The closest thing to evidence for chaos and order may be when Peterson returns to his cognitive Darwinism, assuring us that "[o]ur brains respond instantly when chaos appears, with simple, hyper-fast circuits maintained from the ancient days, when our ancestors dwelled in trees, and snakes struck in a flash." From there, he recovers his social Darwinism, too, claiming that the evolution of the human skull created "an evolutionary arms race between the fetal head and female pelvis." This all links, he feels, to the archetypal feminine character of chaos and the masculinity of order; but even the simple idea of an archetype is left unexplained. He ends by psychoanalyzing his reader, or perhaps himself, by accusing anyone who has not wished for the annihilation of humanity of being out of touch with their own memory and "darkest fantasies." The second rule ends in a search for "meaning with a capital M" to "justify your miserable existence", which, somehow, bears out the meaning of his tortuously phrased rule about "treating yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping."
The rules that follow are shorter, and rely on roughly the same method of generalization and assertions. The sixth rule, "Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World," is spectacularly ironic for a book so disorganized in its reasons. If Peterson wants to defend order against chaos and suggest that we clean up our rooms, he must lead by example.
Rule number seven sounds fairly unobjectionable-"Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)"-and is the most interesting part of the book. This chapter includes a lengthy section on "Christianity and its Problems," where Peterson sympathetically outlines Friedrich Nietzsche's critique of Christianity, but turns to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov ultimately to reject Nietzsche's solution and endorse "Jung's great discovery" that values cannot be invented. Here Peterson echoes the pessimism of Rod Dreher when Peterson says that Christian "dogma is dead, at least to the modern West." Unlike the fatalistic Christianity of Dreher, Peterson the post-Christian somehow sees a pairing of Jung's neo-pagan psychoanalysis with Social Darwinism as a productive way out.
In the section that immediately follows the one on Christianity, Peterson shares his personal testimony, knotted in an excursus on Rene Descartes' modern doubt. This story mirrors his confessional preface in Maps of Meaning. In 1984, Peterson "had outgrown the shallow Christianity of [his] youth by the time [he] could understand the fundamental of Darwinian theory" because, "[a]fter that, [he] could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking." After this conversion from Christ to Darwin, he flirted with socialism. But all too soon socialism, like Christianity, failed Peterson and he fell back into his doubt. The horrors of the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War-more specifically, the ability for humans to torment each other-eventually led Peterson out of his doubt. "What can I not doubt?", Peterson ponders rhetorically: "The reality of suffering." This becomes Peterson's firm foundation. This foundation does not match his previous claims about Darwinism, but consistency is not valued in Peterson's approach. He chiefly relies on unargued conviction, without seeming to notice it.
This reveals the deeper reason why Peterson rejects happiness as the proper end of human life. Instead of happiness, flourishing, or the good life, suffering and evil create a negative notion of the good for Peterson, in another unfortunate dip into Manichaeism. Without realizing it, Peterson here touches on Augustine's notion of perversity in his Confessions, where he famously steals pears with his friends for the sheer pleasure of evil. Unlike Augustine, Peterson's realization of suffering allows evil to determine the conditions of being for the good. He writes, "The good is whatever stops such things [i.e., tormenting others for the sole sake of making them suffer] from happening." For Peterson, goodness is the relative cure for present evil.
From this point on, Peterson relies heavily on his ideas on Meaning with a capital M, where the ontological dualism of chaos and order are mediated by Meaning. Peterson's method is, again, a series of assertions about what Meaning is, and he still provides no arguments or evidence for them. The basic idea seems to be that Peterson's notion of Being is a dominance hierarchy of chaos and order, rooted in the reality of suffering and evil, and Meaning intervenes morally as the "ultimate balance." Peterson here repeats the anti-metaphysical orientation of Maps of Meaning, in which Meaning chastens and regulates Being.
Peterson's Darwinism and psychoanalysis, mixed with his postmodern-sounding theories of goodness and meaning, brings us to rule number eleven, "Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding." This chapter rails against "Postmodernism and the Long Arm of Marx". I will save the reader from a close reading, because Peterson's treatment of postmodernism as an evolutionary adaptation of Marxism is highly simplistic. Peterson mentions French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida (despite the inconvenient fact that Derrida wrote a whole book, Spectres of Marx, outlining a critique of Marx) and also brings up the Frankfurt School, but his formula is that Marxism of any kind equals killing fields in Cambodia and, above all, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, and somehow gets from there to the present day Academy and University. Terrifying.
Peterson's own sources do not agree with his account. He unwittingly makes constructive use of Theodor Adorno's essay "After Auschwitz" earlier in the book, and Adorno is a member of the Marxist Frankfurt School and absolutely not a postmodernist. Furthermore, Peterson's overt reliance on Nietzsche and Jung, a follower of Sigmund Freud, shows that Peterson's own ideas are built upon two of Derrida's three "masters of suspicion": Nietzsche and Freud (the third is Marx). Furthermore, Peterson seems quite unaware of the fact that Marxists and postmodernists do not get along in the Academy. Many Leftists, like Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek, agree with Peterson's dismissal of postmodernism despite not agreeing with each other on anything else. When Peterson warns his reader to "[b]eware of a single cause interpretation-and beware the people who purvey them" he again fails to take his own advice in his single-cause interpretation of Marxism and postmodernism.
A few final notes: One thing about quickly gained popularity is that one is not always submitted to just scrutiny. That testing over time is, after all, a major measure of value. Conservatives used to be the ones who defended this traditional idea, clinging to their Aristotle, Augustine, and liberal arts, unsoiled by social science and psychobabble. Now, with the rise of Peterson, even this virtue of conservatism has been lost. I pray that some day it will be found. For now, the defenders of Peterson have been unable to defend his actual claims and ideas, opting instead to praise the effects they project in him or the affects they feel in their hearts. They say that he represents strength; but his ideas are weak and brittle. If this is what conservatism has become-unable to defend itself through tradition, substance, and argument-then maybe conservatives deserve a pop-psychology rulebook more then the classics.
For my part, if this is what it takes for men to feel proud about themselves, then maybe they should feel embarrassed instead. If viral popularity is the measure of insight, then any serious thinking person ought to abandon all hope. If simply helping people is a good unto itself, then let the gurus and life coaches take over, managing your diet, your sex life, and your finances.
If anything characterizes this book, it is banality. You will find in it neither bold transgression nor a genius gone bad. Peterson is not an anti-hero or a misguided scoundrel. He is a tenured full professor of psychology at a major research university, who decided to write a self-help book to profit from his newfound fame. His book is opportunistic. There was nothing spectacular about reading it; the experience was mostly boring and tedious. I predict it will be stocked in thrift stores everywhere within a few years.
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Sam Rocha is assistant professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia. He earned a Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 2010, and is the author of Tell Them Something Beautiful, Folk Phenomenology, and A Primer for Philosophy and Education.