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Book Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

March 5th, 2018 | 12 min read

By Charlie Clark

Before they get carried away, the Christians now tuning into Jordan Peterson need to realize that this man is not the next C.S. Lewis. On the contrary, Jordan Peterson is the man C.S. Lewis warned them about. It’s not that I don’t understand why Christians are attracted to Peterson’s message of personal responsibility, especially as it is addressed to young men. For one thing, everything Alastair Roberts wrote in his recent essay is basically true. Peterson really is an effective communicator (though a better speaker than a writer), who could teach most pastors a thing or two about sermonizing. And Peterson has many admirable personal qualities, especially intellectual virtues but also compassion and a strong sense of justice.

More importantly, Peterson is addressing a real problem, one that the church is only starting to wake up to. We have all by now heard about the NEETs (“Not in Employment, Education, or Training”), the core of a growing massa damnata of poorly socialized young men whose anger and frustration make them ideal candidates for racist and misogynistic radicalization. These total dropouts are only the most extreme example of a larger “crisis of masculinity,” as more young men than ever seem mired in cycles of shame and self-gratification (whether through intoxication, pornography, or merely endless hours of video gaming). If it looks as though Peterson can help young men to become responsible, pro-social adults, no wonder many Christians are ready to embrace him.

It is too bad then that the backbone of his whole program is what C.S. Lewis called “the Great Sin.” Peterson is, in fact, precisely the character that Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, one of those teachers who,

“appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by Pride.”

For Lewis, “to beat down the simpler vices” by means of Pride is a cure far worse than the disease. And this is precisely Peterson’s strategy throughout 12 Rules for Life.

From the outset, Peterson’s advice revolves around status competition. In Rule 1 (“Stand up straight with your shoulders back.”), Peterson argues that human beings are just like lobsters in being hardwired for hierarchy:

If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number.

So what does Peterson think you should do? You should act like a dominant, alpha lobster and assert yourself: “Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others.” As a man, you’ve won the game of life when you present yourself as “a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.”

Peterson’s emphasis on status competition, reflects what Lewis says about Pride: “Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” For Peterson, all success is based on comparing favorably with others. And in fact, he has a whole Rule about social comparison—in which he scrambles to claw back some of his harsh words about beta lobsters. Because after all, most of us are beta lobsters compared to the Top-40 singer, the Pulitzer-winning novelist, the Olympic medalist, or the Fortune 500 CEO.

So in Rule 4 (“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”), we learn about the “internal critical voice.” This is the inner monologue that speaks for our lobster brain. According to Peterson, it says things like, “The winners don’t take all, but they take most, and the bottom is not a good place to be. People are unhappy at the bottom. They get sick there, and remain unknown and unloved. They waste their lives there. They die there.”

Peterson doesn’t want us to listen to this voice. Don’t compare yourself to others, he says, at least not in ways you won’t win. Instead, he gives us a master class in envy, how to discount the status of others to make ourselves feel better. For example,

“Your colleague outperforms you at work. His wife, however, is having an affair, while your marriage is stable and happy. Who has it better? The celebrity you admire is a chronic drunk driver and bigot. Is his life truly preferable to yours?”1

When Peterson looks at the world through this lens of Pride, competition, and envy, he sees “every man for himself.” So if his “moral advice” sounds like he’s advocating for self-centeredness, it’s because he is:

What do you need and want from your friends and business partners? This is not a mere matter of what you should want. I’m not talking about what other people require of you, or your duties to them. I’m talking about determining the nature of your moral obligation, to yourself.

For Peterson, the foundation of moral judgment is the individual will: what is moral is reducible to what will most efficiently fulfill the individual’s desires.2 Any social dimension of morality is contractual and incidental.

This self-centered moral vision can take Peterson to dark places. Consider this modest proposal:

If you allowed your dark and unspoken desires for your partner, for example, to manifest themselves—if you were even willing to consider them—you might discover that they were not so dark, given the light of day. You might discover, instead, that you were just afraid and, so, pretending to be moral. You might find that getting what you actually desire would stop you from being tempted and straying.

The idea that undisciplined eros can be a guide to true moral behavior may be attractive, but it is not one that Christians can countenance. Peterson’s advice is often underwritten by the callousness towards others that this proposal suggests. This is to be expected. As Pride elevates the self, it “leads to every other vice”; it teaches you to treat others as objects and subject them to your will.

For example, as long as you don’t damage yourself3 or commit any overt violence in the process, Peterson will grant you unlimited license to manipulate others.4 In Rule 5 (“Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.”), Peterson suggests we learn from B.F. Skinner’s famous experiments in training pigeons. Peterson writes,

Skinner observed the animals he was training to perform such acts with exceptional care. Any actions that approximated what he was aiming at were immediately followed by a reward… You can teach virtually anyone anything with such an approach. First, figure out what you want. Then, watch the people around you like a hawk. Finally, whenever you see anything a bit more like what you want, swoop in (hawk, remember) and deliver a reward.

This advice is representative of how many of Peterson’s rules are really just “life hacks” masquerading as morals. Because in Peterson’s worldview, morality is about getting what you want.

Now it’s true that Peterson wills you to want “the right things.” He believes that a certain shape of character is best adapted to fulfill certain more attainable desires, the world being what it is. But here again, the pillar of the whole edifice is Pride. One sees preserved in Peterson a sub-Christian Stoicism, the kind Walker Percy observed in the Christ-haunted but functionally pagan South: “the stern inner summons to man’s full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity toward his fellow men… the wintry kingdom of the self.” As Percy saw then and as we should remember now, there ultimately can be no compromise between Christianity and Stoicism5, “the good pagan’s answer is no longer good enough.” The Stoic worships himself and is generous to others only “because to do them an injustice would be to defile himself.” How different this attitude is from the Christian’s love for God that spills over in service to everyone made in God’s image. As Percy said, no society (and no individual) can “afford the luxury of maintaining the Stoa beside the Christian edifice.”6

We now see why Lewis called Pride “the complete anti-God state of mind.” He wrote, “As long as you are proud you cannot know God… you cannot see something that is above you.” Theologically, the expression of Pride is Pelagianism, the belief that you can save yourself without relying on God’s grace. This is precisely what we find in Peterson’s work. Consider what Peterson says Rule 2 (“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”):

Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance…. 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 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.

Of course, Peterson, not being a Christian (nor perhaps even a theist), does not intend any of these statements in their theological sense. Nevertheless, the posture he is advocating excludes grace. As Peterson would have it, no one has come to rescue you and no help is on the way.

Just as theological and social conservatives have too often compromised with sub-Christian political movements to prop up the illusion of a Christian nation, they would now put their hope in Peterson—at best, a good pagan—to teach their sons morals. This is an enthusiasm born of desperation.7 But to make his Pelagian error is to put our faith in ourselves rather than in Christ. The righteousness that Jordan Peterson preaches is self-righteousness and it is not saving. The Pride it nurtures will prove spiritually fatal. The church owes young men better guidance than this.

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