12 Rules: The Review
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
This is the chapter about lobsters.
Cathy Newman and other commentators have been choking on the crustaceans Peterson offers as evidence for his first rule, but I wonder if they have actually read the chapter. It’s all pretty self-explanatory and obvious: dominance hierarchy is “an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex life has adapted.” That’s true for lobsters, and it’s true for humans: “It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism…It’s not the patriarchy.”
If you’re at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy - as either lobster or human - life is harder on you. Low status lobsters and humans produce less serotonin. “Low serotonin means decreased confidence. Low serotonin means more response to stress and costlier physical preparedness for emergency…higher serotonin levels…are characterized by less illness, misery and death.”
So what to do? Put your shoulders back! “Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.”
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
This is the chapter that explains why people will buy prescription medicine for their dog, and carefully administer it, but fail to do the same for themselves.
It boils down to this: “Why should anyone take care of anything as naked, ugly, ashamed, frightened, worthless, cowardly, resentful, defensive and accusatory as a descendant of Adam? Even if that thing, that being, is himself? And I do not mean at all to exclude women with this phrasing.”
That humans are like this provides Peterson with what I think might be the most important insight into the problem of evil since Augustine identified original sin with pride. This is an insight that has already filtered into my preaching, as you can see here; but this is how JP describes it:
We know exactly how and where we can be hurt, and why. That is as good a definition as any of self-consciousness. We are aware of our own defencelessness, finitude and mortality. We can feel pain, and self-disgust, and shame, and horror, and we know it. We know what makes us suffer. We know how dread and pain can be inflicted on us - and that means we know exactly how to inflict it on others. We know we are naked, and how that nakedness can be exploited - and that means we know how others are naked, and how they can be exploited.
You could help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak - particularly your own individual Hell - you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this. That would give you a Meaning, with a capital M. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you
This is the chapter about not casting your pearls before swine.
And this is challenging. Those of us who are serious about our Christianity are conditioned to always try to help but we ought to be more honest about why we do this, and what it achieves. Sometimes helping is beyond us.
But Christ himself, you might object, befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes. How dare I cast aspersions on the motives of those who are trying to help? But Christ was the archetypal perfect man. And you’re you. How do you know that your attempts to pull someone up won’t instead bring them - or you - further down?
So, how to help? “Before you help someone, you should find out why that person in in trouble.” The thing is, that often takes more effort than just helping - it’s easier to throw money at a problem than really understand why the problem is there. But that is to cast our pearls before swine - and it was Jesus, not just Peterson, who warned us against that.
And help yourself, by making friends with people who are going to genuinely help you - with people who are prepared to put the work in, because they want the best for you.
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
This is the chapter about silencing your internal critic.
Is this the very heart of Petersonism? Perhaps so. Certainly, it’s something I’ve heard him talk about in pretty much every clip and lecture of his I’ve listened to. It’s this:
Aim small. You don’t want to shoulder too much to begin with, given your limited talents, tendency to deceive, burden of resentment, and ability to shirk responsibility. Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning. Then you ask yourself, ‘What could I do, that I would do, that would accomplish that, and what small thing would I like as a reward?’ Then you do what you have decided to do, even if you do it badly. Then you give yourself that damn coffee, in triumph. Maybe you feel a bit stupid about it, but you do it anyway. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And, with each day, your baseline of comparison gets a little higher, and that’s magic. That’s compound interest. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different. Now you’re aiming for something higher. Now you’re wishing on a star. Now the beam is disappearing from your eye, and you’re learning to see. And what you aim at determines what you see. That’s worth repeating. What you aim at determines what you see.
One of my concerns with Petersonism is that it veers into Pelagianism. But at times he writes like a full-blown Augustinian: “What do you know about yourself? You are, on the one hand, the most complex thing in the entire universe, and on the other, someone who can’t even set the clock on your microwave. Don’t over-estimate your self-knowledge.”
So, you - amazing, ignorant you - aim at something, and “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
This is the chapter every parent needs to read.
If you are a parent you must read it. And if you are not a parent but know someone who is, you need to persuade them to read it.
Peterson sees, “today’s parents as terrified by their children.” We are heirs of the revolutions of the 1960s and have forgotten what children need and what parents are meant to provide. What children need is parents who will give them the right kind of attention, and that means parents remembering that they are parents. “A child will have many friends, but only two parents - if that - and parents are more, not less, than friends. Friends have very limited authority to correct. Every parent therefore needs to learn to tolerate the momentary anger or even hatred directed towards them by their children, after necessary corrective action has been taken.”
Parents must learn to correct their children, and socialise them. After all, “Two-year-olds, statistically speaking, are the most violent of people.” If parents don’t take this responsibility seriously, their children will be disciplined by the much harsher realities of the world. “If a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends. The research literature on this is quite clear.”
So what should parents teach their kids? Peterson suggests the following:
Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture or bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilised and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.
And that is why so many children are unwelcome, pretty much everywhere. If you are a parent, don’t let this be your child.
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
This is the chapter that tells you to take responsibility for yourself.
Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise 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?
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
This is the longest and densest chapter.
“Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth. It’s basically what God tells Adam and Eve, immediately before he kicks them out of Paradise.” The way to deal with this is by learning delayed gratification - that is, to work and to sacrifice. Be Abel, not Cain. “Cain turns to Evil to obtain what Good denied him, and he does it voluntarily, self-consciously and with malice aforethought.” Don’t do that. Aim higher.
It is here that Peterson gives the clearest definition of his ethic, his “fundamental moral conclusions”:
Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency - your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.
And that leads us to the next chapter…
Rule 8: Tell the truth - or, at least, don’t lie
This is the chapter to put courage into your moral spine.
We lie in order to make others like us more than they otherwise would, to make ourselves look better, to avoid difficult tasks or conversations - because we think lying makes life easier. But lying makes things worse:
If you say no to your boss, or your spouse, or your mother, when it needs to be said, then you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said. If you say yes when no needs to be said, however, you transform yourself into someone who can only say yes, even when it is very clearly time to say no. If you ever wonder how perfectly ordinary, decent people could find themselves doing the terrible things the gulag camp guards did, you now have your answer. By the time no seriously needed to be said, there was no one left capable of saying it.
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
This is the chapter Cathy Newman should have read.
Peterson is not only an academic, he is a clinical psychologist, and he knows how to listen. Pastors are also psychologists - or, should be - and Peterson has some things to teach those of us who aspire to hear people.
Peterson recounts the case of ‘Miss S’ who came to see him, saying, “I think I was raped. Five times.” Peterson explains how he could have convinced her of the truth, which could have been either, You are an innocent victim or You have made yourself a victim. To have done so would have been to give her advice; but Peterson didn’t give advice, he listened.
Peterson gives advice (ha!) about how to listen well. And it is this that Cathy Newman should have read and applied before tangling with the clinical psychologist:
When someone opposes you, it is very tempting to oversimplify, parody, or distort his or her position. This is a counterproductive game, designed both to harm the dissenter and unjustly raise your personal status. By contrast, if you are called upon to summarize someone’s position, so that the speaking person agrees with that summary, you may have to state the argument even more clearly and succinctly than the speaker has yet managed. If you first give the devil his due, looking at his arguments from his perspective, you can (1) find the value in them, and learn something in the process, or (2) hone your positions against them (if you still believe they are wrong) and strengthen your arguments further against challenge. This will make you much stronger. Then you will no longer have to misrepresent your opponent’s position (and may well have bridged at least part of the gap between the two of you). You will also be much better at withstanding your own doubts.
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
This is the chapter that might save your marriage.
The world is only simple when it is working. That is so obvious we miss it all the time. Peterson illustrates with the story of a woman who believes herself to be in a happy, stable, marriage, only to discover her husband is having an affair. Suddenly chaos roars, the dragon is unleashed. This is what happens when we don’t communicate, precisely.
One day it bursts forth, in a form that no one can ignore. It lifts the very household from its foundations. Then it’s an affair, or a decades-long custody dispute of ruinous economic and psychological proportions. Then it’s the concentrated version of the acrimony that could have been spread out, tolerably, issue by issue, over the years of the pseudo-paradise of the marriage. Every one of the three hundred thousand unrevealed issues, which have been lied about, avoided, rationalized away, hidden like an army of skeletons in some great horrific closet, bursts forth like Noah’s flood, drowning everything. There’s no ark, because no one built one, even though everyone felt the storm gathering.
