12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosby Published 23 Jan 2018
|12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.pdf|
|Publisher||Random House Canada|
What does everyone in the modern world need to know? Renowned psychologist Jordan B. Peterson's answer to this most difficult of questions uniquely combines the hard-won truths of ancient tradition with the stunning revelations of cutting-edge scientific research.
Humorous, surprising, and informative, Dr. Peterson tells us why skateboarding boys and girls must be left alone, what terrible fate awaits those who criticize too easily, and why you should always pet a cat when you meet one on the street.
What does the nervous system of the lowly lobster have to tell us about standing up straight (with our shoulders back) and about success in life? Why did ancient Egyptians worship the capacity to pay careful attention as the highest of gods? What dreadful paths do people tread when they become resentful, arrogant, and vengeful? Dr. Peterson journeys broadly, discussing discipline, freedom, adventure, and responsibility, distilling the world's wisdom into 12 practical and profound rules for life. 12 Rules for Life shatters the modern commonplaces of science, faith, and human nature while transforming and ennobling the mind and spirit of its listeners.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos Reviews
Too Sweet to be Wholesome
Jordan Peterson is a global phenomenon. He is good in print; even better in interviews. As a psychoanalyst, he has decades of experience and professional credibility (I find his Jungian approach far more interesting than Freudian or various cognitive methods). As a Canadian he is presumed a certain integrity often denied to other English-speaking experts. As a man, he is engaging and fast on his feet with no defensiveness even under intense pressure. In 12 Rules for Life he makes a cogent case for the necessity as well as benefit of moral authority. Although he is not a religious adherent, Peterson believes in the objectivity of moral law; he has no time for those relativists who consider moral law as something arbitrarily constructed within human society. Many find his arguments compelling. I find them disingenuous and dangerous.
The disingenuousness of 12 Rules begins in the introduction by Peterson’s long-time friend and associate, Dr. Norman Doidge, MD. Doidge points to the persistence of the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures as an example of the ancient, effectively eternal and fixed, wisdom of biblical moral precepts. Unsurprisingly Doidge fails to make mention of the other 412 divinely ordained precepts of the law given in the same scriptures. Things like the stoning of heretics, the inferiority of women, and the necessity for meticulous maintenance of spiritual purity apparently do not carry significant moral weight despite their authoritative divine source. And he makes no mention of the fact that the founder of the Christian Religion, Paul of Tarsus, designated the entire Hebrew law, including the Ten Commandments, as the very source of evil. Doidge is not merely tendentious, he is an ideologue who has little understanding of the biblical references he makes... or he is a liar.
Popularity is not a terribly reliable guarantor of either poetry or philosophy. By his own account Peterson’s Rules started life on an interactive internet site. Participants liked his rules as nakedly stated, without even being given reasons, without explanation of their operation. The rules apparently touched some inarticulate need which site participants hadn’t previously recognised. And they gave rave reviews. The book is the result of subsequent justifications of the intuitions he floated on the internet. Whatever erudition, classical references, and stylistic skill Peterson used to develop his arguments for these rules, they are hardly the the product of analytical thought. Like Doidge’s introduction, the book is tendentious, meant to promote a potentially popular cause not thinking. The fact that Peterson is honest about the genesis of the book doesn’t change its character. But I think it does help to explain why the book appeals to many religious leaders and right-wing politicians. Peterson appears to provide both groups with philosophical selling and political talking points that promote a conservative social agenda.
Peterson is a Jungian psychoanalyst, apparently by conviction as well as by training. Jungian method is inherently dialectical. Conscious/unconscious, ego/shadow, anima/animus are all necessary components of the human psyche. Only by accepting the existence of these competing components and reconciling their insistent demands can a person become integrated, that is whole, a complete Self. Jungians implicitly presume that none of us is naturally whole. We need each other, sometimes use each other, to compensate for our dialectical deficiencies. Ultimately however psychic health comes about by taking responsibility for one’s own integration - by recognising how we perceive the reality of the world we inhabit, and how we react to our perceptions. These are matters of choice not fate. This is a simple but very subtle theory. In short, the theory has two principles: 1) the Unconscious is indistinguishable from reality; and 2) the Self is indistinguishable from God. Both reality and God exist in our heads as it were. They are ideas over which we can exercise control. One can sense Plato, not to mention Billy Graham, turning in their graves at the thought that ideas are subject to human will.
