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Review: 12 Rules for Life (Part 3)

Author ,
Category Book Reviews
Date July 13, 2018

This article is the third and final part of an extensive review of Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It is not an endorsement of the book. The first part can be found here and the second here.

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RULE 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).

This is the second longest chapter, all 41 pages and to be honest it’s a bit tedious/repetitive/befogging in places. It opens with one of Peterson’s familiar insights, ‘Life is suffering. That is clear. It’s basically what God tells Adam and Eve, immediately before he kicks them out of Paradise’ (Genesis 3:16-19). ‘What in the world should be done about that? The simplest, most obvious, and direct answer? Pursue pleasure. Follow your impulses. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient. Lie, cheat steal, deceive, manipulate – but don’t get caught.’ ‘Or is there an alternative, more powerful and more compelling?’ There is, and Peterson explains it slowly and circuitously – well, he is an academic. Part of his answer is ‘sacrifice’. And he comes to this conclusion via a route with an unexpected start. He starts with Cain and Abel and develops through the Abrahamic adventures and the Exodus. ‘After much contemplation, struggling humanity learns that God’s favour could be gained, and his wrath averted, through proper sacrifice.’

His summation is this: ‘Our forefathers began to act out a proposition: That something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present.’ In short, death (the future) might be staved off through work (the present). And: ‘There is little difference between sacrifice and work. They are also both uniquely human.’ ‘The discovery of the causal relationship between our efforts today and the quality of tomorrow motivated the social contract.’ It’s the usefulness of delay, the gratification of delay – behaving properly now could bring rewards in the future.

Abel was rewarded, many times over, but Cain is not. Not all sacrifices are of equal quality. Why isn’t God happy? What would have to change to make Him so? Those are difficult questions – and everyone asks them, all the time, even if they don’t notice. Asking such questions is indistinguishable from thinking.

The social contract is about sharing and sharing is about trading – if I share my surplus mammoth now, I might be traded something in the future. ‘A child who can’t share – who can’t trade – can’t have any friends. It is better to have something than nothing. It’s even better . . . to become widely known for [being] reliable, honest and generous. The productive, truthful sharer is the prototype for the good citizen, and the good man.’ ‘The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain for the future.’ In other words, ‘The successful sacrifice.’ Peterson notes that God, ‘. . . demands not only sacrifice, but the sacrifice of precisely what is loved best.’ He illustrates this with the Abraham and Isaac account with the follow-up that ‘Sometimes things do not go well.’ If that is your lot, then maybe it’s not the world that’s the cause – it may be you and your current faulty presuppositions. Get rid of them, he urges – ‘It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.’ That does sound a little like psychobabble, but there is a kernel of truth there.

‘Something valuable, sacrificed, pleases the Lord. What constitutes the ultimate sacrifice – for the gain of the ultimate prize?’ Peterson considers Michelangelo’s great sculpture, the Pietà. For Mary, bearing the Christ-child is ‘an act of supreme courage.’ But for Christ, the crucifixion is ‘. . . the man who give his all for the sake of the better.’ As the Son sacrifices himself, so the Father simultaneously sacrifices his son. Peterson states, ‘It’s a story at the limit, where nothing more extreme – nothing greater – can be imagined.’ Any man who will sacrifice ‘. . . will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world.’ Peterson’s drift is somewhat veiled at this juncture – I like his bold analogies, but am fearful that they are just religious words, even Roman Catholic words. Then on the very same page, as if en passant, Peterson lauds Socrates, his internal spirit and his rejection of expediency while noting, ‘Then he took his poison, like a man.’ It’s confusing and I’m confused.

Peterson returns to his theme of suffering, which, as opposed to sacrifice ‘. . . motivates the desire for selfish, immediate gratification – for expediency’, which leads to the problem of evil. So it’s prudently back to Adam and Eve and the realities of the post-Paradisal world – it’s characterised by hard work, vulnerability, disease and death. And there is the knowledge of Good and Evil. What’s all that about? Peterson reckons that once you become consciously aware of yourself, your vulnerability, your fear, anger, resent, bitterness and pain ‘you understand how to produce them in others.‘ Look and learn from Cain and Abel – in his existential fury, Cain kills.’ It’s horrific. Peterson regards it as ‘ . . . the archetypal tale of the hostile brothers, hero and adversary: the two element of the individual human psyche, one aimed up, at the Good, and the other, down at Hell itself.’ ‘Abel could please God . . . but he could not overcome human evil.’ Similarly, Christ and his temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:1) – but this time the hero wins. ‘It means’, according to Peterson, ‘that Christ is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity.’

Moving on, Peterson is not blind to the problems, even failures of Christianity. He approves of Carl Jung’s assessment that Christianity with its ‘. . . emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now.’ The idea of investigating the material, as opposed to the spiritual, world wandered through ‘the strange musings of alchemy’ until ‘the fully articulated form of science’ was developed and driven by a Christian worldview. Christianity was revolutionary – salvation by faith alone put all men – ‘slave and master ad commoner and nobleman alike’ – on an equal footing, ‘rendering them equal before God and the law.’ This became ‘. . . the fundamental presupposition of Western law and society.’ ‘Christianity made explicit the surprising claim that even the lowliest person had rights, genuine rights.’ ‘It objected to infanticide, to prostitution, and to the principle that might means right. It insisted that women were as valuable as men. It demanded that even a society’s enemies be regarded as human. Finally, it separated church from state. All of this was asking the impossible: but it happened.’ But other problems emerged.

