Two More Excerpts from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Three Excerpts from Maps of Meaning, I recently recorded an audio version of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 1999), now available at Audible. I believe that the audio version will make the book much more accessible, as I was able to highlight the meaning of the more complex sections with careful intonation.

You can find a clip of that recording at Penguin, who holds audio rights.

Here are two additional short excerpts from Maps of Meaning. Along with the first three, they serve as a good introduction to the book, which was the source of many of the ideas that I develop in 2018’s 12 Rules for Life, the lectures at Jordan Peterson Videos, and the Jordan B Peterson Podcast.


Excerpt 4: The Lie

The individual embodiment of collective past wisdom is turned into the personification of inflexible stupidity by means of the lie. The lie is straightforward, voluntary rejection of what is currently known to be true. Nobody knows what is finally true, by definition, but honest people make the best possible use of their experience. The moral theories of honest people – however incomplete from some hypothetical transcendent perspective – account for what they have seen and for who they are, insofar as that has been determined, in the course of diligent effort. It is not necessary, to define truth, to have seen and heard everything – that would make truth itself something impossible. It is only necessary to have represented and adapted to what has been seen and heard – to have represented and adapted to those phenomena characterizing the natural and social worlds, as encountered, and the self, as manifested. This is to say, merely, that the truth of children and adults differs, because their experience – their reality – differs. The truthful child does not think like an adult: he thinks like a child, with his eyes open. The adult, however, who still uses the morality of the child – despite his adult capacities – he is lying, and he knows it.

The lie is willful adherence to a previously functional schema of action and interpretation – a moral paradigm – in spite of new experience, which cannot be comprehended in terms of that schema; in spite of new desire, which cannot find fulfillment within that previous framework. The lie is willful rejection of information apprehended as anomalous on terms defined and valued by the individual doing the rejection. That is to say: the liar chooses his own game, sets his own rules, and then cheats. This cheating is failure to grow, to mature; is rejection of the process of consciousness itself.

The lie is therefore not so much a sin of commission, in most cases, as a sin of omission (although it may take the former condition as well). The lie is a matter of voluntary failure to explore, and to update. The appearance of an anomalous occurrence in the ongoing stream of experience only indicates that the present goal-directed schema within which behavior is being undertaken and evaluated is characterized by the presence of a flaw. The “place” of the flaw, the reasons for its existence, the “meaning” of the flaw (its potential for altering interpretation and behavior) – that is all something hypothetical, at the first stage of anomaly emergence and analysis. The unknown has to be “mined” for precise significance, before it can be said to have been experienced, let alone comprehended; has to be transformed, laboriously, from pure affect into revision of presumption and action (into “psyche” or “personality”). “Not doing” is therefore the simplest and most common lie: the individual can just “not act,” “not investigate,” and the pitfalls of error will remain unmanifest – at least temporarily. This rejection of the process of creative exploration means lack of effortful update of procedural and declarative memory; means adaptation to the present, as if it still were the past; means refusal to think. The rectification of error is, after all, not inevitable; it is neither effortless nor automatic. Mediation of order and chaos requires courage and work.

Adoption of identity with the heroes of the past – necessary, but with implicit pathological potential – is transformed into certain corruption, when the identified individual is a liar, who has voluntarily rendered himself incapable of personal heroism. Adoption of group identity and position means access to the power embodied in the past – means access to the collective strength and technical ability of the culture. This power is terribly dangerous, in cowardly and deceitful hands. The liar cannot see any value in weakness or deviance, in himself or others – only the potential for chaos – and he cannot see any value in chaos or uncertainty. He has no sympathy or patience for or appreciation of his own weaknesses – or his own strengths – and can therefore have none for the weakness or strength of others. The liar can only pretend to embody what is best of the past, in consequence, because he cannot support or tolerate the presence of necessary deviance in the present. This means that the liar is a tyrant, because he cannot stand being a fool.

From pages 249-250. 


