12 Rules for Life: a review of Jordan Peterson’s book
by Nitay Arbel
Two years ago, Jordan Peterson was a respected clinical psychologist and psychology professor at U. of Toronto, and apparently a brilliant, very popular teacher to his students there. (There are many YouTube videos of his lectures, which make for good listening if you are doing something else with your hands and eyes that doesn’t involve the language centers of the brain.) Then he found himself at the center of controversy when he refused to call a leg a tail because the bureaucracy had decreed it was a tail. In the aftermath, he became a media celebrity to some and a bête noire to others. He ended up closing his clinical practice as he felt he was no longer able to give his clients the undivided attention they deserved. Instead, he wrote a book that appears to be at least in part a popularization of an earlier academic work.
This book is currently a #1 bestseller on Amazon and has been for some time. I have just finished reading it, and recommend it without hesitation. Let me first tell you what it is not.
Those looking for an ‘alt-right’ manifesto will be sorely disappointed. Peterson actually says explicitly that on some economic issues (e.g., income disparity) he leans somewhat left, and elsewhere in the book laments that the cultural demonization of anything masculine is (as he describes it) causing a backlash, in terms of a resurgence in popularity of European parties he calls ‘far right’ or even ‘fascist’. (For Trump, to be clear, he uses the term ‘populist’, which undeniably fits.)
Nor will you find a camouflaged Christian revivalist tract here, as some claim. To be sure, Peterson heavily draws on the Bible and particularly on the Christian New Testament for quotes, but there are plenty of references to Eastern religious philosophies as well, particularly Taoism (‘yang vs. yin’, which here becomes ‘order vs. chaos’) and classical Buddhism (the concept that life is suffering). Among Christian theologians, Kierkegaard’s “act of faith” comes up repeatedly. During an interview, he was asked point-blank “Are you a Christian, and do you believe in G-d?” His intriguing answer: “I think the proper response to that is No, but I’m afraid He might exist.”
Nor is it some sort of “EST”-type (quasi-)cult manual, with Peterson setting himself up as a guru.
Moreover, it does not purport to be a reasoned scholarly tome of conservative philosophy. This is where Peter Hitchens (brother of the late Christopher) gets a little dyspeptic in his review in The Spectator, as he found it wanting there. http://archive.is/4eQIE (h/t: masgramondou)
David Solway, in his much more sympathetic article on PJMedia, hits the nail on the head, I believe. https://pjmedia.com/trending/jordan-peterson-phenomenon/ Like Solway, I find it hard to identify a single new idea in the book—pretty much everything Peterson says would be familiar to those of us who have been reared on Scripture and the Great Books.
But we have reached the level of intellectual corruption where, as George Orwell put it, the first duty of any thinking person is the restatement of the obvious. And that, Peterson does very well indeed. The book is a coherent whole, an engaging read, yea even a compelling ‘recap’ to the well-read. Peterson makes his discourse more engaging through extensive illustrations from psychological research, his own clinical practice, neuroscience, and his own life experience. Most importantly, it will bring wisdom of the ages (and of rational-empirical thinking) to a millennial generation drowning in derp and denial of objective reality. To those who, if you will pardon me the phrase, “know not the gods of the copybook headings”.
Among the non-Western secular authors he draws on for inspiration and illustration, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn take pride of place. The one philosopher quoted most often is Nietzsche, whom he regards as a prophet of what would happen to the West once people lost their religious anchor. In his own words: https://www.patreon.com/jordanbpeterson
The same is true of Nietzsche. In the aftermath of God’s death, he believed humanity, would become entranced, even possessed, by utopian political ideas, such as those of Marx. Nietzsche believed that such possession would kill millions in the twentieth century, as it did. The great German thinker also posited that human beings would have to create their own values, to fill the void left by God’s demise. However, it is not clear that we can create values, voluntarily. Individuals who have forced themselves to manifest interest in something that just didn’t interest them know the limits of our value-creating capacity. We also don’t live particularly long. It’s impossibly difficult to self-generate a complete model for being in the span of a single short life.
Among Freud and his disciples, the one he quotes most is Jung, followed by Adler. Carl Rogers (influenced himself by Jung and Adler) recurs often—it seems that Peterson’s own clinical practice is in the Rogers mold.
The book is organized as a prologue, twelve chapters around one ‘rule’ each, and a coda. The book lends itself reasonably well to reading by chapters. A fil rouge running through the whole book is the order-chaos dichotomy in the universe, and the balance between them. The twelve rules are:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back. [Be confident and assertive, project the same.]
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. [Take care of your physical and mental health — you owe it to yourself as well as to those who would otherwise be forced to care for you.]
- Make friends with people who want the best for you. [Not frenemies, not hangers-on, not energy vampires, not yes-men, not bullies.]
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
- Do not let children do anything that makes you dislike them. [Do not let children turn into unsocialized little tyrants because you are afraid to set boundaries. Children actively test for boundaries and actually want some set.]
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
- Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.
- Assume that the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.
- Be precise in your speech.
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. [Not just cats.]
One should understand that some of these ‘rules’ are really top-level headings, metaphors, or conversation starters. Obviously rule 11, for instance, isn’t about skateboarding but about the tendency to proscribe all risky play, sports,… from society and thus neuroticizing children and (particularly male) adults allegedly for their own good.
The tone Peterson strikes is conversational, intimate, and mindful of “not having all the answers” (his own rule #9). In one chapter (#10), he does raises his voice, when speaking “postmodernism” (and cultural Marxism more broadly). In this video he pulls no punches: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPojltjv4M0
I can find little fault with this, since I regard postmodernism as a mind virus — arguably the intellectual equivalent of AIDS in the etymological sense of the word (acquired intellectual immunodeficiency syndrome).
All in all, Jordan Peterson is not so much a right-wing prophet as, to use the words of the above interviewer, “a warrior for common sense and plain speech.” And sorely are those needed today.