Nietzsche, which was, in turn, how Nietzsche described his relationship to Schopenhauer. I imagine that more than a few readers will share this same sentiment below for Peterson, and perhaps one day they will for Steiner as well.
“I belong to those readers of [Peterson and Steiner] who, after they have read the first page, know with certainty that they will read all pages, and listen to every word they have said. My confidence in them was there immediately... I understood them as if they had written just for me, in order to express all that I would say intelligibly but immediately and foolishly.”