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Biblical Series XIII: Jacob's Ladder

by Dr. Jordan Peterson

Thank you very much for showing up again. It’s really good to see everybody. One of the things that I’ve been realizing, as a consequence of going through these stories, is that the degree to which they’re about individuals is quite remarkable. I think that’s really telling. One of the reasons I prefer Dostoevsky to Tolstoy is because Tolstoy is more of a sociologist. He’s more interested in the relationships between groups of people—this is an oversimplification. Obviously, Tolstoy is a great author. But I like Dostoevsky better, because he really delves into the souls of individuals. I think the degree to which all of the stories that we’ve covered so far in Genesis are about individuals is remarkable. They’re quite realistic, which is quite remarkable, too. They’re not really romanticized, to any great degree. All of the people regarded as, let’s say, patriarchal or matriarchal figures in Genesis have no shortage of ethical flaws, and also no shortage of difficulties in their life. The difficulties are realistic. They’re major league problems—like familial catastrophes, famine, war, revenge, hatred, and all of those things. It’s not a pretty book. That’s one of the things that makes it great—that’s one of the things that characterizes great literature: it doesn’t present you with a whitewashed view of humanity, or of existence. That’s really a relief, I think, because—as you all know, because you’re alive—there’s no such thing as a whitewashed existence. To be alive is to be in trouble, ethically and existentially.

I’ve been reading this book, recently. I’ll talk about it a little bit later. It’s called Better Never to Have Been. It was written by a philosopher in South Africa, in Cape Town, named Benatar. That’s his last name. He basically argues…I think it’s a specious argument. I think it’s artificially constructed. But he basically argues that, because life is so full of suffering—even good lives are very much full of suffering—it’s wrong to bring children into the world, because the suffering outweighs the good—even in good lives. And it would also be better not to exist, for exactly the same reason.

My sense, in reading the book, is that he came to that conclusion and then wrote the book to justify it, which is actually the reverse of the way that you should write a book. You should have a question when you’re writing a book, and it should be a real question. It should be one you don’t know the answer to. And then you should be studying and writing like mad, and reading everything you can get your hands on, to see if you can actually grapple with the problem, and come to some solution. You should walk the reader, as well, through your process of thinking, so that they can come to—well, not necessarily to the same conclusion, but at least track what you’re doing.

I don’t think that’s what Benatar did—I think he wrote it backwards. And so I was thinking about it a lot, because that’s actually a question that I’ve contended with in my writing. There are Mephistophelean or Satanic figures, for example, in Goethe’s Faust—and also Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, who basically make the same case: existence is so rife with trouble and suffering that it would be better if it didn’t exist, at all. The problem I’ve had with that—there’s a variety of them, but one of the problems I’ve had with that is what happens if you start to think that way. What I’ve observed is that people who begin to think that way—that isn’t where they stop. They get angry at existence—which is what happened to Cain, as we saw in the Cain and Abel story. And then, the next step is to start taking revenge against existence. That cascades until it’s revenge against—well, I think the best way of thinking about it is revenge against God, for the crime of Being—which is, I think, the deepest sort of hatred that you can entertain.
When you’re in the grip of a really deep emotion—a really profound emotion, right at the bottom of emotions—you’re in something that’s like a quasi-religious state. That’s more or less independent of your belief, say, in a transcendent deity. You can be in a profoundly emotional state that’s as deep as it can be, and it can have religious significance, without that necessarily signifying about a transcendent being. But the problem with that argument is that you can gerrymander it endlessly. First of all, how do you measure suffering, and how do you measure happiness? How do you assign weights to them? There’s just no way of doing that. You have to do it arbitrarily. And so you can make an argument that the suffering outweighs the happiness—you just weight the suffering more heavily than you weight the happiness, and that’s the end of that. So that’s a problem. But I think there’s a deeper problem.

I was reading this other book, a while back, as well. It was written by the guy who ran the Human Genome Project. I don’t remember what exactly it was called, but it was something like The Language of God. One of the things he referred to—which didn’t strike me as hard as it should have, to begin with—was that he thought that one of the phenomena, say, that justified a belief in a transcendent being was something like the moral intuition of human beings—that we have a sense of right and wrong. What happens in Genesis, in the story of Adam and Eve, is that the story announces the coming of the sense of right and wrong—the knowledge of good and evil. It isn’t something we ascribe to animals. It’s something that’s unique to human beings. Animals can be predators, and they can be gentle, and you can have a relationship with them. But you never think of an evil cat, or an evil wolf, even though they’re predatory. But human beings have this capacity to judge between good and evil, right and wrong. It’s really an integral part of our being.

