I am hoping someone can help me find what is wrong and/or right with the idea of "