How the truth can set you free

Jordan Peterson is erudite and well read but 12 Rules for Life has much of the tenor of a typical self-help book

Tibor Fischer

Jordan Peterson: Fiery preacher of old-fashioned character-building (©Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

There’s a fast march through world culture, Heidegger, Jung, Darwin, Michelangelo, Dostoevsky, the Bible, Buddha, Mesopotamian myths, and even John Milton (who isn’t name-checked much these days), but I was amused to see the one name that is missing from the index is Montaigne. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is really a dozen essays on a theme. Like Montaigne, Peterson is incredibly well-read and not afraid to show it, and like Montaigne he mixes in personal anecdotes with the science and the ancient maxims.

What are the rules? Most of them are semi-modified traditional encouragements. Rule One, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, is essentially an amalgam of “pull yourself together, “success breeds success” and “the glass is half-full”, but Peterson homilizes in fine David Attenborough style, bringing in the lobster and the wren, creatures that like a ruck; and in the case of the lobster, that crustacean has three hundred and fifty million years of successful violence behind it. Lobsters, Peterson notes, are, like us, hooked on serotonin, and apparently Prozac cheers them up.

Rule Six,  “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”, is Confucius; Rule Ten, “Be precise in your speech”, is not grammarian severity, but the old chestnut “communication (especially between spouses) is important”; Rule 12 (and this from a dog-lover), “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”, breaks down as “enjoy the small things” or carpe any diem you can get.

It’s not just his erudition that has made a name for Jordan Peterson: he has become the hub of much controversy, protest and YouTube action. In some ways it’s surprising because much of the tenor of 12 Rules is the serenity and generosity of a typical self-help book. Indeed, there’s a slight whiff of incense and New Age when Peterson repeatedly gushes about Taoism.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist and an academic. In those circles some of his views and pronouncements are simply not allowed. It’s rare to hear a clinical psychologist describe someone as a “useless bastard”, or to insist that smacking a toddler can sometimes be beneficial. Peterson also has the temerity to suggest that it’s desirable for a child to have two parents.

Perhaps because Peterson grew up in rural Alberta (let me indulge in some amateur psychology) there’s a frontier toughness about him, a recognition of nature’s red-in-tooth-and-claw reality, a sense that individuals have to accept responsibility for themselves and that the old cartoon-strip ad for the Charles Atlas body-building course that turned a weedy kid who had sand kicked in his face into a fighter, wasn’t such a bad thing.

Life is suffering. Things fall apart. These phrases crop up again and again in the book. “What do you say to a severely intoxicated, violence-prone ex-biker-gang-president with patchy English when he tries to sell his microwave to you at your open door at two in the morning?” Peterson’s response to the unwelcome jailbird on his doorstep (and his general advice) was to use the truth, or as Rule Eight has it, “at least, don’t lie” (so we’re back at Moses’s Big Ten).

Rule Eight is all about how truth helps good old-fashioned public school cold-showers character-building. Character is more important than status, Peterson argues, something that Socrates, Kierkegaard and Sartre would endorse. “Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity.” This championing of character is a little at variance with Rule One’s lobster-watching, which suggests that a taste of success isn’t at all bad for you. Not to mention that it isn’t always easy to know what the truth is.

“The truth springs forth ever anew from the most profound well-springs of Being. It will keep your soul from withering and dying while you encounter the inevitable tragedy of life. It will help you avoid the terrible desire to seek vengeance for that tragedy.”

To return to Rule Ten, “Be precise in your speech”, I’d like to propose an addition. Be precise and concise. Peterson’s rules have obviously been battle-tested in lectures (he talks cogently), and a little looseness and repetition can be extremely effective, indeed indispensible, live, but on the page it can drag occasionally. The book could have been tighter and it certainly doesn’t need the 24-page foreword by Dr Norman Doige, MD. But this is a minor quibble. The pulpit lost a fiery preacher when Peterson chose to go into psychology. Most readers will be stimulated by his learning and arguments.

Peterson clearly wrote this book because he believes it can help some people in distress and doubt, and offer them something in the way of guidance and solace. Paradoxically, he states that “psychotherapy is not advice” but rather a conversation, and ideally one in which the patients can learn to listen to what they’re saying. So Socrates lives on. However, unlike most self-help gurus, the combative Peterson patently has no patience with those who won’t help themselves.

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