To prepare for writing about Jordan Peterson, I asked numerous people I know what they thought of him. They all gave the same answer: “Who?”
Friends, where have you been? Peterson’s 2018 book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, sold 5 million copies and has been slated for translation into 50 languages. His YouTube channel has 3.68 million subscribers.
According to the man himself, he is so famous that a waiter recognized him in a restaurant and thanked him for changing his life, which cannot be said, I’m guessing, for any other clinical psychologist in the world, or possibly any other Canadian.
This is quite an achievement for one whose work is crammed with references to Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, the Bible, ancient Mesopotamian deities, Jesus, and Jung, and which, under a lot of sexist, conservative, mythological/biblical/evolutionary/animal-behavior folderol, basically tells men to grow up and grow a pair. Work hard, be responsible, demand more of yourself, make your bed. Peterson dragged that simple message out for 370 pages of unbelievably clotted, dreary prose, proving once again that your creative-writing teachers were wrong: Nobody cares about the quality of the writing if the message is what the reader wants to hear. Apparently there are a lot of men (most of his fans are men) who want to be told exactly how to stop making such a mess of their lives (Rule 1: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”) and also that human beings are a lot like lobsters, programmed for hierarchy and combat. You can buy “Hail Lobster” T-shirts, pillows, limited-edition neckties, and even smartphone covers on his website. Scientists have said he’s got lobsters all wrong, but whatever. I will never feel guilty about eating a lobster roll again.
You might think 12 rules were enough—by Rule 12, “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street,” Peterson seemed to be reaching a bit. He obviously didn’t think so, because his new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, offers a dozen more and weighs in at 432 pages. Preorders made it reach Amazon’s Top 10.
Why would so many people want to be hectored by an unpleasant know-it-all whose most recent contribution as a public intellectual was advocating an all-meat diet? The rules are mostly familiar self-help platitudes, which Peterson drags out for dozens of pages each by bringing in everything from his patients and family to Isis, Osiris, and Tolstoy.
Rule 7: “Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.” Rule 10: “Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.” Rule 12: “Be grateful in spite of your suffering.” There are plenty of cats out there for you to pet.
There have always been men who want to be told exactly what to do to get what they want—in this case, women. Men, you may have noticed, have had a harder time getting quality girlfriends now that women don’t have to marry to survive. They have to make more of an effort to be boyfriend material, let alone husband material, and this is not easy for the ones who think a beautiful, complaisant helpmeet should be handed to them on a platter. At worst, these young men become incels, raging at both feminists and alpha men who corner all the pretty ladies. Peterson shares their pain. He’s said some unwise things about how “enforced monogamy” would solve the problem, by which he did not mean the government doling out wives, as is sometimes claimed, but restoring social pressures to marry. (Good luck with that.) But he is also their drill sergeant: Clean your room. Be good at your job. Life is tough, but remember Rule 11: “Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.”
Not surprisingly, Peterson takes a dim view of feminism. Basically, he believes all women want to have babies—they just don’t want to have them with a manbaby. This contradiction—patriarchy is good, but men are flubbing it—leads him into all kinds of strange places. Famously, he contends that symbolically, men represent order, women chaos. Really? Shouldn’t that be the other way around? Who, after all, is cleaning and tidying, cooking, reorganizing the fridge, remembering to pick up the dry cleaning and send out birthday cards and put the parent-teacher conference on the calendar—usually while holding down a job as well? Compare the apartments of single men and women in their 20s: Which sex is sleeping on sheets that haven’t been changed in three months? Maybe men were orderly in the distant past, for example when they served in the Roman army—all that building of forts and organizing of equipment Julius Caesar wrote about, to say nothing of keeping one’s armor and weaponry polished and ready for action. But today? There’s a reason why a young man who fails to launch is described as living in Mom’s basement. Good old Mom. She probably still does his laundry.
I have no doubt that some people have been goaded into self-improvement by Peterson. He is quite right that people—women as well as men—need meaning and purpose in their lives, need to find things they care about and to try their hardest to be good at them. Caught between the belief that they deserve to move forward without having to compete with pesky women, and the fact that the milestones of adulthood, like marriage and parenthood, may be economically out of reach, men can find it hard to resist cheap cynicism. But like it or not, we are social beings, so Rule 1: “Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.” Fortunately for the sarcastic among us, “carelessly” leaves a lot of wiggle room.
When it comes to stern and sober life advice, the best book is still Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which has been guiding people through the struggles of life for at least a thousand years and is, moreover, well-written and short. Its advice can be summarized as follows. Rule 1: Try as hard as you can to be a good, responsible, serious person. Rule 2: Be aware that much of life is out of your control. Rule 3: In any case, soon you will be dead.