“Shallow Draughts Intoxicate the Brain”

Maybe we should be having an Alexander Pope moment:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

That, at least, was my reaction on reading David Brooks’ column today, “The Jordan Peterson Movement.” Peterson, apparently, is a YouTube star delivering “stern fatherly lectures to young men on how to be honorable, upright and self-disciplined.” To me, he sounds much like the Calvinists whose beliefs are the foundations of much of today’s rightwing America (see my book The Cult of Individualism). According to Brooks, his “worldview begins with the belief that life is essentially a series of ruthless dominance competitions. The strong get the spoils and the weak become meek, defeated, unknown and unloved.” So far, so simplistic. But Brooks goes on:

For much of Western history, he [Peterson] argues, Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism. But God died in the 19th century, and Christian dogma and discipline died with him. That gave us the age of ideology, the age of fascism and communism — and with it, Auschwitz, Dachau and the gulag.

Now, I don’t know if the fault here lies with Peterson or with Brooks’ interpretation… but this is claptrap. “Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism”? Oh, come on! Now, Brooks is no scholar and Peterson is a psychologist, but this is something that would not get by in a paper by the most naive undergraduate in an introductory world-history class. They should know better.

Brooks himself criticizes “distorted, simplified” restatements of Peterson’s views “to make them appear offensive and cartoonish” and, in all fairness to Peterson, I should assume that Brooks is unintentionally doing the same and go read Peterson myself. Thing is, unless Brooks is completely wrong, this is all stuff we’ve heard at least since the time of Thomas Malthus if not since John Calvin and before. Brooks certainly gives me no reason to read yet another self-help book set out as a set of rules.

About that book: Brooks says its “implied readers… are men who feel fatherless, solitary, floating in a chaotic moral vacuum, constantly outperformed and humiliated by women, haunted by pain and self-contempt.” They are “emasculated snowflakes.” Brooks says that Peterson opens up an avenue for standing up for themselves by telling them life is hard. Yeah! Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale for the contemporary age!

Yet, if they exist at all, Brooks’ “snowflakes” are a product of the upper-middle class in America, of families with resources and possibilities but who were not born quite at the top of the heap. Not a new phenomenon, these people so many of the elite are worried about remind me of Johann Goethe’s Werther and even (though he is poorer and deformed) Somerset Maugham’s Philip Carey… or dozens of other characters from the novels of the last centuries (make a parlor game of it; come up with  your own). They are Johnny Shaugnessey of Ross Lockridge’s unfortunately forgotten Raintree County.

It sounds to me that Peterson is offering nothing more than did Dorothy Fields over 80 years ago:

Nothing’s impossible, I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off
Start all over again

Personally, I’d rather watch Fred Astaire sing it than read it by another in the endless series of pop self-help.

Brooks says the “Peterson way is a harsh way, but it is an idealistic way — and for millions of young men, it turns out to be the perfect antidote to the cocktail of coddling and accusation in which they are raised.” I think, if he knew anything about them, he would discover that these young men are fewer than he imagines and much more able than he suspects. They don’t need simplistic advice, they need experience. They don’t need to be told to grow up. They simply need to do it–and most of them are.

That they should just do it is the point of much of the literature that is addressed to the young or that recounts their experiences. Better than reading Peterson, the young might want to consider reading Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or Voltaire’s Candide, which is recapped at the end:

“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunégonde; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat marmalade and pistachio nuts.”

That passage is followed by something that most of us who have managed to grow into adulthood appreciate: “Good speech,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Candide has learned something.