Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 31, The Philosopher's Stone

Having discussed both Satan and Christ--the "hostile brothers"--Peterson turns to talk about Carl Jung's work on alchemy. 

Late in this life, Carl Jung spent a lot of time studying the mysteries of alchemy. Many have considered this bit of Jung's work esoteric. Woo woo quackery. You, yourself, might find it hard to believe you are about to read something about alchemy. Consequently, Peterson begins this part of the book on a defensive note, defending Jung's interest in alchemy along with alchemy itself. 

For my part, in reading this part of the book, it seemed like a lot of heavy lifting to make points Peterson has already made. Let me illustrate by sharing the core idea.

As Peterson recounts, and as you likely already know, the goal of alchemy was to discover "the Philosopher's Stone." The Philosopher's Stone would enable the transformation of base metals into gold. The Stone was also believed to heal and prolong life, even conferring immortality.

Even in this brief sketch it's not hard to see why Peterson would groove to alchemy. Recall how, for Peterson, life involves transforming Chaos into Order. This is the "make your bed" and "slay the dragon" idea. That hero journey maps easily onto the alchemical quest: the transformation of something worthless in my life into something valuable. As Peterson succinctly says, "Jung essentially discovered, in the course of his analysis of alchemy, the nature of the general human pattern of adaptation..." Coping is alchemy. 

So you see my point about how this is really just a rehashing. Slaying the dragon is the Philosopher's Stone. Ordering the chaos becomes the transformation of the raw materials of life into something precious and valuable. Instead of stealing the gold from the dragon, we make the gold. The challenge of life is alchemy, the continual process of taking the raw material of experience and consciousness and transforming it into gold. Given this convergence, Peterson spends time in this chapter recasting the Hero archetype as an alchemical transformation. The Hero becomes the Philosopher's Stone.

Does all this rehabilitation of alchemy add any value to the overall point? Not really, but there is value in shifting metaphors. Recall how, early in this series, I worried about the agentic call to "slay the dragon," how that call might appeal to young men and cause problems when Chaos is gendered as feminine. The Philosopher's Stone frame, by contrast, is less violent. The central metaphor moves away from "slaying" to "transformation." 

Which makes me wonder if other metaphors might step in to do the same work, and even provide advantages. Why not, for example, describe all this as gardening? In gardening you face Chaos, the entropic tendency toward disorder and decay. The call of life is to make beautiful things grow where there is only thorns and weeds. Isn't that the same idea behind "make your bed"? Don't let the weeds grow in your life? Isn't gardening a lovely, nurturing vision of what an "antidote to chaos" might look like? And if the garden is gendered (e.g., Mother Earth) doesn't the metaphor of cultivating put us in a more cooperative and humble posture in contrast to seeking to "slay" the disorder that is in front of us? 

And lest this be rejected as an unappealing vision for men, the work of Wendell Berry comes to mind. See his famous poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

In short, why couldn't "Take Care of Your Garden" replace "Slay the Dragon"? 

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