Jordan Peterson may be the only clinical psychologist who believes that psychology is subordinate to philosophy and the one thing that psychology and philosophy both genuflect before is story. Story, or myth, predates religion and is, in fact, as old as language itself.
In his earlier book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, Peterson connects the stories we share with our earliest ancestors with modern knowledge of behavior and the mind. It’s a textbook for his popular University of Toronto courses.
The one-time dish washer and mill worker spent nearly 20 years at the University before garnering international attention. In September 2016, Peterson released a couple of videos opposing an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act which he contended could send someone to jail for refusing to use a made-up gender identity pronoun. Peterson went on to testify before the Canadian Senate, and has emerged as a foremost critic of postmodernism on North American campuses.
Postmodernism is the “new skin of communism,” In Peterson’s view. The ideology has been so thoroughly discredited from an economic standpoint that those who still advocate for it, for either political or emotional reasons, have resorted to attacking the very process in which something can be discredited—reason and debate. At the same time they have worked to change the face of oppression away from those living in poverty toward individuals who don’t look or act like those who hold most of the positions of power and authority in Western society.
Peterson’s classroom is now the entire globe. Millions are watching his lectures and other videos on YouTube. For this new and greater audience, a more accessible, more affordable compendium than Maps of Meaning was called for.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is more affordable for sure, but only slightly more accessible. Part self-help book, part memoir, part Maps for the masses, it’s organized sprawlingly.
I ignored Jordan Peterson for a while, since his name usually came up in culture war contexts where the rule is that every generation gets approximately five talking points to endlessly yell at each other. But then he published a book, and a bunch of my academic friends started screeching a few octaves higher than usual, and a few of my well-adjusted friends started reading the book, so I decided to check it out. I recognize that being inclined to agree with a critic of postmodernism entirely because of his critics’ behavior is itself pretty postmodern and thus suspect. But be fair to postmodernists: they’re good at finding clues, even if they’re bad at solving mysteries.
If I were half a decade younger, or much less lucky in my choice of reading material, this could have been the book that changed my life. (Writings that played this role for me instead: Sexual Personae, Moby-Dick, Starting Strength, that viral “get your shit together” email by Scott Galloway.) The book’s target audience is young men suffering from post-school ennui, and the message is: it’s not your fault, but it’s 100% your responsibility to fix it.
Given his reputation–people insist on tagging Peterson with the “alt-right” label–I was half expecting “1,488 Rules for Life: An Antidote to (((Chaos))).” But, no, Peterson is not writing neo-fascist propaganda. He’s writing fatherly advice, at least if your dad read a lot of Jung and Nietzsche, and dropped a little acid.
If you think this is one of those advice books where you can skim the contents and get the gist, you are completely, wildly wrong. Take chapter one, on posture. We begin, naturally, by talking about lobster combat. Then wrens. Then back to lobsters; on to a wild fugue through a few hundred million years of evolution; a brief segue about how at different levels of abstraction nature alternates between permanence and chaos, and how part of music’s appeal is the recognition of this; and then Peterson concludes by recommending good posture.
The whole rest of the book is like this. There’s an initial riff, followed by a long philosophical jam session (expect references to Freud, Marx, yin and yang, evolution, the Old Testament, Jung, Peterson’s kids, and the New Testament), and it closes with a stern admonition. You might thing that’s a silly approach that risks trivializing whatever philosophical lessons it includes, but the one-two combo of moral lesson plus minor daily habit has a great historical precedent. Just look at the Bible. The first book is about the origin of all existence, the nature of evil, the consequence of sin, etc. The second book is about becoming a distinctive people, having a covenant with the divine, and so on. The third book is about when to wash your hands (all the time) and which foods you should avoid eating lest you get sick. If every episode of hand-washing and ham-refusal reminds you of Original Sin, you will spend a lot more time thinking about morality than you otherwise would.
So I can’t really review the advice itself, although it’s good. I can recommend reading the book, not so much for any one point, but for the journey–there was very little I wish I’d thought of first, but a lot I wish I’d phrased that way before.
If you read his book and follow his advice, will it improve your life? Almost certainly. Not just because his suggestions are things we should already be told (or have already been told, but ignored). But for simple tribal reasons. It’s like eating paleo: the actual behavior helps at the margin, but what really keeps you on the path towards self-improvement is the feeling that it’s 99% of the world against you and your brave band of friends. And you could do worse than to choose the friends who rally around Peterson.
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