Myths, True and Otherwise

Review: '12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos' by Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson /
February 4, 2018

Jordan Peterson is fast emerging as something like the C.S. Lewis of our time. More than half a century on, he seeks to answer many of the same questions with like pastoral care, and his influence and audience, while not now as general as Lewis's was in 1947 when he appeared on the cover of Time, is strikingly similar—people frightened by the events and cultural shifts of their time. As youths today, particularly young men, find themselves wandering or, more often, stuck in the wreckage of the ideas and trends Lewis warned against, they are finding in Peterson a guide to their perplexity and answers to questions they had not quite articulated themselves. In his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote To Chaos the clinical psychologist has fully embraced that role, and is looking to broaden his audience beyond the disciples he has curated on YouTube and social media.

Circumstances and the audience living in them have changed since Lewis died in 1963. Peterson's West is much less churched—increasingly, to use an insipid but not insignificant formula, "spiritual but not religious." Cultural literacy has changed and deteriorated; we share fewer touchstones, and one seems more likely to be understood through reference to Harry Potter than to the Bible. Important to the Toronto professor's project and personal development, we have plumbed the abysm of horror that was the Holocaust, the fall of the Iron Curtain has shed light on the realities of Soviet Communism, and the world remains under threat of nuclear war. Less apparently influential on the good doctor, global markets and automation have ravaged American industry and small-town life, with opioids following fast behind. People live dragging debt like the ghost of Jacob Marley's chains. Society is split, polarized by fundamental questions of justice and human nature but waging a culture war with weapons of naked social power and empty language. In this digital age, we are all drunk on meaningless data at all times, too befuddled by the facts and fabrications fighting for our attention to stop and think. Not agreeing on what it means to be human, we do not agree on what it means to be American, or Canadian, or really much of anything else.

Lost in all that are young people wondering where they fit in, especially young men. Exposed only to vapid visions of faith and religious life, failing to thrive in an education system geared toward girls and narrow socialization when it isn't breaking down entirely, skeptical they can succeed in an economic system that seems stacked if not against them then for others, boys are retreating to prolonged adolescence—often to NEET status as not employed, in education, or in training—and to the navigable rules and community to be found online. There, in memes and trolling and vulgarly earnest discussion, many piece together the rudiments of a worldview and a life. Off YouTube, Reddit, 4chan, and the rest of the male-dominated web, the story doesn't seem to have a plot.

So, in wades Jordan Peterson, a very different Lewis, to do as Lewis did and provide people a story in which to read their life, giving narrative truth to an age of emotion and empiricist facts. A shared passion equipped these two for this task. Both were fundamentally formed by myth and their reflections on mythology. Peterson's 1999 first book, Maps of Meaning, is an academic Jungian romp through cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology. Reflections on the symbolic and evolutionary significance of mythic archetypes for human psychology and health are the heart of Peterson's project, and the foundation of his extremely chatty 12 Rules for Life—smiley face emoji appear throughout what at times reads like a 400 page blog post. Lewis, a medievalist and not a clinical psychologist, published The Discarded Image in 1964, on the meanings of the Ptolemaic cosmos, the culmination of a career sodden with myth. Most famously, of course, he converted (or reverted) to Christianity from his atheism under the conviction that Jesus Christ as dying God was not just archetypal but True Myth, though Balder and Osiris had died before him. And there lies the difference between Lewis and Peterson; where Lewis has the creeds—Trinity, God-Man, and Church—Peterson has a kind of Heideggerian Being, archetypal man, and some idea of the West.

Lewis had divine Revelation and with it, hope of divine grace. Peterson has evolution, and no grace to be found. 12 Rules for Life is a grim book. It's no stretch to apply a theological gloss: It is full of Peterson's exegesis of the Bible, a book of wisdom and archetypal myth to him only distinguished by its status as providing the "fundamental substructure of Western civilization." Adam is an example of human weakness; Christ merely an exemplar of human strength. No one has come to save you; you will have to save yourself. The ideal of a noble freedom of the soul to choose vice or virtue drove Pelagius to reject a divine first movement of grace in humanity's salvation in the 5th century. For Peterson today that freedom is equally essential and drives him to the same conclusion. His world is suspended between order and chaos and our choices and responsibility allow us to navigate that tension, to walk the narrow way between them in our fullest participation in Being.

