Jordan Peterson, author of “Maps of Meaning“, likes to retell old stories. It seems that the overarching objective of many of his interviews and lectures is to provide modern people with a more robust interpretation and deeper understanding of these stories so that they can be practically applied to each person’s life rather than dismissed as “silly” or “irrelevant”. In a sense, he is trying to draw out a map for people to navigate their “being” in the world.
“It’s important to understand what the stories mean because back then we didn’t really know what the hell we were doing. We’re smarter that we know, but the problem is we don’t know ourselves. We reveal our true self in the symbols constantly, but then have to reflect on that to understand what it is that we’re up to.”—Jordan Peterson
Peterson will sometimes discuss stories like Pinocchio and Batman in order to fill out certain narratives or draw correlations. However, Peterson spends most of his time exploring Jewish and Christian stories because he believes that it is the most well-rounded doctrine in terms of its exploration of the ideas of good vs. evil and “the logos”.
Some challenge Peterson’s focus on Christianity as the result of being influenced by Western culture. Since Christian source material is more readily available to his studies, his findings are essentially a forgone conclusion. In other words, did Christianity influence and build the “Western attitude” as Peterson suggests? Or could the Western attitude be built regardless of a specific religious tradition? (e.g. Why not Sufi mythology? or Norse mythology?) Peterson responds by saying the cornerstone of our Western society is respect for logos, and that every individual has transcendent value—yes, even murderers!—and the Christian doctrine complements this idea nicely.
Peterson criticizes fundamentalist believers and atheists alike because they not only interpret the stories too literally, but they also try to shoehorn it into the realm of science. First of all, the stories of creation weren’t scientific theories because the people that wrote them weren’t scientists. We didn’t even have science until about 500 years ago. Second of all, religious truth is not the same as scientific truth. Some people may claim, “There’s no other truth but scientific truth.” That’s just not true. Scientific truth tells you what things are, but genuine religious truth tells you how you should act. These things are “behavioral truths” or “pragmatic truths”. They’re not necessarily instructions on how to achieve our full potential, but rather to avoid hell—which is a symbol of the deepest form of human suffering.
Furthermore, Peterson criticizes atheists for being dismissive of religion as if it’s a “silly, backwards, or archaic superstition”. This is overly reductive of a complicated phenomenon, and it’s complexity deserves a more thorough and sincere approach.
What follows is a distillation of some of the ideas that I’m hearing from Jordan Peterson which are amalgamated from his many YouTube videos. I can in no way take credit for any of these ideas, I am merely listening to his discussions, and taking notes. Here’s a link to his YouTube channel. I encourage you to visit it and listen to him yourself. It’ll change your life.
So, here’s a breakdown of some of the truths that Peterson discusses:
The reason we use religious symbolism through story and image is because the ideas are too complicated for us to articulate. It’s a way to express something that we are not yet smart enough to understand. Peterson relates a story of a museum he visited in New York, which houses a spectacular collection of Renaissance art. He mentions one piece in particular the “Assumption of Mary”. Now let’s break this scene down objectively. First, there’s a tremendous amount of effort involved in buying up the real estate to even build the museum, then you have to curate a collection. The value of the paintings are priceless so you fortify the collection with guards and alarms. People pilgrimage here from all over the world just to stand in front of these pieces of art. For what purpose? Why are they looking at these pictures? The simplest answer is that they speak to your soul in a language you don’t understand. Artists and mystics are at the vanguard of this understanding, and are divinely inspired to create images that are clearer than mere feeling.
Word of God (The Logos)
The logos is briefly summed up as “the power of speech to transform reality”. More importantly, the power of truthful speech to transform reality in a positive direction. Respect for logos and respect for free speech are the same thing.
The universe lacks specificity. One thing we do to try and understand it is to apply words to it and make it more specific. Things that are large and unknown are unwieldy. With our limited consciousness, we have to figure out a way to distill the unknown and bring it down to a local level that we can understand. We use our free speech to confront the horrors of the world and give it structure.
Communicate, Understand, & Reach Consensus.
Book of Genesis
- Creation | What does the creation story in Genesis actually mean? Three elements of the creation story: 1) God, 2) the chaos before creation, 3) and god’s word (the logos). God, which represents structure, extracts habitable order out of chaos through speech. “Let there be light!”
