12 Rules for Life - a critical review
To say that Jordan Peterson is an interesting and paradoxical man is something of an understatement. We might describe him many ways: a research-oriented academic who writes out of clinical practice; an egghead who is liked by the TV cameras; an intellectual who likes manual work; a philosopher who likes thinking well – but largely because it can help people get better.
Peterson is a controversial figure, highlighted in March 2019 when the University of Cambridge withdrew its invitation for him to become a visiting fellow – partly on the grounds that his views were ‘not representative of the student body’. One wonders what a university is for if not for the discussion of opposing views. Yet 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (2018) does not seem to me to be controversial for the sake of it or written primarily to draw attention to the author. Rather it reads as a deeply evidence-based plea for the re-establishment of the classic virtues and of faith in the pursuit of human well-being.
Peterson’s book is written in a strikingly relaxed idiom and designed to provide self-help to those who have lost their way in today’s cross-currents, are suffering mental health issues or are hesitating at a traffic-laden crossroads in life. It is also fascinating and provoking for those who do not fit those categories. Students who are under stress could usefully read some chapters of this book, as should anyone thinking of starting a family. Anyone responsible for the care of young children would benefit from considering some of the pitfalls to avoid and behaviours to pursue. But no one should think that the rules Peterson lays down are of easy accomplishment; Norman Doidge in his Foreword acknowledges this.
Peterson steadfastly refuses to be fitted into any particular religious or philosophical grouping. Yet he is one of those rare writers who is prepared to demonstrate unashamedly that religion – more specifically the Christian tradition – actually works: intellectually, psychologically, practically. But what Peterson precisely does not do is write any sort of apologia or seek to defend the historical veracity of the faith. That is not at all his purpose, and those hoping for that will be disappointed. But anyone open to considering different worldviews of a metaphysical kind would be engaged by the overall direction of Peterson’s arguments.
Peterson steadfastly refuses to be fitted into any particular religious or philosophical grouping
Of the 12 rules, only two are negatives. Both are about how to treat children, and while deadly serious, are frequently couched in humorous terms. The positives are all simple enough on the surface: ‘Stand up straight’; ‘Make friends’; ‘Tell the truth’. Peterson is unashamedly moralistic – but that is his point: not to be so has undermined both the fabric of society and our ability to be happy. Underlying this homely and anecdotal approach is a professorial wealth of reading and research (as evidenced by the endnotes) along with decades of clinical experience of helping the disturbed – from the ‘worried well’ to the seriously psychotic.
The human predicament: guaranteed suffering
Partly because of his enormous popularity with the alt-right (which he does not espouse) Peterson is a divisive figure – especially with regard to his views on gender. But in which arc does he sit at the atheist–theist–Christian round table? Do Christians, and those without religion, need to beware of any sort of masquerade in an approach which theologically sometimes appears to be ‘all things to all men’? For there is certainly an overt theological strain to the book, though Peterson’s sources are eclectic and diverse. Contemporary researchers and writers jostle for prominence alongside Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, Milton and Jung, the Bible and the Buddha, all of which sources are used to shed light on the human predicament of guaranteed suffering paradoxically created by a good God. When we once give way to the idea that Being (Peterson always capitalises the B) is itself evil or even meaningless and uncreated then, he believes, we are lost and pay an appalling price in the life of individuals and even of nations.
There is nothing, to my mind, of the masquerade or hypocrisy about this. Peterson is too profound a physician and psychologist to believe that any sort of charade in such matters would convince anyone. The essential stories which are key to understanding our place in the universe and so provide us with a proper understanding of self are, he unfashionably believes, to be found in the Old Testament – especially the early Genesis narratives. His take on these often affords a fresh insight. He suggests that ‘the great myths and religious stories of the past’ – especially those from the earliest oral traditions – are moral rather than descriptive in intent (xxvii).
Peterson’s unashamed view is that the world needs taming
This is not something that will alarm many Christians (though of course a well-written morality story is anyway descriptive – of the human condition) but will make interesting reading for a religiously illiterate world that imagines that all Christians read the Bible as they would a school science text book. In addition, Peterson realised ‘that shared belief systems made people intelligible to one another [and] simplify the world, as well, because people who know what to expect from one another can act together to tame the world’ (xxx). Peterson’s unashamed view is that the world does need taming; we absolutely must have ‘the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount’ (xxxi). Keeping nihilism at bay – with its attendant catastrophic impact on social behaviour – is the first if not the whole duty of man, for without that our existence would be irredeemably nasty, brutish and short – in Hobbes’s much-used phrase. ‘We all have a palpable sense of the chaos lurking under everything familiar’ (43). Without check, Peterson believes, the ‘forces of tyranny expand inexorably’ (24). The examination of the thinking of many of the mass murderers in recent years in the US shows nihilism to be at the root of their resentment, hatred and violence.
