The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Genesis creation story, Bhagavad Gita. These are just a few examples of the myths and stories that explain human existence. Individuals like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have argued that while these myths sprang from different cultures, they all share similar archetypes and meta-narratives. My guest today has picked up where Jung and Campbell left off and is making an impassioned case that the way to save ourselves from increasing political polarization is to become acquainted with these ancient human myths once again.
His name is Jordan B. Peterson and he’s a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto. But unlike many clinical psychologists, Dr. Peterson has spent his career studying human myths and how they can provide meaning in a world of tragedy and frustration. Today on the show, Jordan provides an introduction to the world of myths and archetypes. We begin our discussion talking about some of the big archetypes we see over and over again in stories across cultures and time, and why they show up everywhere.
We then discuss feminine and masculine archetypes in detail, how the hero archetype is the link between the two, and examples of the hero archetype from around the world. Jordan argues that disregarding or ignoring these ancient myths led to the rise of extreme political ideologies in the early 20th century, as well as their resurgence today. We end our conversation discussing how these myths can help young men journey into noble manhood, and the books Jordan recommends young men read to learn more about them.
While the subject may seem heady, this is an accessible and fun conversation, filled with insights about how to live a flourishing, meaningful life. You’ll definitely be thinking about its ideas after the show is over.
- How Jordan’s interest in myths percolated
- A quick primer on Carl Jung’s philosophy
- How stories and myths give meaning and order to life
- The Darwinian nature of myths that have been passed down thousands of years
- How myths — like creation stories, worldwide floods, and apocalyptic events — relate to everyday life
- The big archetypes found throughout world history and cultures
- How meta-narratives instruct us and set the pattern for action and behavior
- Why accepting and even welcoming struggle is important for a flourishing life
- Why ideologies are dangerous
- Nietzsche and the death of God
- Making the case for mythology in a post-secular world
- Why Jordan’s work attracts far more men than women
- Why men should forego the pursuit of power and instead seek competence
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Carl Jung
- Joseph Campbell
- The Three Archetypes of American Manliness
- From Mythology to Masculinity: The Hero’s Journey
- Sacred Time and Space in a Profane World
- The is-ought problem
- A Call for a New Strenuous Age
- AoM’s Primer on Nietzsche
- The Bhagavad-Gita
- Erich Fromm
- My podcast with Meg Jay on not wasting one’s 20s
- My podcast with David Brooks on character
- Jordan Peterson’s recommended reading
- Saint George and the Dragon (this is what I read to my son)
If you’re wanting to dig deeper into Dr. Peterson’s work, I highly recommend checking out his podcast and his YouTube channel, where he posts his lectures. After you’ve listened to a few of them, pick up a copy of Maps of Meaning. The book is really good, but I found having the background info from listening to the lectures made reading it much easier.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Genesis Creation Story, the Bhagavad Gita, these are just a few examples of the myths and stories that explain human existence. Individuals like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have argued that while these myths sprang from different cultures, they all share similar archetypes and metanarratives.
My guest today has picked up where Jung and Campbell left off and is making an impassioned case that the way to save ourselves from increasing political polarization is to become acquainted with these ancient human myths once again. His name is Jordan B. Peterson, and he’s a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto, but unlike many clinical psychologists, Dr. Peterson has spent his career studying human myths and how they can provide meaning in a world of tragedy and frustration.
Today on the show, Jordan provides introduction to the world of myths and archetypes. We begin this discussion talking about some of the big archetypes we see over and over again in stories across cultures and time and why they show up everywhere. We’re going to discuss feminine and masculine archetypes in detail, how the hero archetype is the link between the two, and examples of the hero archetype from around the world.
Jordan argues also that disregarding or ignoring these ancient myths led to the rise of extreme political ideologies in the early 20th century as well as the resurgence today. We end our conversation discussing how these myths can help young men journey into noble manhood, and we talk about some of the books Jordan recommends young men read to learn more about them.
While the subject may seem heady, this is an accessible and fun conversation filled with insights about how to live a flourishing, meaningful life. You’ll definitely be thinking about these ideas after the show’s over, so when the show’s over and when you start thinking about those ideas, be sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/peterson.
Jordan B. Peterson, welcome to the show.
Jordan Peterson: Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: You’ve been one of my most requested guests from my podcast listeners. I’ve been following your work online, watching your YouTube videos, your lectures, listening to your podcast because you focus on an area that has fascinated me for a long time, Jungian psychology, archetypes, things like that. Seriously, what would you describe what you do? Because you’re a clinical psychologist, but your work lately seems much more philosophical, existential. If someone were to ask you at a cocktail party, “What exactly do you do?” what would you tell them?
Jordan Peterson: That’s a good question. I’d usually start with my professional identity. Now, I’m a professor at the University of Toronto. I’d tell them I was a clinical psychologist. But what am I trying to do? I suppose for a very long time I’ve been trying to understand how it is that people might make sense out of their lives and make meaning and make their lives meaningful in the face of the trouble that life brings.
