Sometimes I scribble down thoughts on books that I’ve read. They’re not reviews, they’re just thoughts.
I belong to the people who think we owe Jordan Peterson a lot and that he may well be the best thing that has come out of Canada since Wayne Gretzky. It’s not that I’m one of those people who’s life was saved by Peterson’s work – when I came across him I was relatively well put together (that’s an exaggeration, of course, who am I kidding, but my life wasn’t in shambles).
My appreciation and admiration for Peterson resides primarily in his providing intellectual stimulus in a shallow time, his exposé of the biblical stories, and his making explicit those contemporary cultural phenomena which we can merely sense vaguely.
Many of us have had a sneaky feeling that something in the West is not right. We can sense that resentment drives so much of the public discourse. There are plenty of ideas trying to sow discord between groups: between men and women, between ethnic groups, and so on – all in the guise of compassion. It has been very hard for the average individual to make sense of it, indeed it has been almost impossible for us to conjure up a diagnosis; we just see the symptoms, and we see them everywhere. Peterson’s putting his finger on the malady is no small feat. I am certain that we are now having many conversations that we wouldn’t have had if it hadn’t been for Peterson’s “appearance” as a public intellectual.
To reduce Jordan Peterson to a combatant in the culture war, however, would be an affront to his work, which involves the contribution of psychological and existential insights drawn from clinical practice as well as the world of philosophy, religion and literature. His latest book, Beyond Order – 12 More Rules for Life, is a challenging and rewarding read if you want to understand yourself and humanity a little bit more.
I’ve always been highly sceptical of self-help books, to say the least, partly because of their seemingly naive emphasis on positive thinking. I wouldn’t place Peterson’s books in the self-help category, despite their titles asking for it. The problem, I find, with the self-help label is that I associate it with life coaches who have little else to say than “you can do it” (like the guy who shows up in Adam Sandler movies).
But there are, I think, other reasons for not putting Beyond Order – 12 More Rules For Life in the self-help category. The chapter titles are formulated as advice, such as “Do not do what you hate” or “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible”, but what hides behind these headings is not straightforward life-advice (although there is that, too) but more like essays on human nature:
“Even in the best of all conceivable circumstances, almost insuperable obstacles will emerge and obstruct your path”, and “What calls you out into the world, however – to your destiny – is not ease. It is struggle and strife. It is bitter contention and the deadly play of the opposites.”
It’s not a very cheerful message, but it is a necessary part of existence to be aware of, particularly for all of those of us who grew up hearing that we could become astronauts. And chefs. And astronaut chefs.
It’s been a while since I read the prequel “12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos” but I recall it as being much more accessible (or perhaps my intellect is shrinking). The first of the two is not necessarily better for that reason, but in light of his latest book it seems that the first set of twelve rules was an introductory course to the thinking of Peterson. Beyond Order goes deeper, which I really like. There is a lot to dig into. A lot. At the same time, it’s more personal. You get to know the person a bit more, sometimes through anecdotes: I loved reading, for instance, about his covert plan to make his office more beautiful, in conflict with bureaucratic rules.
In a chapter entitled “Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens”, Peterson discusses the relation between the spirit and dogma – that age-old tension by which things are preserved (dogma) and renewed (spirit) continuously. Both need eachother in order not to tip over into tyranny or chaos:
“The personality integrated by disciplined adherence to a set of appropriate rules is simultaneously (although perhaps unknowingly) guided by or imitating the highest possible ideal – precisely that ideal that constitutes whatever common element of ‘moral’ makes all the rules good, just, and necessary.”
As a lover of foreign languages, and a periodical student of them, I often claim that grammar rules play a much too large role in learning material. All of us who spent six years in Swedish school trying to learn German can still, after some twenty years, regurgitate lists of German dative prepositions. None of us, I dare say, speak German. And if we do so, it’s not because of those tables but because we have immersed ourselves in the language through other means.
The rules are really just observations of how the language operates – a map, if you will. I’m not saying they are entirely useless, it’s just that they are descriptions of the language, not the language itself. It is when you internalise the pattern of the language – the spirit, rather than the letter – that you can actually speak it fluently. (Native speakers don’t consult tables, they just speak, intuiting the rules). If your highest goal when trying your hand at conversation is to avoid breaking the rules, you will fail, and the experience will be characterised by fear.
As I read Peterson’s section on spirit vs dogma (which really could be seen as a thumbnail for the book’s theme), it struck me as very accurate and that there’s a not so far-fetched analogy between learning a language and trying to live a moral life, at least technically: you excel at it when it is done unconsciously. You need to discipline yourself but when you have internalised the rules you may break them, so long as you thereby serve the spirit of the rules – their intention, so to speak. Like when I start this sentence with the word “like”; it’s not by the book, but it works because I break it knowingly and without malevolent intentions.
Anyway. If Twelve Rules for Life was a gateway drug, this book is pure smack. It’s a very dense book, and there are so many single paragraphs that could be discussed in lengthy essays, making it impossible to do justice to the entire book.
In one of the chapters, Jordan Peterson has a beautiful bit about the role of artists:
“Artists are the people who stand on the frontier of the transformation of the unknown into knowledge”.
He says it’s a dangerous place to be, because by being there, artists risk “falling fully into the chaos” instead of transforming it, but that artists have always been there and that it is their role to play. They don’t fully understand what they are doing, they express themselves intuitively, in dance or music or art. It reminds me of GK Chesterton’s words:
“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
It seems Jordan Peterson is not an artist himself but quite the opposite; his job is to express that which is unexpressed, to make conscious that which lurks in the unconscious and to understand that which the artist may not even understand about his own art. As he himself starts his final chapter: “I have been searching for decades for certainty.” His head may not have split in the Chestertonian sense, but that search for certainty can drive anyone crazy. At the same time – his ideals seem to align with those of the artist: like a poet’s soul in a logician’s mind. The title of the concluding chapter is: “Be grateful in spite of your suffering.” Serious advice from someone who’s come back from hell.