The cover is glossy black, with gold-and-white lettering. “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.” Arrows form a square around the title. Simple, elegant. Compare it to Jordan Peterson’s previous book “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos” — that cover is glossy white, with letters in gold and black.
The design is no accident, and it reflects a certain esthetic. The books, Peterson writes in the “Overture,” were “jointly designed to represent the balance they both strive to describe … They constitute a matched set, like the Taoist yin and yang.”
A set of rules that, some say, offer a way of making sense of the world.
“I think it’s fairly simple: he presents himself as a proper adult, a kind of benevolent uncle figure always ready with some useful life advice for his nieces and nephews (especially the nephews),” says James Grainger, a Hamilton, Ont.-based author and editor whose most recent book is the novel “Harmless.” Grainger reviewed “12 Rules For Life” for the Star.
“He doesn’t try to be cool — in fact, he is unfashionably earnest about ordinary people’s struggles with the big questions about life, death, and existential meaning. He teaches that life is not merely a matter of creative self-expression, victimhood, and hedonistic pleasure but a sometimes tragic journey through a maze of rules, duties, responsibilities, and disappointments, with dignified adulthood as the ultimate destination.”
That first book struck a chord. Since its publication in 2017, “12 Rules” has sold millions of copies around the world, and spent 95 weeks on the Star’s bestsellers list.
And Peterson’s life has changed. His University of Toronto professor persona became very public when his YouTube videos went viral — particularly one in which he voiced his objection to Bill C-16, which he says compelled the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
After his book was published and sales took off, he did a world speaking tour of 160 cities in front of crowds up to 3,000; he’s become widely associated with alt-right beliefs and a lightning-rod for vilification from the left. For much of 2019 and 2020, he fell below the radar, dealing with his own and his family’s health problems — including his wife’s diagnoses of and recovery from what was initially thought to be terminal cancer, and his own stint at rehab in Russia to overcome an addiction to benzodiazepine.
He’s been coming back into the public eye, doing interviews — although he cancelled most mainstream appearances after a piece in Britain’s Sunday Times he called “cruel” — appearing on podcasts, and posting to the web.
His books draw so much emotion that, when the publication of this second Peterson book was announced earlier this year, some staff at his publisher were outraged.
VICE first reported that, at a town hall at Penguin Random House, “(Random House Canada publisher Anne) Collins opened the meeting by talking about how Peterson has ‘helped millions of people who are on the fringes of society who would otherwise be radicalized by alt-right groups,’ according to one of the four employees who spoke to VICE World News.”
VICE went on to further quote the employee: “‘She was trying to kind of spin it as a positive to be publishing this book,’ the employee said. ‘(But) he’s the one who’s responsible for radicalizing and causing this surge of alt-right groups, especially on university campuses.’”
Peterson’s followers, or those who ally themselves with his ideas — he’s become a darling of the radical right – have long been of concern even to his friends.
In 2018, the Star’s Vinay Menon sat down for a marathon two-hour interview with Peterson. In that piece, Peterson’s longtime friend, Wodek Szemberg, a TVO producer, had these words: “Some advice that I have conveyed to him is that he needs to watch who his hangers-on are … He needs to be able to draw a line between those that he wants to be liked by and those he doesn’t care to be liked by. I think of late he’s been clearer about this. I wish he was clearer about this earlier.”
In an email exchange the other day, in response to questions about whether he’d give the same advice to his friend now, Szemberg said that “Jordan has become famous and infamous because he was always — or at least for the 20 years I’ve known him — in the habit of saying precisely what he thinks without putting any effort into editing himself in regard to the consequences of how his insights might be interpreted.
“That’s the key to authenticity in general and his fame, in particular. But the latter came with a huge price tag.”
Peterson might not be able to control who his fans are, but alt-right devotees aren’t his only fans, and they’re not the only ones buying his books.
“I don’t doubt that (he has helped some people),” said Ethan Lou, the author of “Field Notes From A Pandemic” (published by Penguin Random House) who is reading Peterson’s work as research into another project. In fact, he says that Peterson helped a friend of his.
