Oh, the bondage of the sequel! Consider Toy Story 2, or Beethoven’s Seventh, or England’s 1970 FIFA World Cup performance. Are postcedents necessarily inferior to their antecedents? Likewise, is Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life poorer than its 2018 predecessor, 12 Rules for Life? Or is this prequel/sequel all a mark of lazy marketing? Is Peterson’s Yet Another Dozen Rules already in the wings on a hard disc, ready to appear in 2024? Am I being snarky? Not really because Peterson’s last two books were derived from a list of 42 rules originally published on the Quora website a decade or so ago. Plenty more material there.
Since the 2018 appearance of his storming, blockbuster book, 12 Rules for Life, with its 5 million sales and 40-language translations, where has Jordan Peterson been hiding? Apparently mostly in bed and in hospitals. The unprecedented demands for both his YouTube and personal appearances, lectures, interviews, travel, and so on, have taken their toll together with a distressed immune system. The poor man has been ill, seriously ill. Even now, in March 2021, he reckons he is running at only about 5%.
The first 14 pages of Beyond Order, recount the recent medical disasters endured by Peterson and his family. First, his daughter, Mikhaila, had her damaged ankle replaced. Two months later, his wife, Tammy, had surgery for kidney cancer and eventually had one removed together with some of her lymphatic system. Then, from the start of 2017, Peterson’s health ‘fell apart’ after eating something that caused an autoimmune reaction. As a result he suffered with anxiety, low blood pressure and insomnia and was prescribed the relatively harmless antianxiety drug, benzodiazepine. It was a therapeutic catastrophe. For almost three years he was on increasing doses. In May 2019, he was weaned off benzo and put on ketamine for depression. Instead of cure, he endured ‘two 90-minute trips to hell’. Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms returned – beyond anxiety, uncontrollable restlessness and thoughts of self-destruction. So he restarted benzodiazepine plus an antidepressant – he was exhausted.
For the next four months he was confined in a US special clinic before going home, ‘much the worse for wear’ and onto a Toronto hospital and a dose of double pneumonia. He was now desperately sick. In January 2020, he left for an intensive care unit in Moscow where he was subjected to a medically-induced coma. He moved to a rehab unit in Moscow where he had to relearn motor skills, like how to walk again. He returned to Florida to be weaned off the Russian medications, but his condition worsened so he spent time at another specialist clinic, this time in Serbia.
Reflecting on those three years of dreadfulness, Peterson wonders (p. xxiii) if ‘… we would all be more able to deal with uncertainty, the horrors of nature, the tyranny of culture, and the malevolence of ourselves and others if we were better and more courageous people?’
Following that sorry catalogue of the Petersons’ health problems, Jordan weighs in (p. xxiv) with the pertinent question, ‘Why Beyond Order?’ He answers, ‘It is simple, in some regard. Order is explored territory. We are in order when the actions we deem appropriate produce the results we aim at. Nonetheless, all states of order, no matter how secure and comfortable, have their flaws.’ And (p. xxv), ‘Whatever is not touched by the new stagnates, and it is certainly the case that a life without curiosity – that instinct pushing us out into the unknown – would be a much-diminished form of existence. What is new is also what is exciting, compelling and provocative …’ And, ‘Unlike my previous book, Beyond Order explores as its overarching theme how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided. Because what we understand is insufficient … we need to keep one foot within order while stretching the other tentatively into the beyond.’ In other words, too much order is bad, more chaos is good, if carefully understood and managed. While Peterson’s 12 Rules concentrated on remedying the consequences of too much chaos, Beyond Order is the antidote, the corrective, namely some chaos.
I Do not
carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative
It comes as no surprise that Peterson, as the practising psychologist and lecturer, recommends talking – it’s his job. Yet he is adamant (p. 3), ‘… people depend on constant communication with others to keep their minds organized. We all need to think to keep things straight, but we mostly think by talking.’ That is a debateable proposition. Both order and creativity often come as a result of solitude in a room, a desert, a foreign country. Nevertheless, Peterson is mostly correct with his adage, ‘We need to talk – both to remember and to forget.’
He recounts (p. 3) the case of one of his patients, a destitute man disconnected from the world. ‘My client desperately needed someone to listen to him’ and ‘He also needed to be fully part of additional, larger and more complex social groups.’ Peterson reckons he had, ‘… fallen prey to the temptation to denigrate the value of interpersonal interactions and relationships because of his history of isolation and harsh treatment.’ In the end, ‘… he learned the ropes and joined the world.’ This is a grand plug for married, family and church life, where communication and community are (usually) customary.
Peterson moves on (p. 4) to two of his heroes, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung – who else would you expect from the practising psychologist? When considering sanity, the former is all about id, ego and superego, while the latter is about shadow, animus and self. Whatever their differences, both men agreed that these various subentities, ‘… exist in the interior of the person.’ Yet why, asks Peterson, discount the wisdom and guidance exterior to the person that are embedded in the social world? Such signs and guideposts in the community can help keep us sane. We need such company to test ourselves, our ideas, our aims, and so on. In Peterson’s droll words (p. 5), ‘Simply put: we outsource the problem of sanity.’
do we begin this life journey?
At the bottom of the hierarchy. [I knew it would not
be long before that word, the star of 12 Rules, popped
up. By the way, it
seems that ‘proclivity’ is Peterson’s neoteric word used
throughout this book. And
incidentally, it is on p. 19 that Jesus, Peterson’s uncertain
hero, gets a modest mention as ’newborn in a lowly manger’]. And while at the
bottom of the hierarchy, we begin by becoming a beginner, a
fool. As Peterson
advises (p. 18), ‘There are others with expertise and knowledge
greater than yours – befriend them. ‘No one unwilling to
be a foolish beginner can learn.’
But we also need communication with peers in mutual
Peterson notes (p. 21), ‘It is good to be a beginner, but it is
good of a different sort to be an equal among equals.’ Those who give more,
receive more, echoing something of Acts 20:35. And if this hierarchy
has a bottom and middle there will presumably be a top. Such top dogs should
be characterised, not by tyrannical power, but by authority,
which when allied with ability, equals competence. Oh, for such bosses!
What about the structures and the rule of these hierarchies? When do we simply follow convention and when do we reject the requirements of the collective? According to Peterson (p. 30), we need, ‘… to distinguish between a hierarchy that is functional and productive … and the degenerate shell of a once-great institution.’ Herein are the conservatives versus the radicals. The former (and typically evangelical Christians?) can stymy creative transformations, while the latter tend to discount well-founded institutions. ‘How do we establish a balance between reasonable conservatism and revitalizing creativity?’ We need both. Hence the need for rules to keep the balance in tension, to strain against the boundaries. Rules, ‘… therefore not only ensure social harmony and physiological stability, they make the creativity that renews order possible’ (p. 36). Therefore, Peterson concludes, ‘Intelligent and cautious conservatism and careful and incisive change keep the world in order.’
And he brings in a new idea – instead of rules, he looks at stories. ‘Stories’, he insists (p. 37), ‘provide us with a broad template.’ ‘In stories, we capture observations of the ideal personality. We tell tales about success and failure in adventure and romance.’ ‘The good moves us upward and ahead, and evil drags us backward and down. Great stories are about characters in action, and so they mirror the unconscious structures and processes they help us translate the intransigent world of facts into sustainable, functional, reciprocal social world of values.’ At this point, when struggling with a novel problem, he even gives a footnote nod to the ’What would Jesus do?’ movement as a template.
Developing the theme that in great stories we glimpse the ideal personality, the hero, Peterson gets, somewhat unexpectedly and unconvincingly, diverted to the fictional heroes of Disney and J K Rowling, including Pocahontas and Harry Potter. The upshot from both these stories is (p. 43), ‘… follow the rules until you are capable of being a shining exemplar of what they represent, but break them when those very rules now constitute the most dire impediment to the embodiment of their central virtues.’ In other words, keep one foot in order and one in chaos. The more convincing non-fictional stories with a hero are found in Luke 2:42-52 and Luke 6:1-5. Peterson uses them to demonstrate that Christ respected the rules, even as a child he was a master of Jewish tradition, a conservative. But, as an adult, he also broke the rules of the Sabbath, as a rebel. Here is the second person of the Trinity, respectful of tradition (order) yet also creating transformation (chaos). To manage the duality is the challenge – the true hero does both.
Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.
II Imagine who
you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.
This section opens (p. 52) with a good question, ‘How do you know who you are?’, plus the more exciting thought of, who you could be. After all, ‘You are something that is becoming.’ Peterson reasons that, ‘Everyone has the sense, I believe, that there is more to them than they have yet allowed to be realized.’ In other words, consider your potential. Is it dormant, is it obscured by illness, failure, indiscipline, even unwillingness to face it? New experiences release new abilities.
Peterson considers one of the great unforgettable stories is that of Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Indeed, he has said that his dream is to write a book on Exodus. He states (p. 54) that, ‘The biblical story of Exodus is properly regarded as archetypical (or paradigmatic or foundational) by psychoanalytical and religious thinkers alike, because it represents an example of psychological and social transformation that cannot be improved upon.’ Furthermore, he thinks that, ‘It emerged as a product of imagination and has been transformed by constant collective retelling and reworking into an ultimately meaningful form that applies politically, economically, historically, personally, and spiritually, all at the same time.’ That is a mighty big statement, Dr Peterson.
Yet Peterson declares (p. 56) that, ‘Every society is already characterised by patterned behaviour; otherwise it would be pure conflict and no “society” at all. Since the Israelites had something of a social order, a moral code, with Moses as their judge, it paved the way for the reception of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 18:13-18). Without that ordered base (p. 57), ‘… the commandments simply could not have been understood and communicated, much less obeyed.’
