Biblical Series XV: Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors by Dr. Jordan Peterson
That’s a hell of a welcome for someone who’s going to talk about the Bible. I thought I would get farther than through Genesis, by this point, but I’m not unhappy about the pace, either. I’ve learned a tremendous amount. So, hopefully, what we’ll do today is finish Genesis completely. And then I think I’ll try to start up with Exodus in May, depending on what happens next year. I have a busy travel schedule, but I would really like to do it. I really like the Exodus story, and I understand it very well. I had to do a tremendous amount of learning about a lot of the stories in Genesis, especially after the first few stories—say, up to the Tower of Babel—which is really good. But I do know the Exodus story, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Let’s dive right into it, and see how far we can get, today. We’ll review, first. Joseph’s father is Jacob. Jacob is the patriarch of Israel, essentially: the father of the 12 tribes. You might remember that he had a very morally ambivalent pathway through life. It’s one of the things that I think is so interesting about the stories in the Old Testament: these so-called patriarchal figures are very realistic. I’ve also been struck by the accounts in the New Testament, that way. There’s lots of things that Christ does that you’d think would have been edited out, over time, and sanitized, but they’re not. The Old Testament is definitely not a book that’s been sanitized.
It’s quite interesting that that’s the case. I’ve also been trying to derive some general conclusions about the moral of the Genesis stories. These stories are fundamentally moral; and ‘moral,’ as far as I’m concerned, has to do with action. Moral decisions are the decisions that you make when you’re structuring action. When you decide to do one thing or another, generally, you want to do things that are the best things that you can think of to do—hence ‘good.’ But, sometimes, you also want to do things that are the worst things that you can do, because you’re angry, resentful, or bitter.
The moral decisions that you make, that govern your actions, are, really, the most important decisions that you make in your life. It’s not that easy to figure out how to make moral decisions. We don’t have an unerring technology for that—the same way as we do for, say, making decisions about empirical reality, which, in some ways, seems a lot simpler. That’s partly because we can work collectively at it, and partly because we have a rigorous methodology for deciding what’s true and what’s not true.
One of the things that’s really struck me is an overarching theme that, I would say, emerges out of Genesis—especially after the really ancient stories: the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel, when you get to the accounts of the historically real people. One injunction seems to be, ‘get the hell out there, and do something.’ One of the major themes, for all of the patriarchs that we’ve talked about—Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph—is, ‘move out into the world, regardless of the circumstances at hand.’ In the Old Testament stories, that’s basically portrayed as hearkening to the voice of God. Something like that. Maybe you could think about that as destiny or a psychological calling.
The funny thing, too, is that it’s not that these people have an easy time of it, when they heed that call. What’s fascinating is that they often run into extreme difficulties right away. I think that’s very interesting; first of all because life is, obviously, full of extreme difficulties; and second, it’s another example of the failure to sugarcoat things. That’s one of the things that, I think, makes a mockery of anti-religious theories that are, even, quite sophisticated, like Freud’s. Freud thought of religion as a wish fulfillment, essentially. Marx thought about religion as the opiate of the masses. If those were true, it seems to me that there’d be a lot more ‘wish,’ and a lot less stark, harsh reality.
The first thing that Abraham encounters is a famine, and then he has to hide his wife, and then he basically journeys into a tyranny. So that’s about as bad as it gets, in some ways. Those themes recur, continually, and no one ever lives where they’re supposed to live: they live in Canaan, and not the promised land. It’s a pretty rough series of stories. But the fundamental idea is something like, ‘there’s no time for sitting around; there’s time to go out into the world and engage.’ There’s hints about the proper and improper ways of engaging. The improper way to engage is, I think, most clearly delineated in the Cain and Abel story, with Cain exemplifying the inappropriate way to engage with the world: that’s to engage with the world in a bitter, jealous, and resentful manner.
That theme recurs, continually, with the duality of the brothers, right? There’s constant conflict between a perspective that’s, essentially, like Cain’s, and the opposite perspective, which I’ll get to in a minute. But Cain sees that the world is a very tragic place, and that the rewards are distributed unfairly, and that there are people who do better and people who do worse. As a consequence of that, he becomes bitter and resentful. He curses God, and then he becomes homicidal—fratricidal, which is even worse—and then he destroys his own ideal, and then his descendants basically become genocidal, or something like that.
That seems to be the wrong way to go about things, unless your goal is to make things worse. It’s not like Cain has nothing to object to. He’s got plenty to object to. His situation actually is bad. He’s overshadowed terribly by his brother, who everyone loves, who does extraordinarily well, and who’s good at everything. The story’s a bit ambivalent about the reasons for Cain’s failure—although, a fair bit of it is laid at his own feet. But he’s definitely failing; so you can understand why he would have this terrible attitude. The problem is that all it does is make his situation worse.
One of the things I’ve also learned as a psychologist—sort of pondering these things—is that it’s often a lot easier to identify what you shouldn’t do, than what you should do. I think evil is easier to identify than Good. I think Good is trickier. But evil stands out, to some degree. For practical reasons—so that your life doesn’t become hell, and your family life doesn’t become hell—at least, you could get as far away from evil as possible, even if you weren’t able to conjure up what would constitute the Good, as an aim. You could, at least, avoid those sorts of pitfalls.
I do also think that pitfalls like that really threaten our society right now. I see tremendous rise in resentment—fuelling almost all of the political polarization that’s taking place. It seems unfortunate, given that, by and large, everyone on the planet is richer than they’ve ever been. Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no disparity, but there’s always disparity.
Anyways, Jacob and Rebecca deceive Esau. Jacob ends up with Isaac’s blessing. That’s a moral catastrophe. Then he has to run, because his brother wants to kill him. That’s the fratricidal motif, again. I like that, too. I think that’s really realistic.
One of the things that Freud noted, constantly—and this is where Freud really is a genius—is that the most intense hatreds—and, also, sometimes, the most intense love—is within families. In the Freudian world of psychopathology, it’s all inside the family. In fact, the pathology in the Freudian world is the fact that it’s all inside the family. The people who get tangled up in the familial Freudian nightmare—which is roughly Oedipal in structure—can only conceptualize the world in terms of their familial relationships. They’ve been so damaged by the enmeshment, trauma, deceit, betrayal, blurred lines, and all of that, that they just can’t expand past the family, and go out in the world. The idea that brothers can be at each other’s throats is, I think, a very powerful idea. It’s not something that people like to think about.
Jacob has to leave, and it’s not surprising. What he did was pretty reprehensible: he betrayed his brother. But, nonetheless, he’s the person who dreams of the ladder that unites heaven and earth. That’s a very perverse thing, you know? But one of the things I think it does is give, in some sense, hope to everyone. If only the good guys win, we’re really in trouble, right? It’s not that easy to be a good guy. It’s really not that easy. Most people are pretty keenly aware of all the ways that they fall short, even of their own ideals. And so, if there was no hope except for the good guys, almost all of us would be lost.
That’s one of the things I really like—and was more surprised about—with the Old Testament stories: these people have very complex lives. They make very major moral errors, by anyone’s standards; and yet, the overall message is still hopeful. The message that runs contrary to the message of evil, say, is something like—well, there’s a lot of emphasis on faith. That’s a tough one. People who are cynical about religious structures like to think of faith as the willingness to demolish your intellect in service of superstition. There’s something to be said for that perspective, but not a lot. The reality is much more sophisticated.
Part of the faith that is being insisted upon, in the Old Testament, is something like—and I’m speaking psychologically, here—‘it’s useful to posit the High Good, and to aim at it.’ I really think that’s practically useful, too. The research we’ve done with the Future Authoring Program, for example, indicates pretty clearly that, if you get people to conceptualize a balanced ideal—‘what do you want for your family? what do you want for your career? what do you want for your education? what do you want for your character development? how are you going to use your time outside of work? how are you going to structure your use of drugs and alcohol, and places where you might get impulsive? how can you avoid falling into a horrible pit?’—if you really think that through, and you come up with an integrated ideal, and you put it above you as something to reach for, then you’re more committed to the world in a positive way, and you’re less tormented by anxiety and uncertainty.
That makes sense, right? Here you are: alive, and everything. If you’re not capable of manifesting some positive relationship with the fact of your Being, then how could that be anything other than hellish? It would just be anxiety-provoking and terrible, because you’re vulnerable, and there’d be nothing useful or worthwhile to do. Well, I just can’t see that as a winning strategy, for anyone.
You can make a rational case for adopting that strategy, in that you can say, ‘well, there’s no evidence for a transcendent morality, or for an ultimate meaning. There’s no hard empirical evidence.’ But it seems, to me, that there’s existential evidence, as well, that has to be taken into account. Of course, psychologists have talked about this, a lot: Carl Rogers, Jung, and Freud, for example. Most of the great psychologists have pointed out that you can derive reasonable information, that’s solid, from your own experience—especially if you also talk to other people. You can kind of see, in your own life, when you’re on a productive path, that it sort of ennobles and enlightens you, or a destructive path. I think it’s kind of useful to think that, maybe, the dichotomy between those two paths might be real. That also allows you to give credence to your intuitions about that sort of thing.
Anyways, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to posit that, since your alive, adopting the highest possible regard for the fact that you’re alive, and that you’re surrounded by other creatures that are alive—I just can’t see how that can possibly be construed as a losing strategy. And so that’s something like faith. It’s not only faith in your Being, but it’s faith in Being as such. The faith would be something like—if you could orient your Being properly, then maybe that would orient you with Being as such. You never know. I mean, it might be true. There’s no reason to assume that it wouldn’t be true. Even if you take just a strict biological perspective on this, and think of us as a product of 3.5 billion years of evolution…I mean, we have struggled over all those billions of years to be alive, and to match ourselves with reality.
Life is definitely difficult. There’s no doubt about that. It’s unfair, and there’s inequality, and all of those things. People are subject to all sorts of terrible things. But I also wonder, if you weren’t actively striving to make things worse, just how much better could they be? People are like houses that are divided amongst themselves: they’re pointing in six different directions at the same time. They’re working at cross-purposes to themselves, because of bitterness, resentment, unprocessed memories, childhood hatreds, unexamined assumptions—all sorts of things.
The other thing, of course, that’s stressed very heavily in the Old Testament—and, of course, that goes through the entire Biblical corpus—is that it’s not only enough to establish a positive relationship with Being—which, I think, is a good description of faith…You have to make that decision, because Being is very ambivalent. You can make the case that, maybe, it’s something that should have never happened. But that doesn’t seem to be productive, to me. Faith seems to be, ‘I’m going to act as if Being is ultimately justifiable, and that, if I partake in it properly, I will improve it, rather than making it worse.’ I think that’s the statement of faith. What seems to go along with that is something like truth in conception and action. Even people like Jacob, who are pretty damn morally ambivalent, to begin with, get hammered, a lot, by what they go through. What seems to happen is that they’re hammered into some sort of ethical shape. So by the midpoint of their life’s journey, they’re people who are solidly planted, who you can trust, and who don’t betray Being, themselves, or their fellow man.
It seems reasonable, to me, to first assume that you have to establish a relationship with something that’s transcendent. It might even be just the future version of you. Second, that you have to align yourself with reality in a truthful manner. That’s your best bet. The Biblical stories are actually quite realistic about that, too, because they don’t really say that, if you do that, you’re going to be instantly transported to the promised land. Even Moses—as we’ll find out in the Exodus stories—never makes it to the promised land. And so it’s not like you’re offered instantaneous final redemption, if you move out forthrightly into the world, establish a faithful relationship with Being, and attempt to conduct yourself with integrity. But it’s your best bet. It might be good enough—and, even if it’s not good enough, it’s really preferable to the alternative, which seems to be something closely akin to personal and social hell.
Joseph's father is Jacob—later, ‘Israel,’ ‘he who wrestles with God.’ We’ve talked about that, a little bit. It’s sort of implicit in what I’ve been saying—I think we all do that, to some degree. We wrestle with reality itself. That’s for sure—and not only the reality we understand, but the reality we don’t understand, which is sort of a transcendent reality—and then, maybe, whatever reality is outside of that. The classic Judeo-Christian conception of God is that there’s time and space. Of course, there’s lots of things about what exists in time and space that we’re completely ignorant of—and is transcendent, in that sense. Then there’s an idea that there’s a realm outside of that. It’s an interesting idea. It’s a very sophisticated idea, I think, rather than a simple idea. It’s difficult to know what to make of it. But it doesn’t really matter.
I think that—regardless of what your attitude is towards those sorts of things—intellectually, you still end up in the same position as Jacob, practically speaking. I don’t think that there’s anyone who, at some point in their life—or, perhaps, even every day—doesn’t, at some level, wrestle with God. You could just call it the nature of reality, I suppose, if you want to be, say, reductionistic about it. But I don’t think it makes any difference: it’s still something you’re stuck with. It’s not only the nature of reality itself that you have to struggle with. It’s also the nature of your moral and behavioural relationship to it: that’s how you should perceive it, how you should conduct yourself, and then whether or not the advantages of doing it properly are worth the difficulty and the disadvantages. That seems, to me, just a straight existential statement.
Jacob gets damaged by his wrestling, which is also very realistic. He also ends up as father of Joseph, who’s the favourite son—the son who’s born in his old age, to his favourite wife. That’s who we’re going to talk about, today.
So Jacob is the forefather of the 12 tribes of Israel. There’s his wives, and the offspring that resulted. Those are all the sons. There’s a daughter named Dinah, as well. Rachel is the woman Jacob really loved. The first son he had with Rachel was Joseph, and that was when he was older. That’s, in some sense, why Joseph’s his favourite.
This is the beginning of the story of Joseph: "Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours."
There’s a lot packed into those two sentences. The first is that, "now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children." That’s probably not so good. One of the things we’ve seen, in the stories that have preceded this, is that, whenever there’s marked preference on the part of parents for one child over the other—with Jacob and Esau, Jacob was Rachel’s favourite, and Esau was Isaac’s favourite. That didn’t work out so well. That put a real twist in the whole structure of the family. So there’s a warning, there. You might say, ‘well, you can’t help having a preference of one child over another.’ But I don’t know if that’s true, and it’s certainly something you should be very cautious about. It doesn’t seem to work out very well.
"Because he was the son of his old age." Fair enough. "And he made him a coat of many colours." That’s a very interesting image, that coat of many colours—that idea. I’m going to delve into that idea, because it sets the stage. It says what kind of person he is: he’s favoured, he’s younger, and he also has this particular garment that characterizes him.
One of the things I’ve really learned from women’s dreams, in particular, is that women very frequently—in my experience—dream of clothing as role. If your interpreting women’s dreams, if they put on the shoes of their grandmother, for example, then you understand very rapidly that the dream is trying to make an association between their own behaviour and something that’s characteristic of either the state of being a grandmother or the particular grandmother. It makes sense, right? Clothing protects, but it also signifies a role. It’s interesting. In the Old Testament stories, often, if someone’s going to act deceitfully, they change their outfit. That’s kind of what you do, when you act deceitfully, right? You dress up like someone else; you present yourself like someone else.
Anyways, back to the coat of many colours. For something to be many colours—it sort of spans the entire gamut of possibility. There’s a hint that, if you want to be a full-fledged person, you have to manifest a very large number of traits. I want to go into that idea, a bit. The first thing I want to talk about is some of the things that we’ve learned about what happens to you when you go to a new environment. There’s this very deep, fundamental idea in clinical psychology, which is that, if someone is anxious about something, and it’s getting in their way, you take what they’re anxious about and define it, because that already delimits it. One of the problems about being anxious about something is that you won’t speak of it. It’s like Voldemort. If you don’t speak of it, it’s way bigger than it should be. As soon as you start talking about it, you cut it down to size.
