OGB Podcast #5: Dr. Jordan Peterson on the Importance of Reading Great Books
By Katie King
Why should you bother with the Great Books? According to Jordan Peterson, the answer lies in how much unnecessary misery, suffering, and horror you want.
When Jordan was at university in Alberta, he was introduced to reading the Great Books. First, the great works of political philosophy, and later great works of literature. This is also when he first discovered how to read and write properly. As he continued his education and expanding his reading outwards, he became more and more aware that there was a Great Conversation that had extended over centuries.
Scott talks with Jordan about how reading the Great Books, discussing what you read in the Socratic Seminar, and writing about it aren’t optional if you want to operate effectively in the world. Why? In order to move forward in massively effective ways, you must become radically successive at articulating your position. Accumulating your own rhetorical tools is a crucial starting point.
- Why normal people should read these books
- What Jordan constitutes as a good life
- Scott talks about how the Trivium and the Socratic Seminar are crucial to OGB’s mission
- Jordan addresses why the debate over whether there’s a Western Canon is stupid
- Scott and Jordan discuss their first encounter with the Great Conversation
- Jordan’s experience at Grand Praire Regional College
- Discussion over what constitutes a liberal education
- Jordan introduces words as tools
- Jordan and Scott discuss productive arguments versus degenerative ones
- Jordan and Scott’s current projects
- Forgoing short term gains for long term goals
RESOURCES/PEOPLE/ARTICLES MENTIONED IN PODCAST
- Kant: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton
- Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson Debate Facts vs. Values
- The Great Conversation
- The Canon Ball Podcast- Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”
- OGB Slogan
Scott Hambrick: Tell me why we as normal people, just trying to live good lives, should read these books?
Jordan Peterson: That’s what the Humanities are about. They’re about how to live a good life, and concretely. If the abstractions in the Great Books are taught properly, then they help you understand what a good life might be. You might say, “why should I bother?” The answer to that is how much unnecessary misery, suffering, and horror do you want?
The alternative of that is to live as good of a life as you you can. You have to think that through. Or not, but if you don’t think that through then you’re kinda stumbling around in the darkness. You want to read Great Books because they help you learn to think and to speak. Thinking is the precursor of action unless the action is impulsive. Then you will be lead to dark places frequently.
It’s also necessary to write if you’re going to be reading. You’re better at formulating what you want and need, and you’re better at making plans, and you’re better at negotiating, and you’re better at bringing people together to a consensus. All of that is of unbelievable practical utility.
Scott Hambrick: We think that you don’t just read the books. There’s also the Trivium: the grammar, the logic, the rhetoric. We learn the bones of the subject in front of us, the bones of that particular type of philosophy, maybe. We then start to assemble the bones. Then we have the rhetoric part, the persuasion part, the teaching part. At onlinegreatbooks.com, we don’t just read this stuff, we also get in these Socratic seminars where we discuss it and hold each other accountable over what we say. That piece, where we talk about the things that are difficult, is the part that makes discussing these books maybe more important than reading them.
Jordan Peterson: Conceivably, at least reading them gives everyone something to concentrate on while they’re speaking and writing. Partly what you’re doing when using the Socratic method is improving your ability to communicate. There isn’t anytime better for you than that. Because so much depends on everything you do with other people and every abstraction you formulate is dependent on thought, or dependent on your ability to communicate properly. The more you sharpen that, the more you get better at everything. Your comment is whether it’s the reading or discussion is of primary relevance. It’s not obvious, but certainly, it introduces people to books that are worth reading. But even that’s part of the Socratic dialogue because if you’re reading properly you’re having a discussion with the author. To begin to formulate your thoughts to the crucial issue is to sharpen your logos, to sharpen your ability to use communication to orient yourself in the world.
People think the Humanities are impractical. they’re more practical than anything else because everything depends on communications.
Scott Hambrick: We don’t even believe in teaching. In fact, I tell the folks that teach the Socratic Seminar, if they get caught teaching they are fired. We are there to hold the reader accountable for what they say they believe. If a guy says I believe this about the Gorgias in reading Plato, he needs to be able to explain to us why he believes that. We don’t have to necessarily agree, but he needs to know why he believes what he believes.
