Jordan Peterson and the Return of the Stoics
“Aphorisms,” wrote James Geary, “are like particle accelerators for the mind.” When particles collide inside an accelerator, new ones are formed as the energy of the crash is converted into matter. Inside an aphorism, it is minds that collide, and what spins out is that most slippery of things, wisdom.
Jordan Peterson, whose 12 Rules for Life has been a runaway hit, has given us a good example of this strange reaction. The problem is, as Peterson is discovering, the weird particles that are spinning out of his extraordinary book are passing right through the brains of reviewers and commentators without apparently touching any grey matter at all. It is hard to recall a recent bestseller that’s been so misread, so misunderstood, and so misrepresented.
In part, this is a reflection of the genre and some stylistic choices. Many reviewers (such as Julian Baggini in the Financial Times, Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books, and Houman Barekat in the LA Review of Books) have either brushed away Peterson’s project with a dismissive wave of the hand or decided that Peterson himself is singularly unsuitable for the task. Baggini in particular appears not to have understood a single word. Clearly, some reviewers wouldn’t be caught dead in the self-help section of the local bookshop. Peterson has compounded their dismay with his choice of flippant chapter headings (“Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”) and a dry sense of humor (his infamous lobsters make an appearance as early as page 1, line 1, Rule 1). His spectacular popularity works against him, too, at least in the more snobbish reaches of the Saturday review supplements. And when they do notice 12 Rules of Life, these left-leaning publications review not so much the book as the author, leading them to contend with what they imagine the book might contain rather than what it actually says.
These reviewers have done a disservice to their readers. In large measure, they have failed to engage with a work that is complex, challenging, and novel. Peterson is sketching out a draft for how we can survive, look in the mirror, and deal with psychological pain.
To understand his message, the first task is not to be distracted by the title or genre, and look for the metaphorical glue that binds it all together. 12 Rules sets out an interesting and complex model for humanity, and it really has nothing to do with petting a cat or taking your tablets or being kind to lobsters. It is about strength, courage, responsibility, and suffering, but it is deep and difficult, and it is not easy to pigeonhole. In a sense, 12 Rules contains a number of hidden structures and hidden processes, and confusingly, these are not always made explicit in the text. The first of these is Deep Time. We are biological creatures, evolved beings who can only be truly understood through a model that encapsulates the notion of geological time. The concept of Deep Time is very recent: just a few generations ago science thought that the earth was a few thousand years old. The realization that the planet has been around for billions of years and that life itself not much younger has brought about a shift in the story of ourselves and our place in the world. We are the products of processes that are old, old, old. We stretch back across unfathomable reaches, incomprehensible spans, but we carry that history within us. To give one example, Peterson writes that “we see what we point our eyes at” (which Baggini dismisses as “a puff of pseudo-profundity”). This quote is actually from an extended passage about evolution, perception, visual field, and our tendency to screen out what we are not intensely focused on (an observation that Baggini confirms by screening out the entire context of that sentence). Peterson makes a number of inter-related points in this passage, which serves as a metaphor for what follows.
Quite apart from the immensity of Deep Time, our story must take into account indescribable spans of historical time. From deep in our past, ancient myths have been thrown up that become our founding texts. Peterson is accused by some of having an explicitly Christian message but again this is based on a misreading. Arguably, 12 Rules is infused with Gnosticism, the search for spiritual self-knowledge; the mythic qualities of the ancient religions hold significant insights for him. His message is far from a “Christian” one: it is a Jungian one. (By and large, his book has been well received by Christian reviewers but they have been puzzled and disconcerted by his theology. Inasmuch as the book contains any theology, it is probably closer to that of Paul Tillich, the Lutheran existentialist who was accused by many of being an atheist or even a “pantheist.”) Peterson’s is also a message that leaves space for social constructionism, because he makes it clear that we are inter alia social beings and we are the products of deep acculturation (of which our myths and religions are a crucial part). Like Jung, Peterson senses a secret unrest that gnaws at the roots of our being, because we have forgotten too much from our long and dangerous journey. We must listen to our myths, understand them, and learn from them. The symbolism contained therein reveals something important about our nature.
