Critique of Jordan B. Peterson’s

Neo-Hegelian philosophy

Abstract: Peterson’s philosophy, as expounded in Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, departs radically from views held in depth psychology and theology but has much in common with Hegel. The world of consciousness is greatly overestimated. His exaggerated intellectualism leads to deep symbols being over-rationalized, producing meager and sterile interpretations. The article contributes to the understanding of myth and religion.

Keywords: identification, psychic integration, symbolic meaning, transcendence, evil, heroism, Magna Mater, Osiris, resurrection, alchemy, Hegel, Carl Jung, M-L von Franz, Nietzsche, St Augustine.


Peterson’s theory revolves around the societal and cultural ideal. All myths and religion boil down to the joint effort of humankind to create the ideal society. Spirit becomes manifest in cultural products and homogeneous social interaction. Peterson reduces the entire corpus of religion, mythology, and fairytale to stories about ego formation and social adaptation. He asserts that the religious sacrifice is predicated on the idea that, at times, the present schema of behavioural adaptation must be destroyed in order for a better adaptive pattern to emerge. The dying and resurrecting god also depends on this concept (pp. 173ff). Christ’s sacrifice demonstrates the secular truth that the social behaviour pattern has to be renewed. The central motif of the human enterprise is the creation of a “paradise on earth”. To this end, it is required that citizens internalize action patterns and schemas of value represented by the political state:

To what end are all behaviors (and representations of those behaviors) archetypally subjugated? Toward establishment of a state — a spiritual kingdom — that allows the behavioral processes that transform and establish morality to flourish. (p. 392)
Identity with the group therefore comes to replace recourse to parental authority as “way of being in the face of the unknown.” It provides structure for social relationships […] and establishes acceptable procedure (acceptable mode for the “attainment of earthly paradise”). (p. 223)

Thus, “establishment of group identity” is an important phase in personal development (p. 228). The citizen acquires an upright collective identity that liberates him from childhood dependency. Thus far, the model accords with Friedrich Hegel’s pantheistic and collectivistic system. However, Peterson recognizes that society must evolve in order to meet the challenges from a changing reality. This can only be set in motion by the heroic individual. He must now divest himself of collective identity in order to face the threat of the unknown, equal to the “Great and Terrible Mother”. Says Peterson:

The hero is the first person to have his “internal structure” (that is, his hierarchy of values and his behaviors) reorganized as a consequence of contact with an emergent anomaly (p. 282).

The hero occasions dissolution and reconstruction of current knowledge and morality in order to originate new collective behavioural patterns, better suited to reality. Thus, a new stable social character is born. The current ideal of personality, mimicked by individuals, was made permanent due to actions of historical heroes, many of which are long forgotten. We are historically conditioned personalities. So he sees inherited action patterns as pragmatic imperatives, since chaos otherwise threatens. This, in a nutshell, is Peterson’s system. It combines Hegel’s monolithic State philosophy with Nietzsche’s heroic Übermensch philosophy.


Spirit is associated with the “known”, Peterson says (p. 141). This is the Hegelian concept of spirit, which runs counter to the Christian ditto: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”. Spirit is in Scripture likened to an invisible kingdom, because it “cometh not with observation” (Luke 17:20-21). In Peterson’s model, however, conscious spirit stands against a chaotic unknown, associated with nature and matter. Comparably, in Jungian psychology, the unconscious (unknown psychic nature) is not equal to chaos. It is above all the realm of sublime archetypal order. It tallies with the modern view of matter. Matter is no longer regarded as inert and formless hulê. In fact, the inner nature of matter is characterized by sublime orderedness, as proved by quantum physics.

According to Hegelian rationalism, the discursive intellect can make everything perfectly clear. Nothing transcends the intellect, and everything could, on principle, be contained in consciousness. Accordingly, Peterson says:

Myth is, in part, the image of our adaptive action, as formulated by imagination, before its explicit containment in abstract language; myth is the intermediary between action and abstract linguistic representation of that action. (p. 75)
Narrative/mythic “reality” is the world, conceived of in imagination… (p. 102)
This form is not purposeful mystification, but the manner in which ideas emerge, before they are sufficiently developed to be explicitly comprehensible. (p. 135)
This prescientific “model of reality” primarily consisted of narrative representations of behavioral patterns (and of the contexts that surround them), and was concerned primarily with the motivational significance of events and processes. (p. 103)

He contends that humanity could initially only express itself by means of “patterns of action”, and then by mythic narrative, and only later by logical abstraction. But is it realistic to suppose that the Cro-Magnon were unable to express logical thought? There is reason to believe that people were capable of logical thinking long before they created mythological narratives and art. Ravens and crows have been found capable of solving logical problems. Had they had the means of expressing their thoughts, surely they would have done so! As to the transition from behavioural expression to mythic narrative, Peterson gives a more recent example. He asserts that Shakespeare (1564-1616) has illustrated in narrative form what was then still behavioural (p. 178). Today, we can take the process further. At the present stage of cultural evolution, we may transcribe to abstract thought everything that Shakespeare wrote. This holds true also for religious symbol and myth, and Peterson translates them all with ease.

Yet, it is improbable that Shakespeare has made a narrative account of unthinking patterns of action. Shakespeare was not an instinctual author. On the contrary, historians of literature see him as a man of great learning. We know that he had studied Plutarch and Ovid. He was well acquainted with Horace, Seneca, Chaucer, Gower, and Cinthio. Shakespeare also had good insight into folklore and Elizabethan stories and genres. His historical and geographical knowledge was extensive, and sometimes quite exact. Romeo and Juliet is really an older story which he rewrote according to his conscious value preferences. Also political motives have played a role in his writing (cf. Smith, 2007).

Peterson equates symbols with metaphors (p. 94), which implies that they can be clearly understood in intellectual terms. Allegedly, myth and symbol serve only a social purpose, and they are wholly explainable in logical terms. Psychologist Carl Jung takes the opposite view. Symbol is needed to express that which transcends the intellect, that which we cannot properly express in logical terms. Archetypal myth is symbolical, not metaphorical. According to this perspective, we will never be able to translate numinous symbol and Shakesperian plays wholly into abstract thought, because not everything is logical. Jung explains the transcendental aspect of the symbol:

Every view which interprets the symbolic expression as an analogous or abbreviated expression of a known thing is semiotic. A view which interprets the symbolic expression as the best possible formulation of a relatively unknown thing, which for that reason cannot be more clearly or characteristically represented, is symbolic. A view which interprets the symbolic expression as an intentional paraphrase or transmogrification of a known thing is allegoric. The interpretation of the cross as a symbol of divine love is semiotic, because “divine love” describes the fact to be expressed better and more aptly than a cross, which can have many other meanings. On the other hand, an interpretation of the cross is symbolic when it puts the cross beyond all conceivable explanations, regarding it as expressing an as yet unknown and incomprehensible fact of a mystical or transcendent, i.e., psychological, nature, which simply finds itself most appropriately represented in the cross.
    So long as a symbol is a living thing, it is the expression for something that cannot be characterized in any other or better way. The symbol is alive only so long as it is pregnant with meaning. But once its meaning has been born out of it, once that expression is found which formulates the thing sought, expected, or divined even better than the hitherto accepted symbol, then the symbol is dead, i.e., it possesses only an historical significance […] The way in which St Paul and the early speculative mystics speak of the Cross shows that for them it was still a living symbol which expressed the inexpressible in unsurpassable form […]
    The symbol is always a product of an extremely complex nature, since data from every psychic function have gone into its making. It is, therefore, neither rational nor irrational (qq.v.). It certainly has a side that accords with reason, but it has another side that does not; for it is composed not only of rational but also of irrational data supplied by pure inner and outer perception. (CW 6, pars. 815ff)

