Written summary and discussion guide: Jordan Peterson on Gladiator, Archetypes and Individuation
In two weeks it’s been exactly one year since I sat down with Jordan Peterson in the studio of the largest Dutch weblog GeenStijl. A few days after his infamous interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, it was his first time to respond on video to the interview itself and ensuing aftermath. Afterwards, we discussed a five-point distillation of his philosophy, which was 1) the central role of the hero’s myth, 2) the logos, 3) making the right sacrifices, 4) orienting yourself towards the highest good you can conceive and 5) minimise your persona.
And now it’s time for round two. Sadly, not irl, but Zooming is a decent runner-up. What follows is a pre-written elaboration on the topics we hoped to discuss today.
Narrative substitution in identity politics
Last September during a Rubin Report, Eric Weinstein coined the observation that ‘safe spaces’ don’t actually serve to protect individuals. Instead, they serve to protect narratives that cannot survive scrutiny by the outside world. We tried to develop the thought a little further and presented Peterson with the following hypothesis:
In Identity Politics, the individual experience is substituted for a collective oppression narrative that doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s actual position in society. In short, as individuals they’re not actually as oppressed as they claim, but have become the embodiment of a narrative that dictated their oppression.
Gladiator, archetypes, Cain and Abel and the corruption thesis
There’s something about that movie, and it has very little to do with battle scenes. What are the reasons this movie is ingrained in our generation’s psyche more so than any other movie of its sort? Aragorn, Hektor, William Wallace, Leonidas and Spartacus are all the same archetypal character, so why does only Maximus Decimus Meridius really keep drawing us in every now and then, no matter how well we know almost every frame of the movie? Maybe it has to do with the following three points that culminate in a thesis that implicitly runs throughout the entire movie:
No matter how powerful, the pain of a man whose soul has been irreversibly corrupted, far exceeds the pain of a righteous man whose wife and son have been murdered and has been reduced to abject slavery.
1- Maximus is by far the best modern translation of the male hero archetype and Crowe nails this in the first 50 seconds of his screentime, without saying a word. Imposing but receptive to subtle beauty. Clearly capable of violence but without a trace of bloodthirst. Then a walk along the troops, modest in both word and body language, respected and loved merely for his character and skills. One minute in and most boys and (young) men know that in their hearts, this is who they would most want to be. Even more than, say, Dan Bilzarian, although a month in his shoes wouldn’t hurt.
That’s the archetypal hero: the embodiment of a set of crystallized characteristics that throughout our evolution have proven to make one optimally capable of dealing with our two eternal enemies: malevolence and tragedy. Among many other historical inaccuracies – Commodus didn’t kill his father, but was actually appointed by him – Maximus did not exist. But it doesn’t matter, because, in a way, an archetype is “more real than you“.
2- Commodus is by far the best modern translation of the opposite of the male archetype, and Phoenix too nails it in the very first seconds of his screentime. He is the archetypal character one would least want to be: making up for what he lacks in character and skill by deceit and cruelty, while knowing every step of the way he’ll still inevitably lose in the end.
Commodus’ father loved Maximus and that went both ways. “You loved my father, I know, but so did I, that makes us brothers doesn’t it?“, Commodus whispers right before warping the structure of being one last time by mortally wounding Maximus while he’s still in chains, moments before their final dual.
The implicit brother theme had been evident throughout the whole movie, which makes Gladiator an explicit Cain and Abel story in which Commodus seeks to utterly destroy his ‘brother’, and with it, his own ideal.
Isn’t it striking how perfectly Cain’s first description in Genesis 4 corresponds with the first frames the viewer gets to see from Commodus? “But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.” Note by the way how Disney’s hostile brother Scar was also introduced in the shadows and that Gladiator and The Lion King are only two places apart in the IMDb top 100, at place 41 and 44. Ain’t it something.
3- Even though both characters are exquisite in their own right, maybe they both feel so absolutely timeless exactly because they have been juxtapositioned within a framework of one of the most well known archetypal motives: that of the hostile brothers.
