Jordan Peterson Takes on the Tower of Babel
The public intellectual sees the story as a warning about idolizing the intellect (rationalism) and pursuing heaven on earth (utopia).
In a series of online videos, best-selling author and public intellectual Jordan Peterson provides innovative interpretations of Genesis. This essay seeks to explicate and develop his reading of the story of the Tower of Babel. Peterson sees the story as a warning about the dangers of idolizing the intellect in utopian attempts to make heaven on earth.
Coming after Noah and the Flood, the story of the Tower of Babel begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and few words” (Genesis 11:1). These first people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4).
In Peterson’s view, they want to create a path to heaven and, ultimately, to “build a structure that’s so large and encompassing that it can replace heaven itself.” Using their reason, they seek a utopia.
God intervenes, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built” (Genesis 11:5). According to St. Augustine in the City of God, this language should not be understood simplistically. God does not “come down,” understood as moving in spatial location. God is not a material body limited to one particular location. Likewise, God cannot be ignorant of anything.
As St. Thomas Aquinas notes, God knows everything in creation, not by looking outward and seeing things, but by knowing himself from all eternity as the First Cause, Prime Mover and Creator.
Then “the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore, its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:6-9).
Peterson notes that this passage seems to portray God as jealous and petty. But if God is perfectly good, all-wise and all-loving, God cannot do evil, unwise and petty actions. So, what is going on here?
Peterson sees the story as a warning about idolizing the intellect (rationalism) and pursuing heaven on earth (utopia). Rationalism makes reason an idol, replacing God. It should be noted, however, that warning about rationalism is not condemning reason. Unlike some religious traditions, the Catholic Church champions the compatibility of faith and reason, including the study of philosophy (the love of wisdom). The Church founded universities. Likewise, it is a myth that the Church opposes science. But rationalism goes much further by considering reason alone as all that is needed for human flourishing.
In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan represents this rationalistic approach. As the greatest of all created minds, the devil thinks that he has no need of God. Peterson notes that Milton “had intimations of what was coming, as human rationality and technology became more and more powerful. The intimation was that we would produce systems that dispensed with God, that were completely rational, that were completely total, and that would immediately turn everything they touched into something indistinguishable from hell. Milton’s warning, embodied in the poem, is that the rational mind that generates a production, and then worships it as if it’s absolute, immediately occupies hell.” Those who worship the intellect think reason alone provides all that the human person needs for full flourishing.
In fact, knowledge alone cannot establish the best condition possible (salvation). Knowledge alone does not make us good. To know what is right is one thing. To do what is right is something else, requiring not just knowledge, but virtue. Knowledge alone cannot perfect our relationship with God or with human beings.
The Tower of Babel is also a symbol of utopia. God interrupts the building in Babel because utopian dreams of heaven on earth actually bring about hell on earth. In order to bring about utopia, totalitarians seek strict uniformity in speech and action. Individuals who don’t conform are punished or even killed. As one utopian apologist for Josef Stalin put it, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” Or, in the case of communist attempts to create utopia, without killing more than 85 million people.
Peterson provides powerful critiques of utopian visions. First, utopian visions of equality of outcome seek the impossible. In every area, among human beings and lobsters alike, dominance hierarchies spontaneously emerge. Individuals must seek something valuable in order to remain alive. Whether it is hunting wild buffalo, harvesting Maize corn or harnessing solar energy, some individuals are better at pursuing what they seek than others. As economist Thomas Sowell points out in Discrimination and Disparities, inequality of outcome results from numerous factors out of our control.
Second, utopian dreamers lack humility about their knowledge. Large social systems are extremely complex, and any intervention may bring about unintended and unwanted consequences. Rather than concentrating power in central command, it is much better to leave decision-making in the hands of those closest to the realities in question. They know the local situation best. In Catholic thought, the utopian temptation to an all-embracing world order is contradicted by the principle of subsidiarity: “Neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1883).
Third, some individuals focus on the problems outside of themselves because it is (initially) easier than dealing with the man in the mirror. As Peterson notes, “All of you who made announcements to yourself every January about changing your diet and going to the gym know perfectly well how difficult it is to regulate your own impulses and to bring yourself under the control of some ethical and attentive structure of values. It’s extraordinarily difficult. People don’t do it. Instead, they wander off, and I think they create towers of Babel.” If we cannot even perfect ourselves as individuals, how can we possibly perfect society as a whole?
Fourth, focusing on a utopian vision distracts us from significant improvements that are actually possible to achieve. Unlike establishing a utopia, we can actually become a better version of ourselves. For this reason, 12 Rules for Life focuses on taking personal responsibility for what we do in daily life.
Finally, in Notes From the Underground, Dostoevsky imagines what would take place if we ever did create utopia. He thinks we would be dissatisfied and smash the utopia in order to enjoy the unexpected adventure of life.
In every generation, we are tempted to idolize the intellect. In every generation, we are tempted to create a utopian heaven on earth. The Tower of Babel is, therefore, a story of everlasting relevance.
Christopher Kaczor is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of
and Life Issues, Medical Choices, among other books.