Jordan Peterson 12 Rules for Life - An Antidote to Chaos

How had thinking so simple, clear, direct, deep and traditional found a voice on BBC and gone viral on YouTube? This lay behind my ordering Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s new book on how to live your life that I imagined would be in a different league from other self-help books. I wasn’t disappointed so that the book set me to inner dialogue with the social activist, indulgent parent and softee churchman that’s me. This showed I was following two of the author’s twelve rules: ‘treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping… assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t’.

I struggled with the individualist focus until I grasped it would be the natural approach of a psychologist i.e. set your own house in order before you criticise the world (another of Peterson’s rules) and the book’s being marketed as self-help. As the author opened up how social activism can be fuelled by grievance more than generosity I recalled spiritual counsel on holiness as key to fruitful activism, how much you do mattering less than how much love’s in the action. Another thing that grated with me was his ‘realism’ about winner-takes-all human achievement and new take on Matthew 25:29, ‘the Matthew Principle … the harshest statement ever attributed to Christ: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.” Peterson defends hierarchy in business and elsewhere as something forged by achievement. ‘The order that is most real is the order that is most unchanging - and that is not necessarily the order that is most easily seen. The leaf, when perceived, might blind the observer to the tree. The tree can blind him to the forest. And some things that are most real (such as the ever-present dominance hierarchy) cannot be “seen” at all’’.

Seeing, opening eyes to what’s real, however unpalatable, is a refrain flowing through this hard hitting, controversial book. I found the heavily illustrated section on parenting insightful. ‘You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world - and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love… Infants are like blind people, searching for a wall. They have to push forward, and test, to see where the actual boundaries lie (and those are too-seldom where they are said to be)... What no means, in the final analysis, is always “If you continue to do that, something you do not like will happen to you.” Otherwise it means nothing. Or, worse, it means “another nonsensical nothing muttered by ignorable adults.” Or, worse still, it means, “all adults are ineffectual and weak.”’

As softee churchman I’m embarrassed by the Sermon on the Mount and few writers have so winsomely used it to invite I pull my socks up as Peterson does. ‘Aim high’ is his frequent rejoinder true to Christ. ‘Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is’. The book starts with the rule to ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back’ and goes on to encourage ‘metaphysical standing up’ based on positive self-regard linked to the meaning of life. The central section of the book is on pursuing what’s meaningful rather than what’s expedient. It contains Dostoyevsky’s story of Christ brought before a cynical, ruthless Inquisitor representing the worst aspect of the church’s legalistic dogmatism. Christ endures him, kisses and confounds him in a pointer to his divinity triumphing historically over sinful human failings in his church. Religion is important to Peterson - Christianity especially - but this as the pursuit of goodness more than obedience, though that unfashionable quality is addressed throughout ‘12 Rules for Life’.

The book’s sub-heading is ‘antidote to chaos’. ‘We require routine and tradition. That’s order. Order can become excessive, and that’s not good, but chaos can swamp us, so we drown - and that is also not good. We need to stay on the straight and narrow path. Each of the twelve rules of this book - and their accompanying essays - therefore provide a guide to being there. “There” is the dividing line between order and chaos. That’s where we are simultaneously stable enough, exploring enough, transforming enough, repairing enough, and cooperating enough. It’s there we find the meaning that justifies life and its inevitable suffering.’ One of the richest theological themes is on how meaning can be brought to suffering among, for example, those who place faith in God’s kingdom and the triumph of truth. The author is burdened by the intense evil of Soviet communism - he quotes Solzhenitsyn - Hitler and the Holocaust seeing the biblical narrative illuminating the source of this evil in human refusal to walk with God. ‘If we wish to take care of ourselves properly, we would have to respect ourselves - but we don’t, because we are - not least in our own eyes - fallen creatures. If we lived in Truth; if we spoke the Truth - then we could walk with God once again, and respect ourselves, and others, and the world. Then we might treat ourselves like people we cared for. We might strive to set the world straight. We might orient it toward Heaven, where we would want people we cared for to dwell, instead of Hell, where our resentment and hatred would eternally sentence everyone.’ Jordan Peterson has some intriguing thoughts on creation. Maybe God, who is without limitation, acted to form limited beings so as to increase his glory through choices by human beings made in his image to grow into his likeness. The power of the book is in its wake-up call to such transformation, the gaining of character through suffering and refusal to hide from what’s true.

In defence of free speech Jordan Peterson recently challenged a Canadian human rights law forcing professors to address trans students by their preferred pronouns which has brought him mixed fame. This book digs deep into what helps individual flourishing. It is a positive yet challenging thesis and some of the challenge is to current rethinking of gender and male-female relations. ‘Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous... the so-called oppression of patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease and drudgery’.

If Peterson pays a price for standing against the tide this is not evident in the book where the main autobiographical detail concerns the health crisis of his daughter and another price paid: that of prolonged suffering and its impact on his family. They look for what’s meaningful and sustaining and find wisdom to shrink their time frame and live day by day rather than looking months and years ahead. This tactical approach complements the strategic thrust of a book rich with insights and illustrations about seeking a vision of transformation and following lines to accomplish that end. It is powerful in its realism about human waywardness and the problem of evil as well as in its applause of ancient wisdom including Christianity. ‘Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you’. That’s a pragmatic quotation to conclude this appreciation of a book about adopting life-changing principles that will get people talking and hopefully get some of them changing for the better.  

Canon John Twisleton        7 June 2018

Jordan B Peterson  12 Rules for Life - An Antidote to Chaos

Allen Lane 2018 £9.99 ISBN 0345816021

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