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I really wanted to read this book objectively, separating it from the media hype and social media torrents of opinion and abuse that often accompany its author, Jordan Peterson. I wanted to consider it in the company of the vast number of already-published self-help or philosophical books, and the historical context in which they exist.
Sadly, I was unable to do so for one simple reason: there’s too much Jordan Peterson in it. You have to wade through far too much of him to get to the rules. He meanders quite a bit, mostly to ramble on about himself. The rules are, themselves, rather diluted by his presence.
Jordan Peterson is undoubtedly a smart, well-educated man and a reasonably good writer, but sometimes he comes across as a pompous, supercilious git. And that obfuscates the intended message, at least for me.
Peterson is, like I said, a smart man. I cannot dispute his statements on psychology or human development because he knows more about it than most of us. And he references several of his statements with citations to such awe-inspiring academic documents as “Allostasis and allostatic load implications for neuropsychopharmacology,” “Tool use induces morphological updating of the body schema” and “Dimension models of personality: The five-factor model and the DSM-5.” Who am I to argue with these sources?
For those of us on a less-lofty plane, he also references the Bible, poems of W.B. Yeats, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Lao Tse’s Tao teh ching and the Guardian newspaper. Whew. Something I can read and maybe understand. But these references don’t cover the voluminous number of claims and statements in the book. It’s full of pithy epigrams and aphorisms.
There are only 220 noted sources and no separate bibliography. Peterson makes a lot of statements that, without being referenced to a citation, are either vague generalities or simply opinions. For example:
Eco-activists, even more idealistic in their viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind. (p13-14)
I don’t know which “eco-activists” he spoke to, but that sort of romanticized, even naive (if not downright puerile) view of eco-activism doesn’t match any viewpoints I’ve heard or read from anyone who might fit that description. And you can read a lot of them online. David Suzuki, for example, arguably Canada’s most well-known environmental activist, doesn’t say anything of the sort. His own website neatly defines his views:
We are interconnected with nature, and with each other. What we do to the planet and its living creatures, we do to ourselves.
I’ll chalk this one up as an opinion, and a politically-biased one at that. The Catholic World Report noted in its review:
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.
Here are some other statements I pulled at random, also not referenced to any source or publication:
- “You truly know you are the Son of God when your dicta apply even to crustaceans.” (p.9. Something I missed in the Beatitudes? Blessed is the seagoing arthropod?)
- “I counsel my patients to eat a fat and protein-heavy breakfast as soon as possible after they awaken…” (p.18 – is he a qualified nutritionist? That advice appears to run counter to what nutritionists themselves recommend.)
- “When naive people discover the capacity for anger within themselves, they are shocked, sometimes severely.” (p.24. Their naivete isn’t defined, yet I can think of naive people with an already great capacity for anger — just look at an anti-vaccination march or a pro-Trump rally… no one seems shocked to discover they are angry).
- “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding voluntarily to transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order.” (p. 27 – since when was responsibility terrible? And does eyes open refer to standing up or taking responsibility? And what the heck is the “chaos of potential”? A bit too New-Agey sounding for my taste.)
- “To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny, making your way away from comfortable home and country and speaking the prophetic word to those who ignore women and children. It means shouldering the cross that marks the X, the place where Being (sic) and you intersect so terribly.” (p.27. Whew, all those mixed metaphors lost me. The flood? Am I to understand standing up straight has something to do with a mythical event in which God, except for a hand-picked family, punished all the world’s population for acting all too human? And who or what is this capital-B Being we’re supposed to intersect with? And where does that intersection take place? It smells of New Ageism; too much like Conrad Black’s “diaphanous piffle” to me.)
- “Physicians and pharmacists tend to blame such patients for their noncompliance, inaction and error. You can lead a horse to water, they reason.” (p.31. There’s no reference to suggest Peterson interviewed any, let alone many, physicians and pharmacists, or read any publication on what they collectively reason.)
- “Before the dawn of the scientific worldview, reality was construed differently. Being was understood as a place of action, not a place of things.” (p.34 – this one does have a citation — to another of Peterson’s own books. It’s an intriguing idea but there are no examples given to explain it. And there’s that nebulous Being character again…).
- “Meaning is what manifests itself when the many levels of Being arrange themselves into a perfectly functioning harmony, from atomic microcosm to cell to organ to individual to society to nature to cosmos, so that action at each level beautifully and perfectly facilitates action at all, such that past, present and future are all at once redeemed and reconciled.” (p.201 -WTF does that mean? I get all the words, but none of it makes sense. And he goes on for more than a page with metaphors about what meaning is to the result that meaning is, apparently, about everything. Sigh.)
- “You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This is what is means to “act politically.” This is spin.” (p.209 – While people can use words for selfish or unscrupulous ends, that is not the definition of either political action or spin. Machiavelli would have said that to act politically was to do what was necessary for the betterment and survival of the state.)
