“…without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions –
and there’s nothing freeing about that.”
Dr. Norman Doidge
Author, “The Brain that Changes Itself”
Introduction to 12 Rules for Life
Dr. Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who practices in Toronto and teaches at the University of Toronto. Previously, he taught at Harvard. His interests and expertise range. He has taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and business people and has published more than a hundred scientific papers. One might wonder why would I, a non-scientific sort and now in my autumn years, find compelling a book written by a medical doctor about rules? In part, it is because his rules are unlike most we deal with. They come with titles like Rule 1, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back;” Rule 7, “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient);” and Rule 12, “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” But most important, it is because his observations make sense and are lucidly offered.
In the first chapter, when the author writes of standing straight, he is speaking not only of the physical act, but metaphorically, of accepting the responsibilities that come with the “burden of Being,” that as humans we have an obligation to live civilly and respectfully. He writes of navigating between chaos and order, order being explored territory – the “tribe, religion, hearth, home and country” – and chaos being “the domain of ignorance…the place you end up when things fall apart…” He writes, “Order is the shire of Tolkien’s hobbits: peaceful, productive and safely inhabitable…Chaos is the underground kingdom of the dwarves, usurped by Smaug.” But order alone does not advance the individual. “Thus,” he writes, “you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering.” It is the experience common to all high school seniors, in the fall of their final year. For twelve years, they have known where they were headed the next September; this fall they face an unknown future. Like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, with experience they become wiser and more confident, using what they have learned to explore and conquer the unknown.
He tells us that it is through stories we learn the virtues of honesty, perseverance and diligence. He uses literary figures to make his point. He quotes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s, The Gulag Archipelago, a book “written with the overwhelming moral force of unvarnished truth.” With his wide-ranging interests, he references the Bible, George Orwell, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Stephen King and John Milton. He quotes Goethe through the voice of Mephistopheles, of hurdles a rules-based culture can overcome:
“What matters our creative endless toil,
When, at a snatch, oblivion ends the coil?”
He writes of Carl Jung and Christianity. In Chapter 7, “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”, he offers his fundamental moral conclusion: “Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death.”
Rules are embedded in our democratic republic through our system of laws, which guide our behavior. They lead us between chaos and order; they provide the balance necessary for a productive, fun and interesting life. He tells us we should be obeisant to rules, but unafraid of the unknown future, to venture (carefully) toward chaos. We should be stable enough to be secure, but flexible enough to transform. “Clear rules,” Professor Peterson writes, “and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society, establish, maintain and expand the order, [which] is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld…”
At a time when moral clarity has evaporated into a miasma of moral relativism, when lives can be destroyed because people are convicted in courts of public opinion absent any empirical evidence, when ethics are set aside to gain political advantage, when red herrings are tossed up to deliberately conflate issues, this is a book to savor, to keep on the shelf, to peruse at will, to help cope with this complex, contradictory and sometimes unfair world.
This article was first puplished on Thoughts of the Day.