A Review of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson (Random House Canada, 2018, 448pp)

By now, nearly everybody who reads and thinks in English knows about Dr. Jordan Peterson: a once-obscure University of Toronto psychology professor who first achieved fame—or notoriety, depending on your point of view—for being forthrightly politically incorrect. A few years ago, he made a public point of saying that he would not comply with a proposed law prescribing penalties for refusing to use newfangled pronouns that non-cisgendered people wanted everybody to use for them. That endeared him to me and to many others. He had found his moment, his springboard, and his following still grows apace.

This best-selling book has kept the momentum going and squared it. Peterson is now more than a passing fad; he’s a full-blown phenomenon. Some of his young male fans even style themselves “lobsters,” after his favorite example illustrating his first “rule”. Whether intended as such or not, that’s marketing genius—as was his viral interview with the BBC’s Cathy Newman, in which he came off well by calmly refusing to let a feminist looking for an easy target put nasty words into his mouth. More broadly, we should ignore most of the considerable, sometimes hysterical animus against Peterson coming from academia and the Left. While some of the truly scholarly criticisms are valid, most of the froth is politically motivated and, as such, ignores what matters in Peterson’s core ideas.

Uneven Hodgepodge, But Worth Reading

12 Rules is indeed the sort of book most readers of this site would like: self-help advice combining biology, psychology (mostly Jungian), archetypal stories and myths, spirituality (mostly but not entirely sound), and engaging citations of personal experience. Setting forth many of the same, mostly Jungian ideas Peterson explored in Maps of Meaning (1999)–the book that established his academic reputation–12 Rules is much more accessible to a general readership. It’s meant to be. That’s the point.

But be forewarned: It’s quite an uneven hodgepodge held together by a handful of key, interconnected themes whose content, though cogent, is far less original than Peterson’s idiosyncratic, free-associative style. That doesn’t make the book valueless by any means. It is worth reading. But one should read it with a critical, well-informed, and discriminating eye that much of his newfound, non-academic readership seems to lack.

As soon becomes evident, Peterson’s “rules” are little more than cute chapter titles and memory aids that sometimes conceal as much as they reveal about what Peterson is actually saying. One must read, not skim, the full text to get much sense of what he’s really on about. Sometimes it becomes quite clear what he’s on about; sometimes it does not. Sometimes what he’s on about is profound. Sometimes it seems more like a bee in a bonnet, or doesn’t follow from what he thinks it does, or relies on misinterpretation of other texts. To save time, I shall leave provision of examples to readers. I simply note that, to extract the gold from the dross, one must read slowly and deliberately.

What’s clear, at least to me, are the interconnected “key themes” to which I’ve already alluded. I shall expatiate on the few I found to be of greatest interest and truth.

Life is Suffering

We might as well start with the widely-mocked Rule 1: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”—the sort of thing an impatient father would say to a dispirited son who slouches his way through life. And it is largely if implicitly addressed to men, especially young men. So the ensuing chapter spends much time describing the “dominance hierarchy” among lobsters and other species—an expository aid that has also been widely mocked. But it should not be. The metaphor conveys the message that, even if you can’t quite achieve the status of top lobster—and necessarily, only a few can—at least carry yourself with confidence as well as humility and realism. That will enable you to achieve the place your true abilities permit. Then the tougher males won’t tear you apart and some female might even respect you enough to mate with you. All that is really a bit of worldly common sense that most mentally healthy human males learn intuitively among siblings and/or peers. It’s part of our primitive evolutionary endowment. It’s needed for becoming a reasonably functional, socially desirable man. As for women, the same considerations apply mutatis mutandis.

That’s not all there is to it, of course, even though it seems to be what many young men who’ve taken to Peterson most need and want to hear. To see what else there is to it, one needs to see its place in the profound if mostly unoriginal message whose facets are labeled by some of the other “rules”.

Peterson often stresses that “life is suffering.” In sounding that theme, he stands in a long line of thought fed not just by ordinary life but also by Buddhism, the Stoics, and Christian asceticism, which each mean somewhat different things by it. Peterson’s version reminds me of that of the late psychiatrist and spiritual guide M. Scott Peck, who began his signature book The Road Less Travelled (1978) with the more measured acknowledgment: “Life is difficult,” and proceeded to advise us what to do about it. Peterson is also and chiefly concerned with advising us what to do about it. Rule 1 is a start, and much of the rest of the book picks up where that leaves off.

