Jordan B. Peterson on the Meaning of Life. Not. 

This blog is the fourth of a series of posts on Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life:  An Antidote to Chaos To read Part I, II, and III, click below:

Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life: Why Every Christian Should Read This Book

Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: Order, Chaos & Being

Jordan B. Peterson's 12 Rules for Life: A Guide to Rules 1 - 6


In this blog post I focus on Rule 7 of 12 rules:  “Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient).”  In short, a key to meaning is the delay of gratification.  Reminds me of kids and smarties.  To understand meaning we need to get back to Peterson’s basic concept of “being,” which is the totality of the human experience (see previous blog posts in this series).  

Peterson explains that the biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall [Adam sins in the Garden of Eden] is relevant to Rule 7.  It is a “story fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries [which]….provides a profound account of the nature of Being…” [163]  In fact, Peterson refers to various biblical texts throughout his discussion of this rule.  

He talks about Abraham and Isaac [170].  He provides a gratuitous theological comment:  “God turns around and in unreasonable and apparently barbaric fashion demands that His faithful servant [Abraham] offer his son as a sacrifice.”  Peterson asks, “Why does He—why does life—impose such demands?” [170]  Peterson references other biblical texts dealing with topics such as Jesus’ sacrifice and the role of Mary [171], the problem of evil [174] and Christ’s temptations by the Devil [179]. 

He comes back to his constant thread:  “the central problem of life” is how to deal with suffering [177]  He cites with approval the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ memorable remark that “Life is indeed ‘nasty, brutish and short.”  Peterson’s addendum:  “But man’s capacity for evil makes it worse.” [177]  Peterson also notes that “Evil amplifies the catastrophe of life, increasing dramatically the motivation for expediency already there because of the essential tragedy of Being.” [185]  These discussions are all a backdrop for Peterson’s remarks on meaning. 

As part of this context, Peterson includes an interesting part of the chapter on meaning with the title, “Christianity and Its Problems” [185]  This is an odd attempt to minimize the contribution of a Christian perspective while inserting a variety of biblical texts throughout the chapter.  Peterson’s discussions of Christianity are less insightful than too often glib, superficial and opinionated.  

He trots out meta-theories that are buried in massive over-generalizations; he is best when he sticks to specific examples rather than leave the door open to refutation when painting too large a canvas.  For example, he says the material world was “damned by the Church” and vision driven by doubt was “necessary for the development of science” [185].  He should read books by Rodney Stark or Allan Chapman for a more informed view. 

He cites his particular view that Nietzsche had a “devastating critique of Christianity.” [188]  This is more of a reflection of Peterson, than reality.  I think it’s safe to say that Jesus has more followers than Nietzsche. 

Peterson notes, however, that there was some value to Christianity, which elevated the soul:  “…the metaphysical conception of the implicitly transcendent worth of each and every soul established itself against impossible odds as the fundamental presupposition of Western law and society.” [186] 

Peterson gets personal.  He confesses that “I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory.  After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking.” [196]  Not exactly compelling.  If he grew up in opposite circumstances would he be talking about outgrowing the shallow Darwinism of his youth? 

So, what about meaning, his Rule 7?  He tries to tie in the Nuremberg trials.  He says the outcome of the trials was as follows:   “There are some actions that are so intrinsically terrible that they run counter to the proper nature of human Being.” [197].  He seems to be asserting an objective moral standard without proposing a basis for it.  

Peterson posits that “Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong.  That became the cornerstone of my belief.” [197]  Wrong according to whom?  I guess according to Peterson and his self-constructed moral code. 

The discussion then leads to…..”Meaning as the Higher Good” [198]  He goes on to say, “It was from this [the aforementioned cornerstone] that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions.” [198]  Then he adds a string of clichés:  “Aim up.  Pay attention.  Fix what you can fix.  Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge…….” [198]  Once again, his inner Norman Vincent Peale momentarily bursts forth. 

He quotes his psychological predecessor:  “For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god.  It was what the person acted out.  It was what the person believed most deeply.” [199] 

He now gets to the title of the rule, with the interrelation between meaning and expediency.  Pederson explains that “Expediency is the following of blind impulse….meaning is its mature replacement.  Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified.  Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world.” [199]  Meaning in order. 

He concludes with a puzzling clarion call:  “Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord.  You can set up the preconditions, you can follow meaning, when it manifests itself, but you cannot simply produce it, as an act of will.  Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment.” [200]  It sounds like it all boils down to what an athlete would view as being “in the zone.“ 

Pederson elaborates:  “Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that.” [201]  Not helpful. 

Peterson’s failure to clearly and compelling articulate a case for meaning is a disappointment.  What he offers is far less satisfactory than that which he criticizes.  He phrases his conclusion in very flowery language which doesn’t hold well under the candle of logic or in comparison to the alternatives.