It’s for a bunch of reasons: you’re not as afraid of as many things as you think, and you’re braver than you know, and more capable. So, as soon as you’re brave enough to start talking about what you’re afraid of, you see that there’s more to you than you thought, and that there’s less to the problem than you thought. And then you can decompose it further, into smaller problems. And then you can figure out how to approach those smaller problems. It doesn’t seem to be that you get more frightened: it seems to be that you get more courageous, which is way better than being less frightened, because there’s lots of things to be frightened about. If you’re courageous, that really does the trick.
Let’s say that you’re very socially inept, and you don’t know how to introduce yourself or establish the initial parts of a relationship with anyone. So then you start putting yourself in situations where you’re required to do that. Then the question is, how is it, technically, that you transform? You can say, ‘well, you learn.’ Well, we want to be more specific about that. What does it mean that you ‘learn?’ Well, if you’re dealing with someone who’s particularly socially inept, and you’re doing psychotherapy with them, you might teach them how to shake someone’s hand properly, and say their name, and remember the other person’s name. So you just practice that with them, so they have the motoric routine down.
That form of knowledge is built right into your body. It’s like, ‘look at the person, put out your hand, shake it—not like a dead halibut, but with a reasonable grip—say your name—don’t mumble it—look at them so that they can hear you, and when they say their name, try to remember it.’ You can practice that with people, and then they develop something that’s motoric: it’s embedded right in their body. Another thing you can do, when you start a conversation, is not to sit there thinking about what you’re going to say next, because then you won’t be paying attention to the person, and you’ll make a fool out of yourself. You’ll manifest non sequiturs, right? It’s like if you’re dancing, and all you’re paying attention to is where your feet are, then you’re going to step on the other person all the time. So you want to pay attention to the other person. And then, whatever automatized social knowledge that you have will come to the forefront. It’s a good thing to know, if you’re socially anxious.
If you’re socially anxious, one of the things you should do is pay way more attention to the person you are talking to, rather than less, and you should pay as little attention as possible to yourself. So if you feel yourself falling in because you’re anxious, push your attention out, and pay attention to the person. To the degree that you’re socialized, the automatic responses will kick in.
Anyways, you go into the social world, and you learn to shake someone’s hand, and you learn how to listen to them, and ask them questions. That’s the next thing, because you can’t just ask them random questions, obviously. But if they start talking to you, and you don’t understand something about what they’re saying, or maybe something they said is interesting, and you ask them a question, they’re pretty damn happy about that, because it means that you’re actually paying attention to them. People love to be paid attention to, because it hardly ever happens. They really, really like it.
So what’s happening? Well, first of all, you’re mastering the automated motor movements, right? Where to point your eyes; where to put your hands; how to move your lips: embodied knowledge. It’s a special kind of memory. You’re practicing that, and that’s building new skills for you. By listening to the person and watching yourself interact, you’re also generating new abstract information that enables you to conceptualize the world in a different way. So if you go out and talk to 10 different people, or 50 different people, then you get to listen to what those 50 people said, and you get to watch how they express themselves. You gather a corpus of knowledge that changes the way you perceive, and that broadens you as a social agent.
Ok, so that’s two forms of knowledge. But then there’s a third one, which is really interesting. You have a lot of biological potential. It’s hard to know what potential is, but part of it is that you’re capable of generating proteins that you haven’t been generating—so you should get right on that, by the way. But the way that works, in part, is that, if you put yourself in a radically new situation, there are genetic switches that turn on—because of the demands of the new situation—that code for new proteins. So it’s as if you have latent software—that would be one way of thinking about it—that will only be turned on if you go into the situation where that’s necessary.
So then you might think, ‘well, if that’s the case, how much of you could be turned on, if you went to a whole bunch of different places?’ That’s a profound question. One of the deep answers to how you should get your life together is that you should go to a very large number of places, and turn yourself on. I want to walk through that, a little bit. There’s a very rich symbolic world that expresses that.
One of the things that these old stories are trying to express and figure out is, ‘how is it that you should act?’ which is the same as, ‘what constitutes the ideal?’ Those are the same question. The hint, here, with Joseph, is that you should wear a coat of many colours, which means that you should be able to go have a drink in the pub with the guys who are drywalling your house, and you should be able to have a sophisticated conversation with someone who’s more educated in an abstract way. Maybe you should be equally comfortable in both situations, right? One of the indications that there’s more to you is that you can be put more places and function properly. That would be a good thing to aim at.
Here’s the other issue. You know perfectly well that the fundamental tragedies of life, and your exposure to malevolence in the course of that life—so those being the worst things—cannot be altered, fundamentally. They’re conditions of existence. You’re going to be subject to your vulnerability, and you’re going to be subject to malevolence. That’s that, and you can’t hide from it, because that actually makes it worse. So you’re stuck with it. So then the question is, well, what are your options? One option is to curse the structure of Being for being malevolent and tragic—and fair enough. The other is to make yourself so damn differentiated, dynamic, and able that you’re more than a match for that. Now, that’s not an easy thing, but it doesn’t matter, because what’s the alternative? There’s no good alternative, and that’s also worth knowing.
You see these ideas expressed in the strangest places. We’ve talked a little bit, in this series, about Pinocchio. But, if we haven’t, it doesn’t matter. There’s Jiminy Cricket at the opening of the Pinocchio movie, pointing to a star. That’s roughly the nativity star, for all intents and purposes. It’s a symbolic indicator of something diamond-like and pure, glimmering in the darkness, that’s transcendent, above the horizon, upon which to fix your eyes. You need that, technically. Positive emotion is analgesic, by the way: it actually quells pain. So it’s not just positive: it also gets rid of negative, which is a big plus.
Almost all the positive emotion that you’re going to feel, you’re going to feel in relationship to a goal. You feel positive emotion as you approach a goal. And so, if you want to feel positive emotion, then you need a goal. And then, if you want to maximize that positive emotion—which is enthusiasm, and what pulls you out into the world, as well as feeling good—then you need the best possible goal. That’s going to engage the largest segments of your Being. If your goal’s too narrow, then a bunch of you is not going to be on board for it. If the goal’s well developed and multifaceted, then all of you can partake in that—even your negative elements; even your anger and fear can get on board with that. So you need a goal that justifies the tragedy and malevolence of life. That seems to be the bottom line. Now, maybe you think, ‘well, there’s no goal that can do that.’
There are still better and worse goals. I’m not convinced that there are no goals that can do that. I think that’s an open question. You never know that until you pursue the proper goal long enough to figure out who you would be as a consequence of pursuing it. That’s also your destiny—your existential voyage. It’s also not something that anyone else can do for you. Someone can say, ‘get your act together, for Christ’s sake, and get at it. That’ll make the world unfold best for you.’ But there’s no way you can know that, without doing it. And, unless you think you’ve done a particularly stellar job of that, then you have no reason to doubt its potential validity. Plus, crickets are telling you this. They’re a very reliable source.
Ok, so you see the star. The star recurs as a motif, in Pinocchio. Pinocchio is a marionette, who’s being played by forces that operate behind the scenes—which is a really good definition of ‘persona,’ from the Jungian perspective. It’s also indicative of something like an ideological or conceptual possession.
Geppetto, who’s a good guy, is a positive father figure. Even though he’s a competent patriarchal figure, he still lifts his eyes up to something that transcends his mode of Being—positive as it is—and wishes that his creation would undertake the kind of transformation that would make it autonomous and fully functional, as a moral agent. No strings, right? So that’s very interesting, I think.
Solzhenitsyn said, "the salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all." That’s a pretty decent star-like goal, I’d say. What happens in the Pinocchio story is, I think, a symbolic representative of what happens, at a genetic level, if you put yourself in new situations. Geppetto is roughly ‘culture,’ in the Pinocchio story. He’s a craftsman, and he makes Pinocchio, who’s his son. He’s the socializing agent. He aims for something above mere socialization, which is, I think, part of the mysterious element of human beings.
In our scientific models, we basically have socialization and biology. But there’s always a third element, in mythological stories, which is whatever you might construe as the spontaneous action of consciousness. That’s associated with free will. That’s just basically been conceptualized in religious terms as something akin to the soul. Now, we don’t have a category for that, scientifically, because what we try to do, scientifically, is reduce everything to either socialization or biology. It’s perfectly reasonable from the perspective of practicality, at a scientific level: you don’t want to multiply explanatory principles beyond necessity. But there are many things that doesn’t come to terms with, such as the fact that we all treat each other as autonomous Beings with free will, and that it seems to work, and that, if we stopped doing that, then things go to hell very, very rapidly. The mere fact that we haven’t been able to conceptualize what that conscious free will might be, metaphysically or physically, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means that we don’t understand it. It was only in the last 15 years that we’ve discovered that ninety-five percent of the universe was made out of some kind of matter, the properties of which we can’t even imagine—except that it seems to have mass.
Anyways, when Geppetto lifts his eyes up to the star, it’s society aligning itself with the proper goal, with regards to individual development. Instead of society being at odds with the individual, they line up. And then what happens is that nature comes on board. That’s the Blue Fairy, in the Pinocchio story. That seems, to me, to be a representation of what happens biologically when you set the goal properly, get your culture behind you, and move out into the world. There’s a biological transformation that occurs as a consequence of that, which means that a bunch of you that hasn’t been turned on, turns on. I guess one question would be, what would you be like if you turned on everything inside of you that could be turned on? Well, that’s a good thing to find out.
Now, I’ve introduced a couple of other ideas. There’s this idea in Jungian psychology called the circumambulation. Jung had this idea that you had a potential future Self, which would be, in potential, everything that you could be. It manifests itself moment to moment in your present life by making you interested in things. The things that you’re interested in are the things that would guide you along the path, and lead you to maximal development.
It sounds like a metaphysical idea—or a mystical idea, even. But it’s not. It’s really a profoundly biological idea. The idea is something like, ‘well, you’re set up so that you’re automatically interested in those things that would fully expand you as a well-adapted creature.’ There’s nothing radical about that idea. What else could possibly be the case? Unless there’s something fundamentally flawed about you, that is what the situation would be. It’s kind of interesting to think about how that would be manifest moment to moment, but the idea is something like, ‘well, your interest is captured by those things that lead you down the path of development.’ Well, that better be the case.
Ok, so that’s fine. There’s some utility in pursuing those things that you’re interested in—that’s the call to adventure, let’s say. The call to adventure takes you all sorts of places. The problem with the call to adventure is, what the hell do you know? You might be interested in things that are kind of warped and bent. Often it’s the case that, when new parts of the people manifest themselves—and grip their interests, say—they do it very badly and shoddily. So you stumble around like an idiot, when you try to do something new. That’s why the fool is the precursor to the saviour, from the symbolic perspective: you have to be a fool before you can be a master, and if you’re not willing to be a fool, you can’t be a master.
It’s an error-ridden process, and that’s also laid out in the Old Testament stories. The first thing that happens to all these patriarchal figures—when God kicks them out of their father’s house, when they’re like 84—is that they run into all sorts of trouble. Some of it’s social, some of it’s natural, and some of it’s a consequence of their own moral inadequacy. So they’re fools. But the thing that’s so interesting is that, despite the fact that their fools, they’re still supposed to go on the adventure, and they’re capable of learning enough—as a consequence of moving forward on the adventure—that they straighten themselves out across time. It’s something like that.
The circumambulation that Jung talked about was this continual circling, in some sense, of who you could be. You might notice, for example, that there are themes in your life. When you go back across your experiences, you kind of have your typical experience, that sort of repeats itself. There might be variation on it, like a musical theme, but you’re circling yourself, and getting closer to yourself, as you move across time. That’s the circumambulation. Remember that for a second, because we’ll go back to it.
Ok, so imagine that something glimmers before you. It’s an interest that’s dawning. First of all, you’re paralyzed. You think, ‘how do I know if I should pursue that? It’s probably a stupid idea.’ The proper response to that is, ‘you’re right: it probably is a stupid idea.’ Almost all ideas are stupid. The probability that, as you move forward on your adventure, you’re going to get it right the first time is zero. It’s just not going to happen. And so then you might think, ‘maybe I’ll just wait around until I get the right idea,’ which people do. They’re like 40-year-old 13-year-olds, which is not a good idea. So they wait around until—it’s like Waiting for Godot—they finally got it right. But the problem is that you’re too stupid to know when you’ve got it right. Waiting around isn’t going to help: even if the perfect opportunity manifested itself to you, in your incomplete form, the probability that you would recognize it as the perfect opportunity is zero. You might even think it’s the worst possible idea that you’ve ever heard of, anywhere—highly likely.
Nietzsche called that a ‘will to stupidity,’ which I really liked. He thought of that as a stupidity that you have to take into account, fundamentally, and work with. So you can take these tentative steps on your pathway to destiny, and you can assume that you’re going to do it badly. That’s really useful, because you don’t have to beat yourself up. It’s pretty easy to do it badly. But the thing is, it’s way better to do it badly than not to do it at all. That’s the continual message that echoes through these historical stories in Genesis: these are flawed people, and they should have got out of their house way before they did. They go out, stumble around in tyranny, famine, self-betrayal, and violence—but it’s a hell of a lot better than just rotting away at home. That’s great.
So why is that? You start your path, and you think that you’re heading towards your star. You go in that direction, and then, because you’re here, the world looks a particular way. But then, when you move here, the world looks different—and you’re different, as a consequence of having made that voyage. What that means is that, now, that thing that glimmers in front of you is going to have shifted its location, because you weren’t very good at specifying it, to begin with. Now that you’re a little sharper, and a little more focused than you were, it’s going to reveal itself with more accuracy, to you.
So then you have to take—it’s almost like a 180-degree reversal, but it isn’t. You’ve gone this far, and that’s a long ways to get that far. But that’s a lot farther than you would be, if you just stayed where you were, waiting. It doesn’t matter that you overshoot, continually. As you overshoot, even if you don’t learn what you should have done, you’re going to continually learn what you shouldn’t keep doing. If you learn enough about what you shouldn’t keep doing, then that’s tantamount, at some point, to learning, at the same time, what you should be doing. So it’s ok.
Now what’s cool about it is that, as you progress, the degree of overshooting starts to decline. We know that; there’s nothing hypothetical about that. When you learn a new skill—even to play a song on the piano, for example—you overshoot madly. You make all sorts of mistakes, to begin with. Then the mistakes disappear. There’s a great TED talk about this guy who set up a really advanced computation recording system in his home, and recorded every single utterance that his young child made while learning to speak. Then he put together the child’s attempts to say certain phonemes, and put them in a list.
You can hear the child deviating madly, to begin with. And then, after hundreds and hundreds of repetitions, just zeroing right in on the exact phoneme. You might not know this, but when kids babble—they start babbling when they’re quite young—they babble every human phoneme, including all sorts of phonemes that adults can’t say. Then they die into their language. After they learn, say, English, then there’s all sorts of phonemes that they can no longer hear or pronounce, but, to begin with, it’s all there, which is really quite interesting. As they learn a particular language, they zero in on the proper way to pronounce that. Their errors minimize. Every time you learn something, that’s how it is. That’s really useful to know, too, because it means that it’s ok to wander around stupidly before you fix your destination.
You see that echoed in Exodus, right? What happens is that the Hebrews escape a tyranny—which is kind of whatever you do, personally and psychologically, when you escape from your previous set of stupidly held, ignorant, and stubborn axioms. It’s like, ‘great! I’ve freed myself from that.’ Well, then what? You think, ‘well, now I’m on my way.’ No you’re not: now you’re in the desert, where you wander around stupidly and worship the wrong things until you finally organize yourself morally, again, and head in the proper direction. So that’s worth knowing, too. You think, ‘well, I got rid of a lot of excess baggage that I didn’t need in my life, and now everything’s ok.’ It’s like, ‘no, it’s not. You got rid of a whole set of scaffolds that were keeping you in place, even though they were pathological. Now you have nothing, and nothing actually turns out to be better than something pathological, but you’re still stuck with the problem of nothing.’ Well, that’s exactly why Exodus is structured the way that it is. You escape from a tyranny—‘hooray! We’re no longer slaves!’ Yeah, well, now you’re nihilistic and lost. It’s not necessarily an improvement.
It’s also useful to know that because you can be deluded into the idea that—imagine that you’re trying to become enlightened, which might mean to turn all those parts of you on that can be turned on. You think, ‘well, that’s just a linear pathway uphill. It’s just from one success to another.’ No, it’s not. It’s like, here you are, and you’re not doing too badly, and the first step is a complete bloody catastrophe. It’s worse. Then, maybe, you can pull yourself together, and you hit a new plateau. And then that crumbles and shakes, and bang—it’s worse again. Part of the reason that people don’t become enlightened is because it’s punctuated by intermittent catastrophes. If you don’t know that, then you’re basically screwed: you go ahead on your movement forward, you collapse, and you go, ‘well, that didn’t work—I collapsed.’ No—that’s par for the course. It’s not an indication that you’ve failed; it’s just an indication that it’s really hard, and that, when you learn something, you also unlearn something. The thing you unlearned is probably useful, and unlearning it is actually painful.
Let’s say you have to get out of a bad relationship. It isn’t any relationship that’s one-hundred percent bad, so, when you jump out of it, well, maybe you’re in better shape, but you’re still lonesome and disoriented, and you don’t know what your past was, and you don’t know what your present is, and you don’t know what your future is. That’s why people stay with the devil they know, instead of looking for the devil they don’t know.
The fact that you’re full of faults doesn’t mean you have to stop. Thank God for that. That’s a really useful thing. The fact that you’re full of faults doesn’t mean that you can’t learn. You can posit an ideal, and you’re gonna be wrong about it, but it doesn’t matter, because what you’re right about is positing the ideal and moving towards it. If the actual ideal isn’t conceptualized perfectly, well, first, ‘surprise, surprise,’ because what are you going to do that’s perfect? So it doesn’t matter that it’s imperfect. It just matters that you do it, and you move forward. That’s really positive news, as far as I’m concerned, because you can actually do that. You can do it badly—anyone can do that. So that’s useful.
If you were an efficient person, you would have just done that, but you’re not—but who cares, you know? You still end up in the same place. Maybe the trip is even more interesting—probably too interesting.
Jung: "I began to understand that the goal of psychic development"—by which he means psychological or spiritual development—"is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self."
It’s like you’re spiralling into something. The thing that you’re spiralling into recedes as you move towards it, and it gets more and more sophisticated and well developed, as you move towards. You’re not going to run out of goals, right? No matter how much you have your act together, there’s probably—undoubtedly—30 dimensions along which you could get your act together a lot more. Some of those aren’t even conceivable to you, when you’re in your initial, uncarved state, let’s say.
"Uniform development exists, at most, at the beginning; later, everything points toward the centre. This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned."
So this is fun. On the left, there, that’s the Chartres Cathedral. That’s the one that has the maze in it, that I told you about. They actually light that up with lasers, now. They’re turning it into a cathedral of light, which I think is really fascinating. It’s a continuation of the same idea, right? The stained glass windows were, obviously—I wouldn’t call them primitive attempts to do that. I mean, stained glass windows are pretty impressive. But it’s an elaboration of the same thing. So now you can go to that cathedral—they light up the whole town like that, which is really something.
There’s how the cathedral was built. It’s a cross—and remember that the cross is an X that marks the center of the world, and the cross is the place where each individual is. I think that’s the fundamental message of Christianity: the cross marks the place where every single individual is. It’s a tragic place that consists of suffering and exposure to malevolence. The only way to comes to terms with it is to accept it. I don’t see anything metaphysical about that statement, whatsoever.
X marks the spot. Fair enough. You’re in a spot; you’re right in the center of your world; it’s right in the center of the world, as far as you’re concerned—and the same with the rest of us. It’s characterized by suffering and exposure to malevolence. There’s no doubt about that. What are you going to do about that? Bitter, resentful, hateful? All that does is make it worse, so you have to accept it. Now, that’s not actually an easy thing. I would say that’s a heroic task, to voluntarily accept the conditions of your own existence. That happens at the cross. So that’s fine. That’s associated with light. Well, that’s good, that it’s associate with light. You wouldn’t want that associated with darkness. That would be a bad thing.
There’s the labyrinth. That was built in 1,200 A.D. It’s the same idea as that star sequence of slides that I just showed you. Here’s the idea: north, south, west, and east. That’s the whole world, laid out in two dimensions. So the question is, how do you get to the center? Now, we already know what the center is: the center is the center of the cross. That’s the place of maximal suffering—you could say maximal malevolence, as well—but it’s also the place where that’s transcended. So how do you get there? Well, the answer is that you don’t just stand on the outside, looking in. That’s not going to help. And you can’t just run right to the center—even if you’re in California. And so you have to walk in, here, and then you go to every single place—every single place—on that little cosmos. And then, once you’ve gone to every single place, and expanded yourself as a consequence of going north, and west, and east, and south, then there’s enough of you so that you can figure out where the center is, but also so that you can tolerate being at the center. So that’s what that represents.
Let’s make no mistake about it, eh? People were pretty damn serious about those ideas. That’s quite the piece of work, for people in the 12th century, you know? Some of those damn cathedrals took 300 years to build. We don’t build anything that takes 300 years. People were putting a lot of effort into whatever these things meant. If you think they meant ‘bearded man in the sky,’ then, you know…It’s hard to account for the kind of motivation that would produce these buildings, with that kind of paucity of conceptualization.
The towns—and it was certainly the case in Chartres—groaned under the tax burden that was required to produce these. Now, you might think, ‘well, that’s partly tyrannical,’ and no doubt that’s the case. But that’s not the whole story. The whole story is that the people who produced those buildings thought about every bit of it. Nothing’s accidental, and they’re trying to portray something—just like that window is trying to portray something. It’s the center from which all things manifest themselves. That’s Christ, there, being portrayed as that center, or the center within him. Something like that—very much like the chakras in yogic practice. It’s the same basic idea: it’s the opening up of the internal structure, and its proper realization.
There are people walking the labyrinth. So that’s the coat of many colours, right? That’s this differentiated mode of being that enables you to be competent and at home in the widest possible number of places. That’s a real differentiation of your personality. It’s a breaking through the boundaries of your personality, including the ones that you impose on yourself, to become someone who’s useful wherever they’re put. That’s really relevant to this story of Joseph, too.
One of the things that happens to Joseph—well, a lot of bad things happen to him. Because he’s the favourite of his father, his brothers hate him. First, they’re going to throw him in a pit—I think they do throw him in a pit. Then they sell him to be a slave, and then he ends up—well, we’ll go through the story. He ends up some places where you probably wouldn’t want to go—prison being one of them. But it doesn’t matter, because, even when they put him in prison, he’s actually not in prison. He just figures out how to make the prison work way better, and then he’s in control of the prison.
