The meteoric rise of Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has resulted in a popular book, 12 Rules for Life, published by Random House Canada in January. Peterson’s book has been praised by many as heroic, even by a popular US Catholic bishop. He calls out today’s corrupt University, he encourages men and boys to take pride in themselves, he brings intellectual life into the public square, his defenders say. Well, William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale supposedly did some of that in 1951, and Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind did some of it, too, in 1987. The genre of these books is nothing particularly new, nor are their claims of social decline and cultural devastation. But the book deserve a close reading and analysis, to get at its exact weaknesses on their own terms.
In the introduction, he offers two histories of how this book came to be. In the first, Peterson describes the book as the outcome of his “procrastination-induced musing” on the Quora question-and-answer website, where he has been posting since 2012. In the second account, he cites his more specialized 1999 book, Maps of Meaning, as the source material for his 12 Rules. The combined popularity of Peterson’s Quora replies and YouTube videos of him teaching the content of Maps of Meaning at Harvard and the University of Toronto resulted, he claims, in the release of this self-help rulebook.
This is difficult to take at face value. Peterson’s rise to international popularity had little to do with his Quora profile, his dense 1999 book, or his YouTube channel. Peterson’s rise to fame began in earnest in 2016, after his vocal opposition to the C-16 bill proposed by the Canadian parliament to add “gender identity or expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson took a very public stand against this at the University of Toronto and quickly ascended into international fame, especially among social conservatives and libertarians, overlapping with the political rise of Donald Trump in the United States.
In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson makes a number of claims that obliquely relate to his opposition to the C-16 bill and to the points he has raised in his media appearances since then, but he does not credit any of this as contributing directly to this book. Instead, he cites his hero, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as articulating Peterson’s core idea for the book: an opposition to the view that human beings are created for happiness. In this respect, Peterson unwittingly picks a fight with Aristotle’s ancient and enduring ideas of human flourishing and the good life within the first three pages of his 2018 book about how to live.
Peterson also provides an early footnote explaining his usage of the capitalized word “Being,” a term he uses throughout the book’s nearly 400 pages. Peterson credits his repeated usage of this term to Martin Heidegger. Anyone who has read Heidegger’s Being and Time, however, will find no resemblance between Heidegger’s and Peterson’s notions of Being, including the undifferentiated spelling (Heidegger distinguished between Being and the beings). Peterson’s reference to Heidegger is ultimately an appeal to authority, attempting to justify his use of the term “Being” as an abstract neologism. But it is not remotely true that Heidegger was using Being as a neologism. After all, Heidegger did make up an abstract neologism, Dasein, to explain the way in which Being is experienced through our particular existence. Peterson’s repetition of the word “Being” throughout the book is impossible to understand on Heideggerian terms, and Peterson provides no explanation for it but this one, in his footnote. This example is par for the course: Peterson employs a litany of big names without substantive engagement, while missing the sources that his own ideas are in passive dialogue and conflict with.
In other words, Peterson’s book begins with an oddly incomplete account of its origins and motivations, followed by an unconscious dismissal of Aristotle’s most compelling account of the purpose of life, followed by a lazy attempt to justify using a specialized term as a mystical buzzword for the rest of the book. Yet in some respects, these are the most reasonable eight pages of the book.
As we will see, once his rules begin outright, Peterson wades into a muck of assertions without argument; disconnected similes and examples that insult reason; arbitrary and happenstance judgments; and implications that are dangerous in their banality.
The first rule is really more of an order than a rule: “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.” In the first five pages of that chapter, Peterson talks about lobsters, songbirds, wrens, chickens, wolves, bearded dragons, and dolphins, but his main archetypal creature is the lobster. He psychologizes the lives of these lobsters ad nauseum, narrating their desires and intentions, and tells us that we have a direct relation to these ancient crustaceans.
At first glance, Peterson’s attention to animals may make his ideas appear to be Franciscan. Well, he’s a far cry from the Poverello. In his first rule, he advocates for the determinism of dominance hierarchies. He writes, “All that matters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence—and the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for half a billion years,” and continues, saying, “[d]ominance hierarchies are older than trees.”
This determinism supports his first rule about standing up straight with broad shoulders. Posture is an expression of dominance. What is ironic about this rule is that Peterson doesn’t show intellectual dominance; he is unable to make a powerful, upright argument. Instead, he repeats hunched-over Darwinian cliches through lazy analogies and silly deterministic narratives.
The second rule is “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping.” Peterson opens by puzzling over examples where people fail to take their own medication or, far worse, giving medication to their pets more frequently than taking their own. This is what Aristotle called akrasia, the weakness of will present when we act against our best judgments. For the second time, Peterson fails to see that he is in dialogue with Aristotle. Peterson eventually turns to a psychoanalytic reading of Genesis to understand this akratic problem.
He repeats his major preoccupation in Maps of Meaning: the Carl Jung-inspired ying yang of chaos and order. Peterson’s method here is iterative. He repeats “chaos is X” and “order is Y”, or makes similes about them. For instance: “Chaos is freedom, dreadful freedom, too. Order, by contrast, is explored territory.” Or, on taxes: “When your tax return has been filed, that’s order. When you’re audited, that’s chaos.” On Tolkien: “Order is the Shire of Tolkien’s hobbits… Chaos is underground kingdom of the dwarves, usurped by Smaug.” If you don’t follow his points, neither do I.
Elsewhere in the book Peterson occasionally promises that he is not a dualist or a Manichean. But it is impossible to see anything else in this series of disconnected assertions. There are no reasons, evidence, or arguments presented; just chaos is this, order is that.
The closest thing to evidence for chaos and order may be when Peterson returns to his cognitive Darwinism, assuring us that “[o]ur brains respond instantly when chaos appears, with simple, hyper-fast circuits maintained from the ancient days, when our ancestors dwelled in trees, and snakes struck in a flash.” From there, he recovers his social Darwinism, too, claiming that the evolution of the human skull created “an evolutionary arms race between the fetal head and female pelvis.” This all links, he feels, to the archetypal feminine character of chaos and the masculinity of order; but even the simple idea of an archetype is left unexplained. He ends by psychoanalyzing his reader, or perhaps himself, by accusing anyone who has not wished for the annihilation of humanity of being out of touch with their own memory and “darkest fantasies.” The second rule ends in a search for “meaning with a capital M” to “justify your miserable existence”, which, somehow, bears out the meaning of his tortuously phrased rule about “treating yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.”
The rules that follow are shorter, and rely on roughly the same method of generalization and assertions. The sixth rule, “Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World,” is spectacularly ironic for a book so disorganized in its reasons. If Peterson wants to defend order against chaos and suggest that we clean up our rooms, he must lead by example.
Rule number seven sounds fairly unobjectionable—“Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)”—and is the most interesting part of the book. This chapter includes a lengthy section on “Christianity and its Problems,” where Peterson sympathetically outlines Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, but turns to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov ultimately to reject Nietzsche’s solution and endorse “Jung’s great discovery” that values cannot be invented. Here Peterson echoes the pessimism of Rod Dreher when Peterson says that Christian “dogma is dead, at least to the modern West.” Unlike the fatalistic Christianity of Dreher, Peterson the post-Christian somehow sees a pairing of Jung’s neo-pagan psychoanalysis with Social Darwinism as a productive way out.
In the section that immediately follows the one on Christianity, Peterson shares his personal testimony, knotted in an excursus on Rene Descartes’ modern doubt. This story mirrors his confessional preface in Maps of Meaning. In 1984, Peterson “had outgrown the shallow Christianity of [his] youth by the time [he] could understand the fundamental of Darwinian theory” because, “[a]fter that, [he] could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking.” After this conversion from Christ to Darwin, he flirted with socialism. But all too soon socialism, like Christianity, failed Peterson and he fell back into his doubt. The horrors of the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War—more specifically, the ability for humans to torment each other—eventually led Peterson out of his doubt. “What can I not doubt?”, Peterson ponders rhetorically: “The reality of suffering.” This becomes Peterson’s firm foundation. This foundation does not match his previous claims about Darwinism, but consistency is not valued in Peterson’s approach. He chiefly relies on unargued conviction, without seeming to notice it.
