A Review of Jordan Peterson’s latest book
(I have been asked so much about my article Is Jordan Peterson the New Messiah? on and the book that I decided to forego The Great Deception – Part 1 for this week and write a full review of 12 Rules for Life, complete with quotes so that you can judge for yourselves – Peterson is not a preacher but there are enough quotes here to keep a preacher happy for many sermons! of course reading the book is better. The following is my review from a Christian perspective. I have to say it is a long time since I have been so excited about a book!)..
I want to briefly review each of the chapters – but first to make some general comments. The book is well written and the highest complement of all is simply that it is one of the few books I found to be unputdownable! I also stopped highlighting passages because there were so many. The chapters are a bit uneven, and at times from my perspective, quite frustrating. It was as though we entered into a conversation and then just as it got interesting – we stopped! Peterson’s great forte is his ability to analyse the problem. His weakness is his solutions, which largely only go part of the way. I was left saying ‘Yes, but’ a lot! However if there is a more stimulating thinker and writer in the secular world, I have yet to meet them! (In the Christian world I would suggest that Os Guinness and Tim Keller are on the same wavelength and have the same abilities as Peterson). Nevertheless as Dr Norman Doidge says in the introduction about Peterson: “People have kept listening because what he is saying meets a deep and unarticulated need.”
Each of the rules is a chapter – so lets have a brief look at each of them.
in his own introduction Peterson sets up the whole book nicely, by giving us an explanation of how it came to be. It’s clear that the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Inferno as well as his fascination with the Cold War and totalitarian states; along with Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Jung are the background to this work. There is one stunning quote that took my breath away!
“I knew that the cross was simultaneously, the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic centre of the world”.
Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back –
This is the lobster chapter in which Peterson talks about nature and territory, the neurochemistry of defeat and victory, the principle of unequal distribution; and most fascinatingly of all, the nature of nature. He is basically suggesting that we have to rise up and take responsibility for ourselves.
“To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life”
Overall this was the most disappointing chapter. I felt it lacked humility, was too based on evolutionary psychology (I have no intention of looking at the ‘350 million year old lobster’ for inspiration), and was completely missing any real concept of sin.
Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping –
Here Peterson delves into the Creation story of the Bible. In particular he is interested in the concept of chaos, out of which order came. He holds to the notion of Being, and of male and female, parent and child, being fundamentally part of our being (not just a social construct). There is a duality between the order we inhabit and the chaos that surrounds it. He then gets the idea of sin – the snake within.
“ The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No wall, however tall, will keep that out”
He then goes on to look at the idea of nakedness, good and evil and especially the human capacity for wrongdoing. There is no ‘humans are basically good’ here. He asks what is to be done – and speaks of Christ’s death as an example of how to sacrifice ourselves to God. His solution is that we copy Christ’s example and try to make the world more like heaven than hell. It is a fascinating chapter but at the end of the day it is just moralistic, therapeutic deism. The problem is identified – the solution doesn’t work!
Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you –
Here he talks about self-worth, his own up-bringing, the selfish motives we have when we ‘save’ someone; he suggests we should surround ourselves with good healthy people and have some humility and courage to learn from them. He suggests that before we help people in need we should not just assume that they are ‘noble victims of unjust circumstance and exploitation” – indeed to do so, and to deny them all agency is to strip them of all power. Again and interesting, insightful and stimulating chapter – but Christless.
Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today –
This chapter is about how we compare ourselves to others and how that is such a pointless game. He challenges us to be truthful, dangerous and to think about what we want and what we see; to replace our negative desires which are never fulfilled with something else (this reminded me of the expulsive power of a new affection). He argues that no one is really an atheist – that we don’t really know ourselves and are too complex to understand ourselves.
“You don’t understand anything. You didn’t even know that you were born blind.”
He talks about the Bible (although he does not grasp the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring it) and the Old Testament God and the New Testament God – and in effect argues for the biblical position that they are the same. He cites the Sermon on the Mount and tells us to pay attention, to open our eyes. I thought this was a brilliant chapter – the best so far.
