Jordan Peterson on the hero

However, in scientific endeavour, as elsewhere, the willingness to risk Is everything.1

Passages on the hero are given below from two of Jordan Peterson’s papers. Of course, a great many more could  be culled from his many other papers and from his books, but the passages cited here may be taken as representative of his position.

The epigraph above is the last line of his 1991 PhD thesis and sums up not only his take on the hero but also his own credo. Indeed, Peterson plainly identifies with the hero-savior which is an excellent thing in terms of his deeply felt need to answer the cries of the contemporary world in its manifold individual and social dangers; but it is also limiting as an effective remedy. Commentary in the footnotes attempts to show how and why this is so.2 The great point to be kept in mind was put in short form by one of Peterson’s great heroes, Nietzsche:

instead of the deification of man, his un-deification, the digging of the deepest chasm, which only a miracle, only prostration in deepest self-contempt can bridge…3

No man believes now in this absurd self-inflation: and we have sifted our wisdom through a sieve of contempt.4


Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture Of Belief (Precis), 19995

  • It is not clear that either the categories “given” to us by our senses, or those abstracted out for us by the processes of scientific investigation, constitute the most “real” or even the most “useful” modes of apprehending the fundamental nature of being or experience.6 It appears, instead, that the categories offered by traditional myths and religious systems might play that role, despite the initial unpalatability of such a suggestion.7 Such systems of apprehension present the world as a place of constant moral striving, conducted against a background of interplay between the “divine forces” of order and chaos.8 “Order” constitutes the natural category of all those phenomena whose manifestations and transformations are currently predictable. “Chaos” constitutes the natural category of “potential” -– the potential that emerges whenever an error in prediction occurs. The capacity for creative exploration –- embodied in mythology in the form of the “ever-resurrecting hero” -– serves as the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience.
  • the hero/king who establishes, embodies and updates the social world is also the same force that establishes, embodies and updates the intrapsychic world, the personality — and the one act of update cannot (…) be distinguished from the other. In “improving” the world, the hero improves himself; in improving himself, he sets an example for the world.9
  • The Sumerians, ancient Egyptians and Old Testament Hebrews settled by all accounts on a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination.10
  • Human beings, “made in the image of God”11, construct their familiar territory, their cosmos, out of chaos -– the unknown -– and then strive to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of what they have constructed and now inhabit.12 The capacity to engage in such activity is “incarnation of the divine Logos”, embodiment of the creative, exploratory “Word”, whose activity finds eternal dramatic representation in the figure of the hero, the dragon-slaying savior.13

Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience, 200614

  • What the hero actually encounters, at the most inclusive level of analysis, are the constituent elements of experience.15 
  • the hero also restructures what is known, widening the purview of culture or challenging and reconceptualizing its most fundamental axioms. Finally, no hero remains unchanged, as a consequence of such activity. He necessarily meets himself as an individual (…) broadened and extended as a consequence of the information so garnered and conceptualized. 
  • The story of the hero is the most basic of plots, therefore, because it deals with the most basic of encounters.16 
  • The hero states, “What we are all doing right now, thinking right now, presuming right now, is no longer working!”17
  • Out of the unknown, through exploration, springs reality: it is in this manner, through “incestuous” union with the hero, that the dragon of chaos gives birth to the world. (…) Thus the exploratory hero makes the world as a consequence of his encounter with the generative unknown.18
  • It is necessary to remain unconfused by the interchangeability of the Great Father and the Hero, with regards to the Mother of All Things, or the Dragon of Chaos. All three elements of experience are regarded by the mythological imagination as primary, in some sense, and any (…) pair of them can engender being. So the original creation might be the impregnation of nature by culture, or by the hero. The two element creation, however, remains partial and incomplete.19


  1. This is the final sentence of Peterson’s 1991 PhD thesis, Potential Psychological Markers for the Predisposition to Alcoholism. There is little connection between it and the rest of Peterson’s thesis. It functions as if to say, ‘OK, all that above was what I had to do for my degree, but here is what I’m really interested in….’
  2. Since some of the commentary is long and sometimes rather complicated, it may be best to read through Peterson’s texts before looking at the footnotes to them.
  3. Will to Power, Book 2.
  4. Will to Power, Book 2.
  5. Psycoloquy 10, 1999.
  6. Peterson speaks here of “being or experience” and later in this same paper of “existence and experience”. Now the equation of being/existence with human experience eventuates in nihilism and is the cul-de-sac in which the contemporary world is fixed and lost. See Peterson and the fabled ‘thing in itself’But that Peterson is serious about this equation is baldly stipulated in his note on ‘Awareness may be existence as well as (higher-order) thought’ in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23:2, 2000: “Consciousness plays a fundamental unrecognized ontological role (…) conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’. (…) Only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment — constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground. So the very fact of discriminable things appears as something dependent upon consciousness.” Since “only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment”, and since heroic identity and its consciousness are such existing things, these two exist merely through the medium of self-stipulation — which collapses as soon as the ground of that stipulation is questioned. Here identity and its consciousness stipulate themselves — like Münchhausen extricating himself and his horse from a bog by pulling up on his own pigtail. The two great figures to be encountered at this critical juncture are Nietzsche and Beckett. Peterson’s hero needs to ‘under-go’ the utter dissolution of itself which would result if it followed them into the maelstrom — where the first thing to be lost is the stipulator. It, the maelstrom, is the great power, not the hero who is thrown about in it and utterly subject to its overwhelming might.
  7. The “unpalatability” of this suggestion derives not only from its ‘primitive’ source; it derives as well from the overwhelming plurality and complexity of the worlds of myth. Now Peterson argues, or at least stipulates, that this plurality may be reduced to a single story, that of the hero: “The story of the hero is the most basic of plots”, he claims. But this is a ‘risky’ and ‘heroic’ stipulation in regard to which Peterson’s words in his ‘Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights’ essay are entirely fitting: “it is impossible to make justifiable claim to a set of beliefs unless there is a rock-solid foundation under those beliefs”.  But Peterson makes little attempt to provide the necessary foundation for this heroic stipulation, especially given his lack of engagement with those great thinkers, foremost among them Lévi-Strauss, who have grappled with the question of how mythology is to be approached in the first place.
  8. It is imperative to note the two times at work in Peterson’s passage here: on the one hand, “moral striving” which is goal-oriented and operates chronologically; on the other, “a background of interplay” which Peterson terms “the eternal battleground of order and chaos” and which may be dynamic but is not goal-oriented or chronological — it is always at work as “eternal”. Indeed even the hero’s “moral striving” is said to be “constant”. Hence the hero is described in this same place as “the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience” of order and chaos. It may be concluded that Peterson’s work implicates a knot of times and that this plurality and interplay of times is the great question posed to his work — by his work! See Peterson: time or times?
  9. The great problem exposed by Peterson here is that the nature and direction of “improving” is dependent on “the intrapsychic world, the personality” of the hero. It’s representations “cannot (…) be distinguished” from the the world at large — and vice versa. In this way, “the hero/king” is trapped in a flybottle of his own making, which is exactly the ‘story’ of Eliot’s Waste Land, the central topic of Wittgenstein’s Investigations and the plot of Nietzsche’s “History of an Error“.
  10. A fundamental confusion may be seen here between (a) “existence” and “being” <=> “consciousness” — as something we accomplish in historical time, especially in the work of the hero, and (b) something that is done before us, apriori, in a “world-story” that is “eternal”. Now that “world-story” may well implicate an “heroic aspect” that mediates between its other “eternal” archetypes. Peterson would sometimes like to think that these two sorts of heroic actions and their respective space-times can be identified, but he is equally clear at other times that they cannot. In fact, the relationship is a knotted figure/ground riddle and is nothing less than the little door Peterson’s work needs to go through to reach his goals.
  11. “Made in the image of God” is another way of putting the figure/ground riddle: how are image and original fundamentally different? How ‘at the same time’ are they related?
  12. There is, of course, no human being who is not born into an existing family and society of some sort. No one ever “construct(ed) their familiar territory” on their own — as the word ‘familiar’ itself says. Indeed, the human infant cannot survive on its own, let alone go about heroic world-building “out of chaos”. What Peterson describes here, perhaps unconsciously, is not some action in historical time, but a synchronic activity that characterizes humans at every moment, always and everywhere. We are ‘always’ at work on world-building — that is what the human animal is — but not in diachronic time.  For the phenomenology of human being, it is therefore imperative to keep its times of world-building (ground) and and world-maintenance (figure) separate but related.
  13. The fundamental communication bridging the principles of human being, like order and chaos, cannot be constructed or even found by individual action, even when this action is undertaken by a divine actor — and especially not when it is undertaken by an historical one. No such hero can understand its task or carry it out absent the possibility of doing so. This possibility necessarily precedes and predates heroic activity and it is this preceding communication which is “the divine Logos” or “Word” — or “the medium (that) is the message”.
  14. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  15. No, this is not the case and cannot be the case for reasons that Peterson himself sets out. The hero’s “consciousness plays a fundamental unrecognized (…) role (…) conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’ (…) constituting figure (…) instead of ground.” (Full passage from Awareness may be existence’ in note 3 above.) The experience of the hero qua hero remains at the level of figure and cannot penetrate to ground exactly because the objects of his experience are his. They are “functionally relevant” — to him! They are what they are as a result of him “conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on (them as) select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’ (…) constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground.” Now it is all important to note here — against what might seem to be our solipsistic prison — that humans do come to recognize “constituent elements” (although our recognition is never definitive). All of the sciences testify to this (both to the finding and to its never-ending need for refinement). But elements are exactly not purely constructed, they are found to be before us (in different senses of ‘before’). It is therefore exactly not “heroic” action that successfully isolates “constituent elements”, but a kind of ‘giving way’ before them. Letting them be. Just how this action of ‘giving way’ and ‘letting be’ might be exercised in regard to the “constituent elements of experience” is exactly THE great question of psychology and THE only answer to the world’s plight.
  16. This “most basic of encounters” is that of the infant with its new environment. But its most salient feature is not that the infant heroically reaches out to probe that environment, but that this reaching out succeeds. Communicative ground is what enables this success — a ground that is qualitatively beyond what the figure of the infant-hero can ever achieve on its own.
  17. This statement cannot be made, of course, in reference to an eternal background; it must be made in regard to historical time which alone has a “no longer”. This is an indication of Peterson’s repeated elision between figure and ground, between diachrony and synchrony, which is not necessarily wrong — but which cannot feature the same hero in both and cannot lead to coherent theory in this form.
  18. No, the world is always already there via the “eternal battleground of order and chaos”. What the historical hero has to do, somehow, is locate this eternality through a process that necessarily implicates his utter dissolution. The archetypal hero, on the other hand, while qualitatively different from the historical one, may indeed be said to be active in the “birth of the world” — but not through interaction with “the unknown” in the usual sense. Instead, in the eternal time of the dynamic interactions of first principles, the hero knows the “dragon of chaos” forever and “makes the world” in union with it, not as we make a hot dog, but as a generativity that precedes everything.
  19. Peterson puts his finger here on a central law of ontology. Namely, at the level of the most real, ‘two’ must always give way before ‘one’ or before ‘three or more’. Where there are ‘two’ first principles, either they must collapse into ‘one’ over the eternity of time; or, if they ‘hold out’ as two, there must be at least one another principle, a ‘third’, through which their eternal co-existence is possible. This is the medium that is the message. The explanatory power of this law is massive, but goes unacknowledged in the night of the world’s sleep of doom.