Regarding the 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Part II)

Hello! This is Part II of my 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos analysis. I covered the first 6 Rules in Part I, which you can read here if you haven’t already, or if you need a quick refresher:

Book Analysis – 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Part I)

Here in Part II, I’m going to be covering Rules 7 to 10. My initial plan was to cover Rules 11 and 12 as well, but some life things have been biting into my schedule, so this is going to be my first three-part series. Anyway, without further ado, let’s get back into the book.

Rule 7
Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

The second half opens with the re-assertion that life sucks, and you will suffer. (In case it wasn’t obvious by now, Peterson’s a glass half-empty kinda guy.) Now, we could take the hedonist’s approach and pursue the pleasures of the moment… but is that really the best way to live? Our ancestors have been struggling with this for ages… and at some point, we became more than just animals. We became aware of ourselves, like Adam and Eve. We created rituals, passed down stories, and performed sacrifices (of both the figurative and literal variety). We sacrificed momentary pleasures for greater gains down the line.

He poses this work/pleasure sacrifice as a uniquely human trait… but is it really? Certainly, it’s true of most animals, but how can we claim with any certainty that we’re the only species acting beyond natural instinct? We aren’t mind readers. For that matter, what about the natural counter-argument that we’re also only acting according to our own natural instincts? (I don’t accept that theory, personally, but it didn’t take long for the thought to pop into my head.)

Early paintings found in the Manda Gueli cave, on the Ennedi Plateau.

Anyway, we learned we can delay pleasure, and we came to understand causality. We learned to live in groups, and we learned to make mutually beneficial sacrifices (save food for others, do jobs to earn your stay, don’t act out of line, etc.), and thus we formed the basis of society. We may not always understand why it works, but we know it works, so it’s best to just accept it. Successful people make these sacrifices, and if we too wish to become successful, it would be wise to follow suit.

In that way, sacrifice is a pre-requisite to success. We must be willing to trade, share, and make concessions. The more you give, the more generous you seem, and your group standing improves. Religion was born in much the same manner: give a sacrifice to (insert god-like being here), and they won’t (insert supernatural punishment here)… if they like your offerings enough, they might even (insert divine blessing here).

That being said, how much should we sacrifice, and what sort of sacrifice is most effective? Why did God like the offerings of Abel, but not Cain? Why’d he demand the life of Abraham’s only son Isaac, only to ask for a ram instead at the last possible minute? Perhaps the problem isn’t quantity, but quality.

Are you willing to part with the item you value most? Could you sacrifice yourself? If you’re not getting the results you want otherwise, it may be worth considering. Socrates, accused of impiety and poisoning the minds of the youth, could’ve renounced his ways or fled at any time… but he stood his ground, knowing full well he’d be executed. He feared nothing, not even death, for he had lived a life of greater meaning in his pursuit of the truth.

The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Philip-Joseph de Saint-Quentin.

Of course, tragedy’s not the only cause of suffering… there’s also evil to consider. Why do we turn against our fellow men? One explanation is a sacrifice gone wrong. You could put a lot of work into something, only to suffer regardless. In the Old Testament, God is pleased with Abel’s humble crop offerings but refuses Cain’s offerings of the best meat. As an alternative example, just look at the early life of Adolf Hitler; his father was abusive, his younger brother died at 6 of measles, he sabotaged his own grades as a student and paid the price later, his side suffered heavily in WW1 despite his best efforts as a soldier, and his passion for art was shot down time and time again. I could go on… but I won’t.

People understand suffering… and so they figure out how to inflict it upon others. Injustice sparks outrage, compelling some to strike against something… or someone. Doesn’t matter who caused it, someone needs to pay. After all, why should they be the only ones to suffer? Cain can’t exactly march his way up to the divine realm and beat some sense into God, so he goes after the next closest target: his brother. Hitler… need I even explain? The question, then, becomes this: what sort of sacrifice will best reduce both suffering and evil?

