On January 21, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jordan Peterson when he visited The Netherlands. Apparently, Amsterdam bored him enough to want to stop by that dubious and lowly GeenStijl studio and have a talk. It was my first time on camera, but you know, “I’ll try anything once (*)“.
After Peterson appeared on Joe Rogan last year, I decided to watch his lecture series Personality and its Transformations, Maps of Meaning and The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. Pretty profound stuff, with one central theme: how to be in the world as an individual. Peterson’s work deals with a lot of religious themes and symbols, and he’s a (non-church going) religious man himself. Personally, I’m an atheist, but I have come to believe in the utility of religious language in encapsulating the human condition in the most resonating way.
In the week prior to the interview, I decided to distil his philosophy on how to be in the world down to what I thought were his five most valuable points, with the intention to present and unpack those during the talk.
To me, the most valuable part of the interview was the segment in which Peterson – for the first time – formulated his ‘hypothesis of faith’, resulting in his statement that “life without truth is hell“:
“The thing about telling the truth that’s so adventurous, is that you let go of what you want. And you replace it with a hypothesis, the hypothesis of faith. And the hypothesis is, it doesn’t matter what I want, or even what I should want. Instead, I’m going to make a philosophical claim that if I tell the truth, as carefully as I can, then, whatever happens, is the best that could have possibly happened in that situation, no matter how it looks.”
I have yet to read the book, by the way, the points listed below are solely based on his lectures.
1- The centrality of the archetypal hero’s myth
2- The central role of the Logos during the hero’s narrative
3- Making the right sacrifices to walk with God (meaning to bargain with the future)
4- Orienting yourself towards the highest possible good you can conceive
5- Minimise your persona, cultivate your essence, and live in its closest possible proximity
The following text is a brief summary of each point, starting with the lecture in which it is elaborated on most.
1- The centrality of the archetypal hero’s myth
The archetypal hero’s myth is the premiere narrative within Peterson’s philosophy. In his lectures, Peterson mainly focusses on Carl Jung’s readings of mythology, but this sweet video on comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is probably the best brief introduction to the concept.
The hero’s myth plays out along these general lines: someone looks where he least wants to look. One descends into the underworld. Faces off with the dragon goddess of chaos. Fights with all one has and a little more, and if you survive, you find something of supreme value and escort it back into the daylight.
In mythology, this is usually a virgin or gold. What it is in real life, well, I hope you find out. For me, it was my own pre-corrupt essence (see point 5), which isn’t a concept I’ve heard Peterson cover yet, but maybe you’ll find it valuable nonetheless.
Peterson states that in many cases “the alignment of the soul” is preceded by undergoing the hero’s narrative in one form or the other. But it’s no joke: “In filth it will be found“.
2- The premiere instrument during the hero’s narrative is the Logos, aka speaking the truth
Peterson describes the Logos as “the capacity to truthfully speak habitable order out of undifferentiated chaos”, and sees this as the core human characteristic separating mankind from the animal kingdom. His claim is that when order is created through articulated truth, that order is “good”.
He often refers to Genesis in which God “speaks the world into being” from undifferentiated chaos and subsequently calls his creation “good”, as being one of the deepest reflections in Western thought of the idea that truth can create benevolent order. But actually, the idea is way older than Genesis. One of the oldest creation myths in recorded history, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš, tells the tale of how top-god Marduk who possesses the magic powers of vision and magic (truthful) speech destroys the dragon goddess of chaos Tiamat, and creates the world out of her dismembered body. It’s the same idea: truth can conquer chaos.
Peterson also states that the notion of the Logos is at the core of Western legal systems, which are built around the idea that the individual has an inherent value, or even divinity. In the West, this originated in the Christian doctrine that ‘god lives in everyone’. According to Peterson, this is a reflection of the idea that “the capacity to truthfully speak habitable order out of undifferentiated chaos” lives in everyone, and this grants the individual a ‘divinity’ so inalienable, that even the law itself has to grind to a hold in front of it.
Of course, speaking the truth is not always easy, especially when you don’t know the truth, which is quite common. But you do know how not to lie, which is a nice start. And besides, speaking that you don’t know the truth to begin with, isn’t that bad of a place to start either!