Their Eyes Were Opened

Rule 2 reminds us that there is no worthwhile alternative to treating yourself well; Rule 3 reminds us that nobody else will—at least not consistently—if you won’t. All that might seem boring and trite, and it ought to be obvious. But many people seem to forget it—such as some of Peterson’s friends from his youth, about whom he tells stories that seem all too familiar to me and, I suspect, to most adults. In the same vein, Peterson observes what I have sometimes observed myself: Some people, especially middle-aged and older people who’ve had the stuffing knocked out of them by life, treat their pets better than they treat themselves. Why is that?

The answer can be understood in part through the “archetypal” story of the what happened right after the Fall of Adam and Eve, when “their eyes were opened”:

“Why would someone buy prescription medication for his dog, and then so carefully administer it, when he would not do the same for himself? Now you have the answer, derived from one of the foundational texts of mankind. Why should anyone take care of anything as naked, ugly, ashamed, frightened, worthless, cowardly, resentful, defensive and accusatory as a descendant of Adam? Even if that thing, that being, is himself? And I do not mean at all to exclude women with this phrasing.” (p. 71)

It’s all too easy for our failures, vulnerabilities, limitations, and sins to make us seem pathetic, even contemptible, in own eyes. Which naturally raises the question: Is somebody as pathetic and contemptible as myself even worthy of life, never mind of love? That’s a genuine question for many people, even when they don’t articulate it explicitly. For those who do, and decide that the answer is no, suicide is often the result.

One might say that such an answer is itself pathetic and contemptible; and ultimately, I think, Peterson would agree. But to his credit, he doesn’t think that’s self-evident. The cynical slogan: “Life’s a bitch, then you die,” which we’ve all heard and may even have repeated ourselves, is pretty much true; it’s just not the whole truth. What Peterson is asking is, in a nutshell: Where’s the rest of the truth that would enable us to get past an all-too-understandable rage and despair about life, even against God himself?

Most readers would probably give an answer based on divine revelation: the Paschal Mystery of our redemption, perhaps something telling us why the Cross can be fully understood only in light of the Resurrection. But as he said recently in an interview with Patrick Coffin, Peterson is at least “three years” away from affirming the Resurrection. I will get back to what that implies for the strength of his message. But one cannot accuse him of giving a facile answer to the above question. Whatever the answer, he wants us first to understand, and to understand why it’s important to understand, that any of us can become the worst of the worst.

Taking Serious Questions Seriously

That’s a key lesson of the mass-murdering 20th-century totalitarianisms, but it’s also and mostly small-scale. Unlike animal predators—which include our beloved dogs and cats—we are morally responsible. Our eyes are opened, we know good and evil, and thus we can reject love and life consciously, repeatedly, with malice aforethought—sometimes, just to spite God. It does happen. Objectively, it happens every time we sin “mortally” even when, as is usually the case, we either don’t know it or can’t admit it to ourselves. As Peterson rightly observes, it happened with Cain, who became so enraged against God for (in his view) setting him up to fail that he murdered his more-favored brother Abel out of spite as well as envy. We can become demons, worse than beasts, at least in attitude. The resulting moral evils, often systemic, can lead some to think that humanity just isn’t worth the trouble. That, after all, is essentially the view of the character Ivan in Peterson’s favorite novel, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, as Ivan challenges and taunts his brother, the Orthodox monk Alyosha.

It is not self-evident that Ivan is wrong. Even many religious believers would, in a truly honest moment, admit that they hate how God runs the universe—if not God himself. Watching an innocent loved one die slowly of cancer can do that to you. Following the news regularly can do that to you. Watching your best efforts repeatedly fail can do that to you, as it did to Cain. There’s so much undeserved suffering; people are so cruel to each other even when they don’t mean to be; virtue and good fortune seem to have little or nothing to do with each other. Why shouldn’t we cynically conclude that the whole cosmic setup is unjust, and might even be a sadomasochistic game that’s ultimately not worth playing? Why not slide into bitterness and nihilism, as some of our contemporaries seem to have done?

I agree with Peterson that such questions need to be taken very seriously. But as he also notes, sliding into resentment, bitterness, and nihilism in all its forms is a slide into “Hell,” where it typically leads to acting accordingly. It ought to be obvious that aiming for “Heaven” is better than aiming for Hell. To make it as obvious as it needs to be, we must be brought to understand how easy it is to forget it. Peterson is good at that. So, to avoid sliding down that slippery slope, we need to understand very clearly what aiming for Heaven looks like. while admitting to ourselves that it’s not easy.

