Three Excerpts from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

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 three short excerpts from Maps of Meaning. I thought they would 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 1: My Nephew’s Dream

Where is what you most want to be found? Where you are least likely to look.

“In sterquiliniis invenitur”

King Arthur’s knights sit at a round table, because they are all equal. They set off to look for the holy grail – which is a symbol of salvation, container of the “nourishing” blood of Christ, keeper of redemption. Each knight leaves on his quest, individually. Each knight enters the forest, to begin his search, at the point that looks darkest to him.

When I was about half way through writing this manuscript, I went to visit my sister-in-law and her family. She had a son – my nephew – who was about five years old, very verbal and intelligent. He was deeply immersed in a pretend world, and liked to dress up as a knight, with a plastic helmet and sword.

He was happy during the day, to all appearances – but did not sleep well, and had been having nightmares for some time. He would regularly scream for his mom in the middle of the night, and appeared quite agitated by whatever was going on in his imagination.

I asked him one morning after he had woken up what he had dreamed about. He told me, in the presence of his family, that dwarf-like beaked creatures who came up to his knees had been jumping up at him and biting him. Each creature was covered with hair and grease, and had a cross shaved in the hair on the top of its head. The dream also featured a dragon, who breathed fire. After the dragon exhaled, the fire turned into the dwarves, who multiplied endlessly, with each breath. He told the dream in a very serious voice to his parents and to my wife and I, and we were shocked by its graphic imagery and horror.

The dream occurred at a transition point in my nephew’s life. He was leaving his mother, to go to kindergarten, and was joining the social world. The dragon, of course, served as symbol for the source of fear itself – the unknown, the uroboros – while the dwarves were individual things to be afraid of – particular manifestations of the general unknown.

I asked him, “what could you do about this dragon?”

He said, without hesitation, and with considerable excitement – “I would take my dad, and we would go after the dragon. I would jump on its head, and poke out its eyes with my sword. Then I would go down its throat, to where the fire came out. I would cut out the box the fire came from, and make a shield from it.”

I thought this was a remarkable answer. He had reproduced an archaic hero myth, in perfect form. The idea of making a shield from the firebox was nothing short of brilliant. This gave him the power of the dragon, to use against the dragon.

His nightmares ended at that point, and did not return – even though he had been suffering from them almost every night for a number of months. I asked his mother about his dreams, more than a year later, and she reported no further disturbance.

The little boy, guided by his imagination, adopted identification with the hero, and faced his worst nightmare. If we are to thrive, individually and socially, each of us must do the same. Our great technological power makes the consequences of our individual errors and weaknesses increasingly serious; if we wish to continually expand our power, we must also continually expand our wisdom. This is, unfortunately, a terrible thing to ask.

In sterquiliniis invenitur” – in filth it will be found. This is perhaps the prime “alchemical” dictum. What you need most is always to be found where you least wish to look. This is really a matter of definition. The more profound the error, the more difficult the revolution – the more fear and uncertaintly released as a consequence of restructuring. The things that are most informative are also frequently most painful. Under such circumstances, it is easy to run away. The act of running away, however, transforms the ambivalent unknown into that which is too terrifying to face. Acceptance of anomalous information brings terror and possibility, revolution and transformation. Rejection of unbearable fact stifles adaptation, and strangles life. We choose one path or another at every decision point in our lives, and emerge as the sum total of our choices. In rejecting our errors, we gain short-term security – but throw away our identity with the process that allows us to transcend our weaknesses, and tolerate our painfully limited lives:

“There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, ‘perhaps they did not recognize him.’ He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they will show respect to my son.’ Because the tenants knew that it was he who was heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear.”

Jesus said, “Show me the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the cornerstone.”

Face what you reject, accept what you refuse to acknowledge, and you will find the treasure that the dragon guards.

From pages 311-312.


Excerpt 2: Great Evils

Great evils are easily identifiable, at least in retrospect, and are usually the result (at least in interpretation) of the act of another. We build endless memorials to the Holocaust, for example, and swear never to forget. But what is it that we are remembering? What is the lesson we are supposed to have learned? We don’t know how the Holocaust came about – don’t know what it is that the people involved did, or failed to do, step by step, that made them behave in such an appalling manner; don’t know what or who made German society take such a terrible turn. Even Hitler – how could Hitler fail to believe that he was correct, when everyone around him bowed to his orders? Would it not take character of exceptional magnitude to resist the temptation of absolute power, freely offered, democratically granted – even insisted upon? How would it be possible for anyone to remain properly humble, under such conditions? Most of us have personal frailties that remain constrained by our social environments. Our neurotic tendencies are checked by the people around us, who care for us, who complain and protest when we lose our self-control and take things, in our weakness, one step too far. If everyone around thinks you are the savior, who is left to point out your defects, and keep you conscious of them? This is not an apology for Hitler: merely recognition that he was all-too-human. And what does that statement mean? Hitler was human; Stalin too – Idi Amin, too. What does that mean about being human?

Our tyrannical tendencies and moral decadences generally find their expression limited by our narrow domains of personal power. We cannot doom millions to death, at a whim, because we do not have the resources to do so. We satisfy ourselves, in the absence of such power, with riding roughshod over those near to us – and congratulate ourselves on our moral virtue. We use aggression and strength to bend dependent others to our will – or, in the absence of strength, use sickness and weakness to harness the force of empathy, and deceive our way to dominance, underground. Granted the opportunity, how many of us would not be Hitlers? Assuming we had the ambition, dedication and power of organization – which is highly unlikely. Paucity of skill, however, does not constitute moral virtue.

Many kings are tyrants, or moral decadents, because they are people – and many people are tyrants, or moral decadents. We cannot say “never again” as a consequence of the memory of the Holocaust, because we do not understand the Holocaust – and it is impossible to remember what has not been understood. We do not understand the Holocaust, because we do not comprehend ourselves. Human beings, very much like ourselves, produced the moral catastrophes of the Second World War (and of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and of Pol Pot’s Cambodia …). “Never forget” means “know thyself” – means recognize and understand that evil twin, that mortal enemy, who is part and parcel of every individual.

From pages 236-237.


Excerpt 3: Self-Consciousness and Individual Purpose

Self-consciousness means knowledge of individual vulnerability. The process by which this knowledge comes to be can destroy faith in individual worth. This means – in concrete terms – that an individual may come to sacrifice his own experience, in the course of development, because its pursuit creates social conflict, or exposes individual inadequacy. However, it is only through such conflict that change takes place, and weakness must be recognized, before it can be transformed into strength. This means that the sacrifice of individuality eliminates any possibility that individual strength can be discovered or developed, and that the world itself might progress.

Individuals whose life is without meaning hate themselves, for their weakness, and hate life, for making them weak. This hatred manifests itself in absolute identification with destructive power, in its mythological, historical and biological manifestations; manifests itself in the desire for the absolute extinction of existence. Such identification leads man to poison whatever he touches, to generate unnecessary misery in the face of inevitable suffering, to turn his fellows against themselves, to intermingle earth with hell – merely to attain vengeance upon God and his creation.

The human purpose, if such a thing can be considered, is to pursue meaning – to extend the domain of light, of consciousness – in spite of limitation. A meaningful event exists on the boundary between order and chaos. The pursuit of meaning exposes the individual to the unknown in gradual fashion, allowing him to develop strength and adaptive ability in proportion to the seriousness of his pursuit. It is during contact with the unknown that human power grows, individually and then historically. Meaning is the subjective experience associated with that contact, in sufficient proportion. The great religious myths state that continued pursuit of meaning, adopted voluntarily and without self-deception, will lead the individual to discover his identity with God. This “revealed identity” will make him capable of withstanding the tragedy of life. Abandonment of meaning, by contrast, reduces man to his mortal weaknesses. This makes him hate life, and work towards its elimination.

Meaning is the most profound manifestation of instinct. Man is a creature attracted by the unknown; a creature adapted for its conquest. The subjective sense of meaning is the instinct governing rate of contact with the unknown. Too much exposure turns change to chaos; too little promotes stagnation and degeneration. The appropriate balance produces a powerful individual, confident in the ability to withstand life, ever more able to deal with nature and society, ever closer to the heroic ideal. Each individual, constitutionally unique, finds meaning in different pursuits, if he has the courage to maintain his difference. Manifestation of individual diversity, transformed into knowledge that can be transferred socially, changes the face of history itself, and moves each generation of man farther into the unknown.

Social and biological conditions define the boundaries of individual existence. The unfailing pursuit of interest provides the subjective means by which these conditions can be met, and their boundaries transcended. Meaning is the instinct that makes life possible. When it is abandoned, individuality loses its redeeming power. The great lie is that meaning does not exist, or that it is not important. When meaning is denied, hatred for life and the wish for its destruction inevitably rules.

From the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

From pages 358-359. 

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