|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by Evstafiev
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
“No one could stand up for communism after The Gulag Archipelago – not even the communists themselves.” (12 Rules for Life, p. 310)
I would like to think that’s true. Unfortunately, admiration for Joseph Stalin is, by all appearances, far from dead. The mass murderer has been rebranded as a WWII hero first and dictator second. While not all Russians subscribe to that narrative, there are some who are nostalgic for the USSR.
I once briefly dated someone who felt that way. It wasn’t apparent on first impressions, but, as we got to know each other better, I learned he was an ardent Stalinist, fully heroizing Stalin and believing all the bad to be exaggerations, lies, or American propaganda, or (barring all that) nothing any worse than what U.S. presidents had done. Though born in a former Soviet republic, he was not really old enough to remember life in the Soviet Union, yet to him it seemed to be a Golden Age he’d missed out on.
There is really no arguing with someone so dogmatic about their beliefs. In a certain sense, I can empathize. I have very strongly anti-communist views, and they are shaped by my family’s background just as, I am sure, his beliefs were cemented by his background.
Chaos, Order, and Communism
There is one place in 12 Rules for Life where Peterson refers to the atrocities of the 20th century as being central to his motivation for formulating his philosophy. He wanted to know why and how such things could happen. Throughout the book, he calls out Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China as examples of what can go wrong when, in his viewpoint, you don’t successfully walk the fine line between Chaos and Order.
What are Chaos and Order? From the Overture (aka introduction):
Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative. It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity . . .
Chaos, by contrast is where – or when – something unexpected happens . . . It’s Creation and Destruction, the source of new things and the destination of the dead (as nature, as opposed to culture, is simultaneously birth and demise). (p. xxviii)
He adds that Order is symbolically masculine and Chaos is symbolically feminine.
If this sounds at all familiar, it’s no coincidence. True to his fame, Peterson draws largely upon mythology and Easter and Western religions in this book, including Yin and Yang. It would be an understatement to say that Peterson uses these narratives as mere analogies. More on that later…
It’s hard to argue against what seems to be self-evident: the world (both civilizations and uncultivated nature) is essentially binary or polar, in everything from hot vs. cold, north vs. south, and theft vs. charity. Which is not to say there is no room for nuance or gradients. It’s just that we live in a world where contrast is the framework upon which everything else hangs. While, through a Christian lens, I see the moral contrast as being instead Good vs. Evil (and without a gender, symbolic or otherwise), Peterson’s case for Chaos vs. Order – neither one innately immoral unless taken to excess – is a compelling stance.
He always goes back to the Cold War as an example of when Things Fall Apart. Some may find this repetitive, but I have to say this really hit home with me. My dad fled a communist country when he was a teenager. My closest college mentor was a Soviet dissident, and in his case, he escaped a sentence to hard labor.
One of the worst things anyone ever said in my presence was “I’m interested in communism,” with the same nonchalance that you might say “I might want to take up golf.” It’s a nonchalance that doesn’t understand the broken families, trauma, and unspeakable hardships brought on by that ideology. I’ll take my former friend’s dogma over nonchalance any day; a casual treatment of the subject is doubly offensive. (To be fair to the speaker, they didn’t know my personal backstory. I could have said something, but the context of the conversation was too frivolous to even go there.)
Peterson, at least, gets it, and he takes it seriously.
The Bible References – A Christian Perspective
The biggest complaint I see about this book is the “Bible talk.” And yes, there are a LOT of biblical references in 12 Rules.
Peterson starts out in the first chapters by retelling the Genesis story of Creation, including Cain and Abel and Original Sin, and later on in the book talks about Jesus’s life and death as well. You’ll often see mentions of God, or what might be more accurate, “god” with a capital “G.”
To go by his writing, Peterson does not seem to be a Christian. He has identified as Christian in the recent past (2017), but truthfully, that label doesn’t mesh with the way he talks about God in this book. At times I found it actually offensive, nothing like the “preachiness” other readers may be expecting as they flip through the pages.
He doesn’t seem to take the Bible as holistic truth, as a Christian does, but rather as a book of universal truths, formulated by humans. He retells Bible stories in a way I had heard of but had never read before – in the most symbolic and broad sense. God is symbolic, Adam and Eve are symbolic, etc. Once in a while, some of his commentary made me look at a passage in a different light, for the better. Most of the time, though, I was either upset with his handling of the Scripture or just about laughing over it. Watching him try to condense and stuff the Bible into his philosophy was like watching someone stumble around in shoes two sizes too small.
For a Christian, this is a very serious problem with the book. In order to sort out the gems from the duds, you have to read it critically, because Peterson, if nothing else, is a persuasive and authoritative writer. If you are a Christian who holds him in very high esteem, you’re going to be disappointed by what is not even theology, but a general repurposing of the Bible for his philosophy. It’s as if Hollywood made a movie about your family member and changed their whole personality. It’s not ok.
I struggle with whether to purchase books like this. Due to its scope and some really good parts, it is one I wish to re-read, but I’m not sure I’d like to display it on my bookshelf when much of it is so problematic.
The Book He Should Have Written
After finishing the book, I stand by my first impression. Peterson should have written a memoir, or a novel.
The personal anecdotes are not many, but each one was fascinating, from his run-ins with his friend Chris to his daughter’s struggle with childhood arthritis. I also enjoyed the scenarios from his clinical practice and hearing about advice he had given various patients, and the thought processes that go into being a psychologist.
Peterson certainly has an appreciation for literature. I loved the references to The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, and Disney’s Little Mermaid. It made me want to go back and read those books and find things I’d missed.
In the next part, I’ll share the best and worst quotes. There’s quite a few, and mostly good ones.