That’s central to the clinical practice, of course, because when you see people clinically, they’re often suffering from serious problems in their lives, less frequently than you might think a consequence of mental illness and more often a consequence of the fact that things can go very badly in people’s lives. We need a positive meaning to offset that, and so I’m very curious about what positive meanings might exist to offset that. I don’t believe that ideologies are the correct answer.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. What you’ve done … and we’ll get into this bit about ideology not being the correct answer and why that is … you have been exploring myths that have been around in human history for tens of thousands of years, some of them, and trying to find out how we can extract meaning from them, what even us modern individuals can learn from these myths.
Did this interest in myths and archetypes and things, did that start before your work as a clinical psychologist, or did you work as a clinical psychologist seeing the problems that people have sort of existential?
Jordan Peterson: No. It started about the same time that I started doing my clinical training, although perhaps even a bit earlier. When I was doing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I started to read, well, the great clinicians, Freud and Rogers and Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow and people like that, the great 20th century clinicians, and I started to study Carl Jung and his ideas of archetypes, and the notion that people inhabit stories was very striking to me and that these stories have a structure and that there are great stories that elucidate that structure profoundly and clearly. I found that very useful from a personal perspective but also with regards to my clinical work. Then also theoretically, especially as I started to understand more about how the brain worked, I suppose.
It’s a longstanding interest. It’s tangled up, too, with the issue of ideology because when I was doing my clinical training to begin with, I was also simultaneously working on a book I published in 1999 called Maps of Meaning, and Maps of Meaning was, in part, an attempt to understand the relationship between people’s belief systems and their capacity to regulate their own emotion, both positive and negative emotion, because those are separate circuits. All of those things were tangled together in my initial investigations into, let’s say, narrative and then deeper into the substructure of narrative.
Brett McKay: I think for people to understand what you do and kind of set the foundation for the rest of our conversation here, as you said, your work really has grown off of the work of Carl Jung. You mentioned that Carl Jung had this idea of sort of these narratives, the metanarratives that we all live out in some way and that they’ve been distilled into these stories you see in antiquity, the Samarians, the Old Testament, even in India and other cultures.
Jordan Peterson: Everywhere.
Brett McKay: For those who aren’t familiar with Jung, I guess these big ideas of these narratives exist, but how did these narratives come into place? What was his idea? Why is it that all these cultures share these same stories, no matter where you go and no matter what time you’re in?
Jordan Peterson: Well, Jung wasn’t particularly clear about how they emerged. He made various attempts in his life to come up with a causal explanation. He attributed them to the existence of something he called the collective unconscious, which would be the deep structure of the mind that is shared by every human being. You could think about that most usefully, I suppose, from a biological perspective, although it’s somewhat confusing because it often seems as if what Jung was doing was hypothesizing the existence of inherited memory content.
He never is really all that clear about how he formulates the concept of the collective unconscious except to say that because we’re all human and because we … I’m paraphrasing, I suppose. Because we’re all human and because we all share the same biological platform, a platform that we share even with animals to a large degree, we tend to interpret the world in very similar ways. Those interpretations are often expressed in stories. The stories are descriptions about how human beings act, and our fundamental problem in the world is how to act.
One of the most fundamental stories, for example, is the hero archetype. The hero in the archetypal story essentially goes out and confronts chaos, and that’s the indeterminate world. That’s the world, the confusing, uncertain world full of unexpected occurrences, dangerous, threatening, and also promising. The hero is the person who voluntarily confronts that and makes sense out of it and establishes habitable territory, let’s say, a safe domain, a safe and productive domain. In that pursuit, especially if it’s done voluntarily, it’s possible to find deep meaning, and that meaning is an expression of the instinct that guides us out into the unknown so that we can conquer it, let’s say, and prevail.
I suppose part of that, there’s an existential element to that, which is that in order for people to find a meaning in life that sustains them through the tragedies of life, they have to undertake a courageous and noble adventure, let’s say, because there’s nothing that gives life enough significance to justify it in the absence of that sort of adventure. You might say, “Well, where did these stories come from?” I would say the answer to that is that because human beings are self-conscious, and that’s something that really distinguishes us quite substantively from other animals.
We’ve been watching ourselves behave for a very long time and trying to understand what it is that we’re doing, both when we’re successful and when we’re unsuccessful. We’ve created stories, extracted stories or derived stories over thousands or tens of thousands of years that describe both a fundamental pattern of success and a fundamental pattern of failure. Those stories are encoded in great stories and myths, essentially, so that the successful person is the successful hero who establishes order in the midst of chaos and sets up a domain in which he and his family, let’s say, and the community can survive and thrive.
The unsuccessful is someone who fails at that and then perhaps, even worse, becomes embittered by that failure and turns against life and begins to act in a malevolent manner and a destructive manner. The fundamental narrative landscape in some sense is good versus evil in the world of chaos versus order. It’s something like that. You see that expressed very frequently, for example, in video game structures, because games and stories share a lot in common.
Brett McKay: As you were talking, it sounds like these narratives or these metanarratives or these archetypes, there’s sort of a Darwinian thing going on. You talk a lot about survival and failure and the stories that are useful for people to thrive in this world. Those are the ones that survived, and we still have them today because they are transcripts.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, well, I would say that that’s part of what I’ve added to the Jungian corpus of thinking, is I’ve tried to place the idea of the functional myth in a Darwinian context and take seriously the idea that our fundamental religious narratives which are associated with these great myths are actually evolved structures, and they’ve evolved at multiple levels. First of all, they’re expressions of our physiological being, because we act in certain ways in the world as a consequence of the manner in which we’re constituted physiologically.
Our physiological constitution is obviously a product of Darwinian processes, insofar as you buy the evolutional theory as a generative, as an account of the mechanism that generated us. Our physiology evolved, our behaviors evolved, and our accounts of those behaviors, both successful and unsuccessful, evolved. As those accounts evolved and we shared them, we also changed the landscape in which we were being selected. All of these things tangled together, but they tangled together in a way that embeds these great stories deeply within us, I would say both physiologically and psychologically.
Yeah, I think about it as a deeply Darwinian process. Now, to me, the idea that the world of experience, which is the world in which you act, let’s say, not the world that you construe objectively, but the world in which you act, that’s best considered as a battle between good and evil in a domain of chaos and order, and the individual is best conceived as the person who mediates between chaos and order. We’re doing that all the time. Whenever you’re confused, you confront chaos.
It’s a different way of looking at the world, to think of chaos as a constituent element of experience, but it’s very, very helpful because it helps orient you when you’re in a state of confusion and when you’re in a state of crisis, which is very common for people. There’s guidelines for that. The great ethical guidelines while you might say that you’re entreated to act nobly, act with humility, act honestly, pursue beauty, pursue your vision, a vision of the future that would make things better for you and for the people around you.
It’s all a call, I would say, in some sense to noble action. People are somewhat cynical about such things today, because they think of that as … They try to reduce it to a set of rules and also think about it as arbitrary, but it’s not arbitrary at all. It’s the attempt of humanity to determine the appropriate path through the crises of life. Everyone needs to know that path, because everyone’s life is rife with crises, so it’s very, very practical. It’s not abstract at all.
Part of the reason there’s an injunction to the truth, for example, is that if you’re in a circumstance of extreme uncertainty, your best weapon, let’s say, or your best tool or your best defense is the truth, because it keeps things simpler. That’s often extremely necessary, and it keeps your eyes clear, because if you exist in a deceitful relationship with the world, then you start to perceive it improperly and you warp your reputation and you damage your capacity to think because you’re not existing in an authentic relationship with yourself in the world. How could that possibly work? Assuming if there’s such a thing as reality, if you have a false relationship with it, how can you do anything but fail?
Now people think that they can use deceit, for example, and warp the structure of reality because now and then they get away with it in the short term, and that enables them to generate that presupposition that that’s an effective strategy, but it’s not, because things come back to bite you, always. Partly what I’ve been doing is trying to extract out from these great stories and from the biological context in which they’re embedded in very, very concrete … what would you say … suggestions about how people should conduct themselves in the world and to try to emphasize how practical this is.
I just finished a series of lectures on the Biblical stories in Genesis. For example, I spent a fair bit of time talking about the flood, which is a very common mythological story, the idea that there is a flood and that the creator of everything determines from time to time to wipe things out, and that’s appropriately read as a description of the conditions of existence. No matter who you are, as you walk through life, you’re going to be confronted by catastrophes that have the possibility of washing you away. You need to know how to conduct yourself in order to prevail when that happens.
It can happen to you personally. You can get very ill or it can happen to you in your family when a family member breaks down or dies or has something terrible happen to them or there’s an economic catastrophe in your family, and it can happen socially. Not only can it happen. It will happen. Now in the injunction to Noah, for example, the description of Noah, because he’s the person that builds an ark, is that he walks with God. That means that he has his moral house in order and that his generations are perfect, which means that he has his family in order.
What that means is that when the crisis comes, he’s prepared to deal with it and can prevail. That’s what people need to know. They need to know how to do that because the crisis is always coming. That’s why the apocalypse, the idea of the apocalypse and the end of the world is also archetypal. It’s because our worlds come to an end continually in small ways and sometimes in large ways, and so in some sense, it’s necessary to be constantly preparing for the apocalypse, because you’re going to go through experiences in your life that will throw you for a loop and force you to either radically change or to fail and perhaps to die. It’s very serious business.
Brett McKay: Right. These apocalypses, they could be losing a job or your wife dies or a child dies. Right?
Jordan Peterson: Yes, all three of those, or you have a terrible divorce. Yeah, it’s those experiences in life where the fundamental constants that keep you oriented shift, and then you fall into the unknown. That’s the underworld of mythology, you fall into the unknown, into the underworld, and part of that underworld can be hell. Now hell is the part of the underworld that emerges when you’re embittered by your failure and you turn towards the desire to destroy. Everyone who thinks about this can appreciate that, because most people, at least if they reflect on their own experience, can understand full well the negative psychological consequences of falling flat on your face. It’s not only that you fail. It’s that you become bitter and turn against the world. That’s a trip to hell, for all intents and purposes.
