Solzhenitsyn Redivivus: Jordan Peterson, the Man and His Book
Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Canadian Psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, is a best-selling book written with the purpose of helping modern people avoid unhappy lives by learning to manage the chaos that besets all of us. Peterson does not say we should seek to avoid chaos; rather, he suggests we must learn to walk the fine line between chaos and order, the boundary of existence where our true fulfillment lies. “I hope that these rules and their accompanying essays will help people understand what they already know,” he writes, “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life.”
Peterson is well-known for his passionate and clear teaching style as evidenced by the millions of viewers of his many online lectures. He has been interviewed dozens of times by those who see him as either friend or foe. For a time, he taught at Harvard, winning prestigious teaching awards along the way, and currently is a professor at the University of Toronto. His many academic articles, and his previous book, Maps of Meaning, have earned him respect, if not agreement, from the very postmodern academics whose first principles he relentlessly questions.
Peterson is a serious man. To me, that is the highest compliment one can pay him. In these times of spiritual frivolity and philosophical nescience, Peterson provides a model of earnest intellectual coherence. His primary concern is the moral regeneration of his readers and, through that, the deliverance of western civilization from ideologies of the left. He draws on the insights of Carl Jung, primarily, and through Jung, the insights of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Erich Neumann.
A central leitmotiv of Peterson’s writing and speaking is Jung’s reformulation of the mythological importance of the Male and Female archetypes. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche where that philosopher is his descriptive and lachrymose best. The novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn figure prominently in his thinking. Peterson’s foreword to the recent Vintage Classic version of The Gulag Archipelago is a masterpiece in its own right.
Peterson is an empiricist. That is, he constantly checks his facts and their interpretations against experience, instead of against any sense of what things ought to be. He is an inductive thinker and teacher, drawing on his own psycho-therapeutic practice, which he has maintained through the years. He refuses to abide by the deductive, ideological arguments of older and latter-day Marxists. He is essentially realist rather than idealist. This philosophical orientation has flummoxed many of his interviewers, who view him through the prism of their left-wing worldviews.
His early 2018 interview by British journalist Cathy Newman is an example of the progressive inability to either comprehend or tame Peterson. Throughout the interview Ms. Newman repeats the refrain “So, what you’re saying is…” in such a manner as to completely invert Peterson’s careful and logical arguments. The video of this interview has gone viral and Newman’s blithesome formula is now an internet meme.
Before turning to a review of 12 Rules proper, it is necessary to comment on Peterson’s relationship to Christianity in general and to Jesus Christ in particular. His YouTube lectures on the New Testament and the Bible are among his most popular, and in his books, Peterson makes generous use of the words of Jesus. He refers to God as his “Father,” indicating a theistic understanding of the Deity. But is the man a Christian? He makes no claim either way and has been known to consider himself agnostic. Yet his constant turning to the words of Jesus (though not Paul) would indicate deep allegiance of some kind, though perhaps to a Christ as refracted through the existentialist categories of Soren Kierkegaard, Rudolf Bultmann or even Teilhard de Chardin. It is probably wisest for most evangelical believers to take Peterson on his own terms, as a friend of the gospel and its spiritual efficacy as a civilizing and personal moral force. In missiological terms, Peterson is a “person of peace” to Christian believers as they find their existence increasingly imperiled in a culture that was once friendly to them. Evangelicals are among his most enthusiastic audiences.
Twelve Rules for Life is written in the form of a musical composition, beginning with an “overture” and ending with a “coda.” The “rules” themselves are not clear-cut variations on a theme but instead come to us as discursions on the state of western culture. Peterson draws deeply on his own clinical practice to offer up both diagnosis and course of treatment for the pathologies he uncovers. He freely shares experiences from his own family, while pencil sketches of his two children Mikhaila (note the Russianization) and Julian form the frontispiece to each chapter. At times painfully personal, at other times almost bafflingly mystical, the contents of these chapters are at best only obliquely related to the rules as they appear on the eponymous coffee cups and posters that have proliferated. Those who know the twelve rules merely as pop-culture artifacts will have little clue to their richer meaning.
Let’s take the rules one by one and try to find the core argument in each. But a word of caution is in order. In describing the rules, we run the peril of abstracting his meaning from the art and beauty of the message, as though to describe the phrasing, tones and theory of a Beethoven piano sonata were to communicate what the music does to and for us. To access the true Jordan Peterson is to read the book in its totality.
