Friday, March 16, 2018
Haunted by God: The Heroic Quest of Jordan Peterson. A Review of 12 Rules for Life
By Frederick Blonigen
It’s hard to argue with Camille Paglia that Jordan Peterson is “the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshal McLuhan.” Dr. Peterson, especially through his You Tube lectures, has emerged as one of the pre-eminent public intellectuals of our time. A highly esteemed and much loved professor at both Harvard and the University of Toronto and a clinical psychologist who has served his clients for decades, Jordan Peterson’s major claim to fame has been his exceptional courage against the political correctness and diversity madness that is corrupting our colleges and universities. Dr. Peterson has almost single-handedly taken on the radical left who control most of higher education and has exposed their totalitarian efforts to suppress any ideas that do not submit to their ideology. In 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Mr. Peterson has written a wise, witty, and learned guide for the young to establish order and meaning in their lives.
The title of Peterson’s book is significant: the author has recognized among younger people a deep hunger for guidelines and a willingness to follow rules authoritatively delivered by someone who clearly has their well being at heart. The right rules taught by a coherent and caring adult can make sense out of chaotic lives.
In the West, millennials are taught that there is no such thing as truth and all morality is relative. One’s group morality is nothing more than an attempt to exercise power over other groups. The paramount value is tolerance and the worst offense is to be “judgmental.” Pope Benedict XVI called this “the dictatorship of relativism.” It is a dictatorship, but the victims are not turned into obedient subjects. Much worse: they are lost, confused, anxious and disoriented. Dr. Peterson has proposed a sense of purpose. He is a man who believes in truth; he believes in moral order; he believes in taking responsibility for choices in life; he believes that for human beings to be happy they must find meaning in their lives. This used to be called practical wisdom or just plain common sense. But in the present culture where relativism, emotivism, and irrationalism are dominant, an adult like Jordan Peterson stands out. A real teacher has returned amidst what Philip Rieff called "the death works."
In the opening chapter of his new book Dr. Peterson says, "It took a long time to settle on a title: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Why did that one rise up above all others? First and foremost, because of its simplicity. It indicates clearly that people need ordering principles, and that chaos otherwise beckons. We require rules, standards, values—alone and together. We’re pack animals, beasts of burden. We must bear a load, to justify our miserable existence. We require routine and tradition. That’s order. Order can become excessive ,and that’s not good, but chaos can swamp us, so we drown—and that is also not good. We need to stay on the straight and narrow path. Each of the twelve rules of this book –and there accompanying essays—therefore provide a guide for being there.’ There’ is the dividing line between order and chaos."
Mr. Peterson’s first rule is in many ways his most important: it reads, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” This rule, of course, does not only refer to something we do physically with our bodies but something we do with our souls. “Standing up physically also implies and invokes and demands standing up metaphysically. Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being....To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).”
A central theme that runs throughout 12 Rules is the interplay between chaos and order. For Peterson they are the most fundamental elements of lived experience, the most basic subdivision of Being itself. Particularly important is the application of the categories of order and chaos to the two sexes, male and female. In the words of Dr. Peterson, “Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity... This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine... It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery. Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It is the political culture, the corporate environment, and the system. Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers. Chaos is ‘matter,’ origin, source, mother; ‘materia’, the substance from which all things are made.”
According to Peterson, order and chaos are both fundamental elements of life. You need order but order is not enough. The security and stability that order brings is necessary; but also necessary is the adventure and growth that comes from mastering the chaos that life inevitably brings. Living on the border between order and chaos and managing to live with this basic duality is what gives one’s life meaning.
Other rules for life, discussed by Peterson, include “Treating yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”; “Making friends with people who want what is best for you”;
“Setting your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”; “Telling the truth—or, at least, don’t lie”; and “Being precise in your speech.” All common sense truths that allow the individual to navigate the challenges and hazards of modern life. For all of these rules Dr. Peterson provides examples, anecdotes, and personal experiences.
Jordan Peterson is a man of considerable erudition, comfortable with psychoanalysts Freud, Adler, and Jung but demonstrating as well a deep knowledge of Milton, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Orwell, T.S. Eliot, and Solzhenitsyn. Most impressive is Peterson’s knowledge and respect for the Bible, Judeo-Christian tradition, and the myths and beliefs of major world religions. When asked about God, Peterson is vague and reticent about revealing his thoughts. In his own words, he does not want to be “boxed in” by what he says about God. Religion provides stories that examine and illustrate the profoundest questions about the human condition: the hierarchical nature of the created world, including human beings; the reality of truth and falsehood; the reality of good and evil; the centrality of suffering in every human life; the human need to love and be loved; and the desire to find meaning in life.