Evangelicals don’t seem to mind this Jungian theological faux pas, probably because Peterson quotes the Old Testament story of the Creation and Fall (a classic Jungian trope). To them it seems but a small step from the symbolism of the God in one’s head and one’s dreams to the objective Ruler of the world. Didn’t the great Protestant theologian of the 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher make the same point, that God was a feeling emanating from the human mind? Similarly, social conservatives like the idea of personal responsibility as part of their ideological portfolios. Doesn’t this bring together both the economic neo-liberalism of Frederick Hayek and the militant individualism of Ayn Rand? The fact that personal integration of the Self implies a rejection of ideology of any stripe as an impediment to psychic health doesn’t seem to register at all.
So of course Peterson will be exploited by Evangelicals and Conservatives to further their agendas, regardless of the caveats insisted upon by him. And they’re right to ignore his fey resistance. He knows he’s given conservations a way to ignore the traditional Christian ethos of love, the primary concern with one’s neighbour, the inherent responsibility to the collective as something distinct from the totality of its members. His is a philosophy of consummate selfishness which just fits the bill for the latest coalition of religious and constitutional fundamentalists. Christ as pantocratic dictator rather than Jesus as messianic rebel.
Those who are familiar with the Erhard Seminar Training (EST) programme of the 1970’s and 80’s and its various successor movements for radical personal improvement, will recognise this theme of total personal responsibility. EST was an intriguing and highly popular syncretism of Jungian psychology and the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Peterson’s version doesn’t use the pyramid selling techniques that made EST so popular, particularly among the highly educated, but the combination of the internet, cable television, and the intellectual vacuum of evangelical and political conservatism has the equivalent functional role. EST was a training ground for the political left in the 1970’s. 12 Rules promises to be the focal point for the political right for some time to come.
None of this is to say that Peterson isn’t interesting or worthwhile. On the contrary, he has an intelligent, witty and interesting contribution to make in intellectual debate despite the banal insipidness of his Rules. Nevertheless, just as EST helped create a generation of liberal weirdos in business, politics, and academia, I fear that an equivalent generation of conservative weirdos in in the making. There is a distinct Whig theme that runs through the entire book: the world is as it is for good reasons and it’s not your responsibility to fix it. Comforting no doubt to those who feel disenfranchised, disrespected, and more than a bit deplorable. But really, does anyone believe that some positive thinking is going to make them into a bold psychic adventurer? My advice: don’t drink the Kool-Aid too quickly.
I see many five-star reviews here, so here is the contrarian position. I’m giving this one star for a couple of reasons.
1. The content does not justify the length of the book. When you strip away the pseudo-profundity and verbosity, you’re left with rather simple ideas you could find in any self-help book or discover on your own. Rule # 1, for instance, essentially states that females prefer males with confidence and that success breeds confidence and further success. This is rather obvious without having to understand the evolutionary history of lobsters.
2. The introduction of the book presents the author as an objective investigator of the truth, disillusioned by dogmatic ideology and prepared to demonstrate its dangers. He then proceeds to incessantly quote from the bible, perhaps the most dogmatic text ever written. I didn’t purchase the book to be preached at, and found it unexpected and highly obnoxious.
I understand that the author is interested in story and “archetypes,” but the bible is quoted out of proportion. There are many ancient stories to choose from, each with endless interpretive possibilities, but the bible is, for some reason, the primary text. Now I’m sure this is fine with many people, but I was unpleasantly surprised that I had purchased a book on biblical criticism or theology.
The stories the author has selected to focus on, his preferred interpretations, and the stories he ignores, says more about his psychology than anything else. It appears that he NEEDS religion to be true to prevent his own nihilistic tendencies, a viewpoint he foists on his readers.
More than once he states in no unequivocal terms that Jesus is the “archetypal perfect man.” Perhaps, but without getting into it here, there are many reasons to think perhaps not. For those more philosophically inclined, or for those that appreciate the progress of humanism and science, Socrates, for example, would probably be a better fit for the archetypal perfect man. And if I want insight into morality and human nature from an ancient source, I’d turn to Plato and Aristotle before the Good Book.
Again, this is all too subjective, which is the problem in general with using “ancient wisdom” to support a particular viewpoint. The author presents his interpretive schemes as objective truths about human nature and the only display of humility is found in the introduction.
For those seeking an alternative to Jordan Peterson’s dark vision of the world, questionable approach to truth and knowledge, and retreat to religion, they will find the answer in Bertrand Russell, whose essays on religion seem to, at times, be speaking directly to Peterson himself.
Here’s the final paragraph from Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian:
"WHAT WE MUST DO
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.
Russell wishes to replace fear, religion, and dogma with free-thinking, intelligence, courage, knowledge, and kindness. To believe something because it is seen to be useful, rather than true, is intellectually dishonest to the highest degree. And, as Russell points out elsewhere, he can’t recall a single verse in the Bible that praises intelligence.
Here’s Russell in another essay, titled Can Religion Cure Our Troubles:
Mankind is in mortal peril, and fear now, as in the past, is inclining men to seek refuge in God. Throughout the West there is a very general revival of religion. Nazis and Communists dismissed Christianity and did things which we deplore. It is easy to conclude that the repudiation of Christianity by Hitler and the Soviet Government is at least in part the cause of our troubles and that if the world returned to Christianity, our international problems would be solved. I believe this to be a complete delusion born of terror. And I think it is a dangerous delusion because it misleads men whose thinking might otherwise be fruitful and thus stands in the way of a valid solution.
The question involved is not concerned only with the present state of the world. It is a much more general question, and one which has been debated for many centuries. It is the question whether societies can practise a sufficient modicum of morality if they are not helped by dogmatic religion. I do not myself think that the dependence of morals upon religion is nearly as close as religious people believe it to be. I even think that some very important virtues are more likely to be found among those who reject religious dogmas than among those who accept them. I think this applies especially to the virtue of truthfulness or intellectual integrity. I mean by intellectual integrity the habit of deciding vexed questions in accordance with the evidence, or of leaving them undecided where the evidence is inconclusive. This virtue, though it is underestimated by almost all adherents of any system of dogma, is to my mind of the very greatest social importance and far more likely to benefit the world than Christianity or any other system of organised beliefs.
We can see that the Peterson fallacy is at least as old as 1954. The fact that Communism and Nazism committed evils is not justification to return to religious dogma; in fact, that would just be replacing one dogmatic ideology for another.
The solution is not a retreat to the Age of Faith, which was no more pleasant than living under communism; the solution is a renewal of the Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism, and progress espoused by Russell himself.
Also check out these worthwhile alternatives to 12 Rules For Life:
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual by Ward Farnsworth
Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects by Bertrand Russell
The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism by AC Grayling
So there is a lot of wisdom in here about how to live your life: don't blame other people, listen and understand other people's perspectives, be honest even though it's uncomfortable, and don't demonize humanity.
And then all the wisdom goes down the toilet in one particular chapter when he makes a farce of his whole argument. Men are being victimized by liberal academics. Not only does he start blaming everybody and anybody, but he completely mischaracterizes the progressive argument or makes a caricature of it (he had a friend who was liberal and blamed patriarchy for everything and then he killed himself--see? Point proven). He also goes on to demonize anyone pushing for change or gender equality etc. And his proof? Literally, disney movies and the communist revolution gone wrong. But why leave out the revolutions gone right? American? Civil Rights? And why, instead of looking to the little mermaid to draw out wisdom about the true nature of motherhood and women, chalk it up to a crazy sexist script--which it is. Remember how Ariel uses her body language to get the man? I read this book because I was open to hearing from Peterson. I like well-reasoned ideas no matter what their source. And I was ready to hear him and I did most of the way through the book. It was very good--especially his chapters on marriage, parenting, and self-analysis. very good. But then he goes too big and grows quite shrill in his argument. He loses reason to make a point. But I guess controversy creates a best-seller and he knows what he's doing.
The other logical inconsistencies here were that he keeps using the animal kingdom (i.e. crabs and lobsters) to make a point about human nature--specifically on gender and sexuality, but then in his other more lucid arguments, he argues that we need to fight our nature (self-sacrifice and obedience). So why does it make sense for us to tolerate bullies (he says this) and male superiority because duh the animals do it, but not sloth and dominance because we're Godly dammit.
I would recommend that the critical reader who wants to read this book also read the history of misogyny as well as the fall of adam and eve to get some perspective on why these ideas got to where they are. Peterson keeps talking about women being chaos and men being order. He never mentions pandora's box, but he does bring up Eve quite a bit. Those two narratives are relatively recent phenomena instead of fixed laws of the universe. He keeps making these essentialist claims that men aren't as emotional as women (which he undercuts by giving example after example of men losing their shit over nothing) and how women are all about nurture, but humans are much more complicated than this. Read the book for the good, but keep one eye good and open to spot the bullshit.
"Faulty tools produce faulty results."
- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
I'm generally not a fan of self-help books and this one would have probably never hit my to-read shelf if a good friend of mine hadn't invited me to attend a live Jordan Peterson lecture in Phoenix a little over a week ago (June 1, 2018). The only other exposure I had to Peterson was a wave of seriously negative posts about him by some of my most liberal friends on FB. I was intrigued. Here I have some friends who found something of value from him, enough to want to share with me (also, we were using Peterson just as a reason to reconnect) AND other friends who absolutely abhorred the man. All of this fascinated me. I was relatively a tabula rasa on this guy. I hadn't even read some of the more negative pieces on him. I loved people that upended the status quo. I loved early Camille Paglia and Andrew Sullivan. Now I was curious. Was this guy throwing sand into the salad of liberals on purpose? Was he just thinking in a way that was unique and not bounded by usual boundaries?
So, I went and heard him speak. I found his lecture -- like I found his book -- fascinating. It was a mixture of science, myth, story-telling, Disney, and confidence man bullshit. The box I was in had 6 men and 4 women (not a bad ratio since a large proportion of Jordan's rabid fan base is white men). And when I say rabid, I mean foaming-at-the-mouth rabid. When he was introduced several men in the crowd grunted like they were prepping for a football game or battle. It was a little intense. The testosterone in some was uncorked.
After the show, and while reading this book, I've also come across several of his interviews and YouTube videos. I think an obvious example of the way Peterson gets misread is the Cathy Newman interview or the recent NYTimes piece. These don't do a good job of actually getting to the root of what Jordan Peterson is saying. Personally, I think 80% of what Peterson is saying is actually NOT bad. How can you really argue with ideas like clean your room, treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping (rule 2), pursue what is meaningful not what is expedient (rule 7), or tell the truth -- or at least don't like (rule 8)? A lot of what he says makes sense. But it is the last 20% of what he says that kind of drives me nuts (and I'm a white man, I can imagine that women/minorities/university intellectuals would feel a bit stronger than me). His critiques of feminism, white privilege, post-modernism, modern universities, etc., aren't narrow and tend to violate his own rule 10 (be precise in your speech). He rambles, rages, and makes pretty big assumptions on areas that are far from well-established (and often a bit beyond his areas of expertise).
My other issue with Peterson, that was clarified more in the lecture than the book, is he is actually seeking the role of secular prophet/revivalist/guru. Hell, in his introduction is basically admitted that the book's subjects were basically market-tested on the internet. People like lists. They really like certainty. Many of the population Peterson was aiming at aren't familiar with myths/Jungian archetypes/philosophy, so it becomes easier to use Disney movies. Why not tell your audience what to do in a nice list of 12 things? Like Steven R. Covey on confrontational steroids. Dr. Peterson walked around the Comerica stage and riffed on one of his rules (mostly Rule 10 in Phoenix and a dash of Rule 11). Like the text of his book, he circled around, repeating stories and points, declare something true (or false), making a joke, and then absolved his mainly white male audience from some of their social guilt and anxiety. They loved him for it. He was Jimmy Swaggart in Canadian professor garb. Because it is hard to define white privilege, it doesn't exist, so ignore it. Rinse and repeat for feminism, and other issues plaguing our modern culture and often aimed at privilege, money, or power. It was wild seeing white, single men showing up to this even wearing t-shirts with his picture on it. It must be hard to not let that kind of cultish adoration go to your head - even if your background is the human head.
A soothing and seductive balm for the butthurt. I am fascinated by the cult surrounding this man who, as a previous reviewer noted, relies far too much on simplistic interpretations of Biblical stories and the Disney versions of fairy tales to the expense of all else. (I guess Lilith and Athena might complicate that Easy Bake reimposition of a male-centered narrative.) Here's what I don't get: None of this is new. Joseph Campbell? Heard of him? Remember M. Scott Peck? That Christian head shrinker who said, "Life is difficult. Get used to it and it will get better"? Peterson's popularity only reveals that an entire generation has been so robbed of the humanities that they're starving for anyone who will provide a few harsh words and some meaning in their lives. The guy can tell a story. Too bad it's a frighteningly regressive one for women.
And no: Women's Studies departments are not propagating a myth that the world was once a glorious matriarchy.
That was funny though.