Before the emergence of empirical methodology – which allowed for methodical separation of subject and object in description – the world-model contained abstracted inferences about the nature of existence, derived primarily from observations of human behavior. This means, in essence, that pre-experimental man observed “morality” in his behavior and inferred the existence of a source for that morality in the structure of the “universe” itself. Of course, this “universe” is the experiential field – affect, imagination and all – and not the “objective” world constructed by the post-empirical mind. This prescientific “model of reality” primarily consisted of narrative representations of behavioral patterns (and of the contexts that surround them), and was concerned primarily with the motivational significance of events and processes. As this model became more abstract – as the semantic system analyzed the information presented in narrative format, but not “understood” – man generated imaginative “hypotheses” about the nature of the “ideal” human behavior, in the “archetypal” environment. This archetypal environment was (is) composed of three domains, which easily become three “characters”:
The unknown is unexplored territory, nature, the unconscious, dionysian force, the id, the Great Mother goddess, the queen, the matrix, the matriarch, the container, the object to be fertilized, the source of all things, the strange, the unconscious, the sensual, the foreigner, the place of return and rest, the maw of the earth, the belly of the beast, the dragon, the evil stepmother, the deep, the fecund, the pregnant, the valley, the cleft, the cave, hell, death and the grave, the moon (ruler of the night and the myterious dark), uncontrollable emotion, matter, and the earth. Any story that makes allusion to any of these phenomena instantly involves all of them. The grave and the cave, for example, connote the destructive aspect of the maternal – pain, grief and loss, deep water, and the dark woods; the fountain in the forest (water and woods in their alternative aspect), by contrast, brings to mind sanctuary, peace, rebirth, and replenishment.
The knower is the creative explorer, the ego, the I, the eye, the phallus, the plow, the subject, consciousness, the illuminated or enlightened one, the trickster, the fool, the hero, the coward; spirit (as opposed to matter, as opposed to dogma); the sun, son of the unknown and the known (son of the Great Mother and the Great Father). The central character in a story must play the role of hero, or deceiver; must represent the sun (or, alternatively, the adversary – the power that eternally opposes the “dominion of the light”).
The known is explored territory, culture, appollinian control, superego, the conscience, the rational, the king, the patriarch, the wise old man and the tyrant, the giant, the ogre, the cyclops, order and authority and the crushing weight of tradition, dogma, the day sky, the countryman, the island, the heights, the ancestral spirits, and the activity of the dead. Authority and its danger play central roles in interesting tales, because human society is hierarchical, and because the organized social world is omnipresent. Authority and power manifest themselves, implicitly or explicitly, in all human relationships; we cannot live – have never lived – without others. The fact of power relationships and authority constitutes an eternally challenging and necessary constant of the human domain of experience.
The unknown is yang, cold, dark and feminine; the known yin, warm, bright and masculine; the knower is the man living in Tao, on the razor’s edge, on the straight and narrow path, on the proper road, in meaning, in the kingdom of heaven, on the mountaintop, crucified on the branches of the world-tree – is the individual who voluntarily carves out the space between nature and culture.
The interpretation of words in relationship to these prototypes (unknown, knower, known) is complicated by the fact of shifting meaning: earth, for example, is unknown (feminine) in relationship to sky, but known (masculine) in relationship to water; dragon is feminine, masculine and subject simultaneously. This capacity for meanings to shift is not illogical, it is just not “proper.” Meaning transforms itself endlessly with shift in interpretive context – is determined in part by that context (that frame of reference, that story). The same word in two sentences – one ironical, for example, the other straightforward – can have two entirely different, even opposite, meanings. Likewise, the sentence taken out of the context of the paragraph may be interpreted in some fashion entirely foreign to the intent of the author. Admission of the property of context-dependent meaning is neither illogical, nor indicative of sloppy reasoning, nor primitive – merely recognition that context determines significance. The fact of context-dependence, however, makes interpretation of a given symbol difficult – particularly when it has been removed from its culturally-constructed surroundings or milieu.
The unknown, the known and the knower share between them tremendous affective bivalence: the domain of nature, the Great Mother, contains everything creative and destructive, because creation and destruction are integrally linked. The old must die, must be destroyed, to give way to the new; the mysterious source of all things (that is, the unknown) is also their final destination. Likewise, the domain of culture, the Great Father, is simultaneously and unceasingly tyranny and order, because security of person and property is always obtained at the cost of absolute freedom. The eternal subject, man, the knower, is equally at odds: the little god of earth is also mortal worm, courageous and craven, heroic and deceitful, possessed of great and dangerous potential, knowing good and evil. The unknown cannot be described, by definition. The known is too complicated to be understood. The knower – the conscious individual human being – likewise defies his own capacity for understanding. The interplay between these ultimately incomprehensible “forces” nonetheless constitutes the world in which we act, to which we must adapt. We have configured our behavior, accordingly; the natural categories we use to apprehend the world reflect that configuration.
“The Tao existed before its name,
and from its name, the opposites evolved,
giving rise to three divisions,
and then to names abundant.
These things embrace receptively,
achieving inner harmony,
and by their unity create
the inner world of man.”
The world of experience, in total, is composed of the known – explored territory – in paradoxical juxtaposition with the unknown – unexplored territory. Archaic notions of “reality” presuppose that the familiar world is a sacred space, surrounded by chaos (populated, variously, by demons, reptiles, spirits and barbarians – none of whom are really distinguishable). The world of order and chaos might be regarded as the stage, for man – for the twin aspects of man, more accurately: for the aspect that inquires, and explores (which voluntarily expands the domain and structure of order, culture) and for the aspect that opposes that inquiry, exploration and transformation. The great story is, therefore, good vs. evil, played out against the endless flux of being, as it signifies. The forces of “good” have an eternal character (in the same way that Platonic objects are represented, eternally, in supracelestial space); unfortunately, so do the forces of evil. This eternality exists because all members of the species Homo Sapiens are essentially equivalent, equal before God: we find ourselves vulnerable, mortal creatures, thrown into a universe bent on our creation and protection – and our transformation and destruction. Our “attitude” towards this ambivalent universe can only take one of two prototypical forms: positive or negative. The precise nature of these two forms (which can only be regarded as complex “personalities”) – and of the background against which they work – constitutes the central subject matter of myth (and, dare it be said, the proper subject matter of the humanities and fine arts).
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief