Rule 6: Set Your House In Perfect Order Before You Criticize The World

12 Rules For Life Book Summary (Jordan B. Peterson)

We’re going to start this rule with a story by Hercules, son of Zeus and champion of mankind. This story’s not contained in this book. This is a story that I found that I believe pertains very accurately to the philosophy that’s contained within this rule.

“The goddess Hera hated Hercules for being born of her husband’s adultery so she struck him with a temporary curse of madness. As a result, Hercules killed his wife and children. Consumed by grief, Hercules sought out the oracle of Delphi who told him the path of atonement lay with his cousin, King Eurystheus. Eurystheus hoped to humiliate Hercules with 10 impossible tasks that pitted him against invincible monsters. These became known as the Labors of Hercules.”

Watch here. Credit: TED-Ed

“The first labor was to slay the Nemean Lion, who kidnapped women and devoured warriors. Its golden fir was impervious to arrows but Hercules cornered the lion in its dark cave, stunned it with a club and strangled it with his bare hands. There was no tool sharp enough to skin the lion until the goddess Athena suggested using one of its own claws. Hercules returned to Eurystheus wearing the lion’s hide, frightening the King Eurystheus so much he hid in a wine jar. From then on, Hercules was ordered to present his trophies at a safe distance.”

“Subsequent labors included slaying a Hydra, hunting a single deer for one year, stealing a herd of magical red cattle from a giant with three heads. Hercules has completed his 10 labors, but Eurystheus had claimed that two did not count because he had accepted help in achieving them so Eurystheus created two additional labors; one, two obtain golden sacred apples, and two, bring back a three headed hound, Cerberus who guarded the underworld. Once Hercules had completed his last task, Eurystheus declared Hercules’ service complete.”

“After 12 years of pain, suffering and toil, Hercules had redeemed the tragic deaths of his family and earned a place in the Pantheon. Through his labors, Hercules tamed the world’s madness by atoning for his own.” This is what we can learn from Hercules.

Practically, this means to me, set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. You see, Hercules, his house was not in order, his life was in disarray. He had been cursed by madness. He had killed his family. And instead of criticizing the world, instead of blaming his situation, admonishing those around him, instead of being consumed by darkness and grief and horror and suffering and terror and seeking revenge against the goddess Hera, he sought guidance from an oracle, not unlike people who seek guidance from our own oracles of today.

I’d imagine Peterson might struggle to admit this, but he is an oracle for many, so people look to people like him as an oracle, and we seek guidance from people like him. So what that is saying is you don’t need a goddess or a god, or to be a god, or the son of Zeus to clean your room or set your house in perfect order. Instead of looking around you and cursing the world around you, seek guidance from those you respect, as Hercules did in the Oracle of Delphi, and then pay for your sins, pay for the path to atonement. The path of atonement lay through suffering and pain. In Hercules’ case, 12 impossible tasks that pitted him against invincible monsters.

Get 12 Rules For Life Here

While there are no mythological invincible monsters here today, there are metaphorical invincible monsters that people create for themselves. People manifest their own monsters, they create their own barriers and blocks and set themselves up to be prisoners of their own minds, so that becomes the invincible monster. So can you go to war with yourself? In the same way Hercules accomplished and manoeuvred through 12 impossible labors, can you get through your own set of impossible labors? This is symbolized by setting your house in perfect order.

‘The impossible labor’ for you could mean cleaning up the mess of a room that you have, getting one item each day that is on the floor, one piece of chaos that is on the floor and putting it away. Or it could mean smiling at somebody on the street one time per day because you’re miserable and you’re not happy with your life and you’re depressed and you’re anxious and you don’t know what to do about it and you don’t know how you can be better. And it seems so overwhelming and you feel so consumed by the darkness of the world around you, so you decide to do one piece of good every day — the smallest piece of good you can find, and you walk through that. It could mean having a hard conversation with somebody like the person you’re in a relationship with and not standing for mediocrity your relationships. It’s so easy to let the difficult conversation not be had, but you have to have the difficult conversation because that’s where growth happens, that’s where your labor is housed, and by getting through that, that’s how you can set your house in perfect order, your life in order.