So, how about this suggestion?
Maybe a forthright conversation about sexual dissatisfaction might have been the proverbial stitch in time - not that it would be easy. Perhaps madame desired the death of intimacy, clandestinely, because she was deeply and secretly ambivalent about sex. God knows there’s reason to be. Perhaps monsieur was a terrible, selfish lover. Maybe they both were. Sorting that out is worth a fight, isn’t it? That’s a big part of life, isn’t it? Perhaps addressing that and (you never know) solving the problem would be worth two months of pure misery just telling each other the truth (not with intent to destroy, or attain victory, because that’s not the truth: that’s just all-out war).
Like I say, this chapter could save your marriage.
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
This is the chapter that refutes the “postmodern/neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women.”
Boys and girls are different. Sexual difference is biological in basis. Sexual difference is not a cultural construct. The current cultural narrative that denies these things is bad for boys - and for girls. Boys don’t know how to compete when they are forced to compete in the girls’ hierarchy. “Girls can win by winning in their own hierarchy - by being good at what girls value, as girls. They can add to this victory by winning in the boys’ hierarchy. Boys, however, can only win by winning in the male hierarchy. They will lose status, among girls and boys, by being good at what girls value. It costs them in reputation among the boys, and in attractiveness among the girls.” If we insist on going down this path, soon there will be no men left that any self-respecting woman would want to form a relationship with.
It was alarming to hear the president of the Marxist Society at the university where my eldest daughter is a student, defend and promote communism on national radio recently. Marxist ideology always ends in starvation and murder. That has been demonstrated, irrefutably, at the cost of millions of lives. Yet it is this very philosophy that underpins so many current cultural developments. It is Marxism filtered through the French intellectuals and now dominant in our universities and media that says things like, “There are ‘women’ only because men gain by excluding them. There are ‘males and females’ only because members of that heterogeneous group benefit by excluding the tiny minority of people whose biological sexuality is amorphous.” Peterson retorts, “It is almost impossible to over-estimate the nihilistic and destructive nature of this philosophy. It puts the act of categorization itself in doubt. It negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power.”
And then he deals with the “equal pay for equal work” argument. You should read that.
This is a powerful chapter, that deserves careful reading, not angry, knee-jerk, liberal reaction. The practical consequences are profound: “If you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
This is the chapter that will make you cry.
The inevitability of suffering is a recurring theme for Peterson. Here he deals with it through the suffering of his daughter, who endured the misery of severe polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
How are we supposed to make sense of suffering? How are we meant to cope with it?
Peterson says that part of the answer is this: “Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation.” It is our human limitations that make us human, and that makes suffering something we have to face. He offers wise counsel for those caught in the maelstrom of suffering - counsel about how to talk, and to listen. And he says to stop and stroke a cat: “And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it.”
This is the chapter in which Peterson tells us what he hopes for - he hopes for the best.
So what to make of all this?
Peterson is certainly not an evangelical, but 12 Rules is more steeped in the Bible (alongside Nietzsche, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky) than many supposedly Christian books I have read. At the least, there will be hundreds of thousands of agnostics and atheists reading this who will have to treat the Bible with greater seriousness because of the way Peterson uses it. That is a good thing.
And there are incredible depths of wisdom here. There is much to glean, much to feed on. Peterson’s recognition of what humans are really like is thoroughly Augustinian, but because he doesn’t locate the solution in the cross of Christ his Rules inevitably tilt towards the Pelagian. We should be careful about that.
But Peterson is courageous, and clear. He loves people, and hates tyranny. He is engaging and funny. Thoughtful and emotional. There is more gospel in what he writes than you’ll hear from many a supposedly orthodox pulpit. More of us need to share something of his courage and clarity. He is kicking down doors we should be unafraid to walk through.
In fact, my most serious complaint about 12 Rules is that the fascinating endnotes are endnotes, rather than easier to access footnotes; and that there is an incredibly irritating misnumbering of these from note 33. I don’t know how that slipped through the net, but as Peterson often states, things fall apart, and chaos is always waiting to overwhelm us. What we need is order. 12 Rules will help you understand that.