Why myth matters: a review of Jordan B. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning

Somewhere in northern Arizona

Maps of Meaning. That’s psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s description of myth. His book is by a professor for professors, so it’s a challenging read – very technical and dense. I didn’t make it through the entire book, but enough to get the gist.

Part of what Peterson does is connect neurology to “the architecture of belief,” with a particular focus on Jungian archetypes. I won’t go into detail about that. But the basic idea is that just as the general structure of language is hardwired in the human brain even though specific languages must be learned, the general structure of storytelling is also hardwired even though specific stories must be created and learned.

Science & myth

Peterson makes a crucial distinction about the role of science and the role of myth. Science describes the world of things – what composes them, how they physically interact with other things, etc. But myth is about meaning. More so, myth is a call to action.

Familiar territory feels predictable and safe, but unexplored territory feels unpredictable and chaotic. The unknown is both frightening and alluring at the same time. And myth is a journey from the known to the unknown to bring back something of value.

The basic mythological template, Peterson writes, is a metaphor for our lives. Our present state is familiar, and we may be complacent even if things aren’t so good right now. But we also have an ideal future – a desire for how things could be better.

That desire is an expression of meaning. It’s not a scientific endeavor even though scientific knowledge can help us navigate the world. Further, this hero’s quest is a responsibility. Responsibility being the primary source of meaning.

Myth is a challenge

The challenge myth articulates is that we must act without truly knowing what our actions will bring. Unpredictability is chaos, and when things don’t go as expected we can become irate.

The world is a forum for action and myth serves as a guide. A particular pitfall, however, is that we’re inclined to compare what we have with what we want, not with what may actually be. That is, we’re prone to illusion.

Each person’s challenge, Peterson says, is to develop a personality capable of facing even extreme conditions. The exploratory act quells chaos, freeing something valuable from its grip (sometimes represented as a dragon’s gold). By incorporating this value we are transformed.

Psychology

Peterson analyzes myth and claims there are common archetypes or images used to represent the process – the hero’s journey – of leaving the comfort of familiar territory, which protects us from chaos, to undertake the dangerous task of confronting chaos in unexplored territory.

Seen through a Freudian lens, the unknown is the Id, the known is the superego, and the knower/hero is the ego.

The structure of myth

In myth there’s a threat to the comfortable state of affairs. This status quo, this unself-conscious paradise, however, is incomplete. It represents childhood, and the terrible mother – nature’s chaos – is the threat. The hero confronts her but is swallowed, often represented as a visit to the underworld. There the hero must defeat a monster (or perhaps death itself), and be transformed. The hero must then return to transform the community.

Sigmund Freud’s student, Carl Jung, articulated several archetypes or characters that appear in myths worldwide. It all starts with primordial chaos before creation, represented variously as dragons, serpents, waters of the deep, and so on:

  • Nature is the eternal unknown. Every archetype has positive and negative aspects. At the positive pole, the great mother gives birth to nature from primordial chaos. But everything must also die. The terrible mother is a devourer, the goddess of anxiety, depression, even pain and death. Nature uses destruction to create new things, so primordial chaos is somewhat retained in nature. The great mother also gives birth to the hero, who might be her lover as well. Myths are weird in the same way that dreams are weird. Maybe that’s where many myths came from.
  • The known is culture – the wise king or father whose shadow is the tyrant. Culture is predictable and disciplined, but can be restrictive and tyrannical. Ritual imitation of the great father protects us from the fear of unprotected exposure to unexplored territory. The resulting culture, or group identity, restricts the meaning of things and makes social interactions more predictable. But it can also heighten social aggression when the unknown intrudes. And denial of the unknown (“we have infallible knowledge”) can lead to hell on earth.
  • The knower is the hero, who is sometimes a sun god or the son of the great god. The hero slays the dragon, vanquishes the villain, or defeats death, which represent chaos. But the hero’s shadow side is the adversary – the prince of darkness – who rejects the unknown. Loyalty to personal interest – identification with the hero – is important to counteract group pressure.

According to Peterson, myths feature the positive aspects of order (the father) and the hero (usually the son) protecting against destruction (the terrible mother); or the negative aspects of tyranny and the adversary against creation.

Notice that he places the masculine and feminine in opposite directions. It’s like the father and the hero’s positive poles point one way, and the mother’s pole points in the opposite direction. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Real world implications

Throughout human history myth has been central to people’s worldviews. Modern Western society is an outlier because myth is seen as superstition. But science and myth are not incompatible considering the distinction that science is an objective description of things while myth is a guide for acting on the subjective meaning we ascribe to things.

However, Peterson warns that involuntary exposure to chaos can unleash forces that can undermine a culture’s known world. The societal destruction that accompanied European contact with the people of the Americas is one example.

Further, there’s a tension between freedom and security. Order can keep the chaos of untamed nature at bay, but order can also be overbearing and deadly. The hero must achieve a delicate balance of creating order from chaos while maintaining novelty and flexibility.

Too much order and predictability denies the unknown, which can lead to violence to suppress the perceived threat. Lucifer’s pride is thinking that all he knows is all that’s necessary to know – an apt description of religious fundamentalism or secular utopian schemes such as communism and fascism. This arrogance creates hell on earth.

Feminism and hate

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona

Incivility is the order of the day. And this incivility finds its roots in moralistic self-righteousness, which leads to a sense of urgency where any means are justified. Such people don’t even realize they’ve abandoned their values. That’s why President Donald Trump’s supporters are willing to excuse anything he does.

I participated in the women’s march in Phoenix, Arizona to make a public statement against Trump’s dehumanizing comments about women and other groups even though I had certain disagreements with some of the groups present. But as I look at feminist dehumanization of men I must wonder if I shouldn’t have attended the march.

Feminist hate

Misandry has long been a part of feminism. Decades ago second wave feminist and sometime Ms. magazine editor Robin Morgan said, “I feel that ‘man-hating’ is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them.”

Feminists today take to Twitter with hashtags like #menaretrash, #maletears, and #masculinitysofragile. They say they’re being ironic, but as I noted earlier this is a passive-aggressive excuse for dehumanizing half the human race.

Yes, there are feminists who believe in gender equality in the true sense of the word – gender doesn’t mean women only. Just as there are conservatives who are true to their beliefs. Double standards, however, are too often the case.

Progressives were outraged when Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” But the truth is that he was repeating a feminist meme that said men instead of refugees (and M&Ms instead of skittles). Where was the progressive outrage then?

Worse, Lena Dunham recently called for the extinction of straight white men – a comment that rightly would be labeled fascist had it targeted any other group.

Integrity

Conservative columnist George Will left the Republican Party because of Donald Trump. And some feminists have left feminism to pursue more balanced gender equality instead. That’s integrity.

But bigots rarely admit they’re bigots. Most have moralistic excuses for their beliefs. People who hate Muslims point to 9/11 and say it’s not really hate – they just care about people’s safety.

Misandry among some feminists is no different. And while not all conservatives are Islamophobes, and not all feminists are man-haters, the problem is widespread enough to mar both movements.

Ms. Morgan’s sense of entitlement is noteworthy. Hatred is not excusable because someone is oppressed. Hatred is self-betrayal of what you say you stand for. The claim that sweeping and derogatory generalizations about a group of people is not hate if you lack power is a paper thin rationalization. Women have much more power than feminists admit to. So feminist hate can have far reaching consequences.

What is feminism?

Feminism is about increasing women’s power. Often this means promoting equality, but sometimes it means being anti-equality. For example, the National Organization for Women opposes shared parenting after divorce (NOW deleted the link).

Feminists often don’t see this as a double standard because many of them believe that men arranged society to privilege men at women’s expense. But like most conspiracy theories this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Throughout most of history men have not been privileged. Ancient kingdoms and empires were tyrannies run by small groups of men. The common man – the overwhelming majority of the male population – was a beast of burden and cannon fodder. The common man did gain rights before women, but the gap between universal male suffrage and universal female suffrage is less than a century.

But for feminists, something is only a gender issue if it negatively affects women. Though men face a wide variety of problems, none of these are considered gender issues.

There has never been a movement that focuses on gender issues in the true sense of the word. And there won’t be anytime soon. For now I accept that feminism is what it is, and I choose to distance myself from any ideology that can’t control its own hate.

