Jordan Peterson is a student of mythology, so it’s not surprising that he presents his intellectual trajectory as a story of death and resurrection. As the Canadian psychologist recounts in his first book, 1999’s Maps of Meaning, his disillusionment as a young man brought him to almost suicidal despair. He had abandoned the Christian faith of his mother while still a teen but found no adequate replacement to give meaning to life. Later as a teen, he dabbled briefly with socialist politics, but became bitter when he concluded that left-wing activists were motivated more by hatred of the rich than empathy for the poor. In the early 1980s as an undergraduate, against the backdrop of the Cold War, the prospect that humanity could be destroyed by nuclear war gave the young Peterson recurring nightmares.
Peterson grandly refers to this personal hell as a “descensus ad inferos,” comparable to Christ’s time in Hades and to the journeys of Faust and Dante. Like these earlier explorers of perdition, Peterson found wisdom through his harrowing trek. He was saved by the writings of Carl Jung, which taught that the world was not meaningless but made intelligible by recurring cultural patterns: myths. Like Jung, Peterson came to believe that studying “comparative mythological material” was the path not just to understanding human psychology, but to finding personal peace and social harmony.
Myths are not mere stories to Peterson; they’re formative archetypes that shape human perception, teaching us how to move from the chaos of raw existence to the order of productive individualism. In Maps of Meaning, a dense academic tract, he refers to myths as “the distilled essence of the stories we tell ourselves about the patterns of our behavior”:
The myth, like the dream, may be regarded as the birthplace of conscious abstract knowledge, as the matrix from which formed ideas spring. Every concept, no matter how new or modern it appears, emerges from ground prepared by centuries of previous intellectual activity. Myth prepares the ground for explicit understanding by using what is presently comprehended ... to represent that which remains unknown.
Like many prophets before him, Peterson was initially ignored: Maps of Meaning got a modest reception. But the world is starting to catch up to Peterson. His second book, this year’s 12 Rules for Life, has become an international bestseller and turned Peterson into one of the world’s most famous, and polarizing, public intellectuals. The book takes the basic message of Maps of Meaning and recasts it as self-help.
Myths remain as central to his analysis as ever. In an acerbic profile last week, New York Times reporter Nellie Bowles wrote that Peterson “illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths—bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.” Peterson proceeds to argue for the existence today of witches and dragons:
They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do—the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.
As his obsession with myths suggests, Peterson has an old-fashioned worldview. He’s a forceful advocate of traditional gender norms, which he sees as rooted in both the objective world of nature and the cultural truths of mythology. For his followers, this makes him a heroic St. George fending off the dragons of Political Correctness and Social Justice.
“The messages he delivers,” Bowles wrote, “range from hoary self-help empowerment talk (clean your room, stand up straight) to the more retrograde and political (a society run as a patriarchy makes sense and stems mostly from men’s competence; the notion of white privilege is a farce). He is the stately looking, pedigreed voice for a group of culture warriors who are working diligently to undermine mainstream and liberal efforts to promote equality.”
Peterson’s prickly political opinions, notably his comparison of trans activists to Maoists, are part of the reason he’s so controversial. But evaluating Peterson on his own terms, as a mythologist, helps explain why he’s so popular, why his political views so reactionary, and why, ultimately, his ideas are so outdated.
In his attire, especially when appearing on stage, Peterson cultivates an old-timey look. “He is wearing a new three-piece suit, shiny and brown with wide lapels with a decorative silver flourish,” Bowles noted of a recent Toronto lecture. “It is evocative of imagery from a hundred years ago.”
Peterson’s footnotes are almost as vintage as his wardrobe. The field of experts he likes to cite are all scholars who enjoyed their greatest vogue in the middle decades of the twentieth century: Aside from Jung, Peterson draws heavily on the work of literary scholar Joesph Campbell, literary theorist Northrop Frye, and religious historian Mircea Eliade, who form the bedrock of Peterson’s mythological analysis.