Everyone has their version of the labor. Setting my house in perfect order means suffering. It means voluntarily undergoing physical and mental suffering. Every weekend I run hills. It’s not fun, it’s painful. In fact, some of the most painful, physical endurement that I’ve had in years, but I love it and I relish it, because I need it.

I need to build calluses in my mind — these calluses help build the foundation to set my life in order because if I don’t do what I say I’m going to do, then I can’t set my life in order. So then I suffer and then the people around me suffer. If I think the temporary suffering I’m going to do, by 15–20 minutes of running up hills, is hard, imagine a whole life, imagine weeks and months and years on end of knowing that your life could’ve been so much better.

This is what the story of Hercules teaches us. This is what the 12 labors of Hercules teaches us and teaches me. That before you criticize the world, you must set your house in order by performing one meaningful small task that aims up towards good, every day. Whatever that means for you, whether it’s physical, mental, however it expresses itself, you must step forward into that because the alternative is pure unbalanced chaos.

Peterson begins this law by discussing how people criticize the world and admonish the world. We’re going to firstly discuss that before how we can ‘fix’ it. “Whenever we experience injustice, real or imagined, whenever we encounter tragedy or fall prey to machinations of others, whenever we experience the horror and pain of our own apparently arbitrary limitations, the temptation to question being and then to curse it rises foully from the darkness. Why must innocent people suffer so terribly? What kind of blood horrible planet is this anyway? Life is, in truth, very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slayed for destruction.” (just like Hercules).

We can recognise how easy it is to criticize the world. There’s unlimited justifications you can find to criticize the world around you. Why? Because there is malevolence everywhere that you want to find it. Think I can’t help but occasionally think, well, if you’re suffering why don’t you just fix yourself, just fix yourself! It’s very frustrating for me at times.

If I’ve fixed myself, why can’t you?

No. Sorry. I haven’t fixed myself. I’m far from being fixed. I’m broken in many ways, but if I’m trying to fix myself and if I’ve fixed many components of my broken character, then why can’t you? I’ve gone through suffering, why can’t you? “Because we know sometimes if those who are suffering changed their behavior, then their lives would unfold less tragically. But human control is limited.” That’s the challenge that I, and people who have similar thoughts to me, have to contend with. Human control is limited.

We’re not omnipotent, omnipresent beings that are like a god, but we are like a god in that we can control ourselves and that, at the same time, we must have empathy for one another, that we’re all dealing with terrible afflictions of darkness that we don’t know about. Everyone’s suffering from something you don’t know about. So empathy and compassion must be directed.

Cain & Abel

What about mass killings? What about the Columbine shooters? One of the members of the Columbine duo wrote this:

“The human race isn’t worth fighting for, only worth killing. Give the earth back to the animals. They deserve it infinitely more than we do … Nothing means anything anymore.” — Eric Harris

Just sit with that for a second.

I’m very thankful to live in a country where mass killings are a very rare occurrence, on the other hand, by June of 2016 (USA), unbelievable as it may seem, there had been 1000 mass killings (defined as four or more people shot in a single incident, excluding the shooter), in the US in 1260 days. That’s one such event every five or six days for more than three years. You can see one reason why people may be so outraged and confused.

Then people say, “We don’t understand.” Peterson rebuts, “How can we still pretend that?” Tolstoy understood more than a century ago. The ancient authors of the biblical story of Cain and Abel understood. They described murder as the first act of a post-adenic history, and not just murder, but for fratirical murder, murder not only of someone innocent but someone ideal and good. And murder done consciously despite the creator of the universe. So now we have yet another reason to criticize the world, isn’t it? I don’t blame people. We can’t blame people. Or can we? I don’t know.

Vengeance or Transformation

“Distress whether psychic, physical, intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism. Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations. — Nietzsche

This essentially represents the sub-chapter of this rule. Nietzsche demonstrates how we can either pick the path of vengeance, nihilism, or the path of transformation. “People who experience evil may certainly desire to perpetuate it, to pay it forward, but it is also possible to learn good by experiencing evil. A bullied boy can mimic his tormentors. But he can also learn from his own abuse that it is wrong to push people around and to make their lives miserable. Someone tormented by her mother can learn from her terrible experiences of how important it can be to be a good parent.”