This leads to a second hidden concept: the Unconscious. Here Peterson recaptures ground that’s become unfashionable in modern psychology. His model is heavily influenced by Freud and Jung. “You don’t know yourself,” he says. We are not who we thought we were. We carry secret, shameful knowledge that’s scarcely accessible to conscious exploration (Freud). We also carry elements of a Collective Unconscious (Jung) that’s glimpsed via our myths and creation narratives. If you think you are an atheist you are wrong, says Peterson, because your mind has been bent and shaped and molded by a god-fearing past stretching back into the unfathomable abysm of time.
Unlike almost every modern book in the self-help genre, happiness is a not a major theme here, and to Peterson it is not necessarily even a primary goal. Like Freud, Peterson sees life as suffering. Pain is its one incontrovertible fact (he remarks at one point that it is a miracle that anything in the world gets done at all: such is the ubiquity of human suffering). 12 Rules is not about the pursuit of pleasure, and indeed parts of his message are pure Stoicism. Resistance to life’s depredations is futile. You will suffer. Accept that, and shift your focus to the one thing that is within your control: your attitude.
This perhaps explains some of the antipathy of left-leaning reviewers, who sense a return to a 19th-century American pioneer spirit (or for British reviewers, an outdated stiff upper lip). But such assessments miss the point: Peterson is not simply invoking a set of manly Victorian rules of conduct. He is fashioning an intellectual rationale (a belief system if you will) that ties together biology, psychology, mythology, and existential philosophy. 12 Rules is essentially a riff on the search for meaning, an extended essay in existential psychology but with several important twists. It isn’t a “rational” message, in stark contrast to the modern idiom in psychology that places a priority on the use of logic and reason to uncover and challenge our negative irrational biases. Following Tillich and Rollo May and Carl Rogers, Peterson sees the crisis of the Western world as one of emptiness, hopelessness, and nihilism. The fear of death has been largely replaced by the fear of meaninglessness. We are born alone, we die alone, and we suffer terrible crises in between.
There is no logical response to this; Peterson asks us to make an “irrational leap of existential faith,” to make a conscious decision to presume the “primary goodness of Being.” His much-derided directive to “tidy your room” makes sense at every level. Indeed, if your room is too big, start with “tidy your desk,” and then move forward. Find meaning in the tiniest acts of kindness, and push on from there. Concede the transience of pleasure and the inevitability of death. This isn’t happiness, but it is a step closer to the Good Life, and contra the reviewers, readers are responding. Active, purposeful “Being in the World” is the dominant theme, and much of the book is taken up with exploring the whys and wherefores of this. Courage and strength and kindness, yes, to be sure, but importantly, courage “in spite of” and kindness “in spite of.” Following Carl Rogers, meaning is to be found in active engagement in a wondrous and hazardous world, and here there is no shirking the “hazardous.” It seems to me that Peterson is calling for a return to ataraxia, that imperturbability and equanimity that has been out of fashion amongst the intelligentsia (at least in the West) for a century or more.
The underlying political philosophy is conservative, without question. As Christian Gonzalez identified in The American Conservative, Peterson’s closest contemporary equivalent is Roger Scruton. “We have learned to live together and organize our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time,” he writes, “and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works.” Peterson on the American culture wars sounds like Scruton on the English Common Law: we are “from the soil,” we need time, it is senseless to break what we barely understand. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. Those left-leaning critics who see “just another reactionary” have failed to understand the complexity. What permeates this project is an implicit biopsychosocial model of the human condition (Peterson spares the reader that dread term but it is the only description I know for his integrative model).
Would I recommend 12 Rules to anyone struggling to find meaning in their lives? Yes, I already have. But not without some trepidation and a sliver of doubt. Not because it’s no good (it is fascinating) but because it isn’t straightforward. This is patronizing on my part, I accept, but it gives up its secrets slowly. The subtleties are way beyond the ken of some contemporary reviewers. The format and the aphoristic style are just a wheeze, but as Geary said, aphorisms are particle accelerators, and this book of rules is throwing out strange new things, wonderful ideas. They are fizzing out and beyond, lighting up some dark corners, and spinning back into the deep, deep abysm of time.
Tim Rogers is a consultant psychiatrist in Edinburgh. He’s written for Encounter magazine, and has published in both Quillette and Areo.