Jordan Peterson’s ‘Beyond Order’ Calls For Balance And Gratitude

Jordan Peterson’s ‘Beyond Order’ Calls For Balance And Gratitude

'Beyond Order,' Jordan B. Peterson's long-awaited new book, is an insightful, all-too-needed prescription for an anxious, angry, and divided world.
Joshua Lawson
By

Sequels have a notorious and troubled history.

“Scarlett,” Alexandra Ripley’s follow-up to Margaret Mitchell’s smash-hit “Gone With the Wind,” was widely panned as a disappointing bore. Exceptions like “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Godfather: Part II” notwithstanding, most cinematic sequels pale in comparison to successful forerunners. And, in the realm of non-fiction, American presidencies are routinely rife with scandal, misadventures, and political sclerosis in their second terms.

Yet from the earliest moments during the surging popularity of Jordan B. Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” it was clear the Canadian clinical psychologist had tapped into something profound, and both his fans — as well as his critics — would expect an encore. Now, after three years, more than five million books sold, and a life-threatening, multi-year battle with a debilitating illness, Peterson is back.

Much to the likely consternation of his detractors, his newest book proves “12 Rules” wasn’t some sort of fluke. “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life” is an insightful and all-too-needed prescription for an anxious, angry, and divided world.

Mirroring the Taoist symbolism referenced in much of his philosophy — the book’s midnight-black jacket is a deliberate contrast to the lily white cover of its predecessor — “Beyond Order” is better viewed as a companion to “12 Rules,” rather than a sequel in the traditional sense. Like the taijitu’s “ying” that needs its “yang,” Peterson’s latest is more than a follow-up to “12 Rules,” it’s the other side.

A Call for Balance

“In my previous book … I focused more on how the consequences of too much chaos might be remediated,” Peterson explains. “Beyond Order,” on the other hand, “explores as its overarching theme how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided.” According to Peterson, “Beyond Order” was, by necessity, a book that was always going to be written — the only questions involved timing and context.

Since a state of chaos typically poses a more immediate threat, it makes sense the order-restoring focus of “12 Rules” was delivered first. Peterson’s proverbial “clean room” — both physically and psychologically — is one of several prerequisites on the road to taking back control. But, as ships weren’t made to remain in their harbors, so too must human beings often venture forth from the safety of the homestead.

“All states of order, no matter how secure and comfortable, have their flaws,” reminds Peterson. “Neither the state of order nor the state of chaos is preferable, intrinsically, to the other. That is the wrong way to look at it.” Indeed, upon the conclusion of “Beyond Order,” one of the uniting themes of Peterson’s now 24 rules is the value of balance.

Of course, the idea of striking balance between two extremes isn’t new. The quest to find the “Golden Mean” between the vices of deficiency and excess permeates ancient works like Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” as well as the Old Testament of the Bible. To his credit, Peterson acknowledges this, reminding readers, “I am relying for much of my content on the ideas of great psychologists and other thinkers.”

In truth, Peterson’s greatest gift isn’t necessarily breaking new philosophical ground — although he certainly has — but, as he demonstrates consistently in “Beyond Order,” it’s the ability to convey in astute and fresh ways things people can’t articulate but know deep down to be true. Esoteric examinations of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths, as well as more familiar passages of the New Testament gospels, are seamlessly interspersed between popular, beloved stories of “Pinocchio,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Harry Potter” (readers will never view Quidditch the same way again).

Breaking the Rules

Back when I taught AP Music Theory, students loved to lob one common “gotcha” question at me: “If even Bach and Mozart didn’t compose by these annoying, strict part-writing rules, why do we?” It’s not a bad question, and, like most things involving music theory, the answer is complicated.

The response I typically gave was this: “You have to learn the rules and appreciate why they’re there first. Then you can break them.” In most cases, this deflective answer was greeted by something to the effect of, “OK, but that’s still stupid.” Students who went on into advanced composition class, however, often found themselves inadvertently returning to rigid part-writing “rules” even when given the green-light to go haywire.

Creativity and rough edges abounded in their pieces, to be sure, but on more than one occasion I’d glance at their computer screen and go, “Huh. Nice ‘voice-leading.'” As I’d walk away smiling, it’d hit them: they were freely choosing to follow “the rules.”

Ultimately, musical rules constantly beg to be broken in the name of writing something thrilling, heartbreaking, or truly inspiring. Within the opening sections of “Beyond Order,” Peterson tackles this question in a much grander and critical setting. In his analysis of the heroes of Harry Potter to Jesus Christ Himself, Peterson elucidates how rules may need to be occasionally disobeyed if following them violates the very precepts they were established to promote:

Follow the rules until you are capable of being a shining exemplar of what they represent, but break them when those very rules now constitute the most dire impediment to the embodiment of their central virtues.

For a man known largely for postulating rules, it’s a somewhat surprising position, but one that ultimately lends itself to the heightened level of nuance that permeates “Beyond Order.” Peterson’s discussion of the necessity to balance the application of abstract, higher principles with the particular circumstances of a given situation, like the value of “balance” itself, harkens back once more to Aristotle.

Without using the Greek word phronesis, that’s what he’s driving at — a term scholars of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” translate as “prudence” or “practical wisdom.”

Peterson ably illuminates this concept in a way that reminds his audience of the benefits of phronesis while reminding us this quality is especially essential for those who would seek to lead. While “prudence” is an important balancing virtue for everyone, it’s an essential quality for true statesmen in the mold of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill — men forced to make difficult decisions in the name of preserving the higher things, including the very survival of their nations. As Peterson notes:

[If] you are willing to fully shoulder the responsibility of making an exception, because you see that as serving a higher good (and if you are a person with sufficient character to manage that distinction), then you have served the spirit, rather than the mere law, and that is an elevated moral act. … [It is necessary] to use judgment, vision, and the truth that guides conscience to tell what is right, when the rules suggest otherwise. It is the ability to manage this combination that truly characterizes the fully developed personality: the true hero.

Flickers of Who We Can Be

Striving to become the hero of your own little corner of the world is a reoccurring point in “12 Rules,” and in several chapters in “Beyond Order,” the challenge to fulfill that weighty mission returns, forming the bedrock of much of Peterson’s guidance. “The ultimate question of Man is not who we are,” he challenges, “but who we could be.”

Our desire to meet the ceiling of our capacity is why we admire real-life heroes, and often fictional heroes even more so. Chapter two of “Beyond Order” reminds us that “because our own experience is genuinely literary, narrative, embodied, and storylike,” we’re drawn to such timeless tales like “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Correspondingly, we dismiss superheroes and their narratives as “childish” to our peril. We need films like “The Avengers” and other representations of superheroes for a multitude of reasons, but first and foremost to remind us from where we came, and of what we are capable. As Peterson explains:

An unforgettable story captures the essence of humanity and distills, communicates, and clarifies it, bringing what we are and what we should be into focus … capacities that lie deep within our nature but might still never develop without that call. We are dormant adventurers, lovers, leaders, artists, and rebels, but need to discover that we are all those things by seeing the reflection of such patterns in dramatic and literary form.

The adventuring spirit the Peterson applauds and encourages forms another touchstone of “Beyond Order.” That same daring, enterprising spirit, is also, however, at the center of what is likely to be the most divisive, but desperately needed, rule of the book — “Rule VI: Abandon ideology.”

Living on the Ideological Frontier

Critics of Peterson have repeatedly (and mistakenly) attempted to paint him as a partisan conservative fettered in ideological chains. While, when pressed, Peterson identifies himself as a “classical British liberal,” if there was any doubt over where he stands on the broader concept of ideology, the sixth chapter of “Beyond Order” puts that question to rest.

At a time political identification has largely become an all-or-nothing binary-choice and when rejecting any purported orthodoxy of one’s “side” now often leads to ostracization, Peterson cautions that both the order-inclined right and the chaos-inclined left have things to learn from each other.

Peterson’s critique of the rigidity that can sometimes hamper conservatism is honest and deserves to be taken seriously by his right-leaning readers. Notably, “Beyond Order” takes on a more tempered tone regarding the near infallibility of established hierarchies and traditions when compared to the opening chapter of “12 Rules”:

Those who tend toward the right, politically, are staunch defenders of all that has worked in the past. And much of the time, they are correct in being so, because of the limited number of pathways that produce personal success, social harmony, and long-term stability. But sometimes they are wrong: first, because the present and the future differ from the past; second, because even once-functional hierarchies typically (inevitably?) fall prey to internal machinations in a manner that produces their downfall.

To be sure, “Beyond Order” doesn’t flip-flop on Peterson’s admiration for hierarchical structures (the source of constant lobster-related memes and memorabilia). Indeed, Peterson reiterates the deference and appreciation we owe to the social and political institutions developed over epochs of time by our intrepid forbearers. “The careless demolition of tradition is the invitation to the (re)emergence of chaos,” Peterson writes, “When ignorance destroys culture, monsters will emerge.”

