12 books you should read instead of reading Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” (or watching his YouTube talks)

Until recently, Jordan Peterson has been a relatively unknown psychology professor. But now Peterson is a relatively unknown psychology professor with a published self-help book. Of course, I’m being facetious, JP actually has a surprisingly large following on the internet and “12 Rules for Life” has been getting a lot of attention in mainstream media. It’s easy to criticize the book and many reviewers have done that already [1, 2, 3]. Peterson misunderstands or misrepresents major philosophers, he bases his theories on poor analogies, his advice follows fallacious arguments, you need a bestiary and a dream dictionary to interpret his metaphors and he often writes like someone trying to get all their money’s worth out of a paid thesaurus subscription. Nonetheless, I support the main message of the book — everyone should try to better themselves and the world around them. But I don’t think Peterson is the man.

So without further ado, here are twelve books that will offer a better understanding of the world and better tools of improving oneself without resorting to a lame self-help book.

“Letters from a Stoic” and “Meditations” (src: penguin.co.uk)

“Letters from a Stoic”-Seneca
“Meditations”-Marcus Aurelius

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius

Speaking of bettering oneself, it’s hard to improve on the classics. Most of Peterson’s rules for life seem to come straight out of the stoicism handbook. Stoicism is a philosophy of life that emerged in Ancient Greece and Rome and which emphasizes rationality, strength of character, discipline and grit. It argues that a person has, first and foremost, power over his thoughts. External events are not considered to be good or bad since they are not part of our character. Similar to Buddhist mindfulness, it advocates being aware at all times and refraining from acting on impulse.

Covers of “Sapiens” and “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (src: amazon.com)

“The Better Angels of Our Nature”-Steven Pinker
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”-Yuval Noah Harari

“Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile.” — Steven Pinker

“How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” — Yuval Noah Harari

In the first chapter of “12 Rules for Life”, Peterson claims the social hierarchies of lobsters are not that different from human hierarchies. It’s a poor analogy and it’s not supported by facts. Period.

Humans are not animals. That is, we are not just animals. We are complex beings, we form complex societies, we can have abstract and original thoughts, we can create stories, trace our history and place ourselves in the universe. It is ridiculous to look at what humanity has achieved and think there is any comparison between the linear hierarchy of an inferior species and the complex multi-dimensional human society. 
Let’s just say that if you’re reading that lobster story either in a train on your way to work or while waiting to board an airplane and you don’t immediately throw the book away, then congrats, you might actually be a lobster.

Peterson also argues that society is heading into chaos, that the world is at a point where it risks going into uncharted, dangerous territories. Of course, to Peterson, chaos can mean a lot of things, even smaller scale things like becoming unemployed or not having a daily schedule. Nevertheless, just by checking out the daily news and seeing the never-ending war, crimes, corruption, terrorism and so on, you might believe that chaos is today the prevailing force in the world. But the truth is humanity has evolved. A lot.

Pinker’s book argues that we’re living in the most peaceful period in the history of humankind. It explores human nature through history and psychology and it tries to make sense of the modern world. Harari’s book also tries to present the history of mankind in a simple and straight-forward manner. It’s an impossible task to undergo in a single volume, but Harari sticks to the basic ideas — how humans went from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural society, how the first cities appeared, how ideas and myths shape our history, how our species succeeded over others. Both books are essential in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of the complex phenomena that is human society.

Covers of “The Blank Slate” and “The Sublime Object of Ideology” (amazon.com)

“The Sublime Object of Ideology”-Slavoj Žižek
“The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”-
Steven Pinker

Going further with the ideas of myths and ideology (which are fundamental and exclusive to human society), here are two tougher books. In his seminal work, Žižek takes ideas from Hegel, Marx and Freud and analyzes ideology and human agency in the postmodern world. The book is not a light read — its’s more work than entertainment — but Žižek makes it easier by using references to popular culture such as Kafka or Hitchcock. Going through it is rewarding though, as you will have many “Aha!” moments while reading it.

Here comes another Steven Pinker book, “The Blank Slate”. Since Pinker is also a professor of psychology like Peterson, it’s bound that they would touch on similar subjects. In this book, Pinker analyzes three dogmas of human nature: the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. To put it more simply: is it nature or nurture, are we the product of our genes or our upbringing? Spoiler: the new consensus is that it’s both. It’s an impressive book that is based both in science and common sense.

Covers of “At the Existentialist Cafe” and “The Second Sex” (source: amazon.com)

“The Second Sex”-Simone de Beauvoir
“At The Existentialist Café”-
Sarah Bakewell

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” — Simone de Beauvoir

Since Jordan Peterson often declared that his book and his courses are mostly aimed at men, I thought I should include a book in this list that would balance the scales a bit, so not to leave out the second sex. Simone de Beauvoir was a French existentialist philosopher and one of the first second-wave feminists. What better book than “The Second Sex”? Considered to be one of the major works of feminist literature, it examines in great detail the notion of “woman” in western society. De Beauvoir’s main thesis is that the oppression of women came from their characterization as the Other, as being opposed to man, which can be a dehumanization. The woman is thus incomplete and subject to the will of the man. While this is a normal process when defining the human in opposition to others, it is flawed when applied to genders. Some have claimed there is a similar subtext in Peterson’s works — and internet misogynists’ comments support that claim, but it’s best to read these books by yourself and make up your own mind about that.

“You should make your choices as though you were choosing on behalf of the whole of humanity.” (Quote from “At the Existentialist Cafe”)

If anyone is looking for “rules for life”, then they are in good company, for the existentialists appeared in quite a tumultuous period in history and were looking for exactly that. “At the Existentialist Cafe” goes through the life and philosophy of several major existential philosophers (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and so on), as well as the historical context in which each lived. It’s a fascinating and entertaining book that will capture the essential aspects of the existentialist philosophy. Sartre, for example, believed that freedom was the basis of all human experience and what separated humans from all other objects. Even animals will still fall back to their own species’ instincts and behaviors. But humans can create their own nature, in spite of their biology or culture; they can make themselves up as they go along.

“From now on, he wrote, we must always take into account our knowledge that we can destroy ourselves at will, with all our history and perhaps life on earth itself. Nothing stops us but our own free choosing. If we want to survive, we have to decide to live. Thus, he offered a philosophy designed for a species that had just scared the hell out of itself, but that finally felt ready to grow up and take responsibility.” (Quote from “At the Existentialist Cafe”)

The fragmentation in modern lives, Simone De Beauvoir believed, was the reason why people were vulnerable to being swept away by demagogues and why totalitarian movements thrived. Peterson is not far from this view, believing that unstructured lives can lead to chaos — be it personal, social, ontological or political.

Covers of “Manufacturing Consent” and “Letters to a Young Contrarian” (source:amazon.com)

“Manufacturing Consent”-Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
“Letters to a Young Contrarian”-
Christopher Hitchens

Now here are some respected thinkers who you should really be reading. I’ve included two books that feel in the same vein to Peterson’s book, “12 Rules for Life”, but feel free to check out others.

“Manufacturing Consent” should make you more aware of how both individuals and organizations are influenced and to shape belief. It’s a good starter if you want to be less prone to having your beliefs manipulated.

Peterson has claimed that “12 Rules for Life” and his videos are aimed at young people who often lack discipline and are not interested in the usual paths presented to them. Since a lot of Peterson fans are “young contrarians”, this book would fit them well. In it, Cristopher Hitchens, a dissident himself, inspires other rebels and radicals. It’s a good introduction to a well spoken intellectual and social critic.

Covers of “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” and “The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays” (image sources: amazon.com)

The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” — Alan Watts
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays” — Albert Camus

Here is another book about finding your place in this world and finding out what it means to be human. It’s a more spiritual approach, it doesn’t have all that “tough love” Peterson thinks is so badass. It’s a book against the belief that we are isolated beings, islands, unconnected to the rest of the universe. Nevertheless, it’s tied to some of Peterson‘s writings too. He also understands that we live in relation to others, that order cannot exist without chaos and so on.

Finally, “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Jordan Peterson’s book’s subtitle is “An Antidote to Chaos”. Fine, but what if this chaos is not the bogeyman Peterson tries to make it out? What if modern life simply is made to be less deterministic, less ordered, less rigid than it used to be? What do you do then, do you just retreat into a dark room where you can be your ordered and unyielding self? Do you still try to shape the world into this image? Camus wrote this introduction to his absurdist philosophy in 1942, in the middle of World War II. He understood that life is intrinsically absurd and chaotic.

Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” — Albert Camus

Albert Camus sees that man searches for meaning in a meaningless universe. He compares this struggle to the struggle of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it fall back again for eternity. The only resolve is that this struggle should itself be enough, despite all the “chaos”.

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Books that almost made the list: 
Night”, by Elie Wiesel, and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — to show what extreme order looks like.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress”, by Steven Pinker —because it’s Pinker but this book is not out yet.
Why Liberalism Failed”, by Patrick J. Deneen — because there is good criticism of the current state of affairs, but it doesn’t come from Peterson.
Consider the Lobster and Other Essays”, by David Foster Wallace — because DFW was an amazing writer and essayist and because humans should not compare themselves to lobsters, they should eat them. :)

— — — — —

“Letters from a Stoic”-Seneca
“Meditations” — Marcus Aurelius
“The Better Angels of Our Nature” — Steven Pinker
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” — Yuval Noah Harari
“The Sublime Object of Ideology” — 
Slavoj Žižek
“The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” — 
Steven Pinker
“The Second Sex” — Simone de Beauvoir
“At The Existentialist Café” — 
Sarah Bakewell
“Manufacturing Consent” — Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
“Letters to a Young Contrarian” — 
Christopher Hitchens
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” — Alan Watts
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays” — Albert Camus