It takes someone extraordinary to rise from the rubble of today’s popular culture and conjure up comparisons to America’s founding fathers. But, for me, that’s what Jordan Peterson does. He reminds me of Benjamin Franklin.
It’s partly because the far-reaching accomplishments of the modern professor, clinical psychologist, researcher, author, public speaker, and YouTube sensation parallel in scope those of the bygone politician, printer, scientist, author, and inventor.
It’s mainly because the one is just as obsessed with virtue, character, and self-improvement as the other was three centuries ago, a seemingly rare preoccupation in the modern world.
Just like Franklin once did, Peterson identifies habits worth cultivating and simply talks to people about them. Indeed, for any one of the thirteen virtues from Franklin’s famous list, there is a corresponding video, lecture, or writing from Peterson.
Take temperance: Peterson admits he changed his own life by cultivating Franklin’s first virtue, and now parrots Franklin’s admonition to “drink not to elevation” in talks like “Advice on Avoiding Alcohol” and “Of Hedonism and Hangovers.”
Two of the twelve rules in Peterson’s bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life, deal with Franklin’s second virtue of silence and honest speech: Rule 8, “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie” and Rule 10, “Be precise in your speech.”
On the virtue of cleanliness, Peterson frequently bellows to followers his most well-known injunction to “Clean your room!”
On chastity, Peterson is refreshingly blunt about the emotional and psychological consequences of casual sex and hook-up culture.
Start there and you’ve just barely begun – Peterson has thousands of hours of lectures and videos covering an enormous range of subjects. This astonishing breadth of material is part of what makes Peterson, like Franklin, such a unique figure in the realm of self-improvement.
But Peterson tackles them all, and then some. Like Franklin, he considers comprehensively the process of character development. And unlike single-topic experts like Ramsey or Kondo who advertise the benefit to one’s bank account or bedroom, Peterson focuses on the improvement to one’s life, one’s soul. In a matter of minutes, he can have me pondering existential questions while seeing in new light the role of virtue in the modern world.
That’s just what Benjamin Franklin set out to do when he gathered friends and colleagues at the local pub to discuss how to become better people and forge better communities. Peterson is doing the 21st century equivalent, gathering hundreds of thousands of people to his Youtube channel to talk about becoming men and women of virtue and substance.
I know I’m not the only one to emerge from the depths of a Peterson lecture suddenly intent on cultivating a well-ordered soul. His followers keep increasing and starting hashtags like #MentorMeJordan, and even the New York Times is questioning if he’s the most important intellectual of the day.
Given the bleak realities of America’s morally barren political and cultural landscape right now, I welcome Peterson’s arrival on the scene. A quick character evaluation of most politicians and celebrities reflects a sad and virtue-starved society; but Peterson’s popularity hints at some collective hunger for the moral guidance, leadership, and blunt truth that he’s serving up.
What’s surprising is that his principal audience consists mostly of young parents, professionals, and millennials, like me. We are the generation constantly accused of needing warm and fuzzy feel-good encouragement, and yet we are the ones voraciously eating up Peterson’s no-nonsense, tough love approach to personal growth.
Benjamin Franklin himself, the founding father of self-improvement, might even have been jealous at Jordan Peterson’s ability to become a pseudo father figure for an entire generation of virtue-seeking souls.
It’s only fitting that the day that officially put Peterson on the map – the day his most well-known video interview would go internationally viral – was Benjamin Franklin’s 312th birthday. With this, and with Jordan Peterson’s ever-increasing impact, especially on millennials like me, I imagine Benjamin Franklin would be pleased.
Chelsea Samelson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Post, The Hill, National Review Online, The Federalist, The Week magazine, and others. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.