Brett McKay: Right. Wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Jordan Peterson: That’s for sure. Wailing and gnashing of teeth, exactly. The fundamentalist types tend to read those things very concretely and to only project that out into an afterlife, say, or a purely spiritual world. I’m not making any claims at the moment about metaphysics or post-life existence. I’m saying that these descriptions pertain to psychological conditions that are always around us, right here and now, and that the mythological landscape is the landscape of human experience. It’s not the objective world. The landscape of human experience and the objective world aren’t the same thing. There’s no pain, or pain is not an objective thing. It’s part of the subjective world of human experience, but its reality is undeniable from an experiential perspective.
Our materialist outlook doesn’t do a good job of orienting us in the world because it doesn’t tell us how to behave, and it can’t. It’s the famous conundrum put forward by David Hume, which is you can’t derive an ought from an is, which means no matter how much factual information you extract from the world, you’re not going to derive from that an unerring guide to how you should act. You might say, “Well …” And there’s an endless number of answers to the question how you should act, but that’s not helpful because all that does is disorient you.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you’re right. A lot of what we’re trying to do, and I feel kind of modern world, and in the world of psychology, because your field is psychology, you have these individuals who are trying to show what the brain is like, and then from that, deriving oughts. Well, the brain does this, so therefore you should do this so you live a happy, flourishing life. You’re saying that that might not be that useful.
Jordan Peterson: Well, I’m saying generally that it’s a technical problem in some sense, that there’s an endless number of pathways that can be derived from any set of empirical fact. Here’s an example. Should you spend more money on discovering a cure for cancer or on educating university students? Well, in some sense, the question is so complex that no matter how many facts you gather, you’re never going to get an answer to it, because the answer depends on how many variable you’re willing to put in the equation, and there’s an endless number of them.
Most decisions in life are like that. You can’t rely on facts to guide you. It doesn’t mean you should ignore them. They set parameters, but in my estimation, there’s a domain of factual knowledge, and that would be the domain of the objective world that’s studied empirically, and there’s a domain of moral knowledge, and that’s knowledge about how to conduct yourself in the world. That’s the world of value, and it’s in that world … That world includes emotions and motivations and the subjective states that characterize our existence. In that world, those things are the fundamental realities.
From the perspective of the mythological, I would say there’s nothing more real than pain. From the material perspective, there’s nothing more real than matter, but pain is what matters most. Even the word matter is an interesting word, because you have on the one hand the matter that everything is made of. Then on the other hand, you have what matters and how it matters, and that’s the world of what’s important. That’s different, but it’s still matter. In the mythological world, what matters is what’s important. The world is made out of what matters, not of matter. It requires a very different orientation. It requires an orientation. It also starts with the assumption that meaning is primary rather than matter, and you-
Brett McKay: This is where phenomenology comes in. Right?
Jordan Peterson: Right.
Brett McKay: Phenomenology is the study of what matters.
Jordan Peterson: Yes, exactly. I would say the viewpoint that I’ve been developing, although it has parallels with the work of Heidegger, Martin Heidegger, although I came across Heidegger well into the development of these ideas, but the parallelism is quite striking. Heidegger was also interested in trying to lay out a map for the world of human experience.
Brett McKay: You mentioned some of these big archetypes that we see throughout history. There’s chaos and then there’s order. Then in between, you mentioned there is the hero who-
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, the adversary. Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yes.
Jordan Peterson: The individual anyways. Yeah, so the chaotic domain has two elements. There’s a positive element and a negative element. That’s usually symbolized using female iconography and representations. It’s because new things come out of the unknown, and so there’s an appropriate analogy at work there. It’s the defining characteristic of the feminine, is that the feminine is that out of which new forms arise, and the unknown is like that.
That’s why we have Mother Nature, for example. Mother Nature is what you go to investigate, to discover new things. It’s Mother Nature, because Mother Nature gives rise to new things. There’s a terrible element of chaos in the unknown, and that’s the part of the unknown that will kill you or hurt you, and there’s a benevolent element. That’s the part that will provide you with new information and new life if you’re fortunate enough, well, if you’re fortunate enough to begin with, but also if you’re brave and honest and courageous enough to confront the unknown properly.
Then in the orderly domain, there’s two elements too, and that’s usually masculine. That’s the great father, the tyrant and the wise king. The tyrant is that part of the social world, the patriarchy, let’s say, that oppresses and crushes you while it simultaneously develops and protects you. You’re subject to both of those elements continually, and part of your existential problem is how do you transform the tyranny into benevolent protection, or how do you transform the terror of nature into the benevolence of the natural world and the unknown? That’s really the goal of the hero is to do that, is to figure out how to balance those constituent elements of experience.
Brett McKay: This hero archetype, is it also masculine?
Jordan Peterson: It’s masculine, but that doesn’t make it male, because it’s a symbolic language, and it’s hard to say precisely why it’s masculine. I would say it’s likely masculine because the feminine archetype is associated with birth and is such a dominant in the birth, and new life and destruction, for that matter, is such a dominant element of that archetypal representation that something had to be formulated as its opposite.
