The Painful Profession of an Idle Man

Everyone and their mother is weighing in on Jordan Peterson. Like all truly dynamic cultural phenomena, almost every aspect of his rise to prominence – particularly what his presence on the public stage signifies – defies any truly concise distillation. That hasn’t stopped a torrent of attempts to do so. I cannot hope to accomplish that myself, but simply wish to highlight here some observations I have been able to extract from the unfolding drama of the last few years regarding the attractiveness of his message to young men.

The highly controversial events initially propelling him into a public spotlight, an increasing presence and following online, various speaking engagements around the world, and a wildly popular new book have positioned him uniquely on our cultural stage in recent months. As is apparent from this footage of a recent protest at an event of his, Peterson appears to have stepped on quite a few toes; so much so that – amidst banging on the windows and doors of the building that hosted the event – cries of “Lock them in and burn it down!” were met with laughs and cheers from hysterical protesters. Indeed, responses to his message have been equal parts rational and irrational on both the left and the right. To some, he is a reincarnation of Hitler, to others he is the next cultural prophet; to those with inclinations in neither of those directions, he is a highly intellectual figure with whom one can strongly agree or disagree. Analysis of the turbulence Peterson has stirred up in the cultural and political sphere is its own animal, and warrants far more space than I can devote here. Aside from the broader conversation dealing with the main tenants of his message and the diverse responses to it, as mentioned above much speculation has been tossed around about one salient fact regarding his following: demographically speaking, it is primarily populated by young men.

Attempts at offering explanations accounting for this fact have abounded. Many of Peterson’s interlocutors have probed him on this and his responses have been insightful. Various narratives from other sources are on hand as well, samples ranging from tame reductions of Peterson’s message to a feel-good call for more empathy towards awkward young men, to a more comprehensive analysis of the broader causes that draw those young men into Peterson’s orbit of ideas. Aside from these varying accounts, a common explanation has been that Peterson possesses a strong voice capable of both forceful and thoughtful articulation, and a message which offers the possibility of agency and influence to young men who are starving for both. While this is certainly a large part of the reason, I have an inkling that there is more to it than just this dynamic.

One thing that Peterson himself has noted is the difficulty of the sales pitch he is attempting. His speeches, lectures and interviews are laced with firm calls toward taking on greater levels of responsibility – the heavier the better. He is constantly championing a return to mundane tasks and chores in order to cultivate mastery of simpler skills, all for the eventual goal of achieving success in more challenging endeavors. All who have bemoaned the hordes of young men stuck in their parent’s basements playing video games for days on end know that the odds of these uncomfortable ideas finding fertile soil are discouragingly small. Yet they continue to line up to hear him speak, while onlookers continue to scratch their heads.

It is within this perplexing scene that answers begin to emerge. Peterson seems to have grasped the fact that a failure by young men to adopt increasing amounts of responsibility is simply a declaration of their belief that doing so offers no desirable prospects. To frame it in his own words, they have not heard a persuasive “case made for its utility” and are not yet convinced that it is “better to be an adult than a child.” Societal narratives they are constantly exposed to, which are saturated with notions of self-actualization and chasing after one’s desires, lack the depth of resources to offer a satisfactory argument that would precipitate replacement of a gaming remote with a tool or a task. If the ultimate aim of one’s existence is the pursuit of the self, then why bother with pesky chores? They have formulated the notion that taking an idle path devoid of responsibility can better achieve this fulfillment of which they hear so much. When the wasted hours have stacked up then, this has of course led to disillusionment and compounded restlessness. In short, young men are starved for substance. 

This is precisely what Peterson has offered to them. His words are weighty, bearing the mark of deep contemplation, and offering articulation of ideas that have – although often present – remained unformed within their minds and hearts.  Coupled with the gracious tone underlying this call to responsibility, his firm voice not only warns them of the dangers of idleness but also reiterates the rewards of developing a strong moral character.

Most of all, the chord which binds all these elements of his appeal together is this: when speaking to young men, he is saying nothing new. Actually, the converse is true. His message is predominantly an ancient one, and because of this it is brimming with the substance these youths have been aching for. Herein lies the source of his magnetism, and the subsequent popularity which has sprung from it. Along has come a voice which resonates with the same compelling call towards vigorous manhood that has enlivened all great men of history, and which is properly tuned with an ancient wisdom to activate these idle youths. It is proclaiming the pitfalls of laziness, all the while animated with such compassion and generosity for its listeners. Ironically then, what makes Peterson’s approach so unique is how utterly normal it is in the annals of human thought; he has simply found a dynamic way in which to declare it in our time.

I was reminded of just how long this particular message has been echoing down through previous generations when I came upon this gripping scene from Hugo’s masterful Les Miserables.  Jean Valjean has just been accosted in the street by a violent young criminal named Montparnasse. Valjean easily overcomes him with his massive strength, and then sets out to question the young man about his proclivity towards a life of crime. Upon hearing that Montparnasse does not work because it bores him, and that he considers his profession to be “an idler”, Valjean warns him of the ironic nature of the hardships that are awaiting those who would dodge responsibility at every turn:

My child, you are entering, through indolence, on one of the most laborious of lives. Ah! You declare yourself to be an idler! prepare to toil. There is a certain formidable machine, have you seen it? It is the rolling-mill. You must be on your guard against it, it is crafty and ferocious; if it catches hold of the skirt of your coat, you will be drawn in bodily. That machine is laziness. Stop while there is yet time, and save yourself! Otherwise, it is all over with you; in a short time you will be among the gearing. Once entangled, hope for nothing more. Toil, lazybones! there is no more repose for you! The iron hand of implacable toil has seized you. You do not wish to earn your living, to have a task, to fulfil a duty! It bores you to be like other men? Well! You will be different. Labor is the law; he who rejects it will find ennui his torment.”

Valjean proceeds to describe the tortured life of unending labor in prison towards which he knows the young man is progressing – and with which he is well acquainted from his own past. Of course, not all young men today are on the same road as Montparnasse, but Valjean’s appeal at the end of his speech is indeed supremely relevant to them, and is reminiscent of Peterson’s own message being proclaimed in our day:

Ah! my poor child, you are on the wrong road; idleness is counselling you badly; the hardest of all work is thieving. Believe me, do not undertake that painful profession of an idle man. It is not comfortable to become a rascal. It is less disagreeable to be an honest man. Now go, and ponder on what I have said to you.


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