I think you can make a biological case for that—as you can make a biological case for most of what is relevant about human beings, because we’re biological creatures. But we don’t really understand the significance of that. What happens in the story of Adam and Eve is that the realization of the coming to the knowledge of good and evil is actually represented as a shift of cosmic significance. It puts a permanent fracture in the structure of being. If you think of human beings as insignificant ants, on a tiny dust mote, in the middle of an infinite cosmos—a cosmos that cares less for us—then who cares, fundamentally, if human beings have the knowledge to distinguish between good and evil? But, if you give consciousness a central role in Being—and you can make a perfectly reasonable case for that, because without consciousness, there’s no Being, as far as anyone can determine. So it may be much more central than we think. I really don’t think there’s a counterargument to that. Not a solid one. You can state that consciousness is epiphenomenal, the world is fundamentally materialistic, and it doesn’t matter that there’s consciousness. You can state that, but you can make an equally credible case the other way. Certainly, our lived experience is that consciousness is crucial, obviously, and we treat each other—most of the time—as if we’re valuable, conscious beings. We wouldn’t give up our consciousness, even though it’s often consciousness of suffering.

I think another problem with the book is that it’s sort of predicated on the idea that life is for happiness. I don’t think that’s right, and I don’t think that’s how people experience life. I might be wrong, but it seems, to me, that people experience life as something like a series of crucial, ethical decisions. It’s something like that. I just can’t imagine—maybe I’m being naive about this—another being that’s like me, in most senses, that isn’t constantly wrestling, in some sense, with what the next proper thing to do is. It’s not like it’s obvious. It’s not bloody obvious. It doesn’t mean you’ll do the right thing, because you don’t—lots of times—and you know that, by your own judgement. You’re making mistakes, all the time. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, and maybe it’s a mistake, and maybe it isn’t. Who’s to say? That isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about when you know that what you’re doing is wrong, and you go ahead, and you do it anyways. People do that all the time. That’s also extremely peculiar. You’d bloody well think that, if you knew it was wrong, and you told yourself that it was wrong, that you just wouldn’t do it. But that isn’t what you're like, at all. You can tell yourself something is wrong 50 times, and you’ll do it the 51st time, and then you’ll feel like you deserve to feel, probably. But it doesn’t stop you.

I think the other problem with the viewpoint—the idea that the suffering of life eradicates its utility—is that it’s predicated on the idea that happiness—or lack of suffering, even—is the right criteria by which to judge life. I don’t think that’s how we actually experience life. I think what we do, instead, is put ourselves through a series of excruciating moral choices. One of the things that’s really significant about the Biblical stories—about the entire implicit philosophy that’s embedded in the stories, I think—is that that’s how life is presented, in the stories. All of these individuals—first, they’re individuals; they’re not groups. Second, they’re agonizing over their moral choices, all the time. All the time! And they have a relationship with God. It’s not a directive relationship, exactly. Even the people to whom God speaks directly—which, I suspect, is not something you exactly want to have happen—even the fact that they have a direct relationship with God doesn’t stop them from being tormented, continually, by their moral choices.

And so the world is presented as a moral landscape—not as a place that justified itself by happiness. It’s presented as a moral landscape, and people are presented as creatures who traverse through the moral landscape, making ethical decisions that determine the course of the world. That seems, to me, to be right. That’s not the same as happiness, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a whole different category of Being. I’ve thought that through a lot. I think that we do make choices. What we do is contend with the future. The future seems to appear to us as a realm of possibility. That’s a more accurate way of thinking about it, than that the future presents itself to us as a realm of determined things. It presents itself as a realm of possibility. There’s good choices in that realm, and there’s poor choices—or, even, evil choices, in that realm. We’re negotiating, continually, deciding which of those choices we’re going to bring into Being. That seems, to me, to be phenomenologically indisputable, and we certainly treat each other as if that’s what we’re doing, because we hold each other responsible for our actions—with some exceptions—and that we’re deciding, each moment, whether to make things better or worse. That seems, to me, to be correct. I think that’s what these stories illustrate. They don’t say that directly—although, I think it gets more and more explicit, as the narrative unfolds.

Part of the realism of the stories is that the people who are being presented are by no means good—maybe with the exception of Noah. Noah seemed to be a pretty good guy—although, he did get drunk, and end up naked, exposed to his sons, and so forth. But he isn’t talked a lot about as a character. It’s a pretty compressed story. But Abraham had plenty of problems, not least of which was his inability to leave home, and then his lying about his wife. There’s all sorts of mistakes. And then Jacob, who we’re going to talk about tonight, is an even more morally ambivalent character—especially at the beginning of the story. He isn’t the sort of person that you would pick out—especially if you were a hack writer—as the hero of the story. He does a lot of things that are pretty reprehensible, and it takes him an awful lot of time to learn better. And yet, he’s the person who’s put forward as the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. It’s from this flawed person that the people who’s story, you might say, constitutes the fundamental underpinning of our culture. It’s from this deeply flawed individual that that group emerges. So you might think of that as a relief, too, because you’re no knight in shining armour, with a pure moral past.

