Audio of article can be listened to here.
Disclaimer: By writing this article I’m not saying I agree with all of Doctor Peterson’s views. I’m merely trying to provide an unbiased analysis of one of the more controversial aspects of his books and teachings, which is that chaos is archetypally female and that order is archetypally male. It is difficult to find a balanced and in depth analysis of this topic, so I have decided to provide one myself.
The Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has become an internet celebrity in recent years. He started getting a lot more attention when he released a series of YouTube videos criticizing the Canadian C-16 bill, which is a bill that is attempting to protect gender expression and gender identity by making hate propaganda and incitement to genocide illegal. While the intentions of C-16 may be to protect people, Jordan Peterson (along with others) have criticized the bill for giving the Canadian government the right to police speech itself.
Since then, Doctor Peterson has received both praise and condemnation world wide. He has been called many things, including a “custodian of the patriarchy.”
Yet Doctor Peterson’s main work isn’t just talking about C-16. As a clinical psychologist, he delves into theories and thoughts on behavior and consciousness, going back into ancient history, even as ancient as lobster hierarchies that formed millions of years ago. Much of his work deals with archetypes. And he makes frequent reference to the theories of Sigmund Frued, Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche
Jordan Peterson has published two books, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999) and 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018).
In this article, I will focus more on his 12 Rules for Life, since that’s the book I’ve actually read.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is exactly as the title describes, a guidebook to escaping the chaos of modern life.
The beginning of the book talks much about life in our Post Modern Era, where tolerance is the highest value. (To be fair, this part is in the Foreward, by Norman Doidge, not Doctor Peterson, but it’s still in the book nevertheless, so it must be important.) Norman Doidge is the son of Jewish holocaust survivors, and a friend of Doctor Peterson.
The first idea or teaching is that morality is relative, at best a personal “value judgment.” Relative means that there is no absolute right or wrong in anything; instead, morality and the rules associated with it are just a matter of personal opinion or happenstance…And, since we don’t know right from wrong, or what is good, just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live. (Norman Doidge, page 11)
This serves as a good springboard for understanding the basic philosophy of the book, and its core theme. Today we live in an era where morality is relative, and there is no absolute right or wrong. The highest value is tolerance, and the worst value is to be intolerant. While such a philosophy is certainly liberating, all things in life exist in balance, like the Yin Yang pictured above. And sometimes too much freedom can lead to too much chaos.
For many millennials (like myself) who grew up in this era of post-modernism, we find ourselves aimless. And when there is no ultimate good to aim for, nihilism takes over. The effects of nihilism can be seen in the growth of mass shooters, and the spread of internet communities for incels and MGTOW. Many people are deciding that this society is fundamentally negative. That being itself is fundamentally pointless, or worse than that, evil. And when there is no ultimate good to aim towards, the destruction or abandonment of the system itself becomes a potential conclusion.
(Still from the Foreward, by Norman Doidge) But it turns out that many people cannot tolerate the vacuum—the chaos—which is inherent in life, but made worse by this moral relativism; they cannot live without a moral compass, without an ideal at which to aim in their lives. (For relativists, ideals are values too, and like all values, they are merely “relative” and hardly worth sacrificing for.) So, right alongside relativism, we find the spread of nihilism and despair, and also the opposite of moral relativism: the blind certainty offered by ideologies that claim to have an answer for everything. (Norman Doidge, page 12)
If there is an antagonist in Doctor Peterson’s book, I would say that it is chaos itself. The title literally says, “An antidote to chaos.”
Yet what many people have found contentious about this fact (including his interviewers) is that he frames chaos as a female archetype and order as a male archetype. So if chaos is the thing to be avoided, and it is female, is that a problem? Is that a fundamentally misogynistic point of view? Let’s delve into that and see.
Below are the summaries of the principles of Yin and Yang in 12 Rules for Life.