Rule 1. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” This is only secondarily concerned with posture and self-confidence. It is instead a sustained examination of the place of hierarchy in nature, history and culture. Here one finds Peterson’s famous example of the pecking (pinching?) order, so to speak, of lobsters. Here, also, Peterson introduces a cantus firmus, or a kind of bass line, that will weave its way through all subsequent chapters: The eternal dance between chaos and order, or, in Jungian terms, between the feminine and the masculine impulses of reality.
Rule 2. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” This is a continuation of the first rule, but here the yin-and-yang, male-and-female impulses of creation are spelled out in greater detail. The traits of order, the primordial maleness, are “tribe, religion, hearth, home and country;” these traits are necessary for sustaining civilization and eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But, as Peterson writes, “order is not enough.” True human progress depends on the incursion of chaos into order and the pushback that results. “To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure… You need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged… That is where meaning is to be found.” Being responsible for one’s own wellbeing is living in that sweet spot.
A theme throughout Peterson’s writing is the pervasive nature of suffering that attends human existence. Here his debt to Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn is most clear. Life is tragic, with its own set of regulating mechanisms that seem to pay little attention to our best efforts. But it gets worse. Tragedy or meaningless suffering are not the only, nor even the primary, dark sides of human life. That distinction goes to the presence of evil in our history. The story of Adam and Eve, as well as Cain and Abel, is the guiding paradigm here: We are not merely the passive sufferers of a “nature red in tooth and claw,” but active agents of our own moral destruction. “Who can deny the sense of existential guilt that pervades human experience,” Peterson asks. “That’s a second as-yet-unhealed fracture in the structure of Existence. That’s the transformation of Being itself into a moral [as opposed to a mere physical] endeavor.”
What is Peterson’s counsel at this apparently hopeless impasse? “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly,” he urges us to ask. “You need to know where you are going, so that you can limit the extent of chaos in your life, restructure order, and bring the divine force of Hope to bear on the world.” These words adumbrate Rule 6, the one about setting your own house in order before criticizing the world, but they also lead into Rule 3.
Rule 3. “Make friends with people who want the best for you.” Drawing on his years as a teenager in northern Alberta, Peterson tells of his friend Chris, who will appear in various chapters of the book. Chris, a very bright young man with great potential but compromised by a poor home life, surrounded himself with friends who pulled him down to chronic failure. This kind of self-sabotage, Peterson explains, has a psychological name: “repetition compulsion.” It is a condition aided by multitudes of “caring” people, many of them professionals, who use the suffering of others “to brandish as evidence of the world’s injustice.” Be in no hurry to rescue the fallen, Peterson concludes. “You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse.”
Rule 4. “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” All the world’s a stage to millions of people, Peterson seems to say, and they are all in a race to be the next superstar. But the reality is, few will make it, and those who don’t may either settle for failure or blame their misfortune on someone or something. This is a misunderstanding of basic life principles, Peterson writes, which dictate that the greatest benefits of society come from a vital few, to whom most of us owe a great deal. Our approach should be a humble one: correct one small habit, perhaps the urge to be resentful. “Aim small. You don’t want to shoulder too much to begin with, given your limited talents, tendency to deceive, burden of resentment, and ability to shirk responsibility. Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning… Now the beam is disappearing from your eye, and you’re learning to see. And what you aim at determines what you see. That’s worth repeating. What you aim at determines what you see.”
Rule 5. “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” Peterson tells of the habits whereby parents ruin the lives of their children through overindulgence, on the one hand, or anger and hatred, on the other. In either case they create a monster. It is a fact that some children can be recalcitrant, refusing to eat, socialize with other children, or fall asleep. Others can be delightfully compliant and well adjusted. He contends that the cliché that “there are no bad children, only bad parents” is dangerously naïve. Likewise, he has little patience with the idea that the fault of unruly children can be laid at the feet of society in general.
For Peterson, there is no such thing as a “noble savage,” the notion that if peoples of the world are left alone, they will form happy and productive children and families. The Rousseauian society unspoiled by religion and civilization is a pipe dream, Peterson declares, mainly because all societies, like the individuals within them, are corrupt and evil. The story of Cain and Abel is central to Peterson’s understanding of human experience and, like his hero Solzhenitsyn, Peterson sees the battle for goodness and truth as raging within the individual rather than between groups of individuals.