Jordan Peterson: You don’t want to give advice.
Scott Hambrick:- No, it’s so arrogant to think that you can teach Plato.
Jordan Peterson: They’re not your ideas, they’re someone else ideas. then you start reading and you start figuring out where you are weak, where your foundation is damaged. This is the thing people don’t understand about history. History is actually you. When you’re reading about history, you’re reading about you. You’re the product of history. Unless you understand history, you don’t understand who you are. The history of ideas, it’s not like you’re not living out those ideas.
Scott Hambrick: You bring up history and the ideas in a scope of history. Do you believe there’s such a thing as a Western Canon? That’s a question that people are debating somehow.
Jordan Peterson: I think it’s a stupid question technically. Here’s why: imagine that you could rank order books by how much influence they had on other books. So we have some books that are hardly influential at all. Then there are some books like the Bible, Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, that have influenced almost every book you can imagine. that’s Canon! it’s not some arbitrary decision. Rank order all the books in terms of their influence. Take the 100 books that have influenced the most other books- that’s the Canon. Well, the postmodernist says that it’s arbitrary- it’s not arbitrary its a map! Why is Plato part of the Canon? Partly because of where he was stationed in history. He was among the first to be encapsulated in the written word and he’s been of unbelievable influence. Part of why you want to read Plato and Socrates is they’re everywhere!
Scott Hambrick: That’s right. The Canon, I believe, is emergent. So you pick up a piece that’s going to say something about Kant. And then Kant says something about Aquinas. You go all the way back, you end up at Homer. In any of these books, they are self-referential. You can draw a family tree of these ideas.
Jordan Peterson: You draw the family tree and you look for the most influential ancestors.
It’s not like a bunch of dead white men got together and had a vote. That’s so dumb. It’s obvious there’s a Canon. That doesn’t mean that the Canon is without flaws. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t new books that don’t have interesting ideas in them. It does mean that we already have a structure of thought and a structure of society and those books are the fundamental building blocks of that structure. It’s an indication of how far off the mark the universities have fallen to know that the question “is there a canon?” could even exist. It’s like, if you asked that, all that it means is you don’t know what a Canon is.
You can debate about the biblical stories, that’s fine, but what you can’t debate is they are foundational. So, do you need to know them? Well, depends on what you mean by need. Do you need to understand who you are? Well, if you want to pilot yourself through life with some degree of what nobility then you should understand who you are. The more you understand the better.
Scott Hambrick: Our new OGB t-shirts say on the back ‘the noble things are difficult” because reading this stuff is so hard sometimes.
So, tell me, which of these books did you read where it clicked that there was a Canon or that there was a great conversation that you eavesdrop on? Like for me, I picked up Plato’s Republic and there were ideas in there and names mentioned that I wasn’t hip to. And I thought, “Oh my gosh. There’s something going on here and I’ve stumbled into it.“
Jordan Peterson: Well I was fortunate when I was a kid, I started reading reasonably good books when I was 13. Because I had a librarian who was feeding them to me, and they were more books that would be part of the Modern Canon. George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Hemingway, the people who have been regarded as the master of modern literature.
Scott Hambrick: What was that librarian’s name?
Jordan Peterson: Her name was Sandra Notley. She was the wife of the member of parliament for our district, provincially. So at the state level. She was also the wife of the only socialist member of the government in our state in Alberta. She was one of these people that, despite the fact she was left-leaning, she had me read all sorts of things including Ayn Rand. She was one of those people who thought that I should open myself to the opposite point of view as well. So that was my first introduction. I went to a small college, about 90 miles north of my town in Alberta called Grand Praire Regional College ad I had some excellent professors there. One of them was named Dennis Wheeler. He was a professor of Political Science, which was my first major.