Evidently, then, Peterson is into semiotics, the interpretation of signs. This is a decisive break with scholarly tradition in psychology, comparative religion, and theology. Mythic and religious symbol is generally viewed as inexhaustible of meaning. Theologian Paul Avis rejects the view that Peterson adheres to, that is, myth as metaphorical conceptualization of human and societal affairs. Symbols transcend mere signs. They are the living and dynamic products of creative imagination, effecting a connection between the mundane and the transcendent. Symbols are speaking of things beyond our ken — a transcendent realm to which there is no access except through the symbol itself (cf. Avis, 1999, pp. 93-95). Says Avis:

[It] would be widely agreed that myth is a literary genre in which numinous symbols are constellated in narrative form […] Rationalist notions of myth (such as that of Frazer’s The Golden Bough) took it to be primitive science, just as they took legend to be primitive history. There is an element of truth in this, as myths often contain cosmological conjectures and aetiological features (why do snakes go on their bellies?). But this misses the essential point that myth interprets transactions in the realm of the sacred, the dialogue between God and humanity. (Avis, 1999, pp. 101-02)

Peterson’s rationalistic behaviourism equates the transcendental with phenomena to which our behavioural schemes are not yet adapted, since we are “habituated to what is familiar and known”: “[T]he transcendental unknown — unexplored territory — [is] the aspect of experience that cannot be addressed with mere application of memorized and habitual procedures” (p. 99). Such an oversimplified notion of transcendence lacks application in theology, religion, and philosophy. Nor does it work in science, which speaks of phenomena that cannot be experienced as such, not even detected by an apparatus. A light wave cannot be observed as such. If detected, it immediately turns into a stream of photons. Only then can the scientist decide that light has transported itself in wave form. Of course, from a perpendicular perspective, a light ray in vacuum cannot be detected at all. The light wave, as such, is undetectable — not simply due to its invisibility. It is a transcendent phenomenon that can only be grasped mathematically as the electromagnetic wave equation.

Neither our conceptual categories nor our behavioural apparatus can be “habituated” to quantum phenomena. It seems that an electron can be in two places at the same time. It is as if the phenomenon described by the Schrödinger wave equation transcends the material world. We can never hope to grasp it in experiential terms, because it can never be an experience. As soon as the phenomenon is detected the wave function “collapses”, in a figurative manner of speech. Yet, nothing collapses, because there was nothing tangible there — only a mathematical equation. Science can describe such transcendent phenomena mathematically, and make statistical predictions, although human beings can never come to “know” them properly. The way in which Peterson uses the word ‘transcendence’ is trivial. It has no proper application.

The Sacrifice

It is stating the obvious that one must offer something up in order to reap the harvest in the future. The ancients knew that the sowings must be buried in the earth for new life to grow. Squirrels, too, often refrain from eating their cherished nuts immediately. Instead, they hide them in the earth, later to be eaten during wintertime. Thus, economical foresight cannot have been a “thought” that the ancients weren’t capable of formulating, but could only act out ritually. On the contrary, they were more prudent than modern people, because their lives depended on it. The notion of the religious sacrifice as ritual abandonment of the present adaptive pattern in the hope of reinstating a new, is implausible. It also trivializes the deep meaning of the sacrifice. Central to pagan theology is the theme of restitution. As the gods have conferred upon the world and mankind invaluable gifts, so must humanity reimburse them for their generous creative effort. Sacrifice means replenishment of the divine.

The gods have sacrificed their limbs in their creative work, and thus suffered loss of much divine blood (see below, ‘Osiris’). In furtherance of stability of society, indeed of the whole cosmos, mankind must make restitutive sacrifice. The idea is to sustain the vitality of the gods so that the sun may continue on its course. The collapse of order was always imminent. The underlying thought is to preserve precious orderliness, but not to undermine it for the sake of a new order of society. The latter view is completely at odds with pagan theology and the explanations afforded by historians of comparative religion (cf. Winther, 2008, here). In order to vitalize the gods, men must devitalize themselves. It means to curtail our power and wholeness. The gods wax as men wane, and vice versa. Thus, the worshipper is obliged to transfer his own merit to the god (cf. O’Flaherty, 1980, pp. 141ff).

The Hero

The myth of the hero, Peterson says, represents “voluntary alteration in individual human attitude and action” in order to achieve better adapted behavior in society (p. 181). So the hero archetype is understood simply as a heroic personal ideal, mimicked by creative individuals. Each properly socialized individual must try and emulate the hero, after having acquired traditional learning:

The inherent value of the individual is dependent on his association, or ritual identification, with the exploratory communicative hero (p. 244).
Following the successful ‘apprenticeship,’ the individual is competent to serve as his own master — to serve as an autonomous incarnation of the hero. (p. 234)

In Jungian psychology, hero identification has pathological consequences. Peterson, in contrast, elevates it as an ideal for personality. He has found inspiration in mythologist Joseph Campbell, who has contributed much to the egoization of the archetype, i.e., seeing the archetype (especially the hero) as a human ego. Yet, Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung’s foremost pupil, repudiates the personalistic method of interpretation. A god/archetype is neither a human ego nor a model for a human ego. The consequence of such misinterpretation is that the very healing element of an archetypal narrative is nullified (cf. von Franz, 1996, Preface). Comparing Hegel and Peterson we find many correspondences; not only the concept of spirit, but also the view of the individual deviates from the classic definition, which is this:

An individual is that which exists as a distinct entity. Individuality (or selfhood) is the state or quality of being an individual; particularly of being a person separate from other people and possessing his or her own needs or goals, rights and responsibilities. (Wiki, here)
The psychological individual, or his individuality (q.v.), has an a priori unconscious existence, but exists consciously only so far as a consciousness of his peculiar nature is present, i.e., so far as there exists a conscious distinction from other individuals. (Jung, CW 6, para. 755)

Thus, to be an individual means being a psychologically unique person who responsibly goes his own way. But according to Hegelianism citizens shall become coordinated, their personalities homogenized, as they all cast off “subjective mind” and absorb the communal “objective spirit” (cf. Redding, here). Hegel says:

Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. (Hegel, 1967, sec. 258)

It’s like saying that a potato only attains genuine individuality when it is converted to mashed potatoes. Against such a view, M-L von Franz says:

Jung regarded statistical statements in the fields of psychology and sociology in the same way modern physics has come to understand them, namely as a mental abstraction. If I say, for instance, that the stones in this pile have an average size of five square inches, that may be true in theory but in reality I would have to look around for a long time before I found even one stone of exactly that size. The actual stones are all of different sizes and they are the reality. The same thing is true of all general statements about human nature and behavior, for in fact the individual is the only carrier of life. One cannot speak of the “life” of millions of people, because millions of different people are the carriers of life; they are the ultimate reality. (von Franz, 1998, p. 254)

In Hegelianism, the self-consciousness of the particular individual shall be elevated to consciousness of universality through the realization of the universal substantial Will, as located in the rationality of the political State. So it means the eradication of true personhood. There will be no more individuality proper, because the particulars have become one with the Geist (Spirit), manifested in the State, equal to God. It is out-and-out collectivism, as realized in the Communist and Fascist states. The supereminent state stands above all else in giving expression to the Geist of a society that manifests the earthly kingdom of God, the realization of God in the world (cf. Duquette, here). Evidently, Peterson finds this form of pantheism appealing:

Identity with the group […] establishes acceptable procedure (acceptable mode for the “attainment of earthly paradise”). (p. 223)
[Expulsion from Eden] is a step on the way to the “true paradise” — is a step toward adoption of identity with the hero [who] can actively transform the terrible unknown into the sustenant and productive world. (p. 338)
Loss of (previously extant) paradise initiates the “redemptive” activity, history; restoration of paradise — in the course or as a consequence of proper behavior — is its goal. This general pattern appears characteristic of all civilizations, every philosophy, every ideology, all religions. (p. 263)

This is collectivistic welfarism, which St Augustine has so convincingly refuted in his masterpiece The City of God. He anticipated the second law of thermodynamics when he said that the inclination of the natural order is to deteriorate. Thus, history is not moving towards some end or culmination in this world. The Earthly City (civitas terrena) denotes a diabolical invisible supranatural community, a collective will that strives to realize the paradise on earth, and whose members aim to become like gods themselves. But human beings are not perfectible through human effort, because mankind always assigns priority to ego before God. It leads only to evil consequences. Augustine explains the strong impetus behind the worldly ideal, including people’s lust for earthly possessions and power. As man fell away from the unity of God, by a compensatory measure we began to bring under our control things that are outside ourselves. We accumulate possessions because it makes ourselves feel safe and important. It is an attempt to escape the grief of loss that afflicts us all as a consequence of having lost the only Possession that can bring us peace (cf. Dyson, 2005, p. 101).

The restoration of paradise is indeed central to every ideology, but not to Christian theology. Jesus makes clear that “my kingdom is not of this world”. Peterson, nevertheless, argues that Christ’s message has a secular meaning, in a roundabout way. He says that the spiritual kingdom must be regarded an intrapsychic state which goes on to become an interpersonal state. The goal of the earthly kingdom is become the process by which the goal is to be attained. Thus, the heroic “imitation of Christ” becomes the duty of every Christian citizen, which means working toward the incarnation of paradise (pp. 393-94; 405-07).

St Augustine says that with prosperity comes moral danger, a view that he shares with Plato and Aristotle. Worldly justice afforded by the State is confined to the control of outward behaviour only. It exists merely to make life tolerable. Without it human covetousness, aggression, and lust for power would throw us into a turmoil. Yet, societal discipline and external order, no matter how paradisical, cannot save us. It cannot make us good. Inner transformation is required, not outer. This view is shared by Jung, who says that individuation is the way to wholeness. It implies inner growth to maturity by entering into the moral problem of the integration of the unconscious, especially our inner darkness. The difference is that, in Augustine’s view, it requires that God changes our will for the better, through his good grace. We cannot do good by voluntary action, because human will is always determined by ego, not God.

Whereas Jung says that the inner work of integration (assimilation) is the way forward, Peterson holds that identification solves life’s problems. The first step is identification with the group, succeeded by identification with the hero archetype. So these authors have afforded diametrically opposed models. The reason why hero identification is regarded pathological is because the ego-inflated hero knows no bounds. Carrying names such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, and Ceausescu, this breed of heroes attempted to create the ideal society, the earthly paradise. Rudolf Hess has finely characterized heroic megalomania: “Die Partei ist Hitler, Hitler aber ist Deutschland wie Deutschland Hitler ist” (Nuremberg, 1934). This is not the hero that Peterson vouches for, but this is what he will get. As an archetype of the collective unconscious, the hero is a god of a sort. Thus, to identify with the hero is “aiming to become like a god”.


Jung explicates on the development of personality:

Individuation is always to some extent opposed to the collective norms, since it means separation and differentiation from the general and a building up of the particular — not a particular that is sought out, but one that is already ingrained in the psychic constitution. The opposition to the collective norm, however, is only apparent, since closer examination shows that the individual standpoint is not antagonistic to it, but only differently orientated. The individual way can never be directly opposed to the collective norm, because the opposite of the collective norm could only be another, but contrary, norm. But the individual way can, by definition, never be a norm. A norm is the product of the totality of individual ways, and its justification and beneficial effect are contingent upon the existence of individual ways that need from time to time to orient to a norm. A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally, this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that account needs the norm for its orientation (q.v.) to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality.
    Individuation is practically the same as the development of consciousness out of the original state of identity (q.v.). It is thus an extension of the sphere of consciousness, an enriching of conscious psychological life. (Jung, CW 6, pars. 761-62)

Here, Jung makes clear that “extreme individualism” is when an individual way is raised to a norm. Such a purpose is pathological, entirely opposed to life, and has nothing to do with individuation. A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A norm arises out of the totality of individual ways, but not out of a single “hero” or a series of ancestral heroes. It can only have a beneficial effect if there are already true individuals around, who might need for a time to orientate to a norm. Individuation is emancipation from the state of identity produced by identification. Collective identification is always morally reprehensible. So here Jung has repudiated virtually all of what Peterson stands for. Without providing any evidence, Peterson expresses highly controversial views like these:

The behavioral tendencies of individuals are mimicked action patterns which were originally established as a consequence of heroic behavior […] [T]he structure of the internal motivational state reflects the consequences of behavior undertaken in the nature and social worlds […] It is for this reason that a political state and a psychological state can be in some sense regarded as identical. (p. 195)
The revolutionary hero reorders the protective structure of society, when the emergence of an anomaly makes such reordering necessary. He is therefore the agent of change, upon whose actions all stability is predicated. (p. 275)

Peterson confuses herohood with individuality. It is important to point out that hero identification is not the same as becoming an individual. The hero is a collective image. Identification with an archetype implies being “collectivized from within”, something that puts a hold on individuation. M-L von Franz discusses identification with the puer aeternus, a youthful hero, portrayed by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as “The Little Prince” who refuses to grow up.

