Biblical Series XIV: Jacob: Wrestling with God by Dr. Jordan Peterson
The last time I was here—many of you were here, as well—we got halfway through the story of Jacob. I’ve been digging underneath the story sporadically, since then, to try to find out what other themes are being developed. I’ve got some things that I think are really interesting to talk about. So we’ll get right into it.
I’m going to review a little bit, first. We were talking about Jacob. I’ll re-update his biography a little bit, so that we can place ourselves in the proper context, before we go on. So his mother, Rebecca, gave birth to twins. The twins, even in her womb, were struggling. Of course, the story is that they were struggling for dominance—the younger against the older, really. Jacob means ‘usurper.’ Rebecca had a vision from God that said that Jacob would supplant Esau. And so, even before her twins were born, they were in a state of competition.
That’s a recapitulation of the motif of the hostile brothers. It’s a very, very, very common mythological motif. We already saw that, really well developed, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel were, essentially, the first two human beings—the first two natural-born human beings. They are instantly locked in a state of enmity, which is symbolic of, first, the enmity that exists within people’s psyche—between the part of them that you might say is aiming at the light, and the part of them that’s aiming at the darkness. I think that’s a reasonable way of portraying it. Obviously, it’s a way that’s sort of rife with symbolism.
My experience of people—especially when you get to know them seriously, or when they’re dealing with serious issues—is that there is, quite clearly, a part of them that’s striving to do well in the world, or even to do good, and another part that’s deeply cynical and embittered, that says ‘to hell with it,’ is self-destructive, lashes out, and really aims at making things worse. So that seems to be a natural part of the human psyche. That’s also reflected in the idea of the Fall. Those ideas are not easily cast away. They’re associated with the rise of self-consciousness, in the story of the Garden of Eden. I think that’s right, because I do think that our self-consciousness produces that division within us. More than any other creature, we’re intensely aware of our finitude and suffering. That seems to turn us, to some degree, against Being itself.
I was watching a bunch of protestors in the U.S., last week, scream at the sky about Trump. It was interesting. I thought it was an extraordinarily narcissistic display. But, despite that, there’s something symbolically appropriate about it. A movie I really like—sadly enough—called FUBAR…I don’t know how many of you have seen that. Hah. Yeah, you know that movie, I take it. It’s about the people I grew up with. That’s true, man. I’m telling you, that’s true. The main actor in FUBAR, who’s quite bright but completely uncivilized, gets testicular cancer. There’s one great scene where he gets far too drunk, and he’s stumbling around the street in a virtually comatose state. Of course, he’s not very thrilled with what’s happened to him. He’s shaking his fist at the sky, and it’s pouring rain, and he’s cursing God. You can kind of understand his position. That kind of reminded me of these people who were yelling at the sky. They were dramatizing the idea of being enraged at—well, you can say ‘God.’ Of course, most of them wouldn’t say that. But they were the ones yelling at the damn sky. I mean, you gotta look at what they’re doing, rather than what they say. They were outraged that Being was constructed such that Trump could have arisen as President.
Well, this idea that we can be easily turned against Being and work for its destruction is a really common theme. It never goes away. You see it echoed in stories—like with the new Marvel series, for example, you see the enmity between Thor and Loki. That’s a good example of the same thing—or between Batman and the Joker, or between Superman and Lex Luthor. There’s these pairs of hero against villain that’s a really dramatic and easily—everyone can understand that dynamic, right? It’s a basic plot. The reason it’s a basic plot is because it’s true of the battle within our own individual spirits. It’s true within families, because sibling rivalry can be unbelievably brutal. It’s true between human beings who are strangers. It’s true between groups of people. It’s true at every level of analysis. And then, in some sense, it’s archetypally true, at least with regards to deep religious symbolism, because you see that echoed in many stories, as well. I think the clearest representation is probably Christ and Satan. That’s the closest to a pure archetype—although, in the old Egyptian stories, there’s Osiris and Seth, or Horus and Seth. Seth is a precursor to Satan, etymologically. So it’s a very, very common motif.
