It’s not every self help book that’s prefaced by an exhaustive description of the author’s ill health but Jordan Peterson’s latest, Beyond Order, starts with an Overture, a journey through his grisly experiences in a succession of hospitals, which could usefully be summed up as: Avoid Benzodiazapine. (Incidentally, as a rule of life that has a lot going for it.)
But there’s a point to sharing his vicissitudes. When he emerged from his ordeal, he revised this book in the light of what he’d been through, only keeping the bits that still made sense. His remarkable openness about an illness, which meant he lost track of time and couldn’t button his shirt or stand upright, did make a useful point about his own vulnerability.
It also exposed him to the uncharitable suggestion that this is where toxic masculinity gets you. Because Jordan Peterson isn’t any old self-help guru; he’s the man who became the intellectual father figure to hordes of young men who lacked both plausible models of masculinity and a lexicon that included the words “responsibility”, “gratitude” and “work”, and who flocked in extraordinary numbers to his public lectures.
He himself seems taken aback by having become a cult; he’s thrown when one young man tells him that his book was what took him from prison to marriage and a job.
Anyway, to the question of whether our author is now a basket case after trying odd diets and peculiar medication, the answer is no. The new 12 Rules are very like the old 12 Rules; there’s no sign that Jordan P has lost it.
In fact, if the new 12 Rules remind you of the first – note the reverse colours on the cover: white on black, rather than black on white – that, he tells us, is because he designed the two books together – this is the yang to his previous ying.
But the formula is the same, a dozen rules of life from the grandiose (Abandon Ideology) to the particular (Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible). In fact, the agreeable simplicity of the chapter headings, which he repeats at the end for the short of memory, does make a useful crib of the contents: “Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship”, for instance.
Naturally, 12 Rules of Life has an irresistible simplicity, though if you add this dozen to the first, you get 24 Rules of Life. There’s a striking image at the start of each chapter. Rule Four, “Notice that Opportunity Lurks where Responsibility has been Abdicated” has a picture of Atlas holding up the world (I’m not sure that one was thought through). That idea of abdicated responsibility, incidentally, was the one that seemed to resonate most with audiences with whom Jordan P shared his insights initially. Like all the Rules, it starts simply with the observation that if you have a rubbish colleague or superior who shirks work and responsibility, then take up the slack yourself and make yourself indispensable. Interesting that this strikes a chord; plainly he’s saying what isn’t being said.
Where he is more opaque but very much in American middle brow mode, is illustrating his ideas with assorted myth, legend or archetype: he gives us Mesopotamian epic to make a point about order and chaos, or the story of Osiris and Horus to illustrate a point about the importance of tradition plus youthful vigour. Sometimes the attempt falls flat as when he deploys Harry Potter anecdotes, and can I just say that he got Peter Pan all wrong when he asserts that Peter’s problem is that Captain Hook is his role model.
But Jordan Peterson is by profession a clinical psychologist and some of his most useful insights come from encounters with people. His chapter on Do Not Hide Unwanted Things in the Fog can be summed up in his recommendation: “Have the damn fight”. One client had put up with her husband filling room after room of their home with pop art that she hated; the moral is you should take a stand rather than putting up and shutting up in perpetuity. Hard to disagree with that, no?
In fact, most of this book is given to similarly humane and perfectly sensible observations about human nature. Indeed, when he describes his clients, you note the compassion as well as the rigour. And his prescription against chaos, that you should start by tidying your own room and sorting yourself out before you deal with the universe, has much to commend it.
On the big stuff, it’s notable that he’s much more upfront about believing in God, while detesting ideology – what he calls the “isms”. But there are useful big ideas here which are all the more useful in being, as he admits, unoriginal.
Aristotle beat him to his biggest idea when he observed that man is a social animal. JP takes exception to Freud and Jung because they focus obsessively on what’s happening inside the individual, rather than the social world he inhabits. Really, it’s all there in Aquinas.
What about the title? Beyond Order is the big idea: that it’s not enough to be a reflexive conservative, because you may be conserving rubbish social structures, and not enough to be reflexively radical, because you may be discarding the learned lessons of generations. So, he tells us, we should stand with one foot in tradition, the other stretched out tentatively into the unknown.
There’s plenty here for his critics to get stuck into; he really hates the kind of group think which enforces deference to linguistic and ideological correctness. He’d have fun with the current campaign by the Merseyside Police: “Being Offensive is an Offence”.
And if you find yourself, like one of his clients, in a department where people spend time worrying whether the word “flip-chart” might be offensive to Filipinas, well, he has sound advice: “Do not Do What you Hate”. Get out of places run by idiots.
The book is also a validation of his own role; as he observes, being able to articulate what many people instinctively feel but can’t articulate is a valuable role for a public intellectual. The fact that so many people are, in fact, afraid to articulate what they actually think is something that should give us all pause.