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Book Review: “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”

Jordan Peterson —the University of Toronto psychology professor who rose to prominence after taking a controversial stand against his university’s decision to mandate the use of transgender students’ preferred pronouns—has rapidly emerged as one of today’s most interesting public figures. Famed for his provocative YouTube videos expressing hard truths to young men, Peterson routinely stresses the evolutionary realities of life and humans’ place in the world.

Given this pattern, one might expect Peterson’s recent book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” to be a mainstream, “Art of Manliness”-style self-help book designed to capitalize on the author’s newfound popularity. And I’ll admit that I went in expecting a mashup of Rick Warren, Ayn Rand, and Bear Grylls.

But “12 Rules” is something much different and far more interesting. It’s a philosophical statement about the contours of reality, the essential role played by mediating cultural narratives, and the way to live morally in a complex world.

Each of Peterson’s twelve rules—fairly banal-sounding propositions like “be precise in your speech,” and “do not bother children when they are skateboarding”—serves as the springboard for an extended meditation on life and the universe. “Be precise in your speech,” for instance, morphs into a treatment of the lies perpetuated by Communist regimes and the need for any totalitarian government to sever itself from objective reality. “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding” becomes a discussion of the dangers of unchecked power.

There are many gems in “12 Rules”—not least of which are the rules themselves. The book is at its very best when it illustrates this advice by drawing on anecdotes from Peterson’s own clinical practice. And for the most part, I take Peterson’s message to be one of accepting personal responsibility and avoiding the temptation to blame others for life’s difficulties. That’s a commendable goal, and one that helps explain why he’s become so popular.

Moreover, Peterson decisively stakes out a position against moral relativism, arguing in quasi-Thomistic fashion that “[t]here are some actions that are so intrinsically terrible that they run counter to the proper nature of human Being. . . . These are evil actions. No excuses are available for engaging in them.” And Peterson properly infers from this that “if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good.” Obviously this is thin gruel to a committed Humean, but it’s gratifying to encounter a contemporary public figure whose ethics don’t reduce down to some iteration of “you do you, bro.”

That said, “12 Rules” also has its low points. In particular, Peterson’s theory that all religions contain a universal symbolic grammar corresponding to real psychological truths reads like a mutant amalgamation of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, The Golden Bough, and the film Zeitgeist. In perhaps the book’s biggest howler, Peterson posits that “[t]he idea that life is suffering is a tenet, in one form or another, of every major religious doctrine . . . Buddhists state it directly. Christians illustrate it with the cross. Jews commemorate the suffering endured over centuries. Such reasoning universally characterizes the great creeds[.]”

As any religious-studies scholar would undoubtedly inform him, this is a wildly deficient reading of three very different faith traditions. I don’t want to speak for Buddhists or Jewish persons, but for Christians, the cross represents a historically unique event that broke the cycle of suffering and paved the way for an eventual life without suffering. Nor does the rhetorical conflation of the cross with earthly tribulations (e.g., “taking up one’s cross”) help Peterson’s case: the cross still points towards a final victory that diverges dramatically from any notion of nirvana. Stitching together superficially related motifs (“cross…pain…suffering”) is a sloppy move that does “12 Rules” no favors.

Even more frustrating is Peterson’s unwillingness to tackle the profound tension at the heart of “12 Rules” (a dilemma that, admittedly, is probably the ur-question of human civilization): is existence essentially good, or essentially dreadful? In many ways, Peterson’s book is a rallying cry for self-actualization and the maximization of one’s potential—ways that one comes to more fully participate in existence. But at the same time, Peterson seems determined to argue that reality is defined by suffering, that to live in the world is to endure “stark existential loneliness”—and that any truly noble man, in consummately Stoic fashion, must stare boldly and defiantly back at the void.

In short, Peterson’s thought runs in two directions at once: it’s painfully clear that he’s caught between an Aristotelian sensibility that strives for virtue and flourishing and an icy Nietzschean tendency that sees everything through the lens of conflict. For example, the book’s first rule—“stand up straight with your shoulders back”—is predicated on the claim that this stance is an evolutionarily hard-coded display of power. One must communicate such power, Peterson contends, to be professionally and romantically successful. Shortly thereafter, Peterson slams Derrida and his followers for arguing that the world is essentially constituted by systems of interlocking power relations. But one can’t help thinking that this Derridean conclusion follows, quite logically, if one accepts Peterson’s implicit “war of all against all” premise. Since the tenor of Peterson’s social critique is never quite consistent, I’d be hard-pressed to identify a major philosophical takeaway from “12 Rules.”

If Peterson was willing to jettison his pet universal-mythology theory and try to understand individual belief systems on their own terms, he might at least find more consistent answers to his concerns about existence. But as it is, Peterson can never quite bring himself to consider whether the Being toward which he grasps so earnestly may be more than simply human Being—whether it may, in fact, be a reality that both wholly transcends and sustains the finite world.

Notwithstanding these unresolved difficulties, “12 Rules” is an engaging read.  It’s a curious, unpredictable, idiosyncratic book, and most definitely not what I expected. I doubt it’ll become a timeless classic—it’s hard to nail down the book’s central vision, and its philosophical conclusions are murky. But as Peterson’s popularity soars and his ideas find a receptive audience, it’s probably worth hearing him out.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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