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+.
The chief causes lie at once in the sins of men and the decrepitude of the world, and the sins there are generally either acts of commission where people do things that they know to be wrong or they fail to do things that they know would be right. It doesn’t really matter. Sins of commission are usually judged more harshly within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but I think there might be a bit of an error in that because sins of omission can be a real catastrophe.
Here’s a flood idea. There’s this idea that a judgemental being will flood you out if you continue on your wayward ways. It’s one of the examples of Jehovah being a little on the harsh side in the Old Testament, not something that modern people really approve of so much because we like our gods sort of domesticated — let’s put it that way. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it tends to work. But I’ve often thought about the reaction in North America to the hurricane in New Orleans because there’s two ways of reading that. One is mother nature has a little fit and sends a hurricane into New Orleans and wipes everyone out. Isn’t that a catastrophe? And isn’t that an example of our fragility in the face of natural power? But there’s another way of reading it and maybe this is unfair, but it will do for the purpose of illustration.
The Dutch build dykes to keep the ocean back, and they’re actually pretty effective at that because their country is mostly underwater. It turns out that if you go to Holland, it’s actually not underwater — and so their dykes are working. The Dutch were very organized people, and they better be because their country is supposed to be underwater, so you better be organized if your country’s supposed to be underwater. They are very organized, and they have a rule for their dykes, which is to estimate the worst possible oceanic storm that will come in 10,000 years and make sure that the dykes will withstand that.
From my reading, the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans built the dykes for a storm every hundred years, and that’s not so good because we live about 80 years. That means the probability that one of those storms is going to come whipping by in a lifespan is pretty damn high. That perhaps wasn’t the wisest of planning, especially because some of New Orleans is actually supposed to be underwater. Worse, New Orleans is a city that’s quite well known for its corruption, so you might also say that a tremendous amount of the money and time and resources that could have and should have and was planned to go towards fixing the problem, didn’t.
So the hurricane came along and the question is, what bloody well makes you so sure that it was a natural disaster? Because if the infrastructure would’ve been maintained and built to the specifications that were certainly technically possible — and would’ve actually been less expensive in the long run to build, and everyone knew it — and the hurricane came along and wiped out the city, why do you think that’s a natural disaster? To me, that’s a natural example (if you think about it from a metaphorical perspective) of a judgmental God deciding to use a flood to teach a moral lesson. You might say, that’s pretty harsh. What about all those flood survivors? Well, the whole flood thing was kind of harsh. Pointing out that there were steps that could have been taken — and also, that I doubt in the aftermath have been taken, even though everyone knows now exactly what happened — is a diagnosis. But it’s irrelevant because what I’m really trying to tell you is how the mythological stories would line up on this.
You can tell a story about mother nature manifesting her catastrophe and potential for tragedy, or you could tell another story of an absolute failure of the human social structure and the human individual level because of the corruption to address a problem that everyone knew was there. That’s a good example of how the flood comes when you’re not behaving properly.
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One of the things that’s quite interesting about the Old Testament and the people who wrote it is that they always assumed that if the flood comes that meant you weren’t prepared — if that’s the rule. It’s like the apriori axiom. You got flooded out? You weren’t prepared enough. Well, how can you tell? You got flooded out. That’s the evidence. You might say, that’s not very fair. Fair isn’t the point. The point is, do you want to get flooded out again or not? Fair would be: you better figure out why you got flooded out and fix it so it doesn’t happen again. That’s the moral thing to do when you’re thinking about morality as walking the path that’s most appropriate to get to the destination that you think would be the best possible destination.
“By the mere fact that it exists, that is it lives and produces, the cosmos gradually deteriorates, and it ends by falling into decay. That is the reason why it has to be recreated. In other words, the flood realizes on the macro cosmic scale what is symbolically affected during the New Year festival: the end of the world, and the end of a sinful humanity in order to make a new creation possible.” There’s a lot of information packed into those few lines that Eliade wrote. In the Mesopotamian rituals, the Mesopotamians would act out the collapse of the kingdom into chaos, essentially at the New Year’s festival. It’s kind of what you do when you make resolutions; it’s a degenerate — what you’d say is our proclivity to make New Year’s resolutions sort of a degenerate ritual. And I don’t mean that it’s bad; I mean it’s the remnants of something much grander.
