On Maps of Meaning

Before Jordan Peterson became the culture-war lightning rod with whom we are all so familiar, he was a professor and research psychologist with an active clinical practice. Maps of Meaning represents the crowning achievement of that portion of his career, if not indeed the whole. Peterson has attempted to reconstruct religious (more specifically, Christian) morality without recourse to religious belief– without demanding a leap of faith. The book is an attempt to synthesize the modern scientific mode of understanding the world (“experimental” thinking in Peterson’s terminology) with the pre-experimental or mythological mode of understanding underlying the myths and religions of the world: to construct a theory of history. It is a significant philosophical undertaking such as those of Hobbes, Hegel, or Rene Girard.

Peterson opens with what is surely one of the most harrowing forewords ever written, describing his overwhelming terror of mass destruction as a young man during the Cold War. The central question that haunts him is how did the twentieth century happen? I think it would be fair to summarize his eventual answer thus: that if God is dead, it does not follow that he does not exist; that the myths and religions of the world contain real truths about human nature and how we can exist under the constant threat of chaos. We may choose to ignore or dismiss these truths at our peril.

He argues that while experimental thinking describes things empirically, in terms of their objective tangible properties, the pre-experimental mode of understanding has the advantage of describing things in terms of their significance to us. This is the way that the brain perceives the world. From a neurological perspective, things “are” what we can do with them, or, threateningly, what they might do to us. For example, the objective tangible properties of a glass of water are that it is a clear, solid object containing a certain quantity of fluid at some temperature. Its significance, however, is as a thing from which we may drink, and it is in this latter sense that the brain has evolved to perceive it. The subjective valence of a thing, either as promise or threat, is what truly “matters”, and the value of the experimental mode of understanding has been its conferring of positive subjective valence upon more and more aspects of the world. Science and technology have greatly expanded our ability to use objects to carry out our plans: subjecting chaos to our will. Peterson agrees with Nietzsche that the tremendous successes of experimental thinking have made traditional belief impossible, and that this has had devastating consequences for shared moral beliefs. The axioms of religion having been destroyed, the patterns of behavior arising from religion can no longer be sustained, and off the twentieth century slouches toward Bethlehem.

Jung, with his dizzying bestiary of archetypes, is Peterson’s greatest influence. Peterson understands these archetypes to have been hard-wired into the human brain through the arduous process of evolutionary development. Where Jung’s other great popularizer Joseph Campbell catalogued the structure of the archetypal Hero’s Journey, Peterson delves deeper, to the foundation of what it is that makes the Hero’s Journey so endlessly fascinating. He concludes that every consequential myth encodes important information about the relationship between Order (what we understand, and have power over) and Chaos (what we do not understand, which might enrich or destroy us), and the way that the Hero must continually dissolve and refashion Order to expand its domain. He cites a sufficient body of mythology from a sufficiently wide variety of cultures to be convincing– at least, as convincing as any thesis so broad and so sweeping can hope to be.

I must confess that this very broadness makes the book somewhat maddening to engage with. The general point about Order and Chaos seems so unobjectionable as to be self-evident, and the reader is never left quite certain that Peterson has accomplished anything more than to describe commonplace observations with a lot of fifty-dollar words. It is difficult, faced with an argument of such vast scope, even to say with confidence whether or not one agrees. The specific examples he cites seem not always quite fitting. For instance, he refers to the story of Cain and Abel as an example of the struggle between the Heroic (exploring and confronting Chaos) and Adversarial (denying and rejecting Chaos) archetypes. Perhaps I am blinded by my own attachment to Christianity, but it seems to me that Abel’s role in the story is essentially passive. He lives wholly within the protective (and sometimes stifling, in Peterson’s framework) domain of Order, meticulously observing the prescribed traditions and rites without meaningful agency until he is interrupted by Cain. If anything, it would seem that Cain, the fearless transgressor and progenitor of Nod, better fits the Heroic archetype in this framework. In the main, however, I found his exegesis of Biblical stories unobjectionable, and while I am of course unqualified to assess Peterson’s interpretations of other religious texts he seems to be describing a real pattern in mythology.

Peterson characterizes Evil as a decision to ignore or deny facts and experiences which challenge one’s existing conception of Order. He ultimately blames the frenzies of the twentieth century on attempts to construct totalizing ideologies, which are driven with increasing ferocity to seek scapegoats when events demonstrate their insufficiency. When the Revolution fails to bring about the promised paradisiacal state, it is greatly preferable to blame some external force (Jews, the bourgeoisie, etc) than to consider the possibility that the ideas of the Revolution are flawed. The antidote (or more accurately the vaccine) against this tendency is Solzhenitsyn’s admonition that the line between good and evil runs through one’s own heart.

So in the end, Maps of Meaning returns to the Christian virtue of humility. Recognizing the incompleteness of one’s own understanding, and one’s own capacity for evil, evokes a newfound appreciation for tradition: that body of knowledge, won at terrible cost by the heroes of the past, that protects against Chaos. By tremendous effort and great personal suffering, Peterson has reasoned his way back to what writers like Tolkien and Chesterton understood intuitively and implicitly. Indeed, Chesterton rings loud throughout the pages of this book, especially as it states that unrecognized or unacknowledged beliefs can make one easy prey for a totalizing ideology. But if it is Chesterton, it is Chesterton without his smile: the Chesterton of The Man Who Was Thursday, who thunders “CAN YE DRINK OF THE CUP THAT I DRINK OF?”

Peterson recognizes the value of religious belief as a shield against the intolerable and eternal storm of chaos, and advises “identification with the Hero” as expressed (for example) in the persons of Jesus or Marduk. In the absence of honest belief, this seems a doomed endeavor. Otherwise, it amounts to a clumsy rehearsal of rites and traditions in which one is not fully invested. He would make of religion a kind of cargo cult, so as to derive the same benefits he observes in the lives of believers. But Prometheus will return to find his torch burned out, for the sustaining magic of belief is not so easily to be brought home. Peterson would take up the burden of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, willingly bearing the terrible secret that he is preaching a lie.

I do not say this out of any Catholic triumphalism– God knows the Catholic Church has plenty of its own sins to reckon with, past and present— but to suggest that maps of meaning are insufficient. It is not enough to know where the Promised Land lies; you have to make the journey there. In the end, it may yet require a leap of faith.

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