Peterson lets Nietzsche distinguished them. For example, Christianity’s ‘ . . . sense of truth . . . came to question and then to undermine the fundamental presuppositions of the faith.’ In other words, modern atheists, who seek to belittle Bible believers, are arguing by using their sense of truth which Christianity developed over the preceding centuries. And Nietzsche held that the true moral burden of Christianity was removed from its followers by Christ’s sacrifice. Thus, he complained that earthly life was devalued – only the hereafter mattered. And because salvation could not be earned by effort, Christianity accepted the status quo. And because Christ had done all the important work, the moral burden was lifted from Christians. Peterson illustrates these issues with the devastating theme from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Though Nietzsche pilloried the Christian church, ‘Dostoevsky saw that the great, corrupt edifice of Christianity still managed to make room for the spirit of its Founder.’ And that requires Christian dogma. And for those who shout that both God and dogma are dead, Peterson warns that there ‘. . . is something even more dead; . . . nihilism.’ And in the aftermath of God’s death? ‘. . . the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism.’

Three hundred years before Nietzsche, the great French philosopher, René Descartes, was searching for a foundational foundation, ‘a single proposition impervious to his scepticism.’ He found it in his famous dictum, cognito ergo sum – I think therefore I am. ‘That which is aware and thinks. That’s the modern self, simply put.’ But what exactly is that self?’, Peterson asks. He sees it firstly in its horrors – such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and the Soviet gulags. But also in its goodness – following Karl Popper, Peterson comes up with – ‘We can produce an idea.’ ‘Now, an idea is not the same as a fact. A fact is something that is dead, in and of itself. There are billions of dead facts. The internet is a graveyard of dead facts. But an idea that grips a person in alive. An idea has an aim. It wants something. It posits a value structure.’ Peterson aligns himself with Descartes thus,

I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth . . . I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking. Socialism proved equally insubstantial. I was tormented by the fact of the Cold War. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with scepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape its reality. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard . . . or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. The good is whatever stops such things [evil, torment and so on] from happening.

From this pilgrimage of his mind Peterson drew his ‘fundamental moral conclusions.’

Aim high. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility. Become aware of your own insufficiency. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell.

‘Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.’ This, according to Peterson, puts a set of presuppositions and actions at the pinnacle of his moral hierarchy. ‘Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. To place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.’

How do we construct a moral hierarchy? For Jung, ‘It was what a person believed most deeply. Something enacted . . . it’s a personality – or, more precisely a choice between two opposing personalities. It’s Cain or Abel – and it’s Christ or Satan. If it’s working . . . for the establishment Paradise, then it’s Christ. That’s the inescapable, archetypal reality.’ ‘Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated. It will provide the antidote to chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better. If you act properly . . . everything will come together. This produces maximal meaning. Meaning trumps expedience. You may come to ask yourself, “What should I do today? . . . to make things better, instead of worse?”‘

Expedience – that’s hiding all the skeletons in the closet. That’s avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong. There is no faith and no courage and no sacrifice in doing what is expedient. To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want. What is expedient works only for a moment. Meaning is the ultimate balance between, on the one hand, the chaos of transformation and possibility and on the other, the discipline of pristine order. Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking the Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that.

Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient.’

RULE 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.

Do you tell the truth? Always? Are you sure? As a student Peterson began to pay close attention to what he was doing and saying. And to his astonishment, ‘I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things: I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. But I was a fake. Realizing this . . . I started to practise telling the truth – or, at least, not lying.’ How easily we can ‘act politically’ or ‘spin’. ‘It’s what everyone does when they want something, and decide to falsify themselves to please and flatter.’ We use what are known as ‘life-lies’ to manipulate reality with perception, thought and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist. ‘Pride falls in love with its own creations, and tries to make them absolute.’ This is typical of ideologues. And there are those who live a life of avoidance, pretending everything is going well, avoiding conflict, smiling and always obliging. ‘She has become nothing but a slave, a tool for others to exploit.’ She never speaks her mind, she finds a niche and hides in it. ‘Someone hiding is not someone vital. Vitality requires original contribution.’ ‘If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. This means that a lot of you is still nascent. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not . . . you remain incomplete.’ Peterson has a point, but such a severe appraisal is bound to ruffle some feathers of evangelical Christians with their ethos of sacrificing, servicing and sharing.

If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. Only the most cynical, hopeless philosophy insists that reality could be improved by falsification. It denounces truth as insufficient and the honest man as deluded. It is instead wilful blindness. It’s the worst sort of lie. It’s subtle. Wilful blindness is the refusal to know something that could be known. It’s refusal to admit to error while pursuing the plan.

Peterson’s wish is for the blind plan to fail, then you try something new, you move ahead. ‘You remember the old joke: insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.’ And, as ever, his suggestion is ‘. . . to begin with small changes, and see if they help. Sometimes, however, . . . the entire edifice has to be abandoned. Error necessitates sacrifice to correct it. To accept the truth means to sacrifice.’ This is what Søren Kierkegaard and others call being “inauthentic”. “Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity.’

