Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Mythology brings Jordan Peterson and Joseph Schumpeter together

See The Man They Couldn’t Cancel by Barton Swaim of The WSJ. Excerpts:

"He brings together a dizzying array of texts and traditions—Jungian psychoanalysis, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, Frederick Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and much else—to formulate basic lessons, or “rules,” about how humans might overcome their natural tendency to lassitude and savagery."

"The mention of environmentalism brings to mind the cultish side of modern progressivism. Is this desire to flog and destroy, as he puts it, a sign of some twisted spiritual longing? “I think so,” Mr. Peterson says. “The people who caricature Western society as a patriarchy, and then describe it as evil, they’re possessed by a religious idea.” He thinks the problem with modern enlightenment intellectuals—he names the American philosopher Sam Harris, the British conservative writer Matt Ridley and the British broadcaster and writer Stephen Fry, all atheists—is that they offer no mythology, no “adventure.”

“They leave this nihilistic nothingness in their wake, and what happens?” he says. “These kids turn to radical political correctness.” Messrs. Harris, Ridley, Fry, et al. aren’t happy about political correctness, Mr. Peterson notes, but “what did they expect to happen? Did they expect these kids would settle for their insipid rationalism?”

This search for a metaphysical teleology denied young people by “insipid rationalism,” in his view, is also “what motivates antifa and Black Lives Matter and white nationalism and all these other romantic revolutionary rebellions. It’s the romance and the heroism these movements offer.” Mr. Peterson recalls the famous line of George Orwell in his review of “Mein Kampf” in 1940: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”

Taking Orwell’s terms “socialism” and “capitalism” both to mean, roughly, life without transcendence or any hint of the supernatural, the point seems defensible. Mr. Peterson thinks atheistic materialism has nothing to compare to religious worldviews. Rather than telling people simply not to do bad things, he says, “the right approach is to say to them: Here’s a better adventure. Now go conquer your own demons.”"

So I sent the following letter to The WSJ:

"Jordan Peterson's criticism of the rationalism of modern intellectuals is reminiscent of Joseph Schumpeter's criticism of capitalism ("The Man They Couldn’t Cancel," May 1). Mr. Peterson says "that they offer no mythology, no “adventure”" and just a "life without transcendence or any hint of the supernatural." Schumpeter said of capitalism that it has no "trace of any mystic glamour" and that "the stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail." The bourgeois are "rationalistic and unheroic" and thus incapable of leading a nation. Schumpeter might agree with Peterson that the prevailing rationalist ideology leads people to seek fulfillment in some type of social movement to take the place of the modern world's missing adventure. People may need to be offered more than just a good time and be told to be good."

But I had some additional thoughts later.

Joseph Campbell sometimes said something like "I am not a Jungian but he gives me the best clues I've got." So both Campbell and Peterson draw inspiration from Jung and both see mythology as being important.

Carl Jung said "A sense of a wider meaning to one's existence is what raises a man beyond mere getting and spending. If he lacks this sense, he is lost and miserable." This is like Peterson saying that capitalism and socialism need to do more than just offer people a good time.

Jung also said that the most important question anyone can ask is “What myth am I living?”

Here is a relevant passage from Schumpeter:

"there is surely no trace of any mystic glamour about [the industrialist and the merchant] which is what counts in ruling men, [wrote Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.] The stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail. We have seen that the industrialist and merchant, as far as they are entrepreneurs, also fill a function of leadership. But economic leadership of this type does not readily expand, like the medieval lord’s military leadership, into the leadership of nations. On the contrary, the ledger and the cost calculation absorb and confine.

I have called the bourgeois [i.e, the businessman] rationalist and unheroic. He can only use rationalist and unheroic means to defend his position or to bend a nation to his will. [In other words, the businessman is not good at using or applying force, so he must use his wits, just as Pareto warned.] He can impress by what people may expect from his economic performance, he can argue his case, he can promise to pay out money or threaten to withhold it, he can hire the treacherous services of a condottiere or politician or journalist. But that is all and all of it is greatly overrated as to its political value. Nor are his experiences and habits of life of the kind that develop personal fascination. A genius in the business office may be, and often is, utterly unable outside of it to say boo to a goose—both in the drawing room and on the platform. Knowing this he wants to be left alone and leave politics alone."

Since Peterson thinks mythology (and therefore storytelling) is so important, it reminds me of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. Here is the description from Amazon:

"Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired” for story, but why?

In this delightful and original book, Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal. Did you know that the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior? That all children act out the same kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum or a suburb? That people who read more fiction are more empathetic?

Of course, our story instinct has a darker side. It makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories, advertisements, and narratives about ourselves that are more “truthy” than true. National myths can also be terribly dangerous: Hitler’s ambitions were partly fueled by a story.

But as Gottschall shows in this remarkable book, stories can also change the world for the better. Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values. We know we are master shapers of story. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us."

Terry Eagleton shares Campbell's idea of the sociological function of myths, which can be seen as "naturalizing and universalizing a particular social structure, rendering any alternative to it unthinkable." (Eagleton, 188)  He does see myth and ideology working together because the rational side of any movement, ideology is not enough to stimulate political action on the part of the members of some group.

"Men and women engaged in such conflicts do not live by theory alone; socialists have not given their lives over the generations for the tenet that the ratio of fixed to variable capital gives rise to a tendential fall-off in the rate of profit.  It is not in defence of the doctrine of base and superstructure that men and women are prepared to embrace hardship and persecution in the course of political struggle.  Oppressed groups tell themselves epic narratives of their history, elaborate their solidarity in song and ritual, fashion collective symbols of their common endeavour.  Is all this to be scornfully dismissed as so much mental befuddlement?" (Eagleton, 191-2)

His answer is no.  It is all designed to "foster solidarity and self-affirmation." (Eagleton, 192)  

(Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology. Vreso: London.)

Also see my paper "Economists, Parsifal, and the Search for the Holy Grail," Journal of Economic Issues, December 1996.


Modern economists behave like Parsifal. He is a poor and innocent boy who becomes a knight for King Arthur, finds the Grail Castle and eventually replaces the Fisher King as the guardian of the Holy Grail. He has to widen his consciousness and travel beyond his station as a naive fool to discover himself and to reconcile the conflicting aspects of his psyche. Economists should take Parsifal as a model and expand their consciousness to remedy their cynicism and despair, and enliven their field.

No comments: