After seeing him on almost every talk show for months and reading a number of reviews and essays on his work, I finally caught up with Jordan Peterson’s best seller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I can say without hesitation that it is one of the more unusual works I have encountered. I’m not much into “self-help” readings and pop culture “to do” lists, but this one was different.
In Plato’s Apology, at his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates supposedly uttered his famous dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, for he believed that philosophy, the love of wisdom, was life’s most important pursuit and this was manifest in his life’s work asking questions, such as “what is virtue?”, “what is justice?”, and “how can one live the good life?”. Peterson’s book offers an existential route to such an examination and I use the term existential, because rather than a more politically correct characterization, what he offers are not suggestions or guidelines, but rules. And the overriding rule is that you must take responsibility for your own life.
He starts by defining the parameters of consideration which take place between life’s elements of chaos and order, where chaos is unexplored territory and what he calls the place you end up when things fall apart, but also when challenging opportunities present themselves. By contrast, order is explored territory, the hundreds of millions of years of hierarchy, place, position, and authority–the structure of society and also of biology. His dozen rules help to traverse between these two elements as he takes you through various aspects of philosophy, religion, case studies from his clinical practice, and personal life experiences.
There is a little something for everyone here: There is a little too much of Heidegger’s “Being” to suit me, but he makes good use of Nietzsche, rejecting his atheism, but acknowledging his belief that the so-called “death of God” was a huge disaster for mankind. He doesn’t deny Marx’s charge that culture is an oppressive structure, but he says it’s always been that way and he thinks the benefits outweigh the suffering involved in conforming to tradition. And, although the exact nature of his religious faith is unclear, he believes that it is necessary and beneficial for religions to have a dogmatic element. And when the 12 chapter tour has concluded, there is no doubt that Peterson has forcefully made the case that not just freedom, but order is a basic human need and one that is too often being neglected.
There are numerous nuggets of wisdom here and much to chew on, and I believe that he has made a serious contribution to the discussion we need to have in the re-founding of a conservatism that needs restoration for the 21st century.