For Peterson it is only in religion that man finds an adequate grammar and vocabulary to describe reality. His previous book Maps of Meaning, and now Rules, are profoundly anti-ideology. Ideologies are dangerous substitutes for real knowledge. Often disguised as science, ideologies use power to impose their utopian world view on the masses. To understand ideologies and ideologues, Dr. Peterson read extensively about the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag. He wanted to understand how human beings in the twentieth century, in the name of ideologies such as Fascism and Communism, could become so evil, so depraved, that they would participate in the most appalling acts of cruelty and inhumanity against their fellow man. He sees the campus barbarians in the grim light of the death camp furnace. He sees them as ludicrous but his historical seriousness supplemented by his acuity as a clinical psychologist inflicts him with a duty to oppose them. This infuses his work with a moral seriousness which is compelling to the young. He is an authority, not a celebrity.
Peterson’s reading of Nietzsche and Jung most shaped his understanding. At the end of the nineteenth century the atheist Nietzsche famously declared the death of God. Unlike so many of his intellectual contemporaries, the German philosopher knew what the terrible consequences of God’s death would be. The death of the Christian God also meant the death of Christian morality. Nietzsche foresaw the nihilistic horrors of a world without God and it literally drove him insane. Dr. Peterson sees a clear connection between the rejection of God and the unprecedented evils of the twentieth century. Millions of innocent human beings were murdered at the hands of atheistic ideologies. For the professor it became clear. The campus mob could no longer be sidestepped. Evil must be confronted.
One of Peterson’s heroes is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist, who was imprisoned for years in a Soviet labor camp. Solzhenitsyn did not curse God. He did not despair over his cruel fate. Instead, he became a defender of the truth and wrote The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the Soviet prison camp system. It was a terrible, forceful book that told the truth about the Communist ideology. Solzhenitsyn’s writings were a significant factor in the collapse of the Communist regime in Russia. As Peterson says, “Solzhenitsyn’s writing utterly and finally demolished the intellectual credibility of communism, as ideology or society. He took an axe to the trunk of the tree whose bitter fruits had nourished him so poorly—and whose planting he had witnessed and supported.”
Understanding ideologies as he does, Jordan Peterson is now leading the effort to combat the present ideologies of the left: radical feminism, cultural Marxism, and the LGBT Gestapo. Peterson has been met with hysteria, hatred, and the histrionics of the mob. He has responded with civility and courage, and at other times with an extremely effective and necessary disdain. "No," he says, "I don't have to respect you." He reminds us the central truth of honor and shame cultures--that honor and respect are social currency and they should not be spent indiscriminately.
Given the relentless attack on masculinity by the sexual totalitarians on the left, it should not be a surprise that many of Peterson’s most ardent followers are young men. They see in him a father figure who not only defends masculinity, but who embodies many of the strengths and virtues of true maleness. (The word "virtue" comes from the Latin vir meaning man.)
Although Jordan Peterson deserves all the praise he has received as one of the leading intellectual heroes of our time, he is not without limitations. He is uncritical in his embrace of evolutionary biology: too often he speaks in apodictic terms about the assumptions of this paradigm. Another limitation, from the Christian perspective, is Peterson’s apparent agnosticism regarding the existence of God. If he is an agnostic, he is certainly an agnostic who sees the critical importance of religion. He has a great respect for authentic religious beliefs, traditions, and rituals. This respect is not simply a tolerance for individual beliefs. Peterson respects the power and truthfulness of religious traditions in mediating reality. It is more than a little ironic that Jordan Peterson appears more willing and effective in defending the deepest truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition while bishops, priests, ministers, and rabbis are reduced to mimicking the ethical platitudes of an NGO. This no doubt accounts for the adulation he receives from so many religious people.
Jordan Peterson is a man “haunted by God.” He is clearly searching for God—the Logos who has ordered the chaos from the beginning. He is open to the transcendent dimension of life. And even when he does not refer directly to God, Peterson leaves many hints that God is always on his mind, and dare I say, on his heart. In the opening chapter of 12 Rules, the author describes a strange dream he had in which he is transported to a cathedral constructed in the shape of a cross, and that the point under the dome was the center of the cross. To quote Peterson, ”I knew that the cross was simultaneously the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic center of the world.” Indeed, the professor’s dream is true. The Cross is at the center of the world. Two thousand years ago the Son of God, in perfect obedience to His Father, died upon that Cross and in dying conquered sin, Satan, and death itself. The Logos conquered the chaos. Christ’s death on the Cross is the axis mundi -- the center of the world. Every day in the liturgical action of the Church, religious men kneel before the axis and confidently answer the question: “Do you believe in God?” We are oriented in space and time to the ultimate Personal Authority in the Word-Event of the Liturgy. Swept up in the Spirit we conform with Christ to the rule of the Father. The good professor may see that as putting the worshiper “in a box.” He would see it better as a rule of a higher order transforming matter into masculinity revealed. Let us pray that Jordan Peterson will one day participate in the sacred mystery of the sacrificial cross. What was clear in his dream will be even more clear when he submits to the dominance hierarchy that Christ instituted on the night before He died. For is it not that priestly mediated religious act that allows men to share in that “point of death and transformation, the symbolic center of the world.”