Three hundred years before Nietzsche, the great French philosopher, René Descartes, was searching for a foundational foundation, 'a single proposition impervious to his scepticism.' He found it in his famous dictum, cognito ergo sum - I think therefore I am. 'That which is aware and thinks. That's the modern self, simply put.' But what exactly is that self?', Peterson asks. He sees it firstly in its horrors - such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and the Soviet gulags. But also in its goodness - following Karl Popper, Peterson comes up with - 'We can produce an idea.' 'Now, an idea is not the same as a fact. A fact is something that is dead, in and of itself. There are billions of dead facts. The internet is a graveyard of dead facts. But an idea that grips a person in alive. An idea has an aim. It wants something. It posits a value structure.' Peterson aligns himself with Descartes thus, 'I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth ... I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking. Socialism proved equally insubstantial. I was tormented by the fact of the Cold War. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with scepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape its reality. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard ... or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to "take the sins of the world onto oneself." Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. The good is whatever stops such things [evil, torment and so on] from happening.'
From this pilgrimage of his mind Peterson drew his 'fundamental moral conclusions.' 'Aim high. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don't be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility. Become aware of your own insufficiency. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit. Maybe it's not the world that's at fault. Maybe it's you. You've failed to make the mark. You've fallen short of the glory of God. You've sinned. And, above all, don't lie. Don't lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell.' 'Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.' This, according to Peterson, puts a set of presuppositions and actions at the pinnacle of his moral hierarchy. 'Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. To place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.'
we construct a moral hierarchy? For
Jung, 'It was what a person believed most
deeply. Something enacted ... it's a
personality - or, more precisely a choice
between two opposing personalities.
It's Cain or Abel - and it's Christ or
Satan. If it's working ... for the
establishment Paradise, then it's
Christ. That's the inescapable,
archetypal reality.' 'Expedience is
the following of blind impulse. It's
short-term gain. It's narrow, and
selfish. It lies to get its
way. Meaning is its mature
replacement. Meaning emerges when
impulses are regulated. It will
provide the antidote to chaos and
suffering. It will make everything
matter. It will make everything
better. If you act properly ...
everything will come together. This
produces maximal meaning. Meaning
trumps expedience. You may come to
ask yourself, "What should I do today? ...
to make things better, instead of worse?"'
- that's hiding all the skeletons in the
closet. That's avoiding
responsibility. It's cowardly, and
shallow, and wrong. There is no
faith and no courage and no sacrifice in
doing what is expedient. To have
meaning in your life is better than to
have what you want. What is
expedient works only for a moment.
Meaning is the ultimate balance between,
on the one hand, the chaos of
transformation and possibility and on the
other, the discipline of pristine
order. Meaning is the Way, the path
of life more abundant, the place you live
when you are guided by Love and speaking
the Truth and when nothing you want or
could possibly want takes any precedence
over precisely that.' 'Do what is
meaningful, not what is expedient.'
Tell the truth - or, at least, don't lie.
Do you tell the truth? Always? Are you sure? As a student Peterson began to pay close attention to what he was doing and saying. And to his astonishment, 'I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things: I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. But I was a fake. Realizing this ... I started to practise telling the truth - or, at least, not lying.' How easily we can 'act politically' or 'spin'. 'It's what everyone does when they want something, and decide to falsify themselves to please and flatter.' We use what are known as 'life-lies' to manipulate reality with perception, thought and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist. 'Pride falls in love with its own creations, and tries to make them absolute.' This is typical of ideologues. And there are those who live a life of avoidance, pretending everything is going well, avoiding conflict, smiling and always obliging. 'She has become nothing but a slave, a tool for others to exploit.' She never speaks her mind, she finds a niche and hides in it. 'Someone hiding is not someone vital. Vitality requires original contribution.' 'If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. This means that a lot of you is still nascent. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not ... you remain incomplete.' Peterson has a point, but such a severe appraisal is bound to ruffle some feathers of evangelical Christians with their ethos of sacrificing, servicing and sharing.
'If you betray yourself, if you
say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your
character. Only the most cynical, hopeless philosophy
insists that reality could be improved by
falsification. It denounces truth as insufficient and
the honest man as deluded. It is instead wilful
blindness. It's the worst sort of lie. It's
subtle. Wilful blindness is the refusal to know
something that could be known. It's refusal to admit
to error while pursuing the plan.' Peterson's wish is
for the blind plan to fail, then you try something new, you
move ahead. 'You remember the old joke: insanity is
doing the same thing over and over while expecting different
results.' And, as ever, his suggestion is '... to
begin with small changes, and see if they help.
Sometimes, however, ... the entire edifice has to be
abandoned. Error necessitates sacrifice to correct
it. To accept the truth means to sacrifice.'
This is what Søren
Kierkegaard and others call being "inauthentic". "Did
what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my
methods were wrong. I still have something to
learn." That is the voice of authenticity.'
