The price of these rewards was living in a maelstrom of other people’s opinions. Peterson was, depending on whom you believed, either a stern but kindly shepherd to a generation of lost young men, or a reactionary loudmouth whose ideas fueled the alt-right and a backlash to feminism. He was revered as a guru, condemned as a dangerous charlatan, adored and reviled by millions. Peterson has now returned to the public sphere, and the psyche-splitting ordeal of modern celebrity, with a new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life—an intriguing title, in light of his recent experiences. The mystery deepens: What really happened to Jordan Peterson, and why has he come back for more?
Growing up in Fairview, Alberta, Peterson was small for his age, which fostered both a quick wit and a fascination with the power and violence of traditional masculinity. He once recounted in a Facebook post how he’d overheard a neighbor named Tammy Roberts joking with another girl that she wanted to keep her surname, so she would have to marry “some wimp.” Then she turned around and proposed to the teenage Jordan. He spent a youthful summer working on a railroad in Saskatchewan, with an all-male group that nicknamed him Howdy Doody, after the freckle-faced puppet. As a student, he visited a maximum-security prison, where he was particularly struck by a convict with a vicious scar right down his chest, which he surmised might have come from surgery or an ax wound: “The injury would have killed a lesser man, anyway—someone like me.”
How to be a greater man was very much on Peterson’s mind. Raised in a mildly Christian household, he decided as a teenager that “religion was for the ignorant, weak and superstitious.” He yearned for a left-wing revolution, an urge that lasted until he met some left-wing activists in college. Then, rejecting all ideology, he decided that the threat of the Cold War made it vital to understand the human impulse toward destruction. He began to study psychology.
Alongside pursuing his doctorate, teaching at Harvard and then the University of Toronto, and raising a family—he married Tammy in 1989, and yes, she took his surname—Peterson started work on his first book, a survey of the origins of belief. Its ambition was nothing less than to explain, well, everything—in essence, how the story of humanity has been shaped by humanity’s love of stories. Maps of Meaning, published in 1999, built on the work of academics like Joseph Campbell, the literature and religion scholar who argued that all mythic narratives are variations of a single archetypal quest. (Campbell’s “monomyth” inspired the arc of Star Wars.) On this “hero’s journey,” a young man sets out from his humdrum life, confronts monsters, resists temptation, stares into the abyss, and claims a great victory. Returning home with what Campbell calls “the power to bestow boons on his fellow men,” the hero can also claim the freedom to live at peace with himself.