Jordan Peterson has had a pretty rough year, having spent most of it crisscrossing the globe seeking treatment for a severe health issue. But to the relief of his many fans around the world, he is on the road to recovery, thanks to his family’s relentless support and his own unwavering determination to take responsibility for his life.
On Monday, he took another big step back into the spotlight as he announced the release of his latest book, Beyond Order. Written as a sequel to his bestselling book 12 Rules For Life, Beyond Order offers a second set of 12 rules, this time focusing on the problems associated with excessive rigidity.
“Unlike my previous book, Beyond Order explores as its overarching theme how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided,” he says.
While 12 Rules For Life was put forward as “an antidote to chaos,” Beyond Order is designed to highlight the flipside of the archetypical landscape.
This is a critical perspective, because it exposes the reality that order is not unconditionally good. Order can mean security and stability, but it can also mean tyranny and deadening uniformity. Chaos may present danger and uncertainty, but it can also be a source of potential, innovation, and renewal.
As Peterson says, “all states of order, no matter how secure and comfortable, have their flaws.” In light of this, we need to move “beyond order” and actively seek out a degree of chaos. As he says elsewhere, “an orderly structure has to allow an element of chaos into it in order to become something new, and even to maintain its own survival, because things have to become something new as they move forward through time.”
Hence, tipping his hat to the Yin-Yang symbol with the color scheme, Peterson’s goal with this book is to remind us that well-being is best fostered by pursuing a healthy balance of chaos and order, rather than indulging an unhealthy obsession with either extreme.
The Dangers of Excessive Order
As part of his announcement, Peterson also highlighted some intriguing cultural and political implications of his philosophy.
“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,” Peterson writes. “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.”
As Peterson explains in one of his personality lectures, the tendency to take order too far likely has its roots in human biology. More specifically, it arises from disgust sensitivity and the need to preserve cleanliness in our environments.
According to one influential paper on this idea, “high levels of infection may lead to ethnocentrism, xenophobia, distrust of different others, and conformity, because such behaviors will reduce the likelihood of exposure to unfamiliar infections to which immunity has not been developed.”
In archetypal terms, we cling to order and cleanliness because it keeps us safe from that which is strange and different.
But Peterson points out some even more striking implications of this idea. “Concerns about cleanliness and feelings of disgust have likewise been related to political attitudes…regions with higher levels of disease prevalence tend to be associated with higher levels of social conformity and autocratic rule.”
While we don't know yet if Beyond Order specifically addresses the lockdowns, the relevance is clear. Sadly, yet predictably, these excesses of order are exactly what we’ve seen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From business shutdowns to closed borders to gathering limits, people are more isolated than ever, and it’s all being done in the name of cleanliness.
But the ideology of cleanliness is a fragmentary mythology because it only presents half of the archetype, namely, the positive side of order and the negative side of chaos. In reality, the other side of the story is just as important: that striving for sterility can go overboard.
Unfortunately, the desire to control our neighbors and dictate their choices reflects a worldview in which the drawbacks of order are considered less consequential than the drawbacks of chaos. This paradigm may be alluring, especially in times of crisis, but for society to truly prosper it needs to be called into question.
So while we may be tempted to embrace central planning or even socialism as a source of safety and stability, we need to recognize that such despotic, authoritarian systems are the embodiment of excessive order.
Economists have been talking about this idea for a long time, and many of them have pointed out that “the desire to exercise full control” is one of the chief barriers to prosperity. Ludwig von Mises is one such economist, and in his treatise Human Action, he draws attention to the problems of trying to impose a rigid, overarching plan for the economy.
“It is customary nowadays to speak of “social engineering.” Like planning, this term is a synonym for dictatorship and totalitarian tyranny. The idea is to treat human beings in the same way in which the engineer treats the stuff out of which he builds his bridges, roads, and machines. The social engineer’s will is to be substituted for the will of the various people he plans to use for the construction of his Utopia. Mankind is to be divided into two classes: the almighty dictator, on the one hand, and the underlings who are to be reduced to the status of mere pawns in his plans and cogs in his machinery, on the other. If this were feasible, then of course the social engineer would not have to bother about understanding other people’s actions. He would be free to deal with them as technology deals with lumber and iron.”
Mises’ point is that the economy should not be viewed as a machine that we can control and direct. It is much more akin to an ecosystem that flourishes best when left to its own devices.
So now, more than ever, as lockdowns and mandates overshadow nearly every aspect of our lives, we need to be wary of clinging to order, control, and security too tightly.
Hopefully, Peterson’s new book will bring that message to light.