After twelve years of working on the manuscript, Jordan Peterson’s, “Maps of Meaning” was first published in 1999. The book does not fall neatly into any one single category. The book crosses many categories—which is part of its appeal—but we can begin with psychology, then philosophy, mythology, spirituality and even the self-help genre should be included. Peterson has read widely and deeply in his research required for this book and his offering synthesis a lot of what these various disciplines have to offer. Likewise, a lot of the books we have read for this program the past two years also connects to Peterson’s book.
Although he was an obscure professor at the University of Toronto as well as a practicing clinical psychologist for the many years, he is now one of the best known and influential public intellectuals today. This book created a wider audience for Peterson’s ideas and he is no longer confined to the halls of academia. His follow-up book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” made him known internationally as he frequented talk shows and participated in speaking engagements on podcasts and in person around the world.
He is not afraid to buck the wave of popular sentiment, even such politically-charged topics as the LGBTQ+ movement. He is a defender of the Enlightenment ideals, the scientific method, and individual rights—all the while maintaining a conservative outlook. Maps of Meaning is a difficult read and requires concentration as you make your way through the dense prose. He is not the most readily accessible writer, but if you stick with him, you will be rewarded with what he has to say.
The book is about how people build meaning for their lives, both individually and within groups. This by itself is not a new undertaking, but Peterson couples this idea with his understanding of how the brain works. Modern understanding of the biology and chemistry of the brain informs Peterson’s conclusions about the functions of the brain and therefore, our behavior. But he does not stop there, either. He brings into the conversation culture, mythology, and the power of story and drama in shaping our beliefs and behaviors. As to the idea of culture, he states, “Culture, the Great Father, protects us from the terrors of the unknown” (p. 309). For Peterson, these non-scientific contributions to a person’s development are just as important as the scientific explanations of our biological makeup. Indeed, they play a large part in determining how people live their lives and come to have an outlook on this world. Peterson wants to understand the “structures” that shape belief. The question is complicated and the answer is even more so—which is why he draws on such a wide variety of fields as he attempts to articulate his answer.
For example, given his clinical psychology background, it is not surprising that he draws abundantly on Carl Jung throughout the book. Jung speaks of archetypal ideas and evolutionary psychology and so does Peterson. But then Peterson adds to this understanding his learning of culture and its ability to shape people. Culture provides meaning to people and helps fill in “gaps” in our knowledge. He states, “The wisdom of the group can serve as the force that mediates between the dependency of childhood and the responsibility of the adults” (p. 469).
This shaping of people is also accomplished by mythology and story. There are abundant parallels with Peterson’s book and Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Both books explain how myth can powerfully shape our understanding of the world and our place in it. Campbell said, “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation (p.1 from The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Peterson agrees and takes it even further with his understanding of how the human brain works biologically and psychologically. At the core of his searching, Peterson wants to know how people reach their conclusions on what to believe and how to behave. His desires to understand this is ambitious: he wants to understand the behavior of humanity in all of human history.
He is not afraid to turn to the Bible and its stories to help him with his quest for answers. He starts off his book explaining his upbringing in the church, how he rebelled against it, but then eventually found his way back to it. He says, “The Bible, considered as a single story, presents this ‘process of maturation’ in mythological terms” (p. 369). He is interested in Bible stories and concludes that, since they have been around for so long, their lessons just might be true. He is not an evangelist, but rather he is still a searcher for ultimate meaning. He is willing to acknowledge the possibility of a creator/redeemer God in his journey.
Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, would have a lot to agree about with Peterson. Both authors explain our search for self-identity and the meaning of the modern self. Both authors take a long view and consider the historical progression humanity has gone through. There are also echoes of Peterson in Daniel Nettle’s, Personality. Nettles tries to categorize human personalities based on broad traits with the intention that we will recognize ourselves and therefore be able to understand ourselves better. Peterson’s goal is similar, although he and Nettle approach their subjects differently.
Peterson’s book led to me to think more deeply about my own Roman Catholic upbringing and how that shaped my faith life. Four years in higher education working towards a Master of Divinity at an evangelical seminary deeply shaped and informed my faith, too. Then twelve years in the business world influenced my Christian beliefs and behaviors. Each chapter of life that we journey through leaves indelible marks on our understanding of the world and ourselves. Books like, Maps of Meaning remind us that we are not alone in our questions and frustrations as we make our way through life.