Myself and a couple of friends had a small seminar with him where we read Great Books. The great works of political philosophy. We familiarized ourselves at least. There’s a limit to how many great books you can read in one semester, in one year. We read things like Levithan and The Republic. We read a whole sequence of classic works in political philosophy. At the same time, I was taking Literature with another professor, Robin, his last name escapes me. He was also a great English professor. He was the first person who taught me really how to read and write. I thought I could write because I always got good grades in high school but I couldn’t really write. What really happened is everyone else wrote abysmally and I was only dismal. There’s why we read some of the Great Books of the 20th century. That’s where I first familiarized myself with what great literature might be. And then, of course, when I continued my education and expanding my reading outwards, I became more and more aware that there was a Great Conversation that had extended over centuries. I got more and more interested in deeper literature, I got more interested in religious ideas too because at some point, deep literature shades into religious ideation. Just last week, I was reading a book on Kant by Roger Scruton- it was an introduction to Kant’s thinking because I was having a debate with Sam Harris on the debate about the relationship between facts and values. If you’re a thinker, you have to go back and familiarize yourself with as much of this thought as you possibly can. Otherwise, it’s like you have great gaps, or brain damage, you don’t actually know these arguments. You have a really low-resolution understanding of these ideas. But it doesn’t have the depth and sophistication that is necessary. Why is it necessary? You have to make ethical decisions in your life and you have to justify them.
Scott Hambrick: The fact that it’s necessary, does that allude to this being a liberal education? That education which makes us free?
Jordan Peterson: There’s a reason why rich people always have their children undergo a liberal education. It’s not like these people are stupid. They knew that was a practical guide to leadership.
It wasn’t as concretely useful as an engineering degree might be (and believe me I’m not saying anything negative about engineers. I like engineers, I really believe they’re bound by practical necessity) so I’ve got great admiration for engineers. But, the thing is, a liberal arts education teaches you how to communicate and strategize in a deep manner. If you’re going to operate at the highest levels, it isn’t optional. Like, I’ve watched this for years and I’ve known some people who have been extraordinarily powerful and influencing in the best possible way because it was allied with their competence. Those people know how to formulate an argument, man. Great lawyers, they formulate an argument. You don’t mess with their arguments, it’s rock-bloody-solid. They can move forward in massively effective ways in the world. Anyone I’ve ever met who has become radically successive is incredibly good at articulating their position.
Scott Hambrick: Right, and that’s that Rhetoric part. So many law schools teach by this Socratic method, a least a lot of their classes are conducted that way.
Jordan Peterson: Right, a lawyer who isn’t a clerk, who can’t negotiate with clients and expand the business, is just a lawyer. The people who are operating at the top of the legal profession, not only can they do what a clerk does but they can also go out there among strangers and drum up business and charm people, it isn’t manipulative. Not if they’re good at it. Sometimes manipulators can get ahead. But most of the time people figure them out and toss them away. And then they have to go manipulate someone else. The people who are spectacularly successful are gifted in communication in every realm they attempt. A lot of that is allied with deep knowledge but even more importantly the ability to utilize words with incredible facility. Reading and discussing what you read and writing about it… if you want to operate effectively in the world, those aren’t optional.
Scott Hambrick: Until we get some kind of USB cable where i hook my consciousness directly to yours, words are the only way we can do that. The words are the only way we can connect to the other. If we don’t listen carefully, if we don’t read carefully, and then speak carefully, you can’t have an authentic connection with the other person.
Jordan Peterson: The other thing too, is we’ll never be able to hook our consciousness to some degree. You’re different than me which means you have to take the wisdom that’s generic in some sense and you have to make it yours. And the way you make it yours is by translating it into your own words. Every writing coach says “use your own words!” but they never say why. The answer to why you should use your own words is because it isn’t yours until you formulate it into your own words. So when you say, “well who cares if it’s yours? ” Look, these are tools. Unless they’re fitted for your grasp you can’t use them. Why do you need tools? Why do you want to confront the world without tools? Good luck to you!
Scott Hambrick: In our logo, there’s an anvil, its a crest. and Karl Schudt, who leads a lot of our seminars, he says that these Great Books are the anvil against which we beat our brains to make them into better tools suited for our lives.
