The Connection Between the Teachings of Socrates and Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules”


In 2013, I invited Jordan Peterson to my college who famously opposed Bill C-16 a few years ago. He was very gracious and gave an interesting talk based on his book Meaning Maps. Nonetheless, I secretly hoped that he would address the theme of his earlier lecture, “The Necessity of Virtue.”

In that 2010 talk, Peterson brought up a topic I’ve been thinking about since another distinguished professor, Leon Craig, introduced me to political philosophy.

Peterson pointed out in the lecture, “Virtue… is not a field of study, it is a mode of being on which all fields of study depend. It is also a mode of being and everything you do in life depends on it .” A person has no virtue, “to be tortured, tormented, and unable to find a place to stand, this is not a physical problem.”

I was reminded of Peterson’s talk recently because I was invited by the conference organizers to choose a philosopher I particularly admire and discuss their ideas. I chose Plato, specifically “Republic”. It’s a dialogue (kind of like a drama) where we hear the different characters discussing politics and so on. Socrates, Plato’s teacher in real life, is one of the main characters.

Several young men in the conversation ask Socrates for justice. To paraphrase, they ask, why should I “be” impartial? If justice is a virtue, what does it do to me? Don’t tell us this will make us more successful in career or politics. These are just external rewards. We wonder if justice is inherently better.

In answering their question, Socrates looked at the soul – interestingly, the ancient Greek word for soul is “psyche”, from which we derive “psychology”. As far as I know, most psychology departments claim that the soul does not exist. It has been superseded by more mechanistic theories about neurons and cells. But Socrates, who was not as committed to a materialistic view of humanity as we moderns, might prove to be a better psychologist. At least he remains more faithful to the original theme of psychology, the mind (soul).

Socrates analyzes the soul into several parts: appetite (the lowest part), spirit (the seat of emotions, including anger, but also love), and reason. We become aware of these parts when we stand in front of an open refrigerator and decide whether to indulge in leftover brownies or reach for fruit, or between watching a Netflix show and preparing for an exam.

Not only do we recognize the parts of the soul, but we also feel that one part is better suited to rule over the others, and we are more identified with the part that nature rules. When we’re forced to admit that “me” has lost control over “myself,” it’s usually not a moment of self-congratulation. In fact, it’s often accompanied by shame, like “I should have done better.” When the natural hierarchy of the soul is reversed—for example, when anger (spirit) dominates us rather than reason—injustice occurs.

Therefore, we confirm Socrates’ ancient view only by reflecting on our own experience.

“Isn’t that charming?” I asked my students. Even today, an old book can reveal something true about ourselves. Might these old books contain other useful insights? This is something they are rarely asked to consider. They just assume that history is progressive and that the authors of the past have nothing to teach. But if progressivism is questioned based on their experience reading the book, they might be thinking, “What else can I question?” This is liberating their minds from the dogma that has so powerfully shaped their views The first step out.

Socrates proposes that justice is the proper arrangement of the soul according to the hierarchy of nature: reason, with the help of spirit, governs desire. The righteous man, he said, “doesn’t let every part of himself take care of other people’s affairs, and let the three levels of the soul interfere with each other, but really put his house in order and take care of himself.” The meaning of justice as a virtue To have a healthy soul and keep your “housework in order”.

Peterson’s appeal has a lot to do with him providing similar answers to the same basic questions young people posed to Socrates more than 2,000 years ago. Consider Peterson’s Rule 6: “Get your house in order before you criticize the world.”

“Republic” may have anticipated Peterson, but much of his appeal rests on the question being eternal—and possibly the answer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and do not represent the views of The Epoch Times.


Dr. David W. Livingstone is a professor in the Department of Liberal Studies and Political Studies at Vancouver Island University. He has published articles and book reviews on a variety of topics, including the statesmen of Abraham Lincoln, the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Darcy McGee’s contributions to the Canadian Confederation.


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