That’s what happens, again, in Rebecca’s womb. This idea is played out right away. The twins have a superordinate destiny, because one of them is destined to become the father of Israel. Of course, that’s a pinnacle moment in the Old Testament, obviously—and, arguably, a pinnacle moment in human history. Now, the degree to which the stories in the Old Testament actually constitutes what we would consider empirical history is a matter of debate. But it doesn’t matter, in some sense, because—as I mentioned, I think, before, in this lecture series—there are forms of fiction that are meta-true, which means that they’re not necessarily about a specific individual. Although, I do generally think they are based on the lives of specific individuals. It’s the simplest theory, but who knows. But they’re more real than reality itself, because they abstract out the most relevant elements of reality and present them to you. That’s why you watch fiction.
You want your fiction boiled down, right? You want to boil it down to the essence. That’s what makes good fiction. That essence is something that’s truer than plain old truth, if it’s handled well. Half a lifetime of events can go by in a Shakespeare play, and it covers a wide range of scenes, and so on. And so it’s cut and edited and compressed all at once, but, because of that, it blasts you with the kind of emotional and ethical force that just the mere videotaping of someone’s daily life wouldn’t even come close to approximating. This motif of the hostile brothers is a deep, deep archetypal truth.
God says to Rachel, "two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger."
So there’s an inversion, there, because, as we’ve discussed, historically speaking and traditionally speaking, it’s the elder son to whom the disproportionate blessings flow. There’s some truth in that, too, even more empirically. IQ tends to decrease as the number of children in the family increases. The oldest is the smartest, generally speaking. It isn’t clear why that is, but it might be that they get more attention. Who knows. So those of you who are younger can be very unhappy about that fact.
Ok, so there’s another plot line, too. Isaac and Rebecca are at odds about the children. There’s an Oedipal twist to it, too. Isaac is allied with Esau, who turns out to be the hunter type. So he’s your basic rough-and-tumble character. He’s kind of a wild-looking guy; he’s hairy; he likes to live outside; he likes to hunt; he’s a man’s man. That’s one way of thinking about it. Whereas Jacob dwells in tents. He doesn’t go outside much. Maybe he’s more introverted, but he’s certainly the sort of adolescent who hangs around home. There’s some intimation—well, he’s clearly his mother’s favourite, with all the advantages—and, I suppose, the disadvantages—that go along with that. Isaac and Rebecca don’t see eye to eye about who should have predominance among the sons. Rebecca is quite complicit with Jacob in inverting the social order.
The first thing that happens that’s crooked is that Esau comes in from hunting, and maybe he’s been out for a number of days, and he’s ravenous. He’s kind of an impulsive guy. He doesn’t really seem to think about the long-term very much. Jacob was cooking some lentil stew, and Esau wants some of it. Jacob refuses, and says that he’ll trade his stew for Esau’s birthright. Esau agrees, which is a bad deal, right? It’s a bad deal. You could say that Esau actually deserves what’s coming to him, although, at minimum, you’d have to think of them both as equally culpable. It’s a nasty trick. So that’s Jacob’s first trick.
The second trick comes later. Isaac is old, blind, and close to death. It’s time for him to bestow a blessing on his sons, which is a very important event, apparently, among these ancient people. Esau, again, is out hunting. Rebecca puts a goatskin on Jacob’s arms, so he’s kind of hairy like Esau, and dresses him in Esau’s clothes, so he smells like Esau. Isaac tells Esau to go out and hunt him up some venison, which is a favourite of his. Rebecca has Jacob cook up a couple of goat kids, and serve that to Isaac, and to play the role of Esau. And so he does that.
It’s pretty damn nasty, really, all things considered, to play a trick like that, both on your brother and on your blind father, and in collusion with your mother. It’s not the sort of thing that’s really designed to promote a lot of familial harmony—especially because he already screwed over Esau in a big way. You’d think that would be sufficient.
So, anyways, he’s successful. Esau loses his father’s blessing. Jacob ends up, really, in the position of the firstborn. It’s quite interesting because God tells Rebecca that Jacob is going to be the dominant twin. You’d think, again, with God’s blessing—or at least the prophecy—that Jacob would end up being a good guy, but he’s certainly not presented that way, to begin with, which is also quite interesting, given that he’s the eventual founder of Israel. It’s another indication of the realism of these old stories. It’s always been quite amazing, to me, how unprettified these stories have remained. You’d think that, even if you’re even the least bit cynical, especially if you had the kind of Marxist, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ viewpoint—which is a credible viewpoint, although it’s wrong. I think it’s a shallow interpretation. Part of the reason I think it’s a shallow interpretation is because the stories would be a lot prettier, if that was the case. The characters wouldn’t have this strange, realistic moral ambiguity about them. If you’re going to feed people a fantasy, then you want it to be like a Harlequin novel, or a greeting card, or something like that. You don’t want it to be a story that’s full of betrayal and deceit and murder and mayhem and genocide, and all of that. That just doesn’t seem all that calming.