Jordan Peterson: Sure, absolutely that’s great. The anvil motif is a real good one because you have to heat and tap iron to tamper it. The heat is often the heat of the discussion. A heated discussion is a discussion that can produce transformation. Especially if everyone keeps their temper. That’s also another metallurgic metaphor.
Scott Hambrick: When we go into these seminars, we make arguments. we should make arguments. When I believe a certain thing, I want you to come around to my way of thinking or at least to understand my arguments. The meaning of that word has changed, and now it’s of that vituperative angry interaction.
Jordan Peterson: That is what an argument is if the people who discuss aren’t articulate and wise. A vituperative argument is how people who can’t think, think.
They can’t think well, so it degenerates. Even into physical contact. And that’s how people who REALLY can’t think, think.
Scott Hambrick: So you think that when there’s an angry exchange of words that that’s a manifestation of this anger that this person carriers with them?
Jordan Peterson: Sure. Look at what you tell a 3-year-old when they are having a temper tamper- “use your words!” Well, the 3-year-old can’t, which is why they’re having a temper tantrum.
I’m not saying that every discussion should be without emotion, you can flavor your discussion with emotion. Because a bit of aggression that’s integrated into the argument can make it more forceful and push through opposition. But it’s only when the articulated space degenerates that the aggression is necessary. Generally speaking, if you can hold your temper, it shows that you’re the better man.
Scott Hambrick: I just did a podcast and we compared and contrasted Edmund Burke’s “Reflection on the Revolution in France” and Voltaire. I was in there with some really smart guys, and we essentially just had a seminar. And we didn’t agree about hardly anything, and when I got done with that, I was just rung out. It was a super intense experience, and I had to stop and think about what had happened and make myself not react in an angry way. It’s so confrontational to have your ideas criticized, picked apart. It feels so confrontational.
Jordan Peterson: You don’t want to have your tools destroyed! Even if they’re not very good. Maybe you’re out there trying to chop a tree with a hammer. Then someone comes along and says, “you know that’s not an ax?” And you say, “well it’s better than the palm of my hand.” But it’s true, it’s not as good as an ax. And so, part of the way you can maintain your temper when you defend your ideas is that you can continue to hope what the argument will do is provide you with better tools. A good argument should do that. You should both emerge from a good argument with better tools, not with no tools. That’s not so good. Sometimes that happens. But the point should be to furnish everyone with better tools.
Scott Hambrick: And when I got done with that discussion, that was actually the conclusion I made. You know, they proved me wrong in a couple of these places. But i understand this better and I’m better for it. But my first reaction, I was pissed off! And I know better.
I’ve got 150 people that are reading either Plato or Sophocles or Homer and they’re doing that to each other for 2 hours each month in these seminars. And sometimes I look in, and I have to turn the cameras off because I just tear up because there are guys who do work in body shops, and mechanics. And they’re just normal people and they’re just going at it.
Jordan Peterson: I see the same thing in this tour. In Vancouver, I just went and had a 2.5-hour discussion with Sam Harris on the relationship between facts and values, a very esoteric topic, but crucial. There are 3,000 people there each night just glued right to it. Turns out there’s a hunger for this. It’s a hunger that you’re partly feeding. It’s because this is valuable, your life depends on it. So strangely. it’s not optional if you want to avoid stupid suffering. Think it’s not optional if you want to avoid stupid suffering.
Scott Hambrick: There’s’ a certain amount of suffering that comes from this too. Once you’ve read some of these things, it’s almost like-
Jordan Peterson: It’s voluntary and sacrificial. It’s like lifting weights. It hurts. but you hope that the sacrifice pays off with certain gain.
Scott Hambrick: What do you think your project is at this point? For me, I want people to read these books, I want people to be able to enter into discourse with other people in their lives and interact in a more meaningful way.
Jordan Peterson: That’s a good project man, that’s the furtherance of the logos. Let’s make everyone more articulate. Let’s ground them better in ancient wisdom.
