Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 19, The Revolutionary Hero

In the last two posts we've been discussing how a culture's "map of meaning," its "paradigm," can undergo a crisis. Today we consider how that crisis might be resolved.

In Thomas Kuhn's scheme, the crisis of a scientific paradigm is resolved by a "paradigm shift" where the old paradigm is replaced by a new paradigm. This new paradigm is preferred as the more parsimonious "fit" with available observations.

In Peterson's theory something similar happens with cultural paradigms. The "map of meaning" has to be reordered and reconfigured to accommodate the challenges and changes it is facing. For those following this series, this is the familiar "ordering the chaos" message preached by Peterson but now playing out on a larger, cultural stage. As individuals must order the chaos in their individuals lives, so cultures must collectively order the chaos they face during seasons of crisis. 

How does this happen?

Peterson finds an answer in the archetype he calls "the revolutionary hero." Just like we have to "slay the dragon" as the hero in our personal lives, so cultures need heroes to face collective social crises. Peterson here introducing the "revolutionary hero": 

The revolutionary hero reorders the protective structures of society, when the emergence of an anomaly makes such reordering necessary. He is therefore the agent of change, upon whose action all stability is predicated.

This power, however, makes the revolutionary hero a focus of anxiety, fear, and threat. As the Agent of the New the hero is a disruptive force. As Peterson continues:

This capacity [of the revolutionary hero as an agent of change]--which should make him a welcome figure in every community--is exceedingly threatening to those completely encapsulated by the status quo, and who are unwilling to see where the present state of adaptation is incomplete and where the residual danger lies. The archetypal revolutionary hero therefore faces the anger and rejection of his peers, as well as the terrors of the absolutely unknown. 

A few paragraphs later, Peterson shares examples of such "revolutionary heroes" in our culture: Nietzsche, Darwin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Freud, Jung, and Piaget. Some readers, reading that list, I expect are swallowing hard right now in the face of a Jungian-inflected "Great Man Theory" of history. That is a very legitimate criticism, but let me put a pin in that objection to push on for a moment.

In order to "save" his culture the revolutionary hero must voluntarily step into the chaos facing the society. Within myth this is typically depicted as a journey to the underworld, followed by a "resurrection" event. The hero descends into the abyss, faces the dragon, and returns victorious, ushering in a new season of peace and prosperity. And while this seems good, the return of the hero signals the end of the old order and regime. The hero both destroys and saves. Peterson describes this as "the socially destructive and redemptive 'journey' of the revolutionary hero." Peterson turns to both Old and New Testament texts to describe Jesus as just such a "revolutionary hero." For example, illustrating how Jesus was experienced by his society as having both destructive and redemptive aspects, Peterson points to Acts 4.11: "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." 

Stepping back, much of this, as I said above, should be familiar from the earlier posts in his series. The hero journey is simply being described on a larger, cultural scale. Which means I'm going to return to some of my previous criticisms.

First, we're back to some of my concerns about Peterson's lopsidedness in how he frames "the heroic." For example, I think the "great man" theory of cultural development Peterson is articulating is of concern. To be sure, the revolutionary hero doesn't have to be a male, but the picture Peterson is casting will obviously hold great appeal to highly agentic types, who will skew male. Who are the revolutionary heroes of our age? Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Elon Musk? Jeff Bezos? Donald Trump? I think you see my point. 

My second concern is about Christology, and is also a point I've made before. Again, I think a Jungian take on Jesus and the gospels is both fascinating and helpful in many ways. Jesus was a "revolutionary hero." Jesus was both a savior and a threat to the status quo. Jesus took a journey to the underworld and was raised victorious on Easter Sunday. Something old gave way to the new. 

And yet, to bring my two criticisms together, Jesus is the crisis for any "great man" theory of history. The cross is a crisis for how we define "revolutionary" and "hero."

Now, do I think there is a way to reconcile Peterson's Jungian approach with a cruciform and kenotic Christology? Actually, I do. I think it's possible to fuse Peterson's Jungian approach with good Christology. But Jordan Peterson isn't doing that particular work. Peterson's "revolutionary hero" is too "revolutionary" and too "heroic" as the world defines those two words to be, as it stands, compatible with the Christian faith. Phrased simply, Peterson's revolutionary hero--the "great man" as dynamo of cultural advance--is not Christ-like enough to be fully Christian. 

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