Jordan Peterson is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he is my cup of tea. His writings are an oasis in the midst of the intellectual desert of our time. He says many of the thoughts that need to be said out in the open and in full, in ways that can be accessed and understood, which bypass the cancel culture of the Left that surrounds them. This is a book you should read, partly because of its message, partly just because of how well done it is.
Of most importance, this is a book written by a conservative but not just for conservatives. It is a book addressed to the young, especially young males, as highlighted by its subtitle, 12 More Rules for Life. While it is, in a way, a “how to” book about living, for us of an older generation it is a philosophical reflection on the nature of being. For those still young, the book is intended as a guide, setting out in general terms how to find satisfaction during the four score or so years we may have had allotted to us.
But first let me emphasise this. We are dealing with a conservative book that has managed to get past the cultural guardians who normally prevent any such message entering the world of letters, and they certainly did try to prevent its publication. I will first demonstrate its conservative bona fides, then discuss how I think the book should be read to appreciate what it says without just giving up even before you make it halfway through. I will finally add a few criticisms, since the book does have imperfections worth mentioning.
I can see why Peterson is attacked so relentlessly from the Left, but I never understand the criticisms he attracts from the Right. In large part, I suppose, it is because Peterson himself rejects the label “conservative” and in part because he doesn’t even think he is one, though that is just what he is.
Take Rule VI, “Abandon Ideology”. He begins, as he does in so much of the rest of the book, with a meandering series of reflections, in this case on the public reception his previous book received along with the kinds of audiences he attracts. He then wanders through a twelve-page philosophical ramble on this and that until we come to the section headed “The Fatal Attraction of the False Idol”. As you read this passage, bear in mind that Peterson has no idea what conservatism is (which I will return to shortly):
Consider those who have not gone so far as to adopt the discredited ideologies of the Marxist-Leninists and the Nazis, but who still maintain faith in the commonplace isms characterizing the modern world: conservatism, socialism, feminism (and all manner of ethnic- and gender-study isms), postmodernism and environmentalism, among others.
A pretty good list of useless ideologies producing illusionary knowledge. He writes that “incompetent and corrupt intellectuals thrive on such activity”, where “this kind of theorizing is particularly attractive to people who are smart but lazy”.
Regardless of its hypothetical virtues … the implementation of Marxism was a disaster everywhere it was attempted … Ideological reduction of that form is the hallmark of the most dangerous of pseudo-intellectuals …
The moral of the story? Beware of intellectuals who make a monotheism out of their theories of motivation. Beware, in more technical terms, of blanket univariate (single variable) causes for diverse, complex problems.
You know, beware of Marxism, socialism, feminism, ethnic- and gender studies, postmodernism, environmentalism. There is more, much more and deeper, with the reader warned off in no uncertain terms and at chapter length. How else are you going to get such industrial-strength common sense in front of people today?
I, of course, read the book through, from the beginning to the end. But I like Peterson and what he does. I had read his previous volume and trusted where he was going enough to stick with him. Hopefully, those who pick up the book to find instructions on how to live fulfilling lives will read it through in the same way. But let me give you this advice, designed so that you do read the book through. Start with Rule VI, read to the end of the book, go back to the very beginning and then read through until you come to the end of Rule V.
And even then, this is what I would do. I would first go to the end of each chapter as you come to it, read the final two paras, which are made up of the chapter title that comes last, and then a summary of the chapter in the paragraph that comes before. This is what you would therefore read first for Rule VI:
Have some humility. Clean up your bedroom. Take care of your family. Follow your conscience. Straighten up your life. Find something productive and interesting to do and commit to it. When you can do all that, find a bigger problem and try to solve that if you dare. If that works, too, move on to even more ambitious projects. And as the necessary beginning to that process … abandon ideology.
But here’s the problem. Conservatism is not an ideology. Peterson does, in fact, spell out the meaning of conservatism in discussing Rule VII, where we find the biblical Ten Commandments, about which he writes:
The core idea is this: subjugate yourself voluntarily to a set of socially determined rules—those with some tradition in their formulation—and a unity that transcends the rules will emerge. [emphasis added]
I cannot imagine more genuinely conservative advice. He asks readers to take responsibility for their lives, not only by becoming economically productive but even by marrying, having children and living together until death.
Perhaps what I like most about Peterson’s work is that we both understand that everyone at all times is trapped in the present with an unchangeable past and an unknowable future. While it sounds obvious to say it just like that, decisions are made in the midst of the most unfathomable uncertainty. No matter how long one might dwell on things, no matter what considerations one might choose to weigh up, some things will simply turn out badly. This understanding is at the heart of economic theory. This is from my book Free Market Economics (2017):
The very core of economic thinking is based on an understanding that every decision takes place in the present. The past was once the present, when all the decisions were made that affect the world as it is today. Today’s decisions will affect the future, cannot alter the past, and in reality cannot alter the present either.
Peterson says the same, although explaining the essence of existence in a much more dramatic form:
It is in our individual capacity to confront the potential of the future and to transform it into the actuality of the present … We are oppressed by the fundamental uncertainty of Being. Of course, nature does us in, in unjust and painful ways.
In economics, you risk losing your money. In the world painted by Peterson, the stakes are much higher. It is a world in which you might lose your soul. He is trying to provide guidance to individuals by emphasising how difficult it is to lead one’s life, to remind his readers of the many bad choices to be made among the few good ones, and to point his readers towards the cultural guideposts that have been put in place although nothing is infallible.
Now let me go back to those first five chapters to be read only after you have read the last seven. Here we must confront the North American conservative/liberal distinction Peterson embeds. This is from Rule I:
Some people are temperamentally predisposed to conservatism, and others to a more liberal creative perception and action … Those who tend toward the right, politically, are staunch defenders of all that has worked in the past … Those who rise to the top can do so through manipulation and the exercise of unjust power … It is this corruption of power that is strongly objected to by those on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum, and rightly so. [emphases added]
This is straight-out wrong, politically ignorant and offensive. This may be the kind of statements required to get such a book published during the times in which we live. But whatever the reason, you would hope Peterson might have noticed the kinds of people who had embraced his previous writings. These are sentiments that will put off all kinds of people who might otherwise be sympathetic to what he writes.
There are then the fictional examples he draws upon, especially in the early parts of the book. It is one thing to bring up historic and established writings from the Bible and ancient mythology which have provided deep meaning throughout history, it is quite another to bring in Harry Potter, Pinocchio and Walt Disney films. It’s his book and his vision, but these do not work for me.
What was especially noticeable to me was that, as a Canadian, Peterson has no access to cricket as a metaphor. Deprived of the experience of a Canada–Australia Test series, Peterson has to reach into Harry Potter to find a sport where fairness matters, and he devotes an astonishing amount of space to J.K. Rowling’s ridiculous made-up “sport” quidditch. This was all in aid of: “In Rule I, we discussed the idea that the true winner of any game is the person who plays fair.” That is absurdly high-minded, and not how things turn out either on the sports pages or in the real world.
Playing by the rules is important for individuals, but this is a book written, supposedly, for young people setting out on life’s adventure who are seeking to find their way in the world. Peterson is trying to give them their bearings. That is why honesty matters—and I agree that it does—along with the historic learned ethic of one’s own society, such as the orientation given to us by the Ten Commandments, in providing moral guidance. Working things out personally and ethically is what the book is intended to assist its readers to do.
But there is much in it for adults as well, with this one passage, tucked away in a footnote as part of Rule IX, worth repeating. This is a message addressed to one and all, and it comes from a psychologist who must know a thing or two about what he writes:
A word of advice for anyone seeking mental health help in a large city clinic, where the psychiatrist seeing you might take fifteen minutes to assess your life and determine the nature of your illness: do not casually mention any odd experiences or beliefs. You may well live to regret it. It takes very little to accrue a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the conditions that prevail in an overloaded mental health system—and once the diagnosis has been established it is very hard to shake.
This is a book filled with insight and interest. I could not recommend it more, other than that you should perhaps read his previous volume before you set out on this one. In spite of what Peterson might himself believe, this is a conservative book published in a world where such advice hardly exists anywhere. It is more than just about finding one’s way in the world. It is also a book that helps you understand the nature of the world around you as it actually exists, right now.
Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life
by Jordan Peterson
Penguin, 2021, 432 pages, $35
Steven Kates is an economist. His most recent book is Classical Economic Theory and the Modern Economy (Edward Elgar, 2020). He reviewed Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos in the March 2018 issue