White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Beyond Order and the Plea for Hierarchy

Published Wednesday, April 14, 2021 By Anthony G. Cirilla

When 12 Rules for Life hit bookstores in 2018, Jordan Peterson had already captured the imaginations of millions of YouTube viewers, a following that had grown out of his presentation of the psychological philosophy he had developed in his 1999 Maps of Meaning and made accessible in audiovisual form in his recorded classroom lectures. As someone who has been a student for most of my adult life, I have no trouble seeing why. While “lecturing” is often used in the pejorative, the fact is that a truly engaging lecture offers a delight typically under appreciated. A wise, deeply informed, morally conscious person delivering the best thoughts available from a lifetime of earnest consideration constitutes a kind of living myth who can answer questions in real time, a voice without which the beautiful traditions of the written word can grow stale. Stale is the furthest thing from a Jordan Peterson lecture, as one can easily witness on YouTube. Ranging around the classroom like an archeologist seeking each thought with as much care as if it were a newly discovered dinosaur skeleton, Peterson speaks with an energetic yet poised cadence that drives relentlessly towards carefully crafted conceptual targets while drawing from a diverse array of domains of knowledge. Those domains are so varied one feels the potential for his lectures to become chaotic, and yet seldom does he lose his thread—more often than not, Peterson marshals his wide-ranging thoughts to a precision surgery of a specific, urgently advanced consideration.

One might say that order and chaos thus constitutes a perennial theme of Peterson in the form as well as the content of his online and written persona. This march from the known to the unknown was the theme of Maps of Meaning, but when I first read the book as an undergraduate interested in anything that touched on the hero’s journey, it was eminently clear even then that the book was for academics. Richard Feynman famously said that if you can’t successfully explain a concept to a freshman level class you should consider that you don’t fully understand it, and this seems to be a driving concern for Peterson: as a clinical psychologist but also as a professor and friend to many passionate intellectuals, he truly wants (I believe) the ideas he conveys to be personally helpful to people who come within the sound of his voice.

I was surprised when this somewhat curious (if undeniably profound and interesting) university professor became the subject of so much scrutiny over controversy in Canadian law.  Journalists have (inaccurately) credited this controversy as the cause of his rise to fame (though it certainly expanded as a result). 12 Rules for Life may have seemed to readers then like a sort of rejoinder, a packaged response to his detractors, but it was not. Drawn from a popular Quora list he wrote that went viral, Peterson wrote the book to codify some of the best ideas he had been laboring to articulate over years of lecturing, speaking, and debating in many fora. Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life continues this project—not simply of popularizing Maps of Meaning’s ideas but rewriting and refining them to actually make his perspectives useful to the attentive general reader not yet up to the task of reading his gargantuan magnum opus (though it is worth the effort). In many ways, Beyond Order will feel familiar to the up-to-date viewer of Jordan Peterson’s videos, but not as rote reiteration.

The painful life circumstances in which Peterson wrote most of his third book are detailed in his opening chapter, entitled “Overture,” where he speaks with candor about addiction to prescribed medication resulting from the challenges of dealing with the illness of his beloved wife and daughter. The opening reads with raw, fresh pain, and reminds me of the vulnerable, wise agony one finds in C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. As a scholar of consolation literature myself who already feels a great deal of sympathy to Peterson’s project, I have myself felt the acute paradoxical pain of being someone well versed in literature that purports to offer comfort and yet feeling, despite all of that, uncomforted. The fruits of that paradox can be found in one of the more powerful chapters of the book—“XII—Be grateful in spite of your suffering,” a maxim that Peterson was forced to test even as he wrote out the depth psychology informing his codification of that rule.