But why is the theme of the hostile brothers so deeply archetypal? Well, maybe because it’s not actually about other people, but a very deeply rooted articulation of the Cain and Abel within one’s owns psyche. After all, as Solzhenitsyn writes:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
Mythology is the projection of the inner world onto the cosmos:
“All the gods, all the hells, all the heavens are within you.”
So just in case, consider being your brother’s keeper, even if it’s just to be sure.
Carl Jung and ‘Individuation’
How does one become something approximating the archetype? Let’s delve into Jung’s notion of ‘Individuation’.
In the Jungian school, individuation entails becoming “in-dividual”, something that cannot be divided. Roughly speaking, it means the dismantling of your persona and the integration of your conscious (the ego) with your personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The latter is a collection of archetypal modes and motives that we inherit instead of learn. Just as our collective biological evolution is traceably stored in our body, so is our collective psychological development stored in our collective unconscious, in the form of imagery and motives. Integrating them into consciousness means integrating these timeless characteristics that have been time-proven to result in the most favorable life.
To bring it to life a little, here my so far favorite quote from Jung (p. 121, Concerning Rebirth):
“When a summit of life is reached, when the bud unfolds and from the lesser the greater emerges, then, as Nietzsche says, “One becomes Two”, and the greater figure, which one always was but which remained invisible, appears to the lesser personality with the force of a revelation. He who is truly and hopelessly little will always drag the revelation of the greater down to the level of his littleness, and will never understand the day of judgement for his littleness has dawned. But the man who is inwardly great will know that the long expected friend of his soul, the immortal one, has now really come, “to lead captivity captive”; that is, to seize hold of him by whom this immortal had always been confined and held prisoner, and to make his life flow into that greater life – a moment of deadliest peril! Nietzsche’s prophetic vision of the Tightrope Walker (“Thy soul will be dead even sooner than thy body”) reveals the awful danger that lies in having a “tightrope-walking” attitude towards an event to which St. Paul gave the most exalted name he could find. Christ himself is the perfect symbol of the hidden immortal within the mortal man.”
Nietzche’s tightrope walker refers to the aphorism that
“Man is something that shall be overcome. Man is a rope tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
In the story, the walker attempts the crossing, but when he’s at the exact middle of the rope, the devil appears behind him. The devil approaches him, keeps on getting closer, and eventually knocks him of balance, resulting in his fall and eventual death. The meaning here seems to be that actual individuation, actual transcendence, can be extremely hazardous. After all, it means that “the lesser psyche“, your persona, has to die. And in the real world that requires severe psychological violence, from which recovery is anything but guaranteed.
What does Jung mean with this ‘immortal’ figure?
Who’s this “immortal” keeps refering to? Mythologist Joseph Campbell did the exact same thing: “This is the problem that can be metaphorically understood as identifying with the Christ in you. The Christ in you doesn’t die. The Christ in you survives death and resurrects.” This is meant symbolically, but what is the meaning?
In my previous conversation with Peterson (time coded below), we briefly discussed archetypal figures in movies like Maximus, William Wallace, Spartacus and Leonidas. All four were eventually killed by the enemy, but their souls were never broken because up until the very end, they remained the embodiment of the archetype, and thus died in truth and honour. After Peterson’s elaboration on the death of Socrates, he too says: “That part of the spirit doesn’t die.” So what do they mean?
Maybe the answer lies in a warning from Jung, 24 pages onwards:
“(…) for the great psychic danger which is always connected with individuation, or the development of the self, lies in idenfitication of ego-consciousness with the self. This produces an inflation which threatens consciousness with dissolution.“
Here, “The self“, is the end product of the successful integration of your ego with your personal and the collective unconscious. But Jung warns against identifying your ego with this “self“.
What this seems to mean is that what you have managed to become, does not belong to you and did not come forth from you, so don’t get it twisted boiii. You simply managed to align your conscious ego with the archetypes, those time-proven crystallised patterns to contend with life in an optimal way. And those archetypes do not live or die with you, they will remain in existence for eternity, no matter your personal condition, hence: “immortal“.
Food for thought, that’s for sure. See you next time champs.