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Jordan Peterson: Fiery preacher of old-fashioned character-building (©Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

There’s a fast march through world culture, Heidegger, Jung, Darwin, Michelangelo, Dostoevsky, the Bible, Buddha, Mesopotamian myths, and even John Milton (who isn’t name-checked much these days), but I was amused to see the one name that is missing from the index is Montaigne. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is really a dozen essays on a theme. Like Montaigne, Peterson is incredibly well-read and not afraid to show it, and like Montaigne he mixes in personal anecdotes with the science and the ancient maxims.

What are the rules? Most of them are semi-modified traditional encouragements. Rule One, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, is essentially an amalgam of “pull yourself together, “success breeds success” and “the glass is half-full”, but Peterson homilizes in fine David Attenborough style, bringing in the lobster and the wren, creatures that like a ruck; and in the case of the lobster, that crustacean has three hundred and fifty million years of successful violence behind it. Lobsters, Peterson notes, are, like us, hooked on serotonin, and apparently Prozac cheers them up.

Rule Six,  “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”, is Confucius; Rule Ten, “Be precise in your speech”, is not grammarian severity, but the old chestnut “communication (especially between spouses) is important”; Rule 12 (and this from a dog-lover), “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”, breaks down as “enjoy the small things” or carpe any diem you can get.

It’s not just his erudition that has made a name for Jordan Peterson: he has become the hub of much controversy, protest and YouTube action. In some ways it’s surprising because much of the tenor of 12 Rules is the serenity and generosity of a typical self-help book. Indeed, there’s a slight whiff of incense and New Age when Peterson repeatedly gushes about Taoism.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist and an academic. In those circles some of his views and pronouncements are simply not allowed. It’s rare to hear a clinical psychologist describe someone as a “useless bastard”, or to insist that smacking a toddler can sometimes be beneficial. Peterson also has the temerity to suggest that it’s desirable for a child to have two parents.

Perhaps because Peterson grew up in rural Alberta (let me indulge in some amateur psychology) there’s a frontier toughness about him, a recognition of nature’s red-in-tooth-and-claw reality, a sense that individuals have to accept responsibility for themselves and that the old cartoon-strip ad for the Charles Atlas body-building course that turned a weedy kid who had sand kicked in his face into a fighter, wasn’t such a bad thing.
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