In this piece I want to look at some core aspects of the thought of Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a very polarizing figure. But what I find odd is that rarely, if ever, do people take a more balanced view of the strengths as well as the limitations (and in my view serious flaws) in his thinking. Peterson’s actual ideas get swamped by the media circus with ideological devotees on one side and those who hate him on the other. Peterson’s been proclaimed to be the intellectual saviour for the West in the 21st century as well as a hate-mongering demon. I don’t see him as either.
My focus here is what I perceive to be the two core pillars of his thought: (psychologized) mythology + classical liberalism. I will argue that ultimately those two are in deep conflict with each other, leading to a series of self-contradiction in his writings.
I’ll start with the psychologized mythology and then proceed to the classical liberalism.
Peterson’s interest in storytelling, archetypes, and myths as potential wisdom guides in our contemporary life is widely documented. He’s well known for his series on The Bible (particularly stories from The Book of Genesis). If you want a flavor of this style, there’s this talk where Peterson describes the process of slaying one’s inner dragon.
Peterson’s major text is Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. In it he explores myth revealing what he believes to be the underlying system (“architecture”) of emotion, behavior, and meaning making.
For Peterson the meta-myth (or monomyth) is that there is on the one hand the forces of chaos represented symbolically by the feminine. On the other stands the forces of order represented symbolically by the masculine. Lastly there's the hero (almost always male please note) who is the intermediary figure traveling back and forth between these two dimensions. Or more accurately the hero must travel into the realm of chaos and defeat the chaos, thereby bringing order to chaos.
For Peterson, when individuals or cultures are unwilling to face their own inner dragons they project those dragons out onto other groups and then seek to make war (“slay”) those other people rather than face their own internal struggle.
It should be noted that this form of mythology is definitely one of the major strands of mythology but is not the only one. This point is a crucial one that Peterson misses which I contend has disastrous consequences.
Here’s some examples of this meta-myth:
Marduk slicing open Tiamat and from her organs and entrails creating the universe.
Theseus exterminating the Minotaur (the bull was a the male consort of the Great Mother)
Yahweh Elohim destroying the ancient sea creature Leviathan
Indra killing Vritra the Cosmic Serpent
Zeus defeating Typhon (The Titans were the offspring of the Great Mother)
St. George slaying the Dragon
Perseus murdering The Medusa
To understand the real impact of this myth and how Peterson will deploy it to our contemporary age, we need hone in on Medusa for a second. The Great Mother, the ancient Goddess, was typically depicted holding snakes (as in this image). Those snakes are phallic (hence the phrase trouser snake). In other words, the image means that The Great Mother is self-generative and self-fertilizing. She holds the male power necessary for reproduction (phallus-snake) and obviously as woman she holds the capacity for birthing life. Ergo she can impregnate herself--that’s the origin of the later story of the Virgin Mother incidentally.
The Medusa of course has snakes on her head that turn people (mostly men) to stone. The Medusa is therefore the inverted, horrific version of The Great Mother. The snakes that previously were part of the Great Mother's fecund generativity and life giving powers are now death-dealing entities. As the human collective consciousness sought to transcend the Great Mother she that was previously the central deity (Great Mother) becomes a hideous monster (The Medusa).*
That transformation from a deity to a demon is one that Peterson neglects to really grapple with sufficiently. Peterson mostly ignores the prehistory of myth and takes as a default the hero slaying myth. That omission will turn out to be a significant one.
It’s always the same in this tale—the male hero or god defeating either the Great Mother herself (Marduk) or her consort (Theseus) or her offspring (Zeus). In this mythology the feminine (and/or her consort & children) represents the force of chaos, the chthonic, the dark. She embodies decomposition, breakdown, the night, and the endless cycle life & death. That is the feminine according to this mythological framework.
The masculine, by contrast, is the realm of order and light and reason and the day. This mythology often depicts the hero as The Sun (or The Son as in Christianity). The male solar hero-god vanquishes the darkness of the chaotic feminine and out of such victory establishes order & harmony in the universe. In fact, Peterson originally titled his text The Gods of War (not Maps of Meaning). In many ways I think that’s a much more accurate title.
The main point is that the solar male hero god slaying the feminine chaos is the myth Peterson uses to represent mythology as such. He’s not treating these particular myths as one form of mythology (which would be much more authentic to the history of human myth) but rather the hero myth is mythology as a whole. As I mentioned that choice ends up with seriously negative consequences in my estimation.
Before fleshing out that point fully, there's one more piece to this mythic puzzle. Peterson does something a bit odd in his analysis. He adds the notion that the masculine represents the known and the feminine represents the unknown. According to Peterson the hero has to conquer the unknown in order to wrest more knowledge from her, thereby transferring this newly gained knowledge to the realm of known.
