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In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson raises important questions about postmodern society and provides much-needed notions about responsibility and religion, but can he take you any further?…

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is not an ordinary book. You like the fact that it attacks the prevailing politically-correct society and challenges people to take responsibility for their actions. There is merit in proposing such a goal.

You also like the idea of rules because everyone knows there should be rules for life. Rules usually clarify and define. They give purpose and meaning to what you do. They are much needed today.

However, these twelve rules seem to leave much in the air. You don’t know what to make of them or the explanations of the author since they are so unconventional.

You suddenly realize that the rule-maker follows no set rules; he makes them up as he goes. It is something he admits in his book. Thus, the scope of his 12 Rules of Life is very limited.

Cluttered and Esoteric  

The first indication of limitation is that the book seems cluttered and esoteric. The author has the habit of making simple things complicated. He takes great pains to cite the thinkers he thinks are important—Darwin, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, or Heidegger. All these authors come with complex and even anti-Christian ideas that try to explain reality.

Dr. Peterson uses these overwhelmingly philosophical and psychological systems to make his rules without rules. Behind the esoteric jargon is a confusing mixture of existential doctrines, psycho-analytical concepts, and oriental Taoist thought that bear little resemblance to anything Christian. Things that should be so simple become complicated since he insists that there are no simple answers to fundamental questions. By refusing to be boxed in or labeled, his explanations tend to dance around the issues.

Thus, you wish that he would just come out and say what needs to be said without all the existential argot or, above all, his obsession with “Being,” with a capital B. If he could just say what he means by God and stay away from the vague abstractions that leave you uneasy; if he could define himself on morality and human behavior rather than leave it to tens of millions of years of evolution….

An Underwhelming Ordinariness

Besides making simple things complicated, Dr. Peterson also suffers from a contrary limitation of trying to make truly complex things simple. He strives too hard to be trendy, folksy, and “accessible.” Perhaps he assumes you are not a regular person living in the real world and that you need something from pop culture to understand reality—a cell phone, a skateboard or a movie reference, anything to prove you are up-to-date. He fills his books with stories, examples, and references meant to impress you with their underwhelming ordinariness.

For example, you are asked to stop and pet a cat you encounter on the road (Rule #12). Another rule calls for standing up straight with shoulders back (Rule #1). Do not stop children who are skateboarding (Rule #11) is another everyday reference that is not one for many people. He will tell the tragic stories of childhood friends or the psychological problems of his clinical patients.

You want rules that reflect certainty and a universal and moral law. Instead, you get experience-based directives reflecting the “process of Being” that follow no set rules and in which nothing is certain.

Dr. Peterson writes: “Proper Being is a process, not a state; a journey, not a destination. It’s the continual transformation of what you know, through encounter with what you don’t know, rather than the desperate clinging to the certainty that is eternally insufficient in any case.”

The Non-Christian Approach

This leads to the final problem with Dr. Peterson’s Rules for Life. They are limited in their ability to change lives. You hear many things about what he has done. Those who praise the author’s works and videos love to point out how he manages to present Christian ideas in modern non-Christian ways. Young people relate to his lectures. They get excited by these very traditional ideas without realizing just how conservative they are. They say many young men are converting back to religion.

Many are now saying that his non-Christian approach is one of the best ways to present Christianity to the youth and those who are skeptical. However, his concept of Christianity as a mythologized story “fabricated by the collective imagination” does not address the fundamental truths of the Christian Faith.

Thus, he cannot lead someone to the Church or a belief in God because he does not belong to the Church or hold these beliefs. He has no intention (for now) of doing this, and he will honestly be the first to admit it.

Those who become interested in the Church and convert because of his anti-postmodern ideas are exceptions to the rule. The rule is that Dr. Peterson will lead people to Darwin, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, whom he admires and teaches. That is where he wants to lead you because that is where he is. Again, he will be the first to admit this.

Dr. Peterson does raise important questions about postmodern society, and he will try to save you from its politically-correct devastations. He might provide much-needed notions about responsibility and religion (which he defines as merely “proper behavior”), but he cannot take you any further.

Updating the Message  

Alas, there is nothing more unoriginal than the constant effort to present old ideas in new and novel ways. Throughout the history of Church, there have always been those who have tried to “attract the youth” or “update the message” by adapting to the culture. Indeed, the twentieth century represented one massive, failed attempt by the Church to embrace the world.

That is why there is the tendency on the part of many to read far too much into Dr. Peterson’s works or lectures. The world is full of people looking for those who can present a “non-Christian Christianity” in the hope that it will be something more attractive and friendly to the world. They grab onto Dr. Peterson despite his avowed limitations.

The result is always a great illusion. Such presentations of the Faith tend to change Christian ideas to the point that they are no longer Christian. Christian ideas only make sense inside the context of Christ’s message. While God can work in mysterious ways, these limited methods generally do not convert people.