People make mistakes of catastrophic proportions, nonstop. That also means that these stories put forward something approximating hope. In their moral realism, they present the heroes of renown—the patriarchs of old, let’s say—who are realistic people, who have fits of anger and rage, who are murderous at times, who are deeply, deeply embroiled with family dispute, and who have adulterous affairs. They do all the terrible things that people do. The weird thing is that God is still with them. It isn’t obvious what that means, or even if it means anything. But it’s not disputable, as far as I can tell, that A, we’re conscious—and that consciousness is a transcendent phenomena, which we do not understand—and that the landscape that we traverse through is moral. Every story you ever watch, anything that grips your imagination on the screen, any story that grabs you, is a story of moral striving. It’s just not interesting, otherwise. The person has to be confronted with complex moral choices, and then you see the outcome. The good guy does it right, and the bad guy does it badly, and things don’t go so well for the bad guy, generally. If it’s a bit more sophisticated, the good and the bad are in the same individual. That’s a more compelling story.

So we could make the assumption, then, that it might be worthwhile thinking of the world—as it has been thought of, classically—as a theatre upon which the forces of good and evil continually strive for dominance. For the life of me—especially after I started reading deeply into 20th century history, and all the terrible things that happened in the 20th century, and all the terrible, unbelievably, incomprehensible things that people did to one another—I just couldn’t see seeing things any other way, as realistic. I don’t think that you can immerse yourself in 20th century history without coming to the conclusion that evil is a reality. If it’s a reality—it depends on what you mean by ‘reality,’ but it’s a fundamental enough reality for me. And if it’s reality, I don’t see how you can escape from the conclusion that the cosmos—as we experience it, at least—is a place of moral striving. That’s one of the things that’s really illustrated in the story of Jacob. I’ve found that quite striking.
In the last lecture, I ended with the Abrahamic stories—with the death of Sarah. That was Abraham’s wife. We’re going to continue from there. Remember that Abraham had a son, Issac. He was asked by God to sacrifice his son, which we talked about in some depth. I was attempting to make the case that the idea of sacrifice was one of humankind’s great discoveries. It meant the discovery of the future, essentially, but it also meant the discover that the future was something that you could make a bargain with: you could give up something now—something impulsive, some pleasure, even a deep pleasure, in the moment—and you could strive, and, hypothetically, you could make a covenant—a bargain—with the future, if your sacrifices were acceptable—and that seemed to mean ethically acceptable. You had to sacrifice the right thing. That vastly increased the probability that, not only you would be successful, let’s say, but that your descendants would be, too.

I don’t think that’s an irrational proposition. You have to leaven it a bit with the realization that, sometimes, you get sliced off at the knees, no matter what, because life has an arbitrary element, and that can’t be tossed out. But building in the arbitrary element, we’ll say, you still want to think, ‘well, what’s your best bet?’ given a certain amount of randomness. It seems, to me, that conscious, self-aware sacrifice, and proper ethical striving is your best bet. There’s another idea that—well, I’ve always explained it using the movie Pinocchio as an example. When Geppetto is trying to make his puppet into a self-aware and autonomous moral agent—which is what he wants, above all else—he aims at the highest Good he can conceive—which is the star that he prays to, essentially—and he hopes for the transformation. There’s also something in that that’s unutterably profound. Maybe that’s somewhat independent of the idea that you have to believe in God. I would also say that what it means to believe in God, in the Old Testament, is by no means clear. That’s something I also really want to talk about tonight. It’s not obvious what it means. What Geppetto does, at least, is aim at the highest good at which he can conceive. That’s actually been a philosophical definition of God, upon occasion—that God is the highest good of which you conceive. That’s different than the idea of a transcendent being, precisely. But it’s in line with certain interesting psychoanalytic speculations.

This is one of the things I really liked about Carl Jung. Jung was a radical thinker. It’s just beyond belief. I’ve read a lot of critics of Jung, and I’ve always got a kick out of them. The things they accuse Jung of are so trivial compared to the things that Jung actually did that it’s like accusing a murderer of jaywalking. Jung was unbelievably radical. Here’s one of his idea. He believed that psychotherapy could be replaced by a supreme moral effort. The moral effort would be something like aiming at the Good, and then trying to integrate yourself around that. The Good, at which you aim, would be something approximating what you would be like if you manifested your full potential, and that you’d have a glimmering of what that full potential was. That would be the potential future you. He thought of people as four dimensional entities, essentially—that we’re stretched across time, and that you, as a totality across time, including your potential, manifested yourself, also, in the here and now. Part of what your potential manifested itself was something like the voice of conscience, or intuition. It’s an amazing idea. It’s an amazing idea! Because it’s like what you could be in the future beckons to you in the present, and it helps you determine the difference between good and evil. It’s a mind boggling idea. I think that it’s an idea you have to contend with.