So, anyways, Jacob gets away with this, but Esau is not happy. Jacob is quite convinced that Esau might kill him. I think that was a reasonable fear, because Esau was a tough guy, and he was used to being outside, and he knew how to hunt, and he knew how to kill, and he actually wasn’t very happy about getting seriously screwed over by his stay-at-home younger brother, twice. And so Jacob runs off, and goes to visit his uncle. On the way—and this is a very interesting part of the story—he stops to sleep, and he takes a stone for a pillow, and then he has this vision. It’s called a dream, but the context makes it look like a vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels moving up and down the ladder, let’s say. There’s some representations of that. I showed you some of them the last time we met. But I’ll read it to you, first.
"And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south…"
So that lays out the canonical directions, right? Now there’s a center, with the canonical directions, like the little symbol that you see on maps. It’s the same thing, symbolically placed upon the earth. A center has been established, with directional lines radiating from it. That establishes it as a place.
"…and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." That’s pretty good news, for Jacob. It’s not self-evident why God is rewarding him for running away after screwing over his brother. But that seems to be what happens.
Here’s a couple of classic representations. The one on the right is William Blake. It’s one I particularly like. Blake assimilates God with the sun, and with light. That’s quite a common mythological idea, that God is associated with light, and with the day.
"And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid"—which is exactly the right response—"and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it." That’s a more important thing than you’d think, and we’ll go into that a little more deeply.
Up until this point in the story, there isn’t anything that’s really emerged to mark a sacred space, right? There’s no cathedral; there’s no church. There’s nothing like that. But here’s this idea that emerges: you can mark the center of something, and that’s important, and you mark it with a stone. A stone is a good way to mark things that are important, because a stone is permanent. We mark things with stones, now—we mark graves with stones, for example—because we want to make a memory. To carve a stone, and to carve something into stone, is to make a memory. To use stone is to make a memory, because stone is permanent. To set it upright is to indicate a center. That’s what happens, and he pours oil on the top of it, which is a kind of offering.
"And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, then a tenth of what I earn I will give him."
That’s interesting, too, because now there’s a transformation of sacrifice. Until that point, sacrifices had been pretty concretized: it was the burning of something. Here, all of a sudden, it’s the offering of productive labour per se, like a tithe. A tithe is a form of sacrifice, and so there’s an abstraction of the idea of sacrifice. It’s really important that the idea of sacrifice gets abstracted, right? Because it should be abstracted to the point where it’s used the way that we use it today, which is that we make sacrifices to get ahead, and everyone understands what that means. But the sacrifices are, generally, some combination of psychological and practical.
We’re not acting sacrifices out, precisely: we’re not dramatizing or ritualizing them. We actually act them out in the covenant that we make with the future. Unless we’re incredibly impulsive and aimless in our lives, and have no conception whatsoever of the future, and are likely to sacrifice the future for the present—which is what Esau does—then we make sacrifices. You gotta think that the idea of making sacrifices, to make the future better, is an extraordinarily difficult lesson to learn. It took people God only knows how long to learn that. We have no idea. It’s not something that animals do easily. Chimpanzees don’t store leftover meat, and neither do wolves. A wolf can eat about 30 pounds of meat in one sitting. That’s where the idea of ‘wolfing it down’ comes from. You’re not saving it for later. They can’t do that. They can’t sacrifice the present for the future. This is a big deal, that this happens.
Now I want to tell you a little bit about the idea of the pillar. It’s an unbelievably deep idea. It still orients us in ways that we don’t understand. In fact, it’s actually the mechanism by which we’re oriented—and, if it’s lacking, then we become disoriented. First, I’ll show you some pictures, and I’ll describe them.
Ok, so there’s a walled city. You can think of that as an archetypal human habitation. Maybe it’s a reflection of something like a fire in the middle of the plain, forest, or jungle—although, it’s kind of hard to get a fire going, there. Imagine a fire ringed around with logs and, perhaps, ringed around with dwellings, so the fire’s in the center. The fire defines the center, and then, as you move away from the fire, you move out into the darkness. The fire is light, communion, and safety. As you move away from the fire, you move out, into the darkness, and into what’s terrifying, out beyond the perimeters.