Brett McKay: It seems like the hero is kind of a way … It’s also sort of a masculine mother. Right? Because you go into the chaos to birth something new oftentimes. I don’t know.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, well, I would say it’s not feminine because when you go in, you go in as an active agent, as a fertilizing agent, let’s say. Because let’s say that when you encounter something unknown, it’s the a priori structures that you bring to bear on that that give rise to the new thing. If you look at the movie Sleeping Beauty, for example, the feminine is unconscious in that movie. That’s Sleeping Beauty. She’s unconscious because she couldn’t tolerate the trauma of puberty and sexual development essentially, and the reason for that is because her parents over-protected her.
If you remember, at the beginning of Sleeping Beauty, the king and queen, who’d been waiting a long time for their daughter, decide not to invite Maleficent to the christening, and Maleficent is the evil queen. She’s the negative element of nature in the world, and if you don’t allow the negative element of life in the world into your child’s environment, then you over-protect them and make them weak. Then, when they grow up and face the inevitable confrontations of adolescence and adulthood, they deeply desire to remain unconscious or to become unconscious again. That can manifest itself in suicidal ideation, for example.
Sleeping Beauty falls unconscious when blood emerges when she’s pricked, and it’s just after she falls in love naively with the prince and then that collapses and she can’t tolerate the catastrophe of existence, so she falls unconscious. Something has to rescue her, and it’s the hero. It’s the prince. Now you can read that as an external prince because to some degree in a woman’s life the adult feminine in her is awakened by the man that she chooses.
You can read it as a love story, but you can also read it as a story of individual development because what the woman is going to use to call herself out of unconsciousness is her own masculine propensity to develop a consciousness and to move forthrightly out into the world. These archetypal stories can generally be read at multiple levels of analysis simultaneously. They apply across multiple domains.
Brett McKay: You mention, I think, in Maps and Meaning, you have to take a Jungian circumambulation around these stories. You just kind of walk around and around and around them because you can get different perspectives, depending on where you’re at.
Jordan Peterson: Yes. Well, and you have to do that in the world as well. You want to push yourself out against the world in as many ways as you can because that forces you to develop. That’s partly because as you push yourself out against the world and learn new things, you become more and more informed by the information that you’re generating in your active encounter with the world. Also, we know that when you put yourself in new situations, new genes turn on in your nervous system and they code for new proteins, so you exist a lot in potential and you need to actualize that potential in order to become all that you need to be in order to prevail in the world.
The way that you do that is by pushing yourself out against new, unknown things and forcing your own transformation in the face of those challenges. The idea is that if you do that, let’s say, religiously, then you can turn yourself into a character that has enough power and strength to prevail in the tragic conditions of life without becoming embittered and cruel and malevolent. Again, to me, the longer I study this, I suppose the more self-evident it seems to me. Life is very difficult. It will challenge you to your core. You need to be able to withstand that challenge or you’ll warp and deteriorate. How do you develop yourself to withstand that challenge? You take on responsibilities and challenges voluntarily and strengthen yourself. How else could you possibly do it?
You could hide, but there’s no hiding. You can’t hide from illness and death. You can’t hide from loneliness or pain. It’s not possible. If you retreat, then the things that chase you just grow larger. You have to put yourself together, and you do that by seeing what’s right in front of you, regardless of whether or not you like it, and encouraging yourself to master what you see voluntarily and to extend yourself and to stretch yourself out constantly. You do that with your eyes open, and you do that with your speech and thinking carefully monitored and regulated so that you don’t corrupt yourself with unnecessary ignorance and delusion, because that will just hurt you when the crisis comes.
Brett McKay: Then it goes back to why these metanarratives, these archetypes exist. They instruct us on how to do just that, how to face chaos, how to face tragedy, because they provide examples. They set the pattern.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, they set the pattern. Yeah, and the issue is how do you manifest the pattern in your own life. That’s the crucial issue, is how do you realize the archetype in your own life? You do that in part by accepting the struggles of your being or perhaps even welcoming them and subjugating yourself to them and opening yourself up to the possibility of radical transformation in the face of your errors and faults. That’s humility, I suppose. You’re not all that you could be.
Well, you might say, “Well, why does that matter?” Well, it’s easy to answer that. If you’re not all that you can be, you will suffer more than you have to and so will the people around you. You might say, “Well, I don’t care about that.” Well, that’s unlikely because virtually everyone cares about their own pain, but even if you have got to the point where you don’t care about that, that’s certainly nothing to be happy about or proud of. It’s a catastrophe.
Brett McKay: You have to become who you are, right? That’s Pindar quoted by Nietzsche.
Jordan Peterson: Well, that’s associated with Jung’s idea of the self, is one of the ways to understand that, because it seems like a very strange pronouncement, is that you are what you are, but you’re also what you could be, which is a strange thing, right? Then that’s no more than to say that you are characterized by an indefinite amount of potential, so you are what you are and you are the potential that you are. That’s a very paradoxical statement because it’s not obvious how you can be something that’s potential, because potential isn’t being. It’s the possibility of becoming, but be that as it may, we’re stuck with it. It’s a paradox, but we’re stuck with it.