It is up to parents to raise decent children. This can be one of life’s greatest challenges. “It is no simple matter to organize a mind,” he writes, but parents must try. Discipline and punishment are both necessary. The opposite is to invite chaos into their homes and marriages and into society at large. Poorly socialized children will lead terrible lives, he says, and if a child is not socialized by the age of four there is little chance of its leading a happy life. “More often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason.” Parents want to relate to their children as friends, but this is a mistake. “Friends have very limited authority to correct.” Disciplining, even spanking, is warranted. Peterson has little regard for the contemporary cliché that “hitting children only teaches them to hit.” This is to confuse hitting and punishment, the difference between which even children understand. “To unthinkingly parrot the magic line ‘There is no excuse for physical punishment’ is also to foster the delusion that teenage devils magically emerge from once-innocent little child-angels.”
Peterson provides several positive principles to help distracted parents win the war with their children, even insisting that it takes two parents to raise a child. “I’m not saying we should be mean to single mothers, many of whom struggle impossibly and courageously—but that doesn’t mean we should pretend that all family forms are equally viable. They’re not. Period.”
Struggling parents will find a great deal of encouragement from this chapter, which is one of the strongest in the book.
Rule 6. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” There is much catastrophe, tragedy, injustice and pain in the world, so much so that happiness and order seem at times miraculous. Often, the fault lies in the individual, who has pursued values and habits that invite misery. We all know people who have chosen to wield their hatreds as weapons of vengeance against those they hold responsible. The Columbine boys are perhaps the most conspicuous example, but the world is full of embittered souls with no shortage of blameworthy targets. The political left is home to many of modern pathologies, as it turns hate, grudges and resentments into political virtues. Here I demur from his suggested remedy. Peterson’s prescription for overcoming humanity’s self-destructive tendencies is vague and unconvincing—he tells those so afflicted to look within—but his diagnosis is undoubtedly correct. Until people have gotten their lives under control they have no business overthrowing the structures and values that others rely on for meaning.
Rule 7. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” This chapter is an extended meditation on the importance of delaying gratification. Peterson’s cultural evolutionary understanding of life comes into focus here. “Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with.” Sacrifice was the hand that humans held over against historical determinism. Men (to use that old trope as a stand-in for humanity) learned that something of value could be traded in the present for something greater in the future. From this realization came the possibility of scientific progress, courtesy and the great economic engine, capitalism. This is perhaps Peterson’s most religious chapter, as well as his most lyrical.
Peterson digresses here to echo a familiar paradox: that because Christianity is responsible for the emergence of rationality in the modern world, it is responsible for the abuses of rationality as well. In some sense, that is, the great curses of the twentieth century—communism, fascism and all their totalistic offspring—are the grandchildren of the Christian faith. To some extent, this is true. Many of the worst despots of the past century began their lives in Christian homes and schools. We’re not talking about white-shoe evangelists like Jim Bakker here, but rather mass killers such as Stalin and Pol Pot. The freedom that is the gift of Christ’s grace is often distorted to mean that all should be compelled to be “free.” This is how the utopian nightmares of recent history made their appearance. Peterson uses the example of Alyosha, the pious Christian brother in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, to demonstrate that it is possible for Christianity, through the humble servanthood of its adherents, to fulfill the divine mission of its founder without succumbing to “the totalitarian temptation.”