(Still from the Foreward, by Norman Doidge) Order and chaos are the yang and yin of the famous Taoist symbol: two serpents, head to tail. Order is the white, masculine serpent; Chaos, its black, feminine counterpart. The black dot in the white—and the white in the black—indicate the possibility of transformation: just when things seem secure, the unknown can loom, unexpectedly and large. Conversely, just when everything seems lost, new order can emerge from catastrophe and chaos. (Norman Doidge, page 16)
(No longer in the Foreward, this part is by Doctor Peterson) The famous yin and yang symbols of the Taoists capture this beautifully. Being, for the Taoists—reality itself—is composed of two opposing principles, often translated as feminine and masculine, or even more narrowly as female and male. However, yin and yang are more accurately understood as chaos and order. The Taoist symbol is a circle enclosing twin serpents, head to tail. The black serpent, chaos, has a white dot in its head. The white serpent, order, has a black dot in its head. This is because chaos and order are interchangeable, as well as eternally juxtaposed. There is nothing so certain that it cannot vary. Even the sun itself has its cycles of instability. Likewise, there is nothing so mutable that it cannot be fixed. Every revolution produces a new order. Every death is, simultaneously, a metamorphosis. (Jordan Peterson, page 29)
So as you can see, this idea of chaos being a female archetype and order being a male archetype is nothing new. It was not invented by Doctor Peterson. It is from Taoist philosophy. But it is worth noting that Doctor Peterson makes reference to it repeatedly throughout his book.
He even has a section called “Chaos and Order: Personality, Female and Male” on page 46.
Chaos and Order: Personality, Female and Male:
Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience—two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood (to the degree that they are understood at all) as personalities—and that is just as true of the perceptions, experiences and understanding of modern people as their ancient forebears. It’s just that moderners don’t notice. (Jordan Peterson, page 46)
Our brains are deeply social. (Jordan Peterson, page 46)
Here he makes the point that human beings understand elements of existence as archetypes, because we are deeply social creatures. This is a fundamental part of the human experience. After all, we do have “Mother Nature,” “Father Time,” “Old Man Winter.”
So when Doctor Peterson says that order is masculine and that chaos is feminine, he’s not saying these are personality traits inherent to men and women. Men can certainly be messier than women. Women can often be more structured and orderly than men. What he’s saying is that this is the archetype that people have created in their subconscious minds in order to understand being itself.
To me, this makes sense. Human beings have, at least for the last 5,000 years, existed in predominantly patriarchal civilizations. I’m not saying this is good or bad. This is just how it’s been. The foundations of order have been enforced by men. Today the government is predominantly male, as is the military, the police, and the priestly caste of a majority of the worlds religions. Thus, if we were to give order a personality that matches our own lived and historical experience, does it not make sense that this personality would be male?
And when you look at the forces that have resisted that patriarchal order, the creative forces of nature, wise women, and the witch who goes out into the darkness of the woods to commune with primordial forces, does it not make sense that this is a female archetype?
What is Order according to Doctor Peterson?
Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the aforementioned yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery. Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It’s the political culture, the corporate environment, and the system. It’s the “they” in “you know what they say.” It’s credit cards, classrooms, supermarket checkout lineups, turn-taking, traffic lights, and the familiar routes of daily commuters. Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly. It does so as the forced migration, the concentration camp, and the soul-devouring uniformity of the goose-step. (Jordan Peterson, page 47).
What is Chaos according to Doctor Peterson?
Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers. Chaos is mater, origin, source, mother; materia, the substance from which all things are made. It is also what matters, or what is the matter —the very subject matter of thought and communication. In its positive guise, chaos is possibility itself, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm of gestation and birth. As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces. (Jordan Peterson, page 47).
The Need for a Balance Between Order and Chaos
Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t long tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while you are learning what you still need to know. Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged. That is where there is something new to master and some way that you can be improved. That is where meaning is to be found. (Jordan Peterson, page 49).
While chaos may be an antagonist in 12 Rules for Life, that is not the same thing as being “evil.” The trouble for Westerners in conceptualizing of Yin and Yang, Feminine and Masculine, Chaos and Order, is that it is our tendency to bifurcate ideas into the category of “Good” and “Evil.” So the fact Doctor Peterson is providing an antidote to chaos (which he presents as archetypally feminine) may make the average Westerner assume that he’s presenting the feminine as something that is evil, which naturally leads to some quite misogynistic conclusions.
Yet what is interesting to me about 12 Rules for Life, is that even though Doctor Peterson defines himself as a Christian, and uses much Christian lore and theology as source material in his book, his conceptualization of chaos and order is not fundamentally Christian, but Taoist. Chaos and order are both fundamental qualities in nature and in life. The ideal is for them to exist in balance.
Too much chaos creates anarchy.
Too much order creates authoritarianism.
And in a society where chaos gets out of control, people begin to become more accepting of authoritarianism, to crave it even. We see the rise of it today around the world. This is a development that Doctor Peterson, the so called “custodian of the patriarchy,” is categorically against.
He dedicates much time in 12 Rules for Life speaking out against the evils of totalitarianism and the importance of freedom.
In conclusion, I recommend that people read the book for themselves and form their own opinions.