Each Rule of the book is preceded by an illustration. The one for Rule II is Materia Prima, the ‘primal element’, inspired by Hermes Trismegistus (1613). Peterson attempts to explain the meaning of this ancient alchemical woodcut’s image of the ‘primal element’. His assessment is (p. 59) that, ‘You can profitably consider that primal element the potential we face when we confront the future …’ or ‘… the information from which we build ourselves and the world.’ Like much of art critique and interpretation, Peterson’s attempt becomes fairly far-fetched. The alchemists considered the winged sphere as the ‘round chaos’, the container of the primordial element. Moving on (p. 62), Peterson holds that the ‘round chaos’ appears in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books and films, as the round ball, the Snitch in the game of Quidditch. Really?
What can all this mean? Indeed? First, Peterson says it exemplifies (p. 63) the notion behind Rule I, ‘… that the true winner of any game is the person who plays fair’, that is, by the rules. Second, the winged god Mercury in the woodcut is, as the messenger, the one who draws attention to something significant. Readers may, if they wish, learn about the meanings of dragons, the Rebis, the Sun and the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn, on pages 65 to 67.
Peterson then invites us (p. 67) to look at ‘who you could be’ from another perspective. He takes one of the earliest stories from the ancient Mesopotamian Enuma Elish (When on High). It is weird. There is a primordial goddess, Tiamat – a female monster denoting chaos, who marries Apsu – the eternal father signifying order. Their impulsive children slay Apsu, which Peterson describes as, ‘… the careless demolition of tradition is the invitation to the (re)emergence of chaos. When ignorance destroys culture, monsters will emerge.’ One of Tiamat’s grandchildren is Marduk – ‘He can speak magic words’ and he is cajoled to confront his terrible grandmother. He agrees, but only, if victorious – as he proves to be – he can hold the Tablet of Destinies, thus unifying the many Mesopotamian tribal gods into one supreme god. Peterson is enamoured and declares (p. 71), ‘It is in this manner that this ancient story described the emergence of monotheism out of polytheism.’ Christians will find all this unappealing mythology. Nevertheless, Peterson presses on and asks (p. 72), ‘What is God, in essence?’ and adds, ‘That is a very difficult question.’ To which any respectful evangelical Christian will reply, ‘No, it is not.’ Nevertheless, again Peterson presses on describing the virtues of Marduk, the Egyptian saviour-god, Horus, St George, St Patrick and St Michael and into the mix comes Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the ancient poem Beowulf, the story of Perseus and Medusa and even sweet little Pinocchio. All these heroes, according to Peterson, teach us (p. 76) that, ’… if you have the vision and the courage (and a good stout stick, when necessary), you can chase away the worst of the snakes.’
Thankfully, the Bible’s historical accounts are more straight-forward, grounded in time and space, and populated by real people.
Yet, Peterson does not give up. There is more of Harry Potter and his friends, the shark from Jaws, Bilbo, Prince Phillip, Virginia, Smaug, and others who make an entrance. All these (p. 81) ‘… constitute a tangible increase in the sophistication of the image of evil’ – from snake (borrowed from the Genesis account), to dragon, to “the greatest snake, is the evil that lurks within”.’ ‘It is also a harsh truth: predators devour, dragons lay waste, chaos destroys.’ Peterson takes up the image of the phoenix from the St George story and introduces the concept of death and rebirth associating the symbolism of this mere mythical fowl with the reality of the unique saving work of Christ (p. 82). He sums it up thus, ‘It is also, equally, that element of the individual human personality that must die and regenerate, as it learns, painfully … with new and more complete knowledge. A voluntary death-and-rebirth transformation – the change necessary to adapt when terrible things emerge – is therefore a solution to the potentially fatal rigidity of erroneous certainty, excessive order and stultification.’ Whatever that is, it is not the heart of true Christianity. Peterson has missed the mark, again.
This section closes with a look at ‘how to act’. Acting is easier than describing with words. It could be via mimicry, imitation, drama or literature. Literate cultures can write their stories. Peterson comments (p. 84), ‘It is at this point, roughly, that myth and ritual might be said to transform themselves into religion.’ He muses on the need not only for local heroes, but also for a hero of heroes, a meta-hero in a meta-world. ‘It is precisely this hyperreal meta-world that consists of the continual interactions between chaos and order, which eternally serve as the battleground between good and evil characterizing the hero’ (p. 84).
Peterson summarises (p. 85), ‘Everyone requires a story to structure their perceptions and actions in what would otherwise be the overwhelming chaos of being.’ ‘Every story requires a starting place that is not good enough and an ending place that is better. Without it, everything sinks into meaninglessness and boredom or degenerates and spirals into terror, anxiety and pain.’
Then it is back to J K Rowling (p. 85). ‘The second volume of Rowling’s series proposes that predatory evil can be overcome by the soul willing to die and be reborn.’ That maybe how Peterson interprets contemporary fiction. But he oversteps the mark (p. 86) with, ‘The analogy with Christianity is obvious, and the message, in essence, the same: The soul willing to transform, as deeply as necessary, is the most effective enemy of the demonic serpents of ideology and totalitarianism, in their personal and social forms.’ Again, this is not the message of biblical Christianity.
In admirable Petersen fashion, he returns to his practical self and ends this section (p. 86) with, ‘Aim at something. Pick the best target you can currently conceptualize. Stumble toward it. Notice your errors and misconceptions along the way, face them, and correct them. Voluntarily confront what stands in your way. The way – that is the path of life, the meaningful path of life, the straight and narrow path that constitutes the very border between order and chaos, and the traversing of which brings then into balance.’ Hooray, Peterson has finally returned to planet Earth.
you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.
RULE III Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
Here is an interesting fact – if something, seemingly trivial annoys you about your spouse every day, it will be repeated 15,000 times over a 40-year marriage. That should motivate improvement in your marriage! Peterson says that such minor irritations are not trivial, though they may continue without comment, they are important. Moreover, they need a solution. Do not pretend to be happy, do not avoid confrontation and simply drift along. Do not keep silent. He says (p. 94), ‘… stem the entropic tide, and keep catastrophe – familiar and social alike – at bay.’ His basic dictum, ‘Have the fight’ may initially seem shocking and cannot be regarded as a universal fix. But what is the alternative? Drifting into a false peace.
This is Peterson’s introduction to a bigger problem, namely the avoidance of information prompted by negative emotions. This is deception, specifically self-deception. We can think one thing and do the opposite – occasionally we feel love and hate at the same time. This is technically called performance contradiction. Freud, of course, had a view. However, Peterson thinks (p. 97) that the Austrian maestro was wrong on two counts. First, he ‘… failed to notice that sins of omission contributed to mental illness as much as, or more than, the sins of commission.’ ‘People generally believe that actively doing something bad (that is the sin of commission) is, on average, worse than passively not doing something good (that is the sin of omission). Perhaps this is because there are always good things we are not doing.’
Second, Peterson is critical because, ‘Freud assumed that things experienced are things understood.’ ‘However’, he continues, ‘neither reality nor our processing of reality is as objective or articulated as Freud presupposed.’
What is this alleged fog of Rule III? ‘Imagine’, Peterson says on p. 100, ‘that you are afraid. You have reason to be. You are afraid of yourself. You are afraid of other people. You are afraid of the world. The knowledge you have gained of yourself, other people and the world has embittered rather than enlightened. You have been betrayed, hurt, and disappointed. The last thing you want is to know more. Better, as well, to avoid thinking too much (or at all) about what could be. When ignorance is bliss, after all, ‘tis folly to be wise.’
Peterson asks (p.102), ‘Your strategy, under such conditions?’ And he answers (p. 103), ‘If you make what you want clear and commit yourself to its pursuit, you may fail. But if you do not make what you want clear, then you will certainly fail. You cannot hit a target that you refuse to see.’ ‘So, what might you do – what should you do – as an alternative to hiding things in the fog?’ ‘Admit your feelings’ is the simple, but tricky remedy (p. 104). It may be embarrassing and unsettling, and it needs to be based on courage rather than naivete, but that is the way to start dispersing the fog.
And the past plays a part here. According to Peterson (p. 106), ‘We use our past effectively when it helps us repeat desirable – and avoid repeating undesirable – experiences. We want to know what happened but, more importantly, we want to know why. Why is wisdom. Why enables us to avoid making the same mistake again and again.’ And such wisdom trumps wilful blindness.
Peterson summarises (p. 108), ‘Dark, unexamined motivations – bred by failure, amplified by frustration … will impoverish your life, your community, your nation, and the world.’ But, ‘With careful searching, with careful attention, you might tip the balance toward opportunity and against obstacle sufficiently so that life is clearly worth living, despite its fragility and suffering.’
Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
RULE IV Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
Peterson takes us to the world of work and his opening advice (p. 111) is, ‘Make yourself invaluable’ to which, in times of high unemployment, he might have inserted ‘and indispensable’. You ask, ‘How?’ Peterson replies (p. 112), ‘… just do the useful things no one else is doing’, it will make you ‘a veritable lynchpin’. Peterson’s books, videos and lectures are recurringly themed with finding ‘meaning’ (rather than mere happiness) in life. Here he comes again (p. 113), ‘It appears that the meaning that most effectively sustains life is to be found in the adoption of responsibility.’ And on p. 114, ‘People need meaning, but problems also need solving’, so you need to find something of significance, ‘something worth confronting and taking on.’ ‘By taking responsibility, we can find a meaningful path.’
But remember another of Peterson’s grand themes – ‘life is suffering’. And that can be inadvertently brought on because people do not sufficiently define what they want for themselves and for others. As Peterson states (p. 115), ‘It is impossible to hit a target, after all, unless you aim at it’ and ‘… to remain passive in the face of life, even if you excuse your inaction as a means of avoiding error – that is a major mistake.’ Using Peter Pan as his paradigm, Peterson shows how refusing to grow up, to take on responsibility diminishes that sought-after meaning. The author’s summary comes on p. 117, ‘You must sacrifice something of your manifold potential in exchange for something real in life. Aim at something. Discipline yourself. Or suffer the consequence. And what is that consequence? All the suffering of life, with none of the meaning. Is there a better description of hell?’
Indeed, one of the universal givens in mental healthcare is, ‘…that voluntary confrontation with a feared, hated, or despised obstacle is curative. We become stronger by voluntarily facing what impedes our necessary progress’ (p. 121). So, how can we gauge a proper challenge? Peterson lists (p. 122) a number of tests. ‘Does what you are attempting compel you forward, without being too frightening? Does it grip your interest, without crushing you? Does it eliminate the burden of time passing? Does it serve those you love and, perhaps, even bring some good to your enemies? The potential effects of Peterson’s ‘medicine’ are assessed on p. 123, ‘When you face a challenge, you grapple with the world and inform yourself. This makes you more than you are. It makes you increasingly into who you could be.’
We have a minimum moral duty to care for yourself. Of course, the danger is that that can develop into self-interest, absorbed merely by the here and now. And such narrow self-interest is destined to be non-productive. Therefore, Peterson wants us to move on, to include thoughts about the future – that is a form of social, rather than selfish, responsibility. Herein is another of Peterson’s maxims (p. 127) – you should not pursue happiness, because ‘”happy” in a right-now thing.’ But ‘now is by no means everything, and unfortunately, everything must be considered, at least insofar as you are able.’ Similarly, with pleasure, ‘attainment is unreliable’ (p. 129). So, ‘What is a truly reliable source of positive emotion?’ Peterson asks (p.129). ‘The answer is that people experience positive emotion in relationship to the pursuit of a valuable goal.’ You aim at something, you develop a strategy, you implement it, you observe that it is working. ‘That is what produces the most reliable positive emotion.’ There is, ‘… no happiness in the absence of responsibility’ (p. 129). ‘We are stuck with it. There is no escaping from the future … the right attitude is to turn round voluntarily and confront it. That works’ (p. 130).
And after that confrontation, you lay out a much larger-scale, longer-term goal. Peterson refers to it (p. 130) as, ‘Pick up the extra weight.’ To reverse Peterson’s title adage for this chapter, where responsibility has been abdicated, opportunity lurks. As you engage with yourself and others, ‘… you will begin to develop a clear picture of what is wrong – and, by implication, of what is right. Right is not least the opposite of wrong – and wrong is in some clear sense more blatant and obvious.’ The outcome (p. 132) should be, ‘I am going to live my life properly. I am going to aim at the good.’ ‘You are no longer a house divided against itself’ and ‘You are standing solidly on a firm foundation’ (p. 133). Moreover, (p. 134), ‘You positively need to be occupied with something weighty, deep, profound, and difficult.’ And, ‘Your life becomes meaningful in precise proportion to the depths of the responsibility you are willing to shoulder.’ ‘But I can only manage the small tasks’ you complain. Peterson responds with the bricklayer analogy (p. 134). The bricklayer monotonously lays his bricks, one after another, but he may be building a wall, a part of a building, perhaps even a cathedral. Peterson suggests it may be that you are ‘not aiming high enough’. Make sure ‘You are on a meaningful path.’
But that path has bumps. You may become disenchanted, irritated, even angry. According to Peterson (p. 136), ‘That very disenchantment, however, can serve as the indicator of destiny. It speaks of abdicated responsibility – of things left undone, of things that still need to be done.’ ‘The part of you that is oriented toward the highest good is pointing out the disjunction between the ideal you can imagine … and the reality you are experiencing.’ Peterson’s comment, ‘…there is something wrong that needs to be set right – and, perhaps, by you.’
This section ends with another look at Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), that late bloomer, who, ‘… has been hanging around his father’s tent for far too many years.’ The call of God comes. And it is not a call to happiness. It is a call to ‘famine, war and domestic strife.’ ‘It is the call to the action and adventure that make up a real life’ (p. 137). ‘That is where the life that is worth living is to be eternally found – and where you can find it, personally, if only you are willing’ (p. 138).
Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
RULE V Do not do what you hate.
We are back in the workplace. Is time there wasted on pointless, trivial, conscious-busting matters? Of course! So here is Peterson’s opening question (p. 142), ‘When do you stop participating in a worrisome process that you see, or think you see, unfolding in front of you?’
He rehearses the case of a lady client, who, while working for a corporation, got drawn into a long dispute about the term ‘flip chart’. Unbelievably some employees found it derogatory as a term for a Filipino. The company administrators prolonged the discussion and it degenerated into a contest of diversity, inclusivity and equity – the ‘veritable mantras for the departments of Human Resources’ (p. 143) – with the prospect that some words would be banned.
The client was perturbed. She felt subject to the ‘engines of corporate indoctrination and ideological propaganda’ (p. 143). ‘We do the things we do because we think those things are important, compared to all the other things that could be important. That worthiness motivates us to act’ (p. 144). When we are called upon to do hateful and stupid things we are forced to act against our values, our “self”. Peterson explains (p. 145), somewhat poetically, ‘That “self” – that integrated psyche – is in truth the ark that shelters us when the storms gather and the water rises. To act in violation of its precepts – its fundamental beliefs – is to run our own ship onto the shoals of destruction.’
So, what did she do about the demoralizing state in which she found herself?’ She developed a rear-guard action. She began to branch out, she developed her services as a conference presenter, speaking against the kind of pseudoscience characteristically employed by Human Resources departments. She also worked as a journalist for a newspaper in Albania, her country of origin. ‘What price did she pay for her decision to stand up and fight?’ (p. 147). There was fear of reprisal, the office ideology meant she lost interest in her company job, which made her feel inadequate and cowardly. But she gained by her mastery of the literature the ability to present it. ‘This all meant the facing of her fear – of inaction, as well as action.’ And she acquired (p. 147), ‘... an expansion of personality and competence.’
So what would constitute a sensible plan of resolution? As Peterson points out (p. 147), ‘Tyranny grows slowly, and asks us to retreat in comparatively tiny steps. But each retreat increases the possibility of the next retreat.’ And, ‘Better to stand forward, awake, when the costs are low’ (p. 148). And, ‘… if you are concerned with leading a moral and careful life: if you do not object when the transgressions against your conscience are minor, why presume that you will not willfully participate when the transgressions get truly out of hand?’ (p. 148).
Peterson says (p. 148) that, ‘Part of moving Beyond Order is understanding that your conscience has a primary claim on your action.’ ‘If you decide to stand up and refuse a command, if you do something of which others disapprove but you firmly believe to be correct, you must be in a position to trust yourself.’
What about our Albanian heroine? She secured other jobs, but was eventually laid off during a corporate reorganization. Peterson reports (p. 149), ‘But her attempts to fight back – her work debunking pseudoscientific theories; her work as a journalist – helped buttress her against depression and bolster her self-regard.’ In other words (p. 149), ‘If you wish instead to be engaged in a great enterprise – even if you regard yourself as a mere cog – you are required not to do things you hate. Otherwise, nature hides her face, society stultifies, and you remain a marionette, with your strings pulled by demonic forces operated behind the scenes – and one more thing: it is your fault.’
Then some practicalities from Peterson (p. 151), ‘Perhaps you should be positioning yourself for a lateral move – into another job, for example, noting as you may, ‘This occupation is deadening my soul, and that is truly not for me. It is time to take the painstaking steps necessary to organize my CV, and to engage in the difficult, demanding, and often unrewarding search for a new job.’ Yet as Peterson reminds us, ‘But you have to be successful only once.’
Peterson raise three concerns. First, ‘I might get fired.’ He says, ‘Well, prepare now to seek out and ready yourself for another job’ (p. 151). Second, ‘I am afraid to move on.’ Peterson says, ‘Afraid in comparison to continuing in a job where the center of your being is at stake …?’ Third, ‘Perhaps no one else would want me.’ Peterson says, ‘Well, the rejection rate for new job applications is extraordinarily high. I tell my clients to assume 50:1, so their expectations are set properly’ (p. 152). Of course, it is tough. But a year or more of applying for jobs is, ‘… much less than a lifetime of misery and downward trajectory. But it is not nothing. You need to fortify yourself for it, plan, and garner support from people who understand what you are up to …’ ‘ … staying where you should not be may be the worst-case situation: one that drags you out and kills you slowly over decades. That is not a good death’ (p. 153). And Peterson quotes that old, but apposite, proverb, ‘If you must cut off a cat’s tail, do not do it half an inch at a time.’
Do not do what you hate.
RULE VI Abandon ideology.
Here, Peterson takes a convincing swipe at tyrants, ideologues, cults, lazy intellectuals and several others. He starts by wondering at the success of his recent books, YouTube videos, lectures, podcasts, and so on. Their numerous supporters lead him to think, ‘It seems that my work must be addressing something that is missing in many people’s lives’ (p. 158). And, ‘… what I say and write provides them with the words they need to express things they already know, but are unable to articulate’ (p. 159). The evidence is two-fold. First, he meets individuals whose lives have been revolutionised by Peterson input. Second, the vast audiences who show up to his lectures. What does he want from the individual? Rapt attention. What does he want from the audiences? Nothing, silence, enthralled hearers.
And there is but one key topic he persistently covers here, there and everywhere – responsibility. As he says (p. 161), ‘You might even consider the inculcation of responsibility the fundamental purpose of society. But something has gone wrong. We have committed an error, or a series of errors. We have spent too much time, for example (much of the last fifty years, clamoring about rights, and we are no longer asking enough of the young people we are socializing. We have been telling them for decades to demand what they are owed by society … when we should have been doing the opposite: letting them know that the meaning that sustains life in all its tragedy and disappointment is to be found in shouldering a noble burden.’
‘How has this vulnerability, this susceptibility, come about?’, he asks. He highlights (p. 161), that Nietzsche, with his ‘God is dead’ slogan and his correct fear, ‘… that all the Judeo-Christian values’ and, ‘… the existence of a transcendent, all-powerful deity … had been fatally challenged.’ The upshot? ‘… everything would soon fall apart.’ And two major corollaries would arise. First, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky foresaw that communism would become attractive as an alternative to either religion or nihilism. And the consequences would be lethal. Second, the central scientific axiom bequeathed by the Enlightenment, namely, ‘… that reality is the exclusive domain of the objective – poses a fatal challenge to the reality of the religious experience’ (p.165).
Peterson muses and displays (p. 166) some of his religious colours. For instance, ‘We all axiomatically assume the reality of our individual religious experiences.’ They have, ‘… a deep underlying biological and physical structure.’ And, ‘… religious function has enough commonality across people to make us at least understand what “religious experience” means.’ And Peterson adds, perhaps tellingly, ‘… particularly if we have had a taste of it at some point in life.’ What does all this imply? ‘It may well be, therefore, that the true meaning of life is not to be found in what is objective, but in what is subjective.’
Peterson returns (p. 167) to those dreadful consequences of totalitarianism, be they in Russia, China, Hitler’s Germany, or the dekulakization of the newly-established Soviet Union. The latter consisted of jealous murderers taking the land of competent Ukrainian farmers and causing the starvation of 6 million kulaks in the 1930s. Where was the promised utopia?
And so Peterson segues (p. 168) to ideologues and the creation of various isms – socialism, feminism, environmentalism, and so on. He outlines the common pattern of growth. ‘The ideologue begins by selecting a few abstractions in whose low-resolution representations hide large, undifferentiated chunks of the world.’ The use of single terms, such as ‘the economy’ or ‘the nation’ serve to hypersimplify complex phenomena. Then an evildoer is added to focus opposition, plus a few explanatory principles, which are negative and unlikely to be challenged by the ideologue’s followers. Next, an ad-hoc theory that ensures every other issue is secondary, and finally a school of thought emerges. As Peterson states (p. 170), ‘Incompetent and corrupt intellectuals thrive on such activity.’ Followers follow, keen to join a new, potentially-dominant hierarchy. Some subtle wordplay ensues so that factors that initially ‘contribute to’ the problem, begin to ‘affect’ the problem, and finally ‘cause’ the problem. In Peterson’s words (p. 171), ‘The cult has already begun.’
Contrasting and comparing ideologues and fundamentalists, Peterson (p. 173) considers the former to be worse because, ‘… ideologues lay claim to rationality itself. So, they try to justify their claims as logical and thoughtful. At least the fundamentalists admit devotion to something they just believe arbitrarily.’ Hold on a minute, Jordan! But he does admit, ‘They are a lot more honest. Furthermore, fundamentalists are bound by a relationship with the transcendent. What this means is that God, the center of their moral universe, remains outside and above complete understanding, according to the fundamentalist’s own creed.’ ‘For the ideologue, however, nothing remains outside understanding or mastery. An ideological theory explains everything: all the past, all the present, and all the future.’ Peterson asks, ‘The moral of the story?’ ‘Beware of intellectuals who make monotheism out of their theories of motivation’ and, ‘… single variable causes for diverse, complex problems.’
Peterson examines (p. 174) another facet of ideology. Ressentiment is hostile resentment towards the people receiving success and high status from failure of a system. The successful are deemed exploitative and corrupt beneficiaries. Once that premise is accepted, attacks on the successful can be morally justified. Moreover, ideologues always consider the victims are innocent and the perpetrators guilty. According to Peterson (p. 175), ‘To take the path of ressentiment is to risk tremendous bitterness. This is in no small part a consequence of identifying the enemy without rather than within.’ And, (p. 176), ‘This is a terrible trap: once the source of evil has been identified, it becomes the duty of the righteous to eradicate it.’ And he continues rightly, ‘It is much safer morally to look to yourself for the errors of the world, at least to the degree to which someone honest and free of willful blindness might consider.’ Herein, a reminder of those optical planks and specks (Matthew 7:3-5). ‘It is (p. 177) much more psychologically appropriate (and much less dangerous socially) to assume that you are the enemy – that it is your weaknesses and insufficiencies that are damaging the world.’ By contrast, the ideologues’ concepts are too simple, too broad, too low resolution. Peterson’s closing advice (p. 177) is to, ‘… begin to address and consider smaller, more precisely defined problems.’ And he gives practical Petersonesque guidance. ‘Have some humility. Clean up your bedroom. Take care of your family. Follow you conscience. Straighten up your life. Find something productive and interesting to do and commit to it … abandon ideology.’
RULE VII Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
Peterson (p. 181) puts on his analogy hat – heat and pressure can sometimes turn dull coal into bright diamonds. People too can be pure and, when properly aligned, they glitter. But many are often not properly aligned. Just as a divided house cannot stand, ‘Likewise a poorly integrated person cannot hold himself together (p. 182).’ And, (p. 183), ‘Lack of internal union also makes itself known in the increased suffering, magnification of anxiety, absence of motivation, and lack of pleasure that accompany indecision and uncertainty.’ The adverse consequences are psychological, physical and social. But, ‘Clear goals limit and simplify the world.’ This sounds just like Peterson of old (p. 184), ‘To move forward with resolve, it is necessary to be organized’ and ‘If you aim at nothing, you have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing of high value in your life.’ ‘But very often failure is a consequence of insufficient single-mindedness, elaborate but pointless rationalization, and rejection of responsibility. And little good comes of that’ (p. 187). Therefore, do not drift. ‘Those who do not choose a direction are lost’ (p. 188) and ‘… the worst decision of all is none.’
Self-discipline begins at an early age. Children initially need parental guidance to teach them problem solving, then peers and game playing to foster the process of integration. ‘This can be interpreted as a sacrifice of individuality … but it is much more accurately development of individuality’ (p. 189). ‘The payoff for such development is, of course, the security of social inclusion, and the pleasure of the game.’ ‘This, it should be noted, is not repression.’ Incidentally, children will not be damaged by such proper, self-integrating, socializing discipline – it is the foundation of civilisation. The child then moves on to engage in the more serious games of employment and ‘the dance of the sexes’ to become, ‘… a socially sophisticated, productive, and psychologically healthy adult, capable of true reciprocity’ (p. 192).
Peterson recognises (p. 193) that rules are needed for both games and civilisations. Where does he turn for elaboration? Why, to the gospel of Mark, of course! There he invokes, ‘… what are among the most influential Rules of the Game ever formulated – the Mosaic Ten Commandments.’ He even lists them (p. 194) and briefly, and interestingly, exegetes them. They are, he suggests (p. 195), ‘… a minimum set of rules for a stable society – an iterable social game.’ They are, ‘… rules established in the book of Exodus, and part of that unforgettable story.’ Peterson turns to an additional prospect, ‘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’ (p. 195). Then Mark’s account of Christ overturning the tables of the money changers and especially Mark 11:18 and 12:13 along with Mark 12:28-34 are assessed, including that most difficult and treacherous question, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’ ‘What does all this mean?’, asks Peterson (p. 196). He responds that, ’The personality integrated by disciplined adherence to a set of appropriate rules is simultaneously guided by or imitating the highest possible ideal.’ ‘That ideal, according to Christ’s answer is something singular (the “one Lord”), thoroughly embodied (loved with “all thy heart,” “soul,” “understanding,” and “strength”), and then manifested as a love that is identical for self and all mankind.’ Peterson continues (p. 197), ‘Psychologically speaking, Christ is a representation, or an embodiment, of the mastery of dogma and the (consequent) emergence of spirit. Spirit is the creative force that gives rise to what becomes dogma, with time.’ This is mostly unclear – Peterson is clearly a psychologist and not a theologian. What is the core of his argument? He continues, ‘Christ therefore presents Himself as both the product of tradition, and the very thing that creates and transforms it.’ I’m befuddled – this is not the second person of the Trinity of whom the Bible speaks so plainly. Is this a case of forcing Scripture to fit a predetermined theory? Whatever, thankfully Peterson rapidly shifts back to his own forte, ‘If you work as hard as you can on one thing, you will change.’ And, the author defines (p.198) that ‘one thing’,‘It is the very Word of truth, upon whose function all habitable order, wrenched out of chaos, eternally depends.’ Let’s move on!
Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
RULE VIII Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.
Peterson returns (p. 201) to a favourite directive – clean your room. And this time there is an addendum – make it beautiful. Though he admits (p. 202) that, ‘Making something beautiful is difficult, but it is amazingly worthwhile.’ So, for starters, he entreats (p. 203), ‘Buy a piece of art. Find one that speaks to you and make the purchase.’ That’s a nice idea, but his assessment that, ‘… art is a window into the transcendent’ is a more dubious notion. And so our author is off on a jaunt into the world of art. It is not, he says, ‘… an option, or a luxury, or worse, an affectation. Art is the bedrock of culture itself.’ ‘We live by beauty. We live by literature. We live by art.’ ‘… and beauty can help us appreciate the wonder of Being and motivate us to seek gratitude when we might otherwise be prone to destructive resentment’ (p. 204).
As a child, Peterson knew his immediate neighbourhood in great detail. Now, as a man, he is mostly unaware of the houses on his street. He has seen houses before, here, there and everywhere. But this is for him a real loss. ‘And (p. 205) a very deep feeling of belonging is missing in some important way because of that.’ The same sort of loss occurred with his young children growing up while Peterson was establishing his career – ‘I knew perfectly well that I was missing out on beauty and meaning and engagement’ (p. 206). While concentrating on his future, he was missing out on his present. He embraces germane sections from William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Mortality and from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence and marvels at Van Gogh’s Irises and includes two verses from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. As Peterson (p. 210) insists, ‘To share in the artist’s perception reunites us with the source of inspiration that can rekindle our delight in the world, even if the drudgery and repetition of daily life has reduced what we see to the narrowest and most pragmatic of visions.’ And he concludes (p. 211), ‘All this is very frightening. It is frightening to perceive the shells of ourselves that we have become.’
Peterson (p. 212) states, ‘Your world is known territory, surrounded by the relatively unknown, surrounded by the absolutely unknown – surrounded, even more distantly, by the absolutely unknowable.’ So, how do we gain new information, new knowledge? ‘Knowledge must pass through many stages of analysis … before it becomes, let us say, commonplace’ (p. 213). You are unexpectedly startled. The first stage is reflex action – you freeze. Second, your heart rate rises. Third, your imagination kicks in. Fourth, the noise is deemed insignificant and you return from the unknown to the known. ‘Artists’, according to p. 214, ‘are the people who stand on the frontier of the transformation of the unknown into knowledge’, maybe by music, novels, dance or painting. ‘… artists are always transforming chaos into order’ and ‘They are the initial civilising agents’ (p. 215).
OK, the Petersons live in ‘a small semidetached house’ in Toronto, (over)populated with paintings, particularly Soviet pieces purchased on eBay. Thus they have beautiful rooms and a beautiful house. Peterson and a chum also tried to make his university office beautiful. They used sheets of cherry plywood on the walls, Hammerite paint on the ceiling, a Persian carpet on the floor, high-quality curtains and a decent industrial desk. But Peterson made one fatal error. He spoke of his plans with a colleague, who said, ‘You can’t do that.’ ‘What do you mean?’ She replied, ‘Well, if you do it, everyone else will want to do it.’ And threateningly, ‘Do not push me on this’ (p. 222). Peterson’s error – he had, sort of, asked for permission. He devised and executed a Plan B, not as good as his Plan A, nevertheless, colleagues and visitors were impressed. His office had become a place of creativity and beauty. [Incidentally, I did something similar, though far less grandiose, to my university office – one weekend I had the temerity to paint it primrose yellow instead of that humdrum industrial buttermilk]. The dénouement of Peterson’s creative rebellion was that his office became a display office for visitors, ‘… to show them what kind of creative freedom was possible at the University of Toronto’ (p. 223).
‘Artists teach people to see. It is very hard to perceive the world. Beauty leads you back to what you have lost. Beauty reminds you of what remains forever immune to cynicism. Beauty beckons in a manner that straightens your aim. Many things make life worth living: love, play, courage, gratitude, work, friendship, truth, grace, hope, virtue, and responsibility. But beauty is among the greatest of these’ (p. 226).
Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.
RULE IX If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely.
Peterson (p. 229) wants you to imagine you undertook some terrible action in the past, or that you were the target of such an event. And you recall it with terror or shame. Whether you suffered because of self-betrayal or at the hands of others, is not important. ‘What does matter is that you do not desire any recurrence.’ ‘Learn from the past. Or repeat its horrors, in imagination, endlessly’ (p. 230). Because (p. 231), ‘It is a psychological truism that anything sufficiently threatening or harmful once encountered can never be forgotten if it has never been understood.’ In other words, ‘… we need to know where we are and where we are going.’ ‘If you do not know what roads you have traversed, it is difficult to calculate where you are.’
Peterson rightly states (p. 231) that in life, ‘The successes are both confidence building and exhilarating. The obstacles and failures are, by contrast, anxiety provoking, depressing and painful. They indicate our profound ignorance.’ If we do not understand with sufficient depth, we cannot draw the moral. Peterson issues a severe demand (p. 232). ‘We must rekindle every lost opportunity. We must repent for missing the mark, meditate on our errors, acquire now what we should have acquired then, and put ourselves back together.’ It is that old instruction ‘to confront’. But he adds, ‘And I am not saying this is always possible.’ In other words, for each past mistake that we have left unconfronted, we pay the price as the inability to forget and in the emotion that constitutes the pangs of conscience.
What follows are three cases overseen by Peterson. The first is an apparently disturbing sexual abuse case when the client was just four years old and the perpetrator, her cousin, was six. The victim, now in her late twenties, still remembered the abuse as if she were that young child – her memory of it had not altered as she matured. Peterson explains (p. 235) that she needed to update that memory. She was no longer at risk. She could reframe her story. She could now regard it as the consequence of children’s curiosity, maybe as a game of doctors and nurses. Peterson remembers (p. 235) that, ‘She could now see the event from the perspective of an adult. This freed her from much of the terror and shame still associated with the memories, and it did so with remarkable rapidity. She confronted the horrors of the past voluntarily, finding a causal explanation that was much less traumatic.’
The second client (p. 236), ‘… was a young, gay African American man who was suffering from an incomprehensible set of mental and physical symptoms.’ A psychiatrist had diagnosed him with schizophrenia after he suffered from depression and anxiety and a permanent end to the relationship with his boyfriend. The latter event was four years earlier, and that was regarded as a long time without moving on. He also suffered from strange convulsive body movement while trying to sleep. Peterson asked him what he thought was happening. The man replied with a laugh (p. 238), ‘My family thinks I am possessed, and I am not sure they are wrong.’ Peterson dismissed the diagnosis of schizophrenia once he learned that the man had mentioned his ‘possession’ to the investigative psychiatrist. He then thought it might be a very severe form of sleep paralysis. He and his boyfriend had had a serious fight and he was deeply troubled by the violence. On questioning, it turned out that his religious parents had taught him as a child, ‘… that adults were literally God’s angels’ (p .241). It was time for him to grow up and discard his naivete. Peterson gave him some books to convince him of man’s inhumanity to man. They seemed to do the trick – he showed up to his next session looking older, wiser and sadder. Peterson diagnosed somatization disorder, whereby a person physically represents his psychological symptoms – his contortions were perhaps associated with his violent bust-up with his boyfriend. Hesitantly, Peterson recommended hypnosis. ‘Where is all this going?’, you may ask. I did too. Well, the client fell into a hypnotic trance, relived the violent fight with his boyfriend and then revealed his fear that he might have been killed – for years he had pushed that thought out of his mind. Now he had gained new knowledge from his unhelpful ‘compartmentalization’. His contoured body movement during sleep were duplicates of his defensive movements during the fight. He explained, (p. 248), ‘What really got to me in that fight was not our disagreement about what future we wanted. It was not the physical contact – the pushing and shoving. It was the fact that he truly wished me harm. I could see it in his face. His look truly terrified me. I could not handle it. But I can understand it better now.’ Within a month his symptoms had disappeared completely. He had grown up and confronted the reality of his own experience, as well as the true nature of the cruel world.
Another of Peterson’s clients, a young man, had been terribly bullied in college. He could barely talk and was on antipsychotic medication. He made strange mechanical movements with his head to ‘make the shapes go away’ (p. 249). A girl at the college had fancied him, but he did not reciprocate, and she became so vindictive that he began to break down, and finally, he broke. Peterson got him to talk and write about his life in subdivided units or themes and then identify the events, positive and negative, that shaped his life. In other words, the young man was mining and updating his past experiences for their true behavioural significance. Though naive, ‘Recollecting his life was putting him back together’ (p. 252). He too believed that people were universally good. He came to understand his tormentor’s anger at being spurned, as well as his right to defend himself and tell the true story. As he worked through the memories and understood their significance his psychotic symptoms receded.
People commonly worry about what lies ahead – issues at work, problems with family and friends, financial and material survival, and so on. What to do, what strategies are required, in what order? Or does paralysis set in? We face a multitude of prospects that can shape our future, from the imaginary to the actual, from the future to the present. And there is an ethical aspect. As Peterson asks (p. 255), ‘Can anyone escape the pangs of conscience at four o’clock in the morning after acting immorally or destructively, or failing to act when action was necessary? And what is the source of that inescapable conscience?’ Peterson, sadly, does not answer that question head on.
Instead, he moves on (p. 256) to discuss our ideas of ourselves as sovereign individuals. We voluntarily create and then determine the ethics of our choices. These are our stories, we recall our starting points, the pitfalls and the successes of the past – they are our teachers of the present and future. ‘Such information is irresistible to us all. It is how (and why) we derive wisdom from the risks taken by those before us, and who lived to tell the story’ (p. 257).
Maybe you can feel the rumblings of something significant. You are right! Peterson asserts (p. 257), ‘The most fundamental stories of the West are to be found, for better or worse, in the biblical corpus. That collection of ancient and eminently influential books opens with God Himself, in His Fatherly guise, portrayed as the ordered entity who confronts chaos and creates habitable order in consequence.’ That is Genesis 1:2. Enter Jordan Peterson dressed in his theological garb, explaining the Hebraic account and mixing it with mythological creatures again like Tiamat and Apsu. Starting with creation, let us examine Peterson’s big points. God has an attribute, the capacity for speech – ‘and God said.’ And He creates human beings. Peterson points (p. 259) to three fascinating features of that creation. There is, ‘… the insistence that mankind is to have the dominion over the rest of creation; the shocking and incomprehensively modern and egalitarian insistence that God created man and woman equally in His own image (stated twice; Genesis 1:27); and the equally unlikely and miraculous insistence that the creation of humanity was, like the rest of the Creation, good.’ That is all grandly beguiling. But Peterson then spoils himself with some gobbledegook about, ‘It is that combination of Truth, Courage and Love comprising the Ideal, whose active incarnation in each individual does in fact take the potential of the future and make the best of it’ (p. 260). And, ‘Thus, there is an ethical claim deeply embedded in the Genesis account of creation: everything that emerges from the realm of possibility in the act of creation (arguably, either divine or human) is good insofar as the motive for its creation is good. I do not believe there is a more daring argument in all of philosophy or in theology than this: To believe this, to act it out, is the fundamental act of faith.’ Then Luke 11:9-13 is quoted and exegeted badly, as if ‘ask, seek and knock’ were some humanist mantra. Where is that sovereign grace of God towards undeserving sinners? Peterson, more at home in the psychologist’s office than the theologian’s garret, closes (p. 262) with, ‘It is our destiny to transform chaos into order. If the past has not been ordered, the chaos it still constitutes haunts us.’
If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely.
RULE X Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.
Now, this Rule looks exciting! Peterson admits he is not a couple’s therapist, but he does sometimes see both partners together. It can be tricky, as he explains (p. 266), ‘They are not happy, and they hate me – maybe even more than they hate each other. They sit there, distant, arms crossed and eyes rolling (hopefully not the latter: that is a bad sign). Neither will give an inch. I suggest, nonetheless, that they try going out with each other.’ This is usually met with derision. However, Peterson persists (p. 266), ‘I know you are angry with each other, and probably for good reason. I have met both of you: I understand why you both feel that way. But just try it. You do not have to like it. You do not have to expect to be good at it, or give up your anger, or have a good time. You just have to tolerate it. They both leave incensed at me for suggesting such an irritating idea.’ They return a week later to tell of their absolutely wretched date. ‘So, I ask: “That is your plan, is it? You are going to be married for sixty years. You put a small amount of begrudging effort into having one date. Neither of you have any skill at dating. Maybe you need fifteen dates – or forty – because you have lost the knack. This is a skill you must learn, not an unearned gift from Cupid.”’ And, (p. 268), ‘Why would you possibly assume that something as complex as maintaining a marriage can be managed without commitment, practice, and effort?’
‘The sexual aspect of a relationship can often tell us a great deal about the whole, but not always’ (p. 269). ‘“Let us fix our sex life” is a resolution too narrow in ambition to fulfil its aim. There must be a broader, relationship-wide strategy in place to maintain romance with your partner across time’ (p. 270). Negotiation, discussion, courage, expression of wants and needs, truth and trust are a few of the basic requirements. Peterson continues, (p. 271), ‘Romance requires trust – and the deeper the trust, the deeper the possibility for romance. So, the vow that makes a marriage capable of preserving its romantic component is first and foremost the decision not to lie to your partner. In a relationship where romance remains intact, truth must be king’ (p. 272).
Peterson describes (p. 272) a friend’s wedding where the couple, ‘nominally Christian’, exchange vows and hold a lit candle aloft. He makes a meal of its symbolism including the creation of Eve (Genesis 2:21-22) from Adam’s rib – woman from man, whereas biology teaches the reverse, namely that men/boys are born of woman. And so mythological speculation has it that (p. 273), ‘… Adam, the original man produced by God, was hermaphroditic – half masculine and half feminine’, denoting, at least in Peterson’s narrative, ‘… the incompleteness of man and woman until each is brought together with the other.’ The role and imagery of the candle is further elaborated – two people, one candle, held aloft, light, and so on. And there is a line of speculation that because of Adam’s supposed hermaphroditic nature that, ‘…Christ’s spiritual perfection being a consequence of the ideal balance of the masculine and feminine elements’ (p. 274). Enough! Back to marriage.
Peterson begins (p. 276), ‘A marriage is a vow, and there is a reason for it. You announce jointly, publicly: “I am not going to leave you, in sickness or health, in poverty or wealth – and you are not going to leave me.”’ Peterson suggests it is actually a threat: “We are not getting rid of each other, no matter what.” And, ‘In principle, there is no escape.’ Having the option of escape is perilous. ‘Do you really want to keep asking yourself for the rest of your life – because you would always have the option to leave – if you made the right choice?’ Peterson counters (p. 277), ‘But you do not find so much as make, and if you do not know that you are in real trouble.’ Moreover, ‘You are not going to get along with your partner – because you are different people.’ ‘And not only are you different from your partner, but you are rife with inadequacies and so is he – or she.’ And those, ‘… locked together in matrimony will face the mundane, quotidian, dull, tragic, and terrible together, because life can be – and certainly will be at some point – difficult to the point of impossibility. It is going to be tough. You are going to have to negotiate in good faith, continually to come to some sort of peaceful and productive accommodation.’ ‘There are three fundamental states of social being: tyranny (you do what I want), slavery (I do what you want), or negotiation’ (p. 278). The first two are not good.
So a question arises (p. 279), ‘What is going to make you desperate enough to negotiate. And that is one of the mysteries that must be addressed if you want to keep the romance alive in your relationship. Negotiation is exceptionally difficult.’ You ask and often the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ That could be either a genuine befuddlement, or a refusal to talk. Peterson’s assessment? ‘It [the latter] is not rude. It is a cruel act of love. Persistence under such conditions is a necessity’ (p. 280). Anger (defence one) and tears (defence two) may follow. What to do now? ‘Fight it out’, says Peterson (p. 281). You also need hope and desperation (p. 282). ‘You are stuck with each other, if you are serious – and if you are not serious, you are still a child.’ ‘That is the point of the vow: the possibility of mutual salvation, or the closest you can manage here on Earth.’ And you make it work or you suffer miserably. Just think, ‘You could have a marriage that works.’ ‘There are not many genuine achievements of that magnitude in life. That is achievement one’ (p. 283).
Also on p. 283, Peterson handles a hot potato. ‘No one will speak the truth about this. To note outright that we lie to young women, in particular, about what they are most likely to want in life is taboo in our culture, with its incomprehensibly strange insistence that the primary satisfaction in the typical person’s life is to be found in career (a rarity in itself, as most people have jobs, not careers). But it is an uncommon woman, in my clinical and professional experience, regardless of brilliance or talent, training, discipline, parental desire, youthful delusion, or cultural brainwashing who would not perform whatever sacrifice necessary to bring a child into the world by the time she is twenty-nine, or thirty-five, or worse, forty.’ And he also warns, ‘But a successful pregnancy is not a foregone conclusion, not by any stretch of the imagination – but up to 30 percent of couples experience trouble becoming pregnant.’ No wonder Peterson is widely regarded as a renegade with a cause.
Then Peterson tackles (p. 284) another of those hot potatoes – the delusion that a romantic affair will address unmet needs. He starts, ‘Let us think it through, all the way. Not just for this week, or this month. You are fifty. You have this twenty-four-year-old, and she is willing to break up your marriage. What is she thinking? Who must she be? What does she know?’ ‘“Well, I am really attracted to her.”’ ‘Yes, but she has a personality disorder. Seriously, because what the hell is she doing with you, and why is she willing to break up this marriage?’ ‘“Well, she does not care if I stay married.”’ ‘Oh, I see. So, she does not want to have an actual relationship with someone, with any degree of long-term permanency. Somehow that is going to work out well for you, is it? Just think about that. It is going to be a little rough on your wife. A lot of lies are going to go along with that. You have children – how are they going to respond when all this comes out, as it most certainly will? And what do you think about the ten years in court that are now beckoning, that are going to cost you a third of a million dollars and put you in a custody battle that will occupy all your time and attention?’ Go Jordan, go! The rest of the adult male population should read the rest of Peterson’s writing on this topic. And his succeeding piece on another hot potato – cohabiting. Here is a snippet from p. 287, ‘Cohabitation without the promise of permanent commitment, socially announced, ceremonially established, seriously considered, does not produce more robust marriages. And there is nothing good about that.’
Now (p. 289), what about the domestic economy – traditional roles of men and women? The old ‘sense of duty’ provided a template and if no template exists it needs to be argued about. For instance, who is going to do what? Who is going to make the bed, or feed the cat? If it is not sorted out, then it is a problem every morning for the next sixty years. And there are, at least, two hundred other issues to resolve. If not dealt with, your romantic endeavours will suffer. Then you must, ‘… actually talk to your partner for about ninety minutes a week, purely about practical and personal matters – well, that’s what Peterson reckons (p. 292). What is happening to you at work? What needs to be done around the house? That sort of thing. Remember, we all have a story. ‘To know your story, you must tell it, and, for your partner to know it, he or she must hear it.’ Otherwise, ‘… your relationship loses its coherence.’ ‘Start by getting these things straight, and see what happens. Then you will have peaceful mealtimes’ (p. 293). ‘You will have to fight for such an accomplishment. What matters, however, is not whether you fight (because you have to fight), but whether you make peace as a consequence. To make peace is a negotiated solution’ (p. 294). Recall that immature question you once asked, ‘Is there someone out there perfect for me?’ No, says Peterson (p. 295), ‘There are just people out there who are damaged – quite severely, although not always irreparably.’ ‘Thus, you get married, if you have any courage … and you start to transform the two of you into one reasonable person.’
‘Romance is play’, says the author on p. 296, ‘and play does not take place easily when problems of any sort arise. Play requires peace, and peace requires negotiation.’ And, ‘The issue of marital romance – intimacy and sex- is a complex one.’ For instance, Peterson observes (p. 297), ‘… that the typical adult couple … might manage once or twice a week, or even three times a week (not likely) for a reasonable romantic interlude. Zero is bad.’ ‘There is still plenty of effort required, unless you want the romance to vanish’ (p. 298). Peterson is a fan of candles, perfume, music, attractive clothing, a compliment or two, and soft lighting. And (p. 299), ‘Here is a rule: do not ever punish your partner for doing something you want them to continue doing. Particularly if it took some real courage ... to manage.’ ‘And then, maybe, you could both have what you need, and maybe even what you want’ (p. 300).
Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.
RULE XI Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.
