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.