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12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. A Critique from a Buddhist Perspective
Commentary on extracts of the Rules
Until December 2022, I had never heard of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor of psychology, clinical psychologist and contemporary philosopher with strong views on gender issues, evolutionary origins of hierarchy, chaos, order, telling the truth and Being.
Mr. Peterson has given many public lectures engaged in many interviews with the media worldwide. I watched four interviews, all or in part, with him on YouTube – with Cathy Freeman, Sam Harris, Piers Morgan and Russell Brand. 11.5 million viewed all or part of the Cathy Newman interviewing Jordan Peterson.
I bought Jordan Peterson’s book. Twelve Rules for Life. Sub-title: An Antidote to Chaos. The cover describes the book as The Multi-Million Copy Bestseller. As an author, let me add a comment. People who buy a book may not read it, read only part of the way or realise quickly the contents are not what they expected.
Quoted on the back jacket, reviewers were glowing with praise. “A pathway to a nobler life…” Brilliant. Masterful. Serious depth. Overwhelmingly vital and more.
Readers can criticise this reviewer thinking “Your quotes are out of context. You are being very selective with your quotes.”
The critic is right. I am selective. I have given the page number to encourage you to read the book and the page before and after my extract to decide if the extract is out of context.
The author ranks among popular contemporary an expanding number of secular/spiritual/psychology Westerners living in the UK or North America including Russell Brand, Rhonda Byrne, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Jon Kabat Zinn and Eckhart Tolle. All these public speakers give priority to states of mind and/or views and opinions. All contribute to public discourse on matters important to them.
A Quote from the Overture in Beyond Order.
Let me begin with direct quotes from Jordan Peterson at the beginning of his next book Beyond Order, 12 More Rules for Life, published in 2022.
On the fifth of February 2020, I woke up in an intensive care ward, in of all places, Moscow... I was confused and frustrated…I was angry too, about being there and lunged at my daughter when she did visit several hours later… (viii)
Peterson then informed readers of the serious health issues facing his wife, Tammy, his wife of 3o years, and Mikhaila, his daughter.
“While these events unfolded, my health fell apart. I had begun to take an antianxiety agent at the beginning of 2017 (following a food reaction during Christmas 2016). The food reaction made me acutely and continually anxious…My family physician prescribed me a benzodiazepine as well as a drug for sleeping.
Peterson wrote he twice asked for the dose to be increased due to his intense anxiety around the ill health of his wife and daughter, and then he switched to Ketamine. (xv).
I began to experience the effects of benzodiazepine withdrawal…
Peterson was in the Moscow ICU to facilitate his withdrawal with an approach not recommended in the USA. “The clinic (in Moscow) placed me in a medically induced coma so that I might remain unconscious during the very worst withdrawal symptoms…I was also placed in a machine, so my breath was mechanically regulated.” (xviii)
The professor, the clinical psychologist, the intellectual and international public speaker and successful author have no meaning, no significance in such a distressing condition. His consciousness finds itself drowning in unbearable mental suffering.
Our hearts reach out to anyone having to endure such a terrible nightmare.
It is a credit to the author he shares these experiences. In Dharma language, he experienced hell, a deeply troubled mental state, out of his personal control; he endured a chaotic state of being suffering the most intense anxiety. This left him completely dependent on psychiatrists for recovery.
In the book's opening, he writes “I do not believe I have ever claimed in my previous book or in this one that it would be necessarily sufficient to live by the rules I have presented.”
Again, to his credit, he recommends his 12 rules for Life while, admitting at the same time, it is not necessarily sufficient to live by them.
One reviewer on the back jacket describes his next book Beyond Order as ‘genuinely enlightening.”
It might be hard to find practising Buddhists in a 2600-year-old Buddhist tradition agreeing with such a claim. The reviewer probably meant he found the book genuinely interesting and benefitted from insights in the book.
Self-autonomy runs through his 12 Rules but Mr. Peterson experienced absence of personal autonomy dependent on pharmaceutical drugs and the medical profession.
A Critique of each of the 12 Rules for Life
I regard this book as a worthwhile read. You may uncover a sentence, a paragraph or topic, informative and insightful for you.
