In that 2010 lecture, Peterson broached themes I had been thinking about ever since I was introduced to political philosophy by another brilliant professor, Leon Craig.
Peterson noted in the lecture that “virtue ... isn't a field of study, it’s a mode of being upon which all fields of study rest. It’s also a mode of being on which everything you do in your life rests.” To the extent that a person lacks virtue, “they are tortured and tormented and they are unable to find firm ground, and that’s not a biological problem.”
I was reminded of Peterson’s lecture recently because I was invited by a conference organizer to choose a philosopher whom I particularly admire and discuss their ideas. I chose Plato and specifically "The Republic." It’s a dialogue (sort of like a play) in which we hear different characters discuss politics and much else. Socrates, who was Plato’s teacher in real life, is one of the protagonists.
Several young men in the dialogue ask Socrates about justice. To paraphrase, they ask, why should I "be" just? If justice is a virtue, what does it do for me? Don’t tell us it will make us more successful in our career or politics. Those are merely external rewards. We want to know whether it's intrinsically better to be just.
In answering their questions, Socrates examines the soul—interesting given that the ancient Greek word for soul is “psyche,” from which we derive “psychology.” From what I’m told, most psychology departments claim that the soul doesn’t exist. It’s been replaced by more mechanical theories concerning neurons and cells. But Socrates, less committed than we moderns are to a materialist view of human beings, may prove to be the better psychologist. At least he remains truer to the original subject of psychology, namely the psyche (soul).
Socrates analyzes the soul into parts: the appetites (the lowest part), spiritedness (the seat of emotions, including anger, but also love), and reason. We become aware of these parts when we stand before the open fridge deciding whether to indulge in the leftover chocolate cake or reach for the fruit instead or between binging a Netflix series and studying for an exam.
Not only do we recognize the soul’s parts, but we also sense that one part is better suited to rule the others, and we identify more with the naturally ruling part. It’s not usually a self-congratulatory moment when we're forced to admit that “I” lost control of “myself." In fact, it's frequently accompanied by shame, as in, “I should have done better.” It’s when the soul’s natural hierarchy is inverted—when anger (spiritedness) rules us instead of reason, for example—that injustice occurs.
Thus, we confirm Socrates’s ancient point simply by reflecting on our own experiences.
“Isn’t this fascinating?” I ask my students. An ancient book can reveal something true about ourselves even today. Might these old books contain other helpful insights? It’s something they've rarely been asked to consider. They just assume history is progressive and that past authors have nothing worthwhile to teach. But if progressivism becomes questionable based on their experience of reading this one book, they might wonder, “What else can I question?” That’s the first step toward liberating their minds from the dogma that has powerfully shaped their opinions so far.
Socrates proposed that justice is the soul’s proper arrangement in accordance with a natural hierarchy: reason ruling over the appetites with the assistance of spiritedness. The just person, he said, “doesn’t let each part in him mind other people’s business or the three classes of the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in order and rules himself.” Justice as a virtue means having a healthy soul and setting one’s “own house in order.”
Peterson’s appeal has a lot to do with the fact that he's offering a similar answer to the same basic question that young people posed to Socrates more than 2,000 years ago. Consider Peterson’s Rule 6: "Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World.”
"The Republic" may have anticipated Peterson, but his appeal rests in no small way on the fact that the question is timeless—and the answer may be as well.