Jung, Campbell, and Eliade believed that mythology contained the core truths of human culture, and shared an affinity for reactionary politics. They flirted to some degree with far-right politics in the 1930s. Eliade had the most extensive ties, being a supporter of the Iron Guard in his native Romania. Campbell was an anti-Semite and Jung was sympathetic to the fascist dictatorships of Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini. After the age of fascism ended, the three men became more conventional conservatives.
It was no accident that these leading mythologists were men of the political right. They were trying to use comparative mythology to replace natural theology (which had been undermined by the rise of science). Showing that there was a common set of myths underlying all human cultures was a way of shoring up the claims of tradition, which were under siege by political challenges from the left and by social changes fostered by modernity.
In his 1999 book The Politics of Myth, University of California religion scholar Robert Ellwood argued that these mythologists disdained modern society but “lauded traditional ‘rooted’ peasant culture, including its articulation in myths that came not from writers but from ‘the people,’ and they no less praised the charismatic heroes ancient and modern who allegedly personified that culture’s supreme values.” Ellwood also notes that “the profoundest flaw of mythological thinking” was “a tendency to think in generic terms of peoples, races, religions, or parties.”
In Peterson, this tendency is manifest in his deeply polarized view of gender. He believes that the divide between men and women is absolute in the mythological realm (which, he believes, should guide all well functioning societies). “Order and chaos are the yang and yin of the famous Taoist symbol: two serpents head to tail,” Peterson argues in 12 Rules of Life. “Order is the white, masculine serpent; Chaos, its black, feminine counterpart.” What makes Peterson a reactionary thinker is not just that he sees the world in such stark categories, but that he believes these categories are invariable.
Peterson extolls classic Disney movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as upholding primordial gender roles, but objects to Frozen for violating those norms. “It might be objected (as it was, with Disney’s more recent and deeply propagandistic Frozen) that a woman does not need a man to rescue her,” Peterson writes in 12 Rules of Life. “That may be true, and it may not. It may be that only the woman who wants (or has) a child needs a man to rescue her—or at least to support and aid her. In any case, it is certain that a woman needs consciousness to be rescued, and, as noted above, consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time (in the guise of both order and of the Logos, the mediating principle).”
The argument here is that Frozen is propaganda because it violates mythical tropes that have existed since “the beginning of time.” But are myths really so unwavering and static?
As it happens, there was another Canadian scholar who taught, as Peterson does, at the University of Toronto, who made it his life work to argue against this assumption. Like Peterson, Northrop Frye, who flourished as a scholar from the 1940s until his death in 1991, wrote cultural analysis that was shaped by the works of Jung, Eliade and Campbell. (Someday we’ll have a cultural history explaining why Jung is so popular in Canada. The Swiss psychologist’s fingerprints can also be seen in the works of novelists like Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood as well as the cartoonist Dave Sim.) But Frye was critical of the “latent conservatism” of these mythologists.
As Glen Robert Gill showed in Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth, Frye’s major innovation as a literary scholar was to take mythology away from the etherial realm of Jung’s “collective unconscious” (a speculative netherworld that defies empirical verification) and return it to history. In his studies of the Bible and literature, Frye showed that mythical archetypes were powerful and recurring, yes, but also subject to revision.
The great example here was William Blake, who took the myths of the Bible and inverted them in spectacular fashion, imagining the God as a tyrant and the Devil as a rebel. “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (circa 1790).
Blake re-wrote the Bible, just as Frozen re-wrote the Disney princess by making the traditional witch figure (the magic-powered Elsa) into a heroine. That’s the way culture works. Myths are not just handed down in unchanging fashion; they are repurposed, tweaked, and sometimes inverted. Contra Peterson, witches aren’t real. More importantly, the cultural meaning of witches changes over time (as with the feminist effort to reclaim witches as heroines).
Peterson sees himself as a mythical hero, a Prometheus bringing light to humanity. But a character from Victorian literature is more apropos: In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the vivacious Dorothea Brooke marries Edward Casaubon, a venerable scholar penning a tome promising “the Key to All Mythologies.” Brooke discovers, too late, that far from being a genius, Mr. Casaubon is a musty fraud.