Rule 8. “Tell the truth—or at least don’t lie.” Peterson’s argument here is against closing oneself off from the truth not yet known. Speaking truthfully can come only from one who is humble enough to realize that his current state of knowledge is incomplete. Such humble competence is not the result of lack of conviction, however, but of refusing to grasp one’s truth of the moment as final and definitive. “Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal—an ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal should be ‘live in truth.’” One might paraphrase this chapter using a biblical allusion: “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Rule 9. “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” This is a chapter on the lost art of conversation and a counterpoint to the last rule. As a clinical psychologist, Peterson knows the value in letting people simply talk. “The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think.” Citing psychotherapist Carl Rogers, Peterson proposes that we stop, listen, and then summarize what others say before we attempt to answer, or contradict, them. Anyone who has watched Jordan Peterson in action, whether in lecture or interview, will grasp immediately that this man is intently listening in order to distill the essence of what his audience or interlocutor is saying. Indeed, part of the great mystique of the man is that his body language expresses his mental processes. In some way, Peterson thinks with his body as well as with his mind. The iconic interview with Cathy Newman mentioned earlier is the perfect counter-example: She seems deafened to his words by her ideological filters to the point of exactly inverting his meaning time and again. “The conversation of mutual exploration… requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known…You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of convincing, oppressing, dominating or even amusing…, instead of strategizing toward victory. If you fail, or refuse to do so, then you merely and automatically repeat what you already believe, seeking its validation and insisting on its rightness.”
Rule 10. “Be precise in your speech.” Contrary to first impression, this rule is not primarily about rhetorical technique. It is about purposeful and intentional thinking and speaking. We must be precise in our aim, he writes, or we will “drown in the complexity of the world.” Even something as apparently simple as driving a car is a complex process that we could never do if we did not identify with, or become one with, the machine. We do this unconsciously. Any purposeful activity, from writing a letter to playing a musical instrument to my typing these words is unimaginably intricate, and only to be accomplished by melding our purpose with the tools that surround us.
Peterson tells us we must be precise in the most important areas of our lives, such as our marriages. “When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech.” In attempting to help a woman whose marriage is failing, he tells her that “she must thoughtfully articulate the reality she comfortably but dangerously left hidden behind a veil of ignorance and the pretense of peace… She must separate the particular details of her specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of Being, in a world where everything has fallen apart. Everything—that’s far too much. It was specific things that fell apart, not everything; identifiable beliefs failed; particular actions were false and inauthentic. What were they? How can they be fixed, now?”
I once told one of my daughters that almost any problem we face can be relativized by writing about it. Peterson would agree. “The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence… With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord.”
Rule 11. “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” Here, Peterson comes to grips with one of the most pernicious trends of our time, what female intellectuals such as Kay Hymowitz, Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia call the “war on boys.” Under the guise of “safety,” Peterson writes, our society is under assault from a radical feminism that seeks to turn boys into girls and men into geldings. This silent assault is now everywhere in our culture. Just recently, the American Psychological Association classified “masculinity” as a pathology. We regularly hear of “toxic masculinity,” “mansplaining,” and “manspreading.”
Whole sectors of our economy, from medicine to education to public administration are primarily feminine professions. Women make up nearly 60 percent of college students and the percentage is increasing every year. Young men, Peterson explains, are especially vulnerable. “As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect. Their ambitions make them plunderers of the plant. They’re not welcome. At the junior high, high school and university level, they’re falling behind educationally.” Despite this, he goes on, old stereotypes are still true. Boys are still interested in things, girls in people. Gender equality is being pushed down the throats of western publics, but Peterson appeals to study after study that show that men are men and women are women all the way down. “This isn’t a debate,” he says. “The data are in.”
Ironically, the emasculation of males is not what most women really want. Most women, again according to studies that Peterson cites, want strong, educated men who are at least their intellectual equals. Yet such men are becoming rarer by the year due to the very policies and expectations of our “official” culture, which might be called the educational-entertainment complex. Only rich men are maintaining their social and personal virility, to the point that marriage is becoming a luxury item of the professional classes. Charles Murray portrayed this very trend in his 2012 book Coming Apart.
One of the key contributions that this book makes to our national and civilizational conversation is providing a strong and convincing sexual counter-mythology. We should not be put off using the word mythology; in this context it simply denotes the small number of common affirmations that represent a view of the world. Drawing on Jungian social psychology, Greek literature, ancient Mesopotamian creation epics such as Enuma Elish as well as common fairy tales, Peterson reconstructs the images of male and female that have characterized history from its recorded beginnings.
To better understand what Peterson’s project consists of, it is helpful at this point to summarize the sexual mythology central to the progressive movement today.
