Viewed in the most favourable light, Peterson’s rules are an attempt to locate people within society, to acknowledge the systems and structures that have long existed and, instead of seeking to tear them down, encourage his readers to find their most functional position within them. It’s unquestionably a conservative philosophy, albeit one that Peterson frames in an idiosyncratic and sometimes unconventional way. The problem arises when his ragbag of common sense dictums – “Do not do what you hate” – and whimsical fancies – “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible” – are taken themselves to be a kind of gospel.
This is a genuinely frustrating book. I wish, for instance, that the positions Peterson chooses to pick a fight with were better documented, rather than (quite often) the beliefs he imagines his opponents to hold. He goes to the Met in New York and looks at a painting (a little digging suggests he’s talking about a Guido Reni.) There are people looking at it. ‘I thought “They do not know what that painting means. They do not understand the symbolic meaning of the mandorla.”’ How does he know? It might have been an outing for a bunch of Guido Reni scholars.
While his reluctance to write about his own psychological state is understandable — and, indeed, is not what the book is about — Peterson leaves me longing to know more. Has he changed his views on strong men as a result of his own vulnerability? Were any of his rules actually helpful as he recovered? Most of all I want to know about his darkness. The notes of despair are everywhere. Maybe his hysterical love of order is because he views the natural state of the universe as more petrifying than most. Nearly every chapter ends by pointing to the terror that lurks. The reason it is important to hold a marriage together is not because of the joys of loving another person, but because “rough times are always on their way, and you better have something to set against them or despair will visit and will not depart”.
If you are only aware of Peterson by reputation, then the content of Beyond Order might take you by surprise. It is a lumpy soup of bromides about marriage, Old Testament commentaries, Jungian archetypes, Mesopotamian myths and endless deconstructions of Disney movies. There’s also a long, nerdy digression on the ways in which the golden snitch in Harry Potter is a metaphor for chaos. It reads more like a compendium of stodgy Sunday sermons delivered by a fire-and-brimstone preacher than a conventional self-help manual or political polemic.
Beyond Order lacks the wit and sizzle of 12 Rules for Life. There’s too much esoteric musing, too much ponderous explication of Harry Potter novels and Mesopotamian myths, too much abstraction and not enough of the gripping case histories that bring his principles to life. But there’s masses of passion, masses of wisdom and a deep, deep yearning for us all to seek the beauty, truth and meaning Peterson has sometimes glimpsed and is desperate for us to find. He has had tens of thousands of letters from people who say he has helped them to find it.
The confused public conversation about Peterson arises, if you ask me, from the fact that there are two main kinds of suffering. There is the kind that results from power disparities between groups: racism, sexism, economic inequality. Then there is the universal kind that comes with being a finite human, faced with a limited lifespan, the inevitability of death, the unavoidability of grief and regret, the inability to control the present or predict the future and the impossibility of ever fully knowing even those to whom we’re closest. Modern progressives rightly focus much energy on the first kind of suffering. But we increasingly talk as if the second kind barely counts, or doesn’t even exist – as if everything that truly matters were ultimately political. Peterson, by contrast, takes the second sort of suffering very seriously indeed... Still, in the end, it’s a good thing that there’s space on the self-help shelves for a book as bracingly pessimistic as this one. Ours is a culture dedicated to a belief in the perfectibility of social institutions, in our limitless capacity to know the world, and to bring it under our control, and in the infallible rightness of present day moral judgments. Peterson offers an invaluable reminder that we’re finite and inherently imperfect
This search for meaning, for responsibility instead of freedom and happiness, are basic existential messages. And indeed courageous. His quest for certainty has been compromised by his personal life. He has stared into the abyss of chaos, the feminine dark matter from which we all derive. One of his rules is “abandon ideology” but at times in discussion he can be the ultimate ideologue. He is tetchy, thin-skinned, odd beyond belief, charismatic because of his emotional vulnerability and, dare I say it, feminised. We are drawn to his weakness as well as his strength.
Four-hundred pages of this is hard going. Strangely, though, the book also contains the most lucid and touching prose Peterson has written, in the sensitive and intelligent chapter on the importance of art. It includes a poignant little tale of Peterson’s efforts to wood-panel his office (and also paint it eccentric colours) at the University of Toronto in the face of objections from the institution’s bureaucracy. The tale seems a remnant of a different life, from a time when he was an eccentric professor enjoying small-scale controversy rather than the present kind which is on a global scale. You suspect he was much happier then.
The book is also a validation of his own role; as he observes, being able to articulate what many people instinctively feel but can’t articulate is a valuable role for a public intellectual. The fact that so many people are, in fact, afraid to articulate what they actually think is something that should give us all pause.