Meaningful Living Through Myths

Legends, myths, and stories have been part of our lives since the time we were born, and part of civilization since ancient times. These myths and legends were intrinsic to communicating, teaching, and imbibing various lessons of culture, morality and lend meaning to the lives of the people in a community and society at large.

Jordan B. Peterson, in his Maps of Meaning (1999), uses historical analysis, social, and psychoanalysis to understand how these myths and legends have shaped the culture and in turn, shaped humans. He argues that myths that have been handed down from generation to generation are the way to not only understanding present human nature and culture but also derive meaning from our lives and reach individual potential.

The Fear Of The Unknown

Let’s take rats for example. A rat freezes when it is put in a new cage. Its reaction to unfamiliar territory is primarily caution. The rat will slowly explore its new cage by scratching, sniffing, and licking its new cage, getting accustomed to this new surrounding, and becoming calmer.

Humans, though more complex than rats, understand the world in a similar manner. For humans too, the world is divided into the known, and the unknown. 

While the known comprises of all things familiar where things that have been previously explored, things that make sense, things that are known due to shared culture, things that give a sense of calm and safety. The unknown is the unfamiliar – a new situation, unexpected behavior, unexplained phenomenon, etc. Anything that is an anomaly will throw humans off their guard and make them stop in their tracks.

However, anomalies rake up dual feelings – of being promising and threatening at the same time. Moreover, the intensity of unexpectedness determines whether it is fear or curiosity that will dominate the senses. For example, a letter with ‘open at your own risk’ written on top will generate feelings of anxiousness as well as excitement. However, if the letter is from a known friend, the feeling of curiosity will take over and one will feel less anxious to open it.

Once the initial fear of the unknown passes, humans tend to have a natural proclivity to explore the unknown – to make the unfamiliar, familiar. The goal is to reduce anxiety and attach a sense of safety.

Humans, unlike rats, have the ability of thought, in addition to action to rationalize the unknown. For example, apart from smelling the unopened letter, holding it against the light to check its insides, or ripping it open, we have the ability to ponder and think about who sent it, and why. This ability to rationalize is what has shaped the world today and is continuing to shape it.

Maps of Meaning by Jordan B Peterson
Maps of Meaning by Jordan B Peterson

How Stories Give Meaning To Our World

Science and scientific development help us understand our surroundings rationally. However, feelings and emotions are critical to understanding the world too. The judgment of whether something is bad or good is determined by emotions and feelings, in turn determining how we approach the unknown. It is the social and cultural context with which we approach any situation or thing in life to derive meaning. 

For example, one’s liking for a piece of cheesecake depends on the effective, or emotional meaning one attaches to it. While rationally – and scientifically – the cheesecake is the same, its affective meaning changes depending on whether offered by a stranger or a loved one, or whether one is on a diet. Therefore, science in itself cannot help one understand the world, let alone navigate it because feelings and emotions are always tied to the fact.

Humans have stories, an ingenious way of deriving meaning. Shared stories, myths, and legends such as The Passion of the Christ, tales of Greek and Roman Gods, cosmologic stories of the ancient Egyptians, stories of monsters, kings, heroes, etc., are some of the most important stories that have hidden cultural meaning.

In the book Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson emphasises that in the modern context, these stories are considered fabulations, yet they have cultural and psychological significance. They give meaning to major human experiences such as the creation of man, forces of nature, and the origin of the cosmos that would otherwise, have been unfamiliar and frightening to ancient humans.

The Basic Structure Of Myths

Myths from different places of the world have some common characteristics because of shared human nature. Whether it is the story of Homer’s Odyssey, the Passion of the Christ, stories of creation in Mesopotamia or Egypt, they all have one commonality – the journey of a brave hero and his triumphant return from the unknown.

The primal forces of nature form the basis of most myths. They represent the unknown, from wherein all life originates. Its creative and destructive nature is mostly represented as feminine. For example, according to the Mesopotamian myth of creation, the unknown is a ferocious Mother Dragon Tiamat from whose pieces the cosmos was created. In Sumerian creation myth, the sea goddess Nammu birthed the sky and the earth.

The feminine, often the mother, is portrayed as either ‘great’, or ‘terrible’, where the terrible unknown is shown in forms of an evil monster, a stepmother, or a storm; the great, or promising unknown is often characterized by a fairy godmother, a treasure or a magical place.