He went further than that. This is also a remarkable idea. He was interested in the symbolic representation of Christ. Psychologically speaking, he thought of Christ as the representation of the ideal potential human. It’s something like that. At minimum, that is what Christ was—a symbolic representation of the ideal potential of the human being. For Jung, there was no psychological difference between who you could be—in the future, beckoning to you in the present—and orienting yourself in relationship to Christ. Psychologically, those were the same thing. So that’s a pretty mind boggling idea—like, seriously. That’s a mind boggling idea, especially when you add the psychological idea that one of the things that characterizes your ideal future self is the ability to make sacrifices—the deeper the sacrifice, the better—and also to recover from the sacrifice, so that’s the death and rebirth. The part of you that’s most essential to your full flowing, as a being, is your ability to let things go, and then spring back from that—so to die, in some sense, and to be reborn in the service of a higher good. Then, the next part of that is that the direction of the world depends on you doing that. So not only your own life, but your family’s life, and, because we’re networked so intently together, the whole panoply of humankind—and, maybe, the structure of the cosmos. You might think, ‘well, no,’ but it’s not so simple.

First of all, one person can wreak an awful lot of havoc. There’s no doubt about that. And, as we get more technologically powerful, that becomes even more relevant, important, and crucial. One of the things that Jung said was that we had to wake up, because we are too technologically powerful to be as morally asleep as we are. That seems, to me, to be self-evident. Yeah, for sure; that’s true. We’re half asleep, with nuclear bombs. It’s seriously not a good idea.

And then you might ask yourself, too, ‘well, what is the ultimate potential of a fully developed human being?’ We certainly know that you have admiration for people who are more developed, rather than less developed—that just happens automatically—or you have resentment. But that’s ok. It’s the same thing; it doesn’t matter. But it’s not like you can’t identify them. You can identify them. They’re put forward to you in drama, fiction, and all of that, constantly. So that’s another form of moral intuition. You can discern the wheat from the chaff, let’s say.

The other thing that I was thinking about that’s worth consideration, too, is that—and maybe this is petty, but I don’t think it is. Somebody asked me the other day if I believed in miracles. I hate being asked questions like that, you know? It’s also people asking, ‘do you believe in God?’ I don’t know what they mean when they say that, so I don’t know what to answer. I don’t think we’re necessarily going to talk about the same thing. In any case, I said yes. I have a variety of reasons for that, but one of them is that the consensus among physicists is that we can track the origin of the cosmos to something like a hundred million of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang. It’s so close to the Big Bang that the difference is literally infinitesimal. But the consensus is that, before that—whatever that is—the laws of physics themselves break down. Well, what do you call an event that exists outside the laws of physics? By definition, that’s a miracle. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a transcended deity that caused the event. That’s a separate issue. But it does imply a barrier, of some sort, beyond which we can’t go, where some other set of rules apply. I find that interesting, as well.

All right. So Sarah dies, and Abraham makes a bargain with the Hittites, to purchase a burial place for her. They offer it as a gift, and he insists upon paying for it. It’s a little story that basically indicates two things: that Abraham was the kind of guy that you trust, very much, when you see him, and that, even if something is offered to him as a gift, he’s going to do everything to be reciprocal about it. So it’s not a massively important part of the story, but it’s in keeping with the same narrative flow.
Ephron, who’s a Hittite, offers a burial place, as a gift. Abraham says, ‘no, you have to let me pay for it.’ And Ephron says he will, and that works out very well. So he has a good burial place for his wife. And then Abraham decides that Isaac needs a wife, and so he sends his eldest servant to Mesopotamia, to find a wife for Isaac. There’s a strange ritual that’s performed.
It says in the story that the servant places his hand under Abraham’s thigh, to swear. But that isn’t really what it means. It means that he places his hand…I don’t know exactly how to say this properly. Well, use your imagination, how about that? The idea—as far as I can tell—is that he’s swearing on the future people. It’s something like that. So that’s sort of what ‘testify’ means. Think about the root. Well, I’m not kidding! I’m not kidding. That is the derivation, right? It is the derivation. So, anyways, this is a serious issue. The servant has to go and find Isaac a good wife, and he wants him to find Isaac a wife who is willing to accept the same fundamental belief system, which is something like the belief in a God that is a unity, rather than a plurality.

The other thing that Jung was very insistent upon was that there was a relationship between polytheism and psychological confusion, and monotheism and psychological unification. I really liked that idea, too. You are a plurality—that’s one of the things the psychoanalysts were really good at figuring out, and that the cognitive scientists haven’t touched, yet. They’re way behind the psychoanalysts in that element of thinking. You are composed of subpersonalities, which all have their own desires, and their own viewpoint, and their own thoughts, and their own perceptions. They’re in a war with each other, constantly—maybe even a Darwinian war. It’s been portrayed that way by certain neuroscientists, and that one of the goals of life is to integrate all of that plurality into a hierarchical, ethical structure that has some canonical ethic at the pinnacle. We’ve talked a little bit about that. It’s not obvious what should be at the pinnacle, but we can guess at it. It’s that which we admire. That’s one way of thinking about it. It’s that which describes fair play across a sequence of games. That’s another good way of thinking about it. It’s the heroic ideal, but it’s combined with generosity—because the mythological hero goes out, into the unknown, slays the dragon, and gets the gold. But then, he comes back to the community and distributes what’s found. So it’s courage, plus generosity. And so all of that interior struggling that you’re doing is an attempt to bang yourself against the world with challenge, constantly; to hit everything together, like you’re beating on a piece of iron—to cure it, let’s say, so that you’re not an internal contradiction; you’re not a mass of competing gods. It’s something like that. Because it’s just too psychologically stressful, hard on everyone else, and impossible for them to get along with you, if you’re one thing in one moment and another thing in another moment.