Still, a healthy dose of continually renewing skepticism is urged in “Beyond Order,” and Peterson warns — with good reason — not to assume that just because something is old or established that it remains invariably healthy or noble:

We must support and value the past, and we need to do that with an attitude of gratitude and respect. At the same time, however, we must keep our eyes open — we, the visionary living — and repair the ancient mechanisms that stabilize and support us when they falter … simultaneously respecting the walls that keep us safe and allowing in enough of what is new and changing so that our institutions remain alive and healthy.

It’s in this and similar passages Peterson implores the conservatives to see the value of their left-leaning opposition. Conservatives, Peterson argues, need to be balanced by the oft-destabilizing prodding of their natural adversaries. “Every rule was once a creative act, breaking other rules,” reminds Peterson. As evidence by the myriad responses to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, calls for order and safety must be carefully debated, and reevaluated:

The order we strive to impose on the world can rigidify as a consequence of ill-advised attempts to eradicate from consideration all that is unknown. When such attempts go too far, totalitarianism threatens, driven by the desire to exercise full control where such control is not possible, even in principle. … And so we find ourselves inescapably faced with the need to move beyond order, into its opposite: chaos.

History tells us that anarchy, risk, and instability may well lurk on the side of chaos — but it’s also where one finds creativity, opportunity, and growth. In the final analysis, it’s within this philosophical “frontier” space one should seek to live:

We need to keep one foot within order while stretching the other tentatively into the beyond. And so we are driven to explore and find the deepest of meanings in standing on the frontier, secure enough to keep our fear under control but learning, constantly learning, as we face what we have not yet made peace with or adapted to.

According to Peterson, the best chance for ensuring the world contains as much human flourishing as one can expect from a planet beset with malevolence of all sorts is an “intelligent and cautious conservatism” paired with “careful and incisive change.”

Much of this serves as a beneficial expansion of Peterson’s ninth rule from his former book: “Assume the person you are listening to may know something you don’t”; it means coming to grips not just with the reality that you may be missing the full picture or be in the wrong in a certain instance, but that you (and your beliefs) might actually be at the heart of the problem.

As Peterson explains, “It is much more psychologically appropriate (and much less dangerous socially) to assume that you are the enemy — that it is your weaknesses and insufficiencies that are damaging the world.” Instead, partisans of all stripes have calcified into presuming purity and goodness on behalf of their “side,” a state of being that leads to “[pursuing] the enemy you will then be inclined to see everywhere.”

Abandoning Tribalism, Retaining Principles

While Peterson is careful to list “postmodernism” among his list of example ideologies — anything ending in “-ism” fits the bill, including nihilism, the disbelief of meaning — there is the very real possibility that those who abandon all semblance of ideology will become listless and potentially unengaged with the world around them.

Chapter six would benefit from acknowledging that while ideology can become cancerous when it becomes dogmatic and unquestioned, a healthy amount of ideological underpinning can serve as a useful starting point.

Having economic, political, or religious priors may be evidence that one is blindly enthralled in the grip of an ideology — or it could simply mean one has read up, investigated the world, and judiciously arrived at certain conclusions. Those conclusions should be constantly retested in light of new data and the particular circumstances of the moment, but such a process doesn’t necessarily require jettisoning the concept of “ideology” altogether.

While the exact term “prudence” doesn’t appear in the book, as with the first chapter of “Beyond Order,” Peterson’s call to abandon ideology essentially advises we interact with the world in a prudential manner:

Ideology is dead. The bloody excesses of the twentieth century killed it. We should let it go, and begin to address and consider smaller, more precisely defined problems. We should conceptualize them at the scale at which we might begin to solve them, not by blaming others, but by trying to address them personally while simultaneously taking responsibility for the outcome.

Peterson is undoubtedly correct. Viewing complicated issues through a single lens is unhelpful. Following one’s ideological “team” no matter the circumstances can — and often will — lead to the commission of malevolent acts, or, at least, the self-repression of any voiced opposition when they occur.

Balance and personal responsibility are precisely what our increasingly hyper-partisan and tribal world needs right now, yet such concessions, almost by necessity, require humility, gratitude, and the denial of resentment — issues that form the bulk of the final third of “Beyond Order.”

Once More, With Feeling

“Responsibility is not an easy sell,” remarks Peterson. Of course, given his considerable popularity and the success of his 165-city lecture-tour for “12 Rules,” perhaps it wasn’t that much of a hard sell even a few years ago. One senses, however, that even during his relatively short absence, Peterson’s messaging has sadly been drowned out and smothered by an ever-growing rancor of strident voices from across the political compass.

Worryingly, even a portion of the American right — a segment that should be naturally receptive to Peterson’s work given its historical deference to tradition, hierarchy, and individual responsibility — finds itself increasingly beset with the very anger and resentment that up until recently were more commonly hallmarks of the activist left. So, while critics may look at the final third of “Beyond Order” and say, “We’ve heard this before … been there, done that,” Peterson would be entirely forgiven to reply, “Yeah, but apparently the message didn’t fully sink in. So, let’s try this again.”

Peterson would be the among first to tell disenchanted Americans not to let themselves be walked over or abused, especially in the face of legitimate oppression. The problem, however, is when dissatisfaction turns into resentment; when the sense of entitlement to an “easy” life — or the demand that life remains eternally comfortable and familiar — morphs into an embittered pessimism that seeks to destroy more than it seeks to rebuild. For Peterson, leaders at every level have made a terrible messaging error:

We have been telling them for decades to demand what they are owed by society. We have been implying that the important meanings of their lives will be given to them because of such demands, when we should have been doing the opposite: letting them know that the meaning that sustains life in all its tragedy and disappointment is to be found in shouldering a noble burden.

“Beyond Order” is an eminently more religious book than “12 Rules” (which itself had no shortage of Judeo-Christian references) and it’s evident both Peterson and his wife, Tammy, have evolved in their views of faith. It’s also fairly clear that Peterson’s all-too-close brush with death and his remarkable recovery have helped him find the right words to help others remain stalwart and steady in the face of life’s trials. He writes:

The cross, for its part, is the burden of life. It is a place of betrayal, torture, and death. It is therefore a fundamental symbol of mortal vulnerability. In the Christian drama, it is also the place where vulnerability is transcended, as a consequence of its acceptance. … By accepting life’s suffering, therefore, evil may be overcome.

In this, Peterson’s challenge to “bear one’s cross,” the call against resentment dovetails into the exaltation of one the most crucial antidotes for our ailing society: gratitude.

Gratitude as the Antidote

Although born in Canada and still a resident of Toronto, Ontario, Peterson has spent a number of years in the United States. As a result of that time, one of the things he remains struck by is the lofty position granted to Thanksgiving in American culture. “The prominence of Thanksgiving among holidays seems to be a good thing, practically and symbolically,” he notes, “ … To be grateful for your family is to remember to treat them better. They could cease to exist at any moment.”

Taking-in passages like that, among others, it’s hard not to read the final chapter of “Beyond Order” without the “fourth-wall” breaking reflection on both the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic generally and of Peterson’s individual critical health troubles.

“More than half the time I believed that I was going to die in one of the many hospitals in which I resided,” he writes candidly, “And I believe that if I had fallen prey to resentment, for example, I would have perished once and for all.” Yet, against the odds, he didn’t.

Coupled with Peterson’s unflinching commitment to telling the truth in spite of its sometimes-harsh nature, several sections of “Beyond Order” radiate with a newfound sense of hope and purpose (chapter eight’s challenge to make a single room in one’s home as beautiful as possible is, in particular, an authentically uplifting tribute to the good, the true, and the beautiful).

“Human beings have the capacity to courageously confront their suffering,” Peterson encourages, “The human race has been dealing with loss and death forever. We are the descendants of those who could manage it.”

Health crises like those that struck Peterson’s wife Tammy, his daughter Mikhaila, and ultimately, himself, also beset millions of humans in uniquely tragic and trying ways every year. Now entering the spring of 2021, it’s hard to find anyone whose life hasn’t been crushed by COVID-19 in some fashion. Still, we endure, and we must continue to do so. As Peterson puts it:

Your life becomes meaningful in precise proportion to the depths of the responsibility you are willing to shoulder. … The right attitude to the horror of existence — the alternative to resentment, deceit, and arrogance — is the assumption that there is enough of you, society, and the world to justify existence. That is faith in yourself, your fellow man, and the structure of existence itself: the belief that there is enough to you to contend with existence and transform your life into the best it could be.

At the close of “Beyond Order,” Peterson makes an impassioned plea for gratitude as the best defense against bitterness and the burden of life’s suffering. Much more than merely saying “thanks” or showing appreciation, for Peterson, gratitude has a far weightier — yet rewarding — meaning at its heart: “the process of consciously and courageously attempting thankfulness in the face of the catastrophe of life.”

It’s getting up every day and acknowledging the challenging and sobering twin realization that life could be harder today than it was yesterday, but that by embracing responsibility and rejecting resentment, it’s possible that one’s gratitude and pursuit of beauty can make even a tiny part of the earth a better place. Such a quest, it’s clear from “Beyond Order,” is worth all the effort we can muster.

Joshua Lawson is a graduate of Queen's University and Hillsdale College where he received a master's degree in American politics and political philosophy. Born in Toronto, Canada, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2020. He lives in Michigan with his wife and daughter.

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