This idea is represented in the following story. Peterson had a client who did not have good parents. Her mother died when she was very young, her grandmother raised her and was bitter and over concerned with appearances. Her grandmother mistreated her daughter, (Peterson’s client), punishing her for her virtues of creativity, sensitivity and intelligence. Unable to resist acting out her resentment for an admittedly hard life on her granddaughter, she had a better relationship with her father, but he was an addict who died badly while she cared for her. Peterson’s client had a son. “She perpetuated none of this with him. He’d grow up truthful, independent and hardworking. Instead of widening the tear of the cultural fabric, she inherited, transmitted and sewed it up. She rejected the sins of her forefathers; such things can be done.” By rejecting the sins of her forefathers (AKA not perpetuating her caregivers mistakes) she set her house in perfect order instead of criticizing the world.

There are many people who are listening to this right now, who have lived or know somebody who has lived in a similar situation where they have grown up in a household that has traumatized them, (consciously or unconsciously) and resulted in a fractured upbringing. A lot of these people choose the path of nihilism as Nietzsche purports. Or some brave souls choose the path of transformation. It’s up to you. It’s not easy, but it is up to you. Thankfully, the majority of people being abused as children, don’t actually abuse their own children. We’re going to explain how this is the case because when I originally read this I questioned it.

Peterson purports “this is a well-established fact that can be termed by arithmetic. If one parent abused three children and each of those three children had three children, and so on, then there would be 3 abusers for the first generation, 9 in the second, 27 in the third, 81 the fourth, and so on exponentially. After 20 generations, more than 10 billion would have suffered childhood abuse, more people than currently inhabit the planet. But instead, abuse disappears across generations. People constrain and spread. That’s a testament to the genuine dominance of good over evil in the human heart. That’s a choice at transformation instead of vengeance.” — A choice and also a representation of humankind, which I believe is inherently good, but also has the capacity for unbelievable evil. Capacity is the operative word there.

There’s a play called The Cocktail Party and one of the characters in it explains this to her psychiatrist:

“She says she hopes that all her suffering is her own fault. The psychiatrist is taken aback, “Yes, why? Why would you want all your suffering to be your fault? What a burden to bear” She thought long and hard about this and she said she has come to the following conclusion: if it’s her fault, if all her suffering is her fault, she might be able to do something about it. If it’s God’s fault, however, if it’s the universe’s fault, if it’s her fault, if it’s your fault, if it’s his fault, if it’s my family’s fault, if it’s my school’s fault, if it’s the police officers’ fault, if it’s anybody else’s fault, if reality’s flawed and hell bent on assuring her misery, [your misery] then you’re doomed and so is she because you can’t change the structure of reality and the universe itself.”

But maybe you can change your own life. In fact, I believe you can. In fact, you can. It’s done every day. And you grant yourself the power for change to get yourself out of suffering by assuming all responsibility. I wholeheartedly believe is this — accepting that everything is my fault. Everything is my fault. People may ask, “What do you mean everything’s your fault? It can’t be your fault.” I have to accept everything is my fault because I can only change myself. Yeah, I can help maybe craft, inspire or mold other people slightly here and there, but really it is up to them and really it is a result of them, so I can’t rely on something out of my control but I can rely on something in my control and that’s me. So I give myself the power and the autonomy and that is enriching, that is powerful to me, that is where growth, the foundation of growth is.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote “The Gulag Archipelago”, probably one of the most important texts ever written, grew up during the Nazi regime. He was in a concentration camp for a long time. During this time, obviously filled with a lot of pain, suffering, and horror, he contemplated his behavior, deeply.

“He asked himself the most difficult of questions such as, how had his personality contributed to the catastrophe of his life? He reconsidered his whole life in the time there. He had plenty of time to in the camps. How had he missed the mark in the past? How many times had he acted against his own conscience, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong? How many times had he betrayed himself and lied? Was there any way his past could be rectified and atoned for in the muddy hell of the Soviet Gulag?”

You hear about the terror and catastrophe of living within a concentration camp — you can barely comprehend it, the amount of malevolence and evil that is being experienced, and then you think how can Solzhenitsyn use his time there to then reflect on his own life in a way that assumes all responsibility of pain and suffering on himself?

