I started writing Maps of Meaning in 1985. I was very upset by the processes of the cold war – by the superhuman energy of the arms race, by the terrible ideologically-motivated battle taking place on the world stage. Other aspects of political and social behavior and conception appeared equally mysterious and distressing to me. I could not understand what forces drove the Nazis, the Stalinists, or the Khmer Rouge. I could not make sense of the human propensity for belief-inspired violence. I had frightening, re-occurring nightmares about the possible destruction of the world. I decided, in consequence, that I would devote myself to the alleviation of my ignorance. I have attempted to do so, ever since – while finishing my doctorate at McGill University, while serving as a faculty member at Harvard and the University of Toronto.
I had no idea where my search would lead me. I came over the course of a decade and a half to understand the meanings of many things that had been entirely hidden from me – things that I had cast away, stupidly, as of little worth. I came to realize that ideologies had a narrative structure – that they were stories, in a word – and that the emotional stability of individuals depended upon the integrity of their stories. I came to realize that stories had a religious substructure (or, to put it another way, that well-constructed stories had a nature so compelling that they gathered religious behaviors and attitudes around them, as a matter of course). I understood, finally, that the world that stories describe is not the objective world, but the world of value – and that it is in this world that we live, first and foremost.
This all may appear as something far removed from the original problem, but that is true only in appearance. I have learned what it is that makes the tyrant, and how attractive it can be to participate in that process. I have come to understand what it is that our stories protect us from, and why we will do anything to maintain their stability. I now realize how it can be that our religious mythologies are true, and why that truth places a virtually intolerable burden of responsibility on the individual. I know now why rejection of such responsibility ensures that the unknown will manifest a demonic face, and why those who shrink from their potential seek revenge wherever they can find it. I learned what I wanted to know – at least enough so that my nightmares disappeared.
It is my hope that the transmission of this knowledge will help those who receive it withstand the forces of ideological possession, and that this will in consequence aid in some small way the establishment of a long and conscious peace.