We all have our reasons for being caught by that triad of resentment, deceit and arrogance – our grief, dashed dreams, agony of conscience, betrayal – you name them. How they erode us. ‘How could you not degenerate?’ Peterson comes to the rescue, ‘I want you to know how you might resist that decline, that degeneration into evil’ (p. 303). He starts, ‘What is the world made of?’ Answers will include the physical and the psychological that point to ‘the realm of unrealized possibility’ (p. 305), both good and bad. And it is, perhaps strange, though true, that we concentrate on the future rather than the present, on possibility rather than actuality. After all, it is the future and possibility that we have to contend with. But how can we contend with something unknown and, as yet, unexpressed? Peterson answers (p. 306), ‘… by communicating through stories about what is and, equally, what could be.' And (p. 306), ‘We naturally think of our lives as stories, and communicate about our experience in that same manner. We tell people automatically where we are … and where we are going.’ But that story is more than just a sequence of events, it includes how we perceive, evaluate, think, and act – and, when you do so, a story unfolds. ‘Could that mean that the world of experience is, in truth, indistinguishable from a story?’, asks Peterson (p. 307). Or, ‘You might argue, contrarily, that the scientific view of the world is more accurate. Peterson is not convinced – he thinks science is, ‘nested inside a story: one that goes something like “careful and unbiased pursuit of the truth will make the world a better place for all people, reducing suffering, extending life, and producing wealth” (p. 307). In other words, he remains a story-man.
Is this too vague and ambiguous? Let Peterson explain (p. 308), ‘We conceptualize what we experience as a story. That story is, roughly speaking, the description of the place we are at right now, as well as the place that we are going to, the strategies and adventures that we implement and experience along the way, and our downfalls and reconstitutions during that journey.’ We think in stories – think about that! We think in social categories, like close friendship, not in objective categories, like the periodic table. Think how children love a good story, sometimes the same one every night. To press home this truism, Peterson proceeds to critique Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, especially the bits where Monstro and the Evil Queen become the Dragons of Chaos. Let’s pass on.
We all have an image of nature. It has two facets. Its benevolence, with its attractiveness whereby you are fed and made happy. And its horror, with its destruction, disease, and death. ‘These two elements of experience exist side by side’ (p. 317). Peterson explains, ‘Both these elements of existence manifest themselves in our imagination in personified form. One is the Evil Queen, the Goddess of Destruction and Death; the other is her positive counterpart, the Fairy Godmother, the benevolent monarch. To live properly, you need to be acquainted with both these figures.’
‘Nature is chaos, too, because it is always wreaking havoc with culture, its existential opposite’ (p. 319). ‘But all that is not to say, ever, that chaos is of less value than order.’ Peterson is apparently a Disney aficionado. He draws on the nature/chaos in Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Cinderella, and more. And here is the argument Peterson is making – ensure your children are conversant with the existence of both sides, good and evil. ‘And if you shelter young people, you destroy them’ (p. 321). Harsh, but probably true. Peterson gives the example, (p. 321) of one of his sheltered clients, a real-life Sleeping Beauty, profoundly unhappy, suicidal, vegan, smart and literate, unable to deal with the cruelty she saw everywhere. She was a fairy-tale princess, her stepmother was ‘a holy terror’. This was Peterson’s plan to overcome her fear of life. He took her to a butcher’s shop, a weekend stay on an animal farm and a possible visit to a slaughter house. A week later she announced, ‘I think I want to see an embalming.’ Peterson arranged it. She was certainly toughening up! She managed the experience. She had learned to tolerate her terrors of life.
We interpret the present through the lens of culture. We plan for the future using what we have learned. Sometimes that approach is too rigid – Peterson says (p. 329) it, ‘… can blind us to the value of novelty, creativity, and change.’ He introduces two more imaginary characters, the Wise King and the Authoritarian Tyrant – we need to become aware of both, he says. And he introduces (p. 331), aspects of the biology, behaviour and ideology of the conservative and the liberal, including their approaches to the old and the new, stability or change, order versus chaos. The problem is, when does something need to be preserved and when does something need to be transformed? That is why we have politics and dialogue and discussion and judgement. As Peterson puts it (p. 333), ‘So there are two different ideologies – both of which are “correct”, but each of which tell only half the story.’
Peterson goes on (p. 334) to describe the individual as both hero and adversary, with their positive and the negative features. Mythologically, they are portrayed as brothers, while archetypically, they are personified as Cain and Abel, and even more fundamentally as Christ and Satan. Peterson posits (p. 334), the structure of the world in six characters – ‘a hero and an adversary; a wise king and a tyrant; a positive and a negative maternal figure; and chaos itself.’ The last may seem odd, but Peterson includes it as, ‘… in some sense the ultimate birthplace of all the others.’ He asserts, ‘It is necessary to understand that all seven exist’ and he says (p. 335), ‘That is life – they are life. Partial knowledge of the cast, conscious or unconscious, leaves you undefended; leaves you naive, unprepared, and likely to become possessed by deceit, resentment, and arrogance.’ And then bizarrely, ‘If you do not know that the treasure is guarded by a dragon … then you are first, a needy acolyte … and second, someone blind…’ What? Move on!
What is this resentment? Peterson defines it (p. 338) as, ‘… that terrible hybrid emotional state, an admixture of anger and self-pity, tinged, to various degrees, with narcissism and the desire for revenge.’ But as you understand the world and its players, an appropriate question might be, “Why is not everyone resentful about everything all of the time?” After all, ponder, ‘… the brute force of nature, the tyranny of culture, and the malevolence of your own nature. It is no wonder you might feel resentful’ (p. 339). Yet not everyone falls prey to resentment and deems themselves to be a victim. Moreover, it is typically resentful people who enquire, ‘Why me?’ as if they have been subjected to an injustice rather than a random event, such as cancer or a car accident. Confronting such realities, being realistic, will shrink your resentment.
Peterson expounds (p. 343) two forms of deceit: ‘sin of commission, the things you do knowing full well they are wrong; and sins of omission, which are things you merely let slide.’ Consider in addition that threesome, deceit, resentment and arrogance – get your ducks in a row. They are co-conspirators. First, deceit and arrogance are, according to Peterson (p. 344), ‘… a denial … of the relationship between divinity, truth and goodness.’ He turns to the early chapters of Genesis where God ‘creates habitable chaos out of order.’ ‘Courage, love and truth’ are the drivers and the ultimate outcome is Good – ‘the very best that love would demand.’ Arrogance and deceit oppose this idea. The second form of arrogance is associated with ‘the power of divinity itself,’ (p. 345). ‘This means that the deceitful individual has taken it upon him or herself to alter the very structure of reality.’ The third form (p, 346) assumes that, ‘… the deceitful act will stand on its own powerfully’, and when believed has, ‘… somehow permanently altered the form of the world.’ The fourth form of arrogance invokes a warped sense of justice. Hear it as, “I can do what I want because I have been unfairly treated” (p. 346). ‘All that line of reasoning does, however, is make life worse.’ If you misbehaved because your life was bad, then continuing to misbehave serves no good purpose.
Why would you stand idly by when you know something demands your attention? Peterson says (p. 347) there are a variety of reasons. The first is nihilism – everything is meaningless. Second, it is justifiable to take the easy path – it is someone else’s responsibility. Third, a lack of faith in yourself – because of your self-knowledge of human vulnerability. Peterson calls upon the Fall (Genesis 3:12) to explain (p. 349). ‘When called upon later to account for his behavior – for eating the forbidden fruit – Adam blames the woman. The first man’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions is associated with resentment (for his acquisition of painful knowledge), deceit (for he knows he made a free choice, regardless of his wife’s behavior), and arrogance (he dares to blame God and the woman divinity created. Adam takes the easy way out.’
Proverbs 9:10 states, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Peterson turns it this way (p. 350), ‘If you understand that deception corrupts and distorts the function of the most fundamental instinct that guides you through the difficulties of life, that prospect should scare you enough so that you remain careful in what you say and do.’ In other words, lies and deceit and arrogance will wreck your ‘meaningful instinct’, your rules for right and wrong, your dictates of conscience. Over time, if you get away with it, you will become addicted to propagating it. Therefore, confront it and stop it, now.
Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.
RULE XII Be grateful in spite of your suffering.
Peterson admits (p. 355) that for decades he has been searching for certainty. He has been looking in several places, and, as this book shows, he has defined certain universal ground rules. For example, he writes, ‘However, even though I regard the inevitability of suffering and its exaggeration by malevolence as unshakeable existential truths, I believe even more deeply that people have the ability to transcend their suffering, psychologically and practically, and to constrain their own malevolence, as well as the evils that characterize the social and natural worlds.’ In other words, though the world and its people are distinguished by sin and suffering, they have capacity to confront, and the courage and skills to ameliorate, some of its effects. This is common grace at work. Moreover, let none dismiss, or discount, the benevolent effects of Christianity in terms of theological understanding and as inspirer of positive action. Hospitals, schools, welfare, justice, healthcare, sanitation, marriage, and so on did not materialise from nowhere.
Peterson is also adamant that people are not fully armed to respond unless they have experienced something of the heavy weight of existence. Until deep loss, betrayal, hurt, disappointment, and so on have been experienced people cannot be ready to take on the challenges of malevolence internally (in their own brains and lives) and externally (in the big wide world). As he write (p. 358), ‘Thus, you look in dark places to protect yourself, in case the darkness ever appears, as well as to find the light. There is real utility in that.’
Moving on (p. 358) to Goethe and his famous play Faust – the man who sold his soul to Mephistopheles, the Devil, for knowledge. Peterson puts it as, ‘There is something in all of us that works in counterposition to our voluntarily expressed desires.’ That leads to (p. 359), ‘If you are not in control of yourself, who or what is?’ ‘And what is that who or what that is not you up to? And toward what end is it acting?’ and ‘And you are you, after all, and you should – virtually by definition – be in control of yourself.’ This is ‘deeply mysterious’. Peterson defines that part of the problem as, ‘It is not just that you are lazy: it is also that you are bad – and declared so by your own judgment.’ ‘That is a very unpleasant realization, but there is no hope of becoming good without it.’ ‘You will upbraid yourself … for your own shortcomings.’ ‘You will treat yourself as if you were or at least in part an immoral agent.’ What is this adversarial force at work within you? Peterson answers (p. 360), ‘The Christian conception of the great figure of evil – Mephistopheles, Satan, Lucifer, the devil himself – is, for example, a profound imaginative personification of that spirit. But the adversary in not merely something that exists in the imagination.’ Each of us has our own ‘intrinsic mortal limitations’, and they produce ‘… a certain self-contempt or disgust inspired by our own weaknesses and inadequacies.’ In a way we are all ‘possessed’. ‘Given all these disappointing realizations, there is no reason to assume that you are going to be satisfied or happy with yourself.’ Is this Peterson trying to explain in non-Christian terms the recognition of personal sin and the need for repentance before God? That is a big question. And the big answer is that there is a way out of such ‘self-directed antagonism’.