In Christianity, at least, the answer lies with Jesus. When he’s fasting in the desert and confronted by Satan, he turns down the temptation to use his powers to feed himself. Sure, he’d no longer be hungry, but that won’t solve his hunger forever, and he’d have betrayed his principles for a small bite to eat. He turns down the temptation to jump off a cliff and wait to be rescued, because that’s just taking the easy way out. He turns down the temptation to take power for himself; power corrupts, as it did with Cain and Hitler, and changing leaders won’t fix every problem. To simplify: if you seek the greatest possible reward (in this case, the glory of God’s Kingdom on Earth), you should never consider your moral principles to be negotiable.

He then goes back into history, pointing out the strengths and faults of Christianity. Points mentioned include the replacement of barbaric ideas with semi-civilized ones, the dawn of social equality, the problems left unsolved by the Church and its subsequent degradation of ideals, the scathing critiques of it by Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Dostoevsky, and the rise of totalitarianism in the absence of organized religion.

Yep, he’s still going. This chapter is a long one.

Not unlike Rene Descartes, Jordan began to doubt everything. He’d seen the world at its worst: Organized religion is flawed, socialism and capitalism equally so. The USA and USSR were at each other’s throats, and of course there were the atrocities of war in the 20th century. In his search for an indisputable principle, he concluded that suffering is real, and that the intentional infliction of suffering is wrong. It follows, then, that it’s right to stop/prevent this suffering. Act under this principle, look beyond the pleasures of the present, and you’ll find start to find a greater meaning in things. Also, act with humility, for arrogance leads to further destruction.

This chapter isn’t bad, necessarily, but it goes all over the place. He keeps swapping between the fields of history and religion, and there are a lot of points to get through, which makes it harder to focus. On an unrelated note, he makes a rather… spicy… point in the last section. That point is, and I quote: “Above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell.” Yeah… no. That’s just not a tenable position. The families sheltering Jewish refugees in Nazi-occupied countries (my ancestors included), could they have survived purely through honesty? Let’s put a pin on this thought, though; he covers the subject of truth more thoroughly in Rule 8, and this section’s already long enough as it is.

Rule 8
Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie

As a new student in the field of clinical studies, a schizophrenic patient asked to join Young Jordan’s group. In this unfamiliar scenario, he chose honesty; she was a bit hurt, yes, but at least she wasn’t left under any false impressions. Earlier in life, like most other people, Younger Jordan got those unsavoury thoughts that pop up from time to time. (“Could I actually kill someone with this kitchen knife?” “What would happen if I pushed that guy off that balcony?” You know, those thoughts.)

Looking into himself, he realized he’d been lying to himself a lot, so he started taking a more honest approach to life. This was how he got a paranoid client to open up. This was how he strengthened his relationship with his alcohol-troubled ex-biker-gang neighbor. You can also change someone by lying to them, but this presumes your view of the way things should be is unquestionably correct, and that’s just arrogant. Such a view fails to consider the bigger picture, it fails to consider better alternatives, and it fails to consider what’s best for you. I wouldn’t say this is universally applicable to all scenarios, but it is a fair point.

At best, your own sense of stubborn pride will fail to alert you of potential threats; at worst, it’ll actively blind you to inconvenient truths. If nobody is honest enough to speak up, it’ll lead to catastrophe. As long as we continue to deceive ourselves into believing we’re right, nothing will change for the better.

That being said, the future is uncertain. How do we proceed on the path of truth, when we don’t always know what the truth even is? We used to believe the Sun circled the Earth. We used to believe that dragons roamed the skies, and the Boogeyman prowled at night. We used to believe that slavery was acceptable, and that residential schools were a good thing. Who’s to say another core belief won’t be shaken tomorrow?

