Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018.
Jordan Peterson’s name seems to be everywhere. Whether it’s the now famous Channel 4 interview or the plethora of online videos and interviews, he’s a hit with people, particularly young men. He also influences people—in some case changing people’s lives. To some, he’s a messenger of salvation, giving hope to the hopeless.
His influence doesn’t seem to be waning. According to David Brooks, Jordan Peterson might be “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.” And his book, 12 Rules for Life, is selling like free candy given to children. It tops the best-seller lists of Amazon (at this moment, it’s #1 for Amazon USA and Canada and #3 for Amazon UK).
So, what’s my verdict of 12 Rules for Life? In short, it’s a good book but not a perfect book. So, read it, learn from it, but criticize it. And I suspect Peterson would be okay with this judgment. In fact, I would wager that he would encourage such a reception of his book.
What’s at The Heart of Peterson’s Thought?
At the heart of Peterson’s argument lies the idea of Being. For him, Being (with a capital B) refers to the whole of our lived life and all that it entails (xxxi). And life (or Being) involves suffering. In fact, Peterson argues that “Life is suffering” (161; modified capitalization) So, “We must have the something to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount” (xxxi).
We need to embrace Being, to not give in to suffering, and to find meaning. We need to live in the border between chaos and order and find our meaning there.
Peterson’s 12 rules for life are therefore not just a mere list. He sees the rules as situating us between order and chaos (xxxiv). And in this place, “we find the meaning that justifies life and its inevitable suffering” (xxxiv).
For Peterson, to find meaning is to take on the responsibility of Being. We find it when we realize “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life” (xxxv). He continues, “If we live properly, we will collectively flourish” (xxxv).
Peterson’s vision of human flourishing, of living the good life, is to live a life that embraces Being by taking responsibility for oneself. If individuals do this, then the whole society will flourish alongside them.
So what are the rules that help us to find meaning? They are:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- 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 are 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
Many of these rules have a comical overtone but, on examination, each rule is deadly serious.
How Peterson Argues
Peterson argues by demonstrating that we have a problem, by producing statistics or research (hard data) that clarify the problem, by telling stories, and by exhorting his readers to change in specific ways. The order of these elements may not always be the same (or they may overlap), but these patterns of argument are common. And they are extremely effective. Evidence. Illustration. Application.
For example, in his fifth chapter on “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them,” Peterson’s argument goes like this:
- Peterson introduces the chapter with a visceral story of a disobedient three-year old in an airport (we need to fix the problem!).
- He outlines why societies often favour male children, and how, left alone, children will turn into bad eggs.
- So, parents need to discipline children, and this will mean that both parents and children will succeed in life (or will at least lead in that direction).
- He then gives specific advice for disciplining children: don’t multiply rules beyond necessity and use “minimum neccesary force” (137).
Another feature of his argument is his use of traditional texts, namely, the Bible. Peterson carefully reads and interprets the Bible. His reading strategy seems to work this way: he reads a text to understand its historical meaning. He then peals off the husk of the historical details to uncover the transcendent, archetypal truth that the narrative conveys.
While I doubt there is a direct relationship, it reminds me of Rudolf Bultmann’s approach to the Bible. Bultmann read the biblical stories and pealed away the historical details (he demythologized it) to find the kernel of truth, or the existential demand that Scripture brought upon upon the reader.
What makes this connection even more interesting is how both Bultmann and Peterson are indebted to Martin Heidegger. Peterson gained the idea of Being from Heidegger, while Bultmann gained his ideas of existentialism from the same.
In any case, Christian readers will particularly find Peterson’s argument interesting. And yet: they will want more. Being or the soul’s desire might be helpful social categories. But Christians claim that a transcendent Being (God) created Being (life), and so gave humanity a certain longing for what is good, right, and true. And yet it’s not just about living peaceably on this earth with others. It’s about faith in Christ, forgiveness, and a transformed life—now and forevermore.
One of the remarkable aspects of Peterson’s work is how unremarkable it is. Well, that’s not quite right. It’s more like Peterson has skillfully and helpfully argued for time-tested methods for being a good person. But he has done so by engaging scholarship and drawing from his experience as a clinical psychologist. As a consequence, his rules do not feel abstract but concrete and livable.
This by no means make Peterson’s book perfect nor an infallible guide for life. Even he recognizes this. He writes, “I’m simply offering the best I can manage” (xxxiii). And his best is pretty good. We should at least be willing to assume his ninth rule when we consider Peterson’s work: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
So tolle lege. Read it. Learn from it. But realize that it’s an effort from an imperfect man to help people to live between order and chaos and so find meaning.
Disclaimer: Penguin Random House Canada provided me a review copy of 12 Rules for Life, although I was under no obligation to give it a positive review.
For those interested, I wrote an extended criticism of Jordan Peterson from a Christian perspective here.