Excerpt 5: Tragedy and Evil

The most powerful arguments for the non-existence of God (at least a good God) are predicated on the idea that such a Being would not allow for the existence of evil in its classical natural (diseases, disasters) or moral (war, pogroms) forms. Such arguments can be taken further, even, than atheism – can be used to disupte the justice of the existent world itself. Dostoevsky states: “Perhaps the entire cosmos is not worth a single innocent child’s suffering.” How can the universe be constructed such that pain is permitted? How can a good God allow for the existence of a suffering world?

These difficult questions can be addressed, in part, as a consequence of careful analysis of evil. First, it seems reasonable to insist upon the value of the natural/moral distinction. The “tragic circumstances of life” should not be placed in the same category as “willfully undertaken harm.” Tragedy – subjugation to the mortal conditions of existence – has an ennobling aspect, at least in potential, and has been constantly exploited to that end in great literature and mythology. True evil, by contrast, is anything but noble.

Participation in acts whose sole purpose is expansion of innocent pain and suffering destroys character; forthright encounter with tragedy, by contrast, may increase it. This is the meaning of the Christian myth of the crucifixion. It is Christ’s full participation in and freely-chosen acceptance of his fate (which he shares with all mankind) that enables him to manifest his full identity with God – and it is that identity which enables him to bear that fate, and which strips it of its evil. Conversely – it is the voluntary demeaning of our own characters which makes the necessary tragic conditions of existence appear evil.

But why is life tragic? Why are we subject to unbearable limitation – to pain, disease, and death; to cruelty at the hands of nature and society? Why do terrible things happen to everyone? These are, of course, unanswerable questions. But they must be answered, somehow, if we are to be able to face our own lives.

The best I can make of it is this (and this has helped me): Nothing can exist without preconditions. Even a game cannot be played without rules – and the rules say what cannot be done, as much as what can. Perhaps the world is not possible, as a world, without its borders – without its rules. Maybe existence wouldn’t be possible, in the absence of our painful limitations.

Think of it this way: If we could have everything we wanted, merely for wishing it – if every tool performed every job, if all men were omniscient and immortal – then everything would be the same, the same all-powerful thing, God, and creation would never exist. It is the differences between things – which is a function of their specific limitations – that allows them to exist at all.

But the fact that things do exist does not mean that they should exist – even if we are willing to grant them their necessary limitations.

Should the world exist? Are the preconditions of experience so terrible that the whole game should be called off? (and there is never any shortage of people working diligently towards this end).

It seems to me that we answer this question, implicitly but profoundly, when we lose someone we loved, and then grieve. This is a very common experience. I don’t think we cry because they existed, either – but because they are lost. This presupposes a judgment rendered, at a very fundamental level of analysis. Grief presupposes having loved, presupposes the judgment that this person’s specific, bounded existence was valuable, was something that should have been (even in its inevitably imperfect and vulnerable form). But still the question lingers – why should things, even loved things, exist at all, if their necessary limitations cause such suffering?

Perhaps we could reserve answer to the question of God’s nature, his responsibility for the presence of the evil in creation, until we have solved the problem of our own. Perhaps we could tolerate the horrors of the world if we left our own characters intact, and developed them to the fullest; if we took full advantage of every gift we have been granted. Perhaps the world would not look horrible then.

The point of our limitations is not suffering; it is existence itself. We have been granted the capacity to voluntarily bear the terrible weight of our mortality. We turn from that capacity and degrade ourselves because we are afraid of responsibility. Thus the necessarily tragic preconditions of existence are made intolerable.

It seems to me that it is not the earthquake, the flood or the cancer that makes life intolerable, horrible as those events appear. We seem capable of withstanding natural disaster, even of responding to that disaster in an honourable and decent manner. It is rather the pointless suffering that we inflict upon each other – our evil – that makes life appear corrupt beyond acceptability; that undermines our ability to manifest faith in our central natures.

From pages 346-347. 


I hope you find the audio version of Maps of Meaning accessible, engaging and useful.