I had this friend. He was very smart, but very cynical. He wasn’t employed very well, and he got a little older than he should have, given his level of intelligence and employability. He had to take jobs that weren’t very intellectually challenging. One of the things I tried to convince him of was that, even if he worked—he wanted to work behind the parts department in an automotive store, because he like cars. But it was beneath him, you know? As far as he was concerned, he was too smart for a job like that—which, actually, turned out not to be true. He wasn’t smart enough for a job like that, or he wasn’t wise enough.
One of the things I tried to tell him was that he was looking at the situation wrong. Even in a so-called simple job—like, say, dishwashing in a restaurant, which I did an awful lot of—it’s not that simple. You’re dealing with a lot of other people, very fast staff changeover, and you’re feeding people; you’re helping them have a celebration; you’re helping them take a break. You can do it really well, and then the kitchen can operate properly, and then people can come out to the restaurant, and it’s not a bloody catastrophe. Even when you’re doing something that’s a menial job, so to speak, like dishwashing, there are ways of doing it really badly, resentfully, and horribly, and doing it really well. As soon as you do it really well, it’s not a menial job, anymore. It immediately transforms. Now, you can be around people who won’t let that happen—and you should go get another job, if that’s the case. But, if you do it properly, then it’s not menial, at all. That’s also a good way out of resentment. You think, ‘well, I’ve just got this two-bit job.’ It’s like, ‘yeah—what if you did it as well as you possibly could? What would happen?’ Well, the first thing that would happen is you would get a lot smarter. That’s for sure, and that’s hardly a negative thing.
So that’s the coat of many colours. It’s an intimation of what Joseph is like. What we’re seeing, with all of these patriarchal figures, is the continual realization of the ideal person. You could think about it as success of approximations of the ideal person. The story is exploring all sorts of different possibilities, including ones that are very violent, catastrophic, and malevolent. It’s trying to cover the entire territory, and to focus in on the proper way through the maze of life—the labyrinth. The hint, here, is that you should be multidimensional.
"These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report."
Well, we already know that Joseph is Jacob’s favourite, so that doesn’t make him very popular among his brothers. He’s younger, and now we also find out that he’s been set up, more or less, as a snitch, because that’s what this phrase means: he goes and watches his older brothers, and, if they do something they shouldn’t do, he comes trotting back to Jacob, and reports. Well, that’s not going to make you popular. And you would say, ‘well, is that Joseph’s problem or Jacob’s problem?’ I would say—and this is something I learned from reading Jung, too—that that’s a conspiratorial problem. The parents are at fault, but so is the child who agrees to do that. They’ve got a little cabal, going. You might say, ‘well, it’s only the parents’ fault,’ but the son will be taking advantage of every advantage that offers him. He could say, ‘no, I won’t do that.’ So, anyways, Joseph is the favourite. He’s a bit of a teacher’s pet. That’s what it looks like.
"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him."
So let’s say you have a child, or a number of children, and one of them is your favourite. How should you treat that child? Well, it isn’t obvious that you do them any favours by overtly making them your favourite. First of all, maybe you don’t challenge them as much as you should. Second of all, you definitely set up a Cain and Abel-like scenario, in the household—or maybe it’s an Oedipal situation, too, because you happen to love your child more than you love your spouse. That’s not a recipe for familial harmony. It seems to be a bad idea.
Ok, so now we have two reasons that Joseph is not liked by his brothers. One is, well, he’s a bit of a rat fink, and the other is that he’s the favourite—and he’s playing that to the hilt, by the looks of things.
"And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more.
"And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf." Remember: he’s the young one, right? He’s also the son of the favourite wife, which is another thing not really working in his favour. "And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? Or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words." Well, there’s a shock—that makes perfect sense. It gets worse. There’s the wheat sheafs, bowing, there. What’s going on, here? Well, that’s not the end of—let’s call it his ‘grandiosity.’
There’s an idea, too, in the Old Testament—especially in the stories of Joseph—that, if God sends you a dream twice, he really means it. I don’t know if that’s true, although, I do know that people have repeating dreams. It might be true that a dream you have twice is really trying to punch something home. It’s certainly the case that recurrent nightmares are meaningful, and recurrent nightmares are associated quite tightly with decreased states of mental health. If you can treat the nightmare—which is often quite easy, by the way—then some of the mental health problems will decrease. So repeated dreams seem to be important.
"And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth? And his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying."
Well, what the hell do you make of something like that, if someone tells you that? Are they responsible for their dreams? We don’t really hold ourselves responsible for the dreams we have at night. Then what do you make of a dream? One of the things that Jung pointed out—this is where he differed from Freud, substantially. Freud tended to think that the dream hid its meaning, because its contents weren’t acceptable to the conscious mind. Jung said, ‘no, no. You don’t understand. That’s not what happens. The dream is doing the best it can to express something that the person doesn’t yet really know.’ Jung thought about the dream as a manifestation of nature. It wasn’t associated with the ego, at all. It was like, you have a dream, and there are things happening in it—the same way that things are happening when you walk into a dinner party. The dream isn’t something that’s subject to your capacity for manipulation. It’s something that happens to you; it’s not something that you do.
So, if someone has a dream like that, well, you’ve got three options. You can discount the dream altogether, which is what people in the modern world tend to do. That’s a very bad idea, because they’re thoughts, and you shouldn’t discount them. They’re hardly random—as some neuroscientists claim. That’s an absolutely cock-eyed theory. It would be like snow on a TV set, if it was random. So one is that you just discount dreams. The other is that you consider the person a liar and a braggart and a narcissist. Well, what’s the third? He dreamt that the sun and the moon and the stars bowed down to him. You might think about that, two or three times. But it’s not necessarily something that’s going to make you happy.
"And his brethren went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said unto Joseph, Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them. And he said to him, Here am I. And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him." Rough people, back then. This sort of thing is happening quite frequently. "And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams."
So there’s an echo of the Cain and Abel story, obviously. It’s not quite as clear, because in the Cain and Abel story, Abel is clearly just doing well. Here, you can’t quite get a handle on Joseph’s character. You can’t tell if he’s actually the elect, or if he’s just a spoiled brat, with delusions of grandeur. But it doesn’t matter, because his brothers are so irritated at the fact that he’s favoured—and, perhaps, even the fact that he might be someone destined for something special—that they find it perfectly reasonable to destroy that.
It’s so interesting how often that motif of pulling down an ideal manifests itself in these old stories. The pattern established in the Cain and Abel story just repeats, repeats, and repeats. I think that’s dead true; I think it just repeats all the time. People are annoyed about how tragic their lives are; they’re annoyed that they’re subject to malevolence; and they’re annoyed that they’re not doing as well as other people are doing. That puts them exactly into this state of mind.
Now, if you’re going to kill someone because you’re resentful, as a modern person, you don’t generally slay them, and throw them into a pit. What you do is kill them slowly, over a few decades. It isn’t obvious, to me, that that’s any better. I’ve seen plenty of married couples who were in that situation. Mitch Hedberg used to complain about turtlenecks: it was like being strangled by a really weak midget. It’s probably a really politically incorrect joke, but it’s a funny joke. And then you see relationships that are like that. It’s like each person has their hands around the neck of the other person, but they don’t have enough courage to actually squeeze. They just put enough pressure on to cut the circulation off a tiny bit, so the person just dies over a 30-year period. You all laugh because you know it’s true.
"And we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him"—which would be true, actually: it would be the evil beast that’s inside brothers—"and we shall see what will become of his dreams."
That’s interesting, too. They want to spite themselves, because, maybe, Joseph is something special. And then they want to spite their father—which is probably not the wisest idea, because they owe him some gratitude. I mean, maybe he’s acting like a pain in the neck—there’s some evidence for that—but this is a little bit harsh. But they also want to spite God—just like Cain did. That’s what it means: "we shall see what will become of his dreams." As soon as you’re, in some sense, trying to fight against the natural intuition of someone, you set yourself up against the structure of Being itself. Pretty bad.
"And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness"—Reuben’s the good guy, in this story—"and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again." So Reuben was actually trying to save him: "that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again. And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.
"And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?" So he’s the practical guy, here. "Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. Then there passes by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver"—that’s an amount that echoes through, into the future—"and they brought Joseph to Egypt."
I’m never really sure how these slavery stories work. So it’s 2,500-3,000 years ago, and I decide I’m going to sell you to the Ishmeelites. I get the money, you get to be a slave, and they take you away. I don’t really understand how that works. I can’t figure out why people weren’t selling each other all the time. But, if you’re family, maybe you can do it.
"And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes." So Reuben’s very upset about this. "And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go? And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood."
That’s interesting, too, because blood is actually another colour. He’s got this coat of many colours, and blood is definitely a colour. So this is the addition, in some sense, of the colour of blood to Joseph’s coat. I would say it’s probably a necessary colour. I don’t think you’re serious enough until your coat has been dipped in blood. That can happen in many ways.
"And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father." So they lied to him. It’s very, very nasty business, this. They sell his son to slavery; they claim that he’s dead; and they lie to him. They put him into an extreme state of grief. There’s a lot of hatred underneath that—a tremendous amount of hatred for Joseph, and also for Jacob.
"This have we found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no. And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; and evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces. And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.
"And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, and captain of the guard. And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither."
So now Joseph is a slave. You think, ‘well, this is a man who has a lot of reason to be irritated at the structure of reality.’ He’s gone from being the favourite, to being betrayed by all of his brothers—that’s pretty rough—and then he’s been transformed into a slave, and now he’s being sold, to work as a slave. You’d think that would corrupt his character.
I think people are always looking for an excuse to have their character corrupted. If your character is corrupted, then you get to lie, and you get to cheat, and you get to steal, and you get to betray, and you get to act resentfully, and you get to do nothing. That’s all easy. It’s easier to lie than to tell the truth. It’s easier to do nothing than to do something. There’s always part of you thinking, ‘well, I need a justification for being useless and horrible, because that’d be a lot less work.’ Then, if something terrible comes along, you think, ‘aha! That’s just exactly the excuse that I was waiting for.’ And then out all that comes.
Solzhenitsyn, when he was in the concentration camps in Russia, watching how people behaved, said that there were people, who were put in the camps, who immediately became trustees or guards. They were even more vicious than the people who had been hired as guards. His idea was that they had collected all of what he called ‘foulness,’ if I remember correctly, around them in normal life, but they didn’t have the opportunity to express it. As soon as you gave them the opportunity—there it was, right away.
So one of the messages that seems to echo through these Old Testament stories is that, just because something terrible happens to you, that doesn’t mean that you get to wander off the path and make things worse. Maybe it doesn’t matter how terrible it is. That’s a tough call, because you see people, now and then in life, and they’ve really got it rough. Fifty bad things are happening to them at the same time. You think, ‘if you were bitter and resentful and hostile—yeah, no wonder.’ But then you meet people—Solzhenitsyn, again, talked about this in The Gulag Archipelago. He said he met enough people to impress him in the concentration camp system, who didn’t allow their misfortunes to corrupt them. That’s something, man, because maybe the only real misfortune is to become corrupted. That’s a really useful thing to think. Maybe the rest of it is trivial, in comparison. I know that’s a rough thing, because you can be in very harsh circumstances, but I do think there’s something to that.
"And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand."
So that’s an echo of the idea that we encountered earlier, of walking with God. So Adam walked with God before he ate the fruit with Eve, and then he wouldn’t walk with God. And then Noah walked with God, and Abraham walked with God. The idea is that, well, that’s the alignment with the highest ideal. I think it’s something like that. We can think about that as a metaphysical claim, as well. But I don’t think it is.
I’ve got thousands of letters, in the past year, from people who have told me that they were in a pit—that’s exactly right—and that they decided that they were going to try to put their lives together, and that it worked. So that’s really something. They write surprised: ‘well, I decided I was going to work hard at what I was doing, and I wasn’t going to lie any more than absolutely necessary. I thought I would give it a try, for a few months. All sorts of good things started to happen to me.’ It’s like, maybe that’s how the world works. Now, obviously, it doesn’t work like that all the time, because you can get sliced off at the knees. There’s an arbitrary element to existence that you can’t wish away. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad strategies and good strategies.
I do think that one of the most fundamental existential questions is, if things aren’t going well for you in your life, are you absolutely certain that you are doing absolutely everything you can to put things in order? If you’re not, then you shouldn’t complain, because you don’t know to what degree you’re contributing—or even causing—the circumstance. Now, that’s a very annoying thing to think, and I’m not trying to blame the victim. I know that people end up with lung cancer because they were exposed to asbestos—although, I also know, too, that if you have lung cancer because you’ve been exposed to asbestos, it can be a tragedy or it can be hell, to some degree. That depends on how you conduct yourself. I know that’s a pretty gloomy possibility.
Anyways, Joseph is a slave, but it turns out that he hasn’t sacrificed the integrity of his character. So it turns out that he’s not a slave: it’s just that everyone around him thinks that he’s a slave, but he’s not. So that’s pretty interesting.
"He’s a goodly person, and well favoured." Well, so he’s a good guy, and an impressive specimen, as well. This is pretty interesting, given the current political climate, I would say.
"And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me. But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand. There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?
"And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her." He’s being sexually harassed, Joseph. "And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within. And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out." That’s kind of embarrassing for poor Joseph, I would say—and a bit on the suspicious side.
"And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth, that she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice"—hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. That’s the proper commentary on that—"and it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out.
"And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled. And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison."
Well, that sort of sucks. First his brothers betray him, and throw him in a pit. Then he gets made a slave—which is probably better than being in the pit—and then he becomes kind of like king-slave, so that’s working out pretty well. Now, someone lies about him; he gets betrayed again, and it’s into prison with him. So it’s Sisyphus—up with the rock, then down. Order, chaos, order chaos. You have to think, ‘well, are you the order, are you the chaos, or are you the thing that’s moving between?’ That’s the right thing to be. Otherwise, you’re just order, and that’s a really bad idea. Or you’re just chaos, and that’s a really bad idea. You can be the thing that’s dynamically mediating between them, and that’s what he’s doing.
"But the Lord was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison."
That’s no easy thing to do, I would think: you’re thrown in prison, and now the jailer likes you. How exactly are you going to manage that? It’s a good thing to think about. If you were really in dire straits, how is it that you should conduct yourself, so that you have the highest probability of having things work out? It’s not saying, ‘well, Joseph took over the thumbscrew, and started using that on the other prisoners.’ That’s not the indication, here, at all; it’s that he’s acting like a person who isn’t a prisoner, even though he’s in the prison—just like he was acting like someone who wasn’t a slave, when he was a slave. It makes you wonder who you could be, despite the fact that other people think that you’re whatever you appear to be.
"And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper."
It’s a repeat of exactly what happened when he was the slave of the Pharaoh, except it’s one rung deeper into hell, so to speak. It was slave for Pharaoh, and here it’s prisoner for jail master. But it doesn’t matter. The same thing happens.
So now he’s in prison, and the Pharaoh has a fit, one day, and throws the chief of his butlers into prison, and the chief of his bakers. Each of them has a dream, and Joseph interprets the dreams. It seems to be something that he can do. He tells the butler that his dream means that Pharaoh is going to forgive him and put him back in his position. He tells the baker that the Pharaoh isn’t going to forgive him, and that he’s going to take off his head and hang him in a tree, which is a rather rough dream. But that’s what happens. So, anyways, the butler goes free, and Joseph says, ‘look, maybe you could just keep in mind the fact that I did you a bit of a favour, here, and told you something that was accurate.’ But the chief didn’t really remember, once he was freed.
Now the Pharaoh has a dream. He actually has two dreams, so it’s another of those double motifs. The idea is that these are really important dreams, because they came in a pair.
