Jordan B. Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” is a call to clarity in an age of chaos

Why the University of Toronto professor’s bestselling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is the most thought-provoking self-help book I have read in years. 
Canadian psychologist and professor Dr. Jordan Peterson is the author of "12 Rules for Life". (Image: YouTube)

Self-help books are usually easy reads, comprising insightful nuggets of wisdom followed by much repetition, filler and fluff. If you’ve read He’s Just Not That Into You (about why he never called again) or Fluent Forever (about learning languages), you’ll know exactly what I mean. These are books that would have made excellent magazine articles, and whose riches can be gleaned simply by reading the chapter titles.

Which brings me to the best-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. In contrast to most self-help books, it is bursting with ideas that develop his almost tongue-in-cheek list of rules into a cohesive philosophy for living heroically in a time of moral chaos. The attention of many reviewers has been caught by the description of crustacean social dynamics that illustrates Peterson’s advice to “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” (Rule 1). I’m more interested in Peterson’s interdiction against bothering children when they are skateboarding (Rule 11) because it evolves into an argument against the anti-human nihilism of those who believe the earth would be best served by the extinction of the human race.

Peterson is a man who truly loves humanity, not just as a grand concept, but as individual members of a race of beings, none of whom ought to be sacrificed to save the whales or usher in the latest Five Year Plan. Love for the individual human being fuels Peterson’s rejection of Soviet-style totalitarianism no less than it condemns the anti-humanism of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold.

In fact, the “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”/lobster fight chapter strikes me as a “hook” that gets post-Christian readers interested enough to engage with Peterson’s more obviously Christian ideas. Although some readers may be somewhat mystified as to what kind of Christian Peterson might be—his lobster-based arguments for both human hierarchy and sexual difference reveal an unabashed embrace of evolutionary theory—he bluntly states that the central figure of Western Civilisation is Jesus Christ.

Christ appears only on page 42, but he dominates the book in an unusual way, not only because Peterson begins his book with a nightmare of himself at the centre of a cruciform cathedral, but because Peterson indicates the Cross throughout his work. For example, Peterson identifies suffering as an unarguable constant of human life. (As the father of a child with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, he has grappled in a very personal way with the suffering of the innocent.) For another, he is fascinated with the Bible, not in a strictly theological sense, but as a source of psychological truths, or as truths about human psychology. This, too, makes Peterson’s thought attractive and instructive to listeners who have hitherto rejected the Scriptures as irrelevant to modern life.

Alongside love of humanity, horror at totalitarianism, recognition of Christ at the centre of Western Civilization, and acceptance that suffering is inevitable, Peterson reveals a fascination with truth-telling. In his famous interview with Britain’s Cathy Newman, Peterson stated that he is very careful with his words; having read his book, I realize how very true this is. Under “Rule 8: Don’t Lie”, Peterson describes his quest to always tell and act the truth, an endeavor which is much harder than it sounds, involving strict self-policing. While reading Peterson on the importance of telling the truth (“or, at least, don’t lie”), I was reminded of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who thought any lie was an abuse of God’s merciful postlapsarian gift of language. Peterson thinks hiding from the truth, or lying, is deeply damaging to the character, leading ultimately to disappointment, failure, vengefulness, and hell.

Linked to the importance of truth is the importance of paying attention, an emphasis which reminded me of the philosophical work of Canadian Catholic priest and theologian, Bernard Lonergan, whose own rules for life were Be Attentive, Be Intelligent, Be Reasonable, Be Responsible, and, as he neared death, Be Loving. Fortunately for the general reader, Peterson’s work is much easier to grasp than that of Lonergan.

This brings me to the question of whom this book is for. I think it’s for anyone grappling with contemporary ideological battles—or who feels that they are drowning in chaos. A widely reviewed Amazon #1 bestseller, 12 Rules for Life is already serving as a bridge between Christians and non-Christians interested in the truths of human life and in resisting the lies of ideological totalitarianism. I would particularly recommend it for college-bound teenagers who may otherwise find themselves depressed by the deeply nihilistic, anti-human, and decidedly anti-Christian trends they will almost certainly encounter.

To give you an impression of the Toronto professor’s impact on the wider world, let me tell you an anecdote: I was in Kraków, Poland in January, and a Polish astrophysicist from Gdańsk asked my luncheon party if we had heard of Jordan Peterson. Graduates of the University of Toronto, Aberdeen University, Edinburgh University, and the University of Warsaw, we all had heard of Jordan Peterson. He’s the man of the hour, and he has written a book that challenges non-Christians to contemplate Christ.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
by Jordan B. Peterson
Random House Canada, 2018
Hardcover, 448 pages


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About Dorothy Cummings McLean 25 Articles
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She is a regular writer for LifeSiteNews.com. Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

10 Comments

  1. Peterson is a breed apart from most so-called contemporary public “intellectuals” who force the human condition and experience into a rigid/dogmatic secularistic mold, locked in a scientific even scientistic epistemology eg, Harris, Dawkins,Kraus et al. Ironically, this methodology is duhumanizing, and Peterson is to be applauded in combatting such attitudes. God bless the man!

    • Well said but make it simple. The sign of a truly good teacher is that he can illiterate an idea to the mass’s in simple words that most can grasp. Jordon restores the meaning of our existence in an progressively hopeless world.

  2. He reminds me of Dr Laura… not at all a bad thing, but I wonder at the wisdom of Catholics getting to excited over these sensations.

  3. I read the book pool-side while vacationing to Florida. His attention to the Book of Genesis is very well done. His understanding of Original Sin was surprising but clearly a help in sorting things out. I would recommend it… deep at times but his stories make it a pretty easy read. Worth it. Reward the man and his publisher. Oh Canada!!!

  4. AYN RAND, JORDAN PETERSON, & SACRED SELFISHNESS

    The famous Russian-American author of the last century wrote a book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Ayn Rand believed and taught that she had discovered, by rational thinking, that selfishness is good, that sacrificing for others is bad, and that there is no God.

    The currently famous Canadian Jordan B. Peterson has, I believe, essentially the same message as Ayn Rand: that selfishness is good and that sacrificing for others is bad.

    Overt Selfishness has been a taboo in the Christian West for all of its history, until the last 100 years or so. Nietzsche (Jordan Peterson’s favorite philosopher) was a leader in overturning Christian ethics and morality. Despite all the “progress” (regress) made in weakening Christian ethics, the overt preaching and practice of Selfishness still remain troubling to many people.

    This taboo regarding Selfishness is what Ayn Rand and Jordan Peterson are helping people liberate themselves from, and I believe that this single factor is what explains the cult-like following of both Ayn Rand and Peterson.

    But unlike Ayn Rand, Peterson does not claim that he discovered the Virtue of Selfishness and the Vice of Self-Sacrifice by means of rational thinking.

    Rather, Peterson claims that the Virtue-of-Selfishness and the Vice of-Self-Sacrifice-for-Others are simply the key sacred teachings that created and sustained the divine Western Civilization, as found in the ancient myths that have been carried along by that civilization and her people.

    Listen to Peterson closely, and you’ll see that he doesn’t think these values and truths of Western Civilization were literally handed to mankind by a supernatural deity. He thinks the God character or characters found in myths are just part of the storytelling and narrative structure of the myths. All great fictions need a fictional hero. God or Christ is that fictional hero in the myths of Western Civilization, according to Peterson.

    Peterson thinks that Western Civilization, and its core narratives, are a natural product of naturalistic Darwinian evolution, and so are not eternal or permanent. But they are, in his view, nevertheless deserving of being called “sacred,” because, in his interpretation of history, Western Civilization represents the pinnacle of human evolution (thus far), and thus must be protected, preserved, and advanced, no matter what.

    Jordan Peterson is an academic Psychologist, and his core specialty is Evolutionary Psychology. Everything else he teaches is built on that completely naturalistic foundation. Because Peterson knows that many Christians are sensitive about hard-core Darwinism, he often soft-peddles or obscures this for his audiences.

    If you doubt that this is a fair and accurate summary of the teachings of Jordan Peterson, all those videos of his are out there for you to see, if you have the time and the will. It’s all out there, if you wish to see it.

    I think the following Bible passage from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy goes a long way to explain what why Ayn Rand and Jordan Peterson have such a cult following, even among Christians:

    “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.” (2 Timothy 3:1-9)

    I believe that revolution in morals undertaken by Ayn Rand and Jordan Peterson is also explained in this famous passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

    “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1: 18-32)

  5. I do not believe that you are correct about Peterson’s believing that selfishness is a virtue. Throughout his book, he emphasizes the necessity of sacrifice. Much of his language that may appear to promote selfishness is in fact an attempt to wake people from the lies that they tell themselves in order to avoid internal and external confrontation and bring them to the point where true sacrifice is possible. He is certainly imperfect, and is probably not yet a Christian, but I think that his book contains true, though incomplete, understanding and wisdom.

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