What does a self-styled conservative who’s read his fair share of the classics make of a work that on the surface looks like an ordinary self-help book but then plunges him into hundreds of pages about the “archetypal” stories in the Bible and Disney movies, not to mention lobster hierarchies and chimpanzee behavior?
He’s fascinated and possibly a little confused at the same time, that’s what.
Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos lists, as the title indicates, twelve rules the author implores all of us to follow, deals with them one by one, and in doing so invokes (in no particular order): Carl Jung, the Bible, Goethe, Nietzsche, Frans de Waal, the ancient Egyptians, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Buddhism and many more which have escaped your reviewer’s mind. The rules are simple enough in and of themselves. To name a few: “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” (#2), “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” (#7), and “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding” (#11). The central theme connecting these dictums is the dichotomy between order and chaos — in society, but also in our personal lives — and how to give meaning to your life by tipping the scale in order’s favor.
Each rule is tied to a lengthy chapter which delves deeply into mythology, religion, philosophy, psychology and biology. For example, the first rule, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” is supported by Peterson’s now famous argument that the nervous system in dominant lobsters, with whom humans share a common evolutionary ancestry, produces more serotonin, leading the critters to adopt a more aggressive posture. Serotonin, of course, is associated with human happiness, and when we have a good posture, we produce more of it. Concludes Peterson: “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. … It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).”
The Old and New Testament form a dominant source of wisdom throughout the book. Peterson invokes Carl Jung’s writings on “archetypes” to explain why the Biblical stories are so important to us even today. For example, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount “outlines the true nature of man, and the proper aim of mankind: concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you — but do that only after you have decided to let what is within shine forth, so that it can justify Being and illuminate the world.”
If this sounds somewhat vague to you, you’re not alone. One line of criticism one might employ against Peterson is that his arguments are long, dense, sometimes obscure, and not always directly to the point. The author never fails, in the end, to clarify their relevance to the main topic, but what can be fascinating and revealing to one may seem endless and off-topic to another. As for yours truly, I loved every minute of reading 12 Rules for Life, but I’m not convinced Peterson is as disciplined and focused as a writer as he is when speaking. In any event, trimming the book by a hundred pages would not have done much damage to its message.
What I enjoyed about Peterson’s work, though, is that it essentially is a tour de force on conservatism: “Life is suffering,” yes, but you give it meaning and order not by wallowing in self-pity or clinging to ideologies that promise heaven on Earth, but by constantly improving yourself and standing ever strong in the face of adversity. To ignore this eternal truth will inevitably lead to chaos and murder. This is what communism and Nazism, which after all denied its subjects any sense of individualism, religion and natural family hierarchy, amply demonstrated throughout the twentieth century, with many millions of corpses as a result.
“It took untold generations to get you where you are,” writes Peterson. “A little gratitude might be in order. If you’re going to insist on bending the world to your way, you better have your reasons.” Conservatism properly understood thus teaches us to know our proper place in the world and in history. It is wary of ideologies because they ignore the grassroots wisdom and customs which have emerged from countless generations of existence, and which are often neither verbalized nor clearly explained to those adopting them. “Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge,” says Peterson, “and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.” Study the French and Russian Revolutions for a case in point.
Being primarily a psychologist and not a political philosopher, Peterson’s focus lies on fixing not society through sweeping changes but the individual through small steps. In this, he deviates even from some modern-day conservatives, with their seemingly eternal emphasis on free markets, immigration and the important legal questions facing our societies (none of which I would disparage). How can you demand change and expect order in society, Peterson in effect argues, if you can’t even create order in your own house by making your bed? It’s a very refreshing approach in this day and age, but the message that building order in society is achieved through improving the individual is nothing if not old-school conservatism.
The modern Left, of course, is all about ideology, radical change, and a complete disregard of history and human nature. What remains of Christianity in the West is mocked at best, and a toxic identity politics filled the void it left. Peterson is placing a direct assault on the Leftist worldview and being extremely successful at it. In fact, he’s become somewhat of a superstar in the past year. Little wonder half the intellectual class has set out to destroy his reputation by attempting to tie him to the ‘Alt Right’, a term that has become what ‘neoconservative’ was in the George W. Bush era: an ill-defined, hollow adjective that solely serves to smear the Left’s political opponents.
Even if there are legitimate criticisms one can level at the book, 12 Rules for Life is a fascinating, thoroughly researched, and very-well-argued work, which espouses a simple but important truth: Get your own act together before demanding to change the world. There have been many before you who were a lot smarter and more well-rounded than you are, so a little humility would be in order. I would advise anybody approaching this book with an open mind to ignore the haters and judge for themselves.