You can feel that if you go camping somewhere that’s wild. You’re pretty damn happy, especially if the wolves are howling, to be sitting by the fire, because you can see, there. The fire keeps the animals away, and, if you do wander into the bush and the darkness, you’re on alert. Your predator detection systems are on alert. And so you could think about the classical human habitation as two places: one where your predator detection system isn’t on alert, and another where your predator detection is on alert. You could think about that, roughly, as the distinction between explored territory and unexplored territory. Really, the founding of a place is precisely—a lot of this I got from reading Mircea Eliade—the definition of an explored center, set against the unexplored periphery.
You can kind of think about that with regards to the walled city: everything within the wall is cosmos, and everything outside the wall is chaos. But it also extends to the conceptual realm. Imagine that you’re the master of a field of study. That’s an interesting metaphor, because a ‘field’ is a geographical metaphor, right? In the center of the field are those things that everyone knows really well—the axioms that everyone abides by, in the field. And then, as you move towards the fringes, you get towards the unknown—towards the frontier of the discipline. As you become expert, you move from the center to the frontier. When you’re a competent scholar, you’re on the border between the explored and the unexplored. You’re trying to further that border. So, even if you’re doing this abstractly, it’s the same thing. It’s a reflection of the fact that every human environment—concrete or abstract, it makes no difference—recapitulates the order-chaos dichotomy. That’s why Daoism, for example, is the union of chaos and order that constitutes Being itself, and that you stand on the border between chaos and order, because that’s the proper place to be. Too orderly, too much in the explored, and you’re not learning anything. Too much out there, where the predators lurk, then you’re frozen with terror. Neither of those positions are desirable.
So you think—and this is a concrete reality, obviously, as well as a psychological reality—there were reasons for those walls. Inside the walls were all the people like us. That begs the question, what does it mean for people to be ‘like us?’ And then, outside the wall, there was all those people—because people are actually the worst forms of predators—who aren’t like us. The wall is there to draw distinction between ‘like us’ and ‘not like us.’ That was a matter of life and death. You can tell that because—I mean, look at those walls. They had to build those by hand. And you do see walled cities that have three rings of walls. So these people were terrified, but not so terrified as the people who built three walls. They were really terrified, and they had their reasons.
There’s an idea that’s reflected in the Jacob’s Ladder story: the center, where you put the pillar, is also the place where heaven and earth touch. That’s a complicated idea. I’m trying to look at these stories from a psychological perspective. So then you could say that that’s a symbolic place where the lowest and the highest come together. It’s a place where earthly Being stretches up to the highest possible ethical abstraction, and that’s the center. One of the things that defines ‘us,’ say, as opposed to ‘them,’ is that we’re all united within a certain ethic. That’s what makes us the same. This is a complicated line of reasoning. I’ll go back to it after I show you some more pictures. But the first idea is that the center is the place where the lowest and the highest touch simultaneously. You could say that, in some sense, it specifies the aim of a group of people.
If you get together with people to make a group, you group yourself around a project, and that unites you. It unites you because you all have the same aim; you’re all pointing to the same thing. That makes you the same, in some ways. If you’re after the same thing that I am, then the same things are going to be important to you that are important to me. And the same things are going to be negative to you that are negative to me, because our emotions work out that way. That means I can instantly predict you; I know how you’re going to behave. And so our aim is basically ethical, because we’re aiming at something better, at least in principle. It’s our ethical aim that unites our perceptions, and that’s what aligns our emotions. That begs the question, if you’re going to build a community, around what aim should the community congregate?
Ok, so the idea, here, is that the center of the community is the pillar that unites heaven and earth—it unites the lowest with the highest. There’s some intimation of the idea that it’s the highest that unites the community. Keep that in mind. That’s a very old idea, as well. That’s the idea of the axis mundi, which is the center pole that unites heaven and earth. It’s an unbelievably old idea—tens of thousands of years old. It might even stretch back to whatever our archaic, archetypal memories of our excessively old ancestry in trees—when the tree itself was, in fact, the center of the world, and it was ringed by snakes and chaos. We have no idea how old these ideas are, but they’re very, very old.
