The Intersection of Carl Jung, Yuval Noah Harari and Jordan Peterson
Symbology, Fictions, Hierarchies, and the unquantifiable power they grant humanity
Why do humans have such power over the earth?
Or perhaps a better question to ask is: why don’t other species hold such power?
Other species are certainly intelligent. The dolphins have a robust language that is still indecipherable to humans, and an African elephant has three times the amount of neurons than humans do.
Other species certainly have success in quite a few metrics. The ants, for example, hold 5 times the global biomass of humans.
But make no mistake―no species quite holds the power that humans currently do.
No group of elephants can come together and make a functional city, and though ants have been thriving across this world for over 140 million years, they haven’t done anything more than―thrived.
Humans on the other hand, make art and cathedrals.
Humans go to the moon.
No other species does such things, or even takes the first step towards doing such things.
Even humanity’s ancestral cousin, the Neanderthals―who managed to live across Europe for hundreds of millennia―didn’t have a fraction of humanity’s current power.
There are no archaeological findings of Neanderthal writing, architecture, cities or anything else.
But humans, no matter what our future might be―currently hold enormous power over the earth.
And the question is why?
There are three interrelated elements that make humans so special
This article will explore three interrelated facets of the human psyche that grant us our power, three facets that have been explored by three interrelated public intellectuals.
And the three public intellectuals are:
Carl Jung, Yuval Noah Harari and Jordan Peterson.
These three thinkers have, in turn, explored humanity’s affinity for Symbols, Fictions and Hierarchies:
Symbols, Fictions, Hierarchies.
To put it in a table:
So let’s explore these concepts with them, one at a time, and see where it leads us.
The parts of this article
This article will consist of three parts, and a conclusion.
- Part 1 — Carl Jung and humanity’s Symbols
- Part 2 — Yuval Noah Harari and humanity’s Fictions
- Part 3 — Jordan Peterson and humanity’s Hierarchies
- Conclusion — putting these interrelated concepts together, and exploring the enormous power they bestow upon humanity
All right, let’s begin.
Part 1 — Carl Jung and humanity’s Symbols
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, among countless other things, explored humanity’s deep connection with symbols in the anthology Man and His Symbols.
One of the themes of this collection―which is also a theme of Fictions and Hierarchies―is that humanity is so good at making and understanding symbols that we stop seeing them.
That’s a trenchant insight:
Humanity is so good at making and understanding symbols, that we stop seeing them.
Humanity swims in a sea of symbols, and you are most likely no exception.
For example, take a look at this:
You might just see the stop sign and stop for a moment.
But let’s explore the Symbology within this image:
There is an octagonal shape, a distinct red color with a white outline, and of course―four symbols in the middle that act as letters to form a greater symbol expressing a word.
And when you see it, without thinking―you stop.
You do not see multiple symbols, or even a single symbol.
You just understand this meta-symbol thoroughly, and you stop.
Let’s take your understanding a bit deeper, and go to a foreign country, with a different script.
Take a look at the scene below.
You might not be able to read most of this, but I bet you can get a bit of meaning here and there―a restaurant, a bar, a street name, a telephone number and more.
And even when you can’t read the script, you immediately recognize it as a script.
Think about it―you are in a foreign country, and though you are locationally illiterate, you still generally get the Symbolism around you.
Take a few classes in Japanese and you might get the Symbolism in the image above a bit more, but you still get a bit of the Symbolism now, and that is extraordinary.
The incredible power bestowed upon us by Symbolic understanding
The power bestowed upon humanity by Symbolic understanding cannot be overstated.
From a flag representing a nation, to large portions of the world uniting under a single religious totem―
To the entire world sharing a common language of math through Arabic numerals―
Symbols allow humanity to unite itself, and share messages across time.
And of course, symbols allow you to read this article right now. It was written in a human Symbolic language, and then turned into a series of computer Symbolic languages, and then turned back into a human Symbolic language on your screen.
Still don’t believe your Symbolic understanding is extraordinary? Let’s show a dolphin a basic, basic symbol.
Dolphins are supremely intelligent.
Again, they are so intelligent that humans still can’t understand their language.
But still, show a dolphin the underwater version of an arrow―
And the dolphin won’t get it.
This is not because they are stupid.
Dolphins are not stupid.
But dolphins―like all non-human species, do not have a human level of Symbolic understanding, or anything close to it.
