For the past month I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order and seeking to get as much out of it as I could.
Now that I’ve read the whole book, I’m writing this review to cover just the basics from high-altitude instead of delving in depth through each chapter as I go through, as I have done so far.
Let’s start with the verdict, then I’ll talk strengths, weaknesses, and who I think should read this book.
Beyond Order is an excellent book. There’s no way around that. Peterson’s popularity is the result of his strong writing, and while it’s not the most accessible (both in prose and message), it’s a deep examination of the human experience and how to live life.
That’s something that’s hard to point to in a book. Even some of the best books on philosophy cannot offer practical advice about how to live. Peterson does, and as far as I can tell there is little to seriously disagree with him on.
That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect, of course, but perfect is not the metric for a book because nothing is ever perfect. Beyond Order is unrivaled, and a worthy successor to 12 Rules for Life.
Common sense isn’t. That’s one problem with the world, and Peterson took a lot of flak for reciting platitudes during 12 Rules for Life.
Ignoring the fact that 12 Rules for Life probably helped millions of people, there was some truth to the allegation that a lot of what Peterson was offering was readily available knowledge.
Beyond Order is deeper. As someone who’s read much of Peterson’s source material (Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Frankl, and Dostoevsky, to name just a few), I would say that while 12 Rules for Life was a tremendous collection of wisdom, but Beyond Order has a different quality.
This is likely because of Peterson’s singular focus in recent years being the refinement and development of his message.
That means only good things for Beyond Order. It’s deeper, richer, and bolder than its predecessors–even, perhaps, Maps of Meaning, which was written for a niche audience rather than a mass market and was much more adventurous than 12 Rules for Life.
Beyond Order grasps. It reaches. It feels more like Maps of Meaning than 12 Rules for Life, bringing the deeper philosophical and intellectual threads in the former to the format and accessibility of the latter.
And I think this is a good thing.
Anyone who criticized 12 Rules for Life as common knowledge must confront the fact that Beyond Order is a deeper work. The rules it outlines are more philosophical, though the guidance it gives is no less practical.
And that’s something that’s a unique trait of Peterson. I don’t think there’s another author out there who can combine the depth of abstract conceptual investigation that Peterson engages in with the practical and grounded worldly experience he brings to the table.
It’s a book that has one singular aim: the examination of the right way to live.
And that goes a long way to make it strong.
Peterson draws in stories from myth, life, and his psychotherapy practice to impressive effect throughout the book.
Even when there is some overlap between either an argument Peterson makes or the stories Peterson is using to illustrate two different ideas, Peterson achieves something difficult in a book of this length.
Everything feels significant and novel within the context of Beyond Order. There’s some overlap with Peterson’s other work, but those who aren’t ridiculously well-versed with Peterson should expect to see mostly new content in this book.
Peterson develops an interconnected thread throughout the book without each part being strictly dependent on the others.
This could be summed up as: “The proper way to live is to engage in a heroic journey of humble self-improvement.”
However, despite this core statement being played with in a dozen different ways, each treatment feels novel. This is partly a testament to the richness of life in our universe, but it is also a credit to Peterson’s ability to apply solutions to problems and show how one can encounter tragedy and difficulty and turn it into something better than it would otherwise be.
I am convinced that this book will be read centuries from now, assuming there is anyone left to read it.
Having read Maps of Meaning (and also parts of Jung’s and Neumann’s works which are similar in design to Peterson’s), I can speak confidently to the idea that Peterson brings forward a vision that is both distinctly his and developed with the power of the triumphant hero.
There are parts of this book that clearly required a great sacrifice (of ego, of will, of deadwood) to create, and it is right to describe it as a magnum opus.
I do not think that everyone would get from it what I got from it, but I think everyone would get something from this book that would hold meaning second only to Scripture.
There is that much truth contained within.
Peterson writes in a way that is approachable and accessible, because he understands that things take the forms of stories and meaning. With this insight, he is able to lay out a vision that is clear but also beyond what almost anyone else would be capable of communicating.
Whether you agree with Peterson or not, Beyond Order is a book of such singular quality that it is worth reading as a model of this skill. It is so far beyond the pale as an achievement that it is hard to find words to describe it.
I think Beyond Order is one of the best books in recent memory, and probably the best book published in 2021 so far. It may hold that crown for the whole year, for all I know.
Even so, it is not without its faults, and that is one thing that should be noted.
People who have gripes with Peterson are unlikely to be disabused of them when they read this book, though it is a level deeper than his lectures and online materials go, so those who consider him a pseudo-intellectual may find something to change their minds in the more structured presentation of his ideas.
While I’m going to focus on my two main critiques in a moment, I’ll also note that there were probably a dozen places where I feel the book was incomplete or didn’t communicate its point clearly. In a work of this magnitude, it’s not significant enough to matter, but it would be interesting to hear Peterson’s answers to those questions (which are so minor that I’d be hard-pressed to give an example without going back to my text highlights).
Peterson has a large canon of work. Between hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of lectures, easily as many hours of podcast appearances, and three books, he’s prolific as a writer and speaker.
And Peterson isn’t shy about saying what he thinks.
As a result, approaching Beyond Order from a perspective of value can be hard to accept. It’s certainly something I’d recommend for people who haven’t read Maps of Meaning, especially since Beyond Order is a less expensive book intended for mass audiences.
But there is a degree to which an avid fan of Peterson’s will find him repeating elements from his other work. Some of this is by necessity, because Beyond Order is a stand-alone book and not part of a series. A comparison to Nassim Taleb’s excellent Incerto could be a decent way to explain this.
Because Peterson is so prolific and you can find his work so many places, he is bound to repeat large portions of it in Beyond Order. While this comes with the benefit of refinement, many of his most recent lectures and interviews have “given away” many of the ideas in Beyond Order, to the point where I felt I was treading over familiar territory with my previous exposure to his books and speaking.
At the risk of ironic hypocrisy, I feel like I should point out the fact that Peterson is loquacious to the point of fault.
Not that his prose is dry. He’s one of few writers who can commit what would be carnal sins for other writers and still come across as interesting.
But Beyond Order is not an easy book in terms of subject, and the text makes it worse.
There are many passages that go on in great detail. While precise, they are often precise at the expense of making a point. Particularly egregious are places where Peterson will make use of long asides.
While these often hybridize ideas in novel ways, they can reach the point where it’s easy to lose track of where a particular thought was going.
And I have to feel like if it’s hard for me, someone who has experience with Peterson (and Jung, and Neumann, who makes both of them look like Hemingway), someone approaching the text more casually or with less of a conceptual preparation for the subject might become hopelessly confused with the longer passages.
I would not point this out if I thought it were the only way for Peterson to get his point across. I do think there are places where some editing could have streamlined the text without reducing the original intent.
I am open to being wrong about the potential for streamlining, but then I suspect there would be portions that could have more development with the same verbosity than they got.
I highly recommend Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), without reservations.
It’s not a perfect book, but I suspect it will come to be considered a modern classic.
Despite taking an almost identical approach to 12 Rules for Life, Peterson hits deeper elements of human experience and brings out new ideas through ties to human nature and the proper orientation with which to face the world.