Scott Hambrick: What’s Peterson’s project right now?
Jordan Peterson: Oh I’d say that’s it. I would say it’s a variant of that. It breaks down into other things. I’m doing this lecture tour right now, but mostly what I’m doing with that tour is having a discussion with people about vision and responsibility. And why there’s meaning to be had about the adoption of responsibility under the guidelines of a sophisticated vision and why that’s not an option. In some sense, it’s the same thing. With what you’re doing, you’re asking people to sharpen their vision about the Great Books. Well, why? So you have great things to aim at. Why do you want great things to aim at? There’s meaning in aiming at what’s great. Why do you need meaning? It’s the anecdote to suffering.
Scott Hambrick: Ya, we want great meaning in our lives.
Jordan Peterson: Unless we want the opposite which is weakness and cowardliness.
Scott Hambrick: Do people ever want something that they know is bad?
Jordan Peterson: Oh sure all the time! Lots of times when you want something is good, it requires sacrifice because you have to delay gratification. and so lots of things people will go for impulsive, short term pleasures.
Scott Hambrick: Well, but they see the good in the short term pleasures.
Jordan Peterson: Well, yes and no. It’s pretty fun to go out and have 10 beer but most people know that it’s not so good. As a 3-hour decision, but not as a 48-hour decision.
Scott Hambrick: So scale matters.
Jordan Peterson: Timeframe matters. There are lots of things that appear posit and attractive in the short term, not so good in the medium term, and absolutely bloody catastrophic in the long term. That doesn’t mean sacrificing those pleasures is easy. Or that it comes without a cost. It’s easy for people to avoid what’s difficult, but the problem is it doesn’t work.
Scott Hambrick: That’s the biggest obstacle to getting people to read these books. Forgoing a short term pleasure or short term gain for the long term gain.
Jordan Peterson: Do you have audiobook versions of them?
Scott Hambrick: They are certainly out there. We send everyone a hardcopy. They certainly are available.
Jordan Peterson: A lot more people can listen than can read.
Scott Hambrick: Certainly.
Jordan Peterson: That might be something to discuss with your students, that they can use an amalgam. Another to it, you can listen while you’re doing other things.
Scott Hambrick: I tell you, I’m not smart enough to multitask and take in some Aristotle.
Jordan Peterson: Well you might be able to do something that’s really mundane like washing dishes.
Scott Hambrick: So getting people to forgo those short term gains for this long term project is really tough. But I keep telling people, 5 years is going to pass, 5 years from now, you could have possibly read 12,000 pages of these fantastic books or you could have binge-watched another series of another series on HBO. How do I make this argument?
Jordan Peterson: That’s a good one. I think this argument, I make it in a condensed form when I talked about the relationship between responsibility and meaning. You need to know how to think or not. Well, yes. Why? Because you have to think about what you’re going to do and see and aim out. What if you don’t? You see badly, you aim wrong, and you suffer. And so do the people around you. So you better learn to think. Well, who are you going to learn from? Well, how about the best? WelI who wants to learn from the worst? Maybe you can’t learn from the best because you’re not sophisticated.
Your approach helps scaffold people for that. if you’re going to learn to think, you’re going to learn from the best. That’s why we had a Canon in universities. The best isn’t arbitrary. The best, by definition, at least the definition that works here, is the best is what’s had the broadest range of influence. And that’s at least the best to understand who we are now. Which is something. Maybe you can add to that something you need to know to figure out where we go. But we can at least figure out where we are now and WHY.
Scott Hambrick: Figuring out where you are now, is essential to getting where you need to go.
This has been our 45 minutes sir. I want to be respectful of your time. Thank you so much for being able to do this and your work ever day.
Jordan Peterson: Good meeting you. You bet, I hope you get 1,000 people signed up for your project.
Scott Hambrick: Thank you so much, you’ll going to be a great help.
Jordan Peterson: Well, it will be interesting to see how people respond to the tweet.
Scott Hambrick: I’ll be sure to give you a report.