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Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson – Book Review

It’s been a while since Jordan Peterson made the news. It’s like he vanished of the face of the earth for some time. Jordan Peterson interests me because of his views on the meaning of life and how we can achieve it, which he thinks is achieved by putting some individual responsibility on yourself. I read his book 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos back when it came out and was intrigued by his ideas. I finally got a copy of Maps of Meaning and delved into the mind of the psychology professor of Toronto.

            Maps of Meaning is much more an academic book than 12 Rules. Peterson uses a lot of vocabulary which the non-academic person might have trouble understanding. Still this is a pretty readable book even for those not well versed in academic literature. In this book Peterson tries to find the underlying meaning in many of our myths and stories. He uses the ancient mythological stories of the enuma elish which is the Mesopotamian creation myth and a lot of Biblical references. Watching his biblical series on YouTube gave me a better understanding of this book.

            One of the main reasonings we as human beings use to achieve meaning in our lives, is by thinking in a certain dichotomy. We have the ‘unbearable present’ and we long for the ‘ideal future’, everything we do or find valuable, fits in this dichotomy. We do things because we believe it will present us with a better future, better in relation to the present. There is something in the present which makes it ‘unbearable’, we act to make the future (or the new present) ‘ideal’ and we act this out until we die.

            This is the fundamental point in morality and ethics. Why is something good? Because it produces a better future. Why is something evil? Because it produces a worse future. Now we could say that this is a pathway to moral relativism, yet it differs in some regards. Moral relativism claims that morality is just a cultural construct and that there is no objective standard with which we can say something is better than other things. According to moral relativism, it is impossible to say someone’s morality is worse than someone else’s. This is not the case here, since we can rationally view ways in which a better future can be produced. Though there are endless interpretations of everything, there are only limited interpretations which are valid.

            Peterson then begins by introducing the archetypical metaphors for how we structure the world, which was mostly done by religion and philosophy in ancient times. There is the Benevolent Father, which represents the good side of order, of the known, stability, etc. But his counterpart is the Tyrannical Dictaror, which oppresses, doesn’t allow change, is too static, fascistic, etc. A modern example would of Mufasa and Scar in the movie the Lion King.

            There is also the Great Mother, which represents the good side of chaos, dynamism, change, culturation, adaptation, etc. But she also has a counterpart which would be the evil queen, which represents darkness, destruction, the unknown, etc. In movies for example, she might be represented as the good fairy or the evil stepmother.

            There are many other archetypes, which would be too long to list them all. But they all represent some kind of psychological factor in our lives. Myths and stories represent these metaphors into kind of frameworks so we can caricaturize these archetypes and understand them more simply and deeper.

            Our stories, from the ancient biblical stories to the new superhero stories, represent something inherently in the psyche of the human being. I find it fascinating to go deeper into these frameworks and to discover the underlying meaning of these stories and what they represent. If you too find these types of topics interesting, you will get a lot out of reading Peterson’s book. He even gives some real-life examples (Sovjet Union and Nazi-Germany) in order to prove his point of these ancient unconscious structures which are in our brains and which still influence our lives today.

            There is a lot to learn about the stories of the past. Obviously, these didn’t happen, but they have moral value and influence the way we act. We can even make the point that, by doing so, they are more real than anything else. I do think we need to pay attention to these stories. The Superhero stories of now are not simply action stories but represent some of the real archetypical structures of the ancient stories. I do believe it is important that we don’t forget these underlying structures. Simplicity is never the solution, not in a world as complex as this one and with people who can still surprise us.

            Jordan Peterson brings a great academic work with Maps of Meaning and is a significant read for everyone interested in morality, psychoanalysis and stories in general. He definitely inspired me to read more into the stories and to not just write them off as mere ‘fiction’. I believe that good fiction is more real than good non-fiction will ever be.

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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