Embracing the Tao: 2. Jordan Peterson’s Folly

Over the course of the past year, as I’ve been immersing and re-immersing myself in the Tao Té Ching, it’s not surprising that I would eventually find my way to Jordan Peterson’s work. Though the Tao is not as present in his lectures and videos, Peterson draws on it throughout his writing; given my interests, it was inevitable that I would eventually run into him. I’ll probably post a more thoroughgoing critique of Peterson sometime in the future (probably through the lens of his use of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard…),[1] but for right now I want to focus on his misinterpretation of Taoism, particularly as he lays it out in 12 Rules for Life.

Peterson brings in the Tao in an effort to bolster his claims that his use of strictly reified and essentialized categories of masculine and feminine is in fact a long standing one, upheld by various traditions throughout the entire sweep of history. According to him, Being is made up of two oppositional principles, the masculine and the feminine. These principles run through the fabric of existence itself, coursing through every person, place, thing, all that is. For Peterson, this symbolism of masculine and feminine maps onto the distinction between order and chaos, whose dynamic interplay propels and upholds all creation. These intertwined and oppositional elements are found for him with particular clarity in the Tao’s understanding of yin and yang. In Peterson’s words, “Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the aforementioned yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol)…Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine.”[2] Within this scope, the masculine is what upholds and stabilizes the world, while the feminine is that which drives towards destabilization and disintegration, while also (hypothetically) propelling creativity and innovation.

As I read him, Peterson seems to be wanting to interpret Taoism’s guiding symbols through the lens of something akin to Plato’s idea of the chariot driver of reason reining in the anarchic propulsion of the passions. I don’t mean this in the sense that he maps the yin and yang, feminine and masculine, directly onto passion and reason, but he does seem to be deploying the idea of the masculine as that which must govern and master the feminine, such that ultimately chaos, the feminine, is ordered by order.[3] Though Peterson at times suggests otherwise, at its core his project seems to be about getting rid of—or at the very least reigning in and domesticating and subordinating—chaos. After all, the subtitle to his book is An Antidote to Chaos. If we’re looking for an antidote to something, it seems only reasonable to conclude we want to get rid of it. If we’re taking an antidote to poison, the goal is to eradicate it from one’s system, not keep it around for a rainy day.

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What’s interesting about this is that I can’t find evidence anywhere in the Tao Té Ching that yin and yang map onto order and chaos in the way that Peterson says they do. I’m happy to be directed to sources that tell me otherwise, but theTao Té Ching actually deploys feminine and masculine in a slightly different way. Yes, it is true that the Tao essentializes masculine and feminine energies and sees them as cosmic realities radiating through all that is. This is undeniable. It is also true that Taoism sees existence as balanced and upheld by these energies, and that the yang is the masculine and yin the feminine. The way the Tao Té Ching understands these, however, is in the paired opposites of active and passive, light and dark, not order and chaos. The foundational passage comes from poem 42, whose second stanza states that

All things bear the shade on their backs

And the sun in their arms;

By the blending of breath

From the sun and the shade,

Equilibrium comes to the world[4] 

Here all reality is shot through with these intertwined energies, each creature simultaneously surrendering to the shade, to the passivity at the heart of Being, and lovingly taking hold of the sunlight of activity and movement. A more direct translation makes clear where the yin and yang is at in all of this: 

All things submit to yin [aka, the shade] and embrace yang [aka, the sun].

They soften their energy to achieve harmony.[5] 

Taoism, thus, does see a dynamism at reality’s core and it is this push-and-pull that propels existence’s continuously birthing and sustaining itself. Being simply is this perpetual vibrancy, this continuous creation, and the yin and yang make all of this happen and simply are this.  

BUT. They do not do this as the dynamic collision between order and chaos, but sun and shade, active and passive.

One could conceivably say, “Okay, even if yin and yang symbolize different realities from Peterson’s, he still gets right the prioritizing of the masculine and feminine. We might quibble over the details, but he’s right that the goal of existence is to elevate yang over yin, masculine over feminine, thus harnessing chaos and directing it towards order’s ends.”

Even here, though, the Tao can’t help.

Instead, it flips things on their head. See, the Tao actually tends to raise the feminine over the masculine. No, it doesn’t want to eliminate either, but the nature of what Being ought to be tilts in the direction of the feminine. Aside from the fact that the Way—that cosmic principle pouring forth and birthing existence itself—is depicted as the gentle mother who births all things, all things find authentic life as they are conformed to her and become like her.[6] It is, thus, in embracing the feminine that we are molded to the shape of the world. Poem 6 clearly articulates this dynamic:

The valley spirit is not dead:

They say it is the mystic female.

Her gateway is, they further say,

The base of earth and heaven.


Constantly, and so forever,

Use her without labor.[7]

Throughout the Tao there is this recurring theme of becoming like a passive valley, learning to accept and go where reality takes you, and to be filled with the unending spring of life that is the Tao. At its core, then, the Tao is a training in passivity, which is a training in femininity. Neither yin nor yang are completely sidelined, but the yin is given pride of place in the well-ordered life. Far from the mystic feminine being something to be dispensed with or shackled, this Way sees becoming feminine—in whatever way we might want to understand that—as the point of all of this. Subordinating feminine to masculine would be to resist the shape of life itself.

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We can argue about whether or not this symbolism is helpful,[8] but the bottom line is that Peterson gets the Tao wrong on its use of gender language, both in what he understands the Tao’s gendered symbols as representing and in his claim that the Tao prefers the masculine. Whatever the faults of the Tao, they are not identical to Peterson’s.

And, this matters.[9]


Title image copyright The Daily Banter.

[1] I also get where those who wonder why I am even bothering with Peterson in the first place are coming from. Feel free to change the channel: we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming two weeks from now.

[2] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018), 40.

[3] I also think it is far from surprising that his viewing of reality itself as propelled by the conflict between the essential and mystical Masculine and Feminine should lead him into such direct conflict with actual women. Symbols function, y’all.

[4] Poem 42 from Lao Tzu, Tao Té Ching, trans. by R.B. Blakney (New York: Signet Classics, 2007), 111.

[5] Lao Tzu, Tao Té Ching, trans. by Charles Muller, http://www.acmuller.net/con-dao/daodejing.html#div-43. Retrieved 5/27/2018.

[6] See, for example, the very first poem of the Tao Té Ching.

[7] Poem 6 from Lao Tzu, Tao Té Ching, trans. by R.B. Blakney (New York: Signet Classics, 2007), 65.

[8] I don’t think it is. I’d rather dispense with it and find another to way to articulate what the Tao is gesturing towards.

[9] More on that, later.