Ancient wisdom made new
In building a firewall against nihilism, Peterson is not doing anything especially new. In the ancient world three schools of thought dominated the intellectual landscape and Peterson, it seems to this reviewer, draws on all three.
In the Hellenistic age when the apostle Paul preached in Athens to an unchurched audience we are told that among the crowd were ‘certain philosophers of the Epicureans and Stoics’ (Acts 17:18) and Paul couched his address in their cultural terms. There would have been Cynics there too. All three schools, like Peterson, were cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic; each agreed that the world was a place of suffering and perpetual restlessness which threatened to engulf them unless men (women hardly got a look in) fortified themselves with an unworldly ideal. The Cynic would say that the way to do this was to play well the part allotted to him by Fate or Fortune. Peterson says that whether we are ‘Kalahari Desert-dweller or Wall Street banker’ (44) we have to recognise what is, and what is not, under our control. The Epicurean would say the way was to limit your desires. Peterson advises us to ‘aim small’ and to have as a goal making things ‘a tiny bit better than they were this morning…that’s magic’ (96). The Stoic, with whom Peterson has most in common, would say that we must live in harmony with God’s will. This translates as doing what we know to be dutiful, living a life of active virtue. Peterson is very strong on this, devoting chapters to the necessity of truth-telling, respecting others, removing the plank from your eye before you try to remove the speck from someone’s else’s, among other tried and tested virtues.
Peterson is very strong on the necessity of truth-telling and respecting others, among other tried and tested virtues
Moral injunctions of this kind drawn from the teaching of Jesus pepper the text as do more cryptic statements asserting that ‘Truth will not come in the guise of opinions shared by others…It will instead be personal’ (230). Or his assertion that the Tao is what Jesus was referring to (43) when he said ‘I am the Way’ (John 14:6). This seeming syncretism may cause Christian readers to part company with him at this point. However, a careful reading shows Peterson has insights here and Christians would be wrong on those grounds alone to stop listening to the many good things he has to say. He is not, for instance, sceptical about the miraculous in life, though it is worth remembering that when Paul addressed the philosophers mentioned earlier it was of resurrection that he spoke (Acts 17:18). This is something that Peterson does not explore or contemplate at all in the book, even though he discusses how the idea of redemption through the cross has impacted various thinkers Christian and non-Christian (189–190).
Meaning: the central need of humanity
Like Yuval Noah Harari, Jordan Peterson is concerned with meaning – the meaning of existence. But unlike the determinist Harari, Peterson finds meaning in our choices: ‘free choice matters’ (56). His contention is that this meaning is expressed with exquisite economy in the narratives of the first three chapters of Genesis. In the predatory world in which we have been placed, it is meaning which keeps mortal despair at bay (28). Peterson considers the belief that people are basically good and that no one really wants to hurt anyone else extremely naïve and a hopeless basis for life (24). Nevertheless, we are not bereft of all hope because we have an eternal hunger for Being and if we can live and behave properly’ that hunger will be satisfied.
Peterson considers the belief that people are basically good extremely naïve
To live in that way is to be balanced – to have one foot in what Peterson terms the ‘masculine’ realm of order and security and the other in what he calls the ‘feminine’ realm of ‘chaos’. This is, of course, where Peterson begins to get himself into trouble with feminist and other associated lobbies. But he makes clear that by ‘chaos’ he means the realm of ‘possibility, growth, adventure’ (43) and that it is only by achieving an equal balance between these two realms of predictability and unpredictability that meaning itself will ‘well up from the most profound depths of your Being’ (44). Though rather wordy this is an exciting idea and is given practical application.
Order and chaos in Genesis
At this point Peterson connects his exposition of Genesis with universal human experience. In his view, the garden represents order and the serpent represents chaos – the black dot in the yin side of the Taoist symbol – the two forces that we have to live between. The pre-fall world had only order, no chaos. But this came at the cost of self-consciousness; an awareness of self which is the essentially human characteristic. (Peterson is very good on the ineradicable gulf between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, which has ‘no comprehension of their own subjugation to pain and death’ (54) – something which so many commentators prefer to blur today).
He suggests that the Christian tradition of identifying the serpent with Satan – the very principle of evil itself – shows that ‘nothing can be walled off…We have seen the enemy…and he is us…No walls, however tall, will keep that out’ (47). This is not a full understanding of Satan as many Christians believe, but we are dealing here with the point at which words and concepts strain and buckle in their attempt to express reality. Peterson, rather than treating the text in cavalier fashion, has the highest regard for the mythopoeic aspect of the early chapters of the Bible: ‘These old stories contain nothing superfluous’ (48). There is a suggestion here that to be human necessitates vulnerability to evil, limitation and suffering. If everything threatening were to be banished, the result would be ‘permanent human infantilism and absolute uselessness’ (47). Again, these ideas are far from new, but they are expressed in a new way by someone who has observed and treated a wide spectrum of those whom evil of one kind or another has impacted with devastating force.
