Long before Jordan Peterson became a bestselling author and YouTube star, he wrote a book called Maps of Meaning. The ideas in this book are the basis for his popular online lectures and recent book on 12 Rules for Life, which I critiqued in an earlier blog post. Published in 1999, Maps of Meaning is a long and ambitious synthesis of ideas on mythology, morality, and totalitarian atrocities. How well does it stand up to critical evaluation?
Scrutiny shows that Peterson’s Maps of Meaning is defective as a work of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Its emphasis on religious myth and heroic individuals provides a poor blueprint for understanding the origins of totalitarianism, and an even poorer guide to overcoming its evils.
The meanings of the word “murky” include both “dark and gloomy” and “not fully explained or understood.” Peterson’s book is murky in the first sense, with frequent emphasis on suffering rather than on the joys of love, work, and play. The book is also murky in the second sense, although it is less meandering and disjointed than his videotaped lectures.
Nevertheless, I think there is a central line of argument that can be extracted from the book, along the following lines:
1. Myths are culturally universal.
2. Myths are the psychological origin of morality.
3. Myths are the philosophical basis for morality.
4. Myth-based morality grounds political judgments about totalitarian states.
I will provide quotes from Maps…