Wisdom, Unwisdom, and Jordan Peterson

The university takes upon itself two tasks: to educate the young in the most important things that can be learned from books, and to push back the frontiers of knowledge. The second of these tasks used to be called “philosophy,” and even today those who train researchers and conduct research themselves are mostly certified Ph.D.’s: “Doctors,” that is to say, “teachers,” not of “Lichen Science” or “Australasian linguistics” but of “philosophy.” Ph.D. means literally, “doctor of philosophy,” no matter what the field of specialization.

To educate the young in the most important things, the teacher must know the most important things, and to know the most important things is to be wise. In the history of mankind, wise men come before philosophers, and books of wisdom before philosophical texts. The philosophers, those who claim to “love wisdom,” were those who questioned the “received wisdom,” whether that wisdom was received from wise men and women or from God or the gods. Whether from the love of wisdom one can ever achieve wisdom is still an open question after 2,500 years of philosophy—Nietzsche’s point when he derided philosophers as “clumsy lovers.”

The task of education, however, cannot wait upon the success of philosophers, anymore than the mother of a newborn can wait for the Ph.D.’s and physicians to resolve finally whether “breast is best.” When the university was healthy, an era whose last remnants are just now passing out of living memory, everyone seemed to understand that the task of education had to be controlled and guided by the professors of wisdom. In the Christian world, and the university is originally the principal institution of higher education in western Christendom, that meant that the faculty of philosophy, the teachers and researchers who challenged the received wisdom, had to be subordinate in their educational function to the faculty of theology, the professors of divine wisdom.

The Western university was de-Christianized over decades. The so-called “liberal” theologians and other clergymen who presided over this process accepted as gospel truth the doctrines of progressive evolution put forward by teachers from every branch of the faculty of philosophy. These academic leaders thought that they were guiding the university through a transition to governance by a newer, more evolved, and therefore better teaching regarding the most important things, a teaching that would synthesize what was true in what was received and what was or would be discovered. They did not see, until it was too late, that the main thing that Darwinian biology claimed to teach about the Creator was that He had “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” There is nothing in science that a man needs to know, in the sense that no scientific discovery has offered a single bit of significant wisdom, of knowledge, concerning man’s station and his duties that was not known to the teachers of wisdom who were born, talked, wrote, and died, decades if not centuries before Socrates started his campaign of harassment.

Divine wisdom was dethroned in the university, and so education therein henceforth could only be “administered,” not ruled by wise men or professors of wisdom. Since it cannot be administered in the light of wisdom and revealed truth, university education has been administered in the light of unwisdom, of the dictated untruths. One is free in the contemporary university to question any received truth, but one is not free to question the lies on the basis of which the university aims to educate. One may ask how we could possibly know that we should keep our promises, but not how we could know that a person who lacked any of the physiological features of femininity is to be identified as a woman.

And precisely in this moment of utter darkness and confusion a Canadian academic and clinical psychologist, one Jordan Peterson, has put himself forward as a teacher of wisdom.

Peterson is the only one in our time within the secular university to gain a hearing by professing to know the most important things and to teach them to whomever is willing to listen. He has compiled much of wisdom in a little book that one can (and really should) read in a few short hours. Our hunger for wisdom is such that that book is listed as of this writing, as it has been virtually since its publication, as the “most read” book of all the millions sold by Amazon.

An even greater shock, Peterson has claimed the vacant throne of the wise man, of academic rule: Peterson claims that he knows who in the university is fit to educate and who is not.

As a doctor of philosophy myself, I have my doubts if Peterson is right about that. But he is more likely to be right about that than the professor or administrator, no matter how credentialed or slick or handsome or accomplished in research, who is afraid to tell the student “stand up straight with your shoulders back,” much less the one who is afraid to tell the student or faculty agitator that (even when confronting an alleged “sexist” or “racist”) you should “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”

Photo credit: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

Photo: TORONTO, ON - January 10, 2017. Jordan Peterson during his lecture at UofT. Peterson is the professor at the centre of a media storm because of his public declaration that he will not use pronouns, such as "they," to recognize non-binary genders . This lecture had no reference to the hot topic. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)