Jordan Peterson has been attacked for associating the masculine principle with ‘order’ and consciousness, and the feminine with ‘chaos’ and darkness. This may seem a bit chauvinistic in our post-feminist age—even if there is nothing particularly wrong with chaos in itself. Of course, Peterson also knows that women have forever been symbolically associated with positive qualities like soul, psyche, wisdom, nature, energy, beauty, compassion etc. as well.
Perhaps there is a remedy to this conceptual confusion. What if we say that if the male principal is ‘consciousness’ then the female principal is ‘being’? And by ‘being’ I mean everything that is, that is alive, that is embodied — the world of form. In any case, it is important to remember that men and women have equal symbolic weight and gravity. Being and consciousness arise together: they are complementary.
Consciousness, symbolically speaking, is the head, being the belly or the Dan Tien in Chinese systems. The heart then, is the central matrix where being and consciousness, man and women, spiritually speaking, meet. Of course, every person has a belly and a head, and every person has both masculine and feminine qualities. In a man the masculine qualities are usually dominant, in a women the feminine usually rules but not always. Nobody is fully male or female, except on the most superficial level.
One of the problems with talking about this touchy subject is that the modern doesn’t understand the depth of symbolism, that the male and female symbols encompass all polarities of existence. When we talk about men and woman in the archetypal sense we mean essential qualities that exist in both men and women. Certainly, in every man there is a certain amount of femininity and in every women there is a certain amount of masculinity.
Just because there is a spectrum, however, doesn’t mean that gender doesn’t exist, or that a genderless society would be desirable. And even in amazon societies where women are aggressive warriors and men domestic caretakers of children, the same gender dynamics apply, only in reverse.
Generally, patriarchy has come to mean a violent world run by men at the expense of women, and Peterson is right to criticise this narrow perspective. The ‘P’ word has become too much of a misnomer, and it denigrates the secret powers that women have always had—even if outward social and political power for women is a late development. Furthermore, masculine power is not all bad, just as feminine power is not all sweetness and light. Let us also understand the historical and psychological significance of both the mother and father lineages, of the matriarchy and patriarchy, in other words.
It isn’t controversial to say that the western ethos has repressed feminine archetypes throughout history and men have infantilised and idealised women and a lot worse; however, what is harder to say in the age of #metoo is that western patriarchy, or a world dominated by masculine science, religion, and philosophy, has also allowed for conditions where some kind of emancipation of women has become possible. Paradoxically — and this is a controversial statement — the patriarchy has also contributed to women’s liberation and made possible the social emancipation of women to a certain extent.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny the historical oppression of women—I’m all for equality of opportunity. Only we also have to also acknowledge the positive male consciousness that has always existed, just as negative women archetypes have always existed. There have been countless good fathers, brothers and sons who have loved, protected, worshiped and even died for women. And even male aggression and violence, so-called toxic masculinity, can be used positively if channeled in the right direction, as in martial arts, for instance.
The victim/oppressor narrative is only a part of the story, which also includes great goodwill and co-creation between men and woman. The world we live in today — where women are freer than ever — is a result of male and female sacrifice both. How many millions of men died trying to protect women and children? Was it a higher or a lesser number of women who died in childbirth or were raped as spoils of war. In the end this is just a numbers game, describing a vast mountain of bodies.
It may or may not be true that pre-historical societies were matriarchal as some have claimed. However, some of the earliest known religious idols, such as the”Venus” of Willendorf, indicates that the mother cult was prevalent. Psychologically speaking, life begins as a Matriarchy. For a child, at least in the first year, the mother is primary and the father is secondary. Woman have always been, religiously speaking, the ‘mother of God’.
Mother is etymologically related to ‘matter’, which is obviously why we speak of ‘mother earth’. The patriarchy, on the other hand, is a thrust of consciousness skywards, through and beyond nature into time. Patriarchy is the birth of the ‘nightmare of history’ but also of ‘transcendence’. The matriarchy revolves about natural tides and cycles; whereas the patriarchy is a phallic thrust skyward. The matriarchy represents multiplicity, pantheism, and the earth cult—the patriarchy is the sky or ‘one god’ cult. The revival of paganism is a revival of the earth cult, a necessary counterbalance to extreme monotheism, in my view. Both are necessary.
