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.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.