Review: 12 Rules for Life

Author: Jordan B. Peterson
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre: Self-Help, Personal Growth, Applied Psychology, Social Philosophy

Professor Jordan B. Peterson has become one of the most discussed and popular intellectuals in modern discourse. While his work has proved to be controversial, much of what he has to say speaks clearly to the nihilism and malaise of modern life. His second and newest book, 12 Rules for Life, offers a fascinating crystallization of the philosophy from one of culture’s most distinguished psychoanalysts and philosophical thinkers.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: Long digressions about the meaning of life and religious symbolism.

Violence: References to violence, nothing graphically described.

Language/Crude Humor: Mild language.

Sexual Content: Some scientific references to sexuality.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Some references to drug use.

Other Negative Themes: References to suicide and nihilism.

Positive Content: Strong themes about life, meaning and religious transcendence.

Review

The past year and a half has represented the rise of a fascinating new intellectual voice into the public with Jordan B. Peterson. Since his rise to prominence in 2016, he’s become something of a bizarre figurehead for a number of ideological stances and movements. Several of these movements he does not actually support. Beyond the petty squabbling and doldrums of modern political discourse, Peterson has represented a far more profound and interesting movement that is slowly growing in the culture. In some strains, he’s become a symbol of a new style of religious thought bursting onto the scene to overtake the once-assumed-settled debate in academia regarding the relevance of God and the Bible. In practice, what he represents is a form of religious agnosticism. This sounds like an oxymoron, but in practice, it represents a fascinating form of psychoanalytical deconstruction of religious materials like the Bible, much in the style of of academics like Carl Yung and Joseph Campbell. If this doesn’t sound useful, consider that his Lecture Series on the Bible has garnered millions of views from an audience of generally non-religous millennials. The first episode of the series has 2.6 million views. Now at the height of his popularity he’s released a new book 12 Rules for Life that’s become one of the best selling books of 2018 and shockingly outselling even Michael Wolf’s Fire and Fury to become the #1 selling book on Amazon for a period. Irregardless of your thoughts on the man and his beliefs, he’s certainly hit a nerve. In doing so, he’s exposed a fascinating yearning within the culture to seek a kind of spiritual meaning.

His actual religious beliefs are quite difficult to nail down and it seems to be purposefully so. He’s stated something to the effect that he doesn’t want to be nailed down to a specific belief. It’s not clear if he’s doing this for PR to open dialog with non-religious people or because he’s that nervous about staking a religious claim, but as I stated earlier, the closest label you could accurately put to him would likely be as a religious agnostic. This confused a great deal of people early on in his speaking career as he worked his way through the internet and media. Religious pundits clearly wanted him on their side and atheist critics like Sam Harris have poured a great deal of negativity on his positive relationship with the Bible. A great deal of pundits wanted him to give a clear answer; his reluctance to answer gave many of his critics an inch to go after him. Albeit, this criticism didn’t stick for very long. His star has only continued to rise across the English-speaking world as he’s begun a month-long tour across North America, Europe, and Australia — with sell out crowds at most venues. I had the opportunity to attend his Chicago lecture in May. The Chicago Theater, a venue of thousands of seats, was packed to capacity for a psychology lecture. The audience was brimming with mostly young men and women, but also people of all shades and stripes. Whatever this was, it was unusual.

This tour has been done in tandem with the release of his newest book, 12 Rules for Life. While his labyrinth of unorthodox  philosophy is just now breaking the surface, this release isn’t the first time has catalyzed into literature. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief was released in 1999 after 13 years of introspection and research while he worked as an associate professor at Harvard University. He subsequently returned to Canada to become a professor at the University of Toronto. This previous work, once adapted by TVOntario into a 13-part miniseries, offers a fully comprehensive breakdown on Peterson’s entire theory of myths, religions, and beliefs and is considered by reputation to be a rather dense read. As I have not partaken yet, I won’t speak further on the subject and, anyway, his newest book is the one on the chopping block for this round.

