Book Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is a provocative, engaging, yet sometimes questionable synthesis of psychology, religion, culture-war commentary, and inspiring self-help. Throughout, a philosophy of self-understanding, self-improvement, and embracing hardship, is contrasted with giving into resentment and malevolence. He heavily invokes memories from his life, from Chris, a misanthropic friend, to the intense struggles of his daughter, Mikhaila, to illustrate a variety of archetypical themes. These themes are further described through folk, depth, and personality psychology as well as biblical passages and other religious stories. Where religion and psychology do not suffice, he brings in, sometimes stretching to do so, other pieces of evidence ranging from the historical to the philosophical.

The book consists of 12 main chapters, sandwiched between a brief overture and coda, each centered, sometimes only ostensibly so, around one of his 12 Rules. In line with Peterson’s lecturing technique, the chapters often stray far from the originating rule and display the full gambit of his interests: eclectic takes on religious passages, compelling anecdotes, psychological evidence, contentious historical takes, matters at the forefront of certain contemporary cultural debates, and much more.

Of the ever-present themes in 12 Rules for Life, there is none greater than that of the division between order (represented by masculine themes, culture, and explored territory) and chaos (represented by feminine themes, nature, and unexplored territory). Humans are forced to find the balance between the extremes of excessive order, on one hand, and complete chaos on the other. Religions of all kinds are shown to represent these states through deities, fantastical creatures, and other narratives. Beyond religion, Peterson draws heavily on evolutionary history to describe the length of time that our nervous systems have evolved to understand social structures (order) and handle threats posed by nature (chaos).

Early on he establishes the concept of the hierarchy as a manifestation of order. Hierarchy is not simply arbitrary, but a millions-of-years-old social construct embedded deep within us that describes our relative position vis-a-vis others in society. He uses a lobster, in a section almost designed to be memeable, to illustrate how creatures this far removed from us still share similar social features and the appearance of depression. The hierarchy is a manifestation of social order, which like nature, appears in positive and negative forms. (archetypically analogized as the Wise King or the Tyrant). 

In connecting the concepts of order and chaos to the fundamental insecurity humans possess, both psychological and physical, Peterson is at his best. We are indeed placed with the existential burden of self-knowledge, which ancient religions uncovered in myths from Genisis to the Buddha — nature is easily described as infinite and ultimately uncaring. The connections made between archetypical stories and a modern-day psychological approach are well articulated. They service his argument that as understandable as resentment in response to arbitrary suffering is, we need to work to strengthen, respect, and incrementally improve ourselves mindful of this daunting truth, not ignorant of it. When we fail to properly acknowledge and respond to our annoyance or suffering, even if done out of respect for others in the moment, we grow resentful, and in the extreme, suicidal and homicidal. Excessive sensitivity to others in the moment produces much larger harm in the larger picture.

Many of the actual rules in the book are drawn from this theme: listen and care for yourself so that you can improve as a person, find meaning, and enjoy the moments in life that offer you bliss when they come. These rules are sound advice. The rules orienting yourself to others and society are more of a mixed bag. Being precise in your speech and telling the truth are vital rules if you want to clean and clear up the world you inhabit. However, not bothering kids who skateboard, and setting your house in perfect order before changing the world are much more problematic.

Peterson’s intense focus on the concepts including Good and Evil and cosmic significance causes confusion in several points, but the trouble is especially pronounced when articulating these more problematic rules. Most prominently, they lead him to extrapolate beyond what appears reasonable. When describing the opposition to skateboarding in certain parts of his university campus, he says this opposition is imbued with a profound anti-human spirit. He further connects this to the Columbine shooters, the reduced success of boys in school relative to girls, postmodernism, communism, and much more. In a sort of who’s who of a conservative’s favorite bogeymen, it can be hard to follow along if you are not familiar with Peterson’s rise to fame.

There is certainly something to what Peterson is talking about. Universities have become far more left-wing over time, and certain studies in the humanities have led this movement. Much of this movement leftwards consists of an unwavering skepticism of current power structures, commitment to social justice, and focus on particular identities. Peterson tries crudely, but somewhat fairly I believe (though I could be persuaded otherwise) to show how postmodernism, critical theory, and Marxism form an intellectual basis of the modern social justice movement. 

Where I take issue with Peterson is the pseudo clairvoyance of the intentions of people wanting to make things safer and in some of Peterson’s analysis of the relations between men and women. First, while malevolent intentions certainly lurk in our unconscious, Hanlon’s razor points me towards more banal explanations of people’s behavior. Many people wanting to stop skateboarding simply desire to reduce noise so that people can concentrate, reduce their legal liability, or reduce injuries. I don’t think in most instances of people acting to reduce the freedom of boys and young men to do dangerous things there is a dominant anti-human unconscious or conscious motivation propelling the action; even if the actual outcome is harmful and even if the anti-human unconscious is acting weakly within that person. Peterson points to a highly questionable Jungian maxim — if you can’t find the rationale for something look at the outcome and infer the motivation — to suggest that making young men unhappy and destroying beauty is the purpose of anti-skateboarding measures. This is quite silly.

Peterson does point out some salient and depressing facts. Boys are failing in school relative to girls. Boys are failing to learn how to channel their biologically greater propensity for aggression into healthy activities. Going further, Peterson uses the archetypal oedipal protective mother, who goes much too far in protecting her children, to describe the motherly impulse to stop boys from all dangerous activities. However, there is an imbalance in his descriptions of what reasonable restrictions on dangerous or disruptive behavior are. He fails to charitably acknowledge that rules curtailing obnoxious behavior, bullying, and actions producing accidental injuries and deaths (just look at the number one cause of lost years of life in the gulf states) are one side of an ongoing negotiation about safety where people of good faith can disagree. 

The extent to which Peterson goes to refute the idea that women were subjugated throughout history is also odd. I agree with his refutation of social constructionism, but I detect a massive aversion to the word ‘oppression’, perhaps because of his fears of viewing history through such a lens, even if it truthfully described the state of women vis-a-vis man. It shouldn’t be hard to admit that while the average man had unique disadvantages in history (fighting brutal and unjust wars being the most obvious), the makeup of the ruling class, male-only property rights, sexual demands of virginity, among other features, make our historical social structures deeply biased against women. 

I can side with Peterson in opposition to certain radical left-wing beliefs in general. Those who claim that Western society is uniquely oppressive, or who consistently ignore our very culture’s march onwards towards increased equality and prosperity for men and women should be refuted. But this doesn’t require ignoring the unique burdens women faced in the past. Peterson asks: do “male crustaceans oppress female crustaceans?” sarcastically. While this ignores much of what most people mean by oppression, I would still say yes. 

Because of its incredibly loose nature, tying disparate religious, personal, psychological, and controversial cultural concepts together, 12 Rules for Life fits well into the cultural moment that Jordan Peterson stormed into several years ago, serving as a father figure for wide swaths of people. In an age containing a crisis of meaning, where millions of lost individuals seek a structure to believe in, I can see the value in following these rules. Simultaneously, while I disagree with several of his critiques, I understand the value in directly pointing to and refute extreme beliefs that have seeped into our cultural moment (those emerging from social constructionism prominent among them). While 12 Rules isn’t as reigned in as many secular and skeptical minds would appreciate, it does have a unique flavor that uncovers certain profound truths about the human condition. Understanding my propensity for resentment, embracing the suffering inherent in Being, and consistently valuing and improving myself, are things I find myself more prepared for after reading 12 Rules for Life.

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