Jordan Peterson doesn’t understand mythology

Jordan Peterson has staked much of his scholarly reputation on his interpretation of mythology, especially the Jewish myths recorded in the Book of Genesis. Yet Peterson’s understanding of mythology is fundamentally flawed. The entire edifice of his thought rests on feet of clay.

The main problem with Peterson’s take on mythology is his misunderstanding of symbolism. The crucial thing about symbols is that they are multivalent. Unlike a metaphor, which is designed to encode one specific meaning, a symbol is designed to evoke many different interpretations. Anyone who claims to know what a given symbol means, or presents a particular interpretation as the meaning of a particular symbol, thereby demonstrates a basic failure to grasp the nature of symbolism. And this is exactly what Peterson does, time and again, ad nauseam.

Take, for example, Peterson’s interpretation of the Holy Grail. Peterson has stated on many occasions that the Holy Grail is simply a symbol for whatever is of ultimate value. The very way this claim is worded betrays a deep misunderstanding. If the Holy Grail is a symbol then it cannot possibly have one true meaning. On the other hand, if Peterson has correctly decoded the one true meaning of this mythical object, then the Holy Grail is not a symbol but a metaphor. Whichever way you construe Peterson’s claim, it demonstrates a failure to understand the most basic facts about the way symbols work.

This fundamental error informs, and therefore undermines, almost everything Peterson has to say about mythology. If, as Peterson seems to believe, myths are just moral lessons dressed up as stories, it should be possible to strip away the metaphors and present the essential message that a myth encodes in straightforward, literal terms. Peterson seems prepared to bite this bullet. At the end of his recent talk in Iceland, Peterson claimed that “it’s time for us to understand it [mythology]; we can’t just live by it unconsciously any more. We have to understand it as well as living by it. And that’s the task of the twenty first century.”

This statement embodies a view of historical progress that harks back to Max Weber and other nineteenth century German scholars. According to this view, mythology is a primitive, indirect way of expressing certain truths that we moderns can now unpack and express in direct, unambiguous, and more rational ways. The ancients were somehow incapable of saying, clearly and directly, that the most valuable things in life can only be achieved by taking risks and going outside your comfort zone, so they had to express this idea indirectly, such as by means of stories about knights going into a dark forest to look for the Holy Grail. Thanks to science and progress, we moderns can now dispense with such primitive metaphors and just state the moral lesson in plain speech.

Most experts on mythology today would regard this as a hopelessly naïve and simplistic view. Whatever else they may be, myths are most certainly not mere narrative codes for expressing moral truths. They are complex, multivalent tapestries whose value lies precisely in that they can never be reduced to a single meaning. Their whole beauty lies in their capacity to evoke new and different responses in each generation, in each individual listener. The person who tries to pin a myth down to a single meaning chokes all the life out of it.