- Image of God | Humans are made in the image of god, which means we have been given consciousness of reality in order to extract order from the chaos in which we live. You live for that relationship with yourself, with others, with your art form. You’re discovering that relationship in artistic pursuit, it’s the core of the meaning of life. It’s a manifestation of your highest nervous system and you can get better at it if you practice.
- Paradise | Paradise is an archetype of the first habitable order ever created—”the eternal landscape”. In this case, the walled garden. Walls are structure and culture, and the garden is nature. If it’s properly balanced, well that’s paradise. But there’s always something lurking in it that can turn it all upside down—the snake. It represents the unknown.
Cain & Abel/Sacrifice
Peterson circles back to the story of Cain and Abel frequently, because he thinks it teaches a very fundamental lesson about human nature. This story is archetypal of the “hostile brothers” theme; “Man against his darker nature”. Other examples include: Christ vs. Satan, Thor vs. Loki.
Cain and Abel are technically the first two human characters in the bible born into “the world”. Their parents—Adam and Eve—were made by god and born into paradise, so they weren’t exactly human. Cain is an agriculturalist, and Abel is a shepherd (1). Cain and Abel are making their way through the world, but Cain is having a very tough time—he’s bitter and nothing ever works out, whereas everything is great with Abel—he’s successful and everyone likes him.
They both make sacrifices to god (2). Abel’s sacrifice is apparently valid. In Cain’s case, we don’t know whether he’s just doing a bad job of sacrificing, or if god’s being an asshole (3). Cain is unhappy, and decides to have it out with the creator. God counters his complaint and says that Cain brought it upon himself. Cain is pissed. He becomes bitter and resentful, and decides he’s going to get revenge and spite god by destroying his ideal (killing Abel). Deceit and jealousy propagates through Cain’s lineage into society until war emerges, and then of course the next story is the flood.
- Shepherding is a theme used over and over—shepherding came with risks. You had to be tough in order to fight off physical threats to your flock.
- The act of sacrifice is a “play” that people act out to symbolize letting something of value go in the present in order to reap the reward in the future. Everyone knows what that means to them. People do this all the time—they forgo certain kinds of gratification so that they or their children can reap a reward. They’re making a bargain with the structure of reality.
- Ironically, this is a classic problem existentially, because if you are suffering, you don’t know if you’re suffering because you’ve been doing something wrong, or if that’s just “fate”.
It’s important to know this story because you can hold it up to yourself as a mirror. Will you be like Cain? When things go wrong, will you become bitter? Will you blame everyone but yourself? Take responsibility, live honorably like Abel, and life will go well for you.
- Giants in the Earth |
- The Flood | Take the example of the flood of New Orleans in 2005. What caused the flood? A hurricane? NO! Human corruption caused it. Officials knew the dam dykes weren’t going to hold for a hundred years or more and they did nothing about it. They just pocketed the money that was supposed to go toward the repair. So in this story, there are three elements. There’s 1) the storm 2) the dykes 3) the people to repair the dykes. If the dykes were high & strong, a storm would not have been able to come through and wipe out the city. The city’s infrastructure became old and decayed, and the hurricane devastated the city. In the same way if the infrastructure of society is moral and good, a metaphysical storm will not wipe it out. If society’s infrastructure becomes corrupt and evil, may god help you.
- Tower of Babel | The intellectual definition of god—is that which transcends your knowledge. Humans, in their desire to invade the place of god, make a structure that is supposed to reach all the way to heaven. This was an early representation of the danger of human hubris.
- The Jews | Peterson points out that the Old Testament as a whole seems to be a cyclical praising and punishment of the Jews by god. It’s like 1) Jews are doing great and are blessed by god 2) Jews get too corrupt and “forget the widows and orphans” 3) A prophet comes along and say “Hey, you guys better get your act together.” 4) God punishes the Jews 5) Jews are penitent and try to improve themselves and they start the whole cycle over. An atheist may look at these stories and point to them as an example of God’s bullish behavior, but in fact, they are missing the point entirely. The point of the story is to show how humiliation and self-reflection is a necessary element of growing up and improving one-self.
Book of Jonah
- The “death, journey to the underworld, and rebirth story” is one of the oldest archetypal ideas. Most of the time, we spend our time dealing with a predictable world, but we know the world is constantly in a state of transformation. At some time in our life, we will face something terrible that causes paralysis (e.g. betrayal, the death of someone you love, or a serious illness, etc.). These situations are our “predators” that could metaphysically devour us. When this happens, we must make a journey to our personal underworld in order to rescue ourselves from the basilisk/dragon. (In general, the underworld represents the unknown—that which we don’t know about ourselves.) Some people may never escape the underworld. These people develop PTSD, nihilism, or permanent anxiety. If you are lucky enough to escape, you are a new person—and you will have restructured your incorrect presuppositions of the world. The world transforms, and we must change with it, or be left behind. It’s painful, but people do have the capacity to die and be reborn.
- Jonah | God commands Jonah to do something, but he runs away from his task (to sea). While at sea, a storm arises, and he is thrown overboard and eaten by a whale. He was cast up on shore a few days later.
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets | Potter goes into the depths of a castle to confront a basilisk who is holding Ginny captive.
- This is a classic “dragon holding a virgin captive” story. A young man can’t really mature until he goes out into the world and confront his fears. He must prove his worth to his mate.
- Basilisks are interesting creatures—if you look at them, you would turn to stone. You are prey encountering a predator and you instinctively freeze, reacting to a long evolutionary chain of human aversion to reptiles/snakes. You have a deep, unconscious level of understanding about animals outside of your species. You are able to perceive (within seconds) when it is angry, or about to bite you—after all, when it comes to survival, seconds matter.
- Similar story: Sleeping Beauty
- Hobbit | Smaug is hoarding gold.
- Pinocchio | There’s a reason why the Pinocchio movie was made in the 30’s. “If you want to get rid of your damn strings and stop being a neurotic jackass, you need to go down to the chaotic depths and rescue your father from the belly of the whale.” It’s an ancient idea. The reason why we haven’t forgotten it is because everyone who forgot it died.
- Christ | The symbol of human potential, a meta hero, and the perfect archetype. (Note that Peterson is careful to make the distinction that he is not referring to Jesus.)
- The Symbol of Human Potential | Christ was a symbol of the self. The self is your full totality, and Christ is everything you could conceivably be—your ultimate potential. Well, what the hell is potential? It’s not real, by definition it’s virtual. It has no exact definition and is always in the future.
- The Meta-Hero | For example, take ten true things about your life. Then take ten true things about 10 other people’s lives and then combine them into a hero. Then take 1,000 literary heroes and extract out what makes them a hero—that’s a religious deity. Christ is a meta-hero, and is completely independent of historical reality.
- The Perfect Archetype | The Christ story is archetypically perfect because of the idea that life is suffering, with a layer of malevolence and injustice. This is the lot of humanity. The Christ story is that of the most perfect and innocent human—betrayed by his friends, countrymen and foreigners, and abandoned by the creator himself. Christ transcends the bitterness of life by accepting it completely and voluntarily.
- The Message | Christ’s mode of being is “true speech”, which is a fundamental idea to western society; that is, speak the truth and change the world. He is noted for his vision: pay attention and speak the truth, because this is how you keep the balance between order and chaos and live a proper life. Life is suffering. Suffering can make your murderous and resentful if you take it far enough. How do you mitigate suffering? Some people cope with suffering by building a wall of luxury around themselves. Others cope by building a delusion and living within that. The real answer is very simple—it’s truth.
- Other Christ figures: Horus, Osiris, Christ, Buddha
- Savior of Humanity | Christians insist the same thing that saves mankind is the same thing that drew order from chaos at the beginning of time. It means something utterly profound, and we forget it at our peril.
- Sinful Nature of Man | He was turned off initially by Christian’s constant flagellation–there was something rote and fake about it. But he later came to understand that there was utility in it, because it allowed people to keep the evils of their doing clear and in the forefront of their mind. He talks of a Mesopotamian culture had a new years’ day ceremony, where the people would take their Emperor outside of the city, remove his clothing–thereby making him an ordinary man–and humiliate him ritual. And ask him the ways he fell short over the last year. He would self-reflect and think of ways to improve himself for the next year. Recognizing your own “sinful” nature is not really meant to be a whip that knocks you down, it’s supposed to be a call to self-reflect “You could be so much more than you are!”. Learn to be mindful, and watch yourself–almost like you are another person–you’ll see that you actually lie a lot.