Beyond Order in some ways is a very strange book. I say this because at first glance the book seems to do the opposite of what it purports. Peterson writes, “Unlike my previous book, Beyond Order explores as its overarching theme how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided” (xxv). The night I received the book in the mail I went over the names of the rules with my wife, expressing a degree of perplexity over the fact that the rules didn’t really seem to match this claim. The second rule, for example, is “Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.” Without reading the chapter I could think of a dozen arguments as to why that sounds like bad advice, but apart from that: isn’t that order in the superlative degree? Again, rule VII: “Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.” I have actually done this in a specific domain of my academic career (at least, I tried to), and I have to admit it has paid off (even if it has had detractions too). But again—that sounds like more order. Where’s the chaos and the celebration of it?

I’ll let that question hang for a moment while I admit another reaction that surprised me: a lot of the rules in this book just don’t sound that compelling or original. I agree with rule XI, “Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant,” but it sounds like exactly the sort of platitude one seeks out Peterson in order to avoid. Of course, the chapter reads as engagingly as any of the others and often compelled me (as happened with many of the chapters) to simply put the book down and think for long periods of time about how what he was saying offered insight into my own experiences. But compare that with the concrete wisdom of Peterson’s first rule in the original 12 Rules for Life: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” It’s such a common piece of advice that it’s a stroke of genius to find it heading a chapter on the Jungian psychology of why we should pursue micro-victories in life to build a healthier posture towards life. I’m writing a series of articles on the original twelve rules from an Augustinian perspective precisely because of this remarkable intersection of fresh, accessible wisdom with intense learning. I don’t think Peterson is beyond critique in 12 Rules for Life in his ideas. But separate from agreement, 12 Rules for Life simply seems to gel with itself, from the statement of purpose in the “Overture,” to the Rules, to the explication of them in a way that Beyond Order does not, at least at first glance.

But I do not mean this as a critique, or not only so. As I read the chapters, I decided that I had seen Peterson exhibit enough wisdom that I should at least trust him for designing things this way. And the more I have read and reflected on the chapters of Beyond Order, the more I have realized that Peterson didn’t fully know what he was doing in the book (as he implicitly, and explicitly, admits in some places), and that is to his credit. Because, perhaps without intending it (but I think in some ways almost definitely intending it), Peterson was actually exhibiting the point he wished to make: that we have to contend with chaos in an excruciatingly painful but honest and hopeful way if we are to extract anything like meaningful order out of it. The book goes beyond order in that it goes beyond what Peterson knows, or at least beyond what he knew, I think, when he was writing it. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis says about the truly great storyteller. To paraphrase: a good storyteller knows what everything in his story means, but a great one knows how to make a story meaningful without himself fully mastering the meaning it contains. That is, as Peterson puts it, the utility of the fool that we must all embrace and internalize if we are to truly seek wisdom and internalize it when we come into contact with it.

The truth is, though, that I do not think Peterson wants to go beyond order: I think he wants to order the relationship between order and chaos. In “Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement,” Peterson has six pages on the mutual need conservatives and liberals have for each other drawn from discussions he has had elsewhere that I think ought to be mandatory reading for anyone entering either into the world of business or politics. In the subsection “Social institutions are necessary—but insufficient,” Peterson writes that the “corruption of power that is strongly objected to by those on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum” is doubled by the “corruption of creative transformation that renders the conservative—and not only the conservative—appropriately cautious of change” (30-31). The transforming power of the lovers of chaos and the maintaining power of the lovers of order cannot survive without each other, and so this is why in his “antidote to chaos” Peterson recommends the apparently random advice of petting cats you encounter on the street and in his supposed attempt to go beyond order he tells a story about a client who became enriched by beautifying his room. Beyond Order is really a plea for a discovery of hierarchy between order and chaos, to develop a finely-tuned awareness that exclusively orderly or chaotic answers will always be deficient, and this is why we must listen to people who tend towards both sides of that Yin-Yang.