The Nature of Truth

Truth is always simple and unobscured. You are attracted by its simplicity and internal logic. It must be well presented, but it does not need to be dressed up in fancy language or confusing concepts.

This especially applies to the truths of the Faith. They are attractive to all since they accord with human nature, which longs for all that is sublime and divine. The Truth should not be hidden, but shown in its entirety, thereby becoming ever more desirable.

However, the Truth does demand loyalty, integrity, and sacrifice, which makes it difficult for those attached to the world. To free yourself from the tyranny of the passions and attachment, you need universal rules not only for life but eternity.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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15 replies to this post
  1. Well done! It is refreshing to get an honest critique of Jordan Peterson, a very enjoyable figure, but most certainly not an authentic guide to truth in this untruthful age. I took the time to read his 12 rules and I was left perplexed by his popularity amongst Catholics. If people are attributing conversions to his work, it seems to be simply further cases of false attribution.

    So I thank you Mr. Horvat and tell you planly, I would have written something very similar of him becuase I think it needs to be said. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi, decent article and I definitely agree with Peterson’s limitations with regards to Nietzsche and company. The issue is he is an Aristotelian rather than Platonist. That is ultimately what it comes down two. In Christian terms, that means the Pharisees and Manichaean philosophy as opposed to the idea that man is in the image of God. It should be clear that the idea of man being in the image of God, is a scientific principle. Our mind is organized in such a way that through creative thought, we are able to uncover the lawful ordering of the universe and bring ourselves into an ever more perfect coherence with the ordering of the universe. The fact we make discoveries means the way our mind works, is the way the universe works, otherwise there would be no possibility of actually knowing the universe, the idea of a creator, as the One which is found in the Many, everywhere and yet nowhere. Aristotle and company rely on rules and deductive thinking. There are no causes for man, only sense perception. He says the creator of the universe is infinite, but man is finite, so there is a logical chasm which can never be bridged. As a result we must content ourselves to be rationale beasts, defined by our sense perception. Science just becomes the describing of the sensual world and making neat mathematical laws to describe it, but we can never know why, we cannot know causes. This is actually the basis of Satanism, because it’s premise is man is a beast. No matter how clever, he is still a beast.

    That’s what Peterson is missing. If you can’t get the concept of man in the image of the create, you will stray. With that said, the fact he has managed to develop so many amazing ideas through his dialogues and discussions is amazing. He has gotten people to think about causality and final causes. That’s where the question of understand the concept of a creator comes in, that’s why it is having the effect it is. Despite him being an Aristotelian with his biological approach to man, he manages to still bring in the idea of causality. This is also where he gets stuck as a result.

  3. Dear Dr. Horvat,
    Your excellent article points to the limitations of Dr Peterson’s teaching. As a Catholic, I agree with you. Yet Dr Peterson’s merits should not be underestimated. University students are bombarded with propaganda that undermines confidence in the principles they learned from their parents, and belittles their sense judgment with an arrogance that manages to be both gnostic and anti-intellectual. For many, Dr Peterson may be the only academic who validates their insights (unless they are regular readers of The Imaginative Conservative). For others, his lectures are probably their first encounter with Western Civilization, enough to ignite genuine awe and enthusiasm!
    Perhaps the main reasons Dr Peterson deserves admiration and support, are the courage and resilience he continues to demonstrate in his lonely quest, where other academics at his and other institutions regularly shy away from stating tersely what they know to be true.
    Courage and resilience in action: an example now rarely encountered and badly needed.
    Dr. Peterson, to paraphrase Tomasi di Lampedusa, is a Leopard in an age of jackals.

  4. The answer to the question, ‘Can Jordan Peterson Lead People To God’, is, ‘God leads people to God’, and uses people as intermediaries. The dark circles under Dr. Peterson’s eyes shows him to be a lover, an empathiser, one who has entered into the sufferings of others, akin to climbing onto another’s cross, to ameliorate their sufferings and to help them recover what has been compromised. Dr. Peterson is a lover. God especially loves lovers and, when He chooses to use Dr. Peterson in a more complete way as a disciple, coupling his already well developed gifts and talents with the fullness of truth found in His Church, Dr. Peterson will rise to an even loftier position than he has already been given.

  5. I’ve been watching Jordan on local TV from time to time for about 10 years, and have seen him recently live in a discussion with two other intellectuals. My impression is that Jordan is leading himself to God. Especially when he declared at the discussion I went to, thatobjective truth comes to us via a transcendent reality.He’s almost there.

    Nevertheless, he is a strong intellect battling against popular gnostics(in the Vogelin sense) of our age.

  6. This is a good essay and is helpful in every way but one: It asks the wrong question. The critical and grave question that is left unspoken is, “Can Jordan Peterson be led to God?” He has discovered a vivid simulacrum of orthodoxy in a remarkable array of analogies in the psychology of suffering, which by a tiny tug of Thomism might pluck him over into full communion. No one has yet tried.