‘When the individual lies, he knows it.’ And if you don’t object and correct him the first time, then the ground is prepared for more and more lies. ‘You’ve already trained yourself to allow such things, by failing to react the first time. You’re a little less courageous.’ Consider ‘. . . the almost universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his own-day-today personal experience, deny his own state-induced suffering.’ Did it matter? It led to Stalin and the gulags. ‘Untruth corrupts the soul and the state alike, and one form of corruption feeds the other.’ ‘Any natural weakness or existential challenge, no matter how minor, can be magnified into a serious crisis with enough deceit in the individual, family or culture.’ But, ‘With love, encouragement, and character intact, a human being can be resilient beyond imagining. What cannot be borne, however, is the absolute ruin produced by tragedy and deception.’ ‘To say it again: it is the greatest temptation of the rational faculty to glorify its own capacity . . . and to claim . . . that nothing transcendent or outside its domain need exist.’ ‘That is what totalitarian means: Everything that needs to be discovered has been discovered.’ Witness the lies and disasters created by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest.

Peterson asks, ‘What happens if, instead, we decide to stop lying?’ First, he says we need an aim, an ambition which provides a structure necessary for action. ‘Some reliance on tradition can help us establish our aims. It is reasonable to do what other people have always done.’ For example,

It is reasonable to become educated and work and find love and have a family. That is how culture maintains itself. But . . . aim at your target . . . with your eyes wide open. You have a direction, but it might be wrong. You have a plan, but it might be ill-informed. It is your responsibility to see what is before your eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even if it seems horrible. Set your ambitions. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. And, while you are doing this, do not lie. Especially to yourself. All people serve their ambition. In that matter there are no atheists. There are only people who know, and don’t know, what God they serve.

Lies corrupt the world. Worse, that is their intent. First, a little lie; then, several little lies to prop it up. After that, distorted thinking to avoid the shame that those lies produce. If you don’t believe in brick walls, you will still be injured when you run headlong into one. That’s things falling apart. But it’s not yet Hell. Hell comes later. Hell comes when lies have destroyed the relationship between individual or state and reality itself. Things fall apart. Life degenerates. The deceitful individual desperately gestures at sacrifice, like Cain, but fails to please God. Then the drama enters its final act. Tortured by constant failure, the individual becomes bitter. I need, I deserve, I must have – my revenge. That’s the gateway to Hell.

At the beginning of time . . . the Word of God transformed chaos into Being through the act of speech. It is axiomatic . . . that man and woman alike are made in the image of that God. We also transform chaos into Being, through speech. Truth builds edifices that can stand for a thousand year. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness. See the truth. Tell the truth. If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.

‘Tell the truth. Or, at least, don’t lie.’

RULE 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

This chapter majors on the purposes and benefits of conversation, both real and sham, primarily from a clinical psychological perspective, but helpfully, not always. It begins, ‘Psychotherapy is not advice. Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with . . . wishes you would just shut up and go away. Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen.’

Peterson gives some specific, both sad and amusing, examples from his clinical work. He is convinced that ‘any orderly system of interpretation’, be it Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Rogerian or behavioural principles, will work because many people’s lives are so confused. ‘At least then you might be good for something, if not good yet for everything. You can’t fix a car with an axe, but you can cut down a tree.’ And Peterson provides cautions about raking over the past. ‘The past appears fixed, but it is not – not in an important psychological sense. When you remember the past . . . you remember some parts of it and forget others. You don’t form a comprehensive, objective record. You can’t. You just don’t know enough. You’re not objective, either. You’re alive. You’re subjective.’ ‘Memory is not a description of the objective past. Memory is a tool. Memory is the past’s guide to the future.’

The people I [Peterson] listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think. People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare – just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people [Peterson envisions them as avatars] at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicial listener, at the same time. What are you to do, then, if you aren’t very good at thinking, at being two people at one time? That’s easy. You talk. But you need someone to listen. A listening person is your collaborator and your opponent.

This sounds like a puff for the psychology profession!

‘A listening person can reflect the crowd . . . the crowd is by no means always right, but it’s commonly right.’ Freud recommended his patients listen to themselves while lying on his couch looking at the ceiling. It was his method of free association. He wanted to avoid interfering with their free expression. Moreover, ‘Freud insisted that psychoanalysts be analysed themselves. Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him.’ Moving on to ‘Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote, “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous.”‘ He suggested that the listener frequently summarizes what he has heard – to understand the speaker, to consolidate the memory and to avoid straw-man arguments. ‘If you listen . . . people will generally tell you everything they are thinking. Very few of your conversations will be boring. If the conversation is boring, you probably aren’t listening.’

‘Not all talking is thinking. Nor does all listening foster transformation. There are other motives for both.’ Peterson sets out seven types of good and bad encounters. First, the speaker is seeking to establish hierarchical dominance. Second, neither speaker is listening to the other. Third, one is trying to attain victory for his point of view. Fourth, one person has the floor and everyone else listens. ‘. . . people organize their brains with conversation.’ Peterson maintains that, ‘We outsource the problem of our sanity‘, meaning that we use others to keep our complex selves functional. This is why it is the fundamental responsibility of parents to render their children socially acceptable.’ Fifth, there is the lecture. ‘A lecture is – somewhat surprisingly – a conversation. The lecturer speaks, but the audience communicates with him or her non-verbally. A good lecturer is thus talking with and not at or even to his or her listeners.’ Sixth, there can be conversations that are demonstrations of joshing and wit, usually among close friends. Seventh, there can be mutual exploration – all the participants are organizing their thoughts and trying to solve a problem. ‘This kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the highest form of thought, and the best preparation for proper living.’ Most conversations attempt to buttress some existing order and preconceptions – mutual exploration works best when the unknown and chaos become friends, albeit temporarily.

‘So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.’ OK, dear reader, please don’t assume that I agree with Peterson at all points, but he makes me think (at least, I think that’s what I’m doing, but who can be sure anymore?).

RULE 10: Be precise in your speech.

We assume that we see objects or things when we look at the world, but that’s not really how it is. Our evolved perceptual systems transform the interconnected, complex multi-level world that we inhabit not so much into things per se as into useful things. This is the necessary, practical reduction of the world. This is how precision makes the world sensibly manifest.

We see tools and obstacles, not objects or things. The world reveals itself to us as something to utilize and something to navigate through – not as something that merely is. We see the faces of the people we are talking to. We don’t see their microcosmic substructures, their cells . . . We don’t see, as well, the macrocosm that surrounds them: the family members and friends . . . We don’t see them across time. And we have to see in this way, or be overwhelmed. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim. Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.

‘This is true even for the perceptions of ourselves. We assume that we end at the surface of our skin. Even when we do something as apparently simple as picking up a screwdriver, our brain automatically adjusts what it considers body to include the tool.’ What we are holding is now ‘our’ screwdriver – it is an extension of self. The extensible boundaries of our selves also expand to include other people – family members, lovers and friends. Engrossed in a fictional world [such as watching a TV drama on a screen] we can even become things that don’t “really” exist.’ This also applies to a whole group of, for example, football fans who can rise up and cheer in an unscripted unison when the winning goal is scored. ‘Our capacity for identification is something that manifests itself at every level of our Being.’

‘It is very difficult to make sense of the interconnected chaos of reality, just by looking at it.’ We perceive a car not as a thing or an object but as something that takes us from A to B. We only consider it more deeply when it breaks down. Then ‘. . . our peace of mind disappears along with our functioning vehicle.’ We then resort to a skilled mechanic to restore both our mind and our car. Breakdowns of all sorts show ‘. . . the staggeringly low-resolution quality of our vision and the inadequacy of our corresponding understanding.’ ‘When things breakdown, what has been ignored rushes in . . . the walls crumble and chaos makes its presence known. It is then that we see what focused intent, precision of aim and careful attention protects us from.’ Peterson moves on to examine the example of an adulterous husband.

Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity. She saw him as she assumes he is: reliable, hard-working, loving, dependable. Her theory of her husband collapses. Her theory of herself collapses, too. The past is not necessarily what it was, even though it has already been. The present is chaotic and indeterminate. We perceive a very narrow slice of a causally interconnected matrix. Where can we look, when it is precisely what we see that has been insufficient?

‘It’s chaos that we see, when things fall apart. And so, the deceived wife . . . feels the motivation to reveal all – or retreats into silence. She is by turns enraged, terrified, struck down by pain, and exhilarated by the possibilities of her new-found freedom. Where is she? In the underworld, with all its terrors. How did she get there? Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug. Everybody whistles in the dark, instead. Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.’ Maybe the couple took the ‘. . . lazy and cowardly way: “It’s OK. It’s not worth fighting about.” There is little in a marriage that is not worth fighting about. You’re stuck in a marriage like the two proverbial cats in a barrel, bound by the oath that lasts in theory until one or both of you die. That oath is there to make you take the damn situation seriously.’ ‘And maybe the fault is with you, and you should grow up, get yourself together and keep quiet. Sorting that out is worth a fight, isn’t it? Living things die, after all, without attention. Maybe respect slowly turned into contempt, and no one deigned to notice. Maybe love turned into hate, without mention. What can possibly compare to the pleasures of sophisticated and well-practised martyrdom? Don’t confront the chaos and turn it into order – just wait for the chaos to rise up and engulf your instead.’

But not thinking about something you don’t want to know about doesn’t make it go away. Isn’t it better under such circumstances to live in wilful blindness and enjoy the bliss of ignorance? Do you truly think it wise to let the catastrophe grow in the shadows, while you shrink and decrease and become ever more afraid? Maybe you’ll get hurt. Probably you’ll get hurt. Life, after all, is suffering. Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because while you are failing to define success you are also refusing to define failure, to yourself, so that if and when you fail you won’t notice. Some earlier care and courage and honesty in expression might have saved her from all this trouble. How might she then have served herself, her family, and the world? Maybe her house would have been founded more on rock and less on sand. When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. It is very difficult to put such things in order – but damaged machinery will continue to malfunction if its problems are neither diagnosed nor fixed.

Precision specifies. When something terrible happens, it is precision that separates the unique terrible thing that has actually happened from all the other, equally terrible things that might have happened – but did not. If you refuse to tell your doctor about your pain then what you have is unspecified: it could be any of those diseases. But if you talk to your doctor, all those terrible diseases will collapse, with luck, into one terrible (or not so terrible) disease, or even into nothing. But even what is terrible in actuality often pales in significance compared to what is terrible in imagination. If the gap between pretence and reality goes unmentioned, it will widen. Ignored reality manifests itself in an abyss of confusion and suffering.

