It’s an embarrassing fact: Most writers repeat themselves. David Foster Wallace once observed that the novelist John Updike had “for decades been constructing protagonists who are basically all the same guy.” Gertrude Stein tried in her way to make a virtue of repetition. Yet there remains one welcome exception—the repetition of the moralist. “The real job of every moral teacher,” C.S. Lewis said, “is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see.”
Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor, is considered one such teacher. And he is, as has been remarked before, a once-in-a-generation kind of writer. His new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, promises to be a companion work to his wildly successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. While the first book focused on defeating chaos in its various forms, the second explores the dangers of excessive order. At first glance, his new set of rules seems indistinguishable from his last. But the rules are merely a conceit. Whether it is the problems of chaos or control, Peterson forces us to confront our lives, in ways that are entertaining and insightful, as a hero’s journey of sorts—a story with a meaning.
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The 12 rules are straightforward answers to perennial questions: How might humans reform stagnant social institutions? What characteristics make up the ideal personality? Should we seek happiness in life or responsibility? Is true romance possible? And how can we be grateful despite our suffering or the suffering of those we love?
Peterson manages these, as well as other questions, with his signature polymath style, combining insights from his private clinical psychology practice, ancient mythological traditions, popular children’s literature, scientific research, art history, medieval alchemy, dreams, and the Bible.
In his books, Peterson makes three consistent points. First, life is suffering. There’s something perhaps odd about encouraging your patients to read The Rape of Nanking. But evil and suffering are real, Peterson wants his patients and readers to know. Your conscience is real. And you are one person, divided by two natures at war within you and at the mercy of larger dueling forces. “Pay attention, above all, even to what is monstrous and malevolent,” he warns.
Second, you must become responsible for your suffering. Culture has produced various “limiting disciplines” to train for this—the “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Ten Commandments and other moral codes, as well as Peterson’s rules. Peterson seizes on the Christian drama as the ultimate representation of this truth. “The cross, for its part, is the burden of life,” he says. “It is also the place where vulnerability is transcended.”
How will you know where to find your suffering? The question may seem silly, but Peterson says we tend to “hide unwanted things in the fog.” Sometimes, it’s simple. “Admit to your feelings,” particularly your uncomfortable feelings of resentment, anger, or pain. “Do the useful things no one else is doing.”
Third, in voluntarily accepting your suffering, you will have the opportunity to transcend it. You are not merely you, after all. You are also St. George who slays the dragon; you are even the archetype of the “eternal Redeemer,” Christ whose suffering and death redeem Mankind. For voluntarily accepting your suffering is a leap of faith. You may perish for the ideal.
Such remarks make up Peterson’s unique carrot-and-stick approach to counseling his readers. “Pick up the extra weight,” he says. And if you can’t shoulder your burden yet, aim a little lower: “Your life becomes meaningful in precise proportion to the depths of the responsibility you are willing to shoulder.”
Does such a philosophy leave room for life itself? One reprieve is to be found in Art (Rule VIII: “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible”), which can breathe new life into stuffy tradition. He recounts in detail how he transformed the dismal 1970s-era aesthetic of his university office into a place of striking beauty. “It can be overwhelming to open ourselves up to the beauty in the world that we as adults have painted over with simplicity,” he says. Art is not merely decoration; it is also what helps us first acquire a sense of the sacred. Beauty teaches us to see the eternal. It is, he says, that which makes life most worth living.
For those who doubt the value of the rules, Peterson readily supplies testimonies from those who have been transformed by them, such as the waiter who tells him he’d been watching his lectures and decided to stop complaining that his job was beneath him. He committed, instead, to seek opportunities and be grateful. “He told me, with an uncontrived smile, that he had been promoted three times in six months,” Peterson says.
With all this advice, the reader might expect Peterson to be insufferable. (Did I mention those testimonies?) He does remain self-aware enough to make the occasional joke: “It is by no means a good thing to be the oldest person at the frat party.” But one wonders whether there’s room in Peterson’s too-chilly world for the little things, for enjoying an ice cream cone with your granddaughter (his was born in 2017), and for the great moments of unearned love, of grace. Peterson risks overemphasizing the tragedy of life.
The publication of Beyond Order was complicated by a recent string of health crises affecting both Peterson and his family. In 2019, his wife, Tammy, was given a terminal cancer diagnosis just as he was seeking to wean himself off benzodiazepines (an anti-anxiety medication). He was shuttled from a Canadian clinic to a New York rehab facility, where he was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia, and eventually recovered, oddly enough, in Russia. He spent almost two months, as the coronavirus pandemic was dawning, in a medically induced coma in Moscow, withdrawing from his medication. He and his wife have since recovered. Writing the book, he says, was a saving grace during this harrowing time.
“I am not going to cheapen any of that by claiming we became better people for living through it,” says Peterson, who, despite his comfortability with the Bible and Christian symbols, is not a churchgoer. That said, his wife’s nearness to death motivated her to seek spiritual guidance—in the acknowledgments are listed “three men of God.”
Josh Christenson is an assistant editor for the Washington Free Beacon. He graduated from Wheaton College in 2016. Before joining the Free Beacon, he was a high school teacher and a legislative intern in the U.S. House of Representatives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.