Today is a rerun from the Thermidor archives.
The emergence of Jordan B. Peterson into the media spotlight of North America has been a very welcome phenomenon. Thrust there by the controversy surrounding his objecting to the aspects of Canada’s Federal Bill C16 which would force him as a professor to use fabricated pronouns for people of various trans and “non-binary” gender identifications, he has become a totem of free-speech and rejection of proliferating SJW campus madness. He has managed to parlay this newfound minor celebrity into a substantial online following of disciples, and used that as a springboard for connecting his ideas about totalitarianism, Marxism, and censorship (which are directly related to the controversy) to a broader body of work on psychology, evolution, mythology, politics, and religion.
From his podcast, lectures, and his substantial number of in-depth interviews with various outlets, one is able to get a good sense of his guiding principles and primary ideas. For instance, he contends (with research to back him up) that humans are deeply shaped by their location in various dominance hierarchies, such that this can be seen as the most fundamental force that forms them as social creatures. This fundamental fact, in turn, informs views about competing personality types within these hierarchies, and what circumstances are present when hierarchies degrade from relatively harmonious and functional to dysfunctional and chaotic. Which clearly has direct political implications.
His observations here tend to be highly compatible with reactionary views about nature, hierarchy, and order. As do many of his ideas about how religion fits into this picture. He sees religious stories and archetypes as representing primordial truths about human nature, human relations, and perhaps God, which have been experienced, sifted, sorted, and codified through the millennia and crystallized in the West in the stories of Christianity. His high esteem for the Christian paradigm as a vehicle of ultimate truths is admirable, though it doesn’t quite rise to the level of orthodox belief.
In the notion of the Logos—an idea which was present in antiquity but received fulfillment in the Christian tradition—Peterson sees a profound principle with tremendous implications for us today. While λόγος in ancient Greek had a rich meaning, with many connotations difficult to render into English, it is translated in the New Testament as ‘Word’ and identified with Christ himself. Who for Peterson is the ultimate Hero figure, the ultimate individual, as present in all mythology but finding its highest expression in the figure of Christ. Peterson’s preferred translation for Logos is something like ‘the spoken truth which sets free.’ It can also be translated as ‘reason’, and was seen as an ultimate metaphysical principle in Greek philosophy.
While much of what Peterson says on this topic is compatible with a traditional Christian understanding, there is one move he tends to make while discussing the topic that doesn’t wash.
It’s when he moves from exalting the power of spoken truth to change the world and bring light into it—a very familiar notion to Christians for whom all of creation, beginning with light, was brought into existence by God’s word1—to extolling the value of “free speech.” He will typically identify the Logos closely with the principle of “free speech”, and proceed to declare free speech to be the foundation of western civilization. This is because it is unfettered dialogue and exchange of ideas which allows critical examinations to take place, and the truth to emerge victorious.
Regrettably, the ultimate trad principle of the Logos is used to service the debased liberal notion of free academic dialogue as the fount of all truth and understanding. This notion jars radically with the Christian view that the Logos is transcendent and reveals himself in history, first in typos of the Old Testament, particularly the giving of the Law and the OT theophanies, and finally in Christ himself and his sacramental presence in the Church. And He reveals himself, according to the Sermon on the Mount, not to those diligent in rhetoric or dialogue or rationality, but to those of a pure heart.2 Which is something obtained by the virtues of humility, obedience, and faith rather than participation in some perpetual philosophical forum (which is as likely to lead to hell as anywhere else.) The Logos is not an emergent principle but an eternal one. It is the foundation of western civilization, yes, but it has precious little to do with “freedom of speech.”
Which is not to suggest that speech is unimportant or that there shouldn’t be fairly robust legal protections for it. But speech has been largely untrammeled in America for a long time—so much so that pornography receives some protection under the notion as do degenerate protesters at soldier’s funerals. To say nothing of blasphemous “art.” At that point, I’m quite happy to announce that the U.S. suffers from an excess of “freedom of speech.” While the rising censorious Left, which seeks mainly to silence speech by no-platforming, doxing people and getting them fired, using the heckler’s veto to drown out voices etc. (though also by law in Canada, and with “hate speech” laws in the U.S.) is to be virulently opposed, one needn’t appeal to “freedom of speech” to oppose these acts or categorize them as crimes. The traditionalist has more resources at his disposal.
Which brings us back to the Logos. Speaking truly is participation in the Logos; speaking untruths destroys communion with the Logos. The feigned neutrality of liberalism, which Peterson tacitly subscribes to, is a precursor to the relativism that Peterson rightly despises so much. What is to be safeguarded is not your “right” to expression of personal opinion, sincerely held and spoken, which can then be purified in the fire of debate and honest exchange into something closer to truth (though there may be broad tolerance for that.) It is the truth—the Logos— itself which is sacrosanct and must not be defaced (and which is often silent, rather than spoken, as it happens.) And the truth has been revealed in Christ. A society rightly ordered to this transcendent and revealed truth owes no protection to the desecrators of sacred spaces, to the haughty hecklers in the public square, to degenerate mobs shouting down those who are speaking truth. It can discern and judge when truth is being trampled upon because the Truth has been revealed.
This doesn’t entail totalitarian silencing of dissidents—again, broad protections for speech are desirable for many of the reasons Peterson points out—but it does mean refraining from absolutizing “free speech” as a value. And certainly declining to identify it closely with the Logos, which is a truth profoundly greater than a mere absence of restrictions on speech.
Freedom in the classical sense was not primarily defined negatively as an absence of fetters or restrictions, but positively as acting and speaking in accordance with your own nature, and thus with truth. In modern parlance, one may be “free” and yet an utter slave to caprice, avarice, malice, or lust. On the classical understanding of freedom, this would be absurd. Free acts or speech are not those arising from the individual will and facing no obstructions from the State, but those that accord with the realization of your nature as a man. Recovering the antique perspective exposes why “free speech” in the modern sense is a meager accomplishment.
It isn’t “free speech” that is the foundation of western civilization, but the Logos. While broad protections for speech and a wide tolerance of error may be generally desirable norms of governance, we should keep clear in our minds that it is the truth itself that is sacred, not our “rights.”