Tuesday, April 3, 2018

a brief review of (and mostly excerpts from) Jordan Peterson's "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos"

Peterson's book is long, rambling, and preachy at times-- but mostly entertaining and interesting to read. Many people have purchased it. But I worry that far too few people will read it, given its length-- in particular, the people who would gain the most. In its current form, it will bolster those who will benefit from a few tweaks and perhaps pass along bits of wisdom to others. Perhaps he'll crank out a shorter and more accessible version. 

Peterson's book is difficult to describe and assess. The book's counsel mostly rings true as common sense, but maybe "that's just me" and people who think like me. (In this, he reminds me on life-- broadly-- as a Dave Ramsey on personal finance or Dr. Laura on relationships.) He argues persuasively at times, but he also relies heavily on aphorisms, while mixing in stories and anecdotes. (Some of these are entertaining; others not so much or they're too long to be optimally effective.) The topics are often scientific or relate to science, but it seems more science-ish than scientific. (In each chapter, is this because he's writing for a popular audience or because he actually thinks in science-ish terms?)

I don't think the book matches Peterson's public speaking efforts-- at least what I've seen (although maybe that's a selection bias based on what has become most popular). Then again, what could? He has emerged as a popular and important figure-- whether you agree with him or not. In this, he reminds me of voices as disparate as Rand Paul and Thomas Frank. You may not agree with them, but we need more people like them-- who think outside the box and courageously speak their minds. 

We're in a time when many people pose as "liberals", but are actually fundamentalists who are staggeringly illiberal. Especially with the most recent election, we've learned how few liberals (and conservatives) we actually have. (And wouldn't the world be a far better place if we had a lot more of each?!) It's vital for society to have people who are truly liberal-- those who are truly tolerant, read broadly, think clearly; those who extend freedom and dignity to others-- and are good at enunciating these values in the public sphere. Peterson is a paragon in this respect.

Should you read the book? Maybe. Should I review the book (more than what I've said so far)? Nah. But to help you deal with both questions-- and for my own personal use-- I'll list quotes and ideas that I found interesting and may use in the future. 

Big Themes

On ideology: "Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it...Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence. Furthermore, when their social contraptions fail, ideologues blame not themselves but all who see through the simplifications." (from Norman Doidge's foreword, p. xiv-xv)

On the pros/cons of moving from tradition: "We have been moving from our tradition-, religion-, and even nation-centered cultures, partly to decrease the danger of group conflict. But we are increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness, and is no improvement at all." (xxxii)

On (really) helping others: "Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn't merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstance and exploitation. It's the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable...It is more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward because of its difficulty...If you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and by implication, in the present and future, as well)." (80)
On "telling the truth" and the implications: "Nietsche said that a man's worth was determined by how much truth he could tolerate." (223) "Taking the easy way out or telling the truth-- those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing." (209) "Hiding from others also means suppressing and hiding the potentialities of the unrealized self...a lot of you is still nascent...and will not be called forth by stasis." (211) "If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself." (212)

And then he extends honesty to taking responsibility. There are two basic approaches to failure and dissatisfaction: "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. Did what I want happen? No. Then the world is unfair. People are jealous, and too stupid to understand. It is the fault of something or someone else. That is the voice of inauthenticity." (214) 

His counsel? Enter the chaos. "The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself to God...Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better." (223) The punchline: "never sacrifice what you could be for what you are." (223)

On 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 at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world...True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicious listening, at the same time. It involves conflict. So, you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise...Sometimes it results in the defeat and elimination of one or more internal avatar. They don't like to be defeated or eliminated, either. They're hard to build...You better listen to them. If you don't they'll go underground and turn into devils and torture you. In consequence, thinking is emotionally painful, as well as physiologically demanding." (241-242)

On thinking through failures: "When something goes wrong, even perception itself must be questioned, along with evaluation, thought and action. When error announces itself, undifferentiated chaos is at hand. Its reptilian form paralyzes and confused...In that collapse into the terrible mess of uncomprehended Being lurks the possibility of new and benevolent order. Clarity of thought-- courageous clarity of thought-- is necessary to call it forth." (279)

Realizing, acknowledging, and properly assessing a sub-optimal outcome is required for change: "'I'm unhappy' is a good start (not 'I have a right to be unhappy' because that is still questionable)...Perhaps your unhappiness is justified under the current circumstances. Perhaps any reasonable person would be displeased and miserable where you are. Alternatively, perhaps, you are just whiny and immature?" (279)

Explicitly Biblical Big Themes

Peterson talks at great length about themes from Genesis 1-4. In particular, he focuses on chaos and order-- bringing chaos out of order, but also the usefulness of chaos at times. (As such, he portrays chaos as a mixed bag when the subtitle implies that it is fully negative.) "Chaos and order are fundamental elements because every situation is made up of both...Order is not enough...chaos can be too much...Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering...That is where meaning is to be found." (44) 

Peterson sees "Paradise serving as habitable order and the serpent playing the role of chaos." (46) He describes the Devil (through Goethe's Mephistopheles) as "anti-creation" to the core: "I am the spirit who negates and rightly so, for all that comes to be deserves to perish, wretchedly. It were better nothing would begin!" (148)

This has implications for parenting, etc. "It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them. And even if it were possible...another danger would emerge: that of permanent human infantilism and absolute uselessness. How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger? How dull and contemptible would we become if there was no longer reason to pay attention?...Do you want to make your children safe or strong?" (47) 

Genesis 3 leads to "an evolutionary arms race between fetal head and female pelvis. The female graciously widened her hips...The baby, for his part, allowed himself to be born more than a year early, compared to other mammals of his size, and evolved a semi-collapsible head. This was and is a painful adjustment for both."  (52)

Ultimately, "the entire Bible is structured so that everything after the Fall...is presented as a remedy for that Fall...the answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to embody the image of God-- to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good-- but to so consciously, of our own free choice." (57)

Peterson has a number of useful thoughts about Genesis 4 (164-184)-- sacrifice as a form of investment and the powerful role of sacrifice in effective lives. "It is for this reason-- among others, no doubt-- that the concept of sacrifice is introduced in the Biblical chapter immediately following the drama of the Fall. There is little difference between sacrifice and work." (164) The future is "a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being...The future is a judgmental father...The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future." (165-166, 169) 

But sacrifice can still be unrequited. (Good intentions are not sufficient.) Cain's efforts are "rejected, despite his efforts. Then he's lost the present and the future. Then his work and his sacrifice has been pointless. Under such conditions, the world darkens and the soul rebels." (175) Peterson also sees Christ vs. the Devil, the World, and Sin Nature's temptations in Matthew 4 as the redemption/resolution of Genesis 4 (178-184).

Peterson also deals with the problem of suffering (see: Habakkuk, Job) at length in chapters 6 and 7. He connects the reality of evil to Tolstoy's four-fold choice within the dilemma and the attraction of nihilism and even mass-murder (149-150). People point to natural disasters as a greater problem for theodicy, but Peterson is not so sure. He reasonably blames the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on "willful blindness and corruption", since plans had been made to complete preparation as early as 1978 (157). 

He also draws lessons from the end of Socrates' life (172-173) and draws at length from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He cites the most profound of evils and then concludes: "What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no argument. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief." (197)

What are we to do in the face of the subsequent challenges? He notes that we all have choice in the face of human evils perpetrated on us-- to extend or stop them (e.g., 153-155's sexual abuse across generations).

"Consider your circumstances. Start small. Have you taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to you?..Have you cleaned up your life?..Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong...Don't reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your own household, how dare you try to rule a city?...stop making your life unnecessarily difficult...Perhaps you will discover that your now less-corrupted soul [is] much stronger than it might otherwise have been...encounter [tragedies] so that they stay tragic-- merely tragic-- instead of degenerating into outright hellishness." (157b-159)

Biblical Miscellany

On the pros and cons of Christianity in elevating the individual but also promoting "cheap grace": "Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible...elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law." Through the move from the Old Covenant's emphasis on obedience and blessing to the New Covenant's grace, "the idea that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God's particular favor [was] radically de-emphasized." (186) But "Christ's sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity...nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals...watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ...devaluation of the significance of earthly life...passive acceptance of the status quo...right of the believer to reject any real moral burden..." (189) What's often lost in translation: the command to make disciple-makers which is in our best interests. (See: Eph 4:11-16, Mt 28:19-20, II Tim 2:2 and our project with DC.) 

On prayer within God's provision and our participation: God "is no simple granter of wishes. When tempted by the Devil himself, in the desert...even Christ Himself was not willing to call upon his Father for a favour; furthermore, every day, the prayers of desperate people go unanswered. But maybe this is because the questions they contain are not phrased in the proper manner. Perhaps it’s not reasonable to ask God to break the rules of physics every time we fall by the wayside or make a serious error. Perhaps, in such times, you can’t put the cart before the horse and simply wish for your problem to be solved in some magical manner. Perhaps you could ask, instead, what you might have to do right now to increase your resolve, buttress your character, and find the strength to go on. Perhaps you could instead ask to see the truth...The problems with asking yourself such a question is that you must truly want the answer. And the problem with doing that is that you won't like the answer...resolve to improve and future out how to do that. Then you actually have to do it. That's exhausting...It's much easier to turn your attention away from the truth and remain willfully blind...Maybe that's the same thing as consulting your conscience. Maybe that's the same thing, in some manner, as a discussion with God." (356-358)

On nihilism as religious: The murderers of Sandy Hook "had a problem with religion that existed at a religious depth." (147)

On Ex 20's 4th C: "Many, perhaps even most, of the adults who abuse children were abused themselves as children. However, the majority of people who were abused as children do not abuse their own children. This...can be demonstrated, simply, arithmetically...Instead, abuse disappears across generations. People constrain its spread..." (153-154)

On Ex 32-34: Without the Law, responsibility, discipline, etc., we will become slaves to our base passions and idols and will not be free.

On Eph 5:33: "Boys' interests tilt toward things; girls' interest tilt toward people." (298)

On Eph 6:4's omission: Peterson describes Sleeping Beauty as parental over-protection with sleep symbolizing a chosen unconscious naivete vs. adult life (132-133)

Price's Law (from 1963): an almost-L-shaped graph with people on the vertical and productivity on the horizontal; can also be applied to wealth inequality, population in cities, mass of heavenly bodies and the frequency of words used in a language (8-9).

On "stand up straight", one of his 12 pieces of advice: "Standing up straight with your shoulders back is not something that is only physical, because you're not only a body...Standing up physically also implies and invokes and demands standing up metaphysically. Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being." (22)

On having too much chaos/order in parenting (a la JIS essay): failing to exercise proper discipline is "a classic example of too much chaos breeding too much order (and the inevitable reversal)" (114)

He discusses Orwell, including The Road to Wigan Pier (see my review in the Independent Review): "Communism, in particular, was attractive not so much to oppressed workers, its hypothetical beneficiaries, but to intellectuals-- to those whose arrogant pride in intellect assured them they were always right. But the promised utopia never emerged." (219) "...social-reformer types frequently did not like the poor, as they claimed. Instead, they just hated the rich. They disguised their resentment and jealousy with piety, sanctimony, and self-righteousness." (228-229)

"...there are no atheists. There only people who know, and don't know, what God they serve." (225)

In talking about risk-taking skateboarders: he said the crazy ones were usually boys and that some might call their risks "stupid", but he also saw them as brave, amazing, and deserving of admiration: "They wanted to triumph over danger...They weren't trying to be safe. They were trying to become competent-- and it's competence that makes people as safe as they can truly be." (285-286)

He talks about post-modernism's focus on inequality as power/process rather than wealth/outcomes (310), but it seems like we've moved back to the latter in our political discourse-- mostly (and ironically) as a convenient tool in the pursuit of the former!

On boys and men: "They are always harassing each other, partly for amusement, partly to score points in eternal dominance battle between them, but also partly to see what the other guy will do if he is subjected to social stress. It's part of the process of character evaluation, as well as camaraderie. When it works well (when everybody gets, and gives as good as they get, and can give and take) it's a big part of what allows men" to work well together... (327)


At April 3, 2018 at 9:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having watched many of Dr. Peterson's videos, interviews and lectures I can say that I am confident his position is Fascist in response to what he sees as feminist, socialist and Marxist.
Certainly I can understand, from his culturally indoctrinated perspective, why he would do so.
That he is now studying the Bible with some intent hopefully his current position might be adjusted.
Otherwise I feel confident we are headed for a civil war in Canada not to be compared with the Canadian
vs Native or English vs French friction. No, I am talking about a lot of blood in the streets.
We shall see.

At April 3, 2018 at 10:32 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

*Anti* fascist, but otherwise, could be.
A rough prophecy; hopefully not!


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