Like Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (2018) is one of those rare books that can actually help you to be a better person. His message—aimed primarily, it seems, at young men—is grow up, get your act together, take responsibility for your life, and stop blaming other people for your problems. Peterson proffers an individual-centered approach to social change, which eschews activism: “Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? . . . Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”
If this book has a blind spot, it’s largely a function of the fact that Peterson is a professor. If you’re an academic, especially a Canadian academic, living in a real city, you rarely (if ever) meet right-wing crazies. But you’re exposed to left-wing crazies on a fairly regular basis. This tends to skew and distort your conception of where the crazies are to be found mightily.
Peterson uses the term “postmodernist” much as progressives use the term “alt-right”: namely, in a sloppy and imprecise fashion. It basically means everyone I disagree with. Just as the vast majority of those deemed “alt-right” by progressives don’t consider themselves “alt-right” (or even “conservative”), the vast majority of those Peterson deems “postmodernist” don’t consider themselves “postmodernist”. What’s more, no actual postmodernist I know identifies with the positions Peterson deems postmodernist.
His use of the term “Marxist” is problematic for many of the same reasons, but less so. Reducing everything to power à la Thrasymachus—“justice is simply what is good for the stronger”—is an ancient temptation, with a bloody track record. Although many Marxists embraced this toxic worldview, they were hardly the first to do so. Nor were they the only ones to do so in the twentieth century.
I share Peterson’s deep discomfort with any mode of analysis that reduces individuals to the status of group representatives. But to say that this pernicious mode of analysis is solely a function of “Marxism” or “postmodernism” is a gross oversimplification. Among other things, it makes it seem like this is a uniquely left-wing problem—when clearly it’s not. Right-wing reactionary racists regularly reduce individuals to the status of group representatives. And they’re doing pretty well politically lately.
This was the most annoying thing about an otherwise excellent book, a real missed opportunity. Because the problem of evil is always, to some extent, a problem of naming. Jacob wrestled with the angel till dawn because he wanted to know who he was dealing with: “Tell me, I pray thee, thy name” (Genesis 32:29). The monster Peterson is wrestling with is real, but he still doesn’t know its name.
How sad that books of moral philosophy like this are so rare in this day and age! We have plenty of clever books, and whiny books, and everything’s terrible books, but precious few that straightforwardly seek to edify the reader. If Peterson’s preachiness strikes us as quaint or old-fashioned, it says more about us than it says about him. 12 Rules for Life is a timely book which will do a great deal of good despite its shortcomings.
—John Faithful Hamer