What’s my philosophy?

I’ve written quite a bit about Stoicism over the past year. And I’ve been asking myself, What do I believe?

The short of it is:

  • Ethics: Stoic with Peripatetic (Aristotelian) modifications
  • Physics: Materialism
  • Logic: Empiricism

Ethics

I agree with the value Stoicism places on ethics as the focus of reason. And that centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept this fact.

Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me. And not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.

But while I agree that being a good person is necessary for human flourishing (eudaimonia), I disagree that it’s sufficient. Basic necessities such as food, shelter, and safety are also necessary for human flourishing. And Abraham Maslow’s research on the hierarchy of needs lends tremendous support to this view.

Physics

In ancient times physics was philosophy about the nature of the universe. Many of these pre-scientific ideas were about the gods – what we call metaphysics today.

Ancient Stoics were pantheistic. They believed that the material universe is all that exists, and the universe is God. Coupled with the Stoic belief in divine providence means that everything that happens is just. But this is clearly irrational. As I noted in a previous post, “If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.” Yet justice is the core of Stoic ethics, so the house of cards falls.

In contrast, Epicureans (who were Stoics rivals) believed in an atomistic universe. And though ancient Epicureans didn’t explicitly deny that gods existed, they did claim that the gods have little to do with the universe – a type of deism, or de facto atheism. This enabled Epicureans to take the problem of evil seriously.

With the advent of modern science, however, ancient speculations about physics and gods are moot. We can’t prove that gods don’t exist, but we don’t need gods to understand how the natural world works.

I don’t think gods exist. And I think the universe is impersonal. There’s luck – good and bad – but no providence.

Logic

How do we know what we know? Ancient Sceptics said we can’t really know anything. But most ancient Greek philosophers thought we can know things by thinking it through, or rationalism.

But eighteenth century philosopher David Hume disagreed. He said reason is often self-serving. Besides, if you start with a false premise then even perfect logic won’t get you to the right conclusion.

In a recent post I summarized the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said David Hume was right. Hume’s empiricism is a model for modern science. We must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw a logical conclusion. Certainty is proportional to evidence.

David Hume on Stoicism

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona

Interest in Stoicism didn’t end in ancient times only to be revived today. David Hume was an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher who had a lot to say about a lot of things. And one of them was Stoicism.

Instead of focusing on Hume’s essay “The Stoic” (which Massimo Pigliucci has addressed), I’m going to look at a few passages from Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

The characters in Dialogues are loosely based on certain Greek philosophers. Ancient Sceptics (unlike modern scientific skeptics) claimed that we can’t really know anything. But Hume notes that it’s “impossible to persevere in this total scepticism… External objects press in upon him; passions solicit him…”

But he finds Stoics making the same mistake of thinking that because they can full it off in some situations they can pull it off in every situation. Hume describes the Stoic ideal by saying that,

When the mind, by Stoical reflections, is elevated into a sublime enthusiasm of virtue, and strongly smit with any species of honour or public good, the utmost bodily pain and sufferance will not prevail over such a high sense of duty; and ’tis possible, perhaps, by its means, even to smile and exult in the midst of tortures.

Inevitably, however, “the bent of his mind relaxes [and]…misfortunes attack him unawares.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in Stoicism. Hume goes on to say,

that though the mind cannot, in Stoicism, support the highest flights of philosophy, yet even when it sinks lower, it still retains somewhat of its former disposition; and the effects of the Stoic’s reasoning will appear in his conduct in common life, and through the whole tenor of his actions.

In other words, progress is possible even if perfection is not. Besides, even Epictetus didn’t claim to be a Sage.

But Cicero portrays Cato’s uncompromising Stoic ideal in stark terms:

Just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water…than if he were actually at the bottom already, …similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is nonetheless in misery than he that has made no progress at all.

If the Sage is an impossible standard then is Stoicism pointless? Buddhists probably have the same question enlightenment.

It’s Stoic practice to offer a continual challenge. Pigliucci interprets Cato as saying that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent: “I take this to be a humility check on ourselves: …there is no sense in feeling smug about those people who are not making progress.”