books book reviews

Books on myth and psychology

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+5

12 Rules For Life:
An Antidote to Chaos
Jordan B. Peterson
Random House, 2018, 409 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

This is the first book I've seen in a long time whose author recognizes that young people (as well as adults) crave honest advice and need clarity about how to live. Sadly, most of what they get these days is propaganda. That's especially destructive to young people. Not knowing enough to judge the ideas, they choose whichever side is friendlier and conforms better to their speech and lifestyle, and that leads them into chaos. This book is a great way for them to escape it.

That makes this book deeply subversive to the Left's political agenda, which may be why they're making him a target. Peterson's approach is very effective because it's not political, or at least it's not intended to be, and it's not written for politically sophisticated adults who thrive on abstract philosophy, but for college students. It's just plain, honest advice from your psych professor.

It's also concrete, which is essential for reaching his target audience. No soaring abstractions about statism here, which might explain why one reviewer in Commentary Magazine thought it was too simplistic. Peterson is a clinical psychologist, and this book is filled with stories about his clients and his friends: how they ran into problems because they were avoiding conflict or did not know how listen. Simple things like that can have bad consequences. One died because of it, and others retreated into a reality-denying political fantasy world.

He also uses stories from fairy tales, from the Bible, and from his childhood in Alberta. He admires Freud, Jung, and Adler, but also shows familiarity with literature and recent findings in neurobiology and social psychology. All these are put to good use in a non-technical book that admirably suits its task of providing desperately needed wisdom.

Giving advice is not easy. You can easily end up sounding like Kahlil Gibran (who is still very popular, though I recommend the amusing parody The Profit by Kehlog Albran instead). Compare:

Peterson:

A child who can't share—who can't trade—can't have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade. [p.168]

Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. [Rule 4]

Make friends with people who want the best for you. [Rule 3]

Albran:

Remember, the proud lettuce in all truth cannot withstand the aggression of an adult carrot.

Anyone can amass a fortune if he struggles for only that. It is he who struggles to be poor and ends up wealthy with whom we should be annoyed.

You can decide for yourself who is wiser. I think it's close but leans toward Peterson.

The first three chapters are more abstract and philosophical, while the concrete chapters are in the middle of the book. Then in Chapter 11, where he talks about feminism, he gets a bit more philosophical again. Some quotes:

When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination. . . . If men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist ideology. [p. 330]

The spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men is no more friend to woman than it is to man. . . . If you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.

In chapter 12, he talks about his children and his dog. In the last chapter he gets answers from God, or his subconscious mind, or somewhere, using a magical pen. You don't need a magical pen to live well; if Peterson is right, all you need is the will to sit quietly and be honest with yourself.

mar 17, 2018

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Jordan Peterson
Routledge, 1999, 541 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Peterson's 1999 book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief is a theory that myths help to guide people from “What is”, which is the unbearable present, to “What should be,” or the ideal future. In other words, when things go wrong, people feel chaos. Myths and religions help them reorganize their inner narrative to provide a feeling of control. They do this by assigning meaning to chaotic events. People imagine scenarios that help them plan. This idea is partially inspired by Jung's theory of the collective unconscious. Maps of Meaning contains descriptions of various myths and lengthy quotes from various writers. One particularly good quote is from C.G. Jung, who said “any internal state of contradiction, unrecognized, will be played out in the world as fate.”

mar 18, 2018

disclaimer: I have not yet finished reading this book.

book review Score+2

The Archetype of the Number and Its Reflections In Contemporary Cosmology
Alain Negre
Chiron Publications, 2018, 180 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

C.G. Jung not only speculated about myths; his ideas about myths and archetypes inspired much mythmaking among his followers. For Jung, numbers were archetypes of order that had become conscious. That idea is now inspiring a modern myth in The Archetype Of the Number And Its Reflections In Contemporary Cosmology by Alain Negre.

A number is not a myth. But could numbers, specifically integers, be more than just words we use to describe collections of things? If the real world is composed of mathematics, as some physicists claim, what does this say about numbers?

Alain Negre thinks it says quite a lot. He proposes mystical connections around the number four. Take, for example, Jung's four functions of the mind: sensation, feeling, intuition, and thinking. And of course we use four for lots of things: four suits of cards, four seasons, Aristotle's four causes, four alchemical elements, the four dimensions of spacetime, four quantum numbers, and I would add . . . the Fab Four.

Why four and not, say, thirteen or forty-two? The idea seems to be that scientific theories and religions tend to start out with three things and then, with great effort, add a fourth one. Take Christianity, he says: the Trinity plus the Virgin Mary = 4.

Negre makes his case by relating it to the time history of the universe, which he divides up into four quadrants: inflation, matter-light decoupling, reflective consciousness, and beginning/end. He then says the twelve signs of the Zodiac comprise three groups of four, corresponding to gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces.

That's artificial, of course; those twelve constellations are just a selection of the 88 official ones that are conveniently situated around the ecliptic. In fact it's not clear what he believes, especially when he relates the number four to different stages of consciousness and stages of cosmic evolution. Those ideas are loosely based on all that new age-y stuff from Frank Tipler and his Omega Point, where the computational capacity of the universe supposedly becomes infinite sometime in the distant future. Here's a sample:

The Self, center and circumference of the conscious and unconscious, is represented by the vacuum behind the ‘origin-end’ of the universe. It holds up the mirror of the cosmic background to the ego — center of the field of consciousness — so that the latter can see itself from a point outside ego-consciousness in the unconscious realm of the all-encompassing horizon. [p 153]

Is there any sense to any of this? Or is it simple numerology? Even Jung warned of the danger that meaning could be insinuated where none is present. You could argue that the use of logic automatically creates these categories; combining binary categories will always create an even number. In that sense, you might consider numbers to be static archetypes. The book would have been improved if he'd made a clearer distinction between what he considers myth and what he considers science.

One could also argue that tying cosmology, quantum consciousness, mysticism and astrology together doesn't work (oh wait, there's that number four popping up again!). But humans are story-tellers and they love to create myths about the universe. Archetypes are artifacts of how humans organize information, and numbers are the purest example of that. It's an important concept. If this book had considered that in more depth, it could have been great.

mar 18, 2018; edited mar 20, 2018