Readers need to know the Buddha-Dharma (Teachings of Awakening) have an essential priority, specifically to see into suffering and dissolve it. Teachings, practices, wise counsel, insights can reveal an awakened life, an enlightened life, a noble life, a masterful life.
Grounded in insights from experience, the wise cannot fall into a mental health crisis, into Hell. None of the 12 Rules for Life protected the author from falling into Hell.
Teachings and practice provide the antidote to chaos. This book falls short of offering an antidote to chaos. The Buddha-Dharma does not offer theories cut off from experience, nor on telling people what they must do or must stop, as we read time to time in the pages of this book.
A rule is a regulation governing conduct and procedures. If the rule is rejected, the person faces consequences. We obey rules to keep the social order. Children must arrive at school on time. A sports player respects the rules rather than cheat.
A Response to Each of the 12 Rules
Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
The chapter begins with an account of life of lobsters on the ocean floor dealing with conflict, gender issues and hierarchy. Peterson claims it is a near eternal aspect of the environment. Dominance hierarchy are older than trees…It is a master control system. Higher serotine levels are characterised by less illness, misery and death.
On page 25, he writes that if we behave like a defeated lobster, people will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce so much serotonin.”
Hierarchy and equality can expose two primary views generating conflict and suffering because of beliefs in superiority, inferiority and equality.
Let us see the wisdom of a healthy hierarchy. We learn from another because she/he/ they know more than we do. Let us recognises the value of this hierarchy. Children go to primary school and move upwards through education to higher education.
Equality matters too. We are all humans, all creatures of the Earth. As creatures of the Earth, we experience birth, aging, pain and death. That levels us out no matter where we are in the hierarchy.
Deep experiences of oneness reveal the absence of any dominant hierarchy. People can team up together as equals on a project. Compassion and empathy take priority over views formed from lobster behaviour.
Yet, it is a naïve and an unfounded claim that we can always treat everybody as equals. Every thought, word or deed with greed, anger and fear confirm we cannot always treat each other as equals. The wise do not treat everybody as equals or treat others as lower in the hierarchy, nor cling to absolutes around hierarchy or equality. Wisdom responds with clear comprehension to people in situations.
For example, Jordan Peterson wrote, You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, (page 27), I have two personal questions, which we can ask ourselves, others and the author.
1. Where am I or you in the dominance hierarchy?
2. Where was I or you in the dominance hierarchy in the experience of mental suffering, unable to stand up straight with shoulders back?
Treat Yourself Like Somebody You are helping.
The author turns regularly to the Old Testament as a source of authority for his 12 Rules. He writes, Order is the place of hierarchy and authority.
He devotes sections of this chapter to the masculine and feminine. The primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine…Order is God the Father, the eternal judge... Chaos – the unknown -is symbolically associated with the feminine.
Chaos is mater, origin, source, mother, materia…(Page 41).
There is an obvious question here. Who decided that chaos is associated with the feminine? Does a symbolic association with the feminine make it true?
A depth of exploration into the mind reveals the world of archetypes, symbols and identification with views determines the dominant hierarchy.
Religions, including the major religions of the world, have formed hierarchical structures, often to preserve its tradition and history to perpetuate the past to the point the religion find itself removed from the realities of the present.
Religion also offers community, charity, kindness and faith to weather the storms of life. I regard it as naïve to dismiss the religious institution in society.
Wise and loving people can bring their presence and skills to support the spiritual/psychological/religious needs of others.
Those wise and those with such need go for refuge in the Sangha of the Noble Ones in the Buddhist tradition. Evolved human beings and evolving human beings have a place in a community with a respectful hierarchy.
It is not until the last page of Rule 2 we receive his injunction to keep Rule 2.
Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself…Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being….
You could help direct the world… 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. (Page 63)
No comment needed here.
Make friends with people who want the best for you.
At the start of this rule, Peterson writes of the town where he grew up. “Fairview, Alberta (Canada) was part of the frontier and had the cowbars to prove it”. (Page 67) He wrote 3000 people lived there and it was 400 miles (600 kilometres) from the nearest city.
His teenage friends and himself drove around and around in our 1970s cars and pickup trucks. As I read about his upbringing in Alberta, I felt his childhood/teenage years shed light on his emphasis on wanting young men to toughen up. His teenage years might even have more influence than his views of young men today.
In Rule 11. We read on page 331: “Men have to toughen up. Men demand it and women want it, even though they may not approve of the harsh and contemptuous attitude…Some women don’t like men and would rather have a submissive mate, even if he is useless.”
It reads as if it is OK for men to toughen up, even if it means a submissive mate, but no deep exploration of the potential for a harmful impact on others. Such stereotyping of a gender shows a detachment from appreciating the strength in diversity of men, women and other.
While reading this page, I flashed back to King Charles the Third, the current king of England. His father, Prince Philip, who took part in World War 2, shared similar views on maleness as Peterson.
Charles had the characteristics of his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth. The future king was polite, shy, quietly spoken, not filled with confidence. His father sent him to Gordonstoun Boarding School in a remote region of Scotland, where students had to go running at the start of the day and take a cold shower. Students learnt to toughen up through rigorous outdoor activities.
This mild-mannered young prince, a little overweight, an introverted 13-year-old, said he hated it at Gordonstoun comparing it to a prison sentence. He suffered much bullying from those who toughened up. He did not have the temperament for such pressure to be a tough guy. There are many young men like him and always will be.
We need to support and respect their way of being rather than adopt Peterson’s aggressive attitude towards them.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
I offer a reminder some people compare themselves to yesterday and feel miserable because they feel far worse off today.
We are not equal in ability or outcome and never will be. A very small number of people produce very much of everything. 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…(page 86).
Dear Mr. Peterson, Worldly success does not ensure happiness. Sadly, you are an example in your period of overwhelming anxiety and addiction to drugs. People at the top also get depressed, violent and suicidal. They also suffer because of addictions to drugs, money, alcohol, sex, power and success.
Winners also suffer with severe mental health issues, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and from cancer, heart disease, organ failure and more.
I assume you place yourself somewhere at the top of the dominance hierarchy. You have experienced the bottom, too. Hell is at the bottom. People’s lives can go up and down, as you well know.
Do not do anything that makes your children dislike them.
This rule may have little or no relevance for the 18% of women aged up to 45, who do not have any children. 50% of women aged up to 30 do not have children. Many parents have become detached from contact with their children.
“Parents must reward those attitudes and actions that will bring their child success in the world outside the family and use threat and punishment when necessary to eliminate behaviours that will lead to misery and failure.” (Page 134).
A swat across the backside can indicate requisite seriousness on the part of a responsible adult. (Page 141).
The claim that threats and punishment will eliminate misery and failure sounds like a view from the Victorian era with the potential to traumatise children leaving children with a low sense of self-worth.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.
The author mentions Being. I could not see any explanation of what he means.
In Rule 6, he offers an analysis of school shootings. I read US schools suffered over 600 shootings in 2022. That is more than one shooting a day somewhere in the USA for every day of the school year. Mass killings in schools refer to four children or more being shot.
Why? How? US government, educational authorities and many parents have not found a way to set their schools in perfect order.
He then goes onto tell his readers what they should stop. At times, he comes across like a secular prophet in the spell of do this and don’t do that.
“Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make your strong. Do only those things that could speak with honour. You can use your own standards of judgement. You can rely on yourself for guidance. You don’t have to adhere to some external code of behaviour. (See Page 158).
Excuse me. I am currently reading a book called 12 Rules for Life. It reads like the author offers an external code of behaviour. Peterson does not provide guidelines but a set of rules.
Those with problematic behaviour cannot just choose to stop the behaviour. They cannot rely upon themselves, cannot decide to think, speak and act in wise ways. It is not a matter of adherence to a set of rules but wise counsel with another or others to end personal suffering. That is why you have clients in your role as a psychologist. People want to learn from you how to act in a another way from their current state of mind and behaviour.
Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
Opening words of this Rule: Life is suffering. That’s clear. (Page 161)
Life is indeed ‘nasty, brutish and short – quoting Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher (page 177)
It isn’t clear. Life is not suffering. Given your experiences with medication/family issues/a Moscow clinic, I can understand why you have this view. Orthodox Buddhists often take up this view as well.
There is suffering in life. That is a different view from claiming life is suffering. When suffering arises, it is because of the influential causes and conditions. Together we can resolve suffering by changing the conditions. There are ways to resolve suffering. If life IS suffering, then there is no resolution. Trees are made of wood. You can’t change that.
I find such sweeping generalisations life is suffering as unhelpful, unhealthy and depressing for some people.
Peterson devotes much of this chapter to examining extracts from sections of the Old Testament, the Western God, Christ, Socrates and others. As elsewhere, I regard his text as an interesting read, but regularly his topics do not appear to relate to the theme of the rule.
Tell the truth or at least don’t lie.
Peterson then continues to look at truth and lies. He makes a broad sweep of the brush in this chapter, as elsewhere, whereas a deep exploration reveals the subtleties of truth and lies. People tell lies without the intention due to not knowing the truth.
Peterson writes: The Buddha said life is suffering. The Buddha stated that explicitly. (Page 227).
He did not. This is an unintentional mistake.
Instead, Peterson needed to write: “I read (giving source) the Buddha said life is suffering. The source said the Buddha stated that explicitly. The author then writes the language of truth.
When I watched his debates with another on Youtube, he referred regularly to the evidence on a specific subject. I cannot recall seeing any scientific evidence in his book for the claims he made.
The Buddha named four truths of mental suffering for all humanity. These realities for people matter more than evolving scientific versions of reality.
Not getting what we crave
Losing who or what we cling to
Being separated from who and what we identify ourselves with
Holding onto the condition of body, feelings/emotions, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness
Life is suffering reveals a false generalisation. We can experience genuine happiness, joy and love, indoors and outdoors, alone and with others, in times when we do not experience being bound up in the four areas of mental suffering.
To speak what is true and useful matters. Gossip, backbiting, negativity, unwise judgements, projections, fantasies, distortions, exaggerations, stereotypes, generalisations, prejudices, anger, divisiveness and more reveal forms of distortion of truth.
Truth and lies, truth and falsehoods can express a duality lacking a depth of inquiry.
On the final page of Rule 8, he writes: Truth will not come in the guise of opinions shared by others, as the truth is not a collection of slogans, not an ideology.
Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource.
I regard that as a beautiful statement on truth, and my favourite sentences in the whole book.
Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
This section includes accounts to readers of his experience with clients. He writes in the first paragraph Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his own intelligence. (Page 233).
Be precise in your speech.
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
As with previous rules, readers find helpful points amidst the multiplicity of views tied in with religion, philosophy, psychology, culture and the world of winner and losers. He comments on post-modern Marxist thinkers and the temperament of boys and girls.
He writes, Agreeable, compassionate, empathetic conflict adverse people let people walk on them and they get bitter. (Page 320)
There are so many exceptions to the rule. I am confident readers know compassionate, empathetic and conflict adverse people, who do not get bitter or let people walk on them.
It is hard to imagine any of us being totally free from blind spots which obstruct seeing the multiplicity of differences in human behaviour including in a single day in ourselves.
The New York Times described Jordan B. Peterson as the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.
Oh, the NYT places him at the top of the hierarchy.
Anybody who grasps onto their self-importance and self-indulgence remains vulnerable to a mighty crash falling from heaven into hell. Remember what Shakespeare said. See last sentence of this critique.
I found Jordan Peterson’s book theoretical, theological and theatrical. If you like books offering such reading, then go for it.
The book has a qualified merit in terms of the author’s expressing a multiplicity of views but at the expense of daily life issues of deep concern for many of us.
In the 19-page Index at the rear of the book, the word love does not appear.
According to the Index, his 412-page book also makes no mention of compassion, death, ethics, environment, freedom, justice, money, liberation, meditation, racism, sexism, society, social media, spirituality, war, wellbeing and more.
I will close my critique with a famous quotation from Shakespeare.
AS YOU LIKE IT: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (Act 2, Scene 7).
Let us not huff and puff about ourselves and instead explore ways to live with the freedom of wisdom and immeasurable love in daily life.
12 RULES FOR LIFE
An Antidote to Chaos
Jordan B. Peterson.
Penguin Books 2018
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