So, anyways, Abraham insists that Isaac finds a wife from among people who are likely to carry forward the monotheistic tradition. I’m not sure that the monotheistic tradition is actually distinguishable from the individualist tradition. I think they might be the same thing, at different levels of analysis, because ‘individual’ means ‘undivided,’ in some sense. To be an individual means to be one thing. The other thing that mitigates against the idea of life as happiness is that it isn’t obvious that happiness is what moulds and shapes you. It’s something more like optimal challenge, voluntarily undertaken. It’s something like that. I think that’s echoed in the idea that everyone has a moral obligation to raise their cross—to accept the face of their mortality voluntarily. I believe that that’s the case. And I do actually think that that’s a prerequisite for proper psychological development. If you’re not willing to take your mortality on voluntarily, if you’re kicking and fighting about it constantly—and you have every reason to; don’t get me wrong—then you can’t act forthrightly in the world. You’re going to be afraid. And when you’re afraid, then you can’t voluntarily take on a challenge. And then, if you can’t voluntarily take on a challenge, then you can’t develop.

So, again, life seems to be—if it’s a proper life—the voluntary taking on of great challenges. Maybe that’s better than happiness. It’s certainly more noble. It’s not a word we use very much, anymore—the idea of nobility, because we’re so obsessed with happiness. But I think happiness—like, if it comes along, man, great. Wonderful. Don’t take it lightly, or for granted, because it’s fleeting. But the idea that that’s what you should be for, in some sense, just seems, to me—if that’s what life is for, then maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe that’s correct, because that isn’t what life is. But it isn’t obvious, to me, that that’s what life should be. I mean, if you really love someone—like your son, let’s say—would you say, ‘well, I hope he has a happy life,’ or would you say, ‘I hope he accomplishes great things?’ It seems, to me, that that’s better: the accomplishing of great things. Because that’s admirable, you know? It’s like, a happy person is a happy person, but a noble person is an admirable person. That’s better, man. And so maybe there are better things than happiness. And so you can’t judge Being on the basis of the ratio of suffering to pleasure—something like that. And I don’t think we do that. I don’t believe we do that. Comedians are happy, right? But everybody doesn’t aspire to be a comedian, and you don’t watch comedy all the time, even though you laugh nonstop, more or less, if the comedian is funny. You want to get your teeth into something.

It also seems, to me—and this is one of the reasons that I liked existential philosophy. The existentialists believe—it’s sort of an original sin idea. They thought we came into the world already with an ethical burden laid upon us, and that we had a felt sense that it was necessary for us to justify our Being—and that, if we didn’t do that, then we weren’t authentic to ourselves; we weren’t moving towards individuality; we weren’t sustaining the community; we weren’t living properly. That idea was deeply embedded in people, as part of their ordinary experience. That also seems, to me, to be accurate. I’ve dealt with lots of people—say, in my clinical practice. They will come and say ‘I wish I wasn’t so unhappy,’ but they don’t usually come and say ‘I wish I was happier.’ Those things aren’t the same. And then, when you talk to people who are having trouble, they want to straighten things out, and figure out how to do them right. It’s something like that. That’s their primary goal.
So, anyways, Abraham sends his eldest servant off to the place that God has granted him, to find a wife. Interestingly, the borders of the promised land are quite similar to the current borders of Israel—these are estimates—and, I mean, that’s not a fluke, obviously. But it’s interesting to see the concordance between these ancient stories and the present day world. I thought that was very interesting. And it shows, once again—you think the past is the past, but it’s not. It’s still here; it’s embedded in the present—just like the future, in some ways, is folded up inside the present, waiting to unfold. The past is all folded up inside the present, too.
So, anyways, the servant goes to the land that he’s been charged to go to. He’s trying to figure out, ‘how in the world am I going to find a good wife for Isaac? I don’t know any of these people.’ So he has this little dialog that’s presented in the form of prayer. He thinks, ‘well, I’m going to go to the place where people get water, and water the animals, because that’s the place where everyone gathers, so that’s a good place to find someone.’ It’s not a place of fun and lightness and realization and impulsivity. It’s a place for life-sustaining work. He thinks, something like, ‘well, what would a decent girl do, at a watering place?’ He thought, ‘well, maybe she would offer a stranger some water—and, also, offer to water the camels.’ That would be brave—to approach the stranger—and then generous, and then indicative of the willingness to make an effort. When you know that a camel—I think he took 10 camels. It’s quite a few camels, anyways, not just one. A camel can drink 20 gallons of water. The woman who’s drawing water from the well—who turns out to be Rebekah—which is hard, because water’s heavy, and you have to lift it up…It’s 10 camels, so that’s like 200 gallons of water. She has to put herself out a fair bit to make this stranger happy. That’s what happens. Then the servant has brought along gifts, and that sort of thing. Anyways, to make a long story short, Rebekah agrees to come back with the servant, and to marry Isaac.

