12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
Jordan B. Peterson, Allen Lane, 2018
I don’t know about you, but suddenly I can’t move without bumping into Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor of psychology who has become a public intellectual almost overnight it seems. He is a polarising figure, who has been involved in controversies over the use of newly-coined transgender pronouns, and whose online interviews and lectures are viewed and listened to by millions. He is outspoken in his intense dislike of the ideological left, and the feeling is mutual. He was recently in Australia, and his conversation with former deputy prime minister John Anderson is at the top of Peterson’s youtube news feed as I write this review. The conservative side of society feel Peterson has cut through in articulating many objections they have to the ways we are being encouraged to think and feel about ourselves, our history and others in a post-modern, politically correct world.
Beyond his controversial profile, Peterson seems strongly motivated to help people live more satisfying, successful lives, and as a psychologist and intellectual he has ideas about how to do that. He is influenced by Jung, Nietzche, Dostoyevsky, the Bible and the Tao. He believes in the wisdom of the past, expressed in stories, myths and cultural practices passed down over millennia. His first book was an academic work on the psychology of religious belief. His second book, 12 Rules for Life, is the top selling book on the Amazon nonfiction charts in the week I write this review and aims to convey what Peterson believes will help people live well. The place to live well, according to Peterson, is on the straight and narrow path between order and chaos. For Peterson it is primary to say that chaos is a threat to life, and hence we need order, routine, tradition, discipline (and so the book’s title and subtitle). But something else also needs to be said, that ‘order can become excessive, and that’s not good’ (p. xxxiv). Chaos is also needed for exploration, creativity and transformation. The individual lives well by living on the boundary of order and chaos, in the zone of their fruitful intersection.
12 Rules for Life is a self-help book with a polemical edge, a critique of a certain current sensibility, rooting for taking responsibility for yourself, burying envy as a motivation, aiming at the good without seeking to be avenged upon the world for its unfairness, and sitting at the feet of tradition expecting to be schooled well, amongst other things. Peterson is unusual in his great respect for and extensive use of Biblical episodes and texts like Genesis 1-4, or the Sermon on the Mount. The twelve rules are cast in the form of wise advice, sometimes quirkily expressed. Rule 5 is ‘Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them’ and rule 12 is ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street’. Each rule gets a chapter, and the chapters wend their way towards the rules (which are the closing words of each chapter), covering a rich variety of topics and life issues. Chapter one is about hierarchy and dominance, the second about the necessity of sympathetically and realistically taking responsibility for yourself, the third about the company you keep, the fourth about what to pursue and why, the fifth about parenting, the sixth about responding to the outrages of the world, the seventh about sacrifice, evil and meaning in life, etc. Chapter 10, ‘Be precise in your speech’ has a lot about marriage in it. Peterson is bold, bracing and strident as well as sympathetic, careful and hopeful. He advocates living for meaning rather than happiness, and thus regards suffering as not merely unavoidable, but potentially the place of productive and meaningful growth and action. He is for the pursuit of the transcendent good, and against the reduction of human life to a contest of self-interested power. He is for the real distinction of masculine and feminine, and against artificial measures aimed at equality of outcome for all without distinction. He has a hard face, a sometimes aggressive twitter feed and huge doses of charisma. He has gotten lots of people talking. What shall we make of him and his ideas?
It seems to me that Jordan Peterson is for law. He is about recognising the non-negotiable realities of human existence. Instead of destroying yourself and your culture by resentfully and misguidedly going to war with the way things are, Peterson recommends living creatively and meaningfully according to the rules that lead to success in the midst of inevitable suffering. Jordan Peterson is not preaching gospel. His exposition of Biblical texts contains none of the notes of grace that a Christian might point out. This is not to say that Peterson has no mercy or compassion in him, it is more to say that for Peterson, Being (the way things are) is practically synonymous with God. The figure of God stands in at points for all the things (encompassing both chaos and order) that we must accept with awe and humility, and be reconciled to as what stands sovereign over us and cannot be changed.
But since Christians make a momentous distinction between God and the World, the Law of Being is not the final reality in our lives. There is the possibility of divine help coming to us that is utterly different to self-help, or to any other help offered by another. Help offered by another who is not God will take the form of instruction, guidance, counsel, listening and conversation to accompany what is ultimately self-help, a process started, carried out and concluded through an individual’s courage, resolution, reflection and action. Such help is not to be sneezed at, but God in his grace may help us in a fundamentally different way. His help can come to us as new birth, as regeneration, as life from the dead, as justification by faith, as conversion. I have not found in Peterson this gospel note. As far as I can see, for Peterson, Jesus is a teacher and an ideal, archetypal human being, but he is not the Risen Saviour who pours his Spirit upon his disciples and in whose name forgiveness of sins is proclaimed.
Still, Jordan Peterson has cut through. He has a great chord in our culture. To some it is beautiful, half-forgotten music. To others it is an ominous, dark and unwelcome sound. Christians may find what he has to say illuminating, and we may enjoy the respect he accords the Bible as a popular intellectual with a rather different angle on religion and Christianity than Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and their ilk. Peterson may catalyse a softening of militant atheism and a revaluation of the Bible in our public discourse, and that would be a welcome development. Beyond that hope, we may also pray that some Christian, some preacher of the Gospel, might cut through and strike a mighty chord in our society in the way that Peterson has, and that the Spirit would blow our way and bring new birth, even to those who are old. For law is not our salvation.