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

Tuesday, 6 March 2018  | Ron Dart

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

By Jordan Peterson (Toronto, Canada: Random House, 2018)

From now on, everybody stands on his own feet.

- Thomas Merton, ‘Marxism and Monastic Perspectives’             

I may assert Eternal Providence,

And justify the ways of God to men.

- John Milton, Paradise Lost: Book 1

I remember with much clarity and chagrin the publishing in 1987 (more than 30 years ago when I was doing my PhD Studies) of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The reactions on the liberal and progressive left to the well-written tome were swift, pointed and sheer attack. Bloom had merely highlighted in his layered beauty how the western canon of literature had become dim and caricatured in higher education and how, as a result, the American mind was closing in on itself within trendy texts and a narrow ideology. The liberal left pilloried Bloom and castigated him as an apologist for the reactionary right, which, of course, he was not.

Those who only think within the dualistic categories of liberal left and conservative right know not how to engage those who transcend such simplistic tribes. It is also significant that Emmanuel Goldstein and the Brotherhood (whether he or they actually existed) were seen as the enemies of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. Sadly, there tends to be often an Orthodoxy (whether religious or secular or some combination thereof) that defines who is in the establishment Orthodox clan and who are the heterodox and heretics.

Those who are attentive to and alert to some of the larger issues these days of political correctness in the culture wars cannot but be acutely aware of the presence of Jordan Peterson.

The recent front stage reality of Peterson’s significance (Bill C-16 adding gender expression and identity to the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Lindsay Shepherd incident and Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman are but three in a longer list of public incidences) has clarified Peterson’s heterodox or heretical positions before the Orthodox liberal clan. The reactions to Peterson are virtually identical to the way Bloom and Goldstein were treated — many are the déjà vu moments in the history of cultural clashes. But, for those who only think in a dualistic rather than more nuanced and dialectical way, Peterson is either the pre-eminent saint or sinner — it’s either hagiography or demonisation, boosters or knockers. Are there more nuanced and subtle ways of reading and approaching Peterson’s all-too-human role in this cultural drama of sorts without slipping into a sheer and unhelpful and unhealthy intellectual melodrama?

The recent publication of Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018) has predictably drawn forth the ‘2 minutes of hate’ liberal tribe (none too liberal of them, tolerance quickly dissipating like a cloud) and the pro-Peterson group-think clan (equally reactionary, merely from the opposite end of the political and cultural spectrum).

Those who excessively focus on 12 Rules for Life and fail to see such a primer as merely a portal into Peterson’s more substantive corpus of life and writings tend to miss what Peterson is saying and doing in regard to the nature of mapping meaning, myths and transformation. Tolstoy wrote his children’s stories, Hesse his fairy tales, and Jesus his parables. Do these approaches to insight and wisdom traditions define the fullness and maturity of such views of life? Of course not! The 12 Rules for Life are, in many ways, compact maxims gleaned from life that can and do speak to those who have ears to hear. Do such rules or guidelines explain or exhaustively comprehend the more layered and finely textured nature of the human journey? Of course not! But, do such markings or cairns on the journey point in a life-giving and transformative way when read judiciously rather than dogmatically?

There is no need to do the either-or, yes or no, to this key-in-the-ignition book of sorts.

Those who are more curious and keen to delve and dig deeper into Peterson’s more refined and thoughtful approach to making sense of the human journey should take the time to thoroughly immerse themselves in his more packed and demanding classic of sorts, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999). There has certainly been, in the last 200 years, an interest in myths, fables, fairy tales, parables, epic literature, sacred dramas and many other similar genres as means of mapping the human journey to meaning and order, the known and unknown, decisions and consequences, paths worth the taking and paths that go to cul-de-sacs. Maps of Meaning and, to a much lesser extent, 12 Rules for Life (in a more populist way and manner) stand within such a genre. The metaphors offered in such approaches are meant, in many ways, like Zen koans (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution), to reveal much about the layered nature of the human journey. Do such tales told and pondered answer all the troubling questions of life? Of course not! They do point, though, to ways of living in a more meaningful manner with tragedies, uncertainties, unpredictability and foiled expectations, all part of pilgrimage through time. 12 Rules for Life is about, if nothing else, each and all knowing the tentative pathways and acting on such wisdom so as not to be paralysed by cynicism, skepticism or the slings and arrows of misfortune.  

I need not list the 12 rules in this primer of a book of sorts — a superficial, much less more substantive, reading of the book will list each of the rules with an extended and pithy reflection of each rule. Perhaps the language of rules could be replaced by pointers or pathways, but this is a secondary quibble. Each of the rules mentioned in the book are, in many ways, less about rules and more about self-understanding and the means to understand the deeper and truer self — a sort of Socratic ‘Know Yourself’ and Jesus’ ‘Love Your Neighbour as Yourself’. There are many ways we can deceive, distract and distort more meaningful notions of a more genuine self, and Maps of Meaning (to a greater extent) and 12 Rules for Life (to a lesser extent), like a well sharpened knife, cut away what needs to be so that what is needed is tasted well and wisely. Peterson has certainly not been shy in the last few years in posting his multiple insights on blogs, videos and much else — those keen to get a more animated and compact version of the 12 Rules need only tap in on their computer keyboard a variety of interviews Peterson has done on his recent book.

There is no doubt that Peterson has been savaged by the trendy left and, to a greater or lesser extent, adopted by variations of the crude and more moderate right. Peterson tends to be too nimble of thought and mind to be taken captive in either cage. The Christian religious community have also not been quite sure what to do with Peterson. His many lectures on the Bible (including a comprehensive series on a mythical read of Genesis) have warmed him to some Christians, but his seeming lack of a theological discussion of Divine Grace seems to offend them. It seems to me that Peterson has enough humility (unlike Milton) not to try to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, and that he realises (like Merton), without being naïve or unduly Pelagian or Arminian, that each and all need to learn to ‘stand on his own feet’. How is such a standing on our feet to be done and how are humans to use their freedom well and wisely to not only stand on our feet but walk and run, ramble and climb to fine ridges and summits? 12 Rules for Life is but a primer on how, in a probing and thoughtful way, men and women can face into their fears and insecurities, clarify their reasons for not being who they might be, then acting in a mature way and manner in becoming yet finer and fitter people for the journey.

Does this mean 12 Rules for Life is the definitive answer to the deeper inner issues or more troubling political, economic, and ecological issues of our age and ethos? Of course not! It’s certainly not a silver bullet or snake oil book that will magically solve the dilemmas of the human soul and society. It is a necessary but hardly a sufficient text for the tougher questions that beset us on our all-too-human journey and should be read as such. Read in a thoughtful manner, weighing the pro and contra on the scales of thought, the primer does have its limited role to play.

I would encourage one and all to purchase, read and inwardly digest 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos. But don’t stop there. Do read Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, and be sure, of course, to reflectively read both books in a discerning manner. Then, turn to some of the much more significant books that deal with myths, symbols and maps of meaning and what such markings mean for a more meaningful journey through our short time in history. But do avoid, as much as possible, slipping into an either-or way of thinking — the treatment of Bloom and Goldstein assure us that there be dragons if we go to such places on an ancient yet ever new map of meaning.

Ron Dart has taught in the Department of Political Science/Philosophy/Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada, since 1990. He was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s. Ron has published more than 35 books, his most recent being Erasmus: Wild Bird.


Alex Smith
March 9, 2018, 9:23PM
Thanks Ron for taking the time to write such a balanced article! I have read '12 Rules for Life' but you've encouraged me to also try to read 'Maps of Meaning'.

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