Book Review: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

409 PP.; $25.95

Saying dumb things confidently is different than writing dumb things confidently, which is why it’s a surprise Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson (“professor of the alt-right”) has written a second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. (His first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, was published almost twenty years ago.) Ideas that lack either subtlety or precision are fairly easy to hide in conversation or lecture. On the printed page, not so much.

Still, to be considered a serious thinker one must write books. And all the financial incentives for Peterson to write one were in place.

His YouTube videos on moral psychology and political correctness have been watched by hundreds of thousands of people—if not more. He’s one of the most popular guests on some of the country’s most popular podcasts (e.g. Joe Rogan’s Joe Rogan Experience and Sam Harris’s Waking Up). He enjoys the patronage of boardroom America. His blend of self-help and reactionary soundbite politics are perfect for the corporate speaking circuit. And, as with other online intellectuals, his followers are as devoted to him as any reasonable master could ask. Dissent from Peterson’s vision of society is seen by them as either wicked or dishonest.

Commercial success was therefore all but inevitable. So why not write another book?

One good reason for Peterson to abstain would be because he has nothing new or interesting to say, which, besides the stilted and tortured prose, is the major flaw with 12 Rules. Too much is reached for in the book and very little is actually grasped. Its structure is 12 chapters for 12 rules (including “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie,” and “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”), but little in each chapter actually has to do with the corresponding rule. Instead, chapters are loosely linked imitations of Joseph Campbell on myths, Friedrich Nietzsche on moral psychology, and Herbert Spencer on social Darwinism, with personal stories from Peterson’s life—everything from his clinical practice to growing up in rural Canada—as page-filler. Chapters simply start, then eventually end. The last sentence of each chapter is the corresponding rule, which gives the impression that it’s been discovered or proven, when usually it’s just been stumbled over.

The two central concepts of 12 Rules are “dominance hierarchy” and “chaos vs. order.” Neither is ever satisfactorily defined, but enough is said about the former and enough analogies are given for the latter that something of what Peterson has in mind for each is deducible.

Being on top of the dominance hierarchy means meriting the most sexual attention from females. (Women, in Peterson’s view, don’t compete in the dominance hierarchy. Evolution has programmed them to simply be attracted to the men higher up in the hierarchy.) How a male gets to the top of a dominance hierarchy varies from species to species. For lobsters, fighting prowess is the sole factor. Male lobsters fight over territory. The winner attracts mates while the loser settles for those the winner doesn’t want. For chimps, the dominance hierarchy is more complicated; fighting prowess is still important, but so are communal and egalitarian traits like compassion, solidarity, and cooperation.

Peterson never lists all the factors he thinks go into moving human males up or down our dominance hierarchy. Presumably, they’re even more numerous than the factors for chimps. Human females, after all, are attracted to all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons: humor, height, assertiveness, outlook, wealth or earning potential, talent, cleverness, athleticism, compassion, honesty, thoughtfulness, religiosity,  intelligence, willingness to take risks, etc., etc.

Such diverse preferences and priorities seem to raise conceptual issues. A single dominance hierarchy doesn’t make sense in a species where the females are so sexually individualistic. That is, unless Peterson agrees with Marx that money turns all our “incapacities into their contrary” (i.e. makes the dishonest man honest, the unattractive man attractive, and so on). Or perhaps humanity has multiple dominance hierarchies—all distinct but related, like hills protruding across a vast landscape, with each mound representing a different attribute. But then the concept becomes trivial—a frilly way of saying the opposite of what the name “dominance hierarchy” suggests.

Things get even more vague when we look at Peterson’s characterizations of dominant men. Sometimes they’re merely rich: they enjoy the best food, housing, and amenities. Other times they’re excellent at what they do and are recognized for that excellence (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky are “hyper-dominant composers,” according to Peterson, because most modern orchestras play exclusively their music). Still other times they’re just the low man’s fantasy of himself as a high man (at one point, Peterson describes dominant men as “tall, strong, and symmetrical; creative, reliable, honest, and generous”). But Bach was fat, Beethoven was anything but honest, and Mozart depended on charity as much as he did income.

Peterson’s conception of order vs. chaos is even less comprehensible and more glossed with pseudo-profundities.

Order is masculine because men build things; chaos is feminine because “all things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown.” Order is what’s known; chaos is the unknown (or “the domain of ignorance itself”). Order is “tribe, religion, hearth, home, and country,” while chaos is the “despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed.” Eden is order; the serpent that persuades Eve to eat the apple is chaos. Order is when you do your taxes; chaos is when you’re audited.

In other words, order is what we know, what exists, and when things go as planned. Chaos is what we don’t even know we don’t know, what exists in thought (in the abstract) but isn’t a part of our immediate reality, and when things don’t go as planned.

Although the book’s subtitle is “an antidote to chaos”—and in the text it’s clear that order is equivalent to good while chaos is equivalent to bad—Peterson ultimately concludes that “meaning is to be found” by having “one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure.”

Like most of Peterson’s pronouncements, when stripped of dramatic phraseology and contradictory context, this is just stock advice from the self-help industry: take risks but don’t be careless when you do. Simple, straightforward, sound advice. So why the obscurantism and grandstanding in expressing it? Why the melodramatic ardor of metaphysics and mysticism? Why associate “the flag of the nation” with Edenic paradise and femininity with the devil?

Whatever the motive, the effect is strong imagery for weak perceptions. In this, and many other ways, Peterson shares the same literary and intellectual limitations as Nietzsche, one of his intellectual role models. In fact, reading 12 Rules reminded me of two criticisms of Nietzsche. The first is from Will Durant who felt that Nietzsche’s philosophy was a “sedentary man’s idolatry of action” and a “bashful bachelor’s secret envy of masculine bibulousness and sexuality.” The second is from G.K. Chesterton who wrote that Nietzsche “always escaped a question” by metaphor and “had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense.”

12 Rules is overwritten—not only stylistically but thematically. What’s valuable in the book probably could’ve fit in a short essay or a series of bulletin points. And it’s obvious from each sentence that Peterson is a compulsive re-writer, which makes for tiresome reading. Some of his personal stories are touching—such as his daughter’s early trouble with juvenile arthritis—but most are told just so Peterson has an excuse to fawn over the typical American ideals of masculinity (businessmen, marines, and rural types). His paranoid section on Jewish intellectuals (“the Frankfurt School”) immigrating to the United States in the 1930s and setting forth to undermine Western civilization is based on anti-Semitic propaganda from religious reactionaries like Pat Buchanan and William S. Lind. He should remove it from the book’s next edition. If not for its Jew-baiting, then because it reveals just how shoddy and secondhand most of his thinking is.

Like all professional cranks, Peterson is simultaneously a hypocrite, a maniac and a bore. The practical advice in 12 Rules is for the most part sound. You should have a routine, keep a clean house, and eat a healthy breakfast. You should avoid what Peterson calls “positive feedback loops.” So don’t get frustrated about being frustrated or anxious about being anxious. Accept the emotions and know they’ll pass. Peterson is right when he favorably quotes Alexandr Solzhenitsyn about good and evil playing out in “the heart of every human being” and wrong when he encourages political passivity. Institutions matter. The dominance hierarchy might be a “near-eternal aspect of the environment,” but laws and customs limit the extent to which one person can dominate another. 12 Rules fails because its author betrays his own espoused convictions: he doesn’t express himself clearly and he offers blame and excuses more than he offers solutions.