Last November, when I drew the name of my 18-year-old brother in the family Kris Kringle, I knew the perfect Christmas present for him. I’d buy him a ticket to Jordan Peterson’s lecture in Melbourne!
Or so I told myself. The reality is less altruistic. I’d found an excuse to justify paying $100 to see a public intellectual I can watch online any time, for free.
As it happens, there was nothing in Peterson’s lecture which I haven’t heard from him before. So it was intriguing that 5,500 people were so enthralled by a man pacing the stage for two hours apparently sharing his stream of consciousness. (I’m sure that the lecture was carefully prepared and executed, but such are Peterson’s skills in public speaking, it felt like he was speaking ex tempore.)
The present tour is headlined 12 Rules for Life, like Peterson’s bestselling book, but his remarks focused exclusively around his first rule: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” He gives plenty of reasons to do this, relating how and why we are better off than our grandparents, and how and why we can be rationally optimistic about the future. I think that Peterson’s optimism is what most impressed me. Jordan Peterson inspires. As one friend put it:
“He inspires you to rise up above all the darker feelings, regardless of what you’ve been through, and face the world with strength and determined goodness.”
I’ve long believed that Peterson is filling a void once occupied by the Church. As Peterson again declared on Q&A tonight, he makes “no metaphysical claims,” and he deliberately keeps religion out of it. Nonetheless he speaks about morality with moral authority. His public lecture — not unlike his book — culminates in a heartfelt and tearful account of meaning in the midst of suffering. Peterson resembles a post-modern and agnostic Archbishop Fulton Sheen, expounding why Life is Worth Living.
What Peterson says makes me optimistic. But how he says it, and how young adults especially have responded, makes me even more optimistic. The huge numbers of online views Peterson attracts, and books he sells, and global tours he sells out, challenge the claim that millennials have the attention span and intellectual capacity of goldfish. Peterson observes that only a very small minority of the literate population ever read and understand the great books of great thinkers. Thus it was, and hence it shall ever be. But a good many more are interested in, and capable of, engaging with those great ideas in conversation. As Peterson himself demonstrates, the Internet now provides the mass media to cultivate those conversations. The likes of Youtube and Periscope are broadcasting great ideas to a mass audience, which will individually and collectively change the world. Professor Peterson is not so much the catalyst of this cultural shift, as he is a symptom of it. And that, above all, is a cause for optimism.