The goal of authenticity from an existential perspective is to pursue that which you could be so that you can flesh yourself out, so you can burn off what about you is dead and outdated and so that you can allow what could be to come to life. The deep archetypal idea is that to the degree that you do that, you redeem yourself and you redeem the world around you. Again, I don’t think that that’s metaphysics. It seems to be the most practical of truths. The archetype, for example, the hero archetype, you could say what it is it’s that which you find admirable.
That which you find spontaneously admirable is the pathway to the archetype. You see, so people might tell stories about interesting and admirable people, and the reason they tell them is because they admire those people and when they talk about them, other people listen. Then you could imagine, well, if you distilled what people find most interesting and admirable about others, what you would end up at the end of the process of distillation would be something like an archetypal story. It would be something like the story of Buddha or it would be something like the story of Christ.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Another one that came to mind was the Bhagavad Gita. I’m reading that lately, and that’s sort of the main message of that. It’s like, uh-huh, you can only be who you are and you’re to live, to have, was it dharma? You have to become who you are.
Jordan Peterson: What have you learned about that concretely that’s changed the way that you’re acting?
Brett McKay: Ah, man, changed the way that … I don’t know. It’s definitely had an impact on me. I don’t know if it’s gotten to the point where it’s changed the way I act. Maybe not being afraid of following that inner voice. Kind of what Thoreau or Emerson would say, because they were kind of Jungian in a way, be proto-Jungians.
Jordan Peterson: I guess it’s you can be afraid, but you can’t stop.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Jordan Peterson: That’s the thing, because the fear is justifiable, but that doesn’t make it a sufficient reason to retreat and stop. There’s no retreat in life. That’s the thing. There might be periods where you can pull back and rest, but because we’re surrounded by the unknown and the unexpected and because we’re characterized by the consequences of our ultimate ignorance and because we’re finite, there’s no stepping back. You either move forward voluntarily or degenerate. Those are your options, and the degeneration process is, we said already, in its worst aspects, it’s a voyage to hell.
You see the consequences of that, because people who have become particularly embittered by life also often become very cruel and do everything they can to make whatever could be good bad merely for the sake of spite and revenge. To me, that’s in large part the story of the 20th century. We had these great ideological battles in the 20th century and terrible catastrophes as a consequence of the formation of a variety of different ideological stances, but even those ideologies were turned into something immensely destructive by the malevolent actions and the cowardly inactions of the people who held the ideologies.
Brett McKay: Let’s tie how your study of ideology goes into this. Does ideology rise up when people either ignore or reject these metanarratives.
Jordan Peterson: Yes, because the ideologies are parasites on the underlying religious structure. They tell you part of the archetypal story but not all of it. They just tell you enough of it to grip you if you’re not situated properly in the metaphysical landscape. It’s like a cult indoctrination. They tell enough of the story so that the telling has religious power, has religiously compelling power, and that pulls people into the ideology. But what also pulls them into it is the desire for them to escape their own individual responsibility, because if you adopt an ideology, then you’re part of a group and the group becomes responsible, not you.
That can be a great relief because, well, who wants the responsibility? Now what I’ve learned from reading people like Carl Jung and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Victor Frankl, people who wrote deeply about what happened in the 20th century, it was that you are deeply responsible for the course of your life but also to an indeterminate degree for the course of the lives of the people around you, your family and then your broader community.
That’s on you, man, and that means that when you make a moral error, the consequences of that error ripple out beyond you and add to the pathology, well, of your family and your friends, but also of your society. It’s something that people want to shrink away from because it’s bad enough to be responsible on your own for your mistakes, but to also understand that your moral insufficiency corrupts the world, well, that’s a hell of a thing to come to terms with.
Brett McKay: Right. Then it is exactly what Nietzsche predicted, what happened in the 20th century with the death of God. A lot of people misunderstand Nietzsche where he kind of celebrates the death of God. He’s actually saying, “No, this is actually really terrible.”
Jordan Peterson: Yeah. No, he wasn’t celebrating it, that’s for sure.
Brett McKay: Right. This is terrible, because here’s what’s going to happen.
Jordan Peterson: We’ll never find enough water to wash away the blood.
Brett McKay: Right. As you said, these ideologies, what they’ll often do is they tell half of the story of the archetype. I’m guessing in the 20th century, Nazism really focused on that father archetype, but on the negative part, extreme order. Communism, what was that possibly, the ideology?
Jordan Peterson: Well, with the Nazis, the basic archetype was the positive father but ignoring the tyrant, because the social world you can characterize as wise king and tyrant and the Nazi call was, well, join us and the wise father will rule forever. Well, but there was no discussion of the tyrant and there was no discussion of the abdication of individual responsibility. Everything that was ignored played itself out because you can’t ignore the tyrant and you can’t give yourself over to the great father without sacrificing your soul, and if you sacrifice your soul, then the probability that you’ll become corrupt is a hundred percent, and once you’re corrupt, you’ll start to do terrible things.
Brett McKay: Then with communism, because you really focused a lot on that. Solzhenitsyn talks a lot about that, and you really refer to his work. What was going on there archetypically?
Jordan Peterson: Well, the original diagnosis with the communist revolutionaries is that what they were confronting was only the tyrannical father, knowing that if you can just do away with the tyrannical father, then people will all of a sudden be living in a harmonious utopia. It’s to blame everything on the tyrannical father, which is exactly what’s happening … That’s exactly the message that the radical left is pushing forward in our society, is that all the corruption of the world is a consequence of the tyrannical father, but it’s not true, or it’s half true. It’s less than half true because there are other archetypes that have to be considered.
There’s no gratitude in the radical left because the radical left says the patriarchy is to blame for everything. It’s like, well, you know, how about flush toilets? How about central heating? How about clean water? How about reliable electricity? That’s all part of the tyranny, is it? They just take all that for granted. That’s not a good idea to take all that for granted.
Brett McKay: Then you could also say we’re seeing that, too, with the radical right. It’s kind of the rebirth of the focusing on the father but ignoring the tyrant.
Jordan Peterson: Right.
Brett McKay: You got ideology.
Jordan Peterson: You could say the radical left says the great father is all bad, and the radical right says the great father’s all good, because they can’t tolerate the conflict, the fact that both elements have to be considered simultaneously. They’re both equally desirous of abandoning individual responsibility, which is the … that’s the real underground motivation for the polarization, escape from individual responsibility.
Brett McKay: Escape from freedom. Isn’t that Erich Fromm?
Jordan Peterson: That’s Eric Fromm, yeah.
Brett McKay: I think what you’re arguing, then, is that the response to these ideologies is embracing these metanarratives or looking at them again, because they set the pattern for us on how to live. But here’s the question. How do you make that case to a post-secular world? Because a lot of people just look at these stories like Tiamat and Marduk or the Christ story and the Bible stories and say, “Well, that’s just … Those are nice stories, but I’m not going to take it seriously.” What’s the case you make, because I know actually-
Jordan Peterson: Well, what are you going to take seriously, then? You’re going to take nothing seriously. Well, good luck with that, because serious things are coming your way. If you’re not prepared for them by an equal metaphysical seriousness, they will flatten you. You can be dismissive with regards to wisdom, but that doesn’t protect you from the coming catastrophe. The way I deal with it on a one-to-one basis generally is to get people to talk about their lives.
People know perfectly well that they need meaning in their lives. Let’s say the atheist skeptical types, who I have a fair bit of respect for, I understand where they’re coming from, they can’t formulate a straightforward identification with, say, a religious creed because it conflicts with their rationality. It’s partly because the more fundamentalist types on the religious end insist in their metaphysical ignorance that Biblical stories are scientific theories, which they’re not.
I would say, “Look, if your life is working out for you and it’s richly meaningful and you’re well-oriented and all of that, well, then good for you. But if your floundering and uncertain and unable to tolerate the suffering that’s part and parcel of your being, then you may need to do some serious thinking about your metaphysical presuppositions. Life is a serious business in my estimation, so you have to be serious about how you think and what you think and how you act. There’s just no way around it.
Brett McKay: Right, because if you ignore it, what you’re going to get are ideologies, and that’s just going to destroy you.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, or nihilism.
Brett McKay: Nihilism, right.
Jordan Peterson: Then the problem with nihilism is, well, if everything’s cakes and roses, well, maybe you can tolerate it, but it’s not going to see you through your father’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease, I can tell you that. You have to be metaphysically situated, because life is a tragedy and there’s elements of malevolence to it as well, which is also something that’s well worth pointing out. People may be cynical enough to say, “Well, good is relative, and so I’m not required to pursue any specific direction because all are as good as any.” It’s like, well, you wait till someone comes along who has the increase of your suffering firmly in mind. You’ll be naked in front of them, because metaphysical naiveté provides you with zero protection against malevolence. It opens you up to tragedy.
That’s bad enough, but malevolence is a whole different thing. Perhaps you’ll be fortunate and get through your life without feeling the dread touch of the truly malevolent, but it’s highly unlikely. Unless you’re prepared metaphysically, when that touch comes, it will destroy you. It’ll take you apart. It’s one thing not to believe in good. It’s a lot more difficult not to believe in evil, especially when it makes itself manifest in front of you.
Brett McKay: I guess that going back to your clinical work, you mentioned earlier that a lot of the problems you see with your patients isn’t so much mental illness, though some of them have it, but it’s just they don’t have that metaphysical or existential bearing, so they just go through life feeling, I don’t know, it’s the enemy. I don’t know. People in the 19th century called it neurasthenia or something?
Jordan Peterson: Well, they’ve been hit usually. Something terrible has happened to them in their life. They’ve lost their job or their career or part of their family or they’ve had a terrible divorce or they’ve been visited by illness or they’ve had a confrontation with someone who truly wished them harm. They’ve had a confrontation with malevolence, and that will exacerbate any proclivities they might have to a given physical or mental illness.
Often, the problems are purely existential. It’s like they’re swamped by the reality of their existence, and a lot of the clinical endeavor is the search for metaphysical foundations that are firm enough so that in chaotic times when malevolence threatens, you can still stay oriented and upright. A lot of that has to do with strengthening your own character. You do that by confronting the challenges that are there by establishing your aims, by confronting the challenges that present themselves and by attempting to carefully and accurately and truthfully articulate your being.
Brett McKay: You mentioned in several of your interviews and in your YouTube channel that about 80 to 90% of your audience is male, which I thought was interesting.
Jordan Peterson: It’s more than that on YouTube. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay. Because it’s interesting, because psychology … I don’t know. Maybe it’s what you’re doing. Maybe that’s why it is. Because psychology typically attracts more women than men.
Jordan Peterson: Yes.
Brett McKay: What do you think is going on there? Why do you think men are keyed in to what you’re doing exploring these archetypes and these metanarratives?
Jordan Peterson: Because I’m distinguishing between arbitrary power and competence, because I’m talking to people about responsibility instead of rights. When young men mature and become men, it isn’t power that accrues to them. It’s competence, and the problem with the narrative that grips our culture at the moment is that we fail to make a distinction between power and competence. Power is just that I can hurt you and, therefore, I dominate. Competence is that I have status because I’m offering to myself and to other people something that they voluntarily regard as with value, of value.
My invitation to young men is to become competent, to forgo power. Power is the tactic used by the incompetent to gain status. Competence is the tool used by the morally oriented to accrue authority and do good things in the world. Well, that’s a noble call, and the only way out of the tragedy of existence is to follow the noble call, and young men, they need to hear that because the alternative is something like hell, and I don’t say that lightly. We already went through the 20th century. We know where the ideologies end, lead. We know where nihilism goes. People say, “Well, I don’t know how to stop being nihilistic.” Well, that’s what I’m trying to help people understand.
Nihilism is terrible. It’s a disease of the soul, and all it does is call forth compensatory ideologies. You might say, “Better to be nihilistic than to be possessed by an ideology,” but it’s just one feeds the other. There has to be another way, and there is. The other way is to identify with the mythological hero, to take up arms against the adversary who wishes that everything would merely cease and perhaps in the most horrible way possible, to struggle against the tyranny of the state, to put protective walls up against the catastrophe of the natural world and to walk the proper line between chaos and order.
Brett McKay: That’s where studying those myths can come in handy, because they set the pattern for it.
Jordan Peterson: That’s the world they lay out, and everyone knows it. We know it because we go watch stories, we watch movies, we read novels, we play video games. They all have the same underlying phenomenological world at their heart.
Brett McKay: I’m curious. For those who are interested, they’re like, “This sounds great. I want to pursue this more,” are there particular works that you recommend? Do you have a reading list I can send people to, because I think a lot of-
Jordan Peterson: If they go to jordanbpeterson.com, there’s a reading list there.
Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. One of the things I’ve done in my own life is after listening to your lectures … You use Saint George and the Dragon quite a bit.
Jordan Peterson: Yep.
Brett McKay: I bought a picture book for my son. We’ve been reading. That’s become his favorite book.
Jordan Peterson: Oh, good.
Brett McKay: He actually loves it.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, confront the dragon, get the gold and the girl.
Brett McKay: Right. The other one he likes a lot is The Odyssey, which I think there’s a ton of myths and metanarratives in there on how to live with chaos. He loves that one.
Jordan Peterson: Great. How old’s your son?
Brett McKay: He’s six. He’ll be seven in October.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, well, it’s great. You’ve got a chance there to help him, to encourage him, which is what a father should do. Right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Jordan Peterson: To encourage, not to empower, that pathological word. To encourage, to say, “The world is a terrible place, but you are enough to master it.” That’s what every young man needs to know.
Brett McKay: That’s what a lot of men who probably never heard that as a young man need to know, too.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, they’re dying for it, and they’re turning to terrible things as a substitute.
Brett McKay: They’re turning to ideology.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah. That’s what beckons as a substitute.
Brett McKay: Or the sad one is opioids. There’s sort of an archetype going on there. They just want to cease existing.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, well, that’s the comforts of unconsciousness.
Brett McKay: Right.
Jordan Peterson: Alcohol does the same thing.
Brett McKay: You can’t do that. Well, Jordan, this has been a great conversation. There’s so much more we could talk about, but where can people go to learn? You mentioned Jordanbpeterson. Anywhere else people can learn more about what you’re doing?
Jordan Peterson: My YouTube channel. I just finished a 12-part series on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. I only got about two-thirds of the way through Genesis, but I think people might find that useful. I have hundreds of lectures online. You can dive in anywhere, really, if you’re interested in this sort of thing. I see it as the alternative. I laid it out originally when I started working on these ideas as the alternative to ideological possession, and that’s become even more crucial in recent years as the ideologies raise their ugly heads again, yet again.
Brett McKay: Well, Jordan, thank you for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Jordan Peterson: Thanks for the invitation.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jordan B. Peterson. He’s a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto. You can find all his work at jordanbpeterson.com. He has links to his YouTube lectures, his lectures that he gave on the Biblical myths. You can find information about his podcast there and also his self-authoring program. It’s pretty cool. You should check it out. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/peterson, where you find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. Thank you to everyone who has given us a review already. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.