In mythology, the opposite of the Great and Terrible Mother, is the Great and Terrible Father. The father represents the structured, known territories of culture that man has built for protection. The father is most often represented as an old, wise king – great when he is just, protective and wise, and terrible when he is oppressive, tyrannical, or evil.

Finally, the hero of the story is the brave explorer, trapped between the unknown forces of the Mother and Father – or nature and culture. He is the one who fights the negatives of nature and culture and wins by bringing out the positives, proving to be a role model for humans.

Myths Are A Framework For Humans And Society

All myths and legends are a framework idealizing how society should be built and how individuals should behave within it. It is often seen that myths are based on stories of kings, queens, princes, etc. They justify authoritarian culture, legitimize them, and at the same time provide templates and examples of how power should be used (or not).

For example, the Mesopotamian emperor was believed to be an emissary of the hero Marduk, who constructed the cosmos from pieces of Tiamat. The emperor, just like Marduk was to bring order from the chaos in society.

Myths describe the dualities of the Mother (nature) and the Father (culture). Where the Mother is creative and destructive, the Father is protective and tyrannical. These differences described in stories of kings or gods show to balance tradition and innovation in culture and society. 

The Egyptian story of Horus is a great example. The divine king Osiris is too fixated on traditional ways and doesn’t see the evil nature of his brother Seth, who eventually kills him to get the throne. Horus, Osiris’ son is an ‘updated’ version of Osiris himself, ventures into the underworld (unknown) to find his father. Seeing his father blind, he gives Osiris one of his own eyes, and the two emerge from the underworld to reclaim their throne.

Myths also chart out the ideal behaviour for individuals in society. They are guidelines that teach people to face challenges (venturing into the unknown) and not hide from them. The hero, opposed by an evil tyrant shows society behaviours that are not accepted and that reward-punishment. For example, Seth shows disrespect for the divine order by murdering Osiris and gets duly punished. Thus, myths were a moral compass for individuals to learn and follow, before laws were written or before behavioural rules were formalized by institutional religion.

Lessons Of Growing Up In Myths

Children are protected from the dangers of the unknown by their parents. Parents, by embodying the values of their culture teach children moral and behavioral values. Thus protection and values of parents take an upper hand over the values and protection given by culture. As a child grows up, these parental values and the protection get replaced with those of the culture surrounding them.

The first step of this shift can be seen when teenagers rebel against parental authority, in order to embrace the values of their friends. Teenage rebellion is, therefore, a natural socialization process. However, this growing-up phase leads to a paradox, where as soon as children are liberated from the authority of parents, they have to embrace the values, rules, and norms of society, which are just as arbitrary.

For example, people in the West are expected to have or learn a specialized profession. While humans could have perfectly well survived without the need to have a profession, they have to function within this framework that is set by the culture. This framework, though arbitrary, helps humans to make their surroundings familiar and keep the unknown at bay.

Myths and legends are a device to encode these very rules, norms, and values of the culture. The downsides to abiding blindly to this framework of culture lead to succumbing to the tyrannical side of culture (Father), and are often known to encourage fascism and authoritarianism.

However, on the upside, myths also give humans a way to identify with heroes and thus focus on individuality, rather than just identifying with the rules of culture. They show that the hero isn’t afraid to overthrow the power of the Father if needed for the greater social good. This is one of the main messages of the book “Maps of Meaning” by the author.

Anomalies Make Humans Adapt

The existence of the unfamiliar and unknown is a given. There will always be things that man will never understand. While culture provides protection from the unknown, it is also a fact that the chaos of the unknown will show itself when least expected.

Just as for rats, the unknown is unsettling for humans too, especially when they are unexpected. Moreover, if the intensity of the unknown anomaly is too high to be comprehended, it turns into a crisis. These crises can be on an individual level or at a cultural level. For example, political crises, a natural disaster, or a war can be cultural crises, whereas the death of a loved one, an uncomfortable realization, or a career setback can be individual crises.

Cultural or individual, these anomalies of the unknown always force people to adapt. Minor crises lead to normal adaptation. For example, if you spill coffee on your new dress, you adapt to the unknown unexpected situation by changing your dress and getting it dry-cleaned.

Major crises lead to evolutionary adaptation. Here, encountering the unknown forces to change one’s own outlook and perspective, and of the world too. We then end up changing our values, goals, and even our behaviors to accommodate the crises. Major crises and revolutionary adaptation can lead to major psychological crises on an individual level and social crises on a cultural level.

Revolutionary adaptation always leads to using the anomaly to update one’s view of the world. However, if such anomalies keep piling up, it becomes a clear indication of the fact that the existing model of the world isn’t working.