Precisely because the puer entertains false pretensions, he becomes collectivized from within, with the result that none of his reactions are really very personal or very special. He becomes a type, the type of the puer aeternus. He becomes an archetype, and if you become that, you are not at all original, not at all yourself and something special, but just an archetype […] One can foretell what a puer aeternus will look like and how he will feel. He is merely the archetype of the eternal youth god, and therefore he has all the features of the god: he has a nostalgic longing for death, he thinks of himself as being something special, he is the one sensitive being among all the other tough sheep. He will have a problem with an aggressive, destructive shadow which he will not want to live and generally projects, and so on. There is nothing special whatsoever. The greater the identification with the youthful god, the less individual the person although he himself feels so special. (von Franz, 2000, p. 121)

Identification and imitation are during some parts of life natural phenomena, but may easily become a hindrance to maturation and therefore a cause of pathology. Says Jung:

IDENTIFICATION. By this I mean a psychological process in which the personality is partially or totally dissimilated (v. Assimilation). Identification is an alienation of the subject from himself for the sake of the object, in which he is, so to speak, disguised. For example, identification with the father means, in practice, adopting all the father’s ways of behaving, as though the son were the same as the father and not a separate individuality. Identification differs from imitation in that it is an unconscious imitation, whereas imitation is a conscious copying. Imitation is an indispensable aid in developing the youthful personality. It is beneficial so long as it does not serve as a mere convenience and hinder the development of ways and means suited to the individual. Similarly, identification can be beneficial so long as the individual cannot go his own way. But when a better possibility presents itself, identification shows its morbid character by becoming just as great a hindrance as it was an unconscious help and support before. It now has a dissociative effect, splitting the individual into two mutually estranged personalities.
    Identification does not always apply to persons but also to things (e.g., a movement of some kind, a business, etc.) and to psychological functions. The latter kind is, in fact, particularly important. Identification then leads to the formation of a secondary character, the individual identifying with his best developed function to such an extent that he alienates himself very largely or even entirely from his original character, with the result that his true individuality (q.v.) falls into the unconscious. This is nearly always the rule with people who have one highly differentiated function. It is, in fact, a necessary transitional stage on the way to individuation (q.v.).
    Identification with parents or the closest members of the family is a normal phenomenon in so far as it coincides with the a priori family identity. In this case it is better not to speak of identification but of identity (q.v.), a term that expresses the actual situation. (Jung, CW 6, pars. 738-40)

So it seems that, in Peterson’s model, much could go wrong. First, identification with the group shall supplant identity with the parents, then hero identification shall succeed group identity. Peterson acknowledges that peer pressure could impede the latter transition:

Although it is reasonable to view such [group] identity as a necessary developmental stage, it is pathological to view it as the end point of human development. Rituals designed to strengthen group identity hold chaos at bay, but threaten individual identification with the exploratory hero — an identity upon which maintenance of the group ultimately depends. For the sake of the group, therefore, the individual must not be rendered subservient to the group.

Peterson’s psychosocial project involves the whole of the population, which shall become homogenized according to an integrated normative stereotype:

[A] stable social character [is] shared by all members of the same culture (p. 242) […] This “victor” — who has organized the currently warring diverse cultural standpoints into a hierarchy, integrated once more — will be stronger than his “unicultural” predecessor, as his behavior and values will be the consequence of the more diverse and broader ranging union of heretofore separate cultures […] This means that the simplistic promotion of “cultural diversity” as panacea is likely to produce anomie, nihilism and conservative backlash. It is the molding of these diverse beliefs into a single hierarchy that is precondition for the peaceful admixture of all (p. 253).

Granted that cultural unity is a good idea, it conflicts with religious and cultural pluralism, and consequently also the American constitution. The dimensions of his project are overwhelming. It is on a Hegelian scale. Also on a psychological and personal level his program would be exceedingly difficult to realize. When the Self (the “God archetype”) becomes assimilated to the ego, it results in inflation, as the world of collective consciousness is overvalued — very characteristic of Hegelianism (cf. Jung, 1979, pars. 45-47). The central theme of Hegel’s pantheistic philosophy is the indwelling spirit, which primarily manifests in community. This, says Hegel, is the kingdom that Jesus came to teach. History has both direction and a goal. The ideal State is equal to God’s self-manifestation. Says Hegel: “Nothing but spirit is, and spirit is pure activity” (cf. ‘Hegel’, 2012, Encyc. Brit.). The Hegelian belief in the unity of the divine and the human has its counterpart in Peterson’s archetypal human hero, implicative of Nietzsche’s Übermensch (superhuman). The incarnation of the spirit in community occurs after a cyclic pattern:

The arche-typic or ultimate example of the savior is the world redeemer, the Messiah — world-creating and -redeeming hero, social revolutionary and great reconciliator. It is the sum total of the activity of the Messiah, accumulated over the course of time, that constitutes culture, the Great Father, order itself — explored territory, the domain of the known. (pp. 187-88)
The group is also simultaneously the concrete historical expression of Homo sapiens’ unique heroic “thesis,” as stated previously: that the nature of experience can be altered, for the better, by voluntary alteration of action and thought. (p. 263)

Peterson also draws on Erich Neumann, an inferior theorist who tends toward a personalistic understanding of unconscious phenomena and myth. Neumann formulated a theory around the “ego-Self axis”, which means that ego and Self are really the same thing. It is like a rod whose top end — the ego — inhabits the conscious realm. The other end of the rod, which is the Self, abides in the unconscious. But, according to Jung, this is characteristic of pathology, when the ego becomes assimilated to the Self or vice versa (cf. Jung, Aion, pars. 45-47). Peterson says: “The analytical psychologist Erich Neumann [wrote] a definitive, comprehensive and useful book on the symbolism of the feminine” (p. 160). But Neumann tends to get things wrong. Von Franz (The Golden Ass, ch.5) criticizes Neumann’s Amor and Psyche, where Eros is understood as a woman’s animus. Allegedly, Apuleius’s story is about feminine psychology. In fact, the novel is written by a man, and the story fits well into male psychology.

Father and Mother

Peterson associates the divine feminine with chaos and the masculine with order. The latter shapes and defines the former and forges a new creation out of its disorderliness. Yet, he posits that the motherly and fatherly archetypes also have a backside. The former is also the earth in which new life may grow, while the latter can become ossified, hostile to change. The principal aspect of the Great Mother is her role as “primary agent of the serpent of chaos” (p. 155).

The Great Mother — unexplored territory — is the dark, the chaos of the night […] the entire panoply of fear-inducing experiences, commonly encountered (and imagined) by Homo sapiens. (p. 157)
The unknown is the matrix of everything, the source of all birth and the final place of rest. It hides behind our personal identity and our culture; it constantly threatens and engenders all that we do, all that we understand, and all that we are. (p. 159)

Thus, the “emergence of anomaly — the ‘re-emergence of the Great Mother’ — constitutes a threat to the integrity of the moral tradition governing behavior and evaluation” (p. 247). The role of the Great Father, on the other hand, is mainly to uphold order. Culture is the Great Father. He protects us from the terrors of the unknown, equal to the Terrible Mother. The masculine principle is light whereas the feminine is dark.

Yet, this is not borne out by historical evidence. The Mother Goddess is generally regarded a benevolent deity. She is the beautiful and nurturing Mother Earth who bestows her fruits and vegetables upon us. She is the Mother of Life on this earth. But this means that she is also the Mother of Death, because everything that lives must die. Thus, for Lucretius, Magna Mater “symbolized the world order” — the very opposite of chaos. Nor is she unambiguously feminine. Tlaltecuhtli, the Aztec Earth Goddess, possessed both feminine and masculine attributes. This is very typical of the Mother Goddess, who is often called the “phallic Mother” in literature. Cybele, the Magna Mater of the Romans, is linked with Agdistis, originally an androgynous god(dess). Dionysos, on the invocation of Olympus, managed to tear off its male genitals (cf. Turcan, 1996, p. 32). The goddess now took the shape of good-natured Cybele, whose cult legitimized self-castration. The Cybelean cult was brought to Rome during the time of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). It later became one of the most important cults in the Roman world. But she was not a goddess of chaos. Magna Mater had the power to bring harmony and order to a people under duress.

