Book Review: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As part of my New Year’s Resolution to think more, or I should say, to think more for myself, as should have been everyone’s resolution, I decided to read Dr. Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
The title of the book sounds a little like any other self-help book you’ve never bothered to read, but it’s really tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t Your Best Life Now or How to Win Friends and Influence People. It could easily have been titled Life Is Suffering: How to Deal with It. Which is really the founding idea in the book, that suffering is built into the very structure of being itself and although life can be unbearable, people do have a choice either to withdraw from it, which is a "suicidal gesture” or to face and transcend it.
Millennials are often lambasted for being entitled or that they expect life to be rosy and uncomplicated. However, many of us have by now figured out that it’s not. We have college debt. We’re living at home. We can’t find a job. We’re lonely. Life seems pretty terrible. Peterson’s response? “It is. Here are 12 Rules to help make it better.” Which is also, I think, why Peterson appeals to so many people, especially young people. Rather than sugarcoating life, Peterson acts more like a forthright father telling it to us straight.
The book, if you haven’t already picked this up from the title, is divided into twelve chapters with each title representing a specific rule for life explained in a corresponding essay. Drawing from the ideas of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who’s work posited a species-wide collective unconscious populated by “archetypes” which are essentially deeply rooted characters and symbolic motifs that reappear in art, dreams, myths, and religions. Peterson manages to merge these ideas with modern evolutionary science to argue that mythological and religious stories have evolved over thousands of years to express, in a dramatic form, fundamental truths about what it means to be human. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilization began. Peterson’s approach to these ideas goes deeper than rationality, by a large margin, and his ideas reflect a reality that's deeper than that in which we have been able to apprehend rationally thus far. However, the book itself is really just a more popularized version of Peterson's denser, more academic lifework Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which failed to create much of a ripple upon release. With this book however, Peterson makes his ideas more accessible, using the stories upon which Western Civilization is built to help educate readers who may not be very well-versed in classical thinking.
My only criticism of the book is that it is perhaps a bit overwritten, not only stylistically, but thematically. What’s most valuable in the book could have easily of been condensed into shorter essays or perhaps even a series of bullet points, however I don’t really see this as a problem and the book itself is still incredibly readable. Petersons tone remains pragmatic throughout the book and most of his critics will be surprised I think to find that much of the advice that he offers is quite unobjectionable if they would only take the time to engage with the book in a serious way.
Critic Danyl Mclauchlan, who in a review for The Spinoff, wrote, “I think Peterson is mostly a crackpot. If the serial killer from Se7en wrote a self-improvement book for wayward teens and new parents it’d be pretty close to 12 Rules for Life.” How anyone could claim to be a serious person and still write something like this is beyond imagination. Not only is this attitude incorrect and ridiculous, it’s also a sign that the reviewer himself is embarrassingly unsophisticated.
Pop culture and media critic, John Semley, has written of Peterson that he, “seeks to justify existing structures of social dominance by deferring to the hard-wiring of ancient crustaceans.” Yet Peterson’s point in the book is simply, and inarguably true. Nonhuman primates have hierarchies, birds have hierarchies, revolutionary egalitarian societies have hierarchies; hierarchy isn’t going away. The real political questions are, which hierarchies are legitimate and fair? Which ones incentivize good conduct and allow individuals and societies to flourish? Which ones minimize suffering? It’s an almost banal point that can nonetheless provoke violent reactions.
Caitlin Flanagan, in addressing some of the criticisms directed at Peterson, in a piece for The Atlantic, wrote, “The alarms sounded when Peterson published what quickly became a massive bestseller, 12 Rules for Life, because books are something that the left recognizes as drivers of culture. The book became the occasion for vicious profiles and editorials, but it was difficult to attack the work on ideological grounds, because it was an apolitical self-help book that was at once more literary and more helpful than most, and that was moreover a commercial success. All of this frustrated the critics. It’s just common sense! they would say, in one arch way or another, and that in itself was telling: Why were they so angry about common sense? It is because the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable. The left is afraid not of Peterson, but of the ideas he promotes, which are completely inconsistent with identity politics of any kind.”
Whatever else you might think of Jordan Peterson, he is without question, a man of remarkable learning and experience and despite the heavy, and often times unfavorable, criticism directed at Peterson, he has still managed to become an undeniable intellectual phenomenon, with his 12 Rules for Life serving as a sort of canary in the proverbial academic coal mine. By which of course I mean that there are clear indications that the progressive/postmodern academic left has taken identity politics to irrational extremes and the reaction to Peterson, and his book, provides a very useful way to understand the cultural-identity political split that we find ourselves in.