The Mesopotamians would take their emperor outside the walled city once a year, and they would make him kneel, take off all his king clothes, whack him with a glove (if I remember correctly the priest would do that), and then they’d make him recount all the ways that he wasn’t being a good emperor that year. He wasn’t being a good Marduk because that was who he was supposed to be on earth. That’s the guy with eyes all the way around his head who speaks magic words and transforms chaos into order. That’s what the emperor’s supposed to do. So, you’re emperor. Have a little humility here because you’re not God incarnate. You probably made some mistakes. Can you think of any ways in the last year that you didn’t take advantage of every opportunity you possibly could have to take some spare chaos and transform it into habitable order. That’s a good thing to think about. That’s what you’re thinking about when you make a New Year’s resolution, even though you don’t know it. Could you be a better person in the upcoming year?
You can imagine the flood, you can set yourself straight, and then you can prepare for it. And that means maybe you can stave it off, but it also means that maybe even if you don’t stave it off, you could ride it out. That’s actually the story of Noah. He can see that things are not good and that there’s a flood coming, and God is maybe letting him know. It says in the story that Noah walked with God. Remember, that’s what Adam did before he got self-conscious. He walked with God. But because Noah was straight, and he put himself together and his familial relationships were good — because it also says that — his antenna was working, and he could see a little farther into the future than someone whose vision was completely obscured by fog and chaos. He could tell that things were not going to go well, so he prepared for it. Because he prepared for it, things actually went pretty well for Noah, even though the flood came. That’s an interesting thing because that’s an indeterminate issue in human existence.
How big a hurricane would it take to wipe out New Orleans if everyone was prepared? Well, you’re not going to wipe out the Dutch. That’s going to be a tough one. You’re going to have to conjure up a pretty damn big storm to take out their dykes. How thoroughly defended could New Orleans be if nobody in the municipal and state governments was corrupt? It would be the end of the hurricane problem because that’s something that we could clearly deal with. We know how to do it.
The same applies in your own life: there are floods coming. You can bloody well be sure of that. That’s absolutely 100% certain. Some of them are going to be personal. Some of them are going to be familial. Some of them are going to be social and political and economic. Are they going to be catastrophes for you? Or are you going to ride them out? Are you going to prepare? The first issue might be, do you have your act together well enough to see them coming with enough advanced warning so that you can take proper measures? Maybe just to sidestep it. Maybe just don’t go where the flood is going to be. That’s a simple thing, but maybe you don’t have that luxury, so it is going to be a catastrophe. Maybe someone in your family is going to get really, really sick. And maybe there’s just a tiny pathway through that, that everything doesn’t fall apart. It doesn’t end in divorce. It doesn’t end in death. It doesn’t end in sorrow. It doesn’t end in catastrophe. But the margin of error is slim down to virtually zero, and every imperfection that you bring to that situation is going to increase the probability that that tragedy is going to turn into something indistinguishable from hell — and that’s coming. It’s coming your way — absolutely, certainly. Then you might think since it’s coming your way, maybe the best thing to do is to put yourself together so that when it comes, it can be the least amount of awful possible.
I’ll close with this story. This was a very affecting story for me. My mother-in-law had frontotemporal dementia, and she developed it quite young. She was about 55. Her husband was a very extroverted man about town — I grew up in a small town — everybody knew him. He was charismatic, drank too much, a good businessman, quite a remarkable person, a real character, but not exactly a family man, even though he provided for his family very well. But when his wife got sick, he really took care of her. It was something to see because that’s no joke dealing with someone who has Alzheimer’s for all intents and purposes because they get taken away from you piece by piece. That is not pretty, and then it’s also hard. Not only is it catastrophic, but it’s hard. He just stepped into that perfectly. It was way less awful than it could have been — way less. It was just a tragedy. It wasn’t hell.
I was there when she died, and my wife’s family is actually pretty good at dealing with death, as it turns out. My wife’s sister is a palliative care nurse, and you have to be a pretty tough cookie to be a palliative care nurse. You can do it, which is pretty interesting because that means that you can make relationships with people at the last stages of their life that are genuine relationships and people just die on you nonstop. She’s a competent, alive, alert, fun person. That’s someone you can rely on in a tragedy. Her other sister is a pharmacist, and my wife has volunteered in palliative care wards and is also very good at taking care of people who are genuinely not in good health. So, we were there when my mother-in-law died. Of course, you can imagine, here’s a deathbed situation for you: your mother-in-law is dying, and everyone’s at each other’s throats. You think that’s uncommon? Then your eyes aren’t open because it’s plenty bloody common. Then it’s not just a tragedy; it’s hell. Maybe you can stand the tragedy, but you can’t stand the hell.
In this situation, that isn’t what happened; everybody pulled together and what happened was, well, she died. But what was so interesting was the family actually came together more tightly as a consequence. So although there was something taken away on the one hand, there was something gained on the other that wasn’t trivial. I’m not trying to be all optimistic and “isn’t the universe a wonderful place.” Someone died in an ugly way and it was harsh, but God, it was a hell of a lot better than it could have been. And maybe it was good enough.
Something that I constantly wonder is, if people did what they could to speak the truth and pay attention, then maybe the tragedy that’s part of life wouldn’t have to deteriorate into the unbearable hell that doesn’t have to be part of life. Maybe we could actually tolerate the tragedy or maybe we could even rise above it or maybe we could even mitigate it because we can — we do that sort of thing all the time. It’s always an open question, and Eliade put it very well. Are the floods the consequence of the fact that things fall apart or are the floods a consequence of the fact that people make mistakes that they know they shouldn’t make and make anyway? They sin. That’s to miss the mark because that’s an archery term: to sin. That means, they don’t even specify the damn target, which, you’re not going to hit it unless you specify it. Or, having specified it, they just say, “Oh, to hell with it. It’s not that important.” You have to be careful when you say something like, “To hell with it. It’s not that important,” because one of the things that might happen to you if you say, “To hell with it. It’s not that important,” is that you might actually end up in hell for a pretty prolonged period of time or maybe for the remainder of your miserable existence because it’s certainly the case that people do exist there, and I’ve seen them exist there. And once you’re there, it’s no simple matter to get the hell out.
So it might matter that the things that matter get addressed. It might matter that you do what you can to walk with God. It might be that that is how you build an ark and are protected from the flood even if the damn thing comes — and the thing is it will. This is a funny thing, too, that I’ve noticed about our education system and the way we teach students and their trigger warnings and all of that absolute rubbish. I think in most of my lectures, I’d have to have a trigger warning every 15 seconds. So as I tell my students, when they’re young: look, don’t fool yourself. You’re going to develop a serious illness — at least one, maybe two or three — and one of them is likely to be chronic. If it isn’t you, it’s going to be someone you love. It’s going to be your husband. It’s going to be your parent. It’s going to be your kids. That’s coming. And so is a lot of death and pain. Just exactly what sort of person are you going to be when that shows up? That’s the right question. It isn’t, how are you going to be happy in your life? Good luck with that. It’s a stupid ambition anyway as far as I’m concerned because it’s too shallow. Happiness, you’re lucky; that comes and goes like the sun coming out from behind the cloud. If you’re happy, more power to you. Enjoy it. It’s a gift from the cosmos to be happy. But a pursuit? No, no. The pursuit is, when the damn flood comes you want to be the person who built the ark. And that’s what the story of Noah is about. The flood is always coming.
That’s another thing that’s worth commenting on with regards to this story is, there’s an apocalyptic element to the Judeo-Christian tradition. There’s an idea that the end of the world is always at hand and that you should prepare to be judged. The thing about that is, it’s true. And the reason it’s true is because the end of your world is at hand, and it will certainly come. When it comes, you will be judged because it will be up to you to figure out what to do with the fact that your world just collapsed. That’ll be a moral problem of ultimate severity because it’ll push you right to your limits, and you’ll find out exactly where your unaddressed weaknesses lie because that’s what happens in a crisis.
The reason that’s an archetypal reality and it lurks underneath the entire Judeo-Christian structure — the impending apocalypse — is because we always live in apocalyptic times and your world is always, in small ways and large ways, coming to an end. So what do you do? You prepare for it. You prepare for your world to come to an end. And then maybe when the end comes, you get another world. That’d be a good deal.
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. Jordan B. 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.