"And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed"—cattle—"and they fed in a meadow. And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured"—and then he has another dream, to hit it home.
"And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good. And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream…And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass."
It’s interesting. One of the better theories about dreams is that they’re part of the way that the right and the left hemisphere communicate—or, maybe, the nonverbal part of the brain communicating with the verbal part of the brain. The nonverbal part of the brain, which is less differentiated, and which thinks more globally, is looking for patterns and anomalies in the world—things that don’t fit well with the current way of conceptualizing the world; things that make you anxious and uncertain. Those are things you haven’t mastered, so they don’t fit well into your conceptualization of the world, by definition. If you had mastered them, they wouldn’t make you anxious and nervous. The nonverbal parts of your brain are like an alarm system—they’re looking around for places where you’re probably wrong. Then they put those in images, and try to conceptualize them, so that you can update your model of reality, to take them into account. But that also produces a fair bit of negative emotion—especially at night.
So we know, if you deprive people of dreams, they go insane very rapidly—animals, as well. It’s a necessary part of mental equilibrium. If you have rats that you want to drive insane, this is how you do it: You put the rat on a pedestal that’s pretty small and surrounded by water. When he falls asleep, his nose hits the water, and then he wakes up. So you can deprive the rat of sleep. The rats don’t respond to that very well, after some period of time. That’s one of the ways that that’s been discovered.
Anyways, the dream does seem to be an update mechanism. If you have a very powerful dream, like a nightmare—especially if it’s repeating—it’s like something is trying to hammer on the door, that needs to be let in. Often, you don’t know how to let it in. That’s a problem.
"Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph"—because he had talked to his butler—"and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh." I guess he didn’t want to shock Pharaoh with how people dressed in a prison. "And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it: and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it. And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace."
So Joseph isn’t taking credit for his ability to interpret dreams—which also indicates that, despite the fact that he’s successful and competent, he’s not narcissistic. If he happens to have this gift, he regards it as a gift, and not as something that redounds to his favour; it’s just something that he happens to be able to do. That’s a hallmark of someone who’s got a pretty well-put-together personality, as far as I’m concerned.
People have gifts that they didn’t really earn—that would be your talents, your intelligence, your good looks, et cetera—and there’s no sense in being all puffed up about that. It’s great; it’s luck of the draw, though. The proper attitude is to note that it’s luck of the draw, and to be grateful for it.
It’s quite a fine painting, that one.
"Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt: and there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous."
So now we see that Joseph is the sort of person who can look into the future. This is sort of what Adam was called on to do, when he got kicked out of the Garden of Paradise. You’re going to be able to conceptualize that, even if things are going well now, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to go well into the future. So he’s the ant, and not the grasshopper, right? In the grasshopper and the ant story, everything’s good—but you should wake the hell up, and you should test to see how things can go wrong, and see if your systems can survive things going wrong. This is something that we could all harken to, because I think we do a very bad job, in the modern world, of testing to see if our systems could go wrong.
Ok, so the Pharaoh’s pretty impressed by this dream interpretation, and pretty worried about it. I guess he’s a pretty reasonable person, despite the fact that he put Joseph in jail. I guess he didn’t have much choice.
"Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land"—this is what Joseph is saying—"and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities." And, just like that, Joseph is restored to his position.
"And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt."
Joseph comes out of the prison, and he really—as far as I’m concerned—occupies a position that’s higher than the position of Pharaoh. It depends on how you look at it, because the Pharaoh has relegated himself to ceremonial status. Joseph has all the responsibility, and he makes all the decisions. De facto, he’s the Pharaoh. He doesn’t get the glory, precisely—although, he’s not doing too bad for himself. There’s a lesson in that, too.
I wrote these rules for Quora, a long time ago. I’ve written some of them into this book, that you guys got a pamphlet about, today. One of the rules that I didn’t write about was, ‘note that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated,’ which is really interesting, I think. I mean, people say things like, ‘well, the guy I work with doesn’t do any work.’ It’s like, ‘well, you could do it.’ I know there are limits to that, but one of the things you can do at work is make yourself indispensable. You might get the Cain types against you, if you do that. But there’s something to be said for being indispensable: when people start to be dispensed with, you probably won’t be one of them—or, even if you are, the fact that you’re indispensable just means you can go somewhere else and be indispensable, there. That’s just as useful. So it’s very, very difficult to permanently put down someone who’s really good at doing things, because they can just go off and do them somewhere else. One of the ways you get like that is to take responsibility when someone else is failing to do so. You think, ‘well, I shouldn’t have to do that.’ That’s one way of thinking about it. Another way of thinking about it is, ‘oh, good—I get to do that.’
"And the seven years of plenteousness, that was in the land of Egypt, were ended. And the seven years of dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said: and the dearth was in all lands."
That’s an archetypal story, right? It’s the business cycle story. It’s a little harsher when you’re starving, obviously, but that’s not the point. The point is that sometimes things are getting good, and sometimes things are getting bad. You can be sure that’s the case; that’s going to happen to you. The wise person takes stock of the fact that things are going to get bad. This is the same thing that happens with Noah. It’s like, ‘assume the flood!’ because it’s going to happen. You think, ‘it’s a hell of a world, that has floods.’ Well, not if you have a boat, right? It helps a lot, if you have a boat during a flood. You can float on the flood, and then it’s not such a problem.
If you refuse to look at the fact that things are going to be going downhill, badly, and that you’re going to be in a pit at one point—you and your family, perhaps—then, when it happens, it will be as bad as it can possibly be. But, if you’re awake and alert to that possibility, then you can mitigate it.
"And the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do. And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt. And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands.
"Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another? And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die." It’s pretty straightforward advice, that. "And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt. But Benjamin, Joseph’s brother"—so that’s the youngest one; the only one younger than Joseph, and also Rachel’s other son—"Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him." So that kind of indicates, to me, that Jacob was a bit suspicious about what had happened to Joseph—the last time he sent all the brothers on an adventure.
"And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth."
Well, there’s the dream. One question you have in your life is, who should you bow down to? You might say, ‘no one.’ That’s not exactly the right answer, because that means that you don’t have an ideal—because you bow down to an ideal. That’s what makes it an ideal. If you don’t have an ideal, then what the hell are you going to do? So you have to bow down to something. And so what happens, here, is that the brothers are bowing down to the person who’s so bloody resilient and competent that they can take themselves out of a prison and become ruler of a land.
That happened to Václav Havel, in Czechoslovakia. It also happened to Mandela, in South Africa. These things actually happen. It’s really something. God only knows what you might learn in prison. So they bow down to Joseph, and properly so. Even without his coat, he’s still the person with the coat of many colours.
"And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them"—a number of years have passed—"and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food. And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.
"And they came unto Jacob their father unto the land of Canaan, and told him all that befell unto them; saying, The man, who is the lord of the land, spake roughly to us, and took us for spies of the country. And we said unto him, We are true men; we are no spies: we be twelve brethren, sons of our father; one is not, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.
"And the man, the lord of the country, said unto us, Hereby shall I know that ye are true men; leave one of your brethren here with me, and take food for the famine of your households, and be gone: and bring your youngest brother unto me: then shall I know that ye are no spies, but that ye are true men: so will I deliver you your brother, and ye shall traffick in the land." So that they won’t starve to death. "And it came to pass as they emptied their sacks, that, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack: and when both they and their father saw the bundles of money, they were afraid."
So they had bought food from Joseph, and he gave them the food, and he put all their money back in their sacks—which, I can imagine, would worry them, to some degree.
"And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me. And Reuben spake unto his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee: deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to thee again. And Jacob said, My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave."
What happens in the last part of the Joseph story is associated with the idea of putting your individual house in order, and then putting your family’s house in order, let’s say. It’s reversed a little bit, in this st