He poured over the details of his life with a fine-toothed comb like he was in a goddamn meditation retreat, but he was in the opposite of one. He asked himself how can he stop making mistakes now? How can he repair the damage done by his past failures? He took himself apart piece by piece while his world around him was taken apart piece by piece.

This is astonishing to me because now the majority of people are growing up in the time where it’s the opposite. It’s never been better to be human being for the majority of people, and yet, we do the opposite. We don’t ask ourselves these difficult questions, we’ve become too soft. We’re not asking the hard questions because our environment usually doesn’t demand asking hard questions. It’s now very easy to go through life without asking hard questions.

I don’t have to do any of this. I don’t have to dedicate hundreds of hours to analysing these books and creating video essays and writings out of them. This is not enjoyable. I force myself to do this. This is a way of suffering. I’m picking myself apart piece by piece by discussing these ideas out loud. That is not easy. I don’t need to be rewarded for it. I don’t want any praise for it because it’s what we should do. I’m just astonished that Solzhenitsyn took this time to pick himself apart during the most difficult of circumstance in a Soviet prison camp system. One’s man decision to change his life by not cursing fate and criticizing the world, but instead taking responsibility and setting his house in order shook the whole pathological system of the communist tyranny to its core by writing The Gulag Archipelago.

“If you’re suffering, well that’s the norm. People are limited and life is tragic. If your suffering’s unbearable, however, and you are starting to become corrupted, here’s something to think about.” Here’s how we can clean up our life.

“Consider your circumstances, start small. Ask yourself,”

“Have you taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to you?“

“Are you working hard on your career or even your job or are you letting bitterness and resentment hold you back and drag you down?“

“Have you made peace with your brother?“

“Are you treating your spouse and your children with dignity and respect?“

“Do you have habits that are destroying your health and your well-being?“

“Are you truly shouldering your responsibilities?“

“Have you said what you need to say to your friends and your family members?“

“Are there things that you could do, that you know you could do, that will make things around you better?“

“Have you cleaned up your life?“

If the answer is no to any of them, here’s something you can try.

“Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong. Inappropriate questioning can confuse, without enlightening, as well as deflecting from your action.”

I’ve done it before, it’s very tricky, manipulative tactic that abstains responsibility from yourself. You start asking yourself questions, picking apart your situation pretending like you’re actually performing meaningful self-reflective work, but you’re really just dancing around the problem.

Peterson purports, “Stop acting in that particular manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak with honour. You can use your own standards of judgement. You can rely on yourself for guidance. You don’t have to adhere to some external, arbitrary code of behavior, although you should not overlook the guidance of your culture. Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you).”

“Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try and rule a city.”

If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try and rule and control other people.

And I’m talking to myself here because I’ve tried this in the past and how dare I. How dare I. How dare we. How dare you.

“When you know that you have left something undone, you will act to correct the omission. Your head will start to clear up, as you stop filling it with lies. After some months and years of diligent effort, your life will become simpler, less complicated and your experience will improve. Your judgement will improve. You will untangle your past. You will become stronger and less bitter. You will move more confidently into the future. You will stop making your life unnecessarily difficult. You will then be left with the inevitable bare tragedies of life, but they will no longer be compounded with bitterness and deceit. Perhaps you will discover that your now less-corrupted soul, much stronger than it might otherwise have been, is now able to bear those remaining, necessary, minimal, inescapable tragedies.”

“Perhaps you will even learn to encounter them so that they stay tragic, merely tragic, instead of degenerating into outright hell. Maybe your anxiety, and hopelessness, and resentment, and anger, however murderous, initially, will recede. Perhaps your uncorrupted soul will then see its existence and genuine good, as something to celebrate, even in the face of your own vulnerability. Perhaps you will become an even-more-powerful force for peace and whatever is good.”

“Perhaps you will then see that if all people did this, in their own lives, the world might stop being an evil place,” or at least will be less evil. After that, with continued effort, perhaps it could even stop being a tragic place. Who knows what existence might be like if we all decided to strive for the best? Who knows what eternal heavens might be established by our spirits, purified by truth, aiming skyward, right here on the fallen Earth.”

Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

Get 12 Rules For Life Here

Self reflective writings & book summaries on philosophy, psychology and human behaviour. youtube.com/emmanualalexander

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store