Let me begin by clarifying that my title is not intended to suggest that I believe my own meditations on these two books are epic. Rather, I wish to suggest that there is, in terms of literary genre, an epic quality to the work of both writers that makes setting them side by side in dialogue worthwhile. Epic, of course, is a genre of Kings and heroes, of individuals set through narrative to fateful engagement with ultimate questions. In the strictest terms, neither Jordan Peterson’s nor Augustine’s works are epics. They are meditations: sustained, focused inquiries. But as they pry into the questions which drive their thoughts, both writers inexorably draw into the realm of the epic tone.
I think this overlap in tone is significant because it means that the progression of ideas and the story of the heroic individual cannot be separated in either writer: it means that the structure of thought matters for the content of thought. And I think Augustine, as the master and model of Christian epic meditation, is one of the best figures for believers in Christ to have in hand when assessing influential perspectives which cannot be categorized within orthodox Christianity. It has been argued that Peterson is a modern example of what Thomas Aquinas would call the virtuous pagan. Augustine recommends that the good things to be found in such resources should be appraised for their value (Egyptian plunder, as he puts it in On Christian Doctrine). This effort should not be undertaken uncritically, but with a willingness, as Peterson himself would put it, to believe that the perspective you are considering could have something to teach you.
Of course, it is hardly new to suggest that the Confessions stands in epic tradition. Augustine himself discusses the influence of Virgil on his young imagination: “I wept over Dido…. Had I been forbidden to read this story, I would have been sad that I could not read what made me sad” (Confessions, 16). The text of the Confessions itself is in a meaningful 13 books. Meaningful because the Aeneid is in 12 books – the worldly epic is eclipsed by exactly one more step in the journey: “In reading this [Aeneid], O God my life, I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from you, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tear to my eyes” (Confessions, 15). As far as Virgil can get you (and as a profound writer he can get you pretty far), he just can’t crest the mountain of divinity, as Dante portrayed atop Purgatory when he exchanged Virgil for Beatrice as his guide.
I don’t know if Jordan Peterson knew of the association with twelve Books in Virgilian epic when he settled on the choice of twelve rules, culled as they were from a list of 40, first “to twenty-five and then to sixteen and then finally, to the current twelve” (xxxiv). He does mention explicitly, though, that he “read and perhaps even understood much of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Inferno,” Virgil-influenced epics which he integrated into answers intended to answer the “perplexing problem” of “how belief systems could be so important to people that they were willing to risk the destruction of the world to protect them” (xxx). The upcoming publication of his second book, 12 More Rules, will in fact put his discourse in touch with an even older epic tradition, to which Virgil owed much: the 24-book structure of Homer.
Of course, Peterson’s first book makes the association with epic only more clear, as he writes retrospectively: “I proposed in Maps of Meaning that the great myths and religious stories of the past… were moral in their intent” (xxvii). From this assertion he derives the conclusion “that the constituent elements of the world as drama were order and chaos, not material things” (xxvii). A similar insight drove much medieval study of ancient epic. It fascinated me, when I read 12 Rules for Life at the time of its publication, that it shared this Virgilian structure, because the Aeneid was interpreted by medieval readers as implicitly the sort of text 12 Rules for Life is explicitly: a psychological guide to the formation of the soul in the face of life’s basic adversities. Virgil asks of his hero’s divinely appointed suffering, “Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show,/Or exercise their spite in human woe?” Peterson defines his concern that way too: as wrestling with the fundamental problem of making meaning: “We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount” (xxxi).
Epic narratives pit heroes against the forces that can tear worthy people apart. Homer asks, How can wisdom and war coexist? Virgil asks, How can the needs of family compete with the needs of empire? Arthurian epic romance asks, How can a noble, chivalrous man inhabit both the Church and the State? In such writers, the individual finds himself stretched to the outer limits of what his identity, to say nothing of his physical life, can endure without being destroyed. This placement of the individual rises to the central concern of Peterson’s epic meditations. How can the individual survive the struggle between the need to articulate value and the need to coexist with people who do not articulate it as we do? This is what Bakhtin called the dialogic imagination: we have to struggle with the inescapable responsibility of interpreting reality, a responsibility which is deadly if refused and deadly if enacted harmfully. It is a dilemma of actually epic significance.
Augustine’s epic meditations are also interested in the individual, but in a different way. His tension is between loss of the self to worldliness and loss of the self to godliness. How can I, aware as I am of my wretchedness, call upon the pure and eternal font of existence? is the question Augustine asks by turns with dread and joy. Like Peterson, Augustine stresses through the Confessions the inescapably first-person demand of the epic question of how to make meaning, but with the belief that the Gospel is, in the final analysis, the complete answer to that question.
I land myself in tricky territory in saying that this is what separates Peterson from Augustine because he makes explicit the deep role Christianity plays in his perspective. He has called the Sermon in the Mount psychologically correct and has refused on stage in debates with the likes of Sam Harris to explicitly deny the Resurrection of Christ (I mean, whoa). In the “Overture” to 12 Rules for Life he writes, “I knew that the cross was simultaneously, the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic centre of the world” (xxxii). But he has also asked, “How dare one say that he believes in God?”, an interesting question but posed, if not uninformed by Christianity, in a manner not in keeping with Christ’s core teaching (see John 7:38, for one of many examples). Atheist and Christian alike, it seems, have cause to be frustrated with Peterson’s stance on this specific question. And not to put too fine a point on it but, as an Anglican Christian committed to the claims of Scripture, I wish Peterson was clearer too, even as I admire his honesty in withholding statements he isn’t ready to make. However much one believes the symbolism of Christianity to be psychologically gripping and even inescapable, the name Christian cannot be separated from belief in the metaphysical claims of Christ’s identity as asserted by the four Gospels to be a matter of history. But this question, of Peterson’s relationship to Christianity, is far too complicated to address completely here.
Fundamentally, however, Augustine and Peterson are engaged in similar projects of epic meditations at times of great social unrest and even with personal stake in the scrutiny to which their beliefs were subjected or are being subjected to. For this reason, I seek to present a comparative analysis of their respective “maps of meaning,” to consider how these two stories of producing deep identification with hard-earned value systems speak to each other when set side by side. This is admittedly treacherous because Peterson’s own work is not complete, but in fact pending soon. And I face the possibility of being misunderstood: of seeming to simply wag Augustine in Peterson’s face to tell him where he’s gone wrong, or of appearing to accuse him of not dealing with some idea in one place where he treats of it in another simply because I have fixed the analysis by setting one sequence of his thought alongside another sequence of thought.
But I am laboring under the belief I learned from Descartes that the best way to read a philosophical work is in the order in which it is written, which is the same way one ought to read, by the way, a story. And I think that there is a story waiting to be told about the space between the epic meditations of Peterson and Augustine. I hope this series will be a contributing factor to bringing that story into finer relief.
Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.