History, according to progressives, is a sad tale of male-on-female oppression. Men have held the upper hand since the beginning of time (though some feminists argue that in the past women were dominant), and only in our more enlightened era is it possible to reverse this. Furthermore, male, or masculine, oppression has not been equally distributed through the various racial groups but has reached its purest form among white men. White men have lorded it over women in recent millennia, but they have also oppressed other races at the same time. Nor is this oppression of women and people of color always conscious and deliberate; rather, it is innate and systemic, and is one of the driving impulses within Christianity and western civilization generally. Through the mechanisms of intersectionality, white men have reduced other genders (which are numerous) and races to victim status by marshaling all the intellectual apparatus of modernity—language, rationality, notions of the family, tradition, law and even science—in a quest to dominate society, history, nature and the “other.”
This contemporary mythology rests upon the assumption that men and women are in every respect each other’s ontic equals and that differences are mere “social constructs” that are at long last negotiable. White male ideas of sexual biology are themselves relics of artificial hierarchies that serve to empower one gender, or one group, over all the others. The project for the New Age now dawning is to even the score, to bring down the regnant white male hegemony and raise the former victims to positions of power and agency. The indispensable mindset for this new crusade is resentment, usually understood in its more potent philosophical denotation (the French ressentiment) whereby one’s victimhood is interpreted as the result of outside perpetration. In the New Age now dawning, former victims will be awakened (or as is fashionable now, “woke”) to the realities of their own potencies and places in the sun.
In the old Marxist exegesis of life, the war was between classes. The bourgeoisie was the oppressor and the proletariat the “woke” force of revolution. In the progressive exegesis, the war is between genders: the dominant white male gender vs. a multiplicity of new genders overwhelming the binary consciousness of the old oppressors. A new creation is envisioned, with a new fractionated language of gender pronouns, endless rituals of imprecation against the “isms” and phobias that characterize white male hegemony, and ultimately the creation of a new humanity through social conditioning of the young, hormonal interventions and surgical reassignment. Fundamental to all of this is a programmed flight from stasis, expressed in terms of perennial outrage and pervasive crisis, the intent of which is to upend the resurgence of old patterns and traditional norms.
Against the assumptions of this new progressive crusade, Peterson proposes an alternative mythology, one based not on the idealization of resentment but on the empirical conclusions of his clinical practice, on the powerful role of ancient stories, on the experience of history and, finally, on the inviolable imperatives of biology.
One of the recurring themes in ancient, classical, medieval and modern mythologies is the destructive presence of the Terrible Mother. The Terrible Mother appears in the Babylonian story of Tiamat, the primordial chaos out of which the world is made. She reappears as the Oedipal mother of Greek myth, smothering her offspring by saying: “Above all, never leave me. In return, I will do everything for you. As you age without maturing, you will become worthless and bitter, but you will never have to take any responsibility, and everything you do that’s wrong will always be someone else’s fault.” The Terrible Mother is Queen Athaliah in the Old Testament, the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the Evil Queen in Sleeping Beauty, the mother of Grendel in Beowulf, The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and Cruella de Ville in One-hundred-One Dalmatians.
Peterson appeals to the Jungian interpretation of the so-called Big Five personality traits of modern psychology, especially the third and fifth traits of “openness” and “conscientiousness.” Like the Chinese Yin and Yang, these two personality traits are often seen as in conflict, leading on the one hand to chaos and on the other to order, depending on their proportion in the personality. They are also interpreted, by Peterson after Jung, as sexual: the eternal female as the force of chaos, and the eternal male as the impulse for what Socrates called “ordered usefulness.” Each has its place and role, and neither is complete without the other. While a healthy personality can balance these two contrasting traits, Peterson contends that we have turned from a culture that values ordered liberty and personal discipline to one that seeks the chaos of gender fluidity, habitual and reflexive iconoclasm, and puritanical conformism. We have become hyper-feminized.
In other words, he seems to say, If you think Patriarchy has been bad, wait until you see what Matriarchy has in store for you. Yet he goes one step further: “If you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.” Women will always need men who are not like their other children, men who bring something into the relationship that would otherwise not exist, men who are strong as well as sensitive, orderly as well as adventurous, and stable in the emotional storms that tear marriages apart. And men need women who instantiate reliability, hard work and perseverance as well as tenderness and occasional serendipity. But so long as our cultural authorities insist on turning boys into girls and men into geldings, there will be hell to pay. For there is no form of child abuse that can compare with imposing transgenderism onto children. Nature is the most terrible of mothers, and she will not tolerate those who question her authority.
Boys on skateboards will always do dangerous things, he reminds us, just because they are boys. Let them alone.
Rule12. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” Though framed in the context of the medical ordeals of Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila, this rule has to do with what philosophers call “theodicy.” In the Greek, theos is of course the word for God, while dikaiosune (from which “-dicy” is derived) is the word for “justification,” in both its theological and its legal senses. The ‘justification of God’ (theodicy) centers on answering the question: Why does God allow bad things to happen? Mikhaila is stricken with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a disease that threatens most of the joints in her body.
“What kind of God would make a world where such a thing could happen?”, Peterson asks. This is a question that occurs to everyone sooner or later, and for most of us the answers are unconvincing, even when they are logical or religiously coherent. Peterson develops a kind of moral syllogism to contend with such unpleasant realities. First, he says, we must arrive at a realization that what we truly love in this lifetime we love not despite its limitations, but because of its limitations. Any Being (his word for God here) that is completely without any limits whatsoever is unlovable; It may be worshipped and adored, venerated and obeyed, but not loved. Though not stated, Peterson seems to be hinting that it is in God’s self-limitation in Christ that He has become vulnerable, knowable and loveable.
Second, Peterson counsels living in the present. He quotes the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof.” We misinterpret this verse, however, when we think it is saying merely “live in the present.” Rather, this truth is a call to commitment to place our faith in the Kingdom of God. Once that is plainly in view we can concentrate on the here and now. “Wish upon a star,” he says, citing the song from Pinocchio, “and then act properly, in accordance with that aim.” It is possible to stoically accept what is, he assures us, but that is a poor substitute for authentic existence.
Third, Peterson tells us that there is something greater than thinking; It is the divine capacity we have for noticing what is going on around us and reveling in the wonders of creation. Noticing precedes thinking and is essential for inductive, empirical reasoning. It is, however, not much in evidence in our ideological age, where experience is never actually understood but is instead interpreted. “There are no facts, just interpretations,” goes one of the many lies of our age.
Here is where cats come into focus. A self-admitted dog person, Peterson tells of a neighborhood cat named Ginger. Ginger is a Siamese, beautiful and well-socialized. “She is low in the Big Five personality trait of neuroticism, which is an index of anxiety, fear and emotional pain.” Ginger is not intimidated by dogs and is friends with the Petersons’ dog Sikko. Ginger amuses Peterson: “If she feels like it, she might come visit you, for a half a minute. It’s a nice break. It’s a little extra light, on a good day, and a tiny respite, on a bad day.” Don’t miss these intimations of immortality, he says, because they compensate for the “ineradicable suffering” of life.
The final chapter of the book is the Coda. Here he asks a series of questions and provides answers for them. The alert reader will realize after a few of these that what Peterson has provided is a catechism for our time. Catechisms have fallen out of favor in our frivolous period of history, but generations of our ancestors knew the power of these holy Christian documents. “What is the chief end of man?” asks one of the Reformed catechisms. “To know God and enjoy Him forever,” is the answer.
A modern reader could do much worse than to copy Peterson’s questions and frame the answers that are right for himself. “What should I do tomorrow?” he asks himself. “The most good possible in the shortest period of time.” What shall I do with my life?” “Aim for Paradise and concentrate on today.” “What shall I do with my wife?” “Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God, so that she may give birth to the world-redeeming hero.” “What shall I do with my son?” “Encourage him to be a true Son of God.” “How shall I educate my people?” (Remember, Peterson is a teacher.) “Share with them those things I regard as truly important.” And so on. There are several more that you will want to ponder.
There are many other things we might say about Jordan Peterson and his book of rules. Certainly, he conjures Edmund Burke with that philosopher’s emphasis on hierarchy, prudence and tradition. Peterson demonstrates a consistent Socratic spirit and style in both written and spoken word, circling a subject and holding it up to the light before saying much about it and (again like the Socrates we see refracted through Xenophon’s lens) delighting in the mundane wonders of the world. Finally, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jordan Peterson quietly attacks the very underpinnings of contemporary ideology, sometimes called the Spirit of the Times. No less than the racist assumptions of the past, the new progressive mentality has the power to enslave millions in ignorance and misery, unless it is stopped. Nothing less than this is Peterson’s mission, and for this we need to know the man and wish him success.