Peterson rambles on at great length about Christianity, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky through most of Chapter 7. He sprinkles his other chapters with a lot of Biblical references or quotes, but not in a religiously coherent way. More like “hey I read this and it fits my argument” than something to describe faith. He strikes me more like a dabbler in religious literature (a bit like myself) than a seeker for faith-based answers. As such, Biblical and other scriptural quotes or references often come across as a bit gratuitous.
A book of rules is nothing new, although this may be more disorganized than some. Since the first written documents, there have been thousands of books to tell us how to live, how to behave, how to interact with others. Every religious scripture contains rules that guide readers to the foundational ethics and morality of the faith. You can read them in the Bible, the Qur’an, in the Kalama Sutra, in the Analects, in the 101 Zen Parables. Fables, legends, fairy tales and epic poems like the Iliad and Inferno are often written as examples of what happens when we do and don’t follow the rules.
Marcus Aurelius laid out the rules for living a Stoic life in his Meditations. Epicurus did the same for his school, the Epicureans. In the Middle Ages, books called “mirrors” were written to guide princes and kings. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a different set of rules for politicians and state leaders in The Prince. Baltasar Gracian wrote another set, a century later, in The Art of Worldly Wisdom. In that same century, Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marsillac, wrote his now-famous book of 504 maxims. Benjamin Franklin gave us his Maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1733. Every philosopher since Socrates has penned his or her own rules for behaviour.
Peterson’s own twelve rules are subtitled “an antidote for chaos.” Chaos is big in his book, as he notes: “Chaos and order are to of the most fundamental elements of lived experience — two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself,” (p.38). Makes me wonder what “unlived experience” might be like. And who or what that mysterious Being is, who keeps cropping up throughout.
But it’s not entirely clear what exactly chaos is, in his eyes. Peterson calls it, “the domain of ignorance itself,” and “unexplored territory,” (p.35) but these are too amorphous to tell us anything. He adds it is,
“…what extends, externally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines. It’s the foreigner, the stranger, the member of another gang, the rustle in the bushes in the night-time, the monster under the bed, the hidden anger of your mother, and the sickness of your child. Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed. It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth, where the dragon and the gold it guards eternally co-exist. Chaos is where we are when we don’t know where we are, and what we’re doing when we don’t know what we’re doing. It is, in short, all those things and situation we neither know nor understand.” (p.35)
Nope, still not sure what it is. Lost me about a dozen metaphors back, I think. He sure does like to lard on the metaphors. And then he warns us, (p.41) that chaos is “symbolically associated with the feminine… the eternal feminine” and that being turned down for a date by a woman is ,”a direct encounter with chaos.” Poor men, eh? A descent worthy of Dante’s Inferno just from being turned down for a date.
I may not know what chaos is, or at least how Peterson defines it, but like art, I know it when I see it. Chaos, to me, is when American mothers host an angry anti-vaccination protest to allow them to cripple and even kill their children and threaten the health and lives of others in defiance of every biological urge, every scientific proof or simple common sense. And how do Peterson’s 12 rules counter that chaos? How do they speak to those women? Or to any of the dwindling number of Trump supporters despite the lies and betrayals? How do they address the toxic masculinity behind the pathetic, chaos-inducing incels?
Well, he asks, without citing a source to for his specious claim, “Why do we teach our young people that our incredible culture is the result of male oppression?” (p.305). This follows a rambling screed about the alleged oppression by the patriarchy and how it’s “perverse” to consider that men might dominate culture. Besides, he reminds his readers, a man invented the tampon, then Peterson grouses about gender studies in universities. That may not empower incels, but it sure doesn’t do the opposite (see Peterson’s comment on chaos and dating, above, for more).
For a guy who is often touted as a spokesperson for various causes or political views (usually right-wing ones), he sure gets shirty about others promoted to the role of what he derides as “self-appointed judges of the human race” (p. 295) and even calls “anti-human to the core” another professor Peterson said had spoken “about the threat human beings posed to the survival of the planet.” Somewhat of an irony in a book of rules about how to live.
Peterson tells us (p.xxxi), that a, “shared cultural system stabiilzes human interaction.” I agree: I’ve argued similarly about civility and civil debate. And you’d assume common rules help reinforce that stability. But then in his metaphor about lobsters, Chapter 1, Peterson writes:
It’s winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies, where the top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent – and where the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion.
Maybe so, but how does that recognition change anything? As Kate Manne wrote in her review in the Times Literary Supplement, while identifying this problem of social instability and injustice, and the hierarchies that perpetuate it, Peterson offers no advice on resolving it.
Sorry, but I cannot identify closely with his alpha or the many beta lobsters. There’s no compelling reason in his story to compare a crustacean’s combative existence with the complex human societies beyond the simplistic and selfish ‘might makes right’ morality.