Egyptian goddess Maat represents divine order (Wiki, here). She is the universal regulator of order, such as harmony, law, morality, and justice. Her counterpole was Isfet, representing injustice and chaos. The god Seth, who was male, was believed to be the embodiment of Isfet. In mythology, the forces of destruction and death can indeed have feminine gender, such as Hindu Kali. But it is more common that the god of chaos is male, such as Egyptian Seth, biblical Satan, Aztec Tezcatlipoca, Norse Loki, or Hindu Shiva. Without the feminine principle, there can be no order at all. Thus, it cannot be described as the enemy of order. If the feminine were only that on which order is imposed, then it could not be called a principle at all. In truth, the feminine has laws of its own, its own feminine orderedness.

One cannot make definitive generalizations about symbols and what gender they belong to. For instance, Anaxagoras associated the prima materia with chaos. However, depending on context, chaos can be both masculine and feminine. The prima materia of the alchemists is the primordial element that can be anything and become anything. It can take both feminine or masculine form. Mylius describes prima materia as the “pure subject and unity of forms”. It transcends all categories, including gender. The prima materia contains both water and fire, both mercury and sulfur, both feminine and masculine elements. For this reason it has been likened to a multitude of things.

Another example is that one cannot make a definitive gender characterization of water. It depends on the context whether water is feminine or masculine, material or spiritual. Indeed, when the “Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2), it could be characterized as feminine and passive. But when water falls from the sky, it has the opposite active and masculine role. It is thought of as the “water of life”, the life-giving spirit, the element that makes the barren earth fecund. Therefore, water is often thought of as the male element. As a Mandaean saying goes: “The earth is like a woman and the sky like a man, for it makes the earth fecund”. Chaos could be either masculine or feminine, but often it transcends gender. It is not possible to substantiate the characterization of the feminine principle as chaotic. Depending on cultural context, earth can also be regarded masculine. To the ancient Egyptians, masculine Geb personified earth. The Sky was Nut, a feminine deity. The following line illustrates the chronic derogation of the feminine that permeates his book:

In the Orient, the world and its meaning springs from the encircled interplay and union of the light, spiritual, masculine yang and the dark, material, feminine yin. (p. 144)

In point of fact, yin is regarded equally much a spiritual principle as yang. This is how Tao Te Ching portrays the feminine spirit:

The valley spirit, undying
Is called the Mystic Female
The gateway of the Mystic Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth
It flows continuously, barely perceptible
When utilized, it is never exhausted

The point is that the valley is empty, yet is very much there. It is never exhausted because “valleyness” cannot be exhausted. Derek Lin annotates:

The spirit of the valley is a powerful symbol for yin, the universal female principle. It is eternal; it has always existed and will always exist. This principle has many names. We can call it the sacred feminine, or the Mystic Female. (Lao Tzu, 6: Annot., 2009)

To construe yin and yang as a dichotomy of matter and spirit violates the whole idea behind Taoist philosophy.

Conscious and Unconscious

Peterson employs powerful archetypal language when he characterizes the unconscious and conscious functions, the unknown and the known. He treats them not as psychological functions but as archetypes.

The unknown is unexplored territory, nature, the unconscious, dionysian force, the id, the Great Mother goddess […] the belly of the beast, the dragon […] The grave and the cave, for example, connote the destructive aspect of the maternal — pain, grief and loss, deep water, and the dark woods; the fountain in the forest […], by contrast, brings to mind sanctuary, peace, rebirth and replenishment. (p. 103)
The Great Mother, in her negative guise, [is] the terrible force that motivates the commission of atrocity — planned rape and painful slaughter — during the waging of war. She is aggression, without the inhibition of fear and guilt; sexuality in the absence of responsibility, dominance without compassion, greed without empathy. She is the Freudian id, unconsciousness contaminated with the unknown and mortal terror, and the flies in the corpse of a kitten. She is everything that jumps in the night, that scratches and bites, that screeches and howls; she is paralyzing dismay, horror and the screams that accompany madness. The Great Mother aborts children, and is the dead fetus; breeds pestilence, and is the plague; she makes of the skull something gruesomely compelling, and is all skulls herself. To unveil her is to risk madness, to gaze over the abyss, to lose the way, to remember the repressed trauma. She is the molester of children, the golem, the bogey-man, the monster in the swamp, the rotting cadaverous zombie who threatens the living. She is progenitor of the devil, the “strange son of chaos.” She is the serpent, and Eve, the temptress; she is the femme fatale, the insect in the ointment, the hidden cancer, the chronic sickness, the plague of locusts, the cause of drought, the poisoned water… (p. 164)
Light is Apollo, the sun king, god of enlightenment, clarity and focus; spirit, opposed to black matter; bright “masculinity,” opposed to the dark and unconscious “feminine.” Light is Marduk, the Babylonian hero, god of the morning and spring day, who struggles against Tiamat, monstrous goddess of death and the night. (p. 292)

It isn’t proper to view conscious and unconscious, order and disorder, explored territory and unexplored, as Manichean dichotomies of antagonistic cosmic forces. It isn’t true that the unconscious, or anything that is beyond our ken, threatens all that we are. The Unknown ought not be portrayed as the Dragon of Chaos, posing a constant looming threat. In truth, the unconscious is generally benevolent. It promotes the life of the organism, and is ever at work to keep personality on the right track. Psychoanalyst Poul Bjerre (1876-1964) calls this psychic function ‘assimilation’ (Bjerre, 1933). It strives to maintain full vigour of life. Bjerre says that the typical source of difficulties is the conscious side of personality. Routinization and stagnation, fixation on tenets of consciousness, are the main sources of neurosis. The unconscious impetus is then to achieve renewal, so that personality may again acquire harmony and wholeness. Similar to this, and central to analytical psychology, is the function of ‘compensation’, corresponding to the self-regulation of the body. The unconscious balances and supplements the conscious side. Says Jung:

[I] conceive it as functional adjustment in general, an inherent self-regulation of the psychic apparatus. In this sense, I regard the activity of the unconscious (q.v.) as a balancing of the one-sidedness of the general attitude (q.v.) produced by the function of consciousness […] The more one-sided the conscious attitude, the more antithetic are the contents arising from the unconscious, so that we may speak of an opposition between the two. In this case the compensation appears in the form of a counter-function, but this case is extreme. As a rule, the unconscious compensation does not run counter to consciousness, but is rather a balancing or supplementing of the conscious orientation […]
    Normally, compensation is an unconscious process, i.e., an unconscious regulation of conscious activity. (Jung, CW 6, pars. 694-95)

This is a far cry from “the terrible world of the Great Mother”. Although Jung has done his share in promoting an overblown and Mephistophelian view of the unconscious, he generally keeps his head. In normal psychology, the unconscious is perhaps best likened to an intelligent, modest and faithful Ardennes horse. I once developed a fondness of whisky. Then the unconscious produced a dream, warning me in no vague language of the dangers of alcohol. I immediately mended my ways. The unconscious serves to maintain the life of the organism; preserve psychological harmony, bodily health, and a balanced attitude toward life. It is not out to destroy anything, except once in a while a wrong-headed conscious attitude. The unconscious is indeed much like the earth and the layer of soil on our planet. Soil is teeming with organisms involved in intricate relationships. It is the most complex ecosystem on our planet, without which most biological life on land couldn’t exist. It is actually an unsuitable metaphor for chaos and death. It is benign orderliness.