“Who but the most naïve among us would posit that such an all-good merciful Being ruled this so-terrible world? But something that seems incomprehensible to someone unseeing might be perfectly evident to someone who had opened his eyes. “ “Faith is not the childish belief in magic. That is ignorance or even willful blindness”.
Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them –
This is a brilliant chapter on parenting. He argues convincingly that adults have become infantilised and are terrified by their children. He argues that damage by omission (children being ignored) is as bad as damage by commission (abuse). This includes when we fail to teach, correct and discipline them. We are to be parents not friends.
“It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger or misbehaviour. It is not revenge for a misdeed. It is instead a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgement”.
He explains why children should be subject to adults – especially their parents and why that is best for the child.
“If a child have not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends”.
He then gives us some basic principles of child rearing. Limit the rules; use minimum necessary force; parents should come in pairs; parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful; parents have a duty to act as merciful proxies for the real world.
This is an outstanding chapter. I would print it as a standalone and give it to every parent!
Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world –
“How can a person who is awake avoid outrage at the world?”
The anger of many people is rational – and sometimes results in the shaking of the fist at God. Peterson asks should we take revenge on a cruel world or should we seek transformation? Tolstoy and especially Solzhenitsyn feature prominently in this chapter. In a superb insight Peterson argues from the history of Israel –
“A hurricane is an act of God. But failure to prepare, when the necessity for preparation is well known – that’s sin. That’ failure to hit the mark. And the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The ancient Jews always blamed themselves when things fell apart. They acted as if God’s goodness – the goodness of reality – was axiomatic, and took responsibility for their own failure. That’s insanely responsible. But the alternative is to judge reality as insufficient, to criticise Being itself, and to sink into resentment and the desire for revenge”.
He then suggests that, using our own standards of judgement; we need to clean up our own lives.
“Set your house in perfect order before you clean up the world”.
Its good advice – except for one thing – we can’t! The snake is in too deep. We need cleansing. We need redemption. We need reborn
Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient) –
Life is suffering. This is Peterson’s correct observation from the micro (his own life), to the macro (the great totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century) and from the Bible. How do we cope with suffering? Many people pursue pleasure and live for the moment, for ourselves. He suggests that there is an alternative. He talks about sacrifice as the delay of gratification. Its better to have something that to have nothing. Its better to share. And its better to be known for sharing – especially by God, who is pleased with our sharing. We need to sacrifice (like Christ) in order to gain. (He who wants to keep his life will lose it; he who gives it will gain). Again this chapter is largely based Peterson’s understanding of the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Christ.
“Evil enters the world with self-consciousness…Earthquakes, floods, poverty, cancer – we’re tough enough to take on all of that. But human evil adds a whole new dimension of misery to the world. It is for this reason that the rise of self-consciousness and its attendant realisation o f mortality and the knowledge of God and Evil is presented in the early chapters of Genesis (and in the vast tradition that surrounds them) as a cataclysm of cosmic magnitude”.
He cites Jung – “No tree can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell”.
Some of Peterson’s insights in this chapter are breath taking:
He talks about the meaning of Christ’s encounter with Satan in the desert;
“ It means that Christ is forever he who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity It means that Christ is eternally He who is willing to confront and deeply consider and risk the temptation posed by the most malevolent elements of human nature. It means that Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil – consciously, fully and voluntarily – in the form that dwelt simultaneously within Him and in the world. This is nothing merely abstract (although it is abstract); nothing to be brushed over. It’s no merely intellectual matter.”
“Satan embodies the refusal of sacrifice; he is arrogance, incarnate; spite, deceit, and cruel, conscious malevolence. He is pure hatred of Man, God and Being. He will not humble himself, even when he knows full well he should”.
“Christianity achieved the well nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law”.