Evolution is a conservative business. Once it builds a gadget, then it builds new things on top of that gadget. It’s like a medieval town: the center of the town is really old, and newer areas of the town get built around it, but the center is still really old. That’s what we’re like. Our platform, our basic physiological structure, this skeleton body, is some tens of millions of years old—or older than that. If you think about vertebrates, it’s much older than that. That’s all conserved. So everything’s built on top of everything else.
There’s kind of a classic town. This is the same idea as the Scandinavian world tree. It unites heaven and earth, and around the roots of that tree are snakes that eat this tree, constantly. So that’s the idea that there’s stability, but there’s constant transformation around that stability. And, at the same time as the snakes are gnawing on the roots, there are streams that are nourishing it. It’s sort of an echo of the idea that life depends on death and renewal, constantly. Your cells are dying and being renewed, constantly. If they’re just proliferating, then you have cancer. If they’re just dying, then you die. You have to get the balance between death and life exactly right, so that you can actually live—which is also a very strange thing. That tree is something that reaches from the bottom layers of Being—maybe the microcosm—all the way to the macrocosm. That’s the idea, anyways.
There’s Jacob and his pillar. He’s got this idea that you can mark the center with this stone. It sort of symbolizes what he was laying on when he dreamt. But now he’s got this idea—you put something erect, and it marks the center. It symbolizes his vision of the highest Good—something like that—and the promise that’s been made to him.
This image on the right is an Egyptian obelisk, with a pyramid on top of it. That’s in Paris. It was taken from Luxor and put in Paris. That’s a much more sophisticated instance of the same idea. There was a stone age culture across Eurasia that put up these huge obelisks, everywhere. Stonehenge is a very good example of that, although it’s very sophisticated. They were also markers of places. We don’t know exactly what their function is, but they’re very much akin to this—some permanent marker of place.
There’s a good one. That’s in Saint Peter’s. I really like this one because you can see the echoes of Jacob’s vision for the establishment of a territory, there. You’ve got the obelisk in the middle, and then you’ve got the directions radiating from the center. Of course, this is Saint Peter’s Basilica, in Rome, which is an absolutely unbelievable place. It’s just jaw-dropping. So there’s the cathedral at the back of it, and then there’s this circle of pillars that surrounds it. You can just see them a little bit, on the middle-left, there. That goes all the way around that entire enclosure. A very large number of people can gather there. So that pillar marks the center, and that would be the center of Catholicism, essentially. That’s what that represents: the symbolic center of Catholicism. Although, you could make the case that the cathedral is the center. It doesn’t really matter; they’re very close together. It’s half a dozen of one and six of the other.
Here’s another representation of the same idea, right? This is why people don’t like the flag to be burned. Conservative people see the flag as the sacred thing that binds people together. They’re not happy when that sacred thing is destroyed, even if it’s destroyed in the name of protest. Whereas the people who burn flags think, well, there’s times to dramatize the idea that the center has been corrupt, and you can demonstrate that by putting it to the torch, as a representation that the corrupt center now has to be burned and transformed.
The thing is, they’re both right. They’re both right, all the time. The center is absolutely necessary, and is sacred, and is almost always also corrupt and in need of reparation. That’s also an archetypal idea. That’s a useful thing to know, because it’s easy for young people, in particular, to think that, ‘well, the world’s gone to hell in a hand basket. It’s the fault of the last generation. They’ve left us this terrible mess. We’re feeling pretty betrayed about that, and now we have to clean it up.’
Yeah, yeah—people have been thinking that for like 35,000 years. It’s not new. The reason it’s not new is because it’s always true. What you’re handed is a sacred center with flaws—always. That’s partly because it’s the creation of the dead, and the dead can’t see, and they can’t communicate. They’re not in touch with the present. What they’ve bequeathed to you—apart from the fact that it might actually be corrupt, which is a slightly different thing—is at least blind and dead. So what the hell can you expect from something that’s blind and dead? You’re lucky it doesn’t just stomp you out of existence.
That’s a lovely photograph, obviously. That’s the establishment of a new center. The center can be a cathedral, too, and often is. Of course, in classic towns, and in European towns, in particular—although, it’s not only European towns that are like this—there’s a center that’s made out of stone, so that would be the cathedral, and it’s got the highest tower. On top of the tower, there’s often a cross, and that’s the symbolic center. People are drawn together around whatever the cross represents. The cross obviously represents a center, because it’s an X, right? X marks the spot. So the center of the cross is the center, and then the cathedral’s often in a cross shape, which also marks the center. In a cathedral, there’s often a dome, and that’s the sky, and that’s a ladder that reaches from earth to heaven. So it’s a recapitulation of the same idea.
People are drawn to that center, and the center is the symbol of what unites them. What unites them is the faith that the cathedral is the embodiment of. You’d think, ‘well, what does the faith mean?’ Again, we’re approaching this psychologically. What it means is that everyone who’s a member of that group accepts the transcended ideal of the group. Now, the thing is, if you’re the member of a group, you accept the transcendent ideal of the group. That’s what it means to be a member of a group. So if you’re in a work team, and you’re all working on a project, what you’ve essentially done is decided that you’re going to make the goal unquestionable. I mean, you might argue about the details, but if you’re tasked with something—‘here’s a job for you ten people. Organize yourself around the job’—you can argue about how you’re going to do the job, but you can’t argue about the job, because then the group falls apart.
There’s an active faith, in some sense. The reason that the active faith is necessary is because it’s very, very difficult to specify, without error, what that central aim should be, given that there’s any number of aims. It’s a very, very difficult thing to figure out. This is something we’re going to do a little bit, tonight. What should the aim be around which a group would congregate? Especially if it’s a large group, and it’s a large group that has to stay together across very large swaths of time, and the group is incredibly diverse. What possible kind of ideal could unite a large group of diverse people across a very large stretch of time? That’s a really, really, hard question. I think part of the way that question has been answered is symbolically, and in images, because it’s so damn complicated that it’s almost impossible to articulate.
But, obviously, you need to have a center around which everyone can unite. If you don’t, then everyone’s at odds with one another: if I don’t know what you’re up to, and you don’t know what he’s up to, we’re just strangers, and we don’t know that our ethics match, at all. The probability that we’re going to be able to exist harmoniously decreases, rapidly, to zero. That’s obviously just no good. That’s a state of total chaos. So we can’t have that. It’s not possible to exist without a central idea. It’s not possible.
It’s deeper than that, partly because it’s…I’ll try to get this right. This is the sort of thing that I was arguing with Sam Harris about. Your category system is a product if your aims. That’s the thing. If you have a set of facts at hand, the facts don’t tell you how to categorize the facts, because there’s too damn many facts. There’s a trillion facts, and there’s no way, without imposing some a priori order on them, of determining how it is that you should order them. So how do you order them? Well, that’s easy: you decide what you’re aiming at. Now, how do you do that? Well, I’m not answering that question, at the moment. I’m just saying that, in order to organize those facts, you need an aim. Then the aim instantly organizes the facts into those things relevant to the aim—tools, let’s say—those things that get in the way, and a very large number of things that you don’t have to pay attention to, at all.
If you’re working on an engineering problem, you don’t have to worry about practicing medicine in your neighbourhood. Focusing on any job, any set of skills, implies that you’re good at a small set of things, and then not good at an incredibly large number of other skills. It simplifies things. So you can use your aim as a basis of a category structure. You also have to keep that in mind, because what it means is that your category system itself—which is what structures your perceptions—is actually dependent on the ethics of your aim. It’s a moral thing. It’s directly dependent on your aim. That’s a stunning idea, if it happens to be true.
That’s not how people think about thinking. We don’t think that way. We think that we think deterministically, let’s say, or that we think empirically, or that we think rationally. None of that appears to be the case. What we do is posit a valid aim, and then we organize the world around the aim. There’s plenty of evidence for that in psychological studies of perception. Mostly they ignore, because the world’s too complicated. They focus on a small set of phenomena, deemed relevant to whatever the aim is. Of course, the aim is problematic. Again, it’s complex, because the aim I have has to be an aim that some of you share or at least don’t object to. Otherwise, I’m not going to get anywhere with my damn aim. It has to actually be implementable in the world. It has to be sustainable across some amount of time. It can’t kill me. It’s really hedged in, this aim. It isn’t any old thing. There’s hardly any things that it can be.
Jacob’s aim, for example, in undermining Esau, almost gets him killed. You can understand why—that’s the other thing. That was a nasty bit of work; you can understand Esau’s rage. Even though we’re separated from the people in these stories by something like 4,000 years, you know immediately why everyone feels the way they do, at least once you understand the context of the story. None of that’s mysterious, in the least.
So there’s the church, and the church is underneath the cross. That’s Saint Peter’s Basilica. There’s the cross on the globe, on top of the basilica, and then there’s the cross on the obelisk, as well. And so what that means is that—and this is where things get insanely complicated—the center is defined by whatever the cross represents. Now, the cross represents a crossing point, geographically. It’s certainly that. The cross probably represents the body, to some degree. But the cross also represents the place of suffering—and, more importantly, it represents the place of voluntary suffering transcended. I’m speaking psychologically, not theologically. That’s what it represents.
Here’s the idea behind putting down the obelisk with the cross and saying that’s the center. That’s the thing that everyone’s aiming at, and so the idea would be, well, if you’re going to be a member of the group, defined by this obelisk, then what you do is accept your position at the center of suffering, voluntarily, and therefore transcend it. That’s the idea. That is one hell of an idea. It really is, man. That is a killer idea. It’s actually a really clear signal of psychological health.
If you’re a clinical psychologist and someone is paralyzed by fear, one of the things you do is break their fears down into relatively manageable bits, and then you have them voluntarily confront their fears. It might also be things that they’re disgusted by, say, if they have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. But it produces very strong negative emotion, whatever it is. Then you have them voluntarily confront whatever it is that produces that overwhelming negative emotion. That makes them stronger. That’s what happens. It doesn’t make them less afraid. It makes them more courageous and stronger. That’s not the same thing. It doesn’t decrease the fear; it increases the courage. That’s a mind boggling idea.
One of the things that’s really interesting about these archetypal ideas is that—and maybe it’s partly because of the hyperlinked nature of the Bible, but it’s not the whole thing—no matter how deep you dig into them, you’ll never get to the bottom. You hit a bottom, and you think, ‘God, that’s so unbelievably profound.’ And then, if you excavate a little underneath that, you find something else that’s even more profound. And then you think, ‘wow, that’s gotta be the bottom.’ And then you dig under that, and there’s no bottom. You can just keep digging down. As far as I can tell, you can keep digging down, layer after layer. We’ll talk a little more about what the cross signifies, as the center.
People were trying to figure out what they need to unite under. What’s the proper thing to unite under? I can give you another example. In the Mesopotamian societies, the emperor, who was more or less an absolute monarch, lived inside what was essentially a walled city. The God of the Mesopotamians was Marduk, and Marduk was the figure who had eyes all the way around his head, and he spoke magic words. He was very attentive and very articulate. It was Marduk who went out and confronted the Goddess of chaos—the dragon of chaos—cut her into pieces, and made up the world.
You can kind of understand what that means. Marduk goes beyond the frontier, into the place of predatory chaos, and encounters the thing that’s terrifying, and then makes something productive out of it. So it’s a hero myth. Marduk is elected to the position of preeminent God by all the other Mesopotamian gods because he manages that. So the Marduk idea emerges up the holy dominance hierarchy, and hits the pinnacle. God only knows how long that took. It would be the amalgamation of many tribes, and then the distillation of all the tribal myths, to produce this emergent story of what constitutes top God. And then the job of the emperor was to act out Marduk. That’s what gave him sovereignty.
The reason that he was the center around which people organized themselves—when he was being a proper emperor—wasn’t because there was something super special about him. The power didn’t exactly reside in him, which is a really useful thing to separate. It’s kind of nice to have a symbolic monarch. You get the symbolic power separated from the personality power. Otherwise, they get conflated. That’s what happened in Rome, and you can see it tending to happen now and then in the U.S., like with the Kennedy dynasties, and that sort of thing.
The idea was that the emperor had sovereignty as long as he was acting out the idea of Marduk properly—going out into the chaos, cutting it into pieces, and making order. That was his job. They used to take him outside the city, on the New Year’s festival, and strip him of all his emperor garments, and humiliate him, and then force him to confess all the ways that year that he hadn’t been a good Marduk—a good ruler. That was supposed to clue him in, and wake him up. Then they would ritually reenact the battle of Marduk against Tiamat, the chaos monster, using statues. If that all went well, then the emperor would go back in, and the city would be renewed for another year.
We still have echoes of that in our New Year’s celebration. It’s the same idea that’s echoed down all those thousands of years. It’s a staggeringly brilliant idea. Part of the idea is that the thing that’s sovereign—so that’s the pillar at the center, that everyone gathers around—is, at least in part, the thing that courageously goes out into the unknown and makes something useful out of it, for the community. That’s very, very smart.