I finished 12 Rules of Life book a little while ago, then put it down for a while, so I could think about it.
As simply as possible: I agree with JBP’s rules, but mostly disagree with how he gets to them. Also, these are good rules, but there’s some important stuff missing!
In other words, these 12 rules are not the only rules you need to follow. I think there are more important things out there to pay attention to.
I feel like JBP’s greatest accomplishment is bringing back the message that we need more in our life than just having a good time (aka hedonism).
But I totally disagree that we need to go back to traditional values of the past! That strikes me as too easy of an answer. No. The answer is unknown right now.
Now, on to the details…
His writing style is often needlessly complex
I wonder if his editors encourage him to write that way or if years of academic writing has made it habitual.
Actually, this is only true in some chapters. I love his writing style in the “listen as if they know something you don’t” chapter. The sentences are short and crisp, and he doesn’t go on too many tangents. I think there is the academic JBP and the clinician JBP. He seems like a decent clinician. He knows that he needs to speak clearly and simply so that somebody on the other side, the patient, can easily understand his idea.
But the academic JBP does not speak in those short sentences. He uses words way outside of common day-to-day speech. It’s jarring to read.
I don’t buy the “chaos is feminine” idea
I don’t care if this is one of those things that people that study literature have all already agreed on. It doesn’t sit well with me.
JBP says order is masculine, chaos is feminine. I don’t see it. Watch a group of boys play, and a group of girls play. Boys are chaotic!
He writes about the feminine world as the unknown. This is only true depending on who you are. If you’re a male, and you spend time mostly around males, then sure, the girl world is foreign and seemingly chaotic.
But if you’re a girl, and you grow up around girls and women, then the male world is what seems unknown and chaotic, while the world of women seems seems orderly and predictable.
There’s a part where he talks about how in war time, people discover that they have the capacity to do evil, or commit atrocities, or be sadists. He doesn’t exactly say “this is what causes PTSD” but he implies it strongly. I agree with the idea that it is no fun to discover that we all have a demon within us. But I don’t think that’s the cause of PTSD in general. I think it’s a thing worth exploring, but PTSD occurs in people that survive horrific events like plane crashes too, where they didn’t take any action.
His Garden of Eden analysis doesn’t work for me
He talks about how Adam and Eve gain self-consciousness, and points out how women have been making men self-conscious forever. That rings true to me.
Here’s what he doesn’t talk about: the creator wanted his creations to stay in the role he created for them! This is the same reason why he expelled Lucifer, at least according to all the Sunday classes I ever attended. Lucifer wasn’t content to exist within a hierarchy. He’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.
This is a recurring pattern in the old testament. YHWH gets jealous when the Israelites don’t give him his props.
Perhaps JBP might say that God wants only the best for his creation, and the rules are set out to help them reach their potential, if only they stay on the straight and narrow.
But that’s not the only explanation! Imagine God just wants to keep us in a state of childlike innocence and awe, because he can’t handle facing an equal!
Take the Tower of Babel myth, located just a few pages after creation myth. God sees all the humans getting along peacefully, doing their own thing, and he watches them all get together and work on building a tower up to heaven. God sees this as a threat, and ruins the project.
Over and over, JBP and I read different meanings into the same text. He sees God wanting to keep us on the straight and narrow path. I see a bitter parent fearful that his children will outshine him.
What you get for reading the whole book instead of just the 12 rules
The rules are good rules! They’re easy to understand. They don’t demand huge changes right away.
So what do you get extra when you read all the hundreds of pages? You get lots of anecdotes around each rule. For example, the second rule is something like “treat yourself like a friend you care about”. There’s a neat story in the chapter about how people often don’t follow doctors orders after they go to the doctor, and so they don’t always take their pills. But if those same people go to the vet with their dog, they are more likely to make sure their dog takes their pills!
That is a really interesting story!
Then JBP spins an interesting idea for why people do that — why do they take care of other people (or dogs) better than they take care of themselves. It seems like according to JBP, people get really freaked out about the monster that lives within us all, and so somehow we don’t believe we deserve the help. Because we’re rotten people on the inside.
I think that’s plausible. I think that there are also other plausible explanations too. Like, for example, most of us deep down think we’re so special that the rules don’t really apply to us.
Going backwards verses going forwards
I had an economics professor that said something like “The first wave of economists wrote math formulas to describe how the world works. Then the next wave came in and said those formulas were trash. Then the third wave came in and saw how the formulas weren’t perfect, but they weren’t trash either, so they improved the models, based on the criticisms from the second wave.”
This is what I keep hoping JBP will do: combine the wisdom of the ancients with the valid critiques of the ancient world. But he doesn’t! Over and over, he suggests that our problems stem from abandoning tradition. But he doesn’t explore why it is we tossed out traditions.
He talks about this epidemic of nihilism. I want him to figure out where that came from.
The answer cannot be “well, people stopped doing what they were supposed to.”
My view is that technology has made it possible for people who used to have no voice to get more attention, and now, the garden of eden doesn’t look so great any more.
People lost faith in “the standard model” for valid reasons!
We can’t go backward, even if we tried. The toothpaste is out of the tube.
JBP doesn’t seem to think of atheism and nihilism as different things
This particularly bugs me. This is something atheists hear all the time.
I don’t buy the notion that Christianity was so great, and the 20th century tyrannies came because we abandoned it. Go read any book about the Spanish conquest of South America and you’ll be on my side.
I don’t buy the argument that deceit caused tyranny either.
I’m willing to bet a dollar that most atheists would not describe themselves as nihilists. And it’s certainly hard to argue that self-professed atheists live and act like nihilists. They don’t! They get up, go to work, pay taxes, raise families, etc.
I’m guessing, but I bet JBP believes any belief in human rights / objective truth or even just human decency is ultimately the same as believing in God. In other words, if you’re not a school shooter, you’re a Christian.
He sees Christianity as the champion of a grand battle between all the great ideas of history
I wish I could state his idea more shortly. JBP suggests that the bible survived where other holy texts disappeared because it has better messages.
I don’t see it that way. The way I see it, Christianity had as much effect on the dominance of the west as the mascot does on which team wins the Super Bowl.
In other words, our texts were largely along for the ride, rather than being the forces behind the dominance of the west. I don’t agree that Christianity sponsored the age of reason. I prefer the “guns, germs, and steel” explanation.
Consider that white supremacists read the about the Mark of Cain and see that as proof that black people are cursed.
Consider the stuff that Martin Luther inferred about Jews from Paul’s writing.
Now consider how the liberation theology movement comes to radically different points of view.
I see the bible (or nearly any big book) as kind of like Rorschach test (those inkblot cards where the doctor asks you what you see).
His Cain and Abel analysis also doesn’t work for me
I have my own theory on Cain and Abel. I have to give a lot of credit to Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael, Franz Kafka’s cryptic notes about the pit of Babel, and my own research with magic mushrooms.
Cain was a farmer, Abel was a hunter. Farming is arguably the beginning of civilization. For the same reason why God wanted Adam and Eve to stay as perpetual children in the garden of Eden, he resents Cain for learning to grow his own food, and change the nature of his existence.
The Old Testament god YHWH is like the antithesis of the Greek myth of Prometheus. Both are our creators. But after Prometheus made people, he felt sad because we were all cold and living in the dark, so he brought fire down from Olympus and gave it to us.
That’s cool. He wanted us to thrive. Then Prometheus got punished pretty bad for it — chained to a rock and an eagle swoops down and eats liver every day, and then it grows back overnight — but he was glad that we had fire!
More generally, there’s a whole bunch of Greek poems and plays and myths where Prometheus helps / encourages us as we use technology to grow more powerful, more free, etc.
Like I said, that’s like the antithesis of YHWH.
My favorite rules
- stand up straight (or whatever he says)
- treat yourself like somebody you’re supposed to take care of
- be friends with people that want what is best for you
- listen as if the other person knows something you don’t
My least favorite rules
I don’t think any of JBP’s rules are wrong. They’re just imperfect. Of course any simple rule will have these problems.
Here’s a simple example that explains what I mean: “always wash your hands after using the bathroom” is a good rule to follow. But if you had to, you could imagine some weird scenario where you should break this rule. Like maybe you hear somebody screaming “HELP I AM BEING ABDUCTED BY A UFO” in the next room. Or maybe there’s an earthquake. Or maybe there’s a drought and you want to save every drop of water for an emergency.
In other words, there are instances when people should not follow these rules. If these instances are really uncommon, like earthquakes and droughts and alien abductions, then the rule is great. But as the frequency of these instances increase, the rule stops being such a good rule to follow in general.
I took a paragraph to state the obvious, but that is the nature of what I dislike about JBP’s pronouncements. They’re generally pretty good. But there are real-life examples where they are just not good guidelines.
Not a favorite rule: Be precise in your speech
Consider that some people repress their own thoughts and feelings so much. You ever met somebody so withdrawn that they only express themselves through quoting song lyrics or lines from movies?
You ever met somebody that’s trapped in a miserable job or relationship and they’ve been stuck there so long that they’ve lost the ability to imagine what they personally would like? They’re out there. In large numbers.
So many people have said they had to leave their relationship because they reached some point where they’ve forgotten who they are.
For these folks, just getting them to blurt out anything is critical. If they worry about speaking precisely, they won’t speak.
They’ve lost their internal voice.
Everything else held equal, being precise in speech is great. But it is a secondary goal, only after somebody overcomes not speaking whatever.
Not favorite: The skateboarding rule
Again, I don’t think the rule is bad from JBP’s explanation. It’s good! Skateboarding is a little dangerous, but boys need a way to prove themselves.
But that can’t be the end of the conversation on the topic.
Instead of letting them ride skateboards in the park, which isn’t awful, but is generally just a fun hobby, they really need role models that can direct the adolescent desire to master a skill into something socially useful.
Otherwise, you end up with drunks at the bar, talking about how high school sports were the greatest time of their lives.
And, also, you don’t have to buy into toxic masculinity to acknowledge that bored adolescent boys can be very destructive. Let a bunch of boys be bored and maybe they’ll skateboard. Maybe they’ll take up graffiti. Maybe they’ll see who can be the biggest badass at the bar.
They probably won’t learn how to restore old engines or learn to program computers or study hard enough to get into medical school unless somebody helps them get started.
Really good civilizations / cultures give everyone a chance to contribute meaningfully. But that doesn’t happen without hard work.
I would have preferred that the rule was more about how the older generation has a responsibility to mentor the youth, rather than see the youth as a threat to peace and quiet.
It is an OK book. But would it have helped somebody out, in the darkest period of their life?
I don’t think this book would helped me out in times like that. I think it would have made it worse. You can do all the stuff he says to do, and you’re still going to feel like garbage. I might have read that book, followed it desperately, then gotten really bitter when I felt no relief. I would have thought that I must have been a hopeless case.
I felt better later, years later, when I got out of the toxic relationships I had, got out of a miserable living situation, found friends that actually liked what made me special, found work that lined up with what I was good at so I could prove myself.
Incidentally, in that dark time of my own life, I read a ton of books.
I read The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. After I read that book, I saw my desire to belong somewhere as something that could really get me in trouble.
I saw everybody around me just looking for a chance to fit in somewhere, to lose themselves in something greater.
Man’s Search for Meaning was another great book I read during that time. I remember feeling like we all need a purpose. A mission, so to speak, and if we have that, and we really believe that, then we can overcome hardship. It can’t just be hedonism. That’s a dead end. Hedonism won’t inspire anybody to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Hedonism is just a fancy word that means that you value pleasure above anything else. Read the wikipedia page if you want lots of details.
I read Siddhartha and Damien and Narcissus and Goldmund and The Glass Bead Game and a bunch more books by Hermann Hesse during that time too. And a bunch of stuff by Camus, and a bunch of science fiction from the 1960s.
You know what I learned from all those authors? People feel really fuggin lonely.