Emily Pothast, Medium, March 22, 2019
Earlier this week, the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University made the announcement that a fellowship that had been previously offered to Canadian psychologist and self-help author Jordan Peterson had been rescinded after further review. The Guardian cited a “backlash from faculty and students” as the cause for this decision, while Peterson‘s own statement called those who cancelled his two month appointment “conspiratorial, authoritarian and cowardly bureaucrats.” Right-wing outlet The National Review took this assessment a step further, characterizing the faculty who challenged Peterson “petulant careerists” hell-bent on reviving the Inquisition.
Such criticism hinges on the notion that Peterson has controversial, yet academically important ideas, and that refusing to platform them is tantamount to intellectual dishonesty. But there is a far more compelling reason not to let Peterson‘s assertions go uncontested, much less allow him to espouse them at Cambridge: Jordan Peterson is a sub-par scholar whose own sources contradict the very claims he uses them to make.
Last fall, in preparation for a paper I gave at a conference on Peterson and his influence, I read Maps of Meaning (1999), his 400-page magnum opus. This is the volume where he lays out the philosophy he expounds upon in his newer book 12 Rules for Life and his myriad YouTube lectures, which I also spent perhaps a little *too much* time with. (My paper, with full citations, may be read here, and you can watch my conference presentation here.)
What I discovered is an author who, despite his obvious passion for mythology and religion, does not study sacred texts in their historical contexts, nor does he bother to investigate contemporary scholarship regarding any of the texts he cites. Instead, his understanding relies heavily on a handful of authors from the early to mid 20th century, such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell — three popularizers of myth who share, as religious scholar Robert Ellwood has put it, “intellectual roots in the antimodern pessimism and romanticism that helped give rise to European fascism.” This is not to say that there is nothing of value to be gleaned from these authors. Indeed, I read them voraciously when I was younger, and could tell you what I still think is useful about each of them. But simply reading the books you found in your local used bookstore’s “religion” section does not make you a religious scholar — no matter how many YouTube videos you make about them.
My paper focuses on one particularly egregious instance of sloppy scholarship that’s foundational not only to Maps of Meaning, but Peterson’s entire worldview: his handling of the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, which he considers to be a “comprehensive exemplar” of archetypal narrative themes. Recorded on seven tablets in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform around the 7th century BCE — though composed several centuries earlier, possibly around the time of the reign of Hammurabi — Enuma Elish is one of the world’s oldest surviving examples of a (mostly) intact story. Its plot focuses on the exploits of Marduk, a fiery, heroic deity who slays Tiamat, the oceanic dragonness and mother of all life, and uses her flayed body to create the heavens and the earth.
If you’re familiar with Peterson’s work, you’ll know that he talks a great deal about the adversarial relationship between order, which he reads as “masculine,” and chaos, which he reads as “feminine”. (The parenthetical title of his bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life is “An Antidote to Chaos.”)
In a video called Why is Chaos Symbolized as Feminine (a titled applied by a fan, not Peterson himself), Peterson attributes this characterization to “fundamental social cognitive categories” that are integral to the human experience. He is careful to note that these tendencies do not correspond to male and female humans, but rather archetypal processes. Still, Peterson argues, consciousness is “always symbolically masculine,” and thus heroes tend to be male. The reason why, we are told in this video, runs as deep as evolution itself:
And I think that’s because we evolved those categories as our fundamental representational archetypes and then we try to fit the world into those categories because that’s the categories that we evolved first, and we have to look at the world through those categories. We’re cognitively prisoners of our evolutionary history — or beneficiaries of it, that’s another way of thinking about it.
For Peterson, the triumph of the hero Marduk over the mother goddess Tiamat not only exemplifies of this dynamic, but serves as evidence of its deep archetypal significance—after all, here it is playing out in this ancient story! He calls Enuma Elish one of the “archaic theories of creation,” and devotes a significant chunk of Maps of Meaning to mapping its characters and events onto his schema of the archetypal experience of the world.
But what Peterson’s reading completely misses (and therefore misconstrues) is the text’s historical context. ...
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