Three years ago clinical psychologist and culture warrior Jordan Peterson rode a bestseller to equal parts adulation and excoriation. Danyl Mclauchlan reviews a sequel that sprang from chaos.
Since publishing his mega-bestselling self-help guide 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos in 2018, Jordan Peterson has led an existence that can only be described as chaotic. He became a global celebrity, a conservative messiah, a progressive demon, a vortex of controversy; he adopted a meat cleanse diet to help treat his severe depression and auto-immune disorder, become addicted to benzodiazepines after increasing his dosage of the anti-anxiety drug when his wife was diagnosed with aggressive cancer, he flew to a Moscow hospital for treatment, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and placed into an induced coma for 10 days. When he regained consciousness and recovered his memory, and the ability to walk – which took about a month – he moved to a hospital in Serbia where he was treated for acute akathisia, a movement disorder characterised by extreme restlessness and anxiety. Where he became infected with Covid-19.
During all of this Peterson found the time to write Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. And he also discovered the Harry Potter books. He’s a HUGE fan so Beyond Order is rich with Harry Potter references and analogies. And if you mostly know about Jordan Peterson from his media coverage you might think: that makes sense; Peterson first became famous for refusing to use non-binary pronouns when his university made them mandatory: JK Rowling inserted herself into the transgender debate last year (coincidentally just before she published a novel which became a global bestseller). That must be the glue between them.
But what you might not understand about Jordan Peterson is that his books are both weirder yet less interesting than you think.
Peterson doesn’t really write about social justice issues. Beyond Order contains no electoral politics and hardly any culture war content. Peterson’s books really are self-help books. Sure, they’re conservative self-help books, but they’re primarily esoteric self-help books. Peterson believes that the secrets to living a good and meaningful life are encoded in the stories, religions and mystical traditions of the premodern world. Which is why his rules mostly consist of digressions about Daoism and Tarot and Egyptian mythology and Biblical prophecy, with some evolutionary psychology and patient case studies mixed in. And Harry Potter.
One of the first Hogwarts-centric discussions comes early, in Rule II: Imagine who you could be and then aim singlemindledly at that. Peterson illustrates this by telling us about the medieval alchemists: the pre-scientific mystical tradition that sought to transmute lead into gold. He argues that for some alchemists this transmutation was allegorical: they’re really talking about the purification of the psyche. They believed that everything in our universe derived from a “materia prima”, or first matter, a form of primordial chaos. Medieval woodcuts from alchemical texts depicted the materia prima as a winged sphere – just like the GOLD snitch in Quidditch! And the name of the position that chases the Snitch? “The Seeker!”
I’ve talked to a few of Peterson’s admirers who were indignant about my dismissive review of his first book, which made fun of exactly this sort of pseudo-profundity, and they all told me the same thing: I don’t understand Jordan Peterson and I have to watch his YouTube videos. THEN read his book. And I can see how that might work. He’s a charismatic presence – great talent, as producers say – so it makes sense that his videos function as a gateway. Maybe if you “hear” the text in his voice it all comes together, and this stuff seems like wisdom.
But my job is to describe the book for non-fans. If you’re that invested in the Extended Jordan Peterson Cinematic Universe you don’t need a review. And my overwhelming impression of both Peterson’s advice books is that they’re strange and rambling and boring. I think it’s great that some people get such a sense of meaning and purpose from his writing – I’m not being snide here, I really mean it. But he’s an acquired taste, and after 1,200 pages I have not acquired him.
This book is better than the first. Presumably because when you sell five million copies they give you a good editor for the followup (although one imagines Dr Peterson as being difficult to edit). And it is problematic by progressive standards. Here, for example, is the index entry for “women”:
and careers, 284
and creation story, 283
feminine-serpent relationship, 79-80n
power of rejection held by, 80n
and pregnancies, 284, 319
Wahhabism’s views of, 176n
who don’t want children, 283-284
And I think this one is a little more ideological. Rule I is: Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement. The notion that existing institutions, hierarchies and cultural traditions encode centuries of aggregated wisdom has been the central tenet of political conservatism since Burke. It’s sometimes summarised as “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back,” or in GK Chesterton’s famous parable of the fence, which ends: “Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.”
Peterson takes 50 pages to communicate the idea that humans are “innately hierarchical” and that our existing institutions constitute “hierarchies of competence”. Along the way we get anecdotes about his patients and granddaughter and digressions on the Tarot deck, the evolution of early multicellular organisms, the Gospels, children’s games; more Harry Potter. For most of this discussion I’d forgotten what the rule was until Peterson restated it at the end, a pattern that recurred throughout the book.
Rule VI, “Abandon Ideology”, is a denunciation of Nazis, Communists, postmodernism, feminism, environmentalism and “incompetent and corrupt intellectuals” in general. We revisit Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, two of Peterson’s favourite thinkers, and reprise his most famous advice: that his followers should clean their bedrooms. But the conceit that your ideology is not an ideology but rather simple common sense is another classic conservative trope. When you combine Rule I and Rule VI you arrive at the convenient conclusion that the status quo is moral, that defending it is value neutral, and that anyone questioning it is blinded by ideology.
Part of the reason for the book’s wandering expansiveness is that you’re not just getting conservative ideology and esoteric self-help: you’re also getting Peterson’s Unified Theory of Everything. (Or, as a cynic might put it: his ideology.) This is hard to summarise, but the division of existence into “two fundamental principles of reality”, order and chaos, lies at the heart of it all. Life is about balancing these opposing yet complementary forces. Too much order leads to sclerosis and stagnation; too much chaos is too chaotic. You should learn to follow the rules, but learn why the rules are there so you can break them – if you understand that by doing so you advance the deeper purpose of the rules. Grasping this you will avoid both too much security and complacency, and harness your fear of the unknown. Like Harry, Hermione and Ron. Or the way Peterson helped one of his clinical patients who was afraid of death by taking her to witness the embalming of a corpse.
I like a couple of Peterson’s ideas. I think he’s right that we “outsource our sanity”; that we’re social animals; that a lot of our mental health and happiness comes from the health of our relationships; that if we allow these to deteriorate then we quickly fall apart, and these views seem like a departure from his previous, more individualistic and self-reliant rulebook.
And I agree with his wildly unsophisticated ideas about art and literature: that instead of being vehicles for political messaging or problematic texts to deconstruct, art is supposed to help us live, to bring beauty and meaning into our day to day existence, to let us see the world anew. The best “rule” in the book (none of them are really rules: they’re all essays loosely based around a theme) is Rule VIII: Try and make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.
It’s not enough just to tidy your room, Peterson announces: you have to beautify it. He muses on his theory of art, that artists occupy the boundary between order and chaos; the transformation of the unknown into knowledge. From here he riffs on his vast collection of Soviet-era oil paintings, his appreciation of Whitman and Wordsworth, how he got into a fight with his university’s bureaucracy when he tried to redecorate his office, what that tells us about art and conformity and innovation, his conviction that he’s seen more paintings than anyone who ever lived. It’s bizarre, but also thought-provoking and funny. And no one but Jordan Peterson could have written it.
There was a huge moral panic about Peterson when he published 12 Rules for Life. He generated outrage traffic – intentionally, as a marketing tool – and that led to an industry of alarmist Jordan Peterson takes which convinced a lot of people that he was some sort of incel Jesus poised to overthrow society and turn the world into Gilead. This did not come to pass: instead Peterson wound up in a hospital bed in Moscow suffering from benzodiazepine withdrawal and amnesia.
There’s something about the internet that incentivises us to either love something or hate it. (I have a conspiracy theory that this is driven by the platforms: that it’s easier to commodify our data and sell us stuff if we have extreme, binary reactions to everything.) So let me end this Peterson review on a note of firm ambivalence. Jordan Peterson is not scary. He’s not that bad. Some of his ideas are interesting. Some of his advice is sensible. I think he’s a net positive in the world. There are a lot of lost and confused people out there searching for meaning, and I’d rather they stumbled across Dr Peterson than fall into the malevolent clutches of 8Chan, or QAnon or Gwyneth Paltrow.
But I also don’t think his books are very good. Partly because I don’t agree with his politics – for all Peterson’s discussion of empathy and the imagination, he fails to see how others – especially women, young people, minority groups – might be sceptical of the so-called “hierarchies of competence” that dominate our societies. But there are plenty of conservative political writers I admire. In some ways the intellectual right seems more generative and interesting than the left, in our current moment. Peterson just isn’t one of them: he’s too gloomy, too ponderous; too confused. I’ve read both his very long books. Twenty-four rules are a lot of rules: apparently he has 42 in total. But I’m not sure what all these rules add up to; many of them contradict each other, and others seem like nonsense. Jordan Peterson is just too damn chaotic.
Danyl Mclauchlan’s new essay collection Tranquillity and Ruin was published last month.
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