By: John Anderson
Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life is Jordan Peterson’s follow-up to his best-selling 10 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Over the past few years Peterson has established himself as the most widely read and heard public intellectual in the world. Uniquely, his ideas appeal not just to the university-educated, but to “ordinary” people who find his teachings both wise and challenging. And for many, his refusal to bow to the politically correct shibboleths of the age is inspiring.
The book covers the following main themes:
- Moving beyond order isn’t moving towards chaos, it’s transcending rules and living according to wisdom.
- Self-respect is necessary for happiness, and responsibility is necessary for self-respect: don’t pursue happiness, pursue responsibility.
- Discipline will transform your life.
- Ideology detaches us from reality and can only mislead and destroy.
- If you want romance in your marriage you need to be practical about it, not romantic: plan your romance.
Moving Beyond Order
To move “beyond order” is to move beyond rules for the sake of rules, but also not to fall into chaos – a life of no discipline, no purpose, no meaning, and ultimately no happiness. To do this we must begin with rules, but with the aim of mastering them.
“The master, who is the rightful product of apprenticeship, is, however, no longer the servant of dogma. Instead, he is now himself served by dogma, which he has the responsibility to maintain as well as the right to change, when change is necessary.” (192-3)
For example, an artist learns the rules, and upon realising how the rules serve to lead to something higher – beauty – departs from them when necessary, but never despises them. Perhaps Peterson’s idea here is the transition from the person who lives according to rules to the person who lives according to wisdom.
This is all rather abstract, and Peterson brings it down to earth, to our everyday lived experience: to begin the journey from chaos to “beyond order”, pick something and master it. “Aim at something. Pick the best target you can currently conceptualize. Stumble toward it.” (86)
Practically speaking, start small, even with something seemingly trivial. Clean your room, organise your office, cut down on one part of your unhealthy eating – sugary drinks. Once mastered, then go onto another project, another victory: expand your dominion over your life. “Aim at something profound and noble and lofty.” (86) But key to all of this is discipline. Discipline is transformation.
“Discipline and transformation will nonetheless lead you inexorably forward….[You] will find a story that is meaningful and productive….With will and luck, you will be the hero of that story….Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.” (87)
The Tyranny of Ideology
One of the major obstacles to wisdom is ideology, and Peterson devotes a whole chapter to it: Rule VI – Abandon Ideology. Ideology asks us to stop focusing on the real world in all its complexity and become fixated with simplistic caricatures of it which are based more in prejudice and utopianism than analysis and wisdom.
Nietzsche prophesied the coming age of ideology. If “God is dead”, as Nietzsche said, something must take God’s place to give life with all its mysteries, disappointment and pain meaning. Enter ideology.
Where does modern ideology come from? Peterson agrees with Nietzsche, that once belief in the Christian God had been “fatally challenged”, “everything would soon fall apart in a manner catastrophic both psychologically and socially.” (162) Nietzsche’s genius was not in his atheism, but in his understanding that so much of what the West takes for granted in terms of morality and social order is an outworking of Christianity.
In other words, for a culture to abandon God is no small thing. According to Peterson, Nietzsche prophesied “an existentially devastating rise in nihilism”, and also that “people would turn to identification with rigid, totalitarian ideology.” (162)
A hallmark of ideology is its reductionism, that is, its seductive tendency to rely on simplistic explanations for complex social problems: think of pseudo-explanation terms like ‘the system’, ‘white privilege’, and ‘patriarchy’.
Peterson offers an example: poverty. The causes of poverty are much more complex than terms like white privilege or systemic racism would suggest. As Peterson points out, poverty arises from a combination of many factors, including lack of education, broken families, addiction, mental illness, and the immediate environment one is growing up in (169). Ideology is often attractive to people who are smart but intellectually lazy.
But ideology is not merely intellectually unsatisfying, it is dangerous, it is deadly, and not just for a few, but for millions. Indeed, after Nietzsche declared the death of God in the late nineteenth century, the twentieth century came to be known as the century of ideologies, the “age of extremes”, as one famous historian put it.
Marxist communism offers a sobering case-study.
“When the frenzy of “dekulakization” swept through the newly established Soviet Union, it was vengeful and jealous murderers who were redistributing property, while it was the competent and reliable farmers, for the most part, from whom it was violently taken. One unintended consequence of that “redistribution” of good fortune was the starvation of six million Ukrainians in the 1930s, in the midst of some of the most fertile land in the world.” (167)
The gruesome history of fascism, particularly in its Nazi expression, offers another example of how the destructive rise of ideology in the wake of the death of God afflicted the twentieth century.
Goodbye Ideology, Hello Prudence
In many ways Peterson’s alternative to ideology resembles the philosophical conservatism that goes back to Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British politician and philosopher.
From the outset Peterson reminds his readers that both conservatives and progressives are necessary. The one to protect the baby, the other to throw out the bathwater. A theme in Peterson’s thought, which is important in Beyond Order, is the fragility of order itself: “Things fall apart of their own accord, but the sins of men speed their deterioration: that is wisdom for the ages.” (94) We can, in fact, design systems that allow for some peace, security, freedom, and improvement. And given how humans have behaved in history, “That is a miracle in and of itself.” (338)
After declaring that “ideology is dead”, meaning that it has proven itself more dangerous than the problems it tries to fix, Peterson asks what is to replace the grand visions of ideology. The answer is small-scale practical reformism. We need to think about problems on a small enough scale so that we can solve them and take responsibility when we don’t.
In other words, don’t think about improving the world, think about improving the space around you within the world.
Stop Pursuing Happiness. Pursue Responsibility
“The pursuit of happiness”, as Thomas Jefferson called it, is something ingrained in the modern psyche. But Peterson says, “I do not believe you should pursue happiness.” (127)
But if not happiness, what?
Happiness isn’t something we pursue, it’s something we achieve when we are pursuing other things. This is the focus of the book. What we ought to pursue is a valuable goal, and all goals worth anything carry responsibilities, and responsibility gives our lives meaning, and happiness is impossible if we truly see our lives as meaningless.
If fanatical ideology, with all its dangers, thrives in a context where there is a meaning void, then the imperative to recover meaning in any society in which it is lacking is urgent. And for Peterson, meaning is to be found in responsibility. “Your life becomes meaningful in precise proportion to the depths of the responsibility you are willing to shoulder.” (134)
In fact, responsibility is necessary for happiness, for meeting our responsibilities is a necessary condition for self-respect. And no one without self-respect is happy. The responsible person’s life is not perfect, and he or she still has doubts about some things, but knowing that responsibilities – to work, to family, to self – have been met, changes things:
“Then, when you wake up in the middle of the night and the doubts crowd in, you have some defence: “For all my flaws, which are manifold, at least I am doing this.”” (134)
Thus, we must, in the modern liberal democratic West, urge not just the sanctity of individual rights and liberties, but the sanctity of responsibility, for responsibility is meaning, and meaning is responsibility.
Responsibility implies rules: I must do this; I must not do that. Rules are important, but, as Jesus says, “The law was made for man, not man for the law.” The need for rules and the danger of worshipping them at the expense of the good they are aimed at, are both ever present. This tension gives legitimacy to two traditions: conservatism and progressivism. Because of the need for rules and structure, but also because there is danger that the rules can become idols at the cost of humanity, conservatism and progressivism must co-exist in a creative tension.
“A certain amount of creativity and rebellion must be tolerated – or welcomed, depending on your point of view – to maintain the process of regeneration.” (47)
And so, society must be a theatre for the creative tension between rules and innovation, conservatism and progressivism. As individuals, our lives might be somewhat similar, a journey to resist the ossification of mindless rules, while at the same time avoiding a descent into chaos. A journey “beyond order” to wisdom, truth, and personality.
One of the best chapters is Rule X, about relationships and romance. It is by far the most practical chapter in the book. Peterson’s approach to marriage is a kind of romantic realism. He wants all marriages to have that spark, and yet expectations that your marriage should be easy are naïve at best, potentially detrimental to your marriage at worst.
“Do you really want to keep asking yourself for the rest of your life…if you made the right choice. In all likelihood, you did not. There are seven billion people in the world….and the probability that you found the theoretically optimal person approaches zero.” (276-277)
And yet Peterson reminds the reader that “you do not find so much as make” (277) the right spouse and in turn the better marriage. The immediate aim for a marriage is peace, and absence of conflict. But a peace based on mutual humility – neither of you are perfect or even close – and compromise.
Peterson also reminds the reader that we are not only married to our spouses, but to the ghosts of their parents and grandparents, who haunt the marriage:
“For all you know, you are fighting with the spirit of your wife’s grandmother, who was treated terribly by her alcoholic husband, and the consequences of that unresolved abuse and distrust between the sexes are echoing down the generations.” (282-283)
On romance in marriage Peterson is at his most practical. In reality, the ideal of spontaneity leads to little romance in a marriage. In this respect the more romantic we are about romance, the less romance we’ll have. Our lives are busy, and we’ll tend never to get around to doing things that we don’t schedule in. The section on ‘Romance’ (296-301) is particularly compelling.
Peterson has written another book that is clear, insightful and practical. His discussion of the importance of meaning is much needed in our dopamine-saturated yet depression-prone culture. Also, his insights into the fragility of social order and freedom repay close attention in an age that increasingly sees established institutions as legacies of an oppressive past, rather than heirlooms of collective wisdom through the ages.
There are qualms some will have with the book. For example, Peterson repeatedly castigates ideologies as though they are all equally pernicious. But what about, say, classical liberalism – presumably Peterson’s preferred system? Is it an ideology or not? Are all ideologies necessarily as evil as the next? Perhaps Peterson would do better saying that the danger of an ideology lies in the extent to which it substitutes delusion for reality. In this respect, classical liberalism acknowledges the inherent selfishness but also the potential reasonableness in human nature more than Marxism.
Peterson says that the best approach to overcoming the “horror of existence” is “faith in yourself, your fellow man, and the structure of existence.” (353) And yet for much of the history of Western civilisation it was faith in God that was foundational to progress. Peterson himself even says that our belief in equality is largely based on the biblical notion of all humans bearing the image of God. In that respect humanism really only makes sense if it is premised on God. It could be argued that the century in which we most explicitly placed our faith in mankind – the twentieth century – was the century in which our faith in ourselves became most absurd.
Beyond Order not only offers philosophical and psychological reflections on the problems of our age, it also offers incredibly practical advice on how to keep our relationships healthy, our marriages in particular. The book is informative, challenging, and inspiring.