In Cam­bridge, look­ing in­ward and up­ward

In this oc­ca­sional se­ries, Jor­dan Peter­son writes from his in­ter­na­tional speak­ing tour for his book, 12 Rules for Life, where he’s ad­dress­ing sold-out crowds through­out North Amer­ica, Eu­rope and Aus­tralia.

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The last two days in Cam­bridge were re­lent­less, but in the best pos­si­ble way. My wife Tammy and I flew in early in the morn­ing from Am­s­ter­dam af­ter three days of non­stop press and talks. Then we slept for three hours and found The Mai­son du Steak, which served an ex­cel­lent rib­eye. The waiter knew of my work and said that it had helped him. We snapped a pic­ture to­gether.

I spoke that night to a ca­pac­ity crowd of 1,850 at the Corn Ex­change — orig­i­nally a ware­house where farm­ers and mer­chants traded ce­real grains, but a con­cert hall since 1971. Pink Floyd’s founder Syd Bar­rett played his last con­cert there; it has housed per­for­mances by ev­ery­one from Box­car Wil­lie to David Bowie.

One of the im­pos­si­bly cool as­pects of this 90-city tour has been the chance to visit all th­ese fa­mous and in­fa­mous con­cert halls — The Or­pheum in L.A., The Fill­more in Detroit, Lon­don’s Apollo Ham­mer­smith, Nash­ville’s Ry­man Au­di­to­rium (orig­i­nal home of the Grand Ole Opry, where 1,200 peo­ple sang Happy Birth­day to me in June) — and to fol­low in the foot­steps of per­form­ers like Johnny Cash, Min­nie Pearl, Neil Young, Leonard Co­hen. It’s an un­ex­pected priv­i­lege, with a sur­real as­pect.

That night at the Corn Ex­change, I spoke about Rule 6 from my book, 12 Rules for Life: Set your house in per­fect or­der be­fore you crit­i­cize the world.

It is by far the dark­est chap­ter in what can be a very dark book; a med­i­ta­tion on the deep­est mo­ti­va­tions of those who have cho­sen a truly malev­o­lent path. I spoke about the ha­tred for hu­man­ity and for Be­ing it­self — for God, re­ally — felt and ex­pressed by the Columbine killers. What is any­one to make of the fol­low­ing state­ment, penned by Dy­lan Kle­bold, per­haps the more lit­er­ate and creative of the two, the day be­fore the as­sault?

“About 26.5 hours from now the judg­ment will be­gin. Dif­fi­cult but not im­pos­si­ble, nec­es­sary, nerve wrack­ing & fun. What fun is life with­out a lit­tle death?”

For cen­turies, hu­man be­ings have med­i­tated on the na­ture of evil, ab­stract­ing out its cen­tral as­pects, and cloth­ing it in per­son­i­fied form. Why? Be­cause evil is a per­son­al­ity. Each vil­lain is an avatar of evil, a par­tial ac­tor of a very com­plex part. Each of us is ca­pa­ble both of un­der­stand­ing that part, and of act­ing it out, in our dark­est times.

I de­liv­ered what was likely the harsh­est of the many lec­tures I have given so far to the wait­ing Cam­bridge crowd, speak­ing about Dos­to­evsky’s Ivan Kara­ma­zov, who was not so much an ar­tic­u­late athe­ist but some­one who hated God for the suf­fer­ing of life, and Solzhen­it­syn’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the Gu­lag Ar­chi­pel­ago, and the story of Cain and Abel, which is in truth the ac­count of two fun­da­men­tal modes of be­ing, one that aims heav­en­ward, and the other aimed at hell.

It is my be­lief, which I shared with the crowd, that the world is sat­u­rated in hor­ror and dark­ness but that the hu­man spirit has within it, as the great English poet John Mil­ton had it, strength suf­fi­cient to have stood, though free to fall. I have learned even more clearly dur­ing this lec­ture tour that there is light to be found in great dark­ness.

It was an ex­haust­ing 75 min­utes of ex­pli­ca­tion.

The next morn­ing, I recorded a pod­cast with Dr. Stephen J. Black­wood, who is at­tempt­ing, with the sup­port of in­tel­lec­tu­als around the world, to es­tab­lish a new lib­eral arts col­lege in Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia. He’s hop­ing to pro­duce an in­sti­tu­tion that will pro­mote clas­sic lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive val­ues (as op­posed to the ap­palling and log­i­cally in­co­her­ent mix­ture of Marx­ism and post­mod­ernism that has come to dom­i­nate the hu­man­i­ties.)

I spent the lunchtime talk­ing with a dozen schol­ars about the ne­ces­sity of re-es­tab­lish­ing solid ground af­ter too many years of in­ces­sant, un­grate­ful and de­struc­tive crit­i­cism of the tra­di­tions of the west, the in­tel­lec­tual canon, and the re­li­gious nar­ra­tive that lies nec­es­sar­ily at the foun­da­tion of our cul­ture. A strange truce has lately emerged be­tween those more tra­di­tion­ally re­li­gious in their be­liefs and ra­tio­nal en­light­en­ment types, such as Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt, many of whom have come to re­al­ize that de­spite their dif­fer­ences they face a com­mon threat from chaotic ni­hilists and venge­ful iden­tity-pol­i­tics play­ers.

We vis­ited King’s Col­lege Chapel af­ter­wards, a build­ing prop­erly re­garded as one of the most beau­ti­ful in the United King­dom, with vast vaulted walls and a mirac­u­lously fil­i­greed stone ceil­ing, sus­pended, im­pos­si­bly, hun­dreds of feet in the air, light fil­ter­ing through an­cient stained glass like dap­pled sun­light through trees. Eu­rope con­stantly brings me to the edge of tears with its vi­sion­ary beauty. Why have we for­got­ten the power of such con­struc­tion? How were the crafts­men and artists who were our fore­bears able to pro­duce some­thing so mag­nif­i­cent over spans of time that ex­ceeded the du­ra­tion of their sin­gle lives? And all con­structed to re­mind men eter­nally to gaze up­ward and to aim in the same man­ner.

Later, in a video­taped dis­cus­sion with Sir Roger Scru­ton, author of some 50 books, a much ma­ligned con­ser­va­tive philoso­pher, we spoke about the soul-dead­en­ing mod­ern the­ory that power con­sti­tutes the fun­da­men­tal hu­man mo­ti­va­tion; that the past, the present and the fu­ture are noth­ing but the bat­tle­ground be­tween the dif­fer­ent tribal groups of sex, gen­der, and race, and that there is no tran­scen­dent good or re­al­ity with which in­di­vid­u­als might es­tab­lish a gen­uine re­la­tion­ship.

Din­ner af­ter that. Two more steaks, and a bit of a break, be­fore spend­ing 15 min­utes at Even­song in an­other beau­ti­ful Cam­bridge chapel. Then I went to speak to 700 stu­dents at the Cam­bridge Union. It was a high-spir­ited, en­thu­si­as­tic, con­tentious, ex­cit­ing event. Af­ter­ward I was in­ter­viewed by two stu­dent jour­nal­ists, both fe­male. With the first in­ter­viewer, we had a pro­duc­tive and in­ter­est­ing al­though very brief ex­change. The sec­ond hated me on sight. Had I pos­sessed the pres­ence of mind, I would have called at­ten­tion to the gi­ant chip on her shoul­der be­fore both­er­ing to en­gage in the mas­quer­ade of an “in­ter­view” by a “jour­nal­ist.” I told her that what I was do­ing on my tour was not pri­mar­ily po­lit­i­cal. That was ab­so­lute heresy, as far as she was con­cerned. EV­ERY­THING IS PO­LIT­I­CAL, she an­nounced, re­peat­ing the mantra that her ide­o­log­i­cally-pos­sessed pro­fes­sors had pounded into her head. “Mu­sic?” I asked. “Is that po­lit­i­cal?” “Mu­sic is po­lit­i­cal,” she in­sisted. “Love? Is that po­lit­i­cal?” “Most cer­tainly! Love is po­lit­i­cal. EV­ERY­THING IS PO­LIT­I­CAL.” “Why do we even bother with all those other cat­e­gories, then?” I asked, “phi­los­o­phy, the­ol­ogy, lit­er­a­ture, drama …?”

She had the good sense to look mo­men­tar­ily con­fused. “Ev­ery­thing is PARTLY po­lit­i­cal,” she said. “True,” I said, “but the qual­i­fier PARTLY is cru­cial. The dif­fer­ence be­tween EV­ERY­THING IS PO­LIT­I­CAL and ‘most things are partly po­lit­i­cal’ is the dif­fer­ence be­tween good sense and san­ity, and ide­o­log­i­cal ex­trem­ism and in­san­ity.”

We closed with an­other din­ner. It takes a lot of steaks to fuel 12 solid hours of think­ing. I dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of re­turn­ing to Cam­bridge next fall with Dr. Dou­glas Hed­ley, Pla­ton­ist and Neo-Pla­ton­ist, who looks per­fectly cast in his role of Oxbridge hu­man­i­ties scholar. We talked about the pos­si­bil­ity of a sem­i­nar, based on Ex­o­dus, con­ducted with Bib­li­cal ex­perts (there are many of them at Cam­bridge) as a means to deep­en­ing and ex­pand­ing what I might then at­tempt to com­mu­ni­cate to what ap­pears to be starv­ing for some­thing be­yond bread alone.

Eight hours later, Tammy and I drove to the air­port, and flew to Helsinki, where I am sit­ting and writ­ing th­ese words.

Jor­dan B. Peter­son is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Toronto, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and the author of the multi-mil­lion copy best­seller 12 Rules for Life: An An­ti­dote to Chaos. His blog and pod­casts can be found at jor­danbpeter­son.com

HOW WERE THE CRAFTS­MEN AND ARTISTS WHO WERE OUR FORE­BEARS ABLE TO PRO­DUCE SOME­THING SO MAG­NIF­I­CENT ... AND ALL CON­STRUCTED TO RE­MIND MEN ETER­NALLY TO GAZE UP­WARD AND TO AIM IN THE SAME MAN­NER.

OLI SCARFF / GETTY IMAGES FILES

While in Cam­bridge, Eng­land, Jor­dan Peter­son vis­ited King’s Col­lege Chapel — af­ter speak­ing at a con­cert hall on evil, dark­ness and the hu­man spirit.

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