That divide between order and chaos is, of course, in scripture. Peterson does not add. His close readings of texts, Bible or others, are insightful and coherent. But he does ignore, or perhaps he merely misses the point. The creation account in Genesis is for Peterson another picture of order being imposed on chaos, for "the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." In Peterson's reading there is little difference between this and the creation found in the Babylonian Enuma Elish, where Marduk carves the cosmos from Tiamat's corpse—masculine imposition of order on feminine chaos. But to reduce both these accounts to order and chaos, Yin and Yang, paradigmatic masculine and feminine, as Peterson does, is to fail to see Genesis 1:1 at all: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." This is a rejection of the ontology of violence common to ancient near east creation myths. The God who creates matter ex nihilo and orders it through speech is fashioning a cosmos far different from a nature built on blood.

To rehash Lewis's liar, lunatic, or Lord argument, the Biblical narrative—whether in the Judaic or Christian tradition—doesn't leave much room for Peterson's reduction of it to merely an important Mediterranean expression of Jungian genetic memory. It's either what it says it is or wrong in very serious ways. Peterson, avid reader and promoter of Nietzsche that he is, seems to get this, and is very carefully ignoring it. The details of revelation, of a God speaking into history still and in relationship with his people, are lies or lunacy for 12 Rules for Life. And in a sense the book is Peterson's response to Nietzsche's On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, attempting through existential choice to make the symbolism of our cultural heritage still spiritually significant, narratively true even as it is essentially false, to provide the tools to ward off encroaching nihilism in a world where the state of nature is always crouching at the door. It is a lonely vision for life, making meaning through making yourself, becoming the fittest you can be.

Paradise as the Garden of Eden is as close to heaven as this vision can see. The order Peterson calls for, his idea of a Kingdom of Heaven at hand, is the work to remake that garden, battling with chaos first within and then perhaps that without. But in the Christian account, the Kingdom of Heaven is not just in the heart but in community, in a Body of Christ still in history and the Church, and it looks forward to an eschaton, in a consummation in a heavenly city. Cities are social; gardens are retreats. And in the Biblical tradition the garden was never the goal—perfection went further—for as God told the man and woman in Genesis 1: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it." There is an ontology of harmony, not of violence, and community, not just the individual, with grace active to enable and equip man's ultimate perfection.

For all my theological concern, however, Peterson and his eager audience make sense. We are so post-Christian, so culturally confused, so far into making Nietzsche's "slave morality" condemnation an accurate one in our identity politics and victimhood—present in all tribes of our politics—that his message and his advice are necessary. Humans need more help along the way and are weaker than his cosmic model admits, but there are many people, especially the young men who have found him and made him their teacher, who do need to hear the lessons of 12 Rules for Life. They can bring some order to their own lives, and maybe after that, help order a broken world. They should fix themselves before they worry about fixing the system. As Melville writes in Moby Dick, "Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself." I don't question Peterson's professional expertise as a clinical psychiatrist or student of evolutionary psychology, and what's more, most of his advice is, if not exactly common sense, certainly sensible if you pause even a moment to consider it. Couched though it is in idiosyncratic readings of the Bible and world myth, it is genuinely good counsel. I hope readers take it seriously. At the very least it will make them good parents.

Which leads me to ask, if not Peterson, then whom? Who would his critics rather his disciples sit at the feet of? I know who I'd prefer, but do they? If Peterson's opponents succeed in driving him out of public life as some kind of alt-right figure, and they really are attempting to through all the now too-familiar means of censure and censor, then his readers and listeners will not turn to Habermas or Lacan, to Chomsky or Butler. That ship has sailed for them. Instead, without Peterson articulating an intelligent counter to the muddle of prevalent ideas, they will turn to the usual suspects—to Ayn Rand and Stefan Molyneux and Curtis Yarvin—and retreat back to the safety of online. And that does no one good, for Peterson is somehow authentically pro-social even as he is a Darwinian individualist.

Peterson, like Lewis, is a brilliant popularizer. His contribution is synthesis and communication, not earth shattering originality—though admittedly many of his close readings are all his own. In 12 Rules for Life he is quick to give credit where it is due, citing the ways his readings of Jung, Freud, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and many others have shaped his thought. Some will accuse him of glossing these as poorly as I believe he has much of scripture, and so I hope Peterson's readers will read those figures too, and the Bible, and consider each for themselves. I would also point readers to Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, and Lewis himself as thinkers addressing the same fundamental life-in-modernity concerns as 12 Rules for Life, with more sensitivity to the gaping need for spiritual significance, and with a real hope in divine grace. But in the meantime, I call Peterson a heretic and cautiously wish him my best.

Published under: Book reviews