This post continues my series of reflections on Jordan Peterson's Maps of Meaning. In the previous post of this series, I argued that the mythic understanding of the world provides the subjective value-context for our lived experience, as well as for our scientific pursuits of objectivity. Science is an invaluable tool, but myth provides the tool's story, just as driving a nail give context to the hammer. This post will relate to the second third (more or less) of Chapter 1, "Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning," to further demonstrate the inescapable value of myths as they, with greater or lesser fidelity, serve to ground us in truth.
In ages past, humans lived within worlds governed by God or gods, inhabited by angels, demons, sprites, ghosts, and goblins. Pagan heroes and Christian saints slayed dragons, saved virgins, and enriched society. Sacrifices were made in exchange for bountiful harvests and pilgrimages were made to grow in piety. To be clear, I'm not using this collection of Christian and pagan tropes to suggest equivalency, but only to make the point that, regardless of the religious framework employed, the vast majority of people across the vast majority of human history have lived within a fundamentally subjective world. The great evils were personal evils and the great heroes became such through personal triumphs. The world was built out of personal relationships. When modernist objectivity began to take hold, these relationships became increasingly strained until they were done away with altogether . . . allegedly.
"The mythological perspective has been overthrown by the empirical; or so it appears. This should mean that the morality predicated upon such myths should have disappeared, as well, as belief in comfortable illusion vanished" (6).
If the mythic was the medium of morality, it would seem that dismissing the myth would dismiss the morality connected to it. However, this has not proven to be the case. As Peterson writes, "The fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition continue to govern every aspect of the actual individual behavior and basic values of the typical Westerner - even if he is atheisitic and well-educated, even if his abstract notions and utterance appear iconoclastic" (6). In the aftermath of the alleged death of God, Western culture has become increasingly atheistic and/or wary of organized religion. Despite this trend, the core of Christian morality has endured as the norm. Perhaps most significantly, the allegedly secular world still upholds the human individual as sacred. While this value might be inconsistently applied, such as in the case of prenatal persons or issues related to identity politics, the individual's life experience is elevated above the value of nonhuman things. To provide one of the more obvious examples, most people are in favor of prohibiting murder, but are okay with the destruction of plants and many kinds of animals, so long as they serve a productive, human-oriented end. This demonstrates that there is something special about human life, despite the fact that a materialistic worldview would suggest otherwise. Likewise, humans are granted property rights offer a chicken's eggs, evidently because a human has a right to dominion and a chicken does not. More explicitly within the domain of narratives, our society encourages individuals to "speak their truths" and to share their stories. Regardless of what you might think about these phrases, they evidence the fact that the human individual is treated as special. The Christian metanarrative accounts for this by explaining that humans are created in the image of God and are (at least potentially) individual representations of the divine Logos, the true speech that shapes the world into good order.
How does the secularist account for the special status of the human, and particularly the human individual? Perhaps it might be argued that our unique level of consciousness grants this status, but, even setting aside the multiplicity of complexities that arise when this theory is applied, it could then be asked what grants value to our consciousness, which is simply a relatively complicated instantiation of the same material processes that occur elsewhere in the world. Quite simply, a materialistic worldview does not account for the exceptionalism of the human species, let alone the human individual. As Peterson explains, "We have become atheistic in our description, but remain evidently religious - that is, moral - in our disposition. What we accept as true and how we act are no longer commensurate. We carry on as if our experience has meaning - as if our activities have transcendent value - but we are unable to justify this belief intellectually" (6). There is a growing contradiction between what we know to be true and what we believe to be true. Peterson continues, "We still act out the precepts of our forebears . . . although we can no longer justify our actions" (7).
Why do we do this? Why does our secular world still act religiously?
Perhaps it is because this myth is true. Perhaps we are, in the final analysis, an inescapably religious world that is now thinking secularly.
The Reality of Myth
In large part, the modern world has attempted to dismiss the myth because it has not properly understood the myth. It has mistakenly viewed the myth as an inferior, superstitious attempt to accomplish what is better accomplished by a scientific framework. "We do not understand pre-experimental thinking, so we try to explain it in terms that we do understand - which means that we explain it away, define it as nonsense" (9). However, there have been many great, powerful, long-lasting civilizations predicated on this supposed nonsense. This reality seems to be far more nonsensical than granting that the mythic might not be built on nonsense after all.
"If a culture survives, and grows, does that not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? If myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?" (7)
We often assume that our mythically-oriented ancestors did not have a reasonable grasp on the world around them, but this is only because we are attempting to situate them within a modern outlook. It is very likely that we do not understand them because they often did not understand what they themselves were doing; instead, they were merely living in active engagement with the world. As Carl Jung states, “The fact is that in former times men did not reflect upon their symbols; they lived them and were unconsciously animated by their meaning" (Jung, Man and His Symbols). Their entire life experience took place in this realm of symbols, which related to metaphysical realities closer to the base of existence. They made covenants validated by transcendent forces, which allowed for reliable human relationships. They sacrificed present goods for future gain, which is a remarkably human ability. As Biblical and other Ancient Near Eastern stories encouraged, they used words to bring about order out of chaos, building and rebuilding society from the wilderness through legal codes and prophetic utterances.
It is the myth which allows the human to be uniquely human. Whenever someone plots a course from past to present to future goal, they are employing a myth, whether or not it is consciously realized. To an extent, therefore, the modern human experience might not be all that different from the premodern. Just as the premodern human typically lived rather than reflected on the myth, so too does the myth-denying modernist. In a regressive turn, however, the modernist is not only unreflective regarding the lived myth, but actually plays the world-destroying villain of his own story. The modernist lives the broad narrative of human dignity connected to a transcendent value-provider with a related individualized task to accomplish while simultaneously opposing the concept of metanarrative. It is no wonder that despair abounds in our culture when its inhabitants are taught to play both Frodo and Sauron, the justice seeker and the nihilistic egoist.
The modern anti-myth is wrong. In pursuit of objectivity, it has lost the human reality. Yet, this reality cannot truly be undone. The human story is true and will ever reassert itself, even as despairing Shadow, if need be, in order to remind us of our need for the Light. We necessarily inhabit a tale of good and evil, heroes and villains, light and darkness, order and chaos. Tyrannical dragons horde the wealth that heroes must liberate and distribute to those in need. True words must be spoken that reorder this chaotic world into goodness, as was done at the beginning of time. Science must be regained, not as value-giver, but as an invaluable tool in the hands of the noble sage, employing his power in the aid of the human endeavor.
So far, this miniseries has provided a primarily abstract look at the nature, significance, and necessity of the mythic perspective. In the next post, I will finish with Chapter 1 of Maps of Meaning as I discuss in more practical terms how we embody the mythic perspective and how we can advance our task by doing this intentionally.
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