This reveals the deeper reason why Peterson rejects happiness as the proper end of human life. Instead of happiness, flourishing, or the good life, suffering and evil create a negative notion of the good for Peterson, in another unfortunate dip into Manichaeism. Without realizing it, Peterson here touches on Augustine’s notion of perversity in his Confessions, where he famously steals pears with his friends for the sheer pleasure of evil. Unlike Augustine, Peterson’s realization of suffering allows evil to determine the conditions of being for the good. He writes, “The good is whatever stops such things [i.e., tormenting others for the sole sake of making them suffer] from happening.” For Peterson, goodness is the relative cure for present evil.
From this point on, Peterson relies heavily on his ideas on Meaning with a capital M, where the ontological dualism of chaos and order are mediated by Meaning. Peterson’s method is, again, a series of assertions about what Meaning is, and he still provides no arguments or evidence for them. The basic idea seems to be that Peterson’s notion of Being is a dominance hierarchy of chaos and order, rooted in the reality of suffering and evil, and Meaning intervenes morally as the “ultimate balance.” Peterson here repeats the anti-metaphysical orientation of Maps of Meaning, in which Meaning chastens and regulates Being.
Peterson’s Darwinism and psychoanalysis, mixed with his postmodern-sounding theories of goodness and meaning, brings us to rule number eleven, “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding.” This chapter rails against “Postmodernism and the Long Arm of Marx”. I will save the reader from a close reading, because Peterson’s treatment of postmodernism as an evolutionary adaptation of Marxism is highly simplistic. Peterson mentions French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida (despite the inconvenient fact that Derrida wrote a whole book, Spectres of Marx, outlining a critique of Marx) and also brings up the Frankfurt School, but his formula is that Marxism of any kind equals killing fields in Cambodia and, above all, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and somehow gets from there to the present day Academy and University. Terrifying.
Peterson’s own sources do not agree with his account. He unwittingly makes constructive use of Theodor Adorno’s essay “After Auschwitz” earlier in the book, and Adorno is a member of the Marxist Frankfurt School and absolutely not a postmodernist. Furthermore, Peterson’s overt reliance on Nietzsche and Jung, a follower of Sigmund Freud, shows that Peterson’s own ideas are built upon two of Derrida’s three “masters of suspicion”: Nietzsche and Freud (the third is Marx). Furthermore, Peterson seems quite unaware of the fact that Marxists and postmodernists do not get along in the Academy. Many Leftists, like Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek, agree with Peterson’s dismissal of postmodernism despite not agreeing with each other on anything else. When Peterson warns his reader to “[b]eware of a single cause interpretation—and beware the people who purvey them” he again fails to take his own advice in his single-cause interpretation of Marxism and postmodernism.
A few final notes: One thing about quickly gained popularity is that one is not always submitted to just scrutiny. That testing over time is, after all, a major measure of value. Conservatives used to be the ones who defended this traditional idea, clinging to their Aristotle, Augustine, and liberal arts, unsoiled by social science and psychobabble. Now, with the rise of Peterson, even this virtue of conservatism has been lost. I pray that some day it will be found. For now, the defenders of Peterson have been unable to defend his actual claims and ideas, opting instead to praise the effects they project in him or the affects they feel in their hearts. They say that he represents strength; but his ideas are weak and brittle. If this is what conservatism has become—unable to defend itself through tradition, substance, and argument—then maybe conservatives deserve a pop-psychology rulebook more then the classics.
For my part, if this is what it takes for men to feel proud about themselves, then maybe they should feel embarrassed instead. If viral popularity is the measure of insight, then any serious thinking person ought to abandon all hope. If simply helping people is a good unto itself, then let the gurus and life coaches take over, managing your diet, your sex life, and your finances.
If anything characterizes this book, it is banality. You will find in it neither bold transgression nor a genius gone bad. Peterson is not an anti-hero or a misguided scoundrel. He is a tenured full professor of psychology at a major research university, who decided to write a self-help book to profit from his newfound fame. His book is opportunistic. There was nothing spectacular about reading it; the experience was mostly boring and tedious. I predict it will be stocked in thrift stores everywhere within a few years.
Sam Rocha is assistant professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia. He earned a Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 2010, and is the author of Tell Them Something Beautiful, Folk Phenomenology, and A Primer for Philosophy and Education.