PETERSON: Adam And Eve: Self-Consciousness, Evil, And Death


The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series exploring the psychological significance of the biblical stories in the book of Genesis. You can now listen to or watch the lecture series on DailyWire+.

For whatever reason, there is a lot packed into these stories, so let’s investigate a couple more of them. We’ll start with the story of Adam and Eve.

You may remember that the Bible is a series of books — Bible actually means something akin to library — and these books were written by all sorts of different people and groups of people and groups of editors who edited over and over across very, very large periods of time. So, they’re authored by no one and many at the same time. There was a tradition for a long time that the earliest books were written by Moses, but that’s probably not technically correct, even though it might be dramatically correct in the way that a fairytale is correct. (And I’m not trying to put down fairy tales by saying that.) But there’s a number of authors, and the way the authors have been identified — tentatively — is by certain stylistic commonalities across the different stories: different uses of words (like the words for God), different poetic styles, different topics, and so forth. People have been working for probably 200 years (roughly that) to try to sort out who wrote what and how that was all cobbled together. But it doesn’t really matter for our purposes. What matters is that it’s an aggregation of collected narrative traditions, and maybe you could say it’s an aggregation of collected narrative wisdom. We don’t have to go that far, but we can at least say it’s aggregated narrative traditions. 

There was some reason that those traditions — and not others — were kept, and there were some reasons, complex though they may have been, why they [narrative traditions] were sequenced in the order that they were sequenced. One of the things that’s really remarkable about the Bible as a document is that it actually has a plot, and that’s really something. It’s sprawling, and it goes many places. But the fact that something’s been cobbled together over several thousand years — maybe 4,000 years, maybe longer than that if you include the oral traditions that preceded it, and God only knows how old those are — that’s part of the human collective imagination has cobbled together a library with a plot.

I see the Bible as an attempt, a collective attempt by humanity to solve the deepest problems that we have. I think those problems are, primarily, the problem of self-consciousness. The fact that not only are we mortal and that we die but that we know it. That’s the unique predicament of human beings, and it makes all the difference. I think that’s laid out in the story of Adam and Eve. I think the reason that makes us unique is laid out in that story. Interestingly — I really realized this only after I was doing the last three lectures — the Bible presents a cataclysm at the beginning of time, which is the emergence of self-consciousness in human beings, which puts a rift into the structure of being. That’s the right way to think about it, and that’s really giving cosmic significance. Now, you can dispense with that and say, “Well, nothing that happens to human beings is of cosmic significance because we’re these short lived, mold-like entities that are like cancers on this tiny little planet that’s rotating out in the middle of nowhere on the edge of some unknown galaxy in the middle of infinite space and nothing that happens to us matters.” It’s fine. You can walk down that road if you want. I wouldn’t recommend it. That’s part of the reason I think that, for all intents and purposes, it’s untrue. It isn’t a road you can walk down and live well. In fact, I think if you really walk down that road and you really take it seriously, you end up not living at all. It’s certainly very reminiscent. I’ve talked to lots of people who were suicidal — and seriously suicidal. The kind of conclusions that they draw about the utility of life, prior to wishing for its cessation, are very much like the kind of conclusions you draw if you walk down that particular line of reasoning long enough. 

If you’re interested in that you could read Tolstoy’s “A Confession.” It’s a very short book. It’s a killer; it’s a powerful book — very, very short. Tolstoy describes his obsession with suicide when he was at the height of his fame: most well-known author in the world, huge family, international fame, wealth beyond anyone’s imagining at that time, influential, admired. He had everything you could possibly imagine that anyone could have, and for years, he was afraid to go into his barn with a rope or a gun because he thought he’d either hang himself or shoot himself. He did get out of that, and he describes why that happened and where he went when that happened. If you’re interested in that, that’s a very good book.

Watch this lecture in its entirety here.

The Biblical stories, starting with Adam and Eve, present a different story. They present the emergence of self-consciousness in human beings as a cosmically cataclysmic event. You could say, “Well, what do we have to do with the cosmos?” The answer to that is, “It depends on what you think consciousness has to do with the cosmos, and perhaps that’s nothing or perhaps it’s everything.” I’m going to go with everything because that’s how it looks to me. Of course, anyone who wishes to is welcome to disagree. But if you believe that consciousness is a force of cosmic significance — which being itself is dependent on in any real sense, at least in any experiential sense — then it’s not unreasonable to assume that radical restructurings of consciousness can worthily be granted some kind of cosmic or metaphysical significance. Even if it’s not true from outside the human perspective, whatever that might be, it’s bloody well true from within the human perspective, that’s for sure. 

That’s the initial event, in some sense, after the creation, is the cataclysmic Fall. Then the entire rest of the Bible is an attempt to figure out what the hell to do about that. Everything in it is. For example, in the Old Testament stories, the state of Israel is founded, and it rises and falls and rises and falls. There’s this experimentation for centuries, millennia even, with the idea that the way that you protect yourself against the tragic consequences of self-consciousness is by organizing yourself into a state. But then what happens is the state itself begins to reveal its pathologies, and as those pathologies mount, the state becomes unstable and collapses, and then it rises back up and becomes unstable and collapses, and then it rises back up. After it does this a number of times — this is primarily from Northrop Frye’s interpretations — people start wondering if there’s not something wrong with the idea that the state itself is the place of redemption. There’s something wrong with that idea. On the heels of that comes the Christian revolution with its hypothesis that it’s not the state that’s the place of salvation; it’s the individual psyche. There’s an ethic that goes along with that, too, which is quite interesting. 

The ethic of redemption, after that state experiment fails, is that it’s within the individual that redemption can be manifested — even insofar as the state is concerned because the state’s proper functioning is dependent on the proper functioning of the individual, rather than the reverse, most fundamentally. And the proper mode of an individual being that’s redemptive is truth, and truth is the antidote to the suffering that emerges with the Fall of man in the story of Adam and Eve. 

That relates back to the chapters that we’ve already talked about because there’s this insistence in Genesis one that it’s the Word in the form of truth that generates order out of chaos, but even more importantly — and like I said, I most clearly realized just doing these lectures for the last three weeks is — God continues to say, as He speaks order into being with truth, that the being He speaks into being is good. There’s this insistence that the being that spoke into being through truth is good. There’s a hint there. It’s so interesting. There’s a hint there, right at the beginning of the story, that the state of being Adam and Eve inhabited before they fell, before they became self-conscious — insofar as they were made in the image of God and acting out the truth — that being itself was properly balanced. It takes the entire Bible to rediscover that, which is a journey back to the beginning. That’s a classic mythological theme: the wise person is the person who finds what they lost in childhood and regains it. I think that’s a Jewish idea that Zadok (if I remember correctly), who’s a Messiah figure, is the person who finds what he lost in childhood and regains it. The idea of this return to the beginning, except that the return is, you don’t fall backwards into childhood and unconsciousness; you return voluntarily to the state of childhood well awake and then determined to participate through truth in the manifestation of proper being. 

I’m a psychologist, and I’ve taught personality theory for a very long time. I know profound personality theories pretty well, and I’m reasonably well versed in philosophy, although, not as well versed as I should be, but I can tell you, in all the things I’ve ever read or encountered or thought about, I have never once found an idea that matches that in terms of profundity — but not only profundity also in believability. Because the other thing I see as a clinician, and I think this is very characteristic of clinical experience and also very much described explicitly by the great clinicians, is that what cures in therapy is truth. That’s the curative. Now, there’s exposure to the things you’re afraid of and avoiding as well, but I would say that’s a form of enacted truth because if you know there’s something you should do by your own set of rules and you’re avoiding it then you’re enacting a lie. You’re not telling one, but you’re acting one out. It’s the same damn thing. So, if I can get you to face what it is that you’re confronting that you know you shouldn’t be avoiding then what’s happening is that we’re both partaking in the process of attempting you to act out your deepest truth. What happens is that that improves people’s lives, and it improves them radically. The clinical evidence for that is overwhelming. We know that if you expose people to the things they’re afraid of, but that they’re avoiding, they get better. You have to do it carefully and cautiously and with their own participation, but of all the things that clinicians have established that are credible, that’s number one. And that’s nested inside this deeper realization that the clinical experience is redemptive because it’s designed to address suffering, insofar as the people who are engaged in the process are both telling each other the truth. 

If you have some problems and you come to talk to me about them . . . well, first of all, just by coming to talk to me about them, you’ve admitted that they exist. That’s a pretty good start. And second, if you tell me about them, then we know what they are. If we know what they are, we can maybe start to lay out some solutions, and then you can go act out the solutions and see if they work. But if you don’t admit they’re there and you won’t tell me what they are, and I’m posturing and acting egotistically and taking the upper hand in our discussions, how the hell is that going to work? It might be comfortable moment-to-moment while we stay encapsulated in our delusion, but it’s not going to work. If you think it through, it seems pretty self-evident. 

Freud thought that repression was at the heart of much mental suffering. The difference between repression and deception is a matter of degree, and that’s all — it’s a technical differentiation. And Alfred Adler, who was one of Freud’s greatest associates and much underappreciated, he thought people got into problems because they started to act out a life lie. That’s what he called it: a life lie. That’s worth looking up because Adler, although not as charismatic as Freud, was very practical and really foreshadowed a lot of later developments in cybernetic theory. And, of course, Jung believed that you could bypass psychotherapy entirely by merely making a proper moral effort in your own life, and Carl Rogers believed that it was honest communication mediated through dialogue that had redemptive consequences. And the behaviorists believe that you do a careful microanalysis of the problems that are laid before you and help introduce people to what they’re avoiding. All of those things to me are just secular variations of the notion that truth will set you free, essentially.

It’s a pretty powerful story and (a) it’s not that easy to dispense with, and (b) you dispense with it at your peril. The people that I’ve seen who’ve been really hurt have been hurt mostly by deceit. And that’s also worth thinking about. You get walloped by life; there’s no doubt about that. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. But I’ve thought for a long time that maybe people can handle earthquakes and cancer and even death, but they can’t handle betrayal and they can’t handle deception. They can’t handle having the rug pulled out from underneath them by people that they love and trust. That just does them in. It makes them ill, but it hurts them. Psycho-physiologically, it damages them. But more than that, it makes them cynical and bitter and vicious and resentful. And then they also start to act all that out in the world and that makes it worse. 

God uses the spoken truth to create being that is good, then the cataclysm occurs, and then human beings spend untold millennia trying to sort out exactly what to do about the fact that they’ve become self-conscious. By the way, we are, in fact, self-conscious. No other animal has that distinction. Now you’ll read, for example, if you put lipstick on a chimpanzee — it’s kind of a strange thing to do — the chimpanzee will wipe off the lipstick if you show it a mirror. Dolphins seem to be able to recognize themselves in mirrors. So there are the glimmerings of self-conscious recognition in other animals, but to put that in the same conceptual category as human self-consciousness is, to my way of thinking, uninformed to say the least, but I also think it’s motivated by a kind of anti-humanistic underlying motivation. Our self-consciousness is so incredibly developed compared to that, that they’re hardly in the same conceptual universe. It’s like comparing the alarm cries of vervet monkeys when they see a predator to the language of human beings. There are some similarities, there are utterances, and there are utterances with meaning, but they’re not language. The self-consciousness of animals is proto self-consciousness, and it’s only there in a very small number of animals. It’s nothing like ours. They’re not aware of the future like we are. They’re not aware of their boundaries in space and time, and that’s the critical thing — and most particularly, time. Human beings discovered time. When we discovered time, we discovered the end of each of our being. And that made all the difference. 

And that’s what the story of Adam and Eve is about. 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.

Juliette Fogra is a fine art painter and graphic designer and was trained as a classical musician. She was the illustrator of Dr. Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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