“She is someone who was in a bad place and read Peterson and took his writing your own biography course (The Self-Authoring Suite). Could she have gotten that help elsewhere? Probably … my friend is not someone who reads the news, who participates in mainstream public discourse,” Lou continued. “If Jordan Peterson didn’t reach her, someone far more vilified might have.”
Peterson worked on “Beyond Order” over the past few years, throughout his illness. In that three-hour Sunday Times interview — the audio of which he posted on his website — earlier this year, he said “I can’t judge the book properly. I didn’t write it under optimal circumstances, to say the least. And so I’m unsure, I can’t tell, I can’t make an adequate judgment of its quality. I know, I believe that my capacity for editing wasn’t what it could be. But that was offset to some degree by the fact that I was able to filter what I was writing through the lens of my illness and to eradicate everything that wasn’t sustaining for me while I was in such trouble.”
The things that helped him are the things he included, he seems to be saying. His own suffering was his measure.
This second book, like the first, is categorized as self-improvement in addition to “psychology; personal growth; philosophy; non-fiction; religion and philosophy,” according to the publisher. That expansive definition mirrors the polyglot of ideas contained in the book. As in “12 Rules For Life,” “Beyond Order” is a mix of popular culture, philosophy, psychology, case studies of Peterson’s own patients, symbolism, mythology, and theology.
It can seem bombastic and intense, even in written form. As one critic, Paul Thagard, a professor emeritus in philosophy at the University of Waterloo, put it in a review of “12 Rules For Life” in Psychology Today, “Peterson’s allusive style makes critiquing him like trying to nail jelly to a cloud.”
That style hasn’t changed in “Beyond Order.” He mentions an idea, explores it, relates something back to it, moves on to what might seem like a tangent, then circles back again.
The chapters — one for each rule — begin with images: The Fool of the tarot card deck (Chapter 1: Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement); St. George and the Dragon; Atlas; the fallen angel (Chapter 5: Do Not Do What You Hate); irises. The wide range of the illustrations is followed in the chapters by references to Disney queens, Freud and Jung, the Gospels, Nietzsche, fairy tales.
He talks about resentment “hostile resentment — occurs when individual failure or insufficient status is blamed both on the system within which that failure or lowly status occurs and then, most particularly, on the people who have achieved success and high status within that system.”
This is not something that will sit well in our times. “He’s going to run into the same old criticisms he has in the past,” says author, critic, and former Humber School for Writers director Antanas Sileika, who also reviewed “12 Rules.”
“When he says ‘do not fall prey to resentment,’ — sounds good on an individual level. But take Black Lives Matter, for example. Black people have suffered for a long time. They shouldn’t be resentful? This is where it’s going to irritate people on the left; in other words, it’ll feel like a coded message.”
That’s not to run it down wholesale.
“What I think is: there are some useful details in here, there are some useful messages, not particularly new — be courageous and tell the truth — these are not bad values for people to have.”
At the beginning of the new book, Peterson writes that the previous one “focused more on how the consequences of too much chaos might be remediated.” “Beyond Order,” he writes, “explores how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided.” Balance. Yin and yang.
So how do you make your way when the world’s always changing? Deal with the suffering that also goes along with human existence? The big questions? Ways of coping with and understanding the world?
“He is … proof that there is a genuine hunger out there for long-form discussions on literature, depth psychology, philosophy, and theology,” Grainger said about Peterson. That hasn’t changed.
He’ll continue to be recognized. “It is deeply moving to walk with Jordan in Toronto and see him being recognized and stopped on the street by men and women who rejoice at the sight of him, wish him to get better as soon as possible because they miss his participation in public debates,” Szemberg said.
As Sileika notes, this new book won’t change anybody’s mind about Peterson, either. “People who like him will continue to like him, everybody else will make a sour face. I don’t think this changes things dramatically.”
And the controversies will continue to rage and the story will continue to be complicated. But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Maybe there are no easy answers — life being about acting nobly in the face of suffering, after all.
The Original 12 Rules
1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
3 Make friends with people who want the best for you.
4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
8 Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.
9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
10 Be precise in your speech.
11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
12 More Rules For Life
1 Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.
2 Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.
3 Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
4 Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
5 Do not do what you hate.
6 Abandon ideology.
7 Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
8 Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.
9 If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely.
10 Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.
11 Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.
12 Be grateful in spite of your suffering.