Rules for Chaos

March 31, 2021

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life is a compelling meditation on the human condition disguised as a self-help book. It speaks unfashionable truths and offers a serious teaching about how individuals ought to face those truths. Peterson’s works are an apolitical breath of fresh air in our hyper-politicized, decaying age. If you are a broken person, this book is for you. And since all of us are broken, there is much in Peterson for everyone.

Peterson’s first book of rules particularly resonates with me. After offering rules, he raises questions and provides pithy, morally serious answers. “What shall I do with my infant’s death?” he asks. Answer: “Hold my other loved ones and heal their pain.” His daughter had debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. I can relate. My daughter had cancer and suffered greatly from baleful side effects. I faced the “when-do-you-pull-the-plug” question. I had three other children worried about their sister and a wife pained at the prospect of losing her only daughter. I called my wisest friend and asked him to tell me how to handle myself, since I too was overwhelmed with responsibility and grief. His answer, thankfully not needed, was to serve them in their grief. But seeing Peterson’s fascinating aphorism brought back floods of truth mixed with tears. Even writing this puts a lump in my throat.

This is what I mean by saying Peterson’s book is apolitical. Every human being—no matter the time or place—faces deep questions of meaning in the face of these experiences. Some blink. Peterson insists on open eyes and full hearts.

Living in an Imperfect World

Our lives are no picnics. Life is suffering, and human beings are plagued with great sorrows and disappointments. We resent, envy, deceive, and act arrogantly. “We do the things we wish we would not do and do not do the things we know we should do,” as Peterson writes, mirroring St. Paul. Our spirit may be willing, but our flesh is weak. (And our spirit is not as willing as it should be.) It is not easy to know what to do in one’s life. “Without clear, well-defined, and non-contradictory goals, the sense of positive engagement that makes life worthwhile is very difficult to obtain. Clear goals limit and simplify the world, as well, reducing uncertainty, anxiety, shame, and the self-devouring physiological forces unleashed by stress.”

Men especially are prone to retreat into themselves and pretend they do not need others when their passions are not ordered to an end. All people are plagued by their pasts and the wrongs we have done others. A strange fatalism can overcome those sensing the difficulty of living. As Peterson writes, “if you aim at nothing, you become plagued by everything. . . [and] you have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing of high value in your life.”

In the face of this meandering meaninglessness, Peterson performs valiant service. His Rule VII: Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens. Rule VIII: Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible. Rule IX: If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely. Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering. Get yourself straightened out, and deal with your own demons before trying to change the world. Rule III: “Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.” First-world problems of meaning are actually deep, persistent human problems. And there is no substitute for making the choice to live—and willing the means to get it done. Clean your roomMake a schedule and stick to it!

For us gray-hairs, the head-scratcher is why such things need to be said. Who doesn’t make lists? Who doesn’t work hard to accomplish important goals? Nothing prevents people from following the rules and bringing order to their lives, he insists. So what is it about our time that makes his advice seem so profound and needful? His answer: In a decadent age where politics is corrupt and corrupting, too many people believe that ethics and politics are one and the same. But one does not need a good regime to practice virtue.

Young men especially need to heed Peterson’s call. Peterson thinks “the increasingly reflexive identification of the striving of boys and men for victory with ‘patriarchal tyranny’” is “stunningly counterproductive.” He continues: “There is almost nothing worse than treating someone striving for competence as a tyrant in training!” Our culture’s stigmatizing of male ambition could lead people to “despair, corruption, and nihilism—thoughtless subjection to the false words of totalitarian utopianism and a life as a miserable, lying, resentful slave.”

But Peterson does not let the stigmatized young men off the hook. Living as a stigmatized slave is a choice. In the face of the “hateful,” “stupid,” “demoralizing,” “authoritarian ideology” emanating from “corporate managers” and “Human Resource departments” young men must “fortify” themselves and delve into the “eternal principles renewing vision and life.” You may be poorer as a result, but you will also be richer in self-respect and responsibility. Courage is the first virtue for a reason.