And because of this, humans get to make cities filled with Symbols, Symbols that are at least somewhat understandable to any other human.
And dolphins, albeit smart, get to be dolphins.
Jung understood the power of humans and Symbols, and illustrated that power by exploring what happens when we remove Symbolic understanding
Jung didn’t quite express that sentiment in those words, but he did explore the notion thoroughly.
And at a high, high, high level, one could say that there is a place where humans visit on a nightly basis, a place where the understanding of Symbology is turned off.
And that is the place of dreams.
You can not see symbols in dreams, or at least not human-made symbols.
Scientists don’t quite understand dreams, but believe certain parts of the mind are less active.
So you can’t read a book in a dream, or tell time on a clock, or see a street sign.
So you won’t dream of a stop sign.
But you might see something like this:
Artists like this have been expressing dreams since art began―and perhaps this nightly turning off of humanity’s power of Symbolism augments humanity’s power in this regard.
We could write a book exploring this subject―and indeed, many books have been written on the subject―but for now―
Humans seem to be more creative and functional after a night of rest, and seem to―among other things―make and understand Symbols better after a night filled with dreams.
Jung went a step beyond this, and felt that there was an entirely new Symbolism that emerged during dreams, but for now―
Humans understand Symbols, this brings us extraordinary power. Symbol-less dreams add to this power in some way, and Jung understood that.
But let’s go beyond Symbols, or perhaps a step adjacent, and visit another public intellectual named Yuval Noah Harari, and his thought on what brings humanity its extraordinary power―Fictions.
Part 2 — Yuval Noah Harari and humanity’s Fictions
Yuval Noah Harari, if you’ve not read him already, has written perhaps the most important non-fiction book since Cosmos.
Sapiens explored humanity’s past, and though it has countless insights, perhaps its most fundamental insight is one exploring humanity’s ability to share collective Fictions.
To quote Harari:
But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states.
Like Symbols, humanity swims in a sea of its own Fictions, and does this so well that it stops seeing them.
Harari’s Fictions are Fictions in the broadest sense of the term
Harari means Fictions in the most expansive sense. He is not just talking about lowercase f fictions―mythologies and tales humanity makes up for its own entertainment.
Of course, mythology and literature are part of Harari’s uppercase f Fictions, and fictional, made-up tales are an integral part of humanity’s extraordinary power.
When Harari talks about Fictions, he talks about mutually agreed upon illusions, illusions that are all around you at every moment.
The most widespread is money, which has absolutely no value save for the fact that everyone pretends that it does.
Harari shows the power of money here:
Indeed, money is probably the most successful fiction ever invented by humans. Not all people believe in God, or in human rights, or in the United States of America. But everybody believes in money, and everybody believes in the dollar bill. Even Osama bin Laden. He hated American religion, American politics and American culture — but he was quite fond of American dollars. He had no objection to that story.
And through money, cities arise.
Think of Las Vegas―a metropolis spawned from a single set of Fictions, and little else
Las Vegas is a city that grew out of an empty desert, not because of natural resources or anything else, but because of an idea:
We can gamble here.
There’s more to Las Vegas of course, but its foundation came from four words:
We can gamble here.
Gambling is an idea, which is a Fiction, based on money, which is also a Fiction.
Yet these Fictions brings something into being which is very, very real.
Las Vegas itself has countless casinos and lights, and has a citizenry which is able to subsist on the influx of tourists.
Las Vegas was built upon countless Fictions, but―
Las Vegas itself is very, very real.
Human Fictions do not exist, but with humans behind them, they make things that do exist
Fictions build more than just a single city―they build everything
The very concept of a nation with borders is an outright fabrication.
In the past we didn’t quite agree on the specifics of these fabricated borders, and that led to war.
In modern times we (mostly) agree on the fabricated borders (though not completely), and there is less war.
But we do agree that borders exist, and every two years we agree that each fabricated nation sends its best athletes to one agreed-upon city, and compete in a variety of Fictional contests that we call the Olympics.
And what is more, these Fictions are flexible.
Case in point, Sweden and Dagen H.
Sweden’s Dagen H
On September 3, 1967, Sweden undertook the largest logistical change in its history.
They called it Dagen H, which is translated as Day H.
The H in Day H is translated as Högertrafikomläggningen, which in turn means the right-hand traffic reorganization.
In short, Sweden decided to have its citizenry switch from driving on the left side of the road, to the right.
They decided to do this because, among other reasons, their neighboring countries of Norway and Finland drove on the right-hand side.
Fictions become more powerful when more people buy into them, and since 5 million right-hand driving cars crossed the border every year, the government of Sweden soon understood that it had to switch its own driving Fiction.
The government of Sweden agreed to do this in 1963, setting a date 4 years hence to make the Fiction switch.
They implemented a large-scale planning initiative, and even made its own Symbolic logo:
And the result?
There were a few accidents, but there were less than the daily average, so it was not that bad.
This shows that not only are humans good at making Fictions, but we are inordinately flexible.
It might appear that four years to make a single Fictional change is far from flexible, but compared to any other species, humans are incomprehensibly flexible.
When you compare the flexibility of human Fictions to other species, there is no contest
To quote Yuval Noah Harari from his book Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow:
Bees cooperate in very sophisticated ways, but they cannot reinvent their social system overnight. If a hive faces a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot, for example, guillotine the queen and establish a republic.
Bee colonies can grow as large as 80,000 bees, and in a very rudimentary sense, their colonies hold certain Fictions.
Each colony has a single mating queen, which the rest of the colony protects, feeds and services.
There are castes of drones and workers, and though there is no law of physics requiring each bee to do her or his part, they do what they are programmed to do, and do not deviate from this.
These Fictional roles are born of genetic programming and evolution, and they do not really change from generation to generation.
In short, humans can decide to change driving sides in a few short years, or change their government whenever they wish, but bees can’t change anything.
And this ability to change Fictions is a flexibility unique to humans.
Perhaps it is this flexibility of Fictions that allow us to spread over every continent on earth, and even go to the Moon.
Regardless, this ability to change gives humanity enormous power.
What happens when you remove Fictions from human society?
We were able to remove Jung’s Symbolic understanding from the human experience with dreams, but Fictions seem a bit more intractable.
An individual can understand symbols, but Fictions hold a weight born of societal understanding.
In other words, whether or not you understand what a dollar bill is, the rest of the world ensures that it still holds value.
But let’s give it a shot, at least with a thought experiment.
The removal of Fictions leads to anarchy, though only a momentary one
If you remove human Fictions from a situation, it leads to anarchy.
But still, this anarchy is not a persistent one.
Think of the most extreme scenario possible, albeit a (small f) fictional one.
Think of every zombie-apocalypse tale you have ever read or watched.
One of the tropes of that genre is:
Our heroes have escaped the first wave of zombie attacks, and we are now at the midway point of the tale.
Our heroes follow a radio signal until they see a barbed-wire fence. There is a makeshift but still solid gate ahead, and our heroes raise their hands as somewhat-uniformed men in turrets eye them suspiciously.
They are accepted and enter this protected society of the living.
And then after a short period of peace, things get surprisingly more difficult―
Our heroes find that this zone of the living is far more perilous than the outer world of the undead.
It’s a trope, it’s (small f) fiction, but this type of tale belies a hidden power of humanity
In this fictional type of tale, our heroes escape a collapsed society where all Fictions have disappeared.
Money is meaningless, and there are no laws.
So they eventually find an enclave with a set of reconstructed Fictions.
These reconstructed Fictions soon reveal themselves to be corrupted Fictions, or rather Fictions that benefit the fiercest members at the top of the enclave, at the expense of everyone else, and our heroes spend the second half of the tale escaping these Fictions, or perhaps fighting them in the hopes of replacing them with more ideal Fictions.
But let’s not think of such tales.
Let’s just think of the concept of Fiction removal, be it by societal collapse or any other means.
When humans find their Fictions removed, they replace them rather quickly
Imagine that instead of Fiction removal by zombie apocalypse, or any other societal collapse, a bunch of humans find themselves on a deserted, isolated, but rather fruitful island.
This is not a supernatural scenario like in the TV series Lost. This is just an island, and a group of people.
In such a scenario, money would cease to have meaning, and so would everything else. No more Fictions would exist.
What would happen?
No one knows for sure of course, but the most likely scenario is that some new culture would emerge, and emerge rather quickly.
There would be a new set of societal norms, a new set of rules, and perhaps even a new language.
Humanity would adapt as they have before.
Human Fictions are flexible, and this gives humanity a power born of flexibility
Humans can thrive if left alone on an island, and can thrive if left alone on most any piece of land.
That is the power of human Fictions, a power that allowed humanity to spread across the earth, and then adapt to nearly whatever environment in which they arrived.
But there is one more facet of human power we are going to explore.
Let’s take a step adjacent to Fictions, and explore the power of human Hierarchies, with the public intellectual Jordan Peterson.
Part 3 — Jordan Peterson and humanity’s Hierarchies
A quick preamble―let’s avoid the controversy for now
Jordan Peterson is currently a somewhat controversial public intellectual.
In this article writer’s opinion, Dr. Peterson has 1000 ideas, 995 of which are decidedly non-controversial.
Let’s stick to the non-controversial part of his prodigious output.
He has even come under (perhaps warranted) critiques for his reverence for current societal Hierarchies.
We won’t even explore that part of his opinions.
What we will explore is his idea that human Hierarchies exist.
Because human Hierarchies do exist.
Regardless of your beliefs, human Hierarchies, like Symbols and Fictions, are everywhere.
We make and understand Hierarchies so well that we stop seeing them.
Let’s explore this by having a (lowercase) fictional normal beginning of a workday.
The beginning of a workday, which is a swim through countless invisible human Hierarchies
You wake up at 6:00 AM to the sound of a humorous set of radio DJs on your clock-radio. There are three radio DJs laughing together. One is the main one, who is not as humorous, but does most of the talking. The second is the crazy one who says crazy things, crazy things that make the other two laugh. The third person reads traffic reports and sports scores, and though he or she contributes to the discussion at other times, this person tends to count their words.
You turn off the radio, clean yourself and then put on your work clothes―these clothes might be a uniform, a suit or jeans―but regardless you dress appropriately to your profession.
You then walk downstairs, pass by the housing unit designated for the apartment manager, and then you remember that you forgot to get the mail yesterday. You open your mail slot, and find mail addressed to you, mail that was brought by a uniformed mail carrier the day before.
After returning the mail to your place (which, since you pay a landlord the required unit of Fictional and Symbol-covered currency, only you are allowed to enter), you head out into the world.
And you want coffee.
You enter the coffeeshop, and stand in the ultimate expression of democracy―the line.
In the line (or queue if you live within the Fictional borders of the British Commonwealth), everyone is equal.
You can not advance in a line, or let someone ahead of you―everyone is equal, including those behind you.
When it is your turn, you sit on one side of a barrier while a cashier-class barista takes your order.
You then make an order in the store-dependent coffee dialect (Venti half-caf with two pumps sometimes, and Large half-decaffeinated with vanilla powder at other times), and the cashier-class barista sends your order down the according cascade of other baristas.
You eventually get a coffee with your name-Symbols on it, and you can then stay in the store or leave.
You decide to leave, and that is where the Hierarchies of this world really begin to surround you.
Human society is one gigantic pool of semi-visible Hierarchies
You walk outside and see a police person, but a certain type of police person.
This police person is designated as a traffic-director, and every human being in their vicinity does exactly what they command.
Even the most anti-authority driver won’t even consider the possibility of disobeying a traffic cop.
Regardless, you walk on the street towards your place of work, and swim through another sea of Hierarchies.
There are suited businesswomen headed somewhere important, and skater kids headed to somewhere they can skate.
There are couriers and drivers, bike messengers, restaurant workers and soon-to-be restaurant patrons.
You have no obligation to them aside from leaving them alone, but you can probably ascertain their place in the Hierarchy, often by their clothes alone.
And then you pass by this person.
Biker people are tough guys, right?
You don’t really worry about them when you walk by them in real life, because the implicit understanding here is that Though biker people in the societal Hierarchy are tough, if you do not mess with them, they will not mess with you.
So you walk by the biker person without a second thought, and perhaps without noticing they are there.
You find your building of work, and then find your designated floor and your designated desk.
No matter where you work, you are in an established Hierarchy now.
Even if you work in the flattest of flat companies, you are in a Hierarchy.
Regardless, on your lunch break you leave the building, and see something that disturbs you.
And it disturbs you because what you see represents a small violation of the societal Hierarchy.
The small violation of the Hierarchy that leaves you shaken
This is what you see after you leave the building:
This person is mentally ill.
And this is not to disparage the segment of our population that is mentally ill and unhoused. There are a complex set of conditions that led each person to that place.
But in the moment, when you see a mentally ill person walking towards you in the street, you might tense up, and might even put another stranger in between you and the approaching person.