It doesn’t seem to be primarily about being virtuous, though of course it involves moral improvement. So what is it about?

Order and Chaos

That’s really what “the rules” are supposed to tell us. As one reads each chapter, one should do so with that in mind. As best I can make out, for Peterson “aiming for Heaven” means deciding, and daily renewing the decision, to make life a bit better. One does that by courageously and resolutely walking the line between “Order” and “Chaos.” Both are necessary to and unavoidable in life. The question is how one integrates them.

What is this contrast between “Order” and “Chaos”? From the book’s “Overture”:

“Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative. It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity. The state of Order is typically portrayed, symbolically— imaginatively— as masculine. It’s the Wise King and the Tyrant, forever bound together, as society is simultaneously structure and oppression. Chaos, by contrast, is where— or when— something unexpected happens. Chaos emerges, in trivial form, when you tell a joke at a party with people you think you know and a silent and embarrassing chill falls over the gathering. Chaos is what emerges more catastrophically when you suddenly find yourself without employment, or are betrayed by a lover. As the antithesis of symbolically masculine order, it’s presented imaginatively as feminine. It’s the new and unpredictable suddenly emerging in the midst of the commonplace familiar. It’s Creation and Destruction, the source of new things and the destination of the dead (as nature, as opposed to culture, is simultaneously birth and demise).”

I must admit that Peterson’s later elaboration on those essentially Jungian ideas still left me puzzled. I don’t quite get the masculine/feminine angle, and I’m not entirely clear on what dealing successfully with both Order and Chaos has to do with aiming toward Heaven or becoming a better person. What does seem clear to me is that, according to Peterson, one walks the line between Order and Chaos by an ever-renewed cycle of living, dying, and rising again. One does what one can to bring good order, especially in the spheres of love and work, while recognizing that one’s ability to do so is limited and that one’s efforts can be blown away at any given time by an irruption of chaos–from which one must bounce back positively in due course, on pain of giving up on life. It’s a kind of proto-Paschal-Mystery. One lives successfully by living the mystery courageously and resolutely.

That became clear for me largely through Peterson’s discussion of the concept and practice of sacrifice—especially as it developed for evolutionary reasons, before it crystallized in religious ritual. From a purely mundane point of view, sacrifice is deferred gratification. People and societies became more successful, more viable, by not consuming all the goodies as they were acquired, but by setting enough aside to share with others and provide for the future. Eventually that led to sacrificing to the divine, as a way of showing due gratitude to the ultimate source of the goodies and, in so doing, securing divine favor for the future. I think that’s right, as far as it goes. We should replicate that sort of insight in how we walk the line between Order and Chaos. We should defer gratification as we build up Order, so that we can share what’s good with others and thus secure resources for surviving periods when Chaos seems to have the upper hand. Life is better that way.

Now that requires a kind of mental toughness and striving for success that Peterson finds lacking in contemporary leftism and identify politics, which manifest what he calls “cultural Marxism.” Whether it’s actual, historical Marxism, “critical theory,” or “postmodernism”—which, unfortunately, he seems unable to distinguish from each other–he vociferously objects to what he takes to be the core attitude of the contemporary Left: what one sympathetic critic calls “might makes wrong.” While the familiar slogan “might makes right” is at best a half-truth, and becomes diabolical when taken as fully true, inverting it leads to silliness and, if carried further, to catastrophe. There can never be perfect fairness or equality of outcome, because that’s not how life works, and the attempt to make life work that way could only end up elevating Chaos over Order. In the meantime, it amounts to little more than resentment of what Peterson calls “Being” itself.

Going Beyond Peterson

Insofar as I understand them and have expounded them, I appreciate Peterson’s insights. He has engagingly brought to the fore some basic truths that our largely secular culture is in danger of forgetting. The problem is that, if we stop where he does, we end up with a kind of noble paganism akin to that of the Stoics. One could do a lot worse than that, but there’s a reason why Stoicism gave way to the Christianity it influenced. In the final analysis, noble paganism can give hope only to the few and for the time being—not to the many and indefinitely. I for one hope that Peterson doesn’t take more than three years to work his way toward belief in the full Paschal Mystery.