  7. Pope St. John Paul II pleaded with both theologians and philosophers to work on the question of ‘being’. David Walsh, highly respected philosopher at Catholic University of America, answered the plea in his book entitled, “Politics of the Person as Politics of Being”. The plea seems to recognize the need to relate to our Lord’s interest in ‘pay unto Rome what belongs to Rome’ wherein unless and until politics, by design, addresses the true needs of beings, political authorities will continue to fail. It seems what our beloved Pope & Saint was aiming at was pointing to a way to satisfy the other half of what our Lord said, ‘Pay unto God what belongs to God’ by informing Rome on a more complete explanation of us beings so that political authority actually does what it ought to be doing. That Pope St. John Paul II was and is a visionary is hard to deny. By offering a rational, though complex, explanation of being, Dr. Peterson’s work actually fortifies the bridge our Lord suggests should exist in the necessary and proper relationship between God and Rome. Much work remains to be done. The march to the wedding feast between the Church and the psychologists is making headway.

  8. Jordan Peterson sometimes puts me in mind of MacPhee, the insightful, intelligent, critical ally of Ransom in Lewis’ novel “That Hideous Strength.” A good ally, a useful member of their team, MacPhee ultimately was not allowed to accompany Ransom’s people on the final confrontation because, trapped by his role as critic, he could not allow himself to make the final commitment. One hopes that Peterson will not, in the end, be trapped in his own limitations. In the meantime, I will listen to what he says and take it with a grain of salt, as I do all human philosophers.

  9. Dr. Peterson is asking good questions and he is asking others to ask them with him. He is battling the people who are confusing their capitulation to the forces that are destroying our civilization as front line activity in the name of progress. Dr. Peterson is a good man and a good adversary to have on our side. He gives what he has. And yes, Jung is a lightweight compared to Rene Girard and I am not sure that Peterson really understands Nietzsche. But Peterson is exposing the clowns. And that is definitely important.

  10. I think this is a somewhat reductionistic view of Peterson. Watch his video on Easter. I found it refreshing and profound because he comes at it from such a different angle. Bishop Robert Barron seemed to find the book fascinating and important enough to do a vlog about it. I get so frustrated with Catholics and Christians who seem to feel they have to shoot down anything that might be reinforcing the message of Christ and His Church. I have yet to find anything in Peterson that contradicts my faith. Young men, especially, by the thousands, if not millions, are finding meaning in his life. Just this past week I heard a young man ‘testify’ as to how JP and his book helped him find his way out of chaos and change his life. Trying to demean his “stand up straight with your shoulders back” trivializes the deeper meaning of clean up your act, take responsibility, become a force for change and good and ‘aim up’ instead of aiming down. He says quite clearly, that you are either aiming up or aiming down with your life. In our secularized culture he is telling thousands of people to seek a deeper life and a meaningful life. As a Catholic, I was embarrassed by Patrick Coffin’s (video) attempt to label him as some sort of ‘crypto-catholic’. He really missed the point. Jesus said to his followers who were distraught over others who were not of His sect who were casting out demons, that they were not against Him. There are other ways to truth. I find his videos and books as a very personal message and fleshing out of a message to ‘repent’ and radically change my life and seek to make order out of some of my chaos.

  11. I respectfully disagree. We need to have people like Doctor Peterson to bridge the gap between believers and non believers. Religion should not be an all or nothing equation, or you most often end up with nothing.
    Being a Christian is an ongoing journey, not a destination. JMHO

  12. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Horvat and have donated to TFP in the past. His efforts to promote respect for tradition and the family are honorable. I know his heart is in the right place when he speaks of Mr. Peterson but I disagree with the idea that Peterson makes simple ideas difficult.

    I think popular speakers like Richard Dawkins, who make up words, such as uni-level inclusive fitness and utilitarian Peter Singer, who promote the idea that we mere humans should commit suicide to preserve the earth and curb overpopulation, have unknowingly made room for someone to step forward and talk some sanity. In a way that appeals to the masses, Peterson has hit a homerun by reintroducing reality back into the conversation.

    It had to come about eventually. As much as I admire Horvat, his talk and walk do not appeal to many moderns. “Meeting the people where they’re at” is not his charism and that’s okay. Horvat has a following among those already practicing the Christian faith and those that want a fuller life in the Sacraments, feast days of the Church, and those that long for public Processions to become the norm again. Those are good things and should be promoted by voices in the wilderness.

    Peterson, however, belongs in the public circles of everyone. He sits in the tax collectors home, converses with ungodly men and women, and grapples with the lonely man’s lostness in a world of constant stimuli. He touches on subjects in a way that does not shut down others and that is a gift. He is using this gift and is honest about his own questions of religion and will oftentimes leave the discussion open to further investigation, simply because he knows he doesn’t have all the answers.

    I can safely say that I admire both men, hope they will each continue to dialogue with us and, be willing to leave a question mark at the end sometimes….allowing us room to enter into the conversation, too.

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