The latter part of the chapter is superb – discussing the struggles that Nietzsche had with Christianity and the whole question of doubt. Nietzsche taught that because of ‘the death of God’ humans would have to invent their own values, but as Jung discovered,
“we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our soul”
But we need ideas. We need values. We need to understand and cope with suffering. This is the cornerstone of Peterson’s philosophy.
“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no argument. Nihilists cannot undermine it with scepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief”.
If there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. And that is what we must seek for. It is the search for meaning.
This is such a brilliant chapter. Thrilling. And yet it too misses the mark! It is going the right direction and asks all the right questions but because he doesn’t get the concept of atonement, he doesn’t get how to deal with sin and that meaning is found ultimately and only in Christ.
Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
Using personal story and his clinical experience Peterson argues for the importance of truth telling. We all tend to use words to manipulate and many, if not most or all of us, live a life-lie.
“Someone living a life lie is attempting to manipulate reality with perception, thought and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist. A life lived in this manner is based, consciously or unconsciously, on two premises. The first is that current knowledge is sufficient to define what is good, unquestioningly far into the future. The second is that reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices.”
“This kind of oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of ideologues. They adopt a single axiom: government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad. Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom. They believe, narcissistically underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls”.
It’s a brilliant insight. As is this:
“If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will, inevitably. You will hide, but there will be no place left to hide. And then you will find yourself doing terrible things.”
His insights into the effects of a deceitful life from Frankl, Freud and Jung are superb.
“Deceitful, inauthentic individual existence is the precursor to social totalitarianism”
“Lucifer is, therefore the spirit of totalitarianism. He is flung from Heaven into Hell because such elevation, such rebellion against the Highest and Incomprehensible, inevitably produces Hell. To say it again: it is the greatest temptation of the rational faculty to glorify its won capacity and its own production and to claim that in the face of its theories nothing transcendent or outside its domain need exist.”
Hell is lies and deceit and disintegration. Truth is essential. This following quote is long but stunning:
“At the beginning of time, according to the great Western tradition, the Word of God transformed chaos into Being through the act of speech. It is axiomatic, within that tradition, that man and woman alike are made in the image of that God. We also transform chaos into Being, through speech. We transform the manifold possibilities of the future into the actualities of past and present. To tell the truth is to bring the most habitable reality into Being. Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years. Truth feeds and clothes the poor, and makes nations wealthy and safe. Truth reduces the terrible complexity of a man to the simplicity of his word, so that he can become a partner, rather than an enemy. Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness. See the truth. Tell the truth.’
To which I can only add the words of Christ: “I am the way, the truth and the life. Know the truth and the truth shall set you free”!
Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t–
This chapter talks about psychotherapy and the difference between it and advice. Peterson stresses the importance of listening and of figuring things out for yourself if possible.
Carl Rogers: “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it”.
He then talks about various types of conversation and the importance again of seeking truth. This is one of the thinner chapters.
Rule 10 Be precise in your speech –
This is a chapter concerned with perception and the use of words to convey meaning.
“When we look at the world, we perceive only what is enough for our plans and actions to work for us and to get by.”
We need a wider perspective – to see the ‘yesterdays and tomorrows’. The fact is that the simple world is simple only when it behaves and likewise ourselves.
“Everything is intricate beyond imagining. Everything is affected by everything else. We perceive a very narrow slice of a causally connected matrix, although we strive with all our might to avoid being confronted by knowledge of that narrowness. The thin veneer of perceptual sufficiency cracks, however, when something fundamental goes wrong. The dreadful inadequacy of our senses reveals itself. Everything we hold dear crumbles to dust. We freeze. We turn to stone. What then do we see? Where can we look, when it is precisely what we see that has been insufficient?”
What do we see when we don’t know what we are looking at? Underneath the surface there is chaos. His section on wheat from chaff and the importance of words is stunning….overall this is a brilliant chapter, not least because this is Peterson’s great strength – deep thinking expressed in clear, precise speech.
Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
This quirkily entitled chapter argues that we should be permitted to push the boundaries, to explore and to try to understand why people do things, what is the motivation? He illustrates this using personal examples and George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. He is especially concerned about the way boys are treated and how they are effectively excluded from many university disciplines.
He talks about the consequences of this and the hook-up culture for both men and women.
“A stable, loving relationship is highly desirable for men as well as women”. And yet as he points out “marriage is now something increasingly reserved for the rich. I can’t help finding that amusing in a blackly ironic manner. The oppressive patriarchal institution of marriage has now become a luxury. Why would the rich tyrannise themselves?”
He laments the oppressiveness of the political correctness culture in Universities and discusses the tendency to blame many of societies ills on ‘the patriarchy’. And then in a brilliant section he moves on to discuss the link between postmodernism and Marx and the way that postmodern philosophy has done enormous harm by seeking to erase the distinction between men and women.
This then brings him on to discuss the current attempt to remove all gender distinctions – at least any that are based on biology.
“Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored (or rationalised away with another appalling post-modern claim: at logic itself – along with the techniques of science – is merely part of the oppressive patriarchal system).
The next section looking at the dangers of disregarding the differences between male and female, compassion as a vice and the Oedipal Mother – is superb. The analysis of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is both amusing and insightful.
His appeal to men to “toughen up you weasel” could be misunderstood if taken in the wrong way. But it makes perfect sense in this context. “If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men. They want someone to contend with, someone to grapple with.”
This again is one of those standalone, print by itself, chapters…Worth the price of the book alone!
Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
This is a deeply moving chapter talking about suffering – especially the suffering of his daughter. The only way to cope with suffering is to grasp Being…
“Christ enjoins his followers to place faith in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, and the truth. That’s a conscious decision to presume the primary goodness of Being. That’s an act of courage.”
He summarises it all in this coda.
“What shall I do with my life? Aim for Paradise and concentrate on today.”
“What does all this mean? Orient yourself properly. Then – and only then – concentrate on the day. Set your sights at the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, and then focus pointedly and carefully on the concerns of each moment. Aim continually at Heaven while you work diligently on Earth. Attend fully to the future, in that manner, while attending fully to the present. Then you have the best chance of perfecting both”
“What shall I do with my wife? Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God…”
And so on with similar advice to himself and us about his daughter, the stranger and educating his people.
“What shall I do for God my Father? Sacrifice everything I hold dear to yet greater perfection”
(Is this not really what is means to give our lives to Christ….all I once held dear…knowing you Jesus, knowing you…there is no greater thing!”
“What shall I do when greed consumes me? Remember that it is more better to give than to receive”
“What shall I do when I ruin my rivers? Seek for the living water and let it cleanse the earth. “ (And who is the living water?!)….
“What shall I do in the next dire moment? Focus my attention on the next right move.”
And there is more of these type of questions:
This is a brilliant book. I admire and am fascinated by Peterson. And like so many I am grateful to him, because he has helped me. Unlike thousands, I am not claiming that he has saved my life (there is only one Saviour), but he has been used to help. However although the book is brilliant it is still missing the one thing needful…
One of the most frustrating things about 12 Rules for Life is that Peterson sometimes gets so close. His analysis of the problem is often superb, but his understanding of the answer is somewhat limited. Whilst the 12 Rules are actually helpful – especially when you read the reasoning behind them – as Christians we already have the Ten Commandments, which are a far better basis. But we also have a far better solution. The way to get order out of chaos is to have the One who brings order out of chaos. Christ.
25th January 2018
PS. I should have put this caveat in earlier – this review is based on how I understood the book and of course I may be wrong. Any misunderstandings of Peterson are of course entirely my fault – not his! If you can I would suggest you read it for yourself – its well worth the effort!
PPS – One of my atheist friends pointed out that I should have said that Peterson connects with everyone irrespective of faith. He is correct so now I have done!
PPS – Somebody attacked Peterson claiming he was ‘cold’ and ‘dispassionate’. Unbelievable! Watch this wonderful short video to see Peterson’s heart…