12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
© 2018 Jordan Peterson
Life is pain. We can surrender to it — or we can make it meaningful. Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson here offers a prescription to those facing the abyss, or even sinking into it, with twelve rules whose simple expression belies their more complex meanings. Peterson’s philosophy draws from human tradition and the natural world alike, and as expressed here it seeks to help readers understand the ongoing drama between order and chaos in society and our souls, and to find a way of coping meaningfully.
On their face, the rules seem simple enough ordinances: “Stand up straight”, “Speak the truth — or at least, don’t lie”. But there are those that, on the surface, seem odd to include: “Don’t disturb children who are skateboarding”. Why is that a priority? As it happens, however, each rule is just the sunlight flashing off an iceberg; it gets your attention and makes the underlying thoughts memorable, for under each rule is an essay on some aspect of the human condition. These essays provide considerable school for thought, and draw on human literature (especially Russian classics and the Bible), philosophy, and evolutionary history. The first rule, for instance, telling readers to “stand up straight”, is an introduction to Peterson’s thinking and urging readers to take responsibility for their lives — to take themselves seriously, to view the human struggle as a battle they are engaged in, as a battle they have a part in. His explication of this involves a digression on the social dynamics of lobsters, and relating psychology which has a helpful side lesson: those who act defeated perpetuate their own misery and isolation. The rule about not disturbing skateboarding children addresses more social concerns, of our steadily creating childish creatures who are adult only in age; constantly robbed of danger, challenge, or trouble, and so denied any opportunity to grow as persons.
I’ve found Peterson personally fascinating in the years since I’ve known his name and been familiarizing myself with his work, in part because his philosophy defies easy categorization. Take religion, for instance: Peterson’s often uses Biblical stories in his themes, as he considers our self-hatred via the downfall of Cain, who killed his brother Abel. Although Peterson unquestionably takes the meaning of religious stories seriously, especially that of the Crucifixion — Peterson’s advocacy of responsibility sees Jesus’ death as the pinnacle of responsibility, of someone meeting not only his suffering head on, but those of the world’s — this isn’t a book of Christian apologetics, and in interviews Peterson states that his own coming-to-terms with Christianity and God is less about fact-claims and more about what it means to live as if God exists. He chooses to, in part because we must be oriented toward something if we are not drift aimlessly.
I found 12 Rules for Life absolutely invigorating, with much to appreciate — from his call for personal integrity to the the approach of living in triage. None of us are in ideal situations; even those born into wealth, good looks, and optimal health will face their dragons. I think Peterson has especially salient appeal to those who read him while enduring long nights of the soul, who are struggling with depression and nihilism and need something — a handhold in the dark, a glimpse of light — to base their efforts to escape it on. I believe it was Bacon who remarked that some books are to be tasted, some to be swallowed, and others to be chewed and digested. 12 Rules for Life is definitely the latter for me.