Reviewed by Adam A.J. DeVille
12rulesJordan Peterson’s Jungian best-seller is banal, superficial, and insidious
The real danger in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is its apologia for social Darwinism and bourgeois individualism covered over with a theological patina.
I was a high-school student in 1990 when Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men came out. I ordered a copy and read it in a couple of evenings confined after foot surgery. It was a runaway bestseller then, just as Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is today.
Shortly thereafter, in 1991, Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man came out, and I read that as well. It was very similar in content and approach to Bly. The two of them, over a quarter-century ago now, claimed to have discovered that “today’s” young men were lacking direction and wondering about their identity, much as Peterson claims now.
Then as now it all seemed so gimmicky and cleverly packaged, lacking substance and having only one purpose: to sell books. But that’s not quite fair. What I found in all three are attempts at theologizing in a Jungian fashion. And none has done that more than Peterson, whose many Christian fans seem blithely unaware that what Peterson advocates today is merely third-rate recycled gnostic paganism rejected by the Church in the fourth century.
To cite perhaps the most egregious example: Jung thought we all have a “shadow” side where evil resides, and none was exempt from this, including Christ. Peterson wholly accepts this when he claims that “Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil—consciously, fully, and voluntarily—in the form that dwelt simultaneously within him and in the world (180; my emphasis).
Jung and a neo-pagan agenda
I began reading Jung in high-school thanks to a wonderful English teacher who introduced us to Jung first so that we would be able to understand the novels of Robertson Davies (especially the Deptford Trilogy), which we had to read that year. Davies, like Peterson and Jung, made much of supposedly unconscious archetypes, searches for heroes, and other paranormal fetishes; his novels were cluttered with the stuff.
After high school I completed a degree in psychology and underwent a classical psychoanalysis myself before turning to study moral philosophy and then theology at the graduate level. This made it clear very quickly that Jung’s ideas cannot be reconciled with Chalcedonian Christology and Trinitarian theology of the Nicene period—to say nothing of his heterodox Mariology or highly questionable theodicy. Jung, who described himself as bored by doctrine when taking Confirmation classes in his father’s Swiss Reformed church in the 1880s, found himself excited by the prospect of “reforming” the Trinity, which he subjected to all sorts of bizarre machinations, not least his idea of the missing or “problematic fourth”—a claim that the Trinity is incomplete without a feminine fourth to be supplied by the Theotokos. On this point Jung was ecstatic when Pope Pius XII dogmatized the Assumption in 1950, for Jung, tendentiously misconstruing the dogma, claimed the pope was finally “fixing” the Trinity with its missing fourth.
But in many other areas, Jung scorned the hide-bound ways of the Catholic Church and its intransigence in defense of Trinitarian, Christological, and Mariological dogmas. The Dominican scholar Fr. Victor White, who entered into a 15-year correspondence with Jung on these dogmas, finally seems to have given up in despair at Jung’s own intransigent defense of heterodox doctrine hidden under a gauzy morass of “mystical” emoting.
That sorry track record has not stopped Jordan Peterson, who continues the Jungian tradition of traducing theology for a sinister and neo-pagan agenda with shop-worn idols and illusions. Having been reading psychoanalytic literature for a quarter-century now (especially the British so-called Independent school—Melanie Klein, Nina Coltart, D.W. Winnicott, Ronald Fairbairn, Christopher Bollas, and more recently Adam Phillips), I have long preferred an “honest atheist” and “godless Jew” like Freud to this estranged and strange Reformed pastor’s son of Switzerland. Freud clears the path to see clearly, acutely aware of the dangers of idols and illusions; Jung clutters the path with a jumble of idols masquerading as the Christian God. The fact that many Christians have preferred Jung’s path merely proves Freud correct: most of us prefer our idols and illusions to the truth.
Banality and bourgeois individualism
As I began reading Freud, I also discovered the works of the late historian Christopher Lasch, whose 1979 book Culture of Narcissism emerged as a dense book of social critique and psychohistory. It was Lasch who used the memorable phrase “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness.” That phrase came rushing back to mind as I began making my way through Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.
Peterson’s book is unbearably banal. Its “rules” offer only the shallowest insights into human life, never getting into any real depth, and certainly offering no serious social critique of the problems of our time. It lurches from topic to topic, often on the same page. And all this requires 400 pages! The supreme irony of this book is that for someone whose 12 rules really boil down to one (stop being so undisciplined!), its prose shows little discipline. As serious writers know, it takes far more discipline to write a short book than a sprawling 400-page mess such as this. As someone who has been editing academically for the better part of two decades now, I see no serious editing here at all.
But the real problems in Peterson are far more dangerous than his prolixity, superficiality, or banality. The real danger in this book is its apologia for social Darwinism and bourgeois individualism covered over with a theological patina. This, as we shall see, becomes obvious in a number of places early in the book, but it is confirmed in an offhand comment near the middle of the book. (As Adam Phillips reminds us in Side Effects, offhand comments usually reveal far more than we intend, and are often closer to the truth.) Here, purportedly while telling us about his intellectual trajectory (which he never finishes because nearly every page spasmodically lurches to another topic at precisely the moment he might have to develop or substantiate a point), Peterson says of his early days that “I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory” (196).
But he could not quite abandon the Christianity of his youth, and so Peterson spends a lot of time in this book purporting to tell us what Scripture really says, and does so with all the exegetical and hermeneutical skill of Ayn Rand. While Rand’s scorn for theology and Christianity was well known, warning most believers off her, Peterson’s presentation, given the lack of theological literacy of our time, contains just enough jargon and scriptural references to fool a lot of people into thinking he knows what he’s talking about. He does not. If his psychology is suspect, his theology is absolutely insidious.
As I was reading this book, and monitoring, if you will, my own “counter-transference” reactions to it, the face of Jean Vanier kept appearing in my mind’s eye. This great Canadian Catholic, who has spent his life founding and living in L’Arche communities with those considered losers by most of the world, was a silent rebuke to Peterson’s unbridled boosterism for social hierarchy and libido dominandi. People like those in L’Arche or in Catholic Worker Houses, and many others elsewhere who are sick, handicapped, elderly, and impoverished, are the rejects of our “throwaway society,” as the pope calls it.
Being, Meaning, and … Boredom
Peterson has nothing to offer them but his tawdry philosophical sloganeering. This theme is laid out at the very beginning, when Peterson claims that the solution to “the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other…was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path” (xxxiii). On the next page we are told that “the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being” (xxxiv-v). This claptrap about Being (always uppercased, he claims, based on his reading of Heidegger which is painfully sophomoric), and about being “heroic,” is the leitmotif of the entire book. It leads into a tedious first chapter about both lobsters and wrens defending their turf and striving to achieve social dominance in their supposed hierarchies, all behaviors that humans are endlessly exhorted by Peterson to emulate: “You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory” (27). This is “heroism” of the Übermensch, not of the Son of Man who came to serve and not to be served.
To occupy your territory, means (wait for it) you actually have to stand up: “Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being” (27). Stop that ontological slouching!
Later on, continuing to capitalize bogus terms, Peterson says that this standing up to take responsibility means that you move from Being to “Meaning with a capital M” (63). None of this is ever explained in any detail, of course. It is a neat trick to sound clever and profound while having nothing of substance or originality to say, which lead to my second counter-transferential response to this book: an intense boredom-induced drowsiness made all the worse by the leaden prose, which, once more, is like Jung’s, especially in the latter’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a book, like Peterson’s, that was a barely disguised autobiography rambling on for over 400 pages as well. (Freud, by contrast, was admirably succinct, a master stylist and rhetorician, and winner of the Goethe Prize for his magnificent prose.)
Nevertheless, I heroically stood up and stretched my limbs to stave off sleep, and ploughed on in search of Being and Meaning, vacuous exhortations to which came, of course, with absolutely no word about or for those who cannot pull themselves up for social or economic or other reasons; they are invisible and inconsequential. There is very little social critique here, and Catholics who accept, as we must, the Church’s social teaching can only be extremely wary: the Church’s teaching of the common good, of the universal destination of goods, and of solidarity with the sick, suffering, and poor, is utterly foreign to—and entirely absent from—Peterson’s pseudo-Christian libertarianism and solipsistic individualism.
He claims that his program is an antidote to lives of “chaos” today, but he never once considers the possibility that such “chaos” has anything to do with the rampaging and rapacious success of neoliberalism and advanced capitalism today. Rather, all chaos and all problems are the fault of individuals, and any hint of socioeconomic factors (which Pope Francis regularly criticizes) is openly scorned. (Peterson, no doubt, would say that my very mentioning of such factors is a sure sign that I’m one of those “postmodern” “cultural Marxist” academics he slanders late in the book [306ff] with the same precision, detail, and evidence he has brought to his purported reading of Heidegger, the Bible, etc.)
Surely any Christian reading Peterson must find this mindless praise of hierarchical dominance and protection of one’s turf morally and above all theologically objectionable. But many Christians are lapping this stuff up, blissfully ignoring the fact they claim to worship the Son of God who inverts all hierarchies by coming to serve, by being born in an animal feeding trough in the middle of nowhere; and by allowing Himself, the Creator who hung the heavens, to be hung upon a Cross by His Creatures, in all this showing, as Cardinal Ratzinger argued years ago in Salt of the Earth, that “hierarchy” really ought to be translated as “sacred origin” rather than “sacred rule”.
An apologia for social Darwinism
Peterson, like Jung—who is described as “psychoanalyst extraordinaire” (180)—is all in favor of propagating myths of our sacred origins in such a way that we (that is, men like Peterson) are destined to be dominant creatures protecting our turf against the slackers and sitters of the world. Indeed, we have to resist such people, perhaps even threaten them: “Dare to be dangerous” (90, and earlier) is advice repeated in this book.
Peterson argues in favor of sacred rule and dominance because he is a reactionary, as his tantrums against revolutions, “diversity,” and other shibboleths make plain (118-19, 158, and passim). But his own reactions and rules are not consistent: if much of this tiresome tract consists of telling people what to do, his advice-giving become a truly fatuous exercise on p. 158 when he says that “You can use your own standards of judgment. You can rely on yourself for guidance.” Why, then, dear Dr. Peterson, have we shelled out money to hear you prescribing 12 rules if it’s all up to us? (And why 12 rules? Here my mind freely associated to the droll story Margaret MacMillan tells in her splendid book Paris 1919 ofGeorges Clemenceau, with delicious Gallic hauteur and sarcasm, dismissing Woodrow Wilson: “God himself was content with 10 commandments. Wilson modestly inflicted fourteen points on us…the fourteen commandments of the most empty theory!”)
Peterson’s empty book, then, with it bogus Jungian theory and its monstrous pseudo-theology, is nothing more than an apologia for social Darwinism of the crudest, most class-bound, and least self-aware and self-critical sort, covered over with a pseudo-Christian layer of linoleum. In a just world, this book would never have been published, let alone become a best-seller. That many people may be and are deceived into thinking Peterson proffers sound theology, let alone anything else, means that catechists and preachers, and professors such as I, have far more work to do than we thought.