That plea for order became a personally agonized longing in Peterson’s voice while speaking to his friend Jonathan Pageau, where he tearfully expressed the fact that he has seen the empirical world and the world of storytelling value “touch.” What Pageau was attempting to help Peterson see was that what could be described as Peterson’s Manichaean answer to the order-chaos problem falls short because it does not clarify a hierarchy between them. Granted, Peterson describes monotheism as emerging from polytheism. But that monotheism remains only psychologically true enough—not metaphysically true—in his conception of the emergence of the personal responsibility to confront excesses of order and chaos in one’s own culture in Rule Two.

Peterson himself discusses the idea of meta-rules that go beyond the codified ones—the need, sometimes, to disobey the letter of the law to give the spirit life. It is that spirit of meaning that goes beyond order and chaos which I think Peterson is seeking in Beyond Order, and sometimes he grasps it well and always better than most can. But even in his closing piece of advice, Peterson writes that by seeing in ourselves “a unique blend of actuality and possibility that is a kind of miracle,” in that dividing line “you can discover part of the antidote to the abyss and the darkness” (375). I am thankful that Peterson has so courageously explored the dangerous and despairing path between the Scylla of tyrannical order and the Charybdis of untrammeled chaos, but I hope that he will seek consolation in something more fundamental than order or chaos: in the sovereignty of Christ.

When Peterson mentions Christ, he correctly identifies him as someone to be imitated. And he rightfully identifies Christ, too, as an archetypal example of someone willing to break institutional demands for order, to be an agent of chaos, when the occasion demands it. This is the Gospel call to be more than Pharisees, keepers of the law—to be instead under the perfect law of liberty that can only be found in the incarnate Son of God. Peterson confided, heartbreakingly, to Pageau that his attempt to follow his own creed is “tearing him apart.” And that is because the human has the image of God but is not God. This is the answer to cur deus homo articulated by Anselm: Why did God become Man? Why can’t the pragmatic psychology of the Gospel be true enough without having to believe the empirical claims (and their attendant metaphysics) of the Resurrection? Because we cannot bear the responsibility of fundamentally, really going beyond order.

God did not give us someone merely to imitate, because that was the essential flaw of the understanding of those who followed the Old Covenant: that the law, the rules for life, could be kept. Peterson has learned that he cannot keep them, even when he wrote them himself. But that doesn’t make his rules untrue any more than it makes the ten commandments untrue. It means that we must take as literal Paul’s assertion in Ephesians that not we but God made our salvation, “Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (1:20). I think that on some level Peterson fears that if he relies on the Christian narrative too much he will have to give up agency, that Christianity is essentially a plea for escape from the hierarchy of personal responsibility, and that is why Christianity can be archetypally but not materially, bodily true.

But Paul makes it clear that this is not what the Gospel means. He asserts in Ephesians 1 that God worked out our salvation before all worlds, and then asserts that the application of this truth is a radical assumption of responsibility to live like you believe that:

Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Ephesians 6:11-13

Peterson’s book calls us to look beyond order by seeing the chaos that created the demand for order’s being, but the fundamental separation between creation and the void is not a psychological philosophy but a supernatural reality that actually subordinates deadly chaos and tyrannical order to divine love. If reality is the product of an ultimately transcendent and perfect being, then imminent and imperfect beings cannot put on the armor of God of their own accord. They cannot bear to go beyond order, not that way. But if that ultimately transcendent and perfect being actually manifested in the world of people who have “all those particularities, fragilities, and limitations” that “are part and parcel of what it is that you come to love” (374), then we can imitate Christ, for he has made the full human a true inhabitant of heaven in the personage of his own, actual body.            

If this truth is not forgotten, then Peterson’s Beyond Order can be read to the edification of Christians, especially for those who have not had the fortune of knowing fellow believers who know how to incarnate the wisdom of Scripture in a real, livable way. Sometimes we risk being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good, as the saying goes, and Peterson can help us to refocus onto the earthly tasks before us. After all, the two great commandments are not to love heaven, but to love the God of it, who is sovereign over earth, and to love the humans living on that earth, too. As such, I think the book really can help us to avoid becoming resentful, deceitful, or arrogant, and to genuinely be grateful in spite of our suffering.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla