This article introduces the second in aseries of conversations I am having with Swedish philosopher, futurist, rock star, record producer, TV personality, religious and political activist, and one of two founders of Syntheism (alongside with Jan Söderqvist)an amazing fellow who goes by the name of Alexander Bard.
Jordan Peterson has been insisting lately that he’s not an individualist in the Ayn Rand sense of ‘individual against all’—despite his claim that the sovereign individual is the greatest idea the west has ever come up with. He also claims to be a Christian who doesn’t ‘believe’ in God per-say but acts like he does. What are the nature of these seeming paradoxes?
I asked Alexander Bard: What is the individual and in what sense can he be said to exist? He gave me a very Zen Buddhist answer: in no sense whatsoever. (When the monk asked the Zen Master: Does a dog have a Buddha-nature? The master shouted, No!) According to Bard, the individual cannot exist outside his primary identity and function in the tribe. So then: if the individual is a grand illusion, then what is this illusion called Alexander Bard and Andrew Sweeny, I ask? Bard, after French philosopher Gilles Deleuzes, says that we are ‘dividuals’ rather than individuals, which means: radically contingent beings.
Furthermore, Bard says, you can’t be a Christian unless you believe in the resurrection. Peterson’s existential and mythical Christianity’ is what Bard calls ‘ironic Christianity’ (I still haven’t fully understood what he means by that). In any case, we could ask the question: can Christianity be redeemed and renewed — and is Peterson leading a Christian renaissance? Bard doesn’t think so. Rather he thinks that Abrahamic religions favors the death drive over eros. This is a Nietzschean position and Peterson cannot be a Nietzschean and a Christian at the same time, according to Bard.
I’m not sure I fully agree, but this needs to be fleshed out. Ivan Illich is my personal favourite critic of Christianity—a Christian himself—and said, in reference to Christianity, ‘the corruption of the best is the worst’. In other words, Christianity contains within itself the highest potential of truth but also the potential for worst possible kind of corruption—the resurrection and the crucifixion if you like. Even though I also believe that there are equally great (or better) enlightenment traditions in the east, Christianity has special meaning for the west. But these are question too big for the scope of this essay.
In any case, who is correct here, Bard or Peterson? I’ve mostly defended Peterson until now, but I think that the good professor could benefit from the intelligent critique of the kind that Bard provides (rather than the usual ad hominem and negative daddy projections he usually receives). We both acknowledge that Peterson is vitally important, perhaps the greatest public pandit to come along this century, that he is opening a great many doors. But the good doctor needs a push back at times, if anything to make him a better philosopher.
This idea of dividual, or contigent being, or of ‘no-self’, may be radical for those not used to eastern thought. However, Buddhism has for centuries been a non-theistic religion and said that what we call an individual is actually just a convenient but empty designation. Early 20th Century mystic George Ivan Gurdjieff said: ‘man’s name is legion’, meaning that the human personality is a multiplicity of sub-personalities, competing and co-operating with each other. In other words, the atomized, discrete individual has no reality whatsoever.
So in what sense can we say that the individual exists, except as a radical illusion? And why does Peterson still insist on individual sovereignty as the road to salvation? Furthermore, hasn’t the individualist ethos (as well as the collectivist ethos) been the cause of untold alienation, metal illness, suicide, environmental rapacity, and all our modern pathologies (The shadow of Christ according to Illich)? Isn’t the path of individualism a lonely and fruitless road? On the other hand, each soul does seem to be a unique formation, deserving of care and mercy. So can’t we have both: individual sovereignty and the community?
Bard says no—but I’m still on the fence. I certainly agree that a person cannot be reduced to his or her collective identity. This has been Peterson’s fight: against victimology and the dangers of group guilt. Group guilt means that an innocent person can be held responsible for the crimes of his entire group. Extreme victimology takes responsibility and agency out of the equation and our gaze away from actual victims. Intersectional politics is that it reduces every person to a ‘special victim minority status of one’. But does this also point out a problem with individuality?
Certainly Peterson has done a great job of criticising the excesses of our postmodern relativism and of the madness of collectivism; on the other hand, why doesn’t he have a corresponding attack on individualism? Does it have to be an either/or situation? Or is there a third way? In Bard’s view is that the answer is neither in individualism nor collectivism, but in re-integrating the tribe—which is our unchanged and primordial human basis—and that we have to create new gods and grand narratives to believe in. It’s not the sovereign individual that is important but the sovereign tribe and we need to find wholeness within the tribe. My question is then: how do we prevent the negative tribalism of identity politics and avoid degenerating into primitive tribalism, which has had its glories but also its human sacrifice, honer killings, extreme conformism, and had little codified law or individual rights?
Bard’s background, like my own, is of a guy who has gone east for religious enlightenment (he is a Zoroastrian and I’m a tantric buddhist), instead of trying to find enlightenment within the Judea Christian inheritance. For me, the interesting thing is that Peterson allows for a Buddhist or even non-theistic interpretation of perennial christianity— non-theistic in the sense that he never posits the actual existence of God, only its necessity as a psychological construct. He’s certainly not a dogmatic christian in any case.
Peterson’s view is that the sovereign dignity of the individual is the worlds greatest idea—and that every being deserves a chance to live up to his individual potential. Self-development has been the major developmental idea of the cartesian and capitalism west since the enlightenment, and has indeed created the most powerful societies the world has every known. On the other hand, is Peterson missing something? Is his advice for the nuclear family, in a world where such nuclear models of family, business, academia and society are quickly becoming obsolete in the digital information age.
Peterson’s answer is to ‘clean up your god-dammed room’ and take responsibility, which means to deal with the task at hand before you take on the whole world. This is a common sense and powerful message it seems to me. But what is missing? For all his intense brilliance as a teacher of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Frederic Nietzsche, not to mention his great practical psychology, his analysis of art history and the bible, his ethical courage and sincerity—Bard says that Peterson is missing something of value which can be found in continental philosophy, eastern religion, and anthropology. And capitalism, individualism, and the nuclear family—as powerfully as the have been—are not the final story.
Books by Alexander Bard:
The Futurica Trilogy, with Jan Söderqvist (2012)
Syntheism — Creating God in the Internet Age, with Jan Söderqvist (2014)
Digital Libido — Sex, power and violence in the network society, with Jan Söderqvist (2018)
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits