After bursting onto the world stage in late 2016, Dr. Jordan Peterson has gathered an enormous following and is often referred to as one of the leading intellectuals of our time. He has renewed interest in Christianity, popularized psychological insights that run counter to the leftist media narrative, and bridged chasms of disagreement.
Influenced by Rand?
He calls himself an existentialist and frequently cites influences such as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Piaget, and Jung. But there may be another important source of inspiration which he does not attribute explicitly: Ayn Rand.
As a young socialist, Peterson read Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. He says he “enjoyed it” and has read it several times, but also says he does not regard her work as “great literature” because the heroes are too perfect and the villains too evil.
However, despite many superficial and a few substantial differences, his philosophy significantly overlaps with Rand’s and appears to be influenced by her. He recently appeared at an Ayn Rand conference for a cordial discussion. Objectivists are split in their views on Peterson.
One of the most gripping scenes of Atlas Shrugged is when the protagonist, Dagny Taggart, helps a tramp and hears his long story of a progressive experiment in equity that descends into hell. Decades before The Gulag Archipelago, postmodernism, or intersectional feminism, Rand lays out the basic problem of the Oppression Olympics:
“He had to claim miseries, because it’s miseries, not work, that had become the coin of the realm — so it turned into a contest among six thousand panhandlers, each claiming that his need was worse than his brother’s. How else could it be done? Do you care to guess what happened, what sort of men kept quiet, feeling shame, and what sort got away with the jackpot?”
Peterson frequently echoes precisely this argument, most recently in a Joe Rogan show. YouTuber Mr Reagan aptly analyzes key parts of that episode.
Peterson frequently alludes to the evolution and survival of behaviors, actions, and stories as the basis for truth and value. Rand was the first philosopher to define life and the biological foundation of ethics properly:
“Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”
Peterson points to the Pragmatists and Piaget for his view of value as things we act out. However, again he read it first in Rand: “value is that which we act to gain or keep.”
The main reason that Peterson never became enamored with Rand’s philosophy may be a difference in what she called the “sense of life.” He has struggled with depression all his life, while Rand had a more exalting experience of life, which she celebrated in her novels. Her work did not strike an emotional chord.
Despite these differences in temperament, and thereby in their outlooks on life, they cover much of the same philosophical ground and end up on the same page surprisingly often. It is tempting to say that Peterson is the suffering version of Rand. Her focus is the pursuit of happiness, while Peterson says you need to pursue meaning to survive your times of hardship.