You might even go to the other side of the street so you can avoid the situation altogether.
A mentally ill stranger disturbs you because they live and act outside of the societal Hierarchy
Jordan Peterson noted this in one of his many lectures, and we will paraphrase this here.
But in general, you do not fear the biker person, even the heavily-tattooed biker person with a scowl. You do not fear this person because they hold a place in the societal Hierarchy, and they respect the societal Hierarchy just as much as you do.
If you do not mess with the biker person, they will not mess with you.
Nor do you fear the businessperson walking by, even though they might be a psychopath.
But you see a single mentally ill person, and your fight or flight response is immediately engaged.
This unpredictable person does not―or rather suggests a chance that he or she might not―respect the societal Hierarchy.
Those who do not live within the societal Hierarchy disturb you―you and everyone else
You are not the only one disturbed by a person behaving unpredictably in the street.
And because of this―the situation might resolve itself in some regard.
Societal Hierarchies tend to reinforce themselves, and a meta-Hierarchy like a public street is no exception.
If enough citizens are disturbed by an unpredictable Hierarchy-detractor, a police person or social worker will come in shortly and resolve the problem.
As evidence of how societal Hierarchies tend to reinforce themselves―think back over your past walks to work
Or think about your walks to anywhere, for that matter.
The vast majority of your walks were blissfully unmemorable, with neither danger nor anything out of the ordinary.
The public streets tend to clear themselves of any person who does not respect the greater societal Hierarchy.
And this is because humans are very good at both making and maintaining Hierarchies.
And this power of Hierarchy lends humanity a global power.
Go to any town, city or metropolis―and there is a certain amount of order, and a certain amount of functionality.
And this is because of the human power to make and recognize Hierarchies―Hierarchies that are extremely flexible.
Let’s first recap everything we have explored so far, and put it into a chart.
These three concepts are inextricably interwoven.
Think of a political rally―there might be hats in the audience with Symbolic colors, and a Hierarchy of speakers with Fictional titles and powers speaking in succession.
Regardless of the political rally’s message―it is filled with Symbols, Fictions and Hierarchies―and only humans can pull off such a thing.
Humans, in fact, pull off such things all the time, with relative ease.
Other species cannot do such things, or even take the first step towards doing such a thing
Dolphins cannot hold a political rally, despite the fact that they have a language that might be even more robust than a human language.
Even the higher primates, with their dexterous fingers, are not able to do what humans do―or even take the first step.
Orangutans have great intelligence and dexterous fingers, but no buffoonery (a human term for a group of orangutans) will ever demarcate the entrance to their nests with woven garlands of flowers.
And when it comes to Hierarchies―
A colony of ants has a robust societal Hierarchy, but their divisions of roles are radically inflexible. They cannot decide to change their societal structure―and will change only when evolution compels them to do this.
Humans, on the other hand, swim in a sea of their own Symbols, Fictions and Hierarchies.
And perhaps there is no better, and no more incredible example of this than the Olympics.
The Olympics — Symbols, Fictions and Hierarchies on a global level
Every two years, the world comes together to play Fictional games against each other, in the hopes of winning Symbolic medals for their Fictional countries, medals that will be delivered on a Hierarchical tri-level podium.
And this is truly global cooperation. 7 billion humans, from 195 separate countries, all agree to take part in this Symbolic, Fictional and Hierarchical event.
No other species on earth could do that.
In fact, no other species on earth could take the first step towards doing that.
When it comes to Symbological, Fictional and Hierarchical power―
Humanity won the jackpot in this regard, while the other species didn’t even know there was a game to be played.
What is the source of this power?
Jung’s writing might suggest the primary power of humanity is Symbolic understanding, and perhaps humanity’s Fictions and Hierarchies come from that.
Read Harari’s Sapiens and you might conclude that the primary force is Fiction understanding, and perhaps humanity’s Symbols and Hierarchies come from that.
Neither of those explanations might have any real meaning.
Perhaps the answer is prosaic:
There might be some part of our mind that allows us to bring all three into being.
But even if the answer is forever a mystery, Jung’s Symbolism, Harari’s Fictions and Peterson’s Hierarchies give humanity incredible power.
This we know, and for this reason humanity rules the earth―at least in the current moment.
Jonathan Maas has made one independent movie — Spanners, which is available on YouTube — and has a few books on Amazon. You can contact him through Medium, or through Goodreads.com/JMaas.