Then she gets pregnant, and she has twins. This is an interesting thing: the twins fight inside her. She can tell that they’re not getting along. This is an echo of Cain and Abel. There’s a mythological motif that the Jungians have called ‘the hostile brothers.’ You see them all the time: Batman and the Joker are hostile brothers, and Thor and Loki. It’s an unbelievably common motif. The ultimate hostile brothers are Christ and Satan—that’s the archetypal representation of the hostile brothers: the ultimate good and the ultimate evil. So it’s an echo of the Cain and Abel story—although, it’s a little more complex, I would say, from a literary point of view, because it isn’t obvious which of these brothers is Cain, and which is Abel. They have parts of both in each of them. So Esau—who turns out to be one of the brothers—and Jacob—who turns out to be the other—both have their admirable qualities, and their faults.
Anyways, Esau is born first, but Jacob has his heel. So there’s a fight within the womb, to see who would emerge first. That’s relevant because the firstborn had a special status—well, has a special status in many communities, especially agricultural communities. These people were more herds-people, but if you divide your property equally among your children, then, in like three generations, everyone has like one goat, and everybody starves to death. The same thing happens with land. So one of the ways that traditional communities solve that is that they just give almost everything to the firstborn, and then everyone else knows, well, you go out and do whatever you can. It’s kind of arbitrary and unfair, but at least it’s predictably arbitrary and unfair, instead of doom over four generations. So it actually mattered to be the firstborn, and God generally favours the firstborn. You might think, ‘what is it about being born first that’s so relevant, apart from the cultural practice of a more generous inheritance?’ Well, I would say that the firstborn is the model for the leader of the family, because the firstborn child—if there’s a number of siblings—A, should take care of the siblings, at least to some degree, but also should be a role model for them. So it’s like a natural position of leadership. But there’s a psychologization of the firstborn, in these stories, because God often passes over the firstborn in favour of a later-born child. He seems to do that on the basis of moral character, essentially. So there’s an idea that there’s a natural proclivity for leadership that’s just a biological fact, that would be associated with being a firstborn. But there’s an element of characterological development that transcended that. It’s more important to be spiritually a firstborn, let’s say, than biologically a firstborn. God recognizes that, continually, in these stories, and inverts the natural order, and favours a later-born, who’s done more work in regards to characterological development.

I’ve talked to lots of business people about leadership. There’s a literature on leadership, but it’s not a good literature. It’s pretty shallow, partly because it’s not that easy to define leadership, and partly because people have different temperaments, and different temperaments can be leaders. They just do it in different ways. There’s something in common about being a leader, though. I would say one is that, if you’re an actual leader, you know where you’re going. Because what are you going to do, lead people in circles? They’ll follow you, but you’re not a leader; you’re just a charlatan. So you have to know where you’re going, then you have to be able to communicate that. And then people have to be able to trust you, because people aren’t that stupid—at least not for a long period of time. And then, where you’re going has to have some value, because, otherwise, why would anyone want to go along with you? And then you might say, ‘well, what are the attributes, then, that make you a leader?’ I would say that they’re characterological, fundamentally.

This is not naive optimism or casual moralizing. It has nothing to do with that. We know, for example, that conscientiousness, the personality trait, is a good predicator of long-term success, in most occupations—not all, but most—and that one of the things that’s associated with consciousness is that people keep their word; they’re trustworthy. That’s certainly one element of a leader—certainly across any reasonable amount of time. You have to be able to trust the person. They can even be harsh. It doesn’t matter, because you can see harsh leaders and kind leaders. But as long as they do what they say they will do, then you can follow them, and you know that the future payoff is secure. Something like that. So the idea that characterological development is more important to leadership than primogeniture is a very crucial, psychological realization—that it’s characterological development that makes you favoured by God.

I do think we’ve forgotten this, in many ways, because there isn’t a lot of emphasis in our education system on characterological development. That’s very, very surprising, to me. I think it’s partly because, in our fractured society, we can’t agree on what constitutes a reasonable characterological goal. So we just throw up our hands and don’t educate our kids, to any degree, at all—especially in schools—about what an admirable person is like, or even let them know that, maybe, you should actually try to be one, and that that’s the most important possible thing that you could learn.