It’s best to acknowledge that there will always be a tension, a dynamic play — a ‘flowery battle’ to use the Taoist term — between yin and yang, energy and rest, emptiness and form, consciousness and being, activity and stillness, light and dark, formlessness and form, nature and civilisation, paganism and monotheism, man and women — and all opposites that constitute our erotic and creative lives.
Furthermore, there may always be a gulf between the sexes, a terrible abyss, a riddle that cannot be solved. The postmodern attempt to flatten out gender differences will never be successful, certainly in the biological and psychological realm. On the other hand, traditional polarisation is equally undesirable. A subtle and dynamic view of gender polarities can rescue us from the boring political war of the sexes. The middle way is always the best.
There is a Zen phrase which might help us navigate the gender issue. In Zen they say that reality is ‘not one and not two’. To translate that into gender terms: you can’t say that say men and women are ‘one’ or the same, nor can you say they are ‘two’ or that they don’t share common ground. The truth lies somewhere in between. Furthermore, men and women exist in a symmetrical rather than hierarchical relationship. That is why we say ‘the opposite sex’ rather than the lesser or greater sex obviously.
According to some biblical traditions the first Adam is androgynous (Adam is referred to as plural in Genesis) — both male and female. And the separation of male and female, Adam and Eve and the subsequent fall from paradise, the need for man to work and toil and for women to bleed and raise children — describes in symbolic terms the painful birth of consciousness. Men and women, fallen from an eternal union, are always incomplete — and so desire union. That is the simple but deep symbolic equation.
Carl Jung’s brilliant insight was to show that when a ‘split’ occurs in the original androgynous being (in biological terms children are androgynous because they are not yet sexualised) then the development of the anima and the animus arises. The anima is the hidden female in a man and the animus is the hidden man in every female. A man possessed by the anima is possessed by the unconscious female, whereas a women possessed by the animus is possessed by the unconscious male. Incidentally, this explains the transgender phenomenon to a certain extent: a man who identifies with his anima may feel more like a women than a man.
Integration and Transcendence of Matriarchy and Patriarchy
The working hypothesis here: In terms of archetypal stages, we could say that history begins with matriarchy — rises up into patriarchy — and then returns to an integration of the two — beyond patriarchy and matriarchy. We are living in that society, which still has much of its patriarchal trappings, but we are also in the process of integrating the lost matriarchal world. This is a difficult age of reconciliation.
The return to Matriarchy explains the environmental movement, which is about the re-integration of nature in a hyper-masculine society. Matriarchy teaches us about subsistence and enduring communities. Premodern societies, which were arguably more matriarchal than modern ones, existed for millions of years without change. We do not want to romanticise such societies, but they can teach us to re-learn the law of reciprocity in a world on the verge of ecological collapse. The embrace of the feminine in the postmodern world is a necessary and positive stage, even if it has its deep shadows.
The concept of uniting masculine and feminine is common to all primordial traditions, more or less. The native Americans, for instance, balance ‘Mother Earth’ with ‘Great Spirit’. The modern patriarchal society has been more about the expansion and development of masculine consciousness and the ego/individual, which is masterfully outlined in Erich Neuman’s ‘The Origins and History of Consciousness’. Neuman believed that the discovery of depth psychology signals the need to look back to our ancient origins and reintegrate the repressed mother cult.
In the post-modern world, the weakening of the patriarchy seems to go along with the celebration of deeper feminine archetypes, but also a great deal of chaos. We should be careful to understand that the matriarch is not only benevolent—there are female shadows just as there are male shadows. A pure matriarchy is no more desirable than a pure patriarchy, and one without the other constitutes an imbalance. One just has to read Neuman describe ‘castration cults’ in the premodern world, or observe the behavior of radical feminists who would like to rid the world of the male erection, to observe the dangers of female hegemony replacing ‘the man’. It is not power that we should seek but balance.
A more intelligent feminism would focus on the strength of women rather than victimology and would help us to integrate the positive aspects of the mother cult with its focus on community and subsistence. Furthermore, women should celebrate male virility and creativity, along with female wisdom and compassion and notice the shadows of both. Feminists need to acknowledge that an unconscious matriarchy is no more desirable than an unconscious patriarchy—that to be conscious of both poles is the beginning of wisdom.
In order to wake up from the nightmare of history, which is the primal separation of man and women from innocence, the fall from the garden of eden, we have to make both father and mother lineages conscious. And go beyond our adolescent stage of victimology.
Support or contact Andrew Sweeny:
Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits