Published July 20, 2022
Jordan Peterson is, by now, an author who needs no introduction. Catapulted to international superstardom (or as close to it as any public intellectual can aspire to!) by the publication of his 2018 12 Rules for Life, Peterson has won devotees the world over for his unique brand of plain-spoken straight talk about what it means to be human, seasoned with profound psychological insight and personal sympathy.
His follow-up book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life suffers, it must be confessed, from the struggles of every sequel. A good screenwriter is likely to expend their best and most creative ideas on what is initially conceived to be a standalone story; called upon to write a follow-up, they must often turn to the scrap heap and develop ideas they had earlier discarded as not quite so fresh or compelling. So too, as Peterson here returns to his original list of forty-two rules for life, initially contributed on the website Quora, to share twelve more with us, it’s hard to resist the impression that they might not quite have as much pizzazz as the first twelve. And of course, even if a sequel is, objectively speaking, the equal of its predecessor, it is liable to feel like a bit of a letdown, since there is no repeating the sheer originality and wonder with which the initial masterpiece struck its viewers or readers.
In the case of Beyond Order, these problems are perhaps compounded. Many of its ideas, after all, are already well-familiar to readers after Peterson’s years on the lecture and podcast circuit; and there is some evidence, too, of Peterson’s brutal battle with pharmaceutical addiction during much of the period he was writing the book. The chapters seem somewhat more uneven in scope and quality than those of the original 12 Rules, varying widely in length and focus. As in the original book, each rule often serves to encapsulate much wider-ranging reflections on “life, the universe, and everything” (was the original choice of 42 rules a nod to Douglas Adams, perhaps?) than the phrasing of the rule might suggest, such that one is apt to forget at times, deep in the middle of a discussion of Nietzsche or Norse mythology, what rule we are meant to be learning about right now. In general, he convincingly lands the plane by the end of each chapter, demonstrating that what may have seemed wild digressions are in fact profound illuminations of the shape of human existence, with powerful practical ramifications; but in Beyond Order, just perhaps, it seems that chaos gets the better of order from time to time.
All that said, it is a tribute to Peterson’s greatness that despite these reservations I can say: this is a profound and timely book, which every thinking person would do well to read.
Given the likely familiarity of most readers with Peterson’s ideas, I will not attempt anything like a thorough review here. Rather, I want to briefly highlight some key arguments Peterson makes about the necessity of conservatism as a political, social, and epistemic posture, as well as the warnings he has for the increasingly tribalistic conservative movement in America today.
First, then, Peterson’s two cheers for conservatism.
Throughout his works, Peterson has offered what might fairly be called one of this generation’s richest articulations of the conservative mind. In a world gone mad on the quest for ever more egalitarianism, he reminded us right at the outset of 12 Rules for Life of the unavoidability of “dominance hierarchies”—like it or not, every arena of human life inscribes hierarchy. Such hierarchies may be abusive and unjustified, to be sure, but they are at least as often the result of some differences in competence. As he says in Rule I of Beyond Order, “If there is a problem to be solved, and many people involve themselves in the solution, then a hierarch must and will arise, as those who can do, and those who cannot follow as best they can, often learning to be competent in the process. If the problem is real, then the people who are best at solving the problem at hand should rise to the top. That is not power. It is the authority that properly accompanies ability” (25).
In the section that follows, Peterson offers a powerful defense of the much-maligned good of authority, a quintessentially conservative value. “Authority is not mere power,” he writes. “When people exert power over others, they compel them, forcefully…. When people wield authority, by contrast, they do so because of their competence—a competence that is spontaneously recognized and appreciated by others, and generally followed willingly” (26). Genuine authority is not tyrannical, but acts to restrain tyranny, and, far from stifling freedom, enables it. Those who thoughtlessly set themselves against all authority as inherently exploitative, says Peterson, position themselves “as enem[ies] of the practical amelioration of suffering itself. I can think of few more sadistic attitudes” (27).
There are, of course, many kinds of authority, and tradition is one of them. The title of Rule I is, “Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement,” and one of Peterson’s central objectives in this chapter is to argue that large, long-term social institutions and traditions can be understood as possessing the same kind of authority as highly competent individuals, just over a larger timescale. Authoritative institutions are those that have demonstrated, over large groups of people and long periods of time, remarkable ability to solve problems and to spontaneously elicit respect. They may not be perfect, but the now-regnant fashion of carelessly denigrating all such institutions and traditions as hidebound, self-serving, “patriarchal,” and all the rest is simply a recipe for chaos. Too frequently, moreover, such moralistic deconstruction serves as a convenient dodge for the hard work of cleaning up the mess in one’s own life. Peterson illustrates his point in this section with a brutal but all-too-familiar account of one client who could barely get out of bed in the morning but was consumed with self-righteous fervor about the structures of oppression responsible for environmental degradation.
Here, in a few short pages, Peterson squarely tackles some of the deepest confusions and malaises of our time, demonstrating the societal necessity of truths that used to be widely intuitive, but for which now only a handful of traditionalist conservatives still have the courage and clarity to defend.
At the same time, however, Peterson has some stern warnings for conservatives as well, repeatedly admonishing that a blind commitment to conserving things is nearly as bad as the blind impulse to destroy. Indeed, Rule I highlights both dangers—whereas progressives are apt to malign social institutions, conservatives are wary of creative types, seeing them often as ungrateful parasites and idealistic crusaders, always trying to naively make the world a better place instead of accepting the limited goods that existing structures have to offer. Throughout the volume, though, as the title suggests, Peterson, defender of Order though he may be, warns that Order is not enough—Chaos has an important role to play in any healthy society as well. And liberals, as every conservative knows, are the agents of Chaos.
In expounding Rule I, Peterson insists on the “necessity of balance” between conservative and liberal impulses in any well-functioning institution or political society, a point he returns to at some length in Rule XI. “Conservatives,” he notes, “are necessary for maintaining things the way they are when everything is working and change might be dangerous. Liberals, by contrast, are necessary for changing things when they are no longer working” (332). Ideally, to be sure, both impulses might be combined in the proper proportions in a single individual, and it is indeed in the achievement of such balance that constitutes true wisdom. However, the problems of large modern societies are too great and complex for any one wise individual (or even an assembly of them) to tackle; thus the necessity for liberal and conservative political parties, constantly arguing and jostling in a messy but—at the best of times—adequate approximation of healthy balance. “In the absence of the ability to regularly choose only the wise and good as leaders (and good luck finding them), it is worthwhile to elect a pack blind to half of reality in one cycle and another blind to the other half the next. Then at least most of society’s concerns are attended to in some reasonable measure over the course of something approximating a decade” (337).
Since at least the 1960s, however, in America at least, the liberal wing of the spectrum has become increasingly infected with the conceit that it represents the true fruition of human purpose, and that all who stand in its way are “on the wrong side of history.” Deprived of any conservative conversation partners to rein in their creative impulses, once well-intentioned liberals have become trapped within a self-consuming ideology of perpetual revolution, determined to eat away at the foundations of every traditional institution and fiercely denounce any who dare to defend them. Although conservatives tried to adopt a more gentlemanly posture at first, it did not take too long of being told by the Left “we have no need of you,” before the Right began to adopt the same mentality. Today, conservatives are in great danger of succumbing (if indeed they have not already) to the lure of ideology, trapped within a parochial, self-referential circle convinced of its own righteousness and armor-plated against any insight from without.
Thus, perhaps the most valuable section of the book for American conservatives today is Rule VI: “Abandon Ideology.” Here, Peterson offers a profoundly insightful analysis of the psychology of the ideologue, one that is frighteningly recognizable on both Left and Right today. The entire chapter is worthy of close meditation, so I will merely highlight the central outline of Peterson’s sketch of the process of ideology-construction.
First, says Peterson, the ideologue selects an abstraction to serve as a convenient bogeyman (“the patriarchy” or, for that matter, “the Left”), and thus “hypersimplifies what are in fact extraordinarily diverse and complex phenomena” (169). Such oversimplifications make it easy to feel smugly self-righteous: I have identified the source of all the problems, and I am not them. Next, the ideologue or “ism theorist” “generates a small number of explanatory principles or forces” to account for the complex social problems under consideration, and “grants to that small number primary causal power, while ignoring others of equal or greater importance.” Then, “the faux theorist spins a post-hoc theory about how every phenomenon, no matter how complex, can be considered a secondary consequence of the new, totalizing system.” Finally, he says, the new ideological narrative breeds up a school of followers who can “propagate the methods of this algorithmic reduction… and those who refuse to adopt the algorithm or who criticize its use are tacitly or explicitly demonized” (170). In this school, the followers are almost inevitably less bright, less subtle, and more rigid than the initial theorist, whose construct may well have reflected genuine insight into unjust structures or patterns, but whose followers become increasingly formulaic, dogmatic, and shrill. Where the leader might have asserted that certain malign factors “contributed to” the baleful effects we see around us, the followers simplify this to “caused,” thus ruling out any alternative theories that could supplement this explanation.
The year 2020 conveniently provided vivid object lessons in this process on both sides of the political spectrum, as activists on the Left proposed totalizing explanations of the malign forces behind racial disparities, demagogues on the Right proposed totalizing explanations of the malign forces behind COVID-19 policies, and both sides hunkered down for a war of mutual assured destruction.
Of course, lamentations about Western societies’ descent into polarization and mutual incomprehension are a dime-a-dozen these days. What makes Peterson unique, and uniquely valuable, is that, far from resorting to milquetoast admonitions for everyone to just get along, he delves into the deepest recesses of the human heart and human culture in order to understand how deeply rooted, and deeply interdependent, are our impulses toward Order and Chaos. Drawing on the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the legend of St. George, Harry Potter, and everything in between, Peterson offers us a masterful guide on how to confront and slay the dragons that lurk not only in our societies but within our own souls. Each rule encapsulates a lifetime’s worth of hard-won wisdom.
Even in just the past few weeks, there has been some concern among his admirers (Christian and secular), that Peterson may be losing some of his poise and slipping into the caricatures which his worst critics have made of him over the years. Let us hope not. The wisdom which Peterson has shared with the world is, as Richard Hooker would say, “a drop of that unemptiable fountain of wisdom” which comes from the Father of lights, and our darkening world desperately needs Peterson’s voice. May the Lord draw this extraordinary man to himself, and continue to use him to keep on speaking this wisdom into the whirlwind of Chaos that threatens to engulf the Church and our civilization.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.
Image from Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons