12 Rules For Life, An Antidote To Chaos
“Then he took his poison, like a man”
Jordan Peterson; 2018
I picked this book up because of the controversy in academia over free speech. Jared Peterson is being proclaimed the intellectual leader of the side that says it’s OK to have a certain point of view and express it openly. Sounds good. The other side are the Politically Correct who shout down some of these speakers. So what is this intellectual leader saying?
Rule number one ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ is deceptive because it really means ‘accept the terrible responsibility of life’, terrible because it’s probably not going your way and probably can’t because that’s Nature. Jordan Peterson says there’s a top and a bottom, a hierarchy in Nature and the evidence is everywhere. The lobster story he relates at the beginning of rule one introduces the idea of ‘position in society’ which is embedded in our brain’s ‘primordial calculator’. And if you are number one you probably know it. On to rule number two then.
‘Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping’. Sounds good, like ‘do unto others’. But he really wants to talk about the ‘primal constituents’ of order, chaos and consciousness. Peterson is a psychologist by training and brings forward concepts from that field and from mythology and world religions with a comfortable ease that reassures the reader. Then, a sentence like this, speaking of the brain, “This, to me, indicates the fundamental, beyond-the-metaphorical reality of this symbolically feminine/masculine divide, since the brain is adapted, by definition, to reality itself (that is, reality conceptualized in this quasi-Darwinian manner).” Peterson spins the tale into talking about shame and being naked, the Original Sin (capitalized in the book), and Truth. A favourite capitalized word in his vocabulary is Being. Being, he tells us in a footnote, is not reducible and definitely requires it’s own term.
Choose good friends, not bad ones. Look up, not down. Look forward, not backward, although from time to time you can look to where you were to realize your improvements. This is sermonizing with erudite asides to keep the reader engaged and entertained. But is it philosophy? Take this sentence, for example, “You simply don’t understand how every neural circuit through which you peer at the world has been shaped (and painfully) by the ethical aims of millions of years of human ancestors and all of the life that has lived for the billions of years before that.” Wow! See the structure. There is a grand plan so get on board. It’s the ethical aims of something that got us here.
This book is what I would call an exegesis, particularly with its recurring emphasis on biblical scripture. Peterson is always telling the reader what words mean, what images mean and what ideas mean. The underlying message is of ‘suffering’ as the human condition that animates human growth. This is not an idea exclusive to Christianity. But it is a religious idea meant to guide behaviour. Peterson invokes Carl Jung frequently and in one passage recounts that he “hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science”. He bends his story of how the Enlightenment and the development of a free mind left a path through Nietzsche (God is Dead) to “totalizing utopian ideas” (Communism and Fascism). His arguments are not really developed as much as asserted, for example, when he connects Descartes’ cogito ergo sum to Horus, Marduk and Logos in order to juxtapose the ‘rational intellect’ with meaningful action. He sprinkles these references to other mythos and thinkers throughout the book as a style of writing meant to overwhelm and humble the reader with his knowledge.
Peterson is incorrect, however, in his assertions throughout this book. Here’s another example, while discussing telling the truth, and blaming ‘the spirit of reason’ (and quoting Milton). “it is the greatest temptation of the rational faculty to glorify its own capacity and it’s own productions and to claim that in the face of its theories nothing transcendent or outside it’s domain need exist. This means that all important facts have been discovered. This means that nothing important remains unknown.” The problem here is that the scientific method doesn’t work like that. The theory of relativity led to quantum theory and will lead to another theory as reason and the rational faculties pore over new evidence. But for Peterson the assertion gets to his point that he wants to make that there is a higher reason that needs to be obeyed and to disobey is totalitarianism. He goes right into a discussion of horrible Communism under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot that left millions dead. But he makes things up. “Reason”, he says, “is something alive.” “It’s best understood as a personality, not a faculty.” He does this so he can equate reason to Milton’s “Lucifer” and then say it is the “spirit of totalitarianism”. This is slippery stuff. It’s not surprising that he goes on to ‘fire and brimstone’ warnings to look out for people “who are immediately angered if you direct your gaze toward them”.
I started reading the book looking for an answer to why the author has become the intellectual spearhead of a certain point of view. The controversy over personal pronouns (he her I you) and gender neutral language leads to a denunciation of “post-modern/Marxist” thinking, and that is perhaps what appeals to his followers.
Peterson concludes his 12 rules with a metaphorical magic pen drafting questions and answers and relating them to his rules. It’s all fine if you a) don’t think about it, and b) are a believer.
Some Reviews to read:
The Story Behind Jordan Peterson’s Indiginous Identity
The Professor of Piffle
Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism
Jordan Peterson’s Tired Old Myths