When the individual lies, he
knows it.' And if you don't object and correct him the
first time, then the ground is prepared for more and more
lies. 'You've already trained yourself to allow such
things, by failing to react the first time. You're a
little less courageous.' Consider '... the almost
universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his
own-day-today personal experience, deny his own
state-induced suffering.' Did it matter? It led
to Stalin and the gulags. 'Untruth corrupts the soul
and the state alike, and one form of corruption feeds the
other.' 'Any natural weakness or existential
challenge, no matter how minor, can be magnified into a
serious crisis with enough deceit in the individual, family
or culture.' But, 'With love, encouragement, and
character intact, a human being can be resilient beyond
imagining. What cannot be borne, however, is the
absolute ruin produced by tragedy and deception.' 'To
say it again: it is the greatest temptation of the rational
faculty to glorify its own capacity ... and to claim ...
that nothing transcendent or outside its domain need
exist.' 'That is what totalitarian means:
Everything that needs to be discovered has been
discovered.' Witness the lies and disasters created by
Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest.
Peterson asks, 'What happens if,
instead, we decide to stop lying?' First, he says we
need an aim, an ambition which provides a structure
necessary for action. 'Some reliance on tradition can
help us establish our aims. It is reasonable to do
what other people have always done.' For example, 'It
is reasonable to become educated and work and find love and
have a family. That is how culture maintains
itself. But ... aim at your target ... with your eyes
wide open. You have a direction, but it might be
wrong. You have a plan, but it might be
ill-informed. It is your responsibility to see what is
before your eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even
if it seems horrible. Set your ambitions. The
better ambitions have to do with the development of
character and ability, rather than status and power.
And, while you are doing this, do not lie. Especially
to yourself. All people serve their ambition. In
that matter there are no atheists. There are only
people who know, and don't know, what God they serve.'
'Lies corrupt the world.
Worse, that is their intent. First, a little lie;
then, several little lies to prop it up. After that,
distorted thinking to avoid the shame that those lies
produce. If you don't believe in brick walls, you will
still be injured when you run headlong into one.
That's things falling apart. But it's not yet
Hell. Hell comes later. Hell comes when lies
have destroyed the relationship between individual or state
and reality itself. Things fall apart. Life
degenerates. The deceitful individual desperately
gestures at sacrifice, like Cain, but fails to please
God. Then the drama enters its final act.
Tortured by constant failure, the individual becomes
bitter. I need, I deserve, I must have - my revenge.
That's the gateway to Hell.'
'At the beginning of time ...
the Word of God transformed chaos into Being through the act
of speech. It is axiomatic ... that man and woman
alike are made in the image of that God. We also
transform chaos into Being, through speech. Truth
builds edifices that can stand for a thousand year.
Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource.
It's the light in the darkness. See the truth.
Tell the truth. If your life is not what it could be,
try telling the truth. In Paradise, everyone speaks
the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.'
'Tell the truth. Or, at least, don't lie.'
9. Assume that the person you are listening to
might know something you don't.
This chapter majors on the purposes and benefits of conversation, both real and sham, primarily from a clinical psychological perspective, but helpfully, not always. It begins, 'Psychotherapy is not advice. Advice is what you get when the person you're talking with ... wishes you would just shut up and go away. Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. Listening is paying attention. It's amazing what people will tell you if you listen.'
Peterson gives some specific,
both sad and amusing, examples from his clinical
work. He is convinced that 'any orderly system of
interpretation', be it Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian,
Rogerian or behavioural principles, will work because many
people's lives are so confused. 'At least then you
might be good for something, if not good yet for
everything. You can't fix a car with an axe, but you
can cut down a tree.' And Peterson provides cautions
about raking over the past. 'The past appears fixed,
but it is not - not in an important psychological
sense. When you remember the past ... you remember
some parts of it and forget others. You don't form a
comprehensive, objective record. You can't.
You just don't know enough. You're not objective,
either. You're alive. You're
subjective.' 'Memory is not a description of the
objective past. Memory is a tool.
Memory is the past's guide to the future.' 'The
people I [Peterson] listen to need to talk, because that's
how people think. People need to think. People
think they think, but it's not true. It's mostly
self-criticism that passes for thinking. True
thinking is rare - just like true listening.
Thinking is listening to yourself. It's
difficult. To think, you have to be at least two
people [Peterson envisions them as avatars] at the same
time. Then you have to let those people
disagree. True thinking is complex and
demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker
and careful, judicial listener, at the same time.
What are you to do, then, if you aren't very good at
thinking, at being two people at one time? That's
easy. You talk. But you need someone to
listen. A listening person is your collaborator and
your opponent.' This sounds like a puff for the
'A listening person can
reflect the crowd ... the crowd is by no means always
right, but it's commonly right.' Freud recommended
his patients listen to themselves while lying on his couch
looking at the ceiling. It was his method of free
association. He wanted to avoid interfering
with their free expression. Moreover, 'Freud
insisted that psychoanalysts be analysed themselves.
Freud had a point. He was, after all, a
genius. You can tell that because people still hate
him.' Moving on to 'Carl Rogers, one of the
twentieth century's great psychotherapists, knew something
about listening. He wrote, "The great majority of us
cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate,
because listening is too dangerous."' He suggested
that the listener frequently summarizes what he has heard
- to understand the speaker, to consolidate the memory and
to avoid straw-man arguments. 'If you listen ...
people will generally tell you everything they are
thinking. Very few of your conversations will be
boring. If the conversation is boring, you probably
'Not all talking is
thinking. Nor does all listening foster
transformation. There are other motives for
both.' Peterson sets out seven types of good and bad
encounters. First, the speaker is seeking to
establish hierarchical dominance. Second, neither
speaker is listening to the other. Third, one is
trying to attain victory for his point of view.
Fourth, one person has the floor and everyone else
listens. '... people organize their brains with
conversation.' Peterson maintains that, 'We
outsource the problem of our sanity', meaning that
we use others to keep our complex selves functional.
This is why it is the fundamental responsibility of
parents to render their children socially
acceptable.' Fifth, there is the lecture. 'A
lecture is - somewhat surprisingly - a conversation.
The lecturer speaks, but the audience communicates with
him or her non-verbally. A good lecturer is thus
talking with and not at or even to
his or her listeners.' Sixth, there can be
conversations that are demonstrations of joshing and wit,
usually among close friends. Seventh, there can be
mutual exploration - all the participants are organizing
their thoughts and trying to solve a problem. 'This
kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the
highest form of thought, and the best preparation for
proper living.' Most conversations attempt to
buttress some existing order and preconceptions - mutual
exploration works best when the unknown and chaos become
friends, albeit temporarily.
'So, listen, to yourself and
to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom
then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but
the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest
form of wisdom. Assume that the person you are
listening to might know something you don't.' OK,
dear reader, please don't assume that I agree with
Peterson at all points, but he makes me think (at least, I
think that's what I'm doing, but who can be sure
10. Be precise in your speech.
'We assume that we see objects or things when we look at the world, but that's not really how it is. Our evolved perceptual systems transform the interconnected, complex multi-level world that we inhabit not so much into things per se as into useful things. This is the necessary, practical reduction of the world. This is how precision makes the world sensibly manifest. 'We see tools and obstacles, not objects or things. The world reveals itself to us as something to utilize and something to navigate through - not as something that merely is. We see the faces of the people we are talking to. We don't see their microcosmic substructures, their cells ... We don't see, as well, the macrocosm that surrounds them: the family members and friends ... We don't see them across time. And we have to see in this way, or be overwhelmed. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim. Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.'
'This is true even for the
perceptions of ourselves. We assume that we end at
the surface of our skin. Even when we do something
as apparently simple as picking up a screwdriver, our
brain automatically adjusts what it considers body to
include the tool.' What we are holding is now 'our'
screwdriver - it is an extension of self. The
extensible boundaries of our selves also expand to include
other people - family members, lovers and friends.
Engrossed in a fictional world [such as watching a TV
drama on a screen] we can even become things that don't
"really" exist.' This also applies to a whole group
of, for example, football fans who can rise up and cheer
in an unscripted unison when the winning goal is
scored. 'Our capacity for identification is
something that manifests itself at every level of our
'It is very difficult to make
sense of the interconnected chaos of reality, just by
looking at it.' We perceive a car not as a thing or
an object but as something that takes us from A to
B. We only consider it more deeply when it breaks
down. Then '... our peace of mind disappears along
with our functioning vehicle.' We then resort to a
skilled mechanic to restore both our mind and our
car. Breakdowns of all sorts show '... the
staggeringly low-resolution quality of our vision and the
inadequacy of our corresponding understanding.'
'When things breakdown, what has been ignored rushes in
... the walls crumble and chaos makes its presence
known. It is then that we see what focused intent,
precision of aim and careful attention protects us
from.' Peterson moves on to examine the example of
an adulterous husband. 'Imagine a loyal and honest
wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband's
infidelity. She saw him as she assumes he is:
reliable, hard-working, loving, dependable. Her
theory of her husband collapses. Her theory of
herself collapses, too. The past is not necessarily
what it was, even though it has already been. The present is chaotic and
indeterminate. We perceive a
very narrow slice of a causally interconnected
matrix. Where can we look, when it is precisely what
we see that has been insufficient?'
'It's chaos that we see, when
things fall apart. And so, the deceived wife ...
feels the motivation to reveal all - or retreats into
silence. She is by turns enraged, terrified, struck
down by pain, and exhilarated by the possibilities of her
new-found freedom. Where is she? In the
underworld, with all its terrors. How did she
get there? Chaos emerges in a household, bit by
bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile
up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug.
Everybody whistles in the dark, instead. Don't ever
underestimate the destructive power of sins of
omission.' Maybe the couple took the '... lazy and
cowardly way: "It's OK. It's not worth fighting
about." There is little in a marriage that is not
worth fighting about. You're stuck in a marriage like the
two proverbial cats in a barrel, bound by the oath that
lasts in theory until one or both of you die. That
oath is there to make you take the damn situation
seriously.' 'And maybe the fault is with you, and
you should grow up, get yourself together and keep
quiet. Sorting that out is worth a fight, isn't
it? Living things die, after all, without
attention. Maybe respect slowly turned into
contempt, and no one deigned to notice. Maybe love turned
into hate, without mention. What can possibly
compare to the pleasures of sophisticated and
well-practised martyrdom? Don't confront the chaos
and turn it into order - just wait for the chaos to rise
up and engulf your instead.'
'But not thinking about
something you don't want to know about doesn't make it go
away. Isn't it better under such circumstances to
live in wilful blindness and enjoy the bliss of
ignorance? Do you truly think it wise to let the
catastrophe grow in the shadows, while you shrink and
decrease and become ever more afraid? Maybe you'll
get hurt. Probably you'll get hurt.
Life, after all, is suffering. Why refuse to
specify, when specifying the problem would enable its
solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit
that it exists. Because while you are failing to
define success you are also refusing to define failure, to
yourself, so that if and when you fail you won't
notice. Some earlier care and courage and honesty in
expression might have saved her from all this
trouble. How might she then have served herself, her
family, and the world? Maybe her house would have
been founded more on rock and less on sand. When
things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give
structure to it, and re-establish order, through our
speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can
sort things out. If we speak carelessly and
imprecisely, however, things remain vague. It is
very difficult to put such things in order - but damaged
machinery will continue to malfunction if its problems are
neither diagnosed nor fixed.'
When something terrible happens, it is precision that
separates the unique terrible thing that has actually
happened from all the other, equally terrible things that
might have happened - but did not. If you refuse to
tell your doctor about your pain then what you have is
unspecified: it could be any of those
diseases. But if you talk to your doctor, all those
terrible diseases will collapse, with luck, into one
terrible (or not so terrible) disease, or even into
nothing. But even what is terrible in actuality
often pales in significance compared to what is terrible
in imagination. If the gap between pretence and
reality goes unmentioned, it will widen. Ignored
reality manifests itself in an abyss of confusion and
'You have to consciously
define the topic of conversation, particularly when it is
difficult - or it becomes about everything, and everything
is too much. This is so frequently why couples cease
communicating. But to do that, you have to think:
What is wrong, exactly? What do I want, exactly?
You must use honest precise speech to do that. Say
what you mean, so that you can find out what you
mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what
happens. Then pay attention. Note your
errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct
them. That is how you discover the meaning of your
life. How could it be otherwise?' 'Be precise
in your speech.'
11. Do not bother children when they are
The longest chapter (48 pages) in the book, but a pretty easy read focussing on boys and girls, men and women with several anecdotes about his pal Chris and some of his clinical clients. The skateboarding reference in the title raises the issue of risk - 'Kids need playgrounds dangerous enough to remain challenging. People, including children don't seek to minimize risk. They seek to optimize it. We prefer to live on the edge. We're hard-wired, for that reason to enjoy risk. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes an appearance, as it inevitably will.'
Peterson is a critic of those,
such as Rachael Carson, of Silent Spring fame, and
the other eco-doomsters. Look, he says, '... it's
only a few decades ago that the majority of human beings
were starving, diseased and illiterate. Wealthy as
we are we still only live decades that can be counted on
our fingers. It is the rare and fortunate family
that does not contain at least one member with a serious
illness. We do what we can to make the best of
things, in our vulnerability and fragility, and the planet
is harder on us that we are on it. We could cut
ourselves some slack. Human beings are, after all,
seriously remarkable creatures. We have no peers,
and it's not clear that we have any real limits.
Why, then, is it virtuous to propose that the planet might
be better off, if there were fewer people on it?'
There is, according to Peterson, a lot of self-appointed
judges our there as well as a lot of resentment.
They run from the ghastly Columbine High School killers
through to the seemingly benign David Attenborough and the
Club of Rome. They regard themselves as heroes -
'veritable planetary saviours'.
Nowadays, it's politically
correct to regard boys and girls as equal and merely
subject to a social construct called gender.
Peterson is having nothing of this deconstructionist
mumbo-jumbo. 'Boys are suffering, in the
modern world. They are more disobedient - negatively
- or more independent - positively - than girls, and they
suffer for this. They are less agreeable and less
susceptible to anxiety and depression. Boys'
interests tilt towards things; girls' interests tilt
towards people.' There are '... those who insist,
ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct.
It isn't. This isn't a debate. The data are
in.' Ooh, Professor Peterson, you are so
vehement! And he hasn't finished yet. 'Boys
like competition, and they don't like to obey,
particularly when they are adolescents. Girls will,
for example, play boys' games, but boys are much more
reluctant to play girls' games. Girls can win by
winning in their own hierarchy. They can add to this
victory by winning in the boys' hierarchy. Boys,
however, can only win in the male hierarchy. They
will lose status, among girls and boys, by being
good at what girls value.' Then Peterson jumps to
this interesting question: 'Are the universities -
particularly the humanities - about to become a girls'
game? 'Almost 80 percent of students majoring ...
[in the humanities] are female. At this rate there
will be very few men in most university disciplines in
fifteen years. This is not good news for men.
But it's also not good news for women.'
'The women at female-dominated
institutes of higher education are finding it increasingly
difficult to arrange a dating relationship. A
stable, loving relationship is highly desirable, for men
as well as women. For women, however, it is often
what is most wanted. Who decided, anyway, that
career is more important than love and family? And
if it is worth it, why is it worth it? The
increasingly short supply of university-educated men poses
a problem of increasing severity for women who want to
marry, as well as date. First, women have a strong
proclivity to marry across or up the economic dominance
hierarchy. They prefer a partner of equal or greater
status. The same does not hold, by the way, for men,
who are perfectly willing to marry across or down.
Why do women want an employed partner and, preferably, one
of higher status? In no small part, it's because
women become more vulnerable when they have
children. Why would a woman who decides to take
responsibility for one or more infants want an adult to
look after as well? So, the unemployed working man
is an undesirable specimen. The strong turn towards
political correctness in universities has exacerbated the
problem. There are whole disciplines in universities
forthrightly hostile towards men. These are the
areas of study, dominated by the postmodern/neo-Marxist
claim that Western culture, in particular, is an
oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and
'Of course, culture is
an oppressive structure. It's always been that
way. It's a fundamental, universal existential
reality. The tyrannical king is a symbolic
truth. But it offers great gain, too. Every
word we speak is a gift from our ancestors. Culture
takes with one hand, but in some fortunate places it gives
more with the other. To think about culture only as
oppressive is ignorant and ungrateful, as well as
dangerous. Consider this: any hierarchy creates
winners and losers. It is also perverse to
consider culture the creation of men. Culture is
symbolically, archetypically, mythically male.
That's partly why the idea of "the patriarchy" is so
easily swallowed. Here's an alternative theory:
throughout history, men and women both struggled terribly
for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and
necessity. Women ... had the extra reproductive
burden, and less physical strength ... menstruation,
unwanted pregnancy, childbirth and too many young
children. At least such things should be taken into
account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women
is accepted as a truism.' Peterson draws attention
to Arunachalam Muruganantham, James Young Simpson, Dr
Earle Cleveland Haas and Gregory Pincus and asks
pertinently, 'In what manner were these practical,
enlightened, persistent men part of a constricting
patriarchy?' Contrast these with, for example, the
influences of the Marxist humanists such as Max
Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida and Khieu Samphan - and what
do you get? In the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam,
Cambodia and elsewhere, tens of millions of people killed,
hundreds of millions oppressed. The story of the
kulaks, the Soviet Union's richest peasants, is a salutary
tale. To the communist mind their wealth signified
oppression and their private property was theft. It
was time for some equity. The kulaks were "the enemy
of the people". Thirty thousand were shot on the
spot. Other were beaten, raped and forced to dig
their own graves. The rest were exiled to
Siberia. Yet Western intellectuals remained
steadfastly enamoured with communism. 'In Derrida's
view, hierarchies exist because they gain from oppressing
those who are omitted. It is this ill-gotten gain
that allows them to flourish. It is almost
impossible to over-estimate the nihilistic and destructive
nature of this philosophy.' For Derrida and his
acolytes, human activities are games, driven, not so much
the old communist idea of wealth, but of power.
'The fact that power plays a
role in human motivation it does not mean that it plays
the only role, or even the primary role.' 'In
societies that are well-functioning, competence,
not power, is a prime determiner of status.
Competence. Ability. Skill. Not power.
Furthermore, the most valid personality trait predictors
of long-term success in Western countries are intelligence
and conscientiousness.' Yet Peterson points out,
'The insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence
that all gender differences are socially constructed, for
example, becomes all too understandable when its moral
imperative is grasped - when its justification for force
is once and for all understood: Society must be
altered, or bias eliminated, until all outcomes are
equitable.' But all outcomes cannot be
equalized. First, they must be measured.
"Equal pay for equal work" is a neat slogan but who
decides what work is equal? The practicalities of
such an exercise are impracticable. Or, what about
disabilities? 'Every person is unique - and not just
in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly,
meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture
that viability. Period.'
A tenet of social
constructionist theory is that boys should be socialised
like girls. Its proponents assume that aggression is
a learned behaviour and so should simply not be
taught. Moreover, 'boys ... should be encouraged to
develop feminine socially positive qualities, such as
tenderness ... cooperation and aesthetic
appreciation. First, it is not the case that
aggression is merely learned. Aggression is there at
the beginning. Aggression is innate.' Moreover
many women (and some men) have trouble at work and at home
because they are not aggressive enough. 'They tend
to treat those around them as if they were distressed
children. They tend to be naïve.
They continually sacrifice for others. This may
sound virtuous ... but it can and often does become
counterproductively one-sided.' They tend not to
stand up for themselves, they expect reciprocity and when
this is not forthcoming, they can become resentful.
'There are only two major reasons for resentment: being
taken advantage of, or whiny refusal to adopt
responsibility and grow up. If you are resentful,
look for the reasons. Perhaps someone is taking
advantage of you. This means that you now face a
moral obligation to speak up for yourself.' Muster
at least three examples of their misbehaviour and
charitably face your wife, boss, child, or whoever.
Hurt and pain may be the immediate outcomes. 'If you
remain unmoved [by their counterarguments], they get
angry, or cry, or run away.' Peterson advises, 'It's
very useful to attend to tears in such situations.
But tears are often shed in anger. A red face is a
good cue. Make your request as small and reasonable
as possible. In that manner, you come to the
discussion with a solution, instead of just a
This leads to a fascinating
section, which commences, 'It would be lovely if the
opposite of a criminal was a saint - but it is not the
case. The opposite of a criminal is an Oedipal
mother, which is its own type of criminal. The
Oedipal mother says to her child, "I live only for
you." She does everything for her children.
She ties their shoes, and cuts up their food. The
deal is this: "Above all, never leave me." Peterson
then expands this thesis with reference to Hansel and
Gretel and The Terrible Mother, the work of Johann Jakob
Bachofen, Disney's The Little Mermaid, Sleeping
Beauty, Snow White and several more.
We get the picture, Jordan. 'For a woman to be
complete, such stories claim, she must form a relationship
with masculine consciousness and stand up to the terrible
world (which sometimes manifests itself, primarily, in the
form of her too-present mother.' The take-home
message? Foster independence in your children.
'Men have to toughen up.
Men demand it, and women want it. Men toughen up by
pushing themselves, and by pushing each other. If
they're healthy, women don't want boys. They want
men. They want someone to contend with; someone to
grapple with. If they're tough, they want someone
tougher. If they are smart, they want someone
smarter. This often makes it hard for tough, smart,
attractive women to find mates.' Therefore anything
that hinders boys from risking becoming men is a hindrance
to both men and women. And if you think tough men
are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are
capable of.' 'Leave children alone when they are
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the
Like several of the chapters this one starts with a diversion - about dogs, or rather Peterson's dog, Sikko, an American Eskimo. This is his ruse to illustrate a phenomenon known as "minimal group identification" discovered by a social psychologist named Henri Tajfel. He showed that people displayed a marked preference for their own group members. Apparently this ' ... demonstrated two things: first, that people are social; second, that people are antisocial.' Well, big deal! This reinforces my view (prejudice) about the calibre of much of social science research. Anyway, Peterson reckoned that including 'cat' in the title would turn off the doggie people, so he started with canines to win them over - what a creep!
After that little jollity,
Peterson returns to one of his recurrent themes, 'The idea
that life is suffering is a tenet ... of every major
religious doctrine ... because human beings are
intrinsically fragile. We can be damaged, even
broken, emotionally and physically.' He recounts a
conversation with one of his clients whose husband
recently had bad, bad cancer news. They discussed
the 'the whys and wherefores of human
vulnerability.' He starts with Julian, his son, who,
when he was about three and naturally fragile, was subject
to high fevers and delirium. And then his older
daughter, Mikhaila, who at about two years old complained
of leg pain. At six, this previously sunny girl
became mopey and tearful. 'The physio told us, "Your
daughter has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis." What
sort of God would make a world where such a thing could
happen, at all? - much less to an innocent and happy
little girl?' 'It's an issue addressed in The
Brothers Karamazov, the great novel by
Dostoevsky.' Ivan and Alyosha are brothers.
The former says, "It's not God I don't accept. I do
not accept the world that He created." Then Ivan
tells a story of some wicked parents who mistreat their
daughter terribly. 'Alyosha: "If you were somehow
promised that the world could finally have complete and
total peace - but only on the condition that you tortured
one little child to death - say, that girl who was
freezing in the outhouse ... would you do it?"
Alyosha demurs. "No, I would not," he says,
softly."' Peterson comments, 'He would not do what
God seems to freely allow.' This gets Peterson
thinking again about his fragile Julian, 'I came to
realize through such thoughts that what can be truly loved
about a person is inseparable from their
limitations. Julian wouldn't have been little and
cute and lovable if he wasn't also prone to illness, and
loss, and pain, and anxiety. Since I loved him a
lot, I decided that he was all right the way he was,
despite his fragility.'
'Limitation' is Peterson's
answer to the universal question, "Why me?" 'If you
are already everything, everywhere, always, there is
nowhere to go and nothing to be. And it is for this
reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No
limitation, no story. That idea has helped me deal
with the terrible fragility of Being. Peterson
admits that this is not a perfect, all-embracing answer,
'But there is something to be said for recognizing that
existence and limitation are inextricably linked.'
How are we to cope? Peterson responds, 'And I also
don't think it is possible to answer the question by thinking.
Thinking leads inexorably to the abyss. Something
supersedes thinking. In such situations - in the
depths - it's noticing, not thinking, that does
the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this:
when you love someone, it's not despite their
limitations. It's because of their
limitations. Of course it's complicated.'
Mikhaila's story becomes more
tragic. Hip and leg bone deterioration plus numerous
inappropriate drugs, misdiagnoses and poor advice caused
her, and her family, grief and pain. 'During much of
this period, we were overwhelmed. So how do you
manage? Here are some things we learned: Set aside
some time to talk and to think about the illness. Do
not talk or think about it otherwise.
Conserve your strength. Shift the unit of time you
use to frame your life. When the sun is shining ...
you make your plans for the next month, and the next year,
and the next five years. "Sufficient unto the day
are the evils thereof" - that is Matthew 6:34.
Christ enjoins His followers to place faith in God's
Heavenly Kingdom, and the truth. That's a conscious
decision to presume the primary goodness of Being.
That's an act of courage. Aim high. Be
careful. Put the things you can control in
order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is
already good better. People are very tough.
People can survive through much pain and loss. But
to persevere they must see the good in Being. If
they lose that, they are truly lost.'
'Dogs are like people.
They are the friends and allies of human beings.
They are social, hierarchical, and domesticated.
Dogs are great. Cats, however, are their own
creatures. They aren't social or hierarchical.
They are only semi-domesticated. When you meet a cat
on the street, many things can happen.' Maybe it
will run away, ignore you, roll over and allow you to
stroke it. 'It's a nice break. It's a little
extra light, on a good day, and a tiny respite, on a bad
day. If you pay careful attention, even on a bad
day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with
small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe ... a
little girl dancing on the street ... a particularly good
cup of coffee ... some little ridiculous thing that
distracts you. And maybe when you are going for a
walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if
you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for
just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make
up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies
it.' 'Pet a cat when you encounter one on the
As a postscript, Peterson
writes that, 'Mikhaila's surgeon told her that her
artificial ankle would have to be removed.
Amputation waited down the road. She had been in
pain for eight years. Four days later she happened
upon a new physiotherapist. He placed his hands
around her ankle and compressed it for forty
seconds. Her pain disappeared. She never cries
in front of medical personnel, but she burst into
tears. Now she can walk long distances, and traipse
around in her bare feet. This year, she got married
and had a baby girl, Elizabeth. Things are
good. For now.'
One evening in later 2016, Jordan Peterson met with a friend who gave him a gift - a pen with an LED light at its tip. Peterson wanted to use his new gadget in a notable way. He asked himself, '"What shall I do with my new-found pen of light?" There are two verses in the New Testament that pertain to such things. I've thought about them a lot: Matthew 7:7-8 and Matthew 6:28-33.' Peterson's exposition of these passages may be well-intentioned but hardly orthodox. However, he was earnestly trying to resolve the answer to his question. 'I was holding a conversation between two different elements of myself. I was genuinely thinking - or listening, in the sense described in Rule 9.' '... almost immediately, an answer revealed itself: Write down the words you want inscribed on your soul. I wrote that down. Then I upped the ante. If you have a Pen of Light, after all, you should use it to answer Difficult Questions. Here was the first: What shall I do tomorrow? The answer came: The most good possible in the shortest period of time.' What follows are some two dozen other questions that range from, 'What shall I do for God my Father? Answer: Sacrifice everything I hold dear to yet greater perfection' to 'What shall I do when I ruin my rivers? Answer: Seek for the living water and let it cleanse the Earth.' The pattern of this Coda is that the questions and their answers are rooted in each of the 12 Rules. The intention is admirable, but the outcome is rather abstruse and pretty unconvincing. It might appear that Christian truths are endorsed here and there, but so are bits of Taoism and other religious hocus pocus.
'And that was that. I
still have my Pen of Light. I haven't written
anything with it since. But, even if I don't, it
helped me find the words to properly close this
book. I hope that my writing has proved useful to
you. I hope it has revealed things you knew that you
didn't know you knew. I hope that you can straighten
up, sort out your family, and bring peace and prosperity
to your community. What will you write with your pen
This article was not what I originally had in mind - I thought it would be a simple, snappy review. Instead, it rather ran away with me to the tune of 19,000 words! Also it has turned out to be a rather unconventional review-cum-synopsis-cum-précis with a multitude of quotations. When I read a book, I invariably underline the text and scribble in the margins [in pencil and only in my personal copy] anything that catches my eye and tweaks my brain. On this occasion I have transferred these gleanings onto my computer. This exercise is valuable because it makes me think a little harder - I'm not sure you will find it so helpful.
Let me make three concluding remarks about this book. First, 12 Rules for Life was a joy to study. I found its 400-odd pages both engaging and educational. It is well written and generally easy to read. It contains several eye-opening truths, some uncomfortable challenges and a few memorable anecdotes. Peterson is a great communicator. He is assured, outspoken and charismatic - watch anything of his on the internet if you doubt that assessment. And those personal qualities are partly why he is the social media darling of 2018 - if only preachers were so consistently engaging. But it's not only his style of presentation, it's also his content, what he has to say. He is a bold man with a bold set of messages. He pulls no punches, he takes no prisoners. He angrily refuses to kowtow to 'compelled speech', such as gender-fluid language, yet he can also weep at the plight of feckless young men. He is a driven man - people like that. His discourses are certainly a change from that dull, dithering relativism that is our regular intake of cultural gruel. It is small wonder that his book has sat near the top of the best-sellers' list since its publication.
Second, what about this book's content? 12 Rules for Life is not a Christian book. That's because its author is not a card-carrying Christian, at least, not in the traditional evangelical sense. Nor was that genre ever the author's target. There is no doubt that he has a deep respect for the Bible, its teachings and its ethics. He quotes from it more than from any other resource. But he is also enamoured with other gods, including Taoism, Darwinism and humanism. Yet a book which majors on topics like, God, original sin, meaning, sacrifice, husband-wife marriage, suffering, truth and family should find some sympathy and a willing readership among Christians, and others. He chimes with many biblical ethics. Nevertheless, evangelical Christians tend to have a default response to an outsider talking 'their talk' - they find fault, easily. I'm a strong advocate of tight Christian doctrine and big-hearted charity, but I also know that there are badly-taught believers out there, as well as those sitting on their outsized hobby horses. I am not suggesting we rashly esteem Peterson to be that hoped-for Christian (though he may object at such a snub), what I am proposing is that we regard him, at least, as a co-belligerent, a 'morally-sensitive' man, and thank God that he is raising some fundamental issues among a wider audience than anyone else currently is. With our backs to the wall, evangelical Christians can unkindly consider ourselves to be the only guardians of truth. Yet there are many truths which are not specifically Christian - think of science and ornithology and love and motorcycle maintenance and ... Even so, I willing concede that the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:3). What Peterson may have inadvertently done for us is a sort of pre-evangelism, whetting people's appetite to think about some of the great questions of life and death. For that we should be thankful. What he has also hopefully done is give us a bolder steer on these issues and a tougher confidence to speak out - those practices are well worth imitating. So let's not be too hastily dismissive of Peterson and his labours simply because he does not tick all of our ecclesiastical boxes. I suspect that many readers of great literature, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, have been unknowingly softened up for the message of the Cross. It's a big world out there, men and women. Let's practise some big Christian charity. But none of this is to disregard the dangers of Peterson's position. As I have written elsewhere, 'The ethical and practical stance of the 'morally sensitive' is essentially man-made, it is a derived conduct without any specifically coherent framework. It is often the endorsement of that attractive Christian morality, but detached from the essential spurs of Christian faith and divine energy. It is reminiscent of the Enlightenment's doomed attempt at Christian virtue without embracing Christian truth - a wanting the fruits without the roots.' At base level, Peterson's stance is one of moral rearmament - turn over a new leaf, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Maybe, just maybe, Peterson will come into a full-orbed understanding of true Christianity. Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Third, I was particularly
taken with some of his recurring themes. For
example, 'wilful blindness' [spelled, 'willful' throughout
the book] is one of my traits. I always have a long
'to-do' list, but some less attractive projects never get
included. 'Life is suffering' is only too apparent,
not only for our over-indulged, comfortable selves in the
West, but for all people, everywhere. What about the
charge to 'set your
own house in order first'? I've recently finished
a long and drawn out house renovation, but I know the
true meaning of Peterson's slogan, and it's
challenging. 'Dominance hierarchy' is a phenomenon
I acknowledge and a strategy that I have played, though
thankfully less so since retirement has taken me out of
the competitive workplace. And what about 'Cain
and Abel', who crop up unexpectedly at least eight
times? Theirs was a top news story then, and still
is. Theirs was the horrors of fratricidal murder
as the epitome of global violence and the affliction of
the innocent. 'Adam and Eve' are equally-cited
stars too. History and the state of the world make
no sense without these, our shameful
primogenitors. They deserve their principal
billing. And those two cracking chapters, the one
on raising children and their discipline (Rule 5) and
the other on men-women relationships (Rule 11), deserve
to be published singly and distributed among church
folk, and wider.
book in one summary sentence: Peterson's diagnosis of
the human condition is often brilliant and spot on, but
his remedy is often inadequate and ineffective - the
former is manful, while the latter is Christless.
I am not saying that 12 Rules for Life is
essential reading for everyone. Nevertheless, we
should be aware of its existence and its basic thrust
simply because we live in a literate society and because
of the book's current impact. Still, you don't
need to buy it just for those lesser purposes. But
if you are tempted to purchase and read it, don't pay
the cover price of £20 - I bought mine on Amazon for
half that. And, no, you cannot borrow my copy -
it's too spoiled by my under-linings and scribbled
notes. But if you do go ahead, I'm almost prepared
to guarantee that you will find reading it different,
fascinating and worth the effort. And if you think
it's all postmodern stoicism and mythological claptrap,