Maps of Meaning 05: The Mythic Mind, Part I

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

This post continues my series of reflections on Jordan Peterson's Maps of Meaning. Each post can stand on its own, but I encourage you to read the earlier posts if you have not done so already. While the posts on the preface primarily involved summaries with my added reflections, from this point forward I will address chapters or sections from more of a thematic perspective, using Peterson's work as a springboard and conversation partner. This post will be mostly related to the first half of chapter 1, "Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning."


The Modern Scientific Myth

It is no secret that the modern world prides itself on having a scientific mind. STEM fields are bolstered while the humanities languish. Spirituality might be patronized in the name of tolerance, but only so long as it stays within the domain of personal opinion and does not venture into the realm of truth, which is held as an exclusively scientific category. The myth, which carried truth for pre-scientific humanity, has become outdated in light of our more sophisticated objectivity.

The strange reality, however, is that our postmodern culture tends to use very mythic language. How often are we called to embrace and share our stories? How often is our identity fundamentally connected with an abstracted narratival history, whether it be in the form of economics, nationality, race, gender, or some other facet of culture?

Modernist rationalism continues to claim authority, but it wears the guise of story while castigating the mythocentricity of pre-moderns. What is the reason for this apparent contradiction?

At the most basic level of human experience, we are storied creatures. I do not simply mean that we are innately drawn to stories, although we certainly are, but rather that we exist in the context of narrative. We have memories of the past and expectations for the future that shape the way we understand our place in the present. We have a sense of culture, which involves this same temporal reality abstracted into the story of our people. There is a reason why most cultures of the past personified or even deified nature. This was not simply due to a primitive superstition, but was rather a result of the basic nature of intelligent, self-conscious, linguistic creatures. We saw the natural world as a place of meaning related to natural human experience, thereby turning the sun, moon, stars, trees, and seas into characters of the human drama. We learn the scientific method, but we necessarily live the story.

The world of objectivity is, therefore, a relatively new addition to the human psyche. None of what I am saying here is meant to disparage the scientific perspective, which has done incalculable good for the standard of living for the vast majority of humanity. As Peterson notes, "Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools" (1). However, the major error of the scientific perspective occurs when it sees itself as ultimate, lacking the need for the mythic. That this is an error is readily demonstrable when one considers the fact that the scientific perspective sees things as tools and that tools are related to ends rather than the things themselves. Ends bring us back to story, that is, the connection between what has been, what is, what could be, and what should be. It is the myth - the story - that gives context for the scientific. There is no scientific without the mythic, which is why the mythic will always resurface; however, this is often catastrophic when it does so unwillingly. When the story and the science lose their proper relation, the story itself gains an unquestionable objectivity that it was never meant to carry.

"The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated" (1).

The mythic mind is not anti-scientific, it just is not scientific. It is the world of value and action. It is not the world of matter, but rather the world of what matters. This is why I hate when fiction is defined as something untrue. Good fiction might not express scientific truth, but it often expresses existential truth by demonstrating how one ought to live - or how one ought not to live. As C.S. Lewis writes, "Since it is so likely that they [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker." Stories that encourage its audience to slay dragons, rescue maidens, and distribute plunder, so to speak, are good and true. If you reply by saying that dragons are not real and maidens don't necessarily need your rescuing, you will be revealing that you are a captive of a dull postmodern myth that objectifies its own subjectivity, thereby failing to recognize its own mythic ends, which are nonetheless at work. The story of the brave knight is true as it reveals something about how humans are to live, that is, how the human fulfills its ideal. The idealess idealism of the anti-mythical myth, however, is a definitively untrue story with almost certainly disastrously results. Just take a moment to consider the generally recognized crisis of mental health in our culture.

"There appears to exist some 'natural' or even - dare it be said? - some 'absolute' constraints on the manner in which human beings may act as individuals and in society. Some moral presuppositions and theories are wrong, human nature is not infinite malleable" (11).

Humans are storied creatures. As I have already argued, we do not merely tell stories as abstract representations of our experience, although we certainly do that, but we live as characters contextualized within a drama shaped by history, culture, and innate human nature. As we are bound to temporality, finitude, and ideality related to the fulfillment of human potential, we simply do not have the infinite flexibility of self-creation. There are certainly many legitimate perspectives from which to understand the human drama, but there countless illegitimate perspectives that utterly misunderstood humanity and thereby contribute to its despair. For example, Peterson writes:

"It has become more or less evident, for example, that pure, abstract rationality, ungrounded in tradition - the rationality that defined Soviet-style communism from inception to dissolution - appears absolutely unable to determine and make explicit just what it is that should guide individual and social behavior. ... Some patterns of interpersonal interaction - which constitute the state, insofar as it exists as a model for social behavior - do not produce the ends they are supposed to produce, cannot sustain themselves over time, and may even produce contrary ends, devouring those who profess their value and enact them" (11-12).

When we deny the story in which we live, and fail to grasp the accurate portrayal of this story within the stories that we tell, we will be unable to understand what we are, why we are, and what we should be. This will not make us more scientific, but less scientific as implicit myths take control of our science instead of enabling us to direct our science toward truly human ends.

Despite the obviously and incalculably positive effect that science has had on our material well-being, it is yet to be determined whether the modern scientific mind will be a net positive for the human good. Peterson writes:

"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 ever more dangerously at the mercy of our still unconscious systems of valuation. Prior to the time of Descartes, Bacon, and Newton, man lived in an animated, spiritual world, saturated with meaning, imbued with moral purpose. The nature of this purpose was revealed in the stories people told each other - stories about the structure of the cosmos and the place of man. but now we think empirically (at least we think we think empirically), and the spirits that once inhabited the universe have vanished. The forces released by the advent of the experiment have wreaked havoc within the mythic world" (5).

The forces of the mythic world have not been eradicated, but, as Jung argues, they have gone into hiding within the human psyche, where they rage unnoticed, giving rise to psychological disruptions that are disregarded or otherwise misunderstood. We are, first of all, a mythic people. If we place the scientific within the proper mythic context, it gains great power for achieving human good. If we seek to eradicate the myth by contextualizing the scientific within its own naturalistic methodology, it becomes a disruptive daemon of the psyche, which I believe is becoming increasingly evident in the modern age.


Looking Ahead

This post took a broad look at the relationship between the mythic and scientific and ended on a rather drab note, but this is not where this story ends. Next time, I will continue to discuss this relationship with a greater eye toward the value that a mythic perspective provides for the human experience.


Thank You for Reading

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