Twelve rules for life in gold capitals. There it was next to the cash register. When the barista finished making my Americano, he answered for the book. It had changed his life. He’d even tried to meet the author at a recent event in London, but tickets had sold out. I thought of Roger Scruton’s joke that the only person at the University of London who agreed with him was the tea lady—and wondered what Cambridge academics would say if they knew that, down the hall from the half-empty lecture rooms, it was Jordan Peterson who was being read and taken to heart.
Peterson’s latest book, 12 Rules for Life, is an international bestseller. His recent debate with the philosopher Sam Harris was hosted in London’s O2 Arena. And then there is the press. Dorian Lynskey wrote in The Guardian that Peterson’s “arguments are riddled with conspiracy theories and crude distortions of subjects.” Nellie Bowles seconded this in The New York Times, publishing a lengthy piece which described Peterson’s fear of Soviet “atrocities and oppression . . . though he lives here on a quiet residential street in Toronto and is quite free.” “Peterson’s nemesis,” Tabatha Southey clarified in Maclean’s, “is a conspiracy theory holding that an international cabal of Marxist academics . . . is out to destroy Western civilization.” Then, as if to manifest Peterson’s demons, there is Jacobin, which published “Jordan Peterson’s Bullshit,” by Harrison Fluss, an academic based in New York. Fluss states that “Our tragedy as human beings is much more banal than Peterson’s romanticism would have it. We do contend with a fundamental irrationalism, but it doesn’t come from an inherently unknowable and mysterious world. Rather, it comes from capitalism.” According to their masthead, Jacobin is a “leading voice of the American Left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Their quarterly print magazine has more than thirty thousand subscribers, and their “web audience” is “one million a month.” One begins to reconsider Peterson’s cosmology. Every hero, after all, needs a dragon to defeat.
Every hero needs a dragon to defeat.
But Peterson as warrior does not help us to understand his ideas or his appeal. A consideration of his historical analogue Sir James Frazer (1854–1941) will help to elucidate his popularity. Frazer, a classicist, was the author of The Golden Bough, an enormously influential twelve-volume comparison of ritual across time and place—a reference text. His study began with a sacred Roman tree and resulted in him becoming, by the end of his life, the most famous anthropologist in the world, though he had never conducted ethnographic fieldwork.
“Frazer was a cartographer of custom,” Edmund Leach determined, half-chidingly. His criticism was that Frazer was lauded as the conqueror of a coastline that he had only sketched. The map, too, was wrong. Myth, ritual, philosophy—these were not features of one vast realm, as Frazer had claimed. Leach believed that cultures were fragmented—islands, some more isolated than others. Herbert Weisiger seemed to disagree: “It was Frazer,” Weisiger wrote, “who first set the pattern of myth and ritual on a firm historical foundation, who traced its tortuous movements, and above all, gave it shape and coherence.”
The universality and coherence of myth is essential for Peterson, despite his more contemporary concerns. As a psychologist, his focus is the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the Second World War, the Cold War, the modern family, the modern workplace. So far he has completed Maps of Meaning (1999) and 12 Rules for Life (2018)—a monograph on belief and a self-help book. Though he writes with a great deal more practicality, Peterson is akin to Frazer, the latest in a long line of writers who have peered into the mists of time and begun to speak about our present condition, about our gods, about the soul: about religion.
The Twelve Rules themselves do not invoke religion. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,” “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie,” are Rules One, Two, and Eight. It is in the explanation of these rules that Peterson ascends, moving from scientific studies on post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam War veterans, for instance, to the “great and fundamental myths of ancient Egypt.” This juxtaposition is the strength of Peterson’s work. Something is gained by comparing contemporary violence—evenwith our monastic soldiery and what Gilbert Adair has called our “glossy weaponry”—with Horus’s confrontation with Set. In Egyptian lore, Horus was the falcon-headed defender of royalty; Set, his uncle, was the god of confusion, a personification of violence. Both contended for the throne. Horus, the rightful heir, manages to end Set’s bid for revolution, but at the cost of an eye. Peterson wonders, “What would a mere man lose, who attempted the same thing?,” then adds that, as compensation, “he might gain in internal vision and understanding something proportional to what he loses in perception of the outside world.” Soldiers, by analogy, stand in the place of Horus. Their enemy is an ancestral threat to established order. Their duty is a wounding one. But they gain a secret knowledge. “Overseas I learned. . . the knowledge of just how nasty and awful humans are,” confesses the narrator in “Psychological Operations,” a story by the Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay. When Peterson links myth to our present, the past remains distant, but its voice becomes clearer. The present is re-enchanted. We are chastened and reminded of narrative’s explanatory power.
We are also reminded of the numinous. Like Carl Jung, one of his great influences, Peterson is so sensitive to the spiritual that he is more of a mystic than a scientist: when he consults Babylonian and Hebrew myths of creation, such as Marduk and the Garden of Eden, as well as Russian and German myths of devastation, such as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, the distinction between material and immaterial falls away. One thinks of the haunting promise of Laurence Binyon’s line that “The reddest rose is a ghost.” Even Disney films and children’s books yield secrets to Peterson. But he is not syncretic. Various myths are not facets of the same jewel; they are treasures unique, heirlooms. Their comparative value results from the way in which they display the same jewels in different settings, two in particular: chaos and order.
Before going further, we must refer to what T. S. Eliot said of Frazer. In Vanity Fair in 1923, Eliot wrote:
Frazer’s eminence is not merely a matter of superior erudition among writers whose standard of learning is prodigious; nor does it depend . . .upon brilliant theories of human behavior. On the contrary, with every fresh volume of his stupendous compendium of human superstition and folly, Frazer has withdrawn in more and more cautious abstention from the attempt to explain.
Unlike his predecessor, Peterson’s eminence depends upon more than his research or his reticence. There is his own silhouette, already magnified by friend and foe to mythological proportions. And there is the fact that his impressive survey rests upon what Frazer’s does not offer: a theory of human behavior. Consider Peterson’s “overture” or preface to 12 Rules, where he asserts that “order can become excessive, and that’s not good, but chaos can swamp us, so we drown—and that is also not good. We need to stay on the straight and narrow path.” Incidentally, here is a good example of Peterson’s prose: the vernacular; the insistent tone; the layers of metaphors (swamps, drowning, paths). He seems to feel first and write later, to contend with himself and with his own learning, to catch and display ideas that have yet to be gutted and cleaned. His sincerity and his determination are admirable, however unpolished. But what do they mean?
More importantly, this quotation from the preface provides a glimpse into Peterson’s theology, which is already a subject of much debate. He uses Christian concepts to paraphrase pagan teaching. There is a telling looseness with the New Testament lexicon: “straight”—direct, undeviating; not “strait”—narrow, close, confined. The same misspelling occurs in chapter two of Maps of Meaning:
The unknown is yang, cold, dark and feminine; the known, yin, warm, bright and masculine; the knower is the man living in Tao, on the razor’s edge, on the straight and narrow path, on the proper road, in meaning, in the kingdom of heaven, on the mountaintop, crucified on the branches of the world-tree.
But contrast these two uses with the origin of that phrase, this passage from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:13–14, KJV)
Few because of disobedience. Few because of ignorance. Hardly a moment later, Christ clarifies that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” The Sermon on the Mount is neither an exhortation for the Golden Mean, nor does it teach a balancing of one inclination with another. Fidelity, not moderation, is required. John Bunyan takes a similar view in The Strait Gate. “The door,” he writes, in a reference to the gate, “is Jesus Christ.”
A minor theological confusion? No, because Peterson often negotiates obstacles by going around them. His preferred way is the third one. The balance between chaos and order is the essential aspect of his work. To quote from Rule Two:
The Taoist juxtaposition of yin and yang, for example, doesn’t simply portray chaos and order as the fundamental elements of Being—it also tells you how to act . . . . The Way is the path of proper Being. It’s the same Way as that referred to by Christ in John 14:6: I am the way, the truth and the life. The same idea is expressed in Matthew 7:14: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
The spelling is correct, but the problem remains. The Sermon on the Mount is reduced to a middle course between two extremes. Peterson’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Christianity demonstrates the way theories of human behavior shoehorn religion, not always successfully. Again, I would caution against finding syncretism here—rather, there is a tendency for Peterson’s observations, however profound, even lyrical, to become baffling: to make rules out of what, somehow, is more meaningful as mystery.
Another example of Peterson circumventing problems is found in a recent talk he gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival. During the question and answer period, he described his political philosophy in the following way:
I’m not Right-wing . . . one of the things I do all the time in my public lectures is make a case for the utility of the Left. So the case can be made quite rapidly: if you’re going to pursue things of value in a social environment you’re going to produce a hierarchy. It’s unavoidable. Because some people are better at whatever it is that you value. And so when that lays itself out socially it will produce a hierarchy. . . . The risk is that it will ossify and become corrupt, that’s risk Number One. And risk Number Two is that when you produce the hierarchy you’re going to dispossess a number of people . . . . So you need a political voice for them. That’s the Left. So I make that case over and over. Now what the Right does is say, yeah but we still need the hierarchy . . . . the reason we need the political dialogue is because we need the hierarchy, and we can’t let it get out of control. And the way to balance those two competing necessities isn’t by only having the hierarchy or dissolving the hierarchy—you have to live with the tension.
Much could be made of these remarks. Suffice to say that where a historian like Russell Kirk appeals to statesmen, poets, and clerics to describe the distinction between Right and Left, or conservative and revolutionary, Peterson appeals to necessity. Kirk begins with the past, with the inherited, Peterson with the present, with a decision “to pursue things of value.” Kirk is defining terms; Peterson is balancing them.
To return to 12 Rules: Peterson’s theory of human behavior, the necessary equilibrium between chaos and order, is the basis for his remarks on men and women in Rule Eleven (“Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”). This chapter is the part of his work which seems to have elicited the most controversy. “It looks to me,” advances Peterson, “like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease, and drudgery.” The idea is that progress requires both sexes. We flourish not by chance or domination or providence, but by respecting a naturally existing cooperative functionality. Peterson is not describing a divinely created order, he is underlining his theory of human behavior. Peterson’s man is not the one recognizable to the Koran, say, brought forth by Allah to husband the earth; he is a biological complement to woman. The Right is not the one recognizable to Russell Kirk, that is, a coherent philosophy with an intellectual history that reaches back to Cicero or Saul; it is a counterweight to the Left. Christianity is not the one recognizable to Saint Matthew or John Bunyan, namely, a conception of reality in which Jesus Christ is the cornerstone; it is a life of sober restraint. Each is another instance of the balance between chaos and order.
The logic of our current situation, indeed of history, prompts Peterson to speculate and instruct where Frazer abstains.
The logic of our current situation, indeed of history, prompts Peterson to speculate and instruct where Frazer abstains. Peterson often refers to Hitler or Stalin much in the same way that he refers to tyrannies of a more personal nature: a desire to control one’s children or other family members. Certainly this results from the fact that a fair amount of 12 Rules and Peterson’s lectures is memoir. His struggles with family, his escape from the darkness of northern Canada, his nightmares—they have in one way or another been managed. In the language of myth, these monsters have been slain. But Peterson’s willingness to speak also involves his own belief. In Rule One, he assures the reader, “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings.” The rest of the book is, in a way, the deductive result of this premise. And the reference to a calculator shows Peterson’s hand, his tendency to speak more about success when it would seem that he is more interested in the soul.
TheGolden Bough was part of the inspiration for Eliot’s Waste Land, and vestiges of Frazer—his language, his cultural hunger, his regard for the sacred, the holy—can even be found in Eliot’s later work, such as Murder in the Cathedral. It may be possible for Peterson to have this same effect—for his rediscovery of myth, of the wealth of ancient narrative, of the soul to nurture a similar flowering of literature or theater or film. If this happens, it will not be because of his rule-making, but because of his patience and his willingness to stare into the past and explore a coastline rarely seen, much less visited.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 17
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