Almost from the first words of his outdoor lecture in Budapest, Hungary, held in the courtyard of the St. Stephen’s Basilica, Jordan Peterson’s eyes teared up and his voice cracked with emotion. Not just once. It happened repeatedly. His eyes never entirely dried. The audience could see it all because of the cameras and the huge monitors that made him some 25 times life-size, which is pretty apropos to his status as an intellectual in this part of the world. Indeed, in most parts of the world.
Tonight was interesting, however, because his tears were clearly not performative in any sense. It was a show of extreme vulnerability that he surely hoped that he would not show. He strikes me as a deeply emotional person – a temperamental cryer – who has probably practiced a lifetime to stop this.
It didn’t work this time. Before long, during his impassioned presentation on behalf of the dignity of every individual and the responsibility of living a life of truth, audience members too were tearing up in the midst of the awesome silence that fell over this massive crowd during the hour-long presentation.
He never quite got around to explaining his emotion. I think I can, however. So here is my go at it.
The first issue had to do with his introduction in this hugely dramatic space, which was filled with flares and fanfare and oceans of love from those who gathered, not just people with tickets (which were hard to get) but an equal number behind the barricades, extending as far back as one could see. It was impossible not to view this as a show of incredible affection for the man, his work, his influence, his personal courage, and his message. The crowds and the anticipation were overwhelming.
Now, if you are Peterson, you would have to contrast this scene with the raging nonsense you will read about yourself in the mainstream press, to say nothing of the academic literature along with various left-wing hit sites out there who routinely twist anyone’s words to confirm their wild narratives. His every word is picked apart, his footnotes followed, his analogies deconstructed in an unending game of gotcha in order to put him into some kind of predefined political category for easy dismissal.
For the easily led, he is a target. For the witch hunters in media and academia, he is a convenient scapegoat. Within the academy, he is the object of unrelenting envy. In the face of all this, including campus protests and media hectoring, he has been steadfast and brave, refusing to be intimidated and instead using the attention to get his message out there. To cut through all this nonsense, and like and appreciate him in any case, already marks you as being in possession of a discerning mind, a rebel against conventional wisdom. Apparently, there is no shortage of such rebels.
The crowds – I don’t have an estimate but there were 20,000 people at the Brain Bar event at which he was a main draw – might have seemed to him as a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. That people were there at all, seeking not a confirmation of political bias but rather to gain a greater sense of personal purpose, shows that the powerful in this world cannot finally rule the day.
He is just one man with a message against the world’s most powerful voices in media, academia, and government – and yet through ideas alone, beginning as nothing but one man in a classroom, he has become the world’s most influential public intellectual.
As for his emotion this night, Jordan probably felt a deep sense of gratitude for being the recipient of this affection and for his place in inspiring people to become intellectual dissidents. That is enough to cause tears of gratitude.
There is far more that overwhelms you about being in this remarkable and indescribably beautiful city. The history is deep and rich and present everywhere you look. There is drama within eyesight of anywhere you stand. The Danube river and bridges, the castles, the stunning Parliament building, the churches and universities, all of it, are not dusty old monuments but currently in use amidst a teeming commercial life that is equal parts old and new.
The whole city also feels extremely young, similarly today to what it might have been like in the late 19th century, in the last years of the Belle Époque when Budapest’s cultural and commercial life rivaled Vienna’s. It’s a magical place, as delightful to visit as anywhere on the planet, in my view.
But what you see is only on the surface. The scars of this city are extremely deep, having been put through astonishing traumas of totalitarianism of the left and right, the bombings, the terror and cruelty and poverty – the experience is not that far back in history. It was tyrannized by Soviet occupation twice, first after World War I and then following World War II, between which it experienced Nazi occupation and devastating Allied bombing that destroyed its infrastructure (all of which has since been rebuilt).
And yet you can walk the city and not see this deep suffering overtly. The city, which wears this grim past lightly, is a tribute to the survival of hope in the face of overwhelming forces that sought to destroy it. The city lives. It thrives. It dreams anew.
In addition to being a psychologist, Peterson is also a historian of totalitarianism. There are ways to read history as a dry reportage of events. That is not how he reads history. Good historians recount events. Great historians tell stories as if they lived them. Peterson is next level: he has sought the inner philosophical and psychological turmoil that shape history through the moral choices of both the oppressed and oppressors. He seeks to understand the inner horror from the point of view of human nature.
As he exclaimed in a slightly terrifying moment, he has read about the history of Hungary and totalitarianism “not as a victim, not as a hero, but as a perpetrator.” What he means is that we must come to terms with evil not just as something external to ourselves but as a force deep within the human personality itself – not excluding our own personalities. What character traits do we need to acquire, what values do we need to adopt, that can prepare us to resist when evil invites our participation in violence and terror? He never stops reminding us what we are capable of doing both good and evil, and urges that we steel ourselves to live good lives even when it is not in our political and economic interests to do so.
So here we were in St Stephen’s square outside the great Basilica, packed with young people there to hear his message, in this remarkable city, a tribute to the resiliency of the human personality in the presence of one hundred years of oppression and violence. And yet there we were in this year, an age of hope, everyone given yet another chance to get it right, to live well, to treat others with dignity, to build peace and prosperity yet again.
The look on his face, and tears in his eyes, seem to suggest to himself and others: we can do this. We will not give in to evil. We can be strong. We can learn, build, and achieve. Against all odds, he has emerged as a leading voice to add to the possibility of success in our times.
I’ve heard Peterson live before and, like you, watched many of his speeches and interviews on youtube. I can tell you, I’ve never heard anything like what he said on this evening. It was for the ages, as I’m sure you too will discover when the video comes out.
The latter part of his presentation was lighter, with some very charming “one-minute therapy” sessions on stage with audience members that variously turned profound once again. And here is what is amazing: you discover that the real core of Peterson is not his political outlook or his role as a cultural pundit, historian, or philosopher but his professional training as a psychotherapist, just one man there to help one individual find a way forward through the terrifying struggles of life. Through technology, he finds himself in the blessed role of serving millions of willing readers and listeners.
Even now he can’t possibly know the full impact of his influence. I suspect, for example, that he is unaware of the crucial role he played in American political life when only two years ago, young men were being drawn to the invidious politics of the so-called Alt-right as an alternative to the false moralism of the social-justice left. They were drawn to his brave stances against speech controls, but he knew better than to side with any mob on either side of the extremes. He schooled even his new fans in the evils of every brand of identity politics – and the moral urgency of universal human dignity – and justly earned the wrath of alt-right leadership. Thus did he contribute to saving a generation from perdition in extremely volatile times. For this, he deserves the gratitude of every genuine liberal, but, so far as I know, he has never been publicly credited for this achievement.
“Ego Sum Via Veritas et Vita,” read the sign above the entrance to the Basilica. I am the way, the truth, and the life. The sign reminds us of the universal hunger to find direction, purpose, meaning, and redemption in the midst of the chaos and anomy of the historical narrative. Peterson is not a religious man but he respects its ethos and contribution. This night he became a preacher of goodness, of civility, of moral strength in the face of struggle. The poetry of it all, and the promise that goodness and decency can prevail, was manifest in the crowds and the city right here, this night, in Budapest. It combined to inspire him to find the fullness of his voice.
And this is why he cried tears of joy.