‘You have to consciously define the topic of conversation, particularly when it is difficult – or it becomes about everything, and everything is too much. This is so frequently why couples cease communicating. But to do that, you have to think: What is wrong, exactly? What do I want, exactly? You must use honest precise speech to do that. Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. How could it be otherwise?’ ‘Be precise in your speech.’

RULE 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

The longest chapter (48 pages) in the book, but a pretty easy read focussing on boys and girls, men and women with several anecdotes about his pal Chris and some of his clinical clients. The skateboarding reference in the title raises the issue of risk –

Kids need playgrounds dangerous enough to remain challenging. People, including children don’t seek to minimize risk. They seek to optimize it. We prefer to live on the edge. We’re hard-wired, for that reason to enjoy risk. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes an appearance, as it inevitably will.

Peterson is a critic of those, such as Rachael Carson, of Silent Spring fame, and the other eco-doomsters. Look, he says,

. . . it’s only a few decades ago that the majority of human beings were starving, diseased and illiterate. Wealthy as we are we still only live decades that can be counted on our fingers. It is the rare and fortunate family that does not contain at least one member with a serious illness. We do what we can to make the best of things, in our vulnerability and fragility, and the planet is harder on us that we are on it. We could cut ourselves some slack. Human beings are, after all, seriously remarkable creatures. We have no peers, and it’s not clear that we have any real limits. Why, then, is it virtuous to propose that the planet might be better off, if there were fewer people on it?

There is, according to Peterson, a lot of self-appointed judges our there as well as a lot of resentment. They run from the ghastly Columbine High School killers through to the seemingly benign David Attenborough and the Club of Rome. They regard themselves as heroes – ‘veritable planetary saviours’.

Nowadays, it’s politically correct to regard boys and girls as equal and merely subject to a social construct called gender. Peterson is having nothing of this deconstructionist mumbo-jumbo. ‘Boys are suffering, in the modern world. They are more disobedient – negatively – or more independent – positively – than girls, and they suffer for this. They are less agreeable and less susceptible to anxiety and depression. Boys’ interests tilt towards things; girls’ interests tilt towards people.’ There are ‘. . . those who insist, ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct. It isn’t. This isn’t a debate. The data are in.’ Ooh, Professor Peterson, you are so vehement! And he hasn’t finished yet. ‘Boys like competition, and they don’t like to obey, particularly when they are adolescents. Girls will, for example, play boys’ games, but boys are much more reluctant to play girls’ games. Girls can win by winning in their own hierarchy. They can add to this victory by winning in the boys’ hierarchy. Boys, however, can only win in the male hierarchy. They will lose status, among girls and boys, by being good at what girls value.’ Then Peterson jumps to this interesting question: ‘Are the universities – particularly the humanities – about to become a girls’ game? ‘Almost 80 percent of students majoring . . . [in the humanities] are female. At this rate there will be very few men in most university disciplines in fifteen years. This is not good news for men. But it’s also not good news for women.’

The women at female-dominated institutes of higher education are finding it increasingly difficult to arrange a dating relationship. A stable, loving relationship is highly desirable, for men as well as women. For women, however, it is often what is most wanted. Who decided, anyway, that career is more important than love and family? And if it is worth it, why is it worth it? The increasingly short supply of university-educated men poses a problem of increasing severity for women who want to marry, as well as date. First, women have a strong proclivity to marry across or up the economic dominance hierarchy. They prefer a partner of equal or greater status. The same does not hold, by the way, for men, who are perfectly willing to marry across or down. Why do women want an employed partner and, preferably, one of higher status? In no small part, it’s because women become more vulnerable when they have children. Why would a woman who decides to take responsibility for one or more infants want an adult to look after as well? So, the unemployed working man is an undesirable specimen. The strong turn towards political correctness in universities has exacerbated the problem. There are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men. These are the areas of study, dominated by the postmodern/neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women.

Of course, culture is an oppressive structure. It’s always been that way. It’s a fundamental, universal existential reality. The tyrannical king is a symbolic truth. But it offers great gain, too. Every word we speak is a gift from our ancestors. Culture takes with one hand, but in some fortunate places it gives more with the other. To think about culture only as oppressive is ignorant and ungrateful, as well as dangerous. Consider this: any hierarchy creates winners and losers. It is also perverse to consider culture the creation of men. Culture is symbolically, archetypically, mythically male. That’s partly why the idea of “the patriarchy” is so easily swallowed. Here’s an alternative theory: throughout history, men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity. Women . . . had the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength . . . menstruation, unwanted pregnancy, childbirth and too many young children. At least such things should be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism.

Peterson draws attention to Arunachalam Muruganantham, James Young Simpson, Dr Earle Cleveland Haas and Gregory Pincus and asks pertinently, ‘In what manner were these practical, enlightened, persistent men part of a constricting patriarchy?’ Contrast these with, for example, the influences of the Marxist humanists such as Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida and Khieu Samphan – and what do you get? In the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, tens of millions of people killed, hundreds of millions oppressed. The story of the kulaks, the Soviet Union’s richest peasants, is a salutary tale. To the communist mind their wealth signified oppression and their private property was theft. It was time for some equity. The kulaks were “the enemy of the people”. Thirty thousand were shot on the spot. Other were beaten, raped and forced to dig their own graves. The rest were exiled to Siberia. Yet Western intellectuals remained steadfastly enamoured with communism. ‘In Derrida’s view, hierarchies exist because they gain from oppressing those who are omitted. It is this ill-gotten gain that allows them to flourish. It is almost impossible to over-estimate the nihilistic and destructive nature of this philosophy.’ For Derrida and his acolytes, human activities are games, driven, not so much the old communist idea of wealth, but of power.

‘The fact that power plays a role in human motivation it does not mean that it plays the only role, or even the primary role.’ ‘In societies that are well-functioning, competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status. Competence. Ability. Skill. Not power. Furthermore, the most valid personality trait predictors of long-term success in Western countries are intelligence and conscientiousness.’ Yet Peterson points out, ‘The insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence that all gender differences are socially constructed, for example, becomes all too understandable when its moral imperative is grasped – when its justification for force is once and for all understood: Society must be altered, or bias eliminated, until all outcomes are equitable.’ But all outcomes cannot be equalized. First, they must be measured. “Equal pay for equal work” is a neat slogan but who decides what work is equal? The practicalities of such an exercise are impracticable. Or, what about disabilities? ‘Every person is unique – and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that viability. Period.’

A tenet of social constructionist theory is that boys should be socialised like girls. Its proponents assume that aggression is a learned behaviour and so should simply not be taught. Moreover, ‘boys . . . should be encouraged to develop feminine socially positive qualities, such as tenderness . . . cooperation and aesthetic appreciation. First, it is not the case that aggression is merely learned. Aggression is there at the beginning. Aggression is innate.’ Moreover many women (and some men) have trouble at work and at home because they are not aggressive enough. ‘They tend to treat those around them as if they were distressed children. They tend to be naïve. They continually sacrifice for others. This may sound virtuous . . . but it can and often does become counterproductively one-sided.’ They tend not to stand up for themselves, they expect reciprocity and when this is not forthcoming, they can become resentful. ‘There are only two major reasons for resentment: being taken advantage of, or whiny refusal to adopt responsibility and grow up. If you are resentful, look for the reasons. Perhaps someone is taking advantage of you. This means that you now face a moral obligation to speak up for yourself.’ Muster at least three examples of their misbehaviour and charitably face your wife, boss, child, or whoever. Hurt and pain may be the immediate outcomes. ‘If you remain unmoved [by their counterarguments], they get angry, or cry, or run away.’ Peterson advises, ‘It’s very useful to attend to tears in such situations. But tears are often shed in anger. A red face is a good cue. Make your request as small and reasonable as possible. In that manner, you come to the discussion with a solution, instead of just a problem.’

This leads to a fascinating section, which commences, ‘It would be lovely if the opposite of a criminal was a saint – but it is not the case. The opposite of a criminal is an Oedipal mother, which is its own type of criminal. The Oedipal mother says to her child, “I live only for you.” She does everything for her children. She ties their shoes, and cuts up their food. The deal is this: “Above all, never leave me.” Peterson then expands this thesis with reference to Hansel and Gretel and The Terrible Mother, the work of Johann Jakob Bachofen, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and several more. We get the picture, Jordan. ‘For a woman to be complete, such stories claim, she must form a relationship with masculine consciousness and stand up to the terrible world (which sometimes manifests itself, primarily, in the form of her too-present mother.’ The take-home message? Foster independence in your children.

Men have to toughen up. Men demand it, and women want it. Men toughen up by pushing themselves, and by pushing each other. If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men. They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they are smart, they want someone smarter. This often makes it hard for tough, smart, attractive women to find mates.’ Therefore anything that hinders boys from risking becoming men is a hindrance to both men and women. And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.

‘Leave children alone when they are skateboarding.’

RULE 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Like several of the chapters this one starts with a diversion – about dogs, or rather Peterson’s dog, Sikko, an American Eskimo. This is his ruse to illustrate a phenomenon known as “minimal group identification” discovered by a social psychologist named Henri Tajfel. He showed that people displayed a marked preference for their own group members. Apparently this ‘ . . . demonstrated two things: first, that people are social; second, that people are antisocial.’ Well, big deal! This reinforces my view (prejudice) about the calibre of much of social science research. Anyway, Peterson reckoned that including ‘cat’ in the title would turn off the doggie people, so he started with canines to win them over – what a creep!

After that little jollity, Peterson returns to one of his recurrent themes, ‘The idea that life is suffering is a tenet . . . of every major religious doctrine . . . because human beings are intrinsically fragile. We can be damaged, even broken, emotionally and physically.’ He recounts a conversation with one of his clients whose husband recently had bad, bad cancer news. They discussed the ‘the whys and wherefores of human vulnerability.’ He starts with Julian, his son, who, when he was about three and naturally fragile, was subject to high fevers and delirium. And then his older daughter, Mikhaila, who at about two years old complained of leg pain. At six, this previously sunny girl became mopey and tearful. ‘The physio told us, “Your daughter has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.” What sort of God would make a world where such a thing could happen, at all? – much less to an innocent and happy little girl?’ ‘It’s an issue addressed in The Brothers Karamazov, the great novel by Dostoevsky.’ Ivan and Alyosha are brothers. The former says, “It’s not God I don’t accept. I do not accept the world that He created.” Then Ivan tells a story of some wicked parents who mistreat their daughter terribly. ‘Alyosha: “If you were somehow promised that the world could finally have complete and total peace – but only on the condition that you tortured one little child to death – say, that girl who was freezing in the outhouse . . . would you do it?” Alyosha demurs. “No, I would not,” he says, softly.”‘ Peterson comments, ‘He would not do what God seems to freely allow.’ This gets Peterson thinking again about his fragile Julian, ‘I came to realize through such thoughts that what can be truly loved about a person is inseparable from their limitations. Julian wouldn’t have been little and cute and lovable if he wasn’t also prone to illness, and loss, and pain, and anxiety. Since I loved him a lot, I decided that he was all right the way he was, despite his fragility.’

‘Limitation’ is Peterson’s answer to the universal question, ‘Why me?””If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being. Peterson admits that this is not a perfect, all-embracing answer, ‘But there is something to be said for recognizing that existence and limitation are inextricably linked.’ How are we to cope? Peterson responds, ‘And I also don’t think it is possible to answer the question by thinking. Thinking leads inexorably to the abyss. Something supersedes thinking. In such situations – in the depths – it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations. Of course it’s complicated.’

Mikhail’s story becomes more tragic. Hip and leg bone deterioration plus numerous inappropriate drugs, misdiagnoses and poor advice caused her, and her family, grief and pain.

During much of this period, we were overwhelmed. So how do you manage? Here are some things we learned: Set aside some time to talk and to think about the illness. Do not talk or think about it otherwise. Conserve your strength. Shift the unit of time you use to frame your life. When the sun is shining . . . you make your plans for the next month, and the next year, and the next five years. “Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof” – that is Matthew 6:34. Christ enjoins His followers to place faith in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, and the truth. That’s a conscious decision to presume the primary goodness of Being. That’s an act of courage. Aim high. Be careful. Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better. People are very tough. People can survive through much pain and loss. But to persevere they must see the good in Being. If they lose that, they are truly lost.

‘Dogs are like people. They are the friends and allies of human beings. They are social, hierarchical, and domesticated. Dogs are great. Cats, however, are their own creatures. They aren’t social or hierarchical. They are only semi-domesticated. When you meet a cat on the street, many things can happen.’ Maybe it will run away, ignore you, roll over and allow you to stroke it. ‘It’s a nice break. It’s a little extra light, on a good day, and a tiny respite, on a bad day. If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe . . . a little girl dancing on the street . . . a particularly good cup of coffee . . . some little ridiculous thing that distracts you. And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it.’ ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.’

As a postscript, Peterson writes that,

Mikhaila’s surgeon told her that her artificial ankle would have to be removed. Amputation waited down the road. She had been in pain for eight years. Four days later she happened upon a new physiotherapist. He placed his hands around her ankle and compressed it for forty seconds. Her pain disappeared. She never cries in front of medical personnel, but she burst into tears. Now she can walk long distances, and traipse around in her bare feet. This year, she got married and had a baby girl, Elizabeth. Things are good. For now.


One evening in later 2016, Jordan Peterson met with a friend who gave him a gift – a pen with an LED light at its tip. Peterson wanted to use his new gadget in a notable way. He asked himself, ‘”What shall I do with my newfound pen of light?” There are two verses in the New Testament that pertain to such things. I’ve thought about them a lot: Matthew 7:7-8 and Matthew 6:28-33.’ Peterson’s exposition of these passages may be well-intentioned but hardly orthodox. However, he was earnestly trying to resolve the answer to his question. ‘I was holding a conversation between two different elements of myself. I was genuinely thinking – or listening, in the sense described in Rule 9.’ ‘. . . almost immediately, an answer revealed itself: Write down the words you want inscribed on your soul. I wrote that down. Then I upped the ante. If you have a Pen of Light, after all, you should use it to answer Difficult Questions. Here was the first: What shall I do tomorrow? The answer came: The most good possible in the shortest period of time.’ What follows are some two dozen other questions that range from, ‘What shall I do for God my Father? Answer: Sacrifice everything I hold dear to yet greater perfection’ to ‘What shall I do when I ruin my rivers? Answer: Seek for the living water and let it cleanse the Earth.’ The pattern of this Coda is that the questions and their answers are rooted in each of the 12 Rules. The intention is admirable, but the outcome is rather abstruse and pretty unconvincing. It might appear that Christian truths are endorsed here and there, but so are bits of Taoism and other religious hocus pocus.

And that was that. I still have my Pen of Light. I haven’t written anything with it since. But, even if I don’t, it helped me find the words to properly close this book. I hope that my writing has proved useful to you. I hope it has revealed things you knew that you didn’t know you knew. I hope that you can straighten up, sort out your family, and bring peace and prosperity to your community. What will you write with your pen of light?

In conclusion.

This article was not what I originally had in mind – I thought it would be a simple, snappy review. Instead, it rather ran away with me to the tune of 19,000 words! Also it has turned out to be a rather unconventional review-cum-synopsis-cum-précis with a multitude of quotations. When I read a book, I invariably underline the text and scribble in the margins [in pencil and only in my personal copy] anything that catches my eye and tweaks my brain. On this occasion I have transferred these gleanings onto my computer. This exercise is valuable because it makes me think a little harder – I’m not sure you will find it so helpful.

Let me make three concluding remarks about this book. First, 12 Rules for Life was a joy to study. I found its 400-odd pages both engaging and educational. It is well written and generally easy to read. It contains several eye-opening truths, some uncomfortable challenges and a few memorable anecdotes. Peterson is a great communicator. He is assured, outspoken and charismatic – watch anything of his on the internet if you doubt that assessment. And those personal qualities are partly why he is the social media darling of 2018 – if only preachers were so consistently engaging. But it’s not only his style of presentation, it’s also his content, what he has to say. He is a bold man with a bold set of messages. He pulls no punches, he takes no prisoners. He angrily refuses to kowtow to ‘compelled speech’, such as gender-fluid language, yet he can also weep at the plight of feckless young men. He is a driven man – people like that. His discourses are certainly a change from that dull, dithering relativism that is our regular intake of cultural gruel. It is small wonder that his book has sat near the top of the best-sellers’ list since its publication.

Second, what about this book’s content? 12 Rules for Life is not a Christian book. That’s because its author is not a card-carrying Christian, at least, not in the traditional evangelical sense. Nor was that genre ever the author’s target. There is no doubt that he has a deep respect for the Bible, its teachings and its ethics. He quotes from it more than from any other resource. But he is also enamoured with other gods, including Taoism, Darwinism and humanism. Yet a book which majors on topics like, God, original sin, meaning, sacrifice, husband-wife marriage, suffering, truth and family should find some sympathy and a willing readership among Christians, and others. He chimes with many biblical ethics. Nevertheless, evangelical Christians tend to have a default response to an outsider talking ‘their talk’ – they find fault, easily. I’m a strong advocate of tight Christian doctrine and big-hearted charity, but I also know that there are badly-taught believers out there, as well as those sitting on their outsized hobby horses. I am not suggesting we rashly esteem Peterson to be that hoped-for Christian (though he may object at such a snub), what I am proposing is that we regard him, at least, as a co-belligerent, a ‘morally-sensitive’ man, and thank God that he is raising some fundamental issues among a wider audience than anyone else currently is. With our backs to the wall, evangelical Christians can unkindly consider ourselves to be the only guardians of truth. Yet there are many truths which are not specifically Christian – think of science and ornithology and love and motorcycle maintenance and . . . Even so, I willing concede that the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:3).

What Peterson may have inadvertently done for us is a sort of pre-evangelism, whetting people’s appetite to think about some of the great questions of life and death. For that we should be thankful. What he has also hopefully done is give us a bolder steer on these issues and a tougher confidence to speak out – those practices are well worth imitating. So let’s not be too hastily dismissive of Peterson and his labours simply because he does not tick all of our ecclesiastical boxes. I suspect that many readers of great literature, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, have been unknowingly softened up for the message of the Cross. It’s a big world out there, men and women. Let’s practise some big Christian charity. But none of this is to disregard the dangers of Peterson’s position. As I have written elsewhere, ‘The ethical and practical stance of the ‘morally sensitive’ is essentially man-made, it is a derived conduct without any specifically coherent framework. It is often the endorsement of that attractive Christian morality, but detached from the essential spurs of Christian faith and divine energy. It is reminiscent of the Enlightenment’s doomed attempt at Christian virtue without embracing Christian truth – a wanting the fruits without the roots.’ At base level, Peterson’s stance is one of moral rearmament – turn over a new leaf, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Maybe, just maybe, Peterson will come into a full-orbed understanding of true Christianity. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Third, I was particularly taken with some of his recurring themes. For example, ‘wilful blindness’ [spelled, ‘willful’ throughout the book] is one of my traits. I always have a long ‘to-do’ list, but some less attractive projects never get included. ‘Life is suffering’ is only too apparent, not only for our over-indulged, comfortable selves in the West, but for all people, everywhere. What about the charge to ‘set your own house in order first’? I’ve recently finished a long and drawn out house renovation, but I know the true meaning of Peterson’s slogan, and it’s challenging. ‘Dominance hierarchy’ is a phenomenon I acknowledge and a strategy that I have played, though thankfully less so since retirement has taken me out of the competitive workplace. And what about ‘Cain and Abel’, who crop up unexpectedly at least eight times? Theirs was a top news story then, and still is. Theirs was the horrors of fratricidal murder as the epitome of global violence and the affliction of the innocent. ‘Adam and Eve’ are equally-cited stars too. History and the state of the world make no sense without these, our shameful primogenitors. They deserve their principal billing. And those two cracking chapters, the one on raising children and their discipline (Rule 5) and the other on men-women relationships (Rule 11), deserve to be published singly and distributed among church folk, and wider.

So, the book in one summary sentence: Peterson’s diagnosis of the human condition is often brilliant and spot on, but his remedy is often inadequate and ineffective – the former is manful, while the latter is Christless. I am not saying that 12 Rules for Life is essential reading for everyone. Nevertheless, we should be aware of its existence and its basic thrust simply because we live in a literate society and because of the book’s current impact. Still, you don’t need to buy it just for those lesser purposes. But if you are tempted to purchase and read it, don’t pay the cover price of £20 – I bought mine on Amazon for half that. And, no, you cannot borrow my copy – it’s too spoiled by my under-linings and scribbled notes. But if you do go ahead, I’m almost prepared to guarantee that you will find reading it different, fascinating and worth the effort. And if you think it’s all postmodern stoicism and mythological claptrap, contact me!

This is the third part of a review of 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. John Ling is a  retired lecturer at Aberystwyth University and author of a number of books on medical ethics. His personal website can be found at

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