The theology may not be entirely orthodox but it provides a great deal to reflect on
I found Peterson very illuminating on the Fall and how the opening of human eyes to evil enabled us to imagine the future, created a need for security and, thereby, a necessity for work. The event catapulted us ‘out of infancy, out of the unconscious animal world, into the horrors of history itself’ (52). The theology may not be entirely orthodox but it provides a great deal to reflect on and is compellingly written by someone who finds the first three chapters of Genesis ‘a narrative sequence almost unbearable in its profundity’ (56). If that is not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
Peterson treats the difficult story of Cain and Abel as archetypal of the common experience that ‘the Ideal shames us all’ (50). He sees this as being reversed by Jesus: in the desert he overcame the temptations to which Cain succumbed, refusing to turn ‘to Evil to obtain what Good denied him’ (178). One of the virtues of the book, as exemplified in these passages, is that the highly individual commentary re-vivifies and reinvigorates the text for the reader to whom the words are very familiar, while also making it more accessible in a contemporary idiom for the less biblically literate. This is partly because Peterson unashamedly draws on Carl Jung for insights to Scripture which are part of a post-Christian psychoanalytically oriented world – a source that many would not consider in approaching the Bible from a position of faith. From these insights Peterson produces almost contiguous juxtapositions which will delight Christian readers: ‘Everyone falls short of the glory of God’; ‘You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world’ (62). These two statements alone, with their call to unpressured humility linked with the grandest possible purpose in life, can make the heart sing if they are believed. Perhaps the psychologist goes too far in implying that how we live can ‘atone for our sinful nature’ (64) when full atonement is found only at the cross – but we all know that trying to put things right after we’ve messed up, can make us feel a lot better. In common parlance we do speak of people atoning for what they have done wrong. That’s important too. Our everyday heroism in the face of suffering, which to Peterson is often little short of miraculous, makes us ‘low-resolution versions of God’ (60) – nothing wrong with that: we are made in his image and in his likeness. Our job he says, is to ‘help direct the world…a bit more toward Heaven’ (63).
The challenge for Christians
There is an implicit but distinct challenge here for Christians. Peterson recognises the force of such a concept (that each life matters eternally) insofar as when people are able to devote their lives to this, they rediscover ‘Meaning, with a capital M’ and are once more able ‘to walk with God in the Garden’ (p63–4). But he also recognises that all too often the Church, Christians down the ages, have not got this ‘walk’ right.
It was Nietzsche, the most hostile of critics, who recognised that focus on the once-for-all atonement of Christ led to three possible abuses: devaluing earthly life and the suffering of others; passive acceptance of the status quo; rejection of any real moral burden to act (189). While it cannot be denied that religious people have succumbed to these pitfalls, it would have been good to see a reminder in the same passage that Nietzsche was one-sided in thinking that no Christians made any successful attempts at the imitation of Christ. Such a position is historically untenable.
Nevertheless, Peterson makes clear, with the aid of the famous ‘Grand Inquisitor’ story from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that ‘the great, corrupt edifice of Christianity still managed to make room for the spirit of its Founder’ (191). It seems to me that the challenge therefore for Christians today is to ensure that in our own generation the Church is a force for unqualified and selfless giving.
Biblical commentary or self-help DIY kit?
At times, it is hard to decide whether in 12 Rules we are reading a biblical commentary, an unusual manual of devotion (occasionally), or a self-help DIY kit. The three genres seem to intertwine frequently. For instance take these statements – all from the same chapter section: ‘It is necessary and desirable for religions to have a dogmatic element’ (102); ‘The Bible is…the foundational document of Western civilization’ (104); ‘God is not to be trifled with’ (105); ‘you must quit manoeuvring and calculating and conniving and scheming…you must pay attention, as you may never have paid attention before’ (107–8); even if you think yourself atheistic, ‘you’re simply not an atheist in your actions’ (102).
Alongside this mixture of genres is the constant undertow of psychoanalysis and anthropology which almost seem to work against the flow of the author’s argument that the Bible and Christianity are central to the rehabilitation of our private sanity and social stability. The Bible for instance may be foundational but it is also ‘a truly emergent document…thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time’ (104). At first sight this would appear to be highly reductive and a negation of God’s authorship but that would be too hasty a conclusion. Peterson, I feel sure, would deny that as his intention. His claim for the Bible is that it can reveal to us ‘how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner’ (104).