For the Christian, with his biblical understanding of life and death, it is no wonder that all people find life such a struggle. Peterson interestingly directs (p. 362) readers to Matthew 27:46 and Christ’s words, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” ‘This appears to imply strongly, in its narrative way, that the burden of life can become so great that even God Himself can lose faith when confronted with the unbearable reality of injustice, betrayal, suffering, and death.’ Dr Peterson, yours is a decent shot at one level, but it misses the real bull’s eye of the Cross, namely the forensic transaction of substitution and the entrance of divine forgiveness and the finalisation of personal salvation. That is far more than a parody of human bad feelings.
Peterson continues (p. 362) by looking at the antinatalists, those who regard the whole miserable frailty of human existence warrants an end, therefore they say that human reproduction should be ceased. Then, taking a more individualistic approach, he comments on the awfulness of suicide and mass killings, like those carried out at the Columbine High School in 1999. They have a common root – they are the supposed answers to a bad and mad world and its people that seemingly cannot be improved, therefore they should be terminated. In a brighter vein (p. 365), Peterson presents some insightful and practical thinking about the death of a loved one and the need for, and the function of, expressed grief. [He also returns to this key topic on p. 371]. In part, he suggests, ‘… that it is useful to consciously take on the task of being the most reliable person in the aftermath of the death, during the grief-stricken preparations for the funeral and the funeral itself, and for the care of family members during and after the catastrophe.’ I have tried that recently, and it helps, but what was of greater comfort was knowing that the deceased was a believer at rest in heaven.
According to Peterson (p. 369), ‘The temptation to become embittered is great and real. It requires a genuine moral effort not to take that path.’ However, if, ‘… you can see the structure of the world, bitterness and resentment beckon as a viable response. Then you might well ask yourself, “Well, why not walk down that dark path?”’ Peterson’s answer is ‘courage’. ‘Despite the burden of my awake mortality, I am going to work for the good of the world’ (p. 370). So, it is, ‘… onward and upward – and that is precisely the impossible moral undertaking that is demanded from each of us for the world to function properly.’ This is a good and upright proposition, but it is also loaded with questions. Such as, who has ‘demanded’? What is ‘impossible’ and what therefore is ‘possible’? What is needed is a compass and a road map – can you see the genius of Christianity with its Bible?
how to get on with your family (p. 372). ‘In any familial
gathering there is tension between the warmth you feel and the
bonding of memory and shared experience, and the sorrow
inevitably accompanying that.’
They are suffering, ageing, going awry, and so on. ‘But, the fundamental
conclusion, despite all of that, is that “It is good that we are
all together and able to share a meal, and see and talk to each
other, and to note that we are all here and facing this
celebration or difficulty together” (p. 373). ‘The same is true of
your relationship with your children.’ Children are beings of
tremendous potential, but they are also truly fragile. And that fragility
never entirely disappears from a parent’s perspective. ‘All that is part of
the joy of having them, but also part of the pain.’ And (p. 374), ‘There
is an undeniable vulnerability around children that wakes you up
and makes you very conscious of the desire to protect them, but
also of the desire to foster their autonomy and push them out in
the world, because that is how you strengthen them.’ And a word about the
elderly, ‘But it is necessary to understand that, just as in the
case of children, all those particularities, fragilities, and
limitations are part and parcel of what it is that you come to
love. So, you might
love people despite their limitations, but you also love then because of their
limitations.’ Oh, I
do hope so!
These pages have been not so much a review, more a synopsis with comments. They contain some 200 direct quotations – apologies for the tedium of the page numbers – because I wanted to let Peterson speak so that readers could hear him.
For me, Beyond Order has been a tougher, more demanding read than Peterson’s 12 Rules. At times it was a tussle. It is more vague, more psychologically-based, less grounded, less structured and in several places, just plain weird. For those reasons, I am not sure that it will command such a huge following, especially from those legions of disillusioned young men, who flocked to, and were greatly helped by 12 Rules. The latter contained crisp, comprehensible Rules like, ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’, the new Rules are more opaque, in both title and content like, ‘Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.’
Unsurprisingly, Peterson’s major themes reappear – the world is malevolent, living is a struggle, life requires meaning, confront your problems, aim high at something. And while belief in God may help some, Peterson basically leaves you on your own – after all, his books are catalogued in the self-help genre.
For many the launch of this new book raises a key question – has Jordan B. Peterson made progress in his searching for God over the three years since his 12 Rules book? Sadly, I see no convincing evidence of advance. There is no doubt that he is still enamoured by the things of God, as demonstrated by his extensive citing of Scripture. He particularly references Genesis because, like all of us, he is fascinated by beginnings and creation. But his uses of biblical themes are mostly mixed up with tales from ancient mythologies and sagas from modern Disney films – this is an unhelpful trend. I understand his desire to develop an overarching philosophy that encompasses all knowledge, but his bending of Bible narratives to fit his predetermined model is counterproductive. The 66 books of the Bible and the 7 books of Harry Potter are not equivalent, nor are Christ and Nietzsche.
Peterson has now become a major public intellectual of the twenty-first century, yet he remains a Renaissance man, happily gathering eclectic thoughts, aspiring to polymath status, but instead attaining only a cluttered set of unmoored principles and morals. Essentially, Peterson is a collector of stories, an iconoclast, who cannot bring himself to separate myth from reality, or biblical truth from artistry. For him, there is too much attractive stuff going on out there, and he wants it all, lock, stock and barrel, without much sifting. It is reminiscent of the Enlightenment’s doomed attempt at Christian virtue without embracing Christian truth – wanting the fruits without the roots. Yet curiously his stark conclusions often parallel those of the Bible – the world is bad, society is bad, individuals are bad. Therefore, to escape all this malevolence, we need a rescuer, a saviour. So, is the redeemer we desperately need to be secular or divine? Will it be me, or Christ? Peterson cannot yet bring himself to proclaim the latter.
These Bible-Peterson parallels extend far and deep. Take for example, Peterson’s statement in Rule XII (pp. 359- 360) that, ‘There is something in all of us that works in counterposition to our voluntarily expressed desires.’ ‘If you are not in control of yourself, who or what is?’ ‘And you are you, after all, and you should – virtually by definition – be in control of yourself.’ ‘It is not just that you are lazy: it is also that you are bad – and declared so by your own judgment.’ ‘That is a very unpleasant realization, but there is no hope of becoming good without it.’ ‘You will upbraid yourself … for your own shortcomings.’ ‘You will treat yourself as if you were or at least in part an immoral agent.’ ‘What is this adversarial force at work within you?’ ‘But the adversary in not merely something that exists in the imagination.’ ‘Each of us has our own “intrinsic mortal limitations”, and they produce … a certain self-contempt or disgust inspired by our own weaknesses and inadequacies.’ That diagnosis of human nature is spot on. So is this Peterson trying to explain in non-Christian terms the realisation of the horrors of personal sin and for a cure, the necessary subsequent repentance towards God? That is a big question.
Despite his trips into spheres of fantasy, Peterson still inhabits the real world – he can still be stern, even harsh. For example, if your job is strangling your ethical principles, he says, leave it. That is not comfortable advice for the sole breadwinner with three children. And, if your spouse’s habits annoy you, have the fight of negotiation, albeit it non-physically. His insistence of confronting such issues, rather than letting them moulder for decades, is tip-top tuition.
Beyond Order does contain first-class things. I think the best is to be found in Rule X. It should be compulsory reading for those who are already married and those contemplating joining that (not always happy) estate. Here Peterson makes a concerted effort to introduce and/or maintain romance within marriage, with serious practical guidance. And he does that because he believes that traditional marriage is the finest human relationship available. I was surprised and delighted by his defence and promotion of the matrimonial state. It was heartening. By the same token, Peterson competently condemns the shallowness and dangers of cohabitation.
does contain annoying things.
For instance, it is irritatingly so middle class. Of course, its author
is part of that demographic, though probably by now he is an
upper-class millionaire. Yet,
he does have that North American fixation on university
education and the classic career goals of lawyer, doctor, or
social worker. Why,
he even swanks that ‘most people have jobs, not careers’. Though he does try to
‘get down with the kids’ by describing his semidetached house as
Like legions of others, who have viewed Peterson’s YouTube videos over 200 million times, I have been entertained, educated and enchanted. I like him. He is affable, charismatic and opinionated. But now he is almost a broken man. He is a shadow of his former ebullient self. His health is poor, his daily routine, long and slow. He tears up easily. And he now admits that, ‘I'm the most confused person I've ever met.’ Yet interestingly, I was pleased to hear, on a recent (March 2021) YouTube video that he is terrified that God might exist and therefore Christianity is true, because it will make huge demands upon his life. That resonates with the picture from Luke 14:28 of counting the cost of Christian discipleship before signing up. Moreover, while he still appears to be the devout disciple of all things Jungian, Beyond Order contains less references to the Swiss psychoanalyst than to Jesus Christ. Am I clutching at straws? And there again he regularly misuses the name of God, if not exactly in vain, then with a certain lack of due respect. Is this not indicative of a state of mind that is neither reverent nor fearful? Peterson’s head and heart condition remains an unknown.
So what are the minimum requirements of belief to be labelled a Christian? Not a lot. ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10:13), or ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31), or ‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved’ (Romans 10:9-10). Come on, Jordan.