Self-Improvement and Social Decadence

This call is for more than mere self-improvement. Peterson challenges everyone to order their own lives. Yoking to another doubles the problem, to say the least, but it is also necessary to complete our natures. Maintaining an enduring relationship with another human being in close quarters takes “commitment, practice and effort.” Trust is the bedrock of that enduring relation, though it is fraught with risk. Each couple works best when they “both are subordinate to a principle, a higher-order principle, which constitutes their union in the spirit of illumination and truth.” Overcoming these obstacles could lead most people to a genuine achievement in life. “There are not many genuine achievements . . . in life,” Peterson writes. “A solid marriage . . . is achievement one” and raising kids is “achievement two.” “We live a long time,” Peterson continues, “but it is also all over in a flash, and it should be that you have accomplished what human beings accomplish when they live a full life, and marriage and children and grandchildren and all the trouble and heartbreak that accompanies all of that is far more than half of life. Miss it at your peril.”

Why is family life unsettled in our late modern age? Peterson’s answer, in part, is feminism—and its “lie to young women . . . about what they are most likely to want in life.” Though it is “taboo” to mention this “in our culture,” most women want solid marriages to respectable, responsible men with whom they can create a family. Instead, young women are taught a “pathway to misery” of barren careerism. Peterson would have people “abandon ideology” (Rule VI), like feminism.

Feminism is not simply an ideology. Our politics, informed through feminism, unsettles marriage as well: it has produced at-will, no-fault divorce; public education encourages feminine careerism and teaches that motherhood is a burden; it sanctions sexual expression at ever-younger ages; it transforms rape law, harassment law, obscenity law and so on. Ultimately, our anti-discrimination laws make institutional opposition to feminism perilous. All of this compromises marriage too. One may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in all of us!

Indeed, the world of “renewing vision and life” and submission to a “higher-order principle” seems to be the world of politics and religion. Peterson certainly shows the need for strong social “maps of meaning.” But Peterson is leery of pointing the ambitious to politics and he has maintained a studied quietness about whether any of those higher-order principles for renewing life are, in fact, true. The story of Egyptian myth, like the Christian story and J.K. Rowling’s novels, are great and helpful stories. But they are still just stories, or so it has seemed until recently. Thus accusations of secret postmodernism have dogged Peterson. Peterson’s leeriness about totalizing politics reflects his focus on developing character first. It also reflects his worry that political order infused with a zeal for truth necessarily devolves into a tyrannical emphasis on order (what Benjamin Roberts calls his tyrannophobia). His seeming faith in individual seriousness points him away from politics. If the chances of turning around our decaying regime seem pretty dim, Peterson points the way to rewarding lives in our time and place.

As a result of following Peterson’s way, thousands of men might defy accusations of toxic masculinity. Hundreds of men might make themselves more responsible and perhaps more marriageable—and dozens more might actually risk marriage. Ultimately, however, as people move out of the circle of their own lives and toward communities, good laws make things more possible and bad laws make things less possible. Individuals must and should fight pernicious ideologies in their souls and with their will. They must also fight ideologies in their laws and replace those laws with better ones. This can only happen when there is a determined, socially enforced set of rules. Politics does not cover the whole of ethics (as Peterson emphasizes), but it is not irrelevant to it either (as Peterson knows but does not emphasize). The crisis that justifies Peterson’s generally apolitical stance, understandable for a decadent time, also points toward the need for public renewal or recovery—that is, toward politics. 

If Peterson’s teaching is insufficiently political in this sense, it is still the most valuable instruction for living a good life in a decadent society when social norms are repulsive or unclear and laws increasingly hostile. It is a Nicomachean Ethics (but without The Politics) for our day, when pernicious ideologies drown out the voice of nature. Peterson, a man offering such hope for lives of meaning and virtue, is worth his weight in gold.

Originally published by Law & Liberty.