Full disclosure: I am one of many politically moderate people who +/-10 years ago became aware of burgeoning social movements, and with more trust than thought, supported them. Fairness, equal rights, justice, all are good things to get behind, right? Looking at early reviews on this blog, undoubtedly you will find a wildly sympathetic ear to many concerns—feminism, racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination. The female characters in this book are treated like trash... But as time went on, and many of these movements came to the forefront of the media, I began to question my blind support. Despite knowing there were real issues and livelihoods at stake, and despite knowing justice was not being served in every case, I also knew not everything I was witnessing was cohesive. I needed to look in more detail.
It became clear there were no common agendas. Unlike the social justice movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, today there are no “movements” per se, just individuals or smaller groups pushing varying degrees of viewpoints, conservative to extreme, all from differing places and platforms. It’s a shotgun blast of feelings and facts. And so I started to put more thought into it, and look into what experts, and people who had more time than me to invest, had to say. What, after all, can we look to as a baseline in the modern world when reality and opinion are so spread?
As with many people, one of the touchpoints I have discovered is Jordan Peterson. Amazingly eloquent, he is able to articulate many of the issues in the media with an eye to detail and fact that offer his views credence. But what offers the most credence, in my opinion, is the constant return to psychology and sociology—the hooves of the herd animals that we are. Indeed, sometimes women are treated like trash, just as men are also—in fiction and reality. As such, I decided to give Peterson’s popular 2018 book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos a go to see what thoughts and ideas lay behind the web content.
Regardless what the reader knows or thinks about Peterson, let it first be said that 12 Rules for Life is an extremely thought-provoking mix of informed thought on philosophy, religion, ethics, mythology, psychology, sociology, biology, and several other areas of study. Agree or disagree with Peterson, he is at least an erudite, inquisitive, intelligent human who has a passion for digging into the depths of the human psyche and social world trying to uncover facts. He delivers his view into this wide sphere with brute honesty, research, and personal perspective. Bridging the gap between science and the humanities, he likewise looks to understand the subjective, qualitative aspects of existence in which music, paintings, fiction and other forms of human creation try to capture this thing called ‘life’. His philosophical stance is fundamentally Buddhist/Christian (if one looks to the aspect of Christianity which deals with pain and suffering), and views it through a Daoist dichotomy of chaos and order. The 12 Rules look to identify ways of keeping these two sides in balance such that the suffering can be dealt with in realistic, personal fashion.
The shape of the book is, unsurprisingly, twelve chapters. In each, Peterson starts by stating its rule, then proceeds, through anecdote, analysis, reference, and exposition to highlight the sociological, psychological, philosophical, or whatever the combination may be which underpins his thinking behind the rule. In almost every case/rule this goes in depth. It produces fascinating psychological readings of various myths, including the Bible, literary breakdowns on ethics, e.g. Dostoevsky, and meaningful recounting of personal history and experience, from child to parent—Peterson’s own experience as human, writer, father, psychologist, etc. It is a rich, humanitarian monologue.
Overall, the twelve rules are practical, common sense that agree with our inner sensibilities, even as they may clash with our expectations of how things ‘should be’. We may not like it, but there is a social hierarchy inherent to humanity, for example. Some are stronger, some are weaker. So, what to do about it? Peterson’s suggestions represent practical goals that people can strive for, and as a result potentially find subjective improvement in their lives, regardless at which point in the hierarchy they find themselves, and in the broader sense, at what point in the sphere of mental health they are. From another perspective, the rules can be a litmus test. Whether or not a person ultimately chooses to personally adopt the rules is up to them, but going through the thought process to consider them is at a minimum constructively challenging.
One example rule is: keeping home/personal space clean. Whether it be house, apartment, office, room, etc., Peterson admonishes keeping these spaces generally tidy and organized. I have read derisive commentary about this, as if it were the path to personal enlightenment. Taken in isolation, I understand the commentary; keeping a tidy room is not going to solve a depressed person’s problems. Taken in the broader context of what Peterson is describing, namely balancing chaos vs order and the other eleven rules, it makes sense, however. Maintaining one’s living space is a simple, controllable way of keeping instability and the threat it represents at bay. Knowing where objects and things are located, not to mention keeping the things-to-do list short, is one less worry than an unknown pile of stuff on the floor.
What might be a lot for some people to handle in 12 Rules is the force with which Peterson delivers his message. We often think of psychology, sociology, mythology, etc. as being fluid, or at least more subjective. They are softer than the so-called hard sciences. Contrarily, Peterson delivers his message with strong conviction. There is little room for argument, which may not sit well with some looking for a softer message. The truth is sometimes supposed to hurt, Peterson would likely say. Let that be a guide point whether or not you would appreciate the book. Moreover, there is only a minimum of sourcing. This is not to say that every statement needs to be backed up with peer-reviewed research, rather that the reader is sometimes—sometimes—left uncertain where they stand between Peterson’s views and science’s. To be fair, it’s his right to express views as he sees fit, and our responsibility to evaluate.
Another area of potential difficulty for some readers will be Peterson’s persistent reference to Christianity. While it’s clear to me that Peterson’s usage and psychological analyses of biblical stories is in the abstract (i.e. as human creation rather than universally transcendent cosmology), nevertheless there will be readers who walk away with the impression Peterson is pushing religious propaganda. He plays with both sides, meaning there can be a blurring of the line between Christianity as an Earth-bound, practical form of religion and as an abstract, immutable belief. But in sum, it does seem clear that for Peterson the Bible, and the stories and wisdom it contains, are intrinsically human, not extrinsically. For people unable to segregate the two, there may be some difficulties. (For the record, I am agnostic.)
Given the conviction of Peterson’s delivery and injection of personal perspective, every person will walk away from 12 Rules with their own views and impressions, more so than a lot of other books. For me personally, I found it a fascinating commentary on several subjects of interest—literature, religion, psychology, and philosophy among them. The rules themselves offered specific lenses with which to view myself—highly engaging thought exercises regardless of whether I ultimately decided they were applicable to my life or not. Thus, for people who like Peterson’s web content, the book recommends itself. Be aware, however, it is significantly denser and heavier than a four minute Youtube video. For those who are on the fence or who dislike Peterson, the book is at least worth the first 100 pages; he explores fundamental aspects of human nature in a way that each of us consciously or subconsciously crave. After that you could decide for yourself whether the remaining pages are worthwhile.