Notice however that in the original myths he’s drawing from the feminine is not the unknown. In those myths the feminine is chthonic, dark, mysterious (a bit) but not really unknown. The emphasis in the originals is much more on the underworld, night-time, or chaotic quality not the unknown aspect.
Peterson subtly shifts the terrain of the myth to known vs. unknown (and thence to the hero as knower). What this means is that he is rationalizing the myth. He’s mentalizing the myth, which I believe is a second crucial mythological mistake he’s made.
First, Peterson takes the ancient male solar god slaying the feminine great- mother-turned-monster as his central myth. Second, he subtly changes the vector to knowing over order (and unknown over chaos) but otherwise the exact same mythic structure remains.
Now why does this matter?
One crucial reason is that all myths promote a social vision based on their premises. Myths are used to legitimate certain social and political realities. It’s too simplistic to say that mythology is nothing other than political propaganda. It’s far too naive however to deny that a significant purpose behind all myths is to theologically legitimate a social and/or political vision. (Look at any US dollar bill if you don't believe me.)
The social and political implications of Peterson’s mythology are quite apparent. If, as Peterson argues, the core insight of mythology is that the male solar hero must slay the forces of feminine chaos so that a new form of (male) order and harmony may be established, then the social and political implications of that view are quite clear:
Men should dominate women.
No qualification. It’s just that simple and direct. If mythologically the male hero must slay the feminine forces of chaos, then the real world analogue to that myth is that men must rule over women full stop.
Patriarchy—and I mean that term precisely in its proper mythological and historical usage rather than its contemporary ideological usage—is what therefore should exist according to this logic.
To wit, the myths Peterson cites historically served precisely the function of legitimizing male rule. Note that the myths I cited all come from patriarchal cultures. That’s not an accident. You can’t have a mythology about male heroes slaying feminine monsters in order to create a harmonious, ordered world and then not take the logical implication of that view--namely that men need to rule over and dominate women.
Whatever mental gymnastics Peterson attempts to say otherwise, the obvious implication of his own mythological argument is for men ruling over women.
I want to now shift to Peterson's second major pole of thinking: classical liberalism. The link between his mythological stance and his classical liberal political outlook involves Peterson's shifting of the terrain of the hero myth. Recall that for Peterson the harmonious order which the male hero brings is primarily mental—it’s rational abstract knowledge. This subtle mentalizing mythic shift opens up the other major pole of Peterson’s thought: classical liberalism.
Classical liberalism is the political and economic philosophy of early modernity. Classical liberalism is a philosophy dedicated to individual rights—rights of free speech & free thought, rights to be not to arbitrarily detained by the state, rights of a free press, assembly, political protest, and so on. Think The US Bill of Rights or The French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Now while most people would see modernist philosophy and (classical) liberalism as inherently anti-mythology—for example Thomas Jefferson literally cutting and pasting The Bible to his ideological rationalist preferences—the reality is much more complex.
The modern age officially is anti-religion and therefore anti-mythology in its own ideological viewpoint. The reality of the modern age however is shot through with mythology, usually unconscious mythology, which arguably is the worst kind of mythology to have.
As proof of that assertion consider all of these modernist myths:
the myth of progress; the myth of a future utopia whether capitalist, socialist, or communist; the myth of fascism; the myth of romanticism.
Even the very notion that the Western world was undergoing an era of Enlightenment was itself a myth.
So in this sense I don’t see it as a problem per se that Peterson sees myth as necessary to contemporary life. The problem comes I believe in his deploying of ancient myth to legitimize classical liberalism as the metaphysically most certain and right and true form of human politics.
For Peterson classical liberalism is the political and social embodiment of The Truth symbolically depicted in his monomyth of the solar conquering hero. To criticize classical liberalism then, according to Peterson's (mytho)logic, is to criticize the irrefutable truth itself.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident"...a mythic-rational statement if ever there was one.
To reinforce this point about modernizing and rationalizing (and therefore psychologizing) myth consider that Peterson cites Carl Jung as a major influence. Jung sought to create a rational science of myth. Jung psychologized mythology and thereby he modernized myth. While Jung is an obvious influence on Peterson, when thinking of Peterson’s use of mythology and its intimate ti-in to classical liberal philosophy the figure that comes to my mind however is Francis Bacon. Bacon invoked mythic history in order to ground his political and scientific arguments (see The New Atlantis.)
Bacon infamously described the process of science as one of a (presumed) male scientist extracting from and penetrating into the earth, which was depicted as a female. And please note, this is to be done against "her" (Earth's) will and consent. That’s not an exaggeration or dramatization. Bacon invoked the entire patriarchal mythological tradition cited here with the male solar hero god slaying the dark, chthonic forces of the feminine and wresting from her dead inert body order. Or in this case--just as with Peterson--to wrest knowledge from her body. Bacon’s form of the male (scientist) conquering the feminine (Mother Nature/Earth) has an explicitly violent sexual form of domination built into it but nevertheless the same basic structure of the myth holds. In this case the older patriarchal mythology of the solar hero slaying the dark feminine was incorporated to legitimize modern science and by extension the modern classical liberal world.
