London: Allen Lane, 2018; 412 pages, paper, £20
Jordan Peterson is one of a new wave of public intellectuals who have become known primarily through the medium of their presence on You Tube. Initially, he used the medium to broadcast his lectures given at the University of Toronto. However, he became more widely known about two years ago for his vocal opposition to Toronto’s Bill C16 mandating the use of preferred gender pronouns, and has since become something of a fixture on speaking tours and chat shows, promoting his most recent book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which is based on his extensive experience in the fields of clinical psychology and social psychology (he has written a previous book, Maps of Meaning (1999) as well as being the author or co-author of dozens of academic papers in the field of psychology).
Given his high profile, his sometimes-arresting oratorical style and his undoubted intellectual acumen, I came to this book with high expectations. I must admit, then, that I was initially disappointed. Approaching it as a social scientist I was expecting something more academic and systematic. What I found instead seemed to fit in the well-worn genre of the self-help guide, consisting of a dozen chapters each based around a single exhortation to the virtuous life, such as “Make friends with people who want the best for you” (rule 3) and “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie” (rule 8), each of these rules being developed through a mix of personal anecdote, Jungian symbolism, experimental result, biblical exegesis, literary exposition, statistical evidence and analogy, presumably to build a case for the rule and to explore its scope of applicability.
On this initial reading I found the book to be a little meandering and somewhat turgid in places. My judgement was that this multi-perspective approach made it difficult to establish a narrative arc that would draw the reader in and hold their interest. There were undoubtedly fascinating parts, particularly stories from his own life and experience as a clinical practitioner, but some of the Jungian symbology seemed highly speculative and the biblical passages, which are quite prevalent in some chapters, I thought, might be off-putting to someone readers not already familiar with his interpretative approach established in his lecture series and Maps of Meaning.
Reading through the book again, however, I came to appreciate that there is a strong unifying theme running throughout, which raises this above the genre of the typical self-help literature and touches on the eternal questions of religions and the deep questions of theology and speculative philosophy. This is the nature and origin of the triumvirate of suffering, evil and chaos. Peterson is unusual among modern thinkers in tackling these existential issues as aspects of reality, rather than seeing them as just epiphenomena, socially-constructed narratives or the outcomes of oppressive social and economic systems, although he also accepts that they are in part these things. In this regard, chapter/rule 7, “Pursue what is meaningful (and not what is expedient),” is a particularly powerful anatomy of the human experience of evil as told through biblical and literary narratives.
As such, Peterson inadvertently addresses some of the most problematic issues in philosophy. One is the incompatibility of God’s goodness with the existence of evil and suffering. Although he does not explicitly mention this, his answer is clear: it is through accepting responsibility for ourselves and others, which means shouldering the burden of suffering to some extent, that we find meaning and direction in our lives and establish order and goodness. As he says, accounting for evil and chaos is not difficult; what is a miracle is that it is not prevalent everywhere.
A second problematic issue is the bridge between religion and science, which again he does not explicitly engage with, although he clearly works within a framework of a dual concept of truth, which is particularly well-suited to psychology, that of objective fact and narrative interpretation. The latter is particularly useful to understand his approach to the Bible, which, as embodying mythological structures, he puts on a par with the great literature, such as that of Goethe and Dostoyevsky, who examined the individual’s experience of evil, guilt and punishment, or Solzhenitsyn, who dissected the collective sin of a people. Nonetheless, the human quest for meaning itself he considers to arise as a legacy of our evolutionary history.
In the context of the dual truths, I have found one apparently glaring inconsistency, regarding the nature of chaos, clearly an important idea as it forms part of the title of the book. For the most part, from the perspective of narrative interpretation, Peterson equates it with evil and suffering. However, in the penultimate chapter, he describes it in positive terms as an aide to creativity, rather as chaos theoreticians do. Could this be related to the rather puzzling notion of chaos as feminine? I don’t know. It may require a further reading of the book.
In summary, 12 rules for Life is a book that can be read on several levels: as a self-help guide for a generation raised on the notions of rights and equality; as a semi-autobiographical wander through one man’s obsession with the troubled nature of modern society and the individuals who make it up; a profound meditation on the nature of evil and suffering; or a psychological re-evaluation of the religious instinct for a secular age. All these (and more) interpretations are possible and the longevity of its influence will no doubt depend how we collectively choose to receive it.