Every Child Matters

There’s no straight answer to that… but for a start, you could look at traditions. They exist for a reason. Or don’t. Some traditions become outdated over time, also for good reason. Whatever it is you aim at, aim with your eyes wide open. That way, if your aim is off, you can correct course and learn from your mistakes. You’ll never learn anything if you always play it safe, so take risks, be ambitious! You might come across something disturbing, but at least you’ll know what not to do. Also, don’t just aim at one specific target, aim in a direction. That way, if you can’t hit your original target, you won’t just fall aimlessly to the ground.

One little lie might not seem like much. However, it soon leads to another, and then another. Build enough little lies, and you become prideful in your ability to lie, and your ability to detect lies. This pride, however, makes you arrogant, and you fall victim to larger lies, because you assume nobody would be audacious enough to try it. This in turn opens the door to propaganda and corruption, and things start to fall apart around you. Before you know it, Hell itself has materialized on Earth, and you fall into misery and despair.

Be careful walking ’round these parts, the slopes are awfully slippery this time of year.

Life is suffering, and truth acknowledges this fact. The truth does nothing to soften the blow… but it gives you a way to move forward. It enables you to see the hard facts in front of you, so you can navigate your way past the potholes of history towards the newly paved path of the future. The path of truth will not look the same for everyone, and some will inevitably find it a much harder path to walk, but it’s at least better than stumbling around aimlessly in the darkness of deceit.

That’s the end of the chapter, pretty much, so let’s revisit that earlier point. It was written with no knowledge of Rule 8’s contents, but now, I’ll admit I jumped the gun a bit. That example was a lie of survival, while the lies of this chapter are lies for personal gain. On that front, I’ll admit fault. However, the wording is still severely misleading, as it makes no contextual distinction between the two forms of falsehoods. Truth is obviously the more desirable option, but to unequivocally assert that a single lie leads you to fire and brimstone? How could any reasonable person not be offended by that?

Rule 9
Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

The focus of Rule 9 is psychotherapy, Jordan Peterson’s professional specialty. Above all else, its success relies on conversation. If you’re willing to listen, the person on the other end will be more willing to talk, admit their faults, and perhaps even open themselves to changing for the better. Don’t jump to conclusions or fill in the blanks of their past, let them figure it out on their own terms. You might know a lot, but you don’t know everything. That voice on the other end probably knows something you don’t, and you should listen to multiple viewpoints, even (and especially) if they conflict with your own.

If it’s the general view you’re going up against, expect fierce resistance, and be sure your cause is a fight worth fighting. I disagree with the claim that something new and radical is almost always wrong, on the basis that I don’t think it’s a valid correlation of traits… but the main point’s line of reasoning is sound, so let’s just chalk it down to difference of opinion.

Instead of facing away from his clients, as Sigmund Freud did, Peterson instead opts for a more personal approach by facing them head on. That way, he can read their expressions, and they can read his reactions. It’s less introspective than the Freudian approach, but the conversational approach allows both sides to see the other’s honest reactions, thus they know the other party is properly listening. Repeating and summarizing their ideas back to them also helps, both for the sake of clarity and to avoid an accidental straw-man.

Not all conversations are productive. If someone’s trying to 1-up or speak over the other, then they’re not truly listening, they’re just trying to establish dominance. We see examples of this all the time in politics (a certain orange-haired man comes to mind). All this does is encourage the ‘your way bad my way good’ mentality, and nobody really stands to benefit or learn anything.

A fruitful conversation will allow both parties to sort out their thoughts, and see where they might be right/wrong based on the other’s honest reactions. Even if one stays silent the whole time, it’ll still be a productive session if the speaker pays attention to and connects with the listener, instead of just regurgitating facts at them.

Remember the 2020 presidential ‘debate’?

The last part is mainly him reiterating his earlier points, adding that you should meditate on what the other party is saying. If nothing else, you should at least hear them out. Perhaps you can incorporate some of their wisdom into your own. There’s a reason they considered Socrates to be the wisest man alive, despite his claims of knowing nothing. I appreciate the more humble tone of this chapter, and it uses relevant personal examples. All things considered, though we disagree on a few points, this is a good chapter.