12 Rules for Life is a book that is often written off by its critics as merely a self-help book. This is partially true. It’s clearly a book that outlines life strategies designed to help the individual move his life in a better direction. What separates it from the tawdry advice you might get from some dime store checklist you could find at Walmart is that 12 Rules for Life buries in academic research and metaphysical truth to the point of redundancy. It’s effectively a college text book on self help. At times, this proves comical, such as in the final chapter where the title of Pet a Cat When You Encounter One On the Street breaks down into a long tangent about physical illness and life’s limitations. That’s the quiet beauty of the book’s meaning. The material is difficult because life is difficult and Peterson is psychoanalyzing through the mundane to pick out the great underlying meaning that so often gets disregarded beneath ordinary things. So much of life is buried in tiny unquestioned interactions and actions, but embracing them often has a huge effect on the quality of our lives. I suspect my first time reading the book was far from sufficient for me to give a comprehensive explanation of everything the book offers.

If there’s any single takeaway from 12 Rules for Life, it’s that life is a series of small battles in a larger war. The more small victories you accrue, the farther you grow every day towards creating order among chaos. These battles can be as small as choosing to get up on time in the morning or eating better, but they can be as meaningful as whether or not we lie frequently. These small moments may seem inconsequential, but in the grand scheme of life, they add up and build you into the person you will be, which can be very good or very bad. The book offers a vision of the world as dark as anything you’ll ever find. It makes no holds against the claim that we live in a deeply fallen world and that tragedy can strike at any point against our best actions. He provides several deeply emotional examples from his own life and it becomes clear throughout the read that these ideas are battle tested through the fires of lives he’s watched play out. Religion is a constant theme throughout the book, and while he never appeals to revelation or directly acknowledges the existence of God, the wisdom and philosophy he’s able to mine from the Bible is profound. Considering just how much his work is tied to Christianity, we certainly come to see an aspect of Lewis and Aquinas’s argument from desire. Put simply, people have an innate need for God. Peterson would likely more readily say the divine or transcendent in place of God, but in practice this ends up being the same thing. Our modern world has drained the divine and left us with weaker men and women prone to vice.

As technology, communications, medicine and everything that makes our lives better improves, the state of the species seems to be in moral decay and spiritual decline. It’s easier than ever to embrace a life of degrading debauchery without consequence. There’s a deep spiritual yearning in our culture for an honest faith that the rise and preponderance of the internet and of modern atheism has only deepened. Many young people haven’t heard an intellectually defensible version of the gospel and loose their faith based upon their inability to defend what they once believed. Jordan B. Peterson has brought about a fascinating counter to the malaise and nihilism of the new generations just by teaching young people the importance of cleaning their room. Even if the argument isn’t religious, in nature his appeal to Christianity and divine truth is exposing people to religion in a new and life changing way that’s having more of an impact on culture than arguably anyone since Billy Graham.

I don’t mean to idolize Jordan B. Peterson. Many of his harshest critics, politics aside, have brushed him off based on the rabid cult of personality that’s formed in his fan base. It’s definitely unwise and sacrilegious to consider him a prophet in the way some of his fans idolize him. To me and many of his fans, however, it’s easy to fall into that. Many of his fans are atheists or generally non-religious, but his initial breakdowns on Christianity and metaphysical truth started a fascinating group known as the atheist-Christians. This group of non-believers embraced the values of Christianity because of how deeply the material reveals the innate truths of humanity, much like the gnostics of old. For so long, it seemed that religion was becoming the counterpoint to a rapidly changing culture that was growing to embrace secularism. The best it seemed we could do as a culture was to attempt to embrace the mediums the world used, but do so in an overtly christian fashion through Christian Movies, Christian Music, and Christian Bookstores. We became exclusionary. We weren’t of the world, but we weren’t in it interacting with people who needed to hear what we had to say. Worst of all, the few who were brave enough weren’t prepared to go toe-to-toe with academics like the infamous Four Horsemen and we made ourselves look worse in the process. The worst among us became the representatives for Christian loving-kindness. It was easy to assume that Christianity had been culturally sidelined. Yet the urge for spiritual well-being was there. The misplacement of religion meant that nihilism was the order of the day. Look at the cultural ubiquity of highly popular shows like Rick and Morty, whose fans have gone as far as harassing McDonalds employees in the name of living out nihilistic jokes from the show. The ubiquity of Jordan B. Peterson’s views shows that society is in desperate need of morality, truth, and meaning. What better place is there to start than cleaning up your room?

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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