I also think—and I think this is laid out very thoroughly in the Biblical stories, as well—if there are enough people who are admirable, then things work, and if there aren’t, then things are terrible. You get wiped out. Remember when Abraham is bargaining with God, with regards to Sodom and Gomorrah? He asks God to save the city, if there’s like 40 admirable people, right? I don’t want to say ‘good,’ because ‘good’ has been corrupted, in some sense, by casual usage. I mean admirable, noble people. I think Abraham bargains God down to like 10—if there’s 10 of them in the city, the city won’t be destroyed. That’s not very many in the city. There’s an interesting idea there: there doesn’t have to be that many people in a group, who have their act together. But zero is the wrong number. And if it’s zero, then we’re seriously in trouble. I think that goes along with the idea of the Pareto principle, in economics, too—that it’s a small minority of people who do most of the productive work, in any given domain. So, a small number of properly behaving people might have enough of an impact to keep everything moving. That might actually be true, but it can’t fall below some crucial level. I do think that we’re in some danger of allowing it to fall below some crucial level. Our society seems to be at war, in some ways, against the idea of the individual, and individual character per se. I think that’s absolutely catastrophic.

That’s part of the reason that I’m doing these Biblical lectures. I’ve known for a long time that the moral presuppositions of a culture are instantiated in its stories. They’re not instantiated in its explicit philosophy. There might be a layer of explicit philosophy—and, of course, there is in the West—and a layer of explicit Law. But, underneath that, there are stories. There isn’t anything under the stories, except behaviour. But that’s so implicit that it doesn’t even actually count. It’s not a cognitive operation. And so these are the stories that are underneath our culture. So there better be something to them. That’s what we hope. But, more importantly, maybe we shouldn’t toss them away, without knowing what they mean. If we toss them away, we’re throwing away everything we depend on, as far as I can tell. We will pay for it. We’ll pay for it individually, because we’ll be weak. If you’re not firm in your convictions, then someone else, who’s firm in their convictions—you’re their puppet, instantly. And then you’re a puppet of your own doubts, because, unless you have conviction, you’re going to generate doubts like mad—because everyone does—and then the doubts will win. You’ll be paralyzed, because there’ll be fifty percent of you moving forward, with fifty percent of you frozen stiff. That’ll be enough just to lodge you in place.

Ok, so there’s a psychologization of the idea of leadership—which is very important—and then it’s associated with the idea of characterological development. It’s associated with the idea of struggle, not happiness. It’s also associated with this Abrahamic idea, which I really liked, which is something that’s been very useful, to me, as a consequence of doing these lectures. Remember, at the beginning of the Abrahamic stories, Abraham is like in his mother’s basement, and God says, ‘get the hell out of there; get out in the world, where you belong. Go do something difficult, because what you’re doing isn’t acceptable.’ The first thing he does is go somewhere where there’s a famine. Then he goes to a tyranny. It’s pretty funny. He follows God’s call, and it’s not like sweetness and light and paradise, immediately. It’s nothing like that. It’s instantaneous combat, of the most difficult kind. But Abraham does, in fact, follow that impulse. Here’s another thing that made me an advocate of psychoanalytic thinking. It was the sort of thing that started to terrify me about what the human psyche was actually like. I started to understand that not only were we like an amalgam of relatively automatous subpersonalities—each of which had the possibility of gaining control—but that we’re also victim, you might say—or beneficiary—of impulses that are beyond our conscious formulation, understanding, or capacity to resist.

Here’s a funny story. I was talking to one of my Patreon people, online, this week. He was a committed atheist. That’s fine. Lots of atheists are very honest people, and they’re atheists because they don’t know how to reconcile what they know with traditional claims, let’s say—they’re not willing to mangle them together. There might be cynicism and all that associated with it, as well. He said he was entranced by these Biblical lectures, which is pretty weird. He said that, if someone would’ve told him a year ago that he would be obsessed with a sequence of Biblical lectures, he would’ve told them that they were mad. So we had a bit of a discussion about that. This is an interesting thing, you know—and he mentioned this—he said, something like, ‘you don’t choose your interests. They choose you.’ That’s really worth thinking about, too. It’s really hard to get interested in something you’re not interested in, even if you know there’s a good reason for it. You’re studying for an exam; you find the material boring. Anything will be more interesting than the study—even though you know that’s what you need to do, you can’t voluntarily grab yourself by the scruff of the neck, and shake yourself, and say, ‘sit down and concentrate.’ Your mind’ll just go everywhere. But then, if you’re interested in something—and even if it’s something that you shouldn’t be interested in, because that happens all the time—then it’s like you’re laser-focused, man. You can pay attention forever. You can work until you’re exhausted. You won’t even notice it, and you remember everything.

If you can’t control your interests, what does? Man, I tell you, you can think about that for a very long time. Jung talked about the spirit Mercurius. Mercury is the winged messenger of the gods. Here’s how he conceptualized it psychologically. He thought this is what the ancient people—who thought about Mercury as the winged messenger of the gods—were trying to state psychologically. Your interest flits around. There’s something that captures it, and moves your interest from place to place. Like, if you walk into a bookstore, you’ll get interested in a particular book. It’s as if the book grips you, because you don’t know why you’re interested in that—you might, but often you don’t know why you’re interested in that book. Your interest is flitting around. So that’s Mercury; the thing that makes your interest flicker around; the winged messenger of the gods. Mercury is the messenger of the gods because it’s the things behind the scenes, psychologically, that are manipulating your attention. For Jung, those were equivalent, in some sense, to the lost gods.

