Jordan Peterson: “We’re beasts of burden”

3 Sep|Tim Lott

The Canadian professor’s 12 Rules of Life has dominated the bestseller lists all year, infuriating as many people as it enlightens. Is he an alt-right bogeyman or a realist with a steadfast grip on the complexities of life? Novelist Tim Lott tackles the enigma that is Jordan Peterson in the current issue of the Idler. Below we reproduce a short extract. In it, Peterson attacks idling.

Tim Lott: The Idler magazine stands, in a sense, against the modern world, particularly the Protestant work ethic, hence the idling. It’s a classical notion of life. The purpose of life should be creative leisure. It’s all about getting yourself away from your screen and using creative leisure, as opposed to the strictures and soul-destroying elements of work. Isn’t there a contradiction there? Your idea is that liberation comes through hard work. Aren’t most jobs just a straightjacket that stop people from being themselves?

Jordan Peterson: I would say beware of generalising past your own experience. You’re a creative person. That’s not common. Creative people and non-creative people are not the same. I’ve met creative and non-creative people in my clinical practice. Creative people die without their creative enterprises. It’s like they’re a tree and maybe they’re a bifurcated tree, and half of that is creative impulse. If they’re in a straightjacket and they don’t pursue that creative impulse, they get depressed and curl up and die. For conscientious types, the conservative types, the straightjacket isn’t a straightjacket – it’s the dutiful and proper thing to do next.

The Idler issue is very interesting. Other things we might ask ourselves: Imagine we had leisure time, what would we do with it? The romantic notion would be that we would fill our time with creative enterprises. But there’s an error there because of this trait. It’s not that common. You are actually extremely creative. You’re off the charts. The thing about creative people is that they will work very hard at creative things. But if it’s not creative, there’s no spark for them. I’ve seen very few people manage that.

TL: So is there something essentially slavish in human beings?

JP: We’re beasts of burden, absolutely.

TL: So we think we don’t want it, but we need it.

JP: We want the freedom of a set of severely constrained choices under very few circumstances. I’m not being cynical about it. I’ve watched people in my clinical practice. People die without routine, and really fast. They just fall apart. They don’t know when to sleep, they don’t know when to eat.

TL: What you would say, in a way, about the Idler, is that it’s a nice idea but it’s not really going to work for most people?

JP: Routine works for conscientious people. Conservative types, that’s exactly what they want to do. The motivation for that isn’t exactly obvious. We don’t understand conscientiousness at all. There’s no animal model, there’s no neuropsychological model, there’s no theoretical model.

TL: You don’t get conscientious animals?

JP: Well, maybe sled dogs. It’s conceivable, they’re bred for that. Because conscientiousness requires something like delay of gratification and sacrifice for the future. That seems like a particularly human trait. We understand so little about conscientious people, that we can’t duplicate it in the lab.

A longer version of this interview appears in Idler 62. Click here to buy a copy.