3- Orient yourself towards the highest good you can conceive, because you don’t have anything better to do
Petersons states that when you actually orient yourself on the good, the good will manifest itself around you. That might sound a bit new-agy, but I don’t think it is, and I’ve actually found that it’s the best shot we’ve got. In a way, this is reflected in the Joseph story too: he’s a slave, but he acts free and eventually ends up not only being free, but being a benevolent sovereign!
“The good” is equated to the voluntary adoption of meaningful responsibilities, and the cool thing about this is that your entire mental and physical system seems to be designed to signal when you’re doing something meaningful. The answer to “what is meaningful?” is almost literally encoded into your body, and it might be worth a shot to trust it. You’ll know. You feel when you’re engaged at the exact right point between order and chaos, while articulating unknown territory (chaos) into habitable order.
This idea has a nice metaphysical edge too. Peterson likes to point out that the word “paradise” is derived from something meaning “walled garden“. But what’s a garden? It’s a place where nature (chaos) and the Logos, on the exact right point between order and chaos, together mediate supreme beauty and harmony. Pretty sweet, right?
4- Make the right sacrifices to walk with God, in which God as a judgemental father figure is a symbol for society in X years, and an articulation of the discovery of being able to bargain with the future
This point is as simple as enervating. Peterson explains his point by referring to Noah, who walked with God by making the right sacrifices and managed to build an arc to protect his people and the world’s creatures from the flood.
The flood, here, is treated as a symbol of the combination between natural atrophy and the human proclivity for sin. It’s a law of nature that human social and physical structures decay, and human sin can speed this process. Peterson refers to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, in which the City Council’s corruption prevented the countermeasures to be completed before tragedy struck, like they knew it would one day.
The main theme here, seems to be that order can be maintained or created by making the right sacrifices, which, in our disenchanted little world probably means something along the lines of getting up a little earlier in the morning and skipping Netflix in the evenings.
It’s very interweavable with point 3. One can actually rise every morning and think: what can I do (what sacrifices can I make) today to get a little closer to the highest possible good I can conceive? And that’s quite the feeling, because it’s a question one can actually answer! In another lecture, Peterson says: “It super-infuses every day with meaning, because everything you do matters“.
Living days that matter, has a nice ring to it, right?
5- Minimise your persona, cultivate your essence and live in its closest possible proximity
Of all points, this one is probably the hardest to actually put into practice. After all, what is your persona? How does one recognise it? How far does it reach and where is the line between your persona and essence, if that line even exists at all? And even harder: what in the world is your essence? Let’s just say we know a guy who took it almost 30 years and a hard reset of his life to figure it out for himself.
Your persona is the person, the self-image that you’ve constructed to present your psyche in an integrated and acceptable way to the outside world, and if you’re in bad luck, to yourself. Of course, a persona is necessary to a certain degree, but it gets problematic when it makes up too large a part of your psyche, after which you’ll no longer be able to distinguish between your persona and who you actually are.
Often, a persona takes an ideological form, or completely identifies itself with social economic status, a job, the role as a spouse, etc. But a persona in overdrive is like fiat money: it can sustain an economy for decades, but that doesn’t mean that it’s covered by anything of intrinsic value, which makes it extremely vulnerable.
But how does one cultivates one’s essence? This is what Carl Jung called the process of individuation, but I would humbly like to insert my own thought experiment here. It did the trick for me:
What remains of me when I take my relationship, status, job, ideology, friends, foes (and maybe even family) out of the equation?
What remains is your own pre-corrupt essence, and that’s the thing of supreme value I managed to retrieve from the underworld. Find a picture, give him/her a name, it just might help. But you’re no longer your essence, and that’s okay. You can, however, become the parent of your own pre-corrupt essence. And if you truly entrust yourself with that role, then your orientation on the good is intact. And if your own essence is safe with you, there is a fair chance that maybe so are other ones’ essences.
I would even like to insert that it, in a way, makes you indestructible. Sure, your body is fallible and the world consists of forces you don’t stand a chance against. But if a careful reading of archetypes like Maximus, Hektor of Troy, Spartacus, Leonidas and Wallace – who were all defeated in the end but whose souls were never broken – suggests one thing, it’s that the only way for a soul to die is through its own corruption.
But a soul that safeguards its own essence, won’t allow its own corruption. It knows what’s at stake.
I’m sorry if the last part went a bit off rails, but sometimes empirical language just doesn’t cut it.