Cowen: Where would you start using the book of Exodus to explain the predicament of the modern world?
Peterson: Well, the book of Exodus, I would say, is a story about many things. It’s a story about social and psychological transformation. I would start by reading it primarily psychologically, which is reasonable if you think about it as a spiritual story. There’s not much difference between spirit and psyche.
Cowen: You mean transformation of Moses as a leader?
Peterson: No, no. I mean that the entire story is a metaphor for psychological transformation. The story is basically the movement from a too tyrannical state of being symbolized by stone, essentially, because the Egyptian state is essentially symbolized by stone in Exodus, and Moses is a master of water, and water is something that flows and isn’t static, unlike stone, which is rigid and has the advantage, let’s say, of permanency along with those disadvantages.
But what you see in the book of Exodus is something that’s very akin to a Piagetian stage transition. Piaget’s idea... was that people organize their perceptions into structures that have a certain amount of internal coherence. You have a structure that’s internally coherent, and it accounts for a set of phenomena in the world.
But then there are phenomena that don’t fit into the structure, and they aggregate, and now and then there’s a process of punctuated equilibrium. Your old theory is no longer sufficient to account, in a practical way, for the array of phenomena that you’re now confronted with. As a consequence, there’s a dissolution of the previous system, and then a state of uncertainty and chaos, and then a reconstruction.
That’s exactly what happens in the book of Exodus. You move from a tyranny. It’s brilliant just on the surface, and it’s brilliant in the depths, but just on the surface it’s brilliant. If you’re in a state that’s too tyrannical, you need to escape from it, and that sounds all well and good, that you should escape from the tyrannical conditions that hold you back. That’s fine.
So do you escape from the tyrannical conditions and enter the promised land? No, you end up in the desert for 40 years. And it’s a mystery, practically speaking, why it took Moses 40 years to wander through the desert because it wasn’t that big a desert.
But if you’ve ever popped out of a system that was maybe somewhat tyrannical but that provided you with structure, you might think long and hard about the fact that you can spend 40 years in the desert.
If you have a bad marriage, or if you have a bad job for that matter, and that comes to an end, that doesn’t mean that you’re immediately where you want to be. You may certainly end up pining for the good old days when the tyrannical structure that you once inhabited gave your life structure and meaning.
Cowen: You’re married. What’s [it] like for your wife?
Peterson: Well, I really like my wife.
And so far, she seems to like me. She’s been unbelievably helpful. She’s really good at touring, better at it than me. She really enjoys it. She’s been an absolute rock through this last tumultuous two years. We were able to collaborate very carefully and negotiate very well with regards to the raising of our kids, which was unbelievably gratifying for both of us.
She’s incredibly trustworthy, so we have a good relationship. I think she has to put up with a lot because my life has always been strange, I would say. First of all, she had to put up with the fact that I bought 300 pieces of Soviet-era art.