It is safe to say that Dr Jordan B Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (Random House) will occupy international bestseller lists for some time. That is because our restless western intelligentsia is always on the lookout for a new guru and eager to ingest a new self-help manual. I should now add that Peterson, a psychology professor (as well as a practising clinical psychologist) at Toronto University, does not set out to be a guru and his book is much richer, more diverse in its cultural references and thoughtful than the phrase “a self-help manual” would suggest.
Peterson rejected the Christian religion in which he was raised in a small, remote town of north-west Canada. Yet unlike other highly intelligent figures who come to dominate the media, such as Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, he is in no way hostile to Christianity. Indeed, his very wide reading of great literary figures, such as Dostoyevsky, Dante and Goethe, alongside Carl Jung, Freud, the critic Northrop Frye and many others, have given him respect – even reverence – for the part religion has played in the evolution of human consciousness.
Although there is a Gnostic element to his thinking and he sometimes appears to equate “the Way, the Taoist path of life [as] the same Way as that referred to by Christ in John 14:6”, his book is permeated with biblical references and it is clear that he is fascinated by the enigmatic and mysterious person of Christ. If he is not (yet) willing to nail his colours to the Christian mast, Peterson acknowledges both explicitly and implicitly in his precepts for right living that the wisdom of the Gospels is the way to healthy human, psychological and emotional fulfilment.
He writes, “The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of western civilization…Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.”
Peterson’s antithesis between “rules” and “chaos” is interpreted by him in different ways. “Rules”, he notes, can be rigid and inflexible and “chaos” can be creative; nonetheless, the unwinding thread of his argument is that man needs “order” to achieve a meaningful life and “chaos” – i.e. a life lived without structure or purpose (which he witnesses often in his clinical patients’ unhappy lives) – will cause unhappiness and self-destruction.
To give readers an idea of the language Peterson uses, he writes in his Overture, “The soul of the individual eternally hungers for the wisdom of genuine Being” (“Being” is the word he uses where Christians would write “Personhood”.) On its own this might sound like woolly secular mysticism, but the author constantly refines “Being” so that his Rules often seem a secular paraphrase of Christian moral teachings. For instance, Rule 1, “Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back”, is interpreted by Peterson thus: “It means acting to please God in the ancient language…It is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open.”
Later on he observes, “Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering”, adding “And with this realization we have…full legitimization of the idea …of Original Sin.”
One of the things I like about this book is that the author, without preaching at all from a religious standpoint, sets his face firmly against the politically correct ideology put out by the Establishment. He repudiates the idea that gender is “a social construct” with the incisive response, “It isn’t. This isn’t a debate. The data are in.” (This, incidentally, is why he came over as more authoritative, wiser and knowledgeable than Cathy Newman in the now notorious Channel 4 interview; he has spent years reading and reflecting on “the data.”)
He also asks, “Was it a really good thing, for example, to so drastically liberalise the divorce laws in the 1960s?” and for “the child who is pushing the limits” he comments that “a swat on the backside can indicate requisite seriousness.” You can see why those who advocate a Left-wing liberal agenda and ideology are baffled by him, dislike him yet also fear him. He is a man of integrity and courage, simply refusing to bow to the current fad or ideology and prepared to go to prison for what he deeply believes.
He is also, for someone who has now attracted worldwide publicity, a humble man. This is because he is wise enough to know he is also ignorant of many things and also because his clinical practice constantly shows him the misery people endure when they have never experienced wise guidance and counsel. He is insistent that psychotherapy has to be “a genuine conversation”, reflecting that when two people open themselves up to “a deep conversation [it] places you in the same place that listening to great music places you…[it] puts you in the realm where souls connect.” This is not far from Newman’s “Heart speaks to heart.”
There is more one could say about such a thought-provoking book. I will conclude with quoting Peterson’s advice for Rule 6, which is “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world” (echoing Christ’s warnings about the plank and the mote). After describing the dark side of human behaviour he says firmly: “So, simply stop…Stop acting in that particular despicable manner.” As Christians, we know that we cannot transform our lives – in the way Peterson advocates – without grace. Nonetheless, it is good to be told to reform ourselves; not tomorrow or next week but now.