That is a very high claim to make and entirely compatible with the idea that God employed the whole nature of things from time immemorial as well his harnessing of human imagination and reason (which is entirely sound theology) in the creation of this unique library of books, our Bible. Is that not a more exciting concept than the idea that God irresistibly guided the hand of the scribes as they penned the parchments?
This sort of jackdaw approach of lifting ideas from many disciplines can be seen in parts of Peterson’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, which he considers ‘in some sense’ the essence of the wisdom of the New Testament. So far, so good. However, when he continues that Christ’s words are ‘the attempt of the Spirit of Mankind to transform the understanding of ethics from the initial, necessary Thou Shalt Not…’ (109) we seem to have moved some distance from a traditional understanding. But a closer reading might suggest otherwise. His view that ‘this is the expression…of the fundamental desire to set the world right…and the proper aim of mankind’ is surely true. Moreover, if we consider the debate about exactly what Jesus meant when he used the term ‘Son of Man’ of himself, it is far from impossible that the ‘Spirit of Mankind’ in its ideal and perfect state is included within that term.
A magnificent meander through a number of disparate disciplines which Peterson dovetails with great panache and skill
On reflection, what Peterson gives us, in terms of hermeneutics, is an interpretation which sees the Bible as a record of how people have understood God through the ages. Beginning with a profound myth about the nature of reality, of cause and effect and of the moral law implanted in our hearts, it continues by showing how these were codified into Commandments and enacted by the Prophets finally reaching their perfect summation in Christ and the Sermon on the Mount. In the light of all this, Peterson believes, we are enabled to discover who we are. He is more guarded about making a statement about Scripture as divine revelation, the book in which God has supremely and deliberately made himself known. In this he stops short of affirming what has been a foundational belief in every period of history, and throughout the mainstream global Christian Church.
12 Rules For Life is a magnificent meander through a number of disparate disciplines which Professor Peterson dovetails with great panache and skill. Such wanderings do, however, mean that he sometimes executes a surprising about-turn or seeming contradiction. On the one hand he tells us that amending drunken behaviour or bad eating habits is well-nigh impossible: ‘I cannot merely make myself over in the image constructed by my intellect’ (193); on the other hand he tells us ‘simply stop…Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner’ (158). Different contexts perhaps, but nevertheless a touch confusing to the reader trying to discern what role the three elements of human will, psychotherapy, and the work of the Holy Spirit each play. Equally, when dealing with the origins of morality (169) it is not clear as to how Peterson’s comments about human self-interest and group behaviour are to be balanced against the work of God who places eternity in our hearts. Peterson’s precise view on these matters is unclear: he does not explicitly deny or affirm the notion that human conscience (our awareness of right and wrong) is a gift of God. Christian readers will want to keep this in mind, along with Peterson’s apparent lack of understanding or reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. In a footnote to page 169, Peterson intriguingly reminds us that his description of how moral principles and the concept of God emerged remains true whether or not God actually exists. He thereby keeps his cards close to his chest, though he does let us know that he outgrew the ‘shallow’ Christianity of his youth (196), went through many phases of doubt and emerged realising that ‘To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want’ (200).
To the present reader the climactic moment of the entire book immediately follows this epiphany when, in a purple passage of prose which is all but poetry, Peterson speaks of meaning and God in terms which are as much Buddhist as they are Christian (201). This, in my view, is the closest we get to the private world of this great thinker and teacher who wants to share his vision that honest, authentic living can ‘reduce the suffering attendant on existence to bearable levels’ (216).
Peterson has profound insights to share from disciplines that religious people can learn from, but might initially find alien to their faith
Periods of sudden intellectual growth are also apt to be times of moral chaos. It was true for Rome in the second century BC and for Europe in the sixteenth century for instance. We might apply that principle also to today’s world, and if so, Peterson’s book is something of a guide to the moral maze as he interleaves Christian insight with the gleanings of secular studies.
There is good precedent for this. The letters of Paul and the Gospel of John are both full of Greek modes of thinking. It was a strength of the early Church that it both taught and learned from the Hellenistic world it inhabited. Augustine was saturated in Plato and the churchmen of the Middle Ages were students of Aristotle. Peterson today has profound insights to share from disciplines that religious people can learn from, but might initially find alien to their faith. But Christians should sit up and take note of what he has to offer and be glad that Christian truths can filter out from the book to the surrounding unchurched world.
Jordan B Peterson. 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (Allen Lane, 2018) 448pp, £14.00hb / £6.99pb.
 For a full defence of the Church’s positive role in social history through the ages see my book The Evil That Men Do, (Sacristy Press, 2016) which explores this from the first century to the twenty-first.