Rule 10
Be precise in your speech

The opening of Rule 10 brings up technological obsolescence. Take away your computer/phone/gaming console’s power and functionality, and what’ve you got? A plastic box filled with assorted metals. Someday, they’ll make a cooler box, and you’ll want that one instead, even if the box you have now works just fine. The thing that makes your box more than just a box is the connection it shares with a much larger network of systems working in tandem with each other.

Most things come to exist in the same fashion, whether it’s a metal-filled plastic box, the leaves on a tree, or your own body. We know such a network exists, and we know that no complex object can function forever independently of it. However, we cannot fully perceive the network, for its sheer scale is incomprehensible to our puny human minds.

Instead, we perceive the things themselves, and determine their utility in relation to our present set of circumstances. We don’t need to understand the subatomic structure of every single rock on the side of the road, nor do we need to determine the geological processes which shaped them. We only need to know that there are indeed rocks there.

*insert generic Rock picture here*

Rather than dwell on the complexity of the world, we normally just narrow it down to what’s precisely relevant to us. In doing so, we become attached to the world, and we incorporate parts of it within our sense of self. We develop connections with people and objects, and we become invested in beneficial causes. When everything works in our favor, things appear simple, and the world makes sense. Box should do a thing, box does that thing, and everything’s fine.

It’s only when things begin to fail that the true complexity of our world becomes apparent. Box should do a thing… but it’s not doing the thing. Why is the box not doing the thing? Am I doing something wrong? Is it broken? Did it break on its own? Did someone else break it? Did I break it? What do I do now? What can I do? Can the box be fixed? Should I get a new box? What would I replace it with? Instead of one simple result, it turns into a whole new set of unanswered questions and concerns, and so we become anxious.

Chaos revels in uncertainty and thrives in anxiety. We don’t like to look at it, and it’s tempting to just keep ignoring it, if that means we can live in peace for a while longer. Thing is, Chaos doesn’t like to be ignored. It’ll keep returning, and it’ll be stronger every time, until it’s so big that ignoring it becomes impossible. If you keep hiding your problems away, your closet will eventually overflow, and you’ll have to deal with everything falling out at the same time.

Alternatively, think of it like a snowball: it may start small, but if you keep packing little snowflakes onto it, it’ll eventually become too big to handle on your own.

One important thing to note is this: Chaos brings confusion, but it also brings change, and you can use this to your advantage. When one of these disruptions occurs, don’t just avert your gaze, look towards the cause and confront it. Maybe it’s a bigger issue than you first thought… or maybe you were overthinking it. Either way you’ll know, so you won’t have to live in fear of an unknown enemy. If you can, try to nip the issue in the bud. Even if you can’t, knowing precisely what the issue is will help you steer clear of / prepare countermeasures against it, so you can be a little more confident and ready to deal with whatever the future throws at you.

Of all the chapters so far, I’d say this one is my favorite. There’s not much I fundamentally disagree with, it’s lacking the other previously-mentioned issues, and the Chaos Dragon metaphor is pretty neat. It also speaks to my interest in the unknowns of infinity, so it’s got that going for it. Good rule, great chapter.

Despite all the criticisms I’ve raised against the book so far, I wouldn’t necessarily say I dislike it. He raises some valid points that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered, it’s clear he understands what he’s talking about, I like (most of) his personal examples/anecdotes, and the messages he’s trying to express are well-articulated. I do, however, wish he’d be more precise when it comes to his writing style. I’ve noticed that he has a tendency to wander off on odd tangents and pick unnecessary fights, with Rules 4 and 5 being the biggest offenders.

I’m going to have to wrap up here. As previously mentioned, the last 2 Rules will have to wait. This post is already 3 days off-schedule, I don’t want to push it back even farther. To compensate, Part III will also include some extra thoughts and a discussion of a few other reviews. If you’ve got any thoughts of your own to add, or if there’s something I should expand upon, feel free to let me know in the comments. Otherwise, I hope you have a good day/night, and stay safe!