For Jung, your interest was being manipulated, behind the scenes, by unseen forces that were associated with your characterological development across time. That was the manifestation of the Self. So the Self is the potential you, let’s say. The way it operates in the present is by gripping your interest and directing it somewhere. That’s part of the instinct of self-realization. It’s a mind boggling idea. I think it’s correct; I can’t see how it can’t be correct. It doesn’t mean I understand it completely, but it certainly seems to be phenomenologically correct. I mean, the potential that you are has to manifest itself somehow, in the here and now. It has to. What better way than by directing your attention? Maybe you get attracted to this person. Maybe you admire this person. That happens with kids a lot—they’ll admire someone, and copy them. You can see that that’s, obviously, part of their developmental progression. It’s a form of hero-worship. Kids are very imitative, and they hero-worship at the drop of a hat. They’re entranced by the next stage of development. If they see someone who embodies the next stage of development—especially if it’s in the zone of proximal development, it’s something they could achieve, stretching a bit—then they start to imitate them, and act like them. Well, adults are no different. We do it at a, perhaps, more abstract and sophisticated level.

Ok, so Jacob and Esau are hostile brothers; they’re like Cain and Abel, except a mixture of Cain and Abel. They’re very different. "Esau was red and covered with hair; he was a hunter, a man of the field." So he’s like your basic jock; he’s extroverted; he’s outgoing; he’s really tough; he’s extraordinarily masculine; he hunts, and he’s a real favourite of his father. Jacob isn’t. He’s a dweller in tents. It says, "Isaac loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob." That’s a big problem. There’s a Freudian element to this: this family is now divided, because one child is the favourite of the mother—that’s Jacob—and one child is the favourite of the father. Jacob is kind of a mother’s boy, to use a rather archaic phrase—and certainly not as admirable, from his father’s perspective, as Esau, who’s a tough guy, who goes out with a bow and arrow, and wanders around in the plains and brings animals home. He’s a tough guy. But there’s this discord in the family, because one parent prefers one child, and the other parent prefers the other. It’s obvious, from the story, that the parents do not communicate about this, because they really take sides. So there’s a split in the family. That’s, I think, very realistic. One of the things that you do learn, if you have a family—and, of course, most of you do—is that there’s deep divisions within families, very, very frequently, that no one will ever talk about—or even think about, often, because it’s too painful to think about.

Freud was clearly his mother’s favourite. The family sacrificed a lot, including some of the potential ambitions of the other children, in order to put Sigmund Freud up on a pedestal, and advance his education. It worked. I mean, he turned into a great man, but there was a cost, to his siblings. Freud himself said that there was something about being the favourite of the mother that gave a person additional confidence throughout their life. There’s something to be said about that. Even someone like Erik Erikson noted that the first bonding with the mother was the place where trust—maybe even trust in the goodness of existence—was established.
Anyways, Jacob is Rachel’s favourite, and Esau is Isaac’s favourite. Now, Esau—being extroverted, let’s say—is also a bit impulsive. He’s a man of action. He’s not a forward-thinker. But he’s also doing hard work. He goes out, and he’s hunting, and he’s worn out. He comes home, and he’s faint with hunger. Jacob is at home, cooking. He’s boiling up red lentils. Esau comes in, from the hunt, and he’s like half starving to death. He’s sitting there, and the aroma of these red lentils reaches him. He’s exhausted, and he tells Jacob that he wants some of this stew. Jacob, who’s being a pain in the neck, fundamentally, basically says, no—there’s a teasing thing going on, here—and won’t give him any. You have to imagine this, because it’s not laid out explicitly in the story, but there’s some dispute about whether Esau gets to have lunch. Jacob finally says, ‘I’ll give you some, but you have to give me your birthright.’ You think Esau must say something like, ‘well, to hell with it. Take it, you son of a bitch. Take it—just give me some damn stew.’ It’s something like that. So that’s what happens. But, you know, with these archaic people, once you made a statement like that, you were done. That was it. And so Esau sells his birthright. This turns out to be incredibly significant.

There’s a bit of a twist to it. Esau eats the red lentils, and from then on his name is ‘red.’ You gotta use your imagination, a bit. People are making fun of him, right? That’s why they’re calling him ‘red.’ I mean, he’s already red—we established that—but no one was calling him ‘red’ before this. So, for the rest of his life, every time he goes out amongst his friends and family, they call him ‘red,’ and kind of snicker, because he’s the half-famished idiot who sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils. It’s not that funny, actually. Esau’s not happy about this. So what does it mean? It means, ‘don’t sell the future for the desires of the present, and don’t be casual about what you have.’ And then there’s an archetypal element to this, too.

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