The only thinker whose popularity on YouTube comes close to Jordan Peterson is Alan Watts, the British popularizer of Eastern wisdom. Watts’ talks from the 50s, 60s and early 70s have millions of views on YouTube. He’s become a guiding voice for the internet age — indeed, in Spike Jonze’s film Her, Watts is resurrected as a hyper-intelligent operating system.
Watts was a teenage prodigy, one of the earliest British converts to Buddhism. He published his first book on Zen aged 20, in 1932. He then moved to the US in the 1930s, and surprised everyone by becoming an Episcopalian priest (his daughter suggests he may have done this to avoid the draft). He foresaw that Western society needed a contemplative and mystical revival, but left the church when facing ejection for his unconventional lifestyle — he lived in a threesome, preached free love, and was finally divorced by his wife for being a ‘sexual pervert’ (British boarding school had apparently given him a taste for flogging).
He moved to California, and helped to set up the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which introduced Zen to the 50s beats and the 60s hippies. But eventually he left there too, and became a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’, living in the Bay area, writing books and giving talks to rapt college audiences. He could talk non-stop, without notes, all delivered with a slightly-plummy musicality and skilful use of the dramatic pause. You can watch his talks on YouTube for hours, lulled into a peaceful stupor by the voice and the ambient, going on and on and on. He’s become a background soundtrack for stoners.
But what does Watts actually have to say? What is the What, Watts?
Watts was a prophet of the idea that we can seek our spiritual fulfilment outside of traditional religious commitments and communities. He preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ — not clinging to any particular religion. He was a nomad-prophet for our uprooted age. He preached the wisdom of the body, the spirituality of sex, the validity of psychedelics as a spiritual…