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Book Review: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Thursday, 10 October 2019  | Rex Dale

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

By Jordan B. Peterson

(London: Allen Lane, 2018)

In his latest book, Jordan Peterson puts forward principles for living in a world that many see as puzzling and chaotic. This book is not for everyone. If you have slipped easily into your belief system and worldview, and you find it enables you to cope with most of life’s situations, or if you have connections with people who have a positive influence upon you, then this book will probably mystify you.

If you have had to labour hard to find your way in life, or you are curious to know how past literature gave people mental sustenance, direction and meaning, then you will read this book with great interest, even if you come to quite different conclusions from the author. Actually the author admits he has not yet reached his final conclusions, but he feels he knows enough to challenge the easy-going philosophies that prevail, and he hopes that his book, if studied carefully, can put the brakes on society’s downward slide into nihilism.

Peterson is a professor of psychology. But unusually, he also has a private clinic that I imagine he views as a laboratory for the testing of his thoughts. He previously wrote a book, Maps of Meaning, which he now describes as ‘dense’. In it he investigates past literature going back many centuries, which, for better or for worse, gave people a vision of something higher, consolation for life’s difficulties and a sense of direction. He seems to be well acquainted with Christian literature such as the Bible and Paradise Lost, though he does not profess to wholly understand them. He likes the story of Abraham bargaining with God over the number of righteous people who will prevent Sodom and Gomorrah from being consumed. Abraham brings the number down to ten. Peterson concludes that a society can be ‘saved’ by a small proportion of people who get their lives in order. However, he does not claim to be a Christian. 12 Rules is the result of a suggestion made by someone that he produce something more readable than his earlier book and that will hopefully enable people to live more fruitful lives.

Peterson, and his friend Norman Doidge who wrote the forward, regard it as a disaster that rules and guidelines, for individuals and society, have been unthinkingly rejected with little thought as to what is to fill the gap. This trend has largely come about because the expression of firm guidelines is now perceived as mental bullying and damaging to spirited, tender souls. This is in complete contrast to the world of sport where intense coaching is the order of the day, and no one complains.

Doidge puts it well when he says: ‘We are ambivalent about rules, even when they are good for us’. Rules are seen as an affront to our independence and dignity. We take pride in working things out for ourselves and refuse to believe that someone may know something important that we need to know. ‘Nobody, not even God, tells me what to do, even when it is good for me’, is the general sentiment. He continues: ‘the story of the golden calf is a reminder that without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions’. (Doidge assumes everyone understands the origin of the Biblical story of the ‘golden calf’, which now is increasingly unlikely.)

Peterson doesn’t just propose rules; he tells stories as well. He even relates something of his own experience growing up in the northern town of Alberta. He describes his years as a teenager as a ‘waste-land’. Some will identify with that, though the details may be quite different. He recollects that the youth of Alberta he knew had a malaise settle on them. He remembers the parties he attended as being ‘awful’. The lights were kept low to keep self-consciousness to a minimum. Over-loud music conspired to keep away thinking and conversation. Everyone drank and smoked too much. An oppressive sense of aimlessness hung in the air. What were we waiting for? A cheerleader? Or was it Godot?

The memory of those times was a great spur to thinking about what determined people’s lives and why they made the choices they did. It was not as if Alberta was poor. It was an oil-rich state. Tuition was cheap and it was unlikely for people to be held back from a lack of money. So what determined the choices people make? Why do some people learn and some refuse to learn? Why do people choose companions and places that are bad for them? And why do people have what Freud calls ‘repetition compulsion’, where they take a course of action they have taken before, knowing that the horrors previously experienced will probably be repeated?

Peterson does not hold back from the plain truth: ‘Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too. It’s easier not to shoulder a burden. It’s easier not to think, and not to do, and not to care. It’s easier to put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today, and to drown the upcoming months and years in today’s cheap pleasures’. In his work as a therapist, he wondered if clients would sometimes plan to fail and have the satisfaction of seeing him fail too. Court-mandated psychotherapy clients who came to him usually had no desire to improve their lives. They sat next to him listlessly. Were they taking in anything he said? When they spoke it was to blame others for their woes and to express resistance to anything helpful someone might say. He saw their appointments with him as a ‘travesty’. Clients were only too glad to talk about the failings of others but not themselves. Peterson proposes Rule 6: ‘Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world’, and Rule 9: ‘Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t’. He quotes Carl Rogers, the famous humanist psychologist who said that you cannot get a good outcome when the person seeking help does not want to improve. Peterson can sound like a preacher of the old-fashioned sort. Perhaps, in his youth in northern Alberta, he heard one.

Peterson stresses the importance of telling the truth and tells how he came to this conviction. In his earlier years he was careless about what he said. At some point he began to take a good look at himself and in particular to think about the accuracy of what he said. Being concerned about what people thought of him caused him to speak loosely. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Well, telling the truth was a good start. The importance of this came from a surprising quarter. As a part of Peterson’s training as a clinical psychologist, he was required to work at Montreal’s Douglas Hospital. There he was assigned to the section that dealt with paranoid people. Paranoid people have this serious weakness that makes them believe there are conspiratorial forces at work. But in spite of this mental failing, they are hyper-alert and hyper-focused. And they are almost uncanny in detecting mixed motives and falsehood. Good psychotherapy, he discovered, is to listen very carefully and to tell the truth. Then the paranoid person will probably open up to you.

Peterson’s book has been described as profound and practical. Christians will be disappointed that it is ‘sub-Christian’. Nevertheless there is much that can be learned from it. The children of this world can sometimes be wiser than the children of light.

Doidge says that his friend Peterson has had three life-long concerns:

1. The human capacity for evil in the name of good.

2. The mystery of the human capacity for self-deception.

3. The enjoyment some people take in destroying others. This has been captured by the 17th century poet John Milton in his poem Paradise lost.

Peterson is not afraid to explore some dark recesses of the human heart and to propose some remedies for the human condition. If that is not for you then don’t read this book.

Rex Dale, a retired professional, has studied many books that throw light on life’s experiences. He is the author of Insights From Graeco-Roman Times – A Christian Response, which gives an overview of the period leading up to Christ’s coming.

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