- Jordan reflects on himself as he was in his 20’s, small, mouthy, and opinionated–with pride in his wit and intellect. However, it’s dangerous, because you could as he says “falls in love with its’ own productions”. You begin to think that you know the whole system and how everything works. As he grew, he realized that there is more to life than just intellect. He goes on to tell of his experience working in a prison with another psychologist. He talked to a smaller-set man, who looked rather innocuous. After he left him, the psychologist said to Jordan, “That man shot two cops in the back of their heads”. Jordan thought, “hm, how strange that such a normal-looking guy could be capable of such atrocity”. He even goes so far as to ask himself, what kind of psychological condition would I have to be in to do that to someone? He came to realize that he probably could do it, and that realization itself began to shred “the shadow person” (Jung). He began to think of himself differently from then on–to regard himself as a “loaded weapon”, and to treat yourself with more respect and care around others. This even went so far as to think and listen about everything he said, almost as another neutral observer saying to himself “you don’t really believe that” or “that isn’t true”. Well, then the question becomes–which of those two fragmented “people” are yourself? The neutral observer or the mouthy know-it-all? He decided to go with the critic, and decided to stop saying thing that made himself weak.
- The fallen nature of man. Knowledge of suffering and necessity for work. If you know you can suffer and that you could die, then you are cursed with work. Because even if you know you are okay right now, you might not be later. We can “see” the future and prepare for it.
- Death & Rebirth | He talks about the art of conversation as a constant process of death and rebirth within the human spirit. We’re both trying to articulate our notions of reality, we’re trying to articulate each other’s spirits. I do that, you listen, and maybe have some comments, and you do that I listen and I have comments. Together we’re building something that’s different than what we both came in here with. Part of your spirit is an amalgam of information that you’ve encountered previously. If you’re having a good conversation, you’re essentially decomposing parts of yourself, your false suppositions and you’re letting them die, and you’re letting something new be born. You’re having this process of death and rebirth happen constantly when you’re having a conversation.
- Hell | Hell is deepest form of human suffering. There are people in hell right now as well as people who have lived through hell. Examples include: Nazi Germany, the Soviet regime, Mao’s cultural revolution. Even today, people deal with addiction to meth …or spend 10 minutes and walk through the seedy areas of Los Angeles to see depraved people living in hell. You don’t even want to get close to them; most people don’t want to get within 10 feet of their “psycho-geographic location”. It’s a place that exists in the mind. People visit it all the time, and sometimes they don’t get out. “It’s not an easy thing to live in a truthful manner, but the alternative is hell.”
Other Stories Peterson touches on:
- Christmas Trees | Why do we put up Christmas trees? Life, light, our ancestral home, midwinter return of sun/light. Often associated that with birth of the savior.
- Comic Book Heroes |
- Constructing a Hero | The idea of Batman may have been thought up by one person, but a team of people have worked on his story over the years. Even though he’s fictional, there’s a bunch of things you can’t do with Batman, because these people have made a collective decision on the core story. There’s not much difference in the construction of comic book heroes than in the construction of religious deities.
- Why They’re so Popular | In the wake of Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead” we blew the metaphysical foundations out from underneath our culture. People are obsessed by Avengers, Harry Potter, Star Trek & Star Wars because our collective imagination is trying to regroup and reformulate our fundamental metaphysics. In some ways, we’re using the fictional space of the Marvel Universe (which are now some of the most expensive human artifacts ever made) to lay out an archetypal/mythological view of the universe. This is a collective process that is attempting to write out an “exemplary drama”.
The notes that I’ve gathered are not necessarily direct quotes from Peterson so I wouldn’t quote anything from this article and attribute it to Peterson. However, I do believe they sum up his insights accurately. If you’d like to listen to the source material that I pulled these notes from, I recommend the following videos/podcasts:
- Joe Rogan Experience #877, starting at about 2:02:00
- Waking Up Podast with Sam Harris #67, starting at about 56:00
- Strengthen the Individual lecture by Jordan Peterson, starting at about 38:00
Image Source: The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin