Lectures on Personality by Jordan Peterson—#2 Mythological Representations

I’m hopelessly addicted to Jordan Peterson’s lectures. What follows is a distillation of some of the ideas that I’m hearing from him, and I can in no way take credit for any of these ideas. My way of processing information is to listen, take notes, and internalize the content. My goal is to be able to intelligently summarize these ideas for other people in conversation. 

02 | Mythological Representations

Editor’s Notes

  • Any references to Jewish or Christian mythology in this lecture were noted on my other blog post: Truths & Symbolism in Judaism & Christianity.
  • Peterson begins with mythological representations because he believes that in some ways they are precursors to clinical theories that are covered later in his lecture series.
  • This outline doesn’t really follow the lecture chronologically—I attempted to summarize the content of the lecture by chunking it into the major highlights that Peterson covers.


  • Collecting information via Meaning (Subjective)
    • Defining Meaning
    • Categorization Systems: Tools, Fright, Meaning of things/roles, Culture & Stories
  • Collecting information via Material (Objective)
    • Defining Materialistic Philosophy
    • Newton’s Idea (Mechanical), superseded by Darwin’s idea (Truth = Life)
  • Study of “Meaning” in action: Ancient Egypt
    • Culture/Dominance Hierarchy
    • Osiris, Set, Isis, and Horus

1) Meaning (Phenomenological, Subjective, Mythological, Moral)

Throughout human history, we’ve been collecting information about the world using two methods, the first is ancient—through “meaning”, and the second is more recent—through “materialistic philosophy”.

  • Meaning | Understanding the meaning of things is ancient, and much of it is unconscious. For example, if you falling down you instinctively know you’re supposed to put your arms out to catch yourself. “The problem with being human is, you don’t know what you know.”
  • Categorization System/Meaning of Things | You categorize things by their immediate impact to YOU.
    • Categorizing tools | We are tool-using creatures. The very fact that we even evolved to have hands means that we must possess the brain power to move them around. (For example, octopi are extremely intelligent creatures also.) Every day, you unconsciously ask, “What’s the world in relationship to me?” Your instincts are molding your body to interact with things in your environment. When you see something, your eyes are activating your motor cortex, and you perceive the manner in which you should interact with it. You see a chair, your body prepares to sit. You see a computer, you prepare to type at it. You see a bottle, you prepare to grab it.
    • Categorizing something frightening | Too hot, too cold, too bright, too loud—which might damage your sensory systems. Some things fall under the category “if you encounter this, you should FREEZE.” Alternatively, some things are categorized under “See, MOVE IMMEDIATELY and then perceive.” For example, you don’t stand around and contemplate a tiger because it is going to EAT you. Or you might shrink away from the edge of a cliff; because your eyes see “DANGER, that’s a falling-off place”.
    • Categorizing the meaning of things | You see your mother. Maybe you hate her, she causes your heart to pump faster and your breathing to quicken. Maybe she represents an unpredictable and chronic threat.  *students laugh* You wouldn’t laugh if that weren’t sometimes true. It’s called a Freudian laugh. People do this all the time when they listen to comedians. Freud would listen to the things that made his patients laugh because it would sometimes give him insight on things they might be repressing. Jokes are often about things that are taboo.
    • Culture & Stories | These forms of knowledge don’t tell us what the world is, they tell us how we should act in relationship to it. You gather this information by talking to your friends, socializing, watching movies, reading books, etc. The question you are trying to answer for yourself is “What is the ideal human being?” What is mental health? It’s not the absence of mental illness, it’s how much you deviate from the norm. What is attractive or beautiful? Symmetry. Men look for hip to waist ratio. Women look for shoulder to waist ratio.
  • College students are special because they are all extremely intelligent (85% percentile or more) “A few standard deviations from the mean”.

2) Materialistic (Objective, Scientific, Matter)

  • Materialistic Philosophy | For most of human history people were suffered because their inability to grasp objective reality. Even the ancient Greeks never really got around to positing something like an “objective reality”. People have paid for their ignorance, and one way we have managed to overcome it is by developing materialistic philosophy. Materialistic philosophy developed in the last 500 years or so, and has allowed us to advance as a species because we can predict and control certain aspects of the natural world.
  • Science | This is a great collaborative tool that allows each individual human to come to a consensus about what is real, categorize reality, and to make predictions about reality. Even better—relatively stupid people can do it once they know the formal process. Science is like a factory that produces knowledge.
  • Newton , Mechanical | Newton is the author of the idea that the world is made out of material, and the material functions in a predictable manner like a machine. (He was influenced by a time where clocks were invented.) We do still hold to this idea somewhat because it is practically useful, but it is now outdated and was replaced by a Darwinian perspective.
  • Darwin , Truth = Life | Darwin set out to solve the problem: “What is truth?”. How do you know if a tool or animal set out to do the job that it’s supposed to? How do you distinguish a useful truth and a non-useful truth? The Darwinian process answers this question through death, because there isn’t anything more real than whether or not you survive. Whatever is not useful (or “true”) dies and will not reproduce. For example, let’s say “If the pursuit of the Newtonian theory culminated in the extinction of human beings, that would be perfect evidence for its lack of truth”.
    • Darwinian Hypothesis: Reality is—and also becomes. True in relation to what? The world is meaningful in relation to you.
    • Generate random variations because you don’t know what’s coming.

Study of Mythological Representations of Meaning

Horus (Left), Osiris (Center), Isis (Right) | Wikimedia
  • Culture | Among humans, there is no such thing as a non-culture. Every human baby is physiologically formed to presume that we are going to emerge into the world in a culture. Initially, babies are a cultural blank slate, but they learn how to navigate their culture during their formative years. You have to unconsciously imitate the same pattern yourself or you can’t get along. If you are a law-abiding citizen, you are manifesting the body of law in your own behavior. If you don’t imitate the pattern, you are either poorly socialized or dangerous. Like it or not, you are a mimicker.
  • Dominance Hierarchies | For example, dominance hierarchies govern nearly every aspect of culture. DH are extremely old—they are older than trees. DH are REAL and you live in one. You are hoping to get to the top of the existing hierarchy, or create a new one of your own (this latter tactic would be used by people that are high in “openness” trait). Dominance hierarchies determine who has access to what, at a given time. Chickens (pecking orders), wolves, chimps… You think that song-bird is singing a pretty little song? No. It’s really saying, “This is my tree, and if you come over here I’ll peck you to death.” Being at the top of a DH has lots of great benefits: you’ll live in a nice area, have minimal stress, and more mating opportunities. The distribution of “who gets what” almost always looks unfair: the loser gets nothing, and the winner gets everything. (Cain & Abel, Pareto Distribution)
    • The steeper the DH in a geographical locale, the higher the murder rate among men.
    • When plagues or diseases strike a population, creatures die from the bottom of the dominance hierarchy up. The lower rungs are more stressed out, and expending more energy for basic survival. The upper rungs are more widely spaced apart and better nourished. In this way, when sicknesses waft through, it usually culls the weaker members of a genetic pool.
  • Horus, Osiris, Isis | Egypt 3,000 B.C.E. | This fact is so deeply embedded and long-standing, that the ancient Egyptians personified this pattern of behavior as the deity Osiris.
    • Osiris (center) | is the god of tradition & culture—a pillar—he’s an abstraction of the patriarchal force that stands behind tradition. “Tradition” is a way of behaving and cooperating with one another, which is a pattern of behaviors. Each Egyptian Pharaoh was expected to take on the “being” of  Osiris. The Pharaoh, was in essence no longer a person, but the embodiment of the state. (Another e.g. President of the United States of America)
    • Set (not pictured above) | is a negative figure—Osiris’ evil brother—who is always whispering in the king’s ear. This is what happens when the state turns tyrannical, corrupt or evil.
    • Isis (right) | Queen of the underworld. Femininity represents possibility rather than reality, especially because of its capacity to bring forth new forms (e.g. mother nature).
    • Order (Osiris) and Chaos (Isis) | They are wedded together. Humans cannot exist without a frame of reference, a solid structure that allows them to navigate their way through life. On the other hand, there will always be unknowns that could arise suddenly that we can’t cope with. (e.g. you’re in a solid relationship with someone and then they tell you they’ve been having an affair the entire time. This crosses the border between what you thought you knew (order) into the great unknown (chaos)… “who the hell is this person?” or “how could I be so stupid?”)
    • Horus (left) | Order and chaos can unite and create a third thing, the god of attention. Horus is depicted with the head of a falcon, because of the animal’s superior sight. They fly over everything in the sky, and they can see everything. Horus is alert, with his eyes open. (See also, the Egyptian eye). For example, if everything is going well (too much order), you might get bored or lazy, and fail to pay attention to potential warning signals that chaos is imminent. You need just the right amount of chaos to keep you alert and push yourself, but not so much that will paralyze you.

Further Reading

03 | Heroic & Shamanic Initiations

Image Source: Thomas Hawk

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