Archetypal categories are useful for recognizing our projections on the environment, but not for explaining reality as such. They are not tools for making intellectual sense of the world. Rather, they can explain how and why we misunderstand reality. A central theme of Jung’s work, to which he often returns, is how general unconsciousness in the population allows archetypal projection full sway. It disrupts matrimonial relation; causes turmoil in society. In truth, archetypal narratives portray the progression in the collective unconscious or the spiritual world, equal to the mysteria divinitatis. Because mythic stories refer not to the temporal domain, they are equally much about the future as the historical past. Religious myth is precisely what the ancients thought it to be; “the story of the gods”. In the cosmic dimension of the Christ-Event, the Son of God is always being incarnated, crucified, resurrected, and exalted.

Our Lord carries the suffering of the world. As long as we refuse to see the divine as autonomous reality, it will remain projected on the world. It implies misappropriation of religious truth. Divine truth is being misapplied insofar as it governs political thought, human and societal affairs. In the Luciferian myth, divine being plunges into the sublunar realm. In the Book of Enoch, the angelic rebellion causes worldly iniquity to spread like wildfire, which leads to enormous suffering for humankind (cf. Book of Enoch, here). Yet, the centerpiece of Peterson’s philosophy is just this, the continual declination of the divine:

[Christ’s] actions eternally transform the “fallen world” into paradise. (p. 377)
The paradisal initial condition, disrupted by the events of the Fall, also serves as the goal toward which history proceeds […] Re-establishment of paradise […] becomes dependent upon manifestation of an exemplary way of behaving, directed toward a meaningful end — becomes dependent upon establishment of a particular mode of redemption… (p. 477)

Peterson claims that myths portray the known, equal to explored territory, equal to reality conceived of in metaphorical language (p. 75; p. 102). In fact, archetypal myth both illustrates and encapsulates divine reality. Religious myth is holy, as such. His views run exactly counter to the Augustinian message. It could be called Luciferianism; the aspiration to shackle the divine in the earthly realm. Accordingly, he says that “[the] state is not merely cultural; it is also ‘spiritual.’” (p. 135). Peterson adheres to a Nietzschean fantasy of an archetype of evil that only wants to “eliminate the world” (p. 317). But this is a Manichean article of faith; a bizarre idea, which runs counter to Darwinian theory:

Evil is the desire to disseminate darkness, for the love of darkness, where there could be light. The spirit of evil underlies all actions that speed along the decrepitude of the world, that foster God’s [sic!] desire to inundate and destroy everything that exists. (p. 315)

Such thinking illustrates the harmful effect of archetypal projection. Allegedly, the Adversary (the devil) is an eternal spirit, the evil counterpart of the archetypal hero (p. 316). This “transpersonal” power, an ineradicable intrapsychic element of the individual, represents “the desire to make everything suffer for the outrage of its existence” (ibid.). A morally weak person may come to “serve as an ‘unconscious’ emissary of the agent of destruction, and work to bring about the end of life” (p. 378). Yet, it is unlikely that evolution has endowed us with a wish to, out of pure spite, undermine the chances of our own survival. This harks back to Zoroastrian and Manichean conceptions. The spectre of the devil has inspired countless atrocities in the Christian millennia. From ancient antiquity to modern times, an enormous number of people have been accused of satanic possession; of running errands for the devil. The lesson from the historical record is that hundreds of thousands have been subjected to persecution, torture, and been burnt at the stake, for having conspired with the devil. The figment of the devil has consistently been employed to motivate evil and destructive acts — not to prevent them. We do not need this illusory figure back in the limelight.

Neither biblical Satan nor Egyptian Seth is set upon destroying the world. In the Old Testament, Satan is a faithful servant of God, obliged to do his Father’s “dirty job”. Seth, for his part, defends the sun bark during its nightly journey, when it is under attack from the giant serpent Apep (cf. Wiki, here). The great Pharaos Seti I and Seti II, whose names indicate that they were consecrated to the god Seth, did worship at the angry god’s temple. There exists no intelligent cosmic force that strives to eradicate creation. Augustine repudiated the metaphysical view of evil, claiming that it was equal to privation of good. Although he allowed room for little personal demons, such as incubi and sucubi, evil was not of metaphysical or devilish origin. Rather, it derived from man’s sinful nature and the contingencies of life. As Augustine gave a mundane account of evil, he “naturalized” man’s experiences and did much to root out superstition. Instead he emphasized personal responsibility. We shall not seek an explanation for our misfortunes in a demonic force, nor shall we hold other people accountable. Evil derives from the fact that we cannot, with the best of our understanding, follow God’s plan. Freedom is finite. It’s not as simple that we can freely choose to be good and do good. We are bound to go astray, because we are sinful creatures. So he repudiated the Roman notion of ‘virtue’, i.e., that a man can be perfect and therefore always has to protect his honour. For this reason, a Roman could go to the lengths of killing an adversary, or committing suicide, like Lucretia.

Augustine says that human beings have indeed recourse to free will, but only to do evil. This follows from the doctrine of Original Sin. We are free to choose between evil and lesser evil, in which case it is better to choose the latter. So, in effect, he endorses vicious acts! That’s why he says that torture can at times be acceptable. To exist on this earth means to partake in evil, and this would explain why world mythology contains so many angry gods, like Tezcatlipoca, Loki, and Seth. It is necessary to make an evil choice in order to avoid a malevolent outcome that is yet worse. The problem, today, is that so many Christians actually believe they are good; capable of doing good. This means that they have blinded themselves to reality, and refuse to see the evil consequences of their decisions and adopted viewpoints. They must realize that they partake in a vicious world. Whatever choice they make, it is bound to have destructive consequences. But since they refuse to see this, they can no longer choose the lesser evil. It will have dire consequences for the world, and for themselves, at the Day of Reckoning. There are so many do-gooders in Christendom. They are like lost sheep. Do not pretend that you can partake in earthly reality without dirtying your hands! This is what Augustine is saying, having wholly grasped the message of Satan and Seth.

The dichotomy of the “good hero” and his “evil adversary” does not exist on this earth; only in the Otherworld. The best definition of evil is that which Augustine gives, what he calls the Earthly City, the spiritual community of worldliness. Evil is best defined as a fixation on creating the perfect society; the earthly paradise. It gives the lie to Peterson’s whole project. After all, we have seen the consequences of such fixation in the 20th century, in the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China.


Peterson reinterprets alchemy. It is necessary to have some insight in the alchemical mystical teaching in order to criticize his views. In alchemy, mercury was regarded as feminine and sulfur as masculine. The alchemists noted that sulfur blackens and burns metals when it is fused and dropped on them. It is masculine, yet has a reactive and destructive capacity. They were fascinated with the way in which mercury and sulfur could be mixed, producing a beautiful vermilion pigment. Historically, vermilion, also called Chinese red, has been regarded a sacred colour. Originally it was made from the mineral cinnabar (mercuric sulfide). The name is derived from the Persian word for “dragon’s blood.” The transmutations of cinnabar was a central mystery in medieval alchemy, where the conjunction of masculine sulfur with feminine mercury was interpreted as the “Coniunctio Solis et Lunae”. The result was the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical material, or red tincture, capable of transmuting base metals into gold. During the first part of the chemical transformations, it gave rise to the blackness of nigredo, comparable to the solar eclipse. In ancient Chinese alchemy, cinnabar is an essential ingredient for the elixir of immortality. Only the Chinese emperor had the right to use vermilion ink. In roman times, it was the colour of the emperor. In 1295, it became the colour worn by Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.

When mercury and sulfur are first mixed together, it forms a black compound on the bottom of the flask. This is the stage of nigredo (blackening), associated with death. The compound was then heated in a flask, which caused it to vaporize and recondence. Although the pigment remained almost black, as it was ground the red colour soon appeared (Wiki, here). This was the final stage, called rubedo (reddening). The sacred stone thus produced had wonder-working properties. It was believed that the process could also be performed on the alchemist himself. Says Gerhard Dorn: “Transform yourself from dead stones into living philosophical stones!” (Theatr. chem. I). The process would render the body incorruptible, always capable of regenerating itself. Mercury and sulfur are first separated from the mineral cinnabar. The Philosopher’s Stone is then generated from the purified ingredients. This process can be repeated any number of times. Notice that the alchemists did not laborate with unconscious archetypes. Chemical compounds, chemical reactions, and Christian faith, are what underlie their associations. There is no evidence that they made observations of their own unconscious to arrive at these ideas.

In alchemical symbology, the King, the Lion, or the Sun, would typically represent sulfur. The Queen or the Moon, would signify mercury. Instead of King and Queen, the alchemist often used King and Son, supposedly to accommodate to trinitarian theology. In the alchemical Book of Lambspring, Father, Son and Guide (spirit Mercurius) are identified as body, soul and spirit, respectively (ch. XI, here). The Son (soul), together with the Guide, leaves the Father (body) and ascends a mountain (presumably corresponding to vaporization; purification). As both Father and Son long to reunite, he decides to return (condensation). Upon arrival, the Son willingly lets the Father devour him, which is how body and soul are again united. This causes the Father to change into limpid water. Yet, from this water is Father and Son reconstituted. The “glorified” Father brings forth a new Son:

The Son ever remains in the Father,
And the Father in the Son.
Thus in divers things
They produce untold, precious fruit.
They perish never more,
And laugh at death.

It describes the alchemical pilgrimage during which the soul leaves the body in order to achieve unio mentalis, purity of mind. In the mean time, the body is despairing, for it has lost its living soul. When they eventually reunite, the reformed soul has a transformative effect upon the body. It is reborn beautiful and glorified. What is portrayed here is the creation of the Glorified Body, i.e. the resurrection body, which is imperishable. In Christian faith, at the resurrection of Judgment Day, the spirit is believed to again unite with the body. M-L von Franz explains that the alchemists wanted to create the resurrection body in advance, and in this way to gain immortality (cf. von Franz, 1980, pp. 75-76).

Peterson understands the very same alchemical image (Son-devouring King) as the way in which tyrannical fatherly tradition, striving to maintain itself, eliminates any heroic renewal of culture and society (p. 215). He says that the “[s]acrifice of the hero to the great and terrible father means abandonment of identification with the process that makes cosmos out of chaos” (p. 336). There are, however, no empirical grounds for this explanation. The image relates an entirely different idea. As the body reunites with the soul, it gives rise to new life and great happiness. The alchemists themselves understood it as the process whereby the sublime spiritual body was created.

Peterson reasons that alchemy was an unconscious attempt to view things differently; to change the cognitive system of classification. Thus, it served the purpose of adaptation; to reach a new concept of the ideal man and how to produce the “most ideal state possible” — something akin to paradise on earth (p. 426; pp. 433f). It is unfounded speculation. It lacks support in the alchemical images and contradicts the view of the alchemists themselves. Far from being a means of worldly adaptation, a way of uncovering new behavioural patterns, alchemy is a spiritual way. The Opus concerns spiritual emancipation; liberation from the material world, its suffering and death, and the creation of the vehicle to accomplish this.


Peterson recounts the Egyptian myth incorrectly: “Seth kills Osiris (that is, sends him to the underworld) and dismembers his body, so that it can never be ‘found’” (p. 129). In fact, the obverse is true. His body parts were scattered in the earthly realm, all over Egypt’s land. Isis managed to find them all, with the exception of the male member. This is a very important distinction, because the netherworld (Underworld, Duat) corresponds to the Elysian Fields in Greek religion. During nighttime the netherworld revealed itself as the starry firmament where the gods live, whereas in the daytime it could be referred to as the lower Duat. This curious order of things is evident from this excerpt from the Hymn to Osiris (Wallis Budge, 2013, p. 149) :

The stars which never set are under the seat of thy face, and the stars which never rest are thy habitations; and unto thee offerings are made according to the decree of the god Seb.

The company of the gods sing praises unto thee, and the starry gods of the Underworld bow down with their faces to the earth.

All Egyptians hoped to gain entrance to this paradisical place beyond the polar star (cf. Mojsov, 2005, p. 16). Of special importance, and probably signifying a higher heaven, is the constellation Orion, named sah. It represents Osiris both as spirit and as mummy (ibid. p. 18). As Isis managed to revivify Osiris, he now made his return as ruler over the paradise of afterlife, equal to the netherworld. In a way, it corresponds to the ascension of Christ.

It means that the myth acquires a wholly different meaning than how Peterson sees it. Seth did not relegate Osiris to the land of the dead. In fact, he scattered his body in the realm of the living. This is a recurrent mythologem in comparative history of religion. Dionysos suffers this fate, too. This is why Plutarch associates the two gods (Plutarch, Moralia V). Dionysos’s divine substance, mixed with that of the primordial Titans, gave rise to the material universe. Whereas Dionysos’s scattered body is responsible for the lawfulness of the universe, the Titanic substance accounts for its corporeality. In Aztec and Mayan mythology, the primordial sacrifice of the gods involved the severing of limbs. Thus, when gods are maimed, suffer demise, their bodies being sprinkled in the world, it has a world-creating meaning. The gods sacrifice themselves for the growth and prosperity of humanity and the conscious world. All that we see, including all our conscious knowledge and cultural achievements, has come about thanks to the sacrifice of the gods. If a god enters daylight reality he will soon expire, as he thereby cannot avoid coming to consciousness. On the other hand, the death of a god means creation (cf. Winther, 2009, here). That’s why the demise of the handsome young god Narcissus brought the Narcissus flower to the world. His tragic fate was brought on by him reaching self-awareness.

Peterson makes himself guilty of another serious error, saying that “[Isis] gathers up Osiris’ scattered pieces and makes herself pregnant with the use of his dismembered phallus” (p. 130). As a matter of fact, his phallus was swallowed by a fish and never recovered. There exists no alternative variant of this important mythologem. However, Diodorus relates that Isis forged a replica of the member and made it an object of religious worship (cf. Diodorus, 1933, I.22:6). Although neither Diodorus nor Plutarch says that she made herself pregnant with the replica, it tends to evoke this fantasy. However, as Isis was a Virgin Mother, the very thought would have been blasphemous to the ancient Egyptians. As the story goes, Isis assumed the form of a kite, whereupon she flew around him and drew the seed from his body into her own (cf. Mark, 2016, here). Evidently, the notion that Osiris “languishes in the underworld” (p. 207), cannot be right. The underworld is paradise, the kingdom that Osiris inherits only after his resurrection. In truth, he languishes in the world, into which he was thrown by Seth. Nor did Osiris suffer “involuntary descent and disintegration [for a] quasi-‘existence’ in the underworld of chaos” (p. 129). The underworld is everything but chaos. It is the home of the gods; epitome of divine order. Such grave misreadings must needs disqualify his interpretation of the myth.

Osiris was a dying and resurrecting vegetation god. Thus, as Plutarch points out, his dismemberment and resurrection were ever recurrent events (Moralia V: ‘Isis and Osiris’, chs. 54; 65). The yearly sowing of seed symbolized the scattering of his body. Yet, Peterson treats the archetype as it were a human ego — a king whose kingdom has grown stale and dangerously anachronistic; a system no longer appropriate for meeting the challenges of reality (pp. 130f). There is no evidence for this. The myth tells of no decrepit kingdom. Osiris reigned over Egypt’s Golden Age, whose well-being, happiness and harmony corresponds to that of the biblical Garden of Eden. What then occurred was the Fall from Grace, conjured up by Seth. So he fulfils a similar role as the serpent in the Garden. At this point in mythical time, mankind lost their connection with God and appropriated for themselves knowledge and cunning. They opened their eyes and abandoned their life as semiconscious beings. The death of a god can have both benign and baneful consequences for humanity. On the one hand, it leads to intellectual and cultural increase — on the other, it brings out ego-inflation, self-willedness, wickedness and immorality. The more self-contained a person becomes, the greater is the peril that he strays away from God.

A decline in divine potency means increase in human power. As a rule, such a development is acerbated by the outbreak of arrogance and self-importance among men. Osiris’s sacrifice means just this. The conclusion is that Peterson’s analysis does not hold water. He argues that Seth is the epitome of evil. As the spirit of denial he “eternally opposes the process of creative encounter with the unknown” (p. 130) and represents “absolute opposition to establishment of divine order” (ibid.). Yet, it is Seth who is responsible for the Fall, the way in which humanity appropriated the wisdom of the gods. (Said the serpent to the woman: “[Y]our eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4).)

Thus, Seth represents the divine will of incarnation; the empowerment of humankind, the futile yearning to create an earthly paradise under human rule. Horus, on the other hand, stands for divine autonomy. He put a curb on the earthbound movement of divine spirit as precipitated by Seth. Horus (‘the distant one’) maintains balance in the universe. He will not allow humanity too much of the divine good, as the earthlings are bound to misuse their knowledge and power. He keeps himself distant. Also in fairytales, this is a recurrent role of the hero. The human ego is like a giant troll that gobbles everything up, or appears as a glass mountain that defeats the knights trying to climb it. In my view, the fairytale hero occasionally figures as the counteragent of this greedy psychic power centre. The hero defeats evil in this form.

Seth, much like Lucifer, cannot be regarded as purely evil. Nor does he symbolize a power opposed to human progression. Peterson’s philosophy, since it focuses entirely on conscious expansion and societal development, is markedly deicidal. It is a work that bears the mark of the original deicide. Not only Osiris, but the whole pantheon of gods shall be murdered and scattered on the earth’s surface. Furthermore, everything sacred shall be assimilated to consciousness; translated to abstract language. This blasphemous notion summons up the hubristic Hegelian and Nietzschean idea of the supremacy of the human spirit. Yet, it is easy to see that his project of utter profanation is wholly undoable, especially since each and every symbol has been misinterpreted.


I have shown that Peterson’s views are in many ways irreconcilable with depth psychology. It “sounds” Jungian to say that “heroic behaviour” has been historically aggregated in culture and our unconscious psychology, as a means of adapting to reality. In truth, the hero is an archetype, neither a human being nor a pattern of action. It is a personification of autonomous and emancipative energetic impetus deriving from the collective unconscious. It is numinous libido; something divine. The hero has the power to set individuation and conscious enhancement in motion. As dragon killer — which is the Sethian type of hero — he defeats dormant and sluggish unconscious being, guarding a hoard of treasure. In this guise, the hero denotes an unconscious force poised toward conscious enrichment. The dragon is, in fact, the unconscious itself; the maternal source of the hero. In killing the dragon, he deals himself a mortal wound, as the unconscious thereby loses a large portion of its autonomy. This spells demise for the archetype. Accordingly, the mythic hero is stabbed in the back by his own shadow, like Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied. It is his own doing. In human psychology, the hero waxes and wanes like the sun.

The idea that humanity must learn from the past, yet be prepared to renovate their beliefs to accommodate society to a changing reality, is a platitude. It is self-evident. In his book, commonsensical views like this are projected on folklore and myth which really have a much deeper meaning. As Peterson draws on inferior theorists, poets and novelists, and mostly reasons philosophically, his views are insufficiently substantiated. The reductionistic and rationalistic explanations of religious and mythic motifs are all wrong. Admittedly, he has likely been misled by Jung’s writings on alchemy, which do not always stand up to scrutiny. What is the explanation for Peterson’s enormous following? He has stood up against postmodern relativism; the collective mental illness of our time. People long to get this spectre out of their lives. Most importantly, he dresses up commonplace ideas in archetypal clothes; talking about dragons, heroes and monsters. It is a devious method as it activates the unconscious of his audience, following the rationale of ‘The Oldest System Programme of German Idealism’:

We must have a new mythology, but this mythology must be in service of the ideas; it must be a mythology of reason. Before we make ideas aesthetic, i.e. mythological, they will have no interest for the people. (Beiser, 1995, p. 5)

Much of his political views are sound, but only on the surface. He criticizes identity politics, emphasizing the absurdity of “equal outcomes”. Equal opportunity ought to be guiding principle. This is all well and good. Yet, this is merely a thin conscious value judgment erected upon a rationalistic edifice that won’t hold together. In Peterson’s view, everything revolves around society and culture (the unconscious archetypes, too). But this means that his philosophy springs from the same source as cultural Marxism. After all, Marxism is a variant of Hegelianism; and Nietzsche is, with his perspectivism, one of the fathers of postmodernism. So there is a dark side to it all. He makes clear that a political revolution might become necessary (p. 286; p. 433). How else are all the different ethnic groups and diverse religious denominations going to join together for a common cause as formulated by the human hero? Even if it were possible to assimilate all citizens of Muslim faith his project is not realizable, since it runs counter to our biology. Peterson underestimates the way in which human beings have always grouped together, emphasizing biological distinctions, such as ethnicity and gender, but also economical status. He turns a blind eye to the biological facts and thinks that all people, regardless of ethnicity, are equally prone to adopt the same “behavioural pattern”, and thus lay the grounds for a prosperous society.

© Mats Winther, 2018.


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See also:

Winther, M. (2011). ‘Hero worship ’. (here)