12 Rules of Life by Jordan Peterson

Jordan B. Peterson (JBP) is an acclaimed clinical psychologist who has reshaped the modern understanding of personality, says the book starting with the question:

‘What are the most valuable things that everyone should know?’

JBP has the answer. He has worked out 12 such things, described as profound and practical principles, to help us all lead a meaningful life. Should he be seen as modern-day messiah with a message of his own?

Is he inspired by someone who is neither clinical nor a psychologist? The book calls JBP as one of the world’s most influential public thinkers, with lectures on topics from the Bible to romantic relationships to mythology… Now the connection is starting to make sense. 12 principles for you and me, whether you’re in the USA or in Ethiopia, whether or not you want the same things he wants.

The foreword, by Dr. Norman Dodge (DND), thankfully, resonates with the same question that I turned the page with. But, like a boomerang, comes back to me after taking that beautiful flight towards logic. We shall see:

The foreword begins with the irony that a clinical psychologist – whom one might see as a servant of science and a friend of humanity – is issuing 12 rules, very much like the 10 commandments, or its like in some other book.

So DND starts with calling this out, of course, in good humour. He makes it almost through the point right up to the logical rainbow but alas, doesn’t stay there. Instead, he swiftly makes a turn back into the realm of darkness. How?

He begins by asking: Isn’t life complicated enough, restrictive enough, without abstract rules that don’t take our unique, individual situations into account?

In my wonderment for this question of his, I only have one response: These lines by D.H.Lawrence (https://hellopoetry.com/poem/73460/self-pity/ ) – It’s called Self-Pity and this is what it says:

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself. 
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

I think people who, when they think of life, can only think of how complicated, restrictive it is, will always see misery everywhere around them and then go ahead to make 10 rules and 25 commandments, and 555 laws… and more… It makes them feel safer from all the uncertainties, some of which may include such pleasant moments of joy, fun, and even self-actualisation. Thereby, shutting out some of life’s grandest, most joyous potentialities. Such people, aren’t they lower than the wild thing in DHL’s poem? At least no one will say the small bird didn’t live up to its full potential. The opposite can be said about most of us human beings, and thanks to what? Some pithy 12 rules? Commandments? Truths?

How does DND explain his view? Through a Biblical story involving Moses. He, who has come down from the mountain with 10 commandments, only to see the Children of Israel in revelry in front of the Golden Calf. How dare they celebrate after having been slaves to the pharoahs! So Moses took to subjecting them to harsh desert wilderness for 40 years, to purify them from their slavishness.

It’s as if being slaves was a dirty toy they had been lugging around for centuries; and so he sacrificed all compassion, fellow feeling, and inner joy of finally being free, at the altar of purity. What is this obsession with purity, I often wonder. Why is there only one view of purity. Who is he to tell others about what is pure?

Now free at last, they were all dancing… so Moses said, I have some good news and some bad news. When DND calls him the lawgiver I take it on authority that he must have had a reference for saying so. I’m looking at the story in all its incredulity, hoping for some major logical breakthrough. This is what I get:

Moses the lawgiver (why are so many people giving out laws to others I’ll never understand. Besides, who was Moses. Besides, why is JBP doing the same thing today centuries down the line? And now, will JBP also subject us all to harsh desert wilderness?): I’ve got some good news and bad news.

The hedonists replied: The good news.

I wish there had been some liberals around to have told him ‘stop with the labelling’. “I got Him from 15 commandments to 10.”

Hmm, negotiating with HIM. He must be pretty desperate. I see that these are the same people who will laugh at stories from my culture where deities talk to common people. Maybe DND wouldn’t, his ancestors and his peers certainly did. And continue to do so.

Besides, even DND and JBP realise the power of storytelling in driving home the point, a point that’s not valid if Hindu cultures do it but the Word of God if ‘They’ themselves do it.

In the interest of moving ahead, I must set aside the rampant hypocrisy.

So the gathered public moves on to the bad news and Moses replies: “Adultery is still in”.

Nothing brightens my day like coming across a cheap crack used by a liberal as a point of debate. And that’s the very end of DND’s grand questioning – where he says, So Rules There Will Be. The clinical psychologist equivalent of “And it was good”. He explains away his lack of rigour with: We are ambivalent about rules, even when we know they are good for us. If we are spirited souls, if we have character, rules seem restrictive, an affront to our sense of agency and our pride in working out our own lives. Why should we be judged according to another’s rule?

I see him go really close, so close to the truth, which will solve the whole case but he turns his back on it right when he sees a smoking gun. He goes on: And judged we are.

As if a mere acceptance of a fact. What about all that education he must have received? He adds further: ‘After all, God didn’t give Moses “The Ten Suggestions”, he gave Commandments; and if I’m a free agent, my first reaction to a commandment might be that nobody, not even God, tells me what to do, even if it’s good for me.” – Again you see a flicker of light.

And then darkness at the end of the tunnel when he says: But the story of the golden calf also reminds us that without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions – and there’s nothing freeing about that. “Slave to our passions” is nothing but highly ignorant way of talking. We are slave to our passions because we do not invest in aiming higher as people. Your 10 rules may prevent baser nature, they’re not creating enlightenment.

So that’s that. In my next post, I’ll examine the story of the golden calf.

But this book is beginning to look a lot like some religious text and maybe that is what it is, a modern-day religious text. In fact, the 2nd last para on page viii says exactly this: Just like Bible has weaved in its laws for mankind through stories, so does JBP. Wow, the analogy is complete.

This is hardly clinical in any way! You’re basically trying to tell people that we’re not good enough, not mature enough to think for ourselves, understand our priorities, and learn from our experiences. You are, as a doctor and as a psychologist, trying to tell people that they need some pithy 12 rules to feel they’re leading a meaningful life. A meaning that you’ve made up yourself. Just like the guys that preceded you. Your basic understanding of your fellow humans is that left to their own devices, they’ll be reduced to their baser nature. Is that how much you value this magnificent opportunity called life?

For a world-renowned psychologist to think this way is, at best, disappointing.

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