JORDAN B. PETERSON’s 12 Rules for Life is advertised as “The No. 1 International Bestseller”, and its Canadian author is the current “lifestyle guru” of choice. Peterson is a psychologist who has used social media to spread his views beyond his clinical practice and his university lectures in Toronto from 2012.
It is easy to understand the success of this, his second book. It is discursive and engagingly confessional rather than abstract and tightly argued, and is full of homely examples and snappy illustrations from both ends of the cultural spectrum: Dostoevsky, Milton, T. S. Eliot, and Goethe; fairy tales and Disney films. The Rules themselves are sometimes wittily obscure, to lure the reader into Peterson’s eclectic philosophy of life.
He seems not to attend church, but draws on a Christian upbringing: the Rules treat the Bible as a grab-bag of “mythical” stories and wisdom, on all fours with those of other religious traditions. The world will bring grief, loss, suffering, and death to everyone; so we must learn to confront the inevitable courageously and realistically. Peterson uses the term Being (not to be confused with any German philosophical concept of the same name) to encompass God, humans, and every other life-form. His main gurus appear to be Jung and Nietzsche.
For Peterson, humans are apes with self-consciousness whose brains and nervous systems display a powerful legacy from our primal ancestors: Rule 1 plays with the continuity between lobster and human dominance contests. This becomes a critique of feminist views of gender, which has, predictably, garnered Peterson both praise and outrage. Women represent chaos while men represent order. Chaos is the “soup” out of which social order had to be wrested. It is also the vital corrective when order has rigidified, and disorder — rule-breaking and risk-taking — brings renewal.
Rule 11, “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” is a pretext for an exposition of the biological basis of gender differences and the oscillation of order and disorder.
Yet, while celebrating traditional masculine virtues — strength, courage, honesty, leadership, risk-taking (sic) — little of his advice is gender-specific. Females must make their desires and needs clear to others and be courageous in testing their own limits and telling the truth, “or at least not lying”, to themselves as well as others (Rule 8). (Girls should be encouraged to do dangerous skateboarding tricks as much as boys.) He idealises the Western nuclear family and male leadership with its concomitant responsibilities, but does not see women as passive, urging them not to martyr themselves.
Peterson draws on sociology and anthropology, but is ambivalent about approaches that put the group before the individual. He hates “constructionist” views that see individuals as straightforward products of society’s imperatives. He loathes ideologies, such as Fascism and totalitarian communism, that prioritise society and oppress the individual: much of his invective stems from horror at Nazi Germany and the USSR.
There is a good deal of psychological sense among the philosophical sleights-of-hand and provocative rants. The attraction of the book for a secular generation hungry for certainties is unmistakable, and its focus on the fulfilment of the individual chimes with contemporary Western culture. But 12 Rules is no substitute for a sustained ethical and theological argument: notably, it never engages with the Great Commandment — love God, and your neighbour as yourself.
Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.
12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos
Jordan B. Peterson
Allen Lane £20
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