I see Peterson is in many ways attempting to revive Bacon’s argument for the contemporary world. Namely that the male solar conquering hero myth lies behind the creation of a free, truly modern, enlightened society.
It’s worth noting in this regard that on this point Peterson goes directly against the grain of his erstwhile teacher Jung for whom the masculine and feminine had to be united within each person, male and female, to come into alchemical wholeness beyond sexual division. Though admittedly Jung’s views on the so-called masculine and feminine were heavily influenced by Victorian era gender norms--that's a different article for a different time. Jung often romanticizes the feminine as angelic, whereas Peterson tends to demonize the feminine. Jung talked about embracing the shadow. Peterson talks about slaying your inner dragon (that is your so-called inner feminine).
Putting Jung aside for a moment though, to boil all this down, the implications of Peterson’s thoughts on these subjects come down to two major arguments .
- Classical liberalism is the right political philosophy.
- Patriarchy is the proper ground for classical liberalism. With the loss of patriarchy comes the loss of classical liberalism.
For Peterson the consequence of his theory is that we have lost the ground of patriarchy through the rise and (in his view) current dominance of feminism. For Peterson this feminist reversal has in turned degraded the possibility of classical liberalism, leading to the progressive, Cultural Marxist, feminist, collectivist, social justice warrior overturning of genuine (read: classical) liberalism into its postmodern inversion.
According to Peterson’s mythic logic what that means is that the forces of chaos are currently in power over the forces of control (feminism = feminine = chaos). And contra Jung and much New Age thought it’s impossible to claim that when people hear a term like “the feminine” that it somehow does not refer to living, flesh and blood women. Just as the masculine clearly refers to men not to some atemporal spiritual essence that both men and women have within themselves.
I believe these two foundational arguments in Peterson are ultimately self-contradictory. Classical liberalism and patriarchy are like an unstable chemical bond that quickly breaks apart. Peterson lacks a serious understanding of history and philosophy on this point but both subjects bear out the incoherence of his thought.
In response to Peterson’s first point that the rise of postmodernism is a derailing of the true genuine liberalism of the classical era, consider instead that the postmodern turn is much more the inevitable outplaying of many of the inherent inconsistencies and internal contradictions of liberal modernity itself (see Nietzsche on exactly this point). Postmodernism is not some aberrant left turn away from real liberalism. Postmodernism is the very expression of dynamics latent in modernist liberalism itself. That postmodernism turned on modernism and thereby turned on itself is (in my mind) simply a sign that liberalism itself possessed deep flaws and internal inconsistencies from its very inception.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Consider that Peterson rarely, if ever, speaks out against the surveillance state. Why? Because the surveillance state is a direct consequence of classical liberalism. But that can’t be you say. Classical liberalism we’re told is about all personal liberty, free speech, and those are the precise antithesis of the surveillance state, right?
Well no not really. As Michel Foucault pointed out Jeremy Bentham is one of the universally recognized central thinkers of classical liberalism. In fact, Bentham is the father of the dominant ethical tradition of classical liberalism: utilitarianism. Bentham however also drew up the plans for the Panopticon which is the direct forerunner of today’s surveillance state. Hence there’s much deeper connection between the surveillance state and classical liberalism than would appear to be the case on the surface.
Moreover, recall that the historical reality of classical liberal rights is they were granted after the state began to control a monopoly of force, thereby forever leaving itself outside the scope of the legal regime it had just created. For a fully developed (and devastating) version of this argument see Agamben’s theory of the state of exception (derived from Carl Schmidt).
From that line of thought the surveillance state is the (il)logical endpoint of that liberal modernist trajectory. Classical liberal rights are not the opposite of state dominance, rather they are intimately tied into the way the state gains the adherence of many of its citizens to its own ultimately technocratic ends.
On a related note, take the example of Peterson’s sworn enemy of feminism. Consider especially feminism in light of Peterson’s second point that patriarchy is the necessary foundation for classical liberalism. The problem for Peterson's argument is that feminism grew out of classical liberalism. Feminism is a movement of classical liberalism itself.
What did the original feminists all cite but classical liberal notions of “all men [humans] being created equal.” The original feminist text is Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women—that is A Vindication of The Classical Liberal Rights of Women. Classical liberalism inevitably leads to feminism. Just as classical liberalism inevitably leads to abolitionist movements, movements for minority religious, sexual, and ethnic groups (the forerunner to multiculturalism), indigenous and post-colonial movements, etc. All of them cite the language of universal human rights derived from classical liberalism itself.
Philosophically then there’s a direct line of consequence there which the history of the last three centuries reflects.
In short, patriarchy and classical liberalism cannot co-exist long. Eventually (often very quickly) their inherent contradiction will call for one of two things to happen to resolve the internal tension:
a) Either the liberalism itself must begin to incorporate feminism thereby undercutting the patriarchy
b) The liberal charade is dropped in order to reassert patriarchy itself
For patriarchy to exist long term it must do so under an explicitly illiberal and anti-liberal form.
Peterson refuses to see that the the male solar hero god slaying the forces of chaos is only one mythic structure among many. He also (I think) tends to dodge the fact that myths support specific political structures. Other mythic structures therefore promote other social and political structures. If Peterson would open up his mythic lens to include other kinds of myths than simply male solar heroes, he would see how these other myths open up other options than simply patriarchy socially and politically.
Also if he were to see that he’s made a mistake (or at least a pretty clear innovation and leap in interpretation) by representing the feminine as unknown and the hero as bringing the known, he would see that classical liberalism itself has it’s own mythic and therefore ideological blind spots.
I’m not saying the male solar hero myths are all entirely wrong. I actually appreciate that Peterson takes them seriously. I think they do have wisdom associated with them. That wisdom however is not final and needs to be handled with serious care given what we now know about the social and political implications of myth, particularly around the history of colonialist imperialism.
Peterson I’m sure will continue to try to square the circle between classical liberalism and patriarchy. That does not concern me particularly. What concerns me more is the next generation of his acolytes. Some will certainly continue to argue for classical liberalism and against what they see as the illiberal excess of today’s progressive left, along the way making plenty of partial yet valid points no doubt, all the while leaving untouched the problems with the classical liberal/libertarian worldview.
My fear however is that more of them will follow that second and far more dangerous course. Namely they will look to uphold patriarchy and will be more honest that in order to do so an illiberal, pre-modern order must be (re)established.
Someone like Richard Spencer is a perfect example of this trend. Spencer argues for white nationalism, white identitarianism, and a fundamentally anti-liberal order (in the classical sense). Jack Donovan is another (very dangerous) example. Donovan argues explicitly that authentic masculinity is really nothing other than amoral gangs—survival of the most brutal and violent. Hence his books on pirates and barbarians; they are pre-liberal patriarchal social systems.
The whole Anti or Dark Enlightenment movement (not going to link to it but you can find it) is an argument that to revive patriarchy the liberal order must be overthrown. The resonance with those views and fascism is obvious (and explicit with someone like Spencer). Spencer and Donovan and their ilk are far more dangerous in my mind than Peterson. On the other hand I think they’re also more honest about their agenda. Peterson is not a fascist (he’s a classical liberal); Peterson is more Victorian, more a fan of the 1950s. I worry however that Peterson will find (to his horror?) that more and more his words will be co-opted to illiberal agendas in the years to come.
In sum, Peterson seeks to enlist one series of ancient myths to support a patriarchal-led classical liberal regime. That project is ultimately a doomed one.
One reason for its doom is that it never considers alternative myths to create a more complex vision of life. While in the mythologies Peterson cites the sky god is male and the earth is feminine that was not always the case mythologically. Some older mythologies actually reverse that polarization. In ancient Egypt Nut was the goddess of the sky/stars. When a person died their soul was said to go to her, their true home in the stars. Similarly the German word for the Sun (Die Solle) is in the feminine gender case pointing to a more archaic understanding of the Sun as feminine.
Then of course we have all the Great Mother mythology itself standing distinct from (and potentially even opposed to) the solar male hero gods myths advocated for by Peterson. I’m not incidentally 100% pro Great Mother mythology as that often went hand in hand with human sacrifice in the ancient world and is also often propped up for ideological political-social ends nowadays (though different than Peterson's vision of course). It's only to say here that these other myths offer a very different set of worldviews and consequently argue for very distinct social and political human equivalents. These add a more complex picture to Peterson’s otherwise simplistic drawing.
If Peterson wants to argue that mythology is crucial to human development in the present (a claim I actually agree with on the whole) then I believe he ought to take a wider view of mythology than his very narrowly defined and ultimately ideological perspective. If he wants to argue that mythology intersects deeply with the political (a claim I also agree with on the whole) then he needs to see the mytholgoical foundations of his own political philosophy. If not, they are prone to turn against him.
*Interestingly however this story contains a strange twist. The Medusa is one of the Gorgon sisters. She becomes the Medusa after being raped by the god Poseidon which angered the goddess Athena. Medusa’s “punishment” for being raped is to be turned into the Medusa. Her sisters willingly to choose to become monsters as well out of solidarity and love of her.