How Limitations Lead To A Meaningful Existence

A symbol of a self-consuming snake, or an ouroboros, can be found in many cultures in India, Mexico, and Africa. It is first known to have appeared in Babylon and represents the primordial state of the cosmos. It represents a pre-existent state, where everything is in perfect harmony. It is the state where there is no distinction between the known and the unknown, order and chaos because humans do not exist to know the difference.

This state of pre-existence is represented as the Garden of Eden in Christian mythology, where Adam and Eve are not humans, as we understand today. They do not know pain, sorrow or death, or anything much. It is only after they eat the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, do they become self-conscious – differentiating themselves from animals. They become aware of their nudity and cover themselves up with fig leaves.

However, they get expelled from paradise for their transgression – a heavy price for their consciousness. This is the point in Christian mythology where the primordial pre-existence state is broken, dividing order and chaos, good and evil, and life and death. It is the point of birth of humans, where Adam and Eve get the responsibility to navigate and make sense of their new world. This view shows that the limitations and faults of humans are the preconditions for our very existence.

The Christian myth emphasizes the fact that humans have the responsibility to chart out their own meaningful path. Because without this basic limitation, how would humans do good without evil, strive for order without chaos, do the right without any wrong in the world, or even understand the meaning of life without death?

The Human Capacity For Evil

When we speak of evil, we often consider it to be the product of an unjust social or economic condition, a bad upbringing, or a psychological defect. However, Hanna Arendt, the German philosopher, said that everyone, even ordinary people are capable of true evil. She understood this ‘banality of evil’ when she was contemplating the evil that penetrated the Third Reich.

Most myths, especially the religious ones, address this evil that resides within all of us. In myths, this evil is often portrayed as a hero’s evil brother, or an evil conniving king’s advisor, etc. 

Christianity gives perhaps the most impressive version of evil, Satan – a fallen angel having delusions of grandeur, arrogance, ignorance, and self-deceit. In the play Faust, by Goethe, Satan claims to be the ‘spirit that denies’. 

What does Satan deny?

Satan (or evil) denies that the unknown exists at all. While the unknown can be frightening, it isn’t evil. As we have seen, exploration of the unknown can bring rewards too. It is the base of knowledge and growth for humans. Satan denies this very possibility for knowledge and growth – a truly arrogant, cowardly belief that is the basis of true evil. Satan represents the antihero, who rejects creative exploration and anomaly, and hence a chance for growth and adaptation.

Evil that rejects the unknown pushes humans towards two options – 

  • First, blindly adhering to culture and tradition, leads to fascism. For example, the Nazis who committed atrocities and then claimed that they were only ‘following orders.
  • Second, losing oneself to self-indulgence and adulation, leading to decadence, wherein individuals are too lazy to accept any responsibility for the current state of the world.

Myths therefore help us understand that we are all capable of evil, and that we can choose the better path.

How To Reach One’s Own Potential

Humans have devised many strategies to avoid facing the uncomfortable unknown. One strategy is to lose oneself in ideology. However, being an ideologist translates to rejecting creative exploration and thus growth.

For example, a person who is a national supremacist will believe that his country is better than others so vehemently, that he will actively deny, avoid, and suppress any anomalies that suggest an alternative truth or go against his narrative. 

Ideologists seek solace in their own readymade worldview rather than embarking on their own creative exploration. Their ideology and its perusal replace identification with a mythical hero. Some ideologists perceive their own culture, race, or nationality as superior, encourage individual identities that align with their own, and consider others out of their culture, race, or nationality as anomalies. For them, anything foreign becomes evil. Some other ideologies completely reject culture itself, blame anomalies on everyone else, and do not take responsibility for their states.

Thus, ideologists do not accept any discrepancies between their perceptions of the world and their experiences. They deny and reject anything other than their static perceptions of their world. Considering the Christian myth, where the rejection of creative exploration is true evil, any ideologies, and atrocities committed under them (like fascism and communism), prove the Christian myth as true.

Conclusion

Resorting to the comfort of any ideology, therefore, means not be able to live a meaningful life. It means rejecting growth and learning, as it rejects the idea of a mythical hero and perceiving life as a fulfilling journey. 

Humans, therefore, have the responsibility to perceive culture as their framework and use myths to create a sense of individuality, to add meaning to their journey into the unknown. This is what Jordan Peterson has tried to convey in this book titled Maps of Meaning.