Modernity and Myths: Jordan Peterson and “Maps of Meaning”

One example of how modern people misunderstand myths is Dr. Jordan Peterson, psychologist and lifestyle guru. Unconsciously, he sees myths in terms of Western industrial culture, which is awash in monotheistic thought. That is myths are universal in themes or archetypes. (Note 1.) For Peterson, that means every culture has “The Great Mother (the unknown),” “The Great Father (the known),” and “The Divine Son (the knower).” (Note 2.)

Peterson, in his book, “Maps of Meaning (1999),” lays out this metaphysics. To Peterson, every myth is a map of meaning which guides people on how to act. Each story builds on what has been learned before. Therefore, religious beliefs are codified and refined over time.

According to Peterson, myths are the intermediaries between what and knowing how. They help people to move from unconscious actions to conscious understanding. The mythic imagination asks three questions: “what is,” “what should be,” and “how should we therefore act.” Answers to these questions form the basis of morality as well as philosophy.

However, the universality of myths is based on longstanding Christian thought. (Note 3.) Immersed in monotheistic cultures, many people assume that everyone shares the same beliefs such as one Supreme God. (All other Gods are really aspects of this One God.) Also, in every culture, the Mythic Redeemer saves his people from sin.

However, the Chinese do not have a tradition of the Heroic Son. Meanwhile, Roman mythology differs from the Greek, although people are taught that Roman Gods are Greek Gods with Latin names. The Romans have the two-headed God Janus, who guards thresholds. Instead of creation myths, they speak of the founding of the City of Rome.

As do other Christians, Peterson believes that myths (i.e. religion) are the source of morality. This is not the case. The Roman based their Public and Private Virtues on promoting good relations between the community, the Gods, and the family. Confucius stressed family and social harmony. The Greek Sallustius in his treatise (“On the Gods and the World”) said that virtue and vice depend on the Soul. He explained “When we are good, we are joined to the Gods by our likeness to Them, and when bad, we are separated from them by our unlikeness.”

Peterson does realize that modern people have no use for mythology, which is why he wrote “Maps of Meaning.” He laments “We have lost the mythic universe of the pre-experimental mind or have at least ceased to further its development. That loss has left our increased technological power more dangerously at the mercy of our still unconscious systems of valuation.”

Note 1. Peterson relies on Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell for his concepts about myths. Campbell built on Jung’s archetypes and the Great Unconscious. He believed that myths tell of “the oneness of all things and that all things are truly one.” Both promoted the idea of the Monomyth – there is one great story with cultural variations.

Note 2. These terms are from Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” The Hero receives the call to leave the Known and travels through the Unknown. He returns as the Knower.

Note 3. I know several Evangelical Christians who are trying to map Norse myths with the Bible. Other Christians are claiming that the myths of Mesopotamia and the Bible are exactly the same, instead of simply overlapping.

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