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back;
- Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping;
- Make friends with people who want the best for you;
- Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today;
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them;
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world;
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient);
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie;
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t;
- Be precise in your speech;
- Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding;
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
Not bad rules on the surface, some common sense in a few. I wish he had taken his own advice in rule six. Nothing wrong with standing up straight (Marcus Aurelius himself gave that advice in Book 3 of Meditations), speaking carefully or petting a cat (I always do), although some, like number 11, are vague or even confusing without the deeper explanation. And therein lies another problem. In his explanation of number 12, he writes,
Cats… aren’t social or hierarchical (except in passing). They are only semi-domesticated. They don’t do tricks. They are friendly on their own terms. Dogs have been tamed, but cats have made a decision. They appear willing to interact with people, for some strange reasons of their own. For me, cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being (sic), in an almost pure form. Furthermore, they are a form of Being (sic) that looks at human beings and approves. (p.352)
Which to me, as a cat-owner all my life, with a few years’ experience working for and volunteering in humane societies, being a foster-care home for cats and dogs, and the current owner of three cats, reads like anthropomorphizing codswallop with a hefty topping of New Age piffle. Cats most certainly can do tricks, and learn to manipulate both their environment and their caretakers, and they are very hierarchical in group settings. And just stop with this Being nonsense. Makes you sound like some ancient cat-worshipping Egyptian priest. Or a Facebook kitten-meme poster.
Twelve rules could be easily printed on a business or index card. I have the Buddhist eightfold path and four noble truths printed back to back on a laminated business card. I have the Ten Commandments on a business card, handed to me by a preacher on Yonge Street. All that wisdom so neatly condensed into such a compact space.
Peterson, however, takes more than 400 pages to explain his rules. And that’s another problem. You have to wade through the treacle of Jordan Peterson to figure out what each rule is all about. The core stuff that defines the rule is usually tucked into the last page or two of the chapter. In Rule 12, allegedly about petting cats, you wade through 17 pages mostly about Peterson’s family dog, with asides on Stephen King, the Torah, Goethe, Lao Tse, his clients, his daughter, Superman comics and more, all before you even get to a cat. (sidenote: each chapter is prefaced with a drawing showing his own children doing something apparently related to the rule under discussion).
As Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker review puts it, “Peterson has a way of making even the mildest pronouncement sound like the dying declaration of a political prisoner.”
Personally, had I been his editor, I would have required a one-paragraph summary of each rule to start the chapters so readers would get the gist, and the rule itself printed across the top of every page. Too often, by the time I reached the end where the point was, I had to go back to the beginning of the chapter to remind myself what the rule was was. His editor has a lot to answer for.
Mercifully it’s only 12 rules. Given his verbosity, even a few more could reach the density of the Shulchan Aruch, with its plethora of rules for pretty much every aspect of Jewish daily life and at least twelve rules on every one of its hundreds of pages. And it’s more interesting to read because it hasn’t a line about Jordan Peterson in it.
And don’t get me started on the foreword by Norman Doidge, an 18-page hagiography so saccharine you’ll need an insulin shot after just to get over it. It alone almost discouraged me from continuing.
It’s not that it’s a terribly bad book; certainly no worse than the hundreds of other self-help books around. It was hyped more than its substance deserved, however. Some parts of it are enjoyable and thought-provoking, if you can get past like his style of eclectic meandering and self aggrandizement.
And even though I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, doesn’t mean I disagree with everything (I even defended his position on made-up gender pronouns, in late 2016, because I believe language does not develop via dictate and state-approved neologisms, but rather through common use and to fulfill a need, although his views on the topic since seem to have become more radicalized while mine softened.)
I certainly don’t think it’s as bad as Richard Poplak, in the Johannesburg Review of Books:
Imagine a self-help book written by the Darth Maul of tenured campus bad boys, an act of trahison des clercs so severe that it calls into question the entire five-thousand-year academic project—a book that seeks to make accessible to a general audience a mélange of mysticism, philosophy, psychology and dietary recommendations, assembled into a package so intellectually low-cal that it would be hilarious were it not basically a to-do list for a generation of tiki torch-wielding neo-Klansmen.
And I don’t think Peterson is entirely the “Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits” that Houman Barekat calls him in his LA Review of Books article, but I did nod at his description of Peterson and his peers who share, “…not only a certain strutting affinity for the limelight, but also the victimhood complex that is the philosophical foundation of the so-called alt-right, along with the half-baked intellectual arguments that sustain it.”
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.
(Quick note: I found my copy is a local used book store, only weeks after it went on sale…)
But banality aside, books like this tend to ossify quickly into ironclad restrictions rather than guidelines among their readers. It’s not only the Bible that people take as literal truth. And that’s the final problem: his rather rabid alt-right following will likely read his apologies for the bruised male ego and his criticism of feminism, Marxism, and liberalism as a screed for action, not a platform for debate.
Is it worth reading? Maybe, if you can find another copy in a used book store, if you can get past Peterson’s affection for his own autobiography, and if your blood pressure can stand it. But I wouldn’t put much stock in finding anything among the rules that will change, much less improve, your life.
My suggestion is to skip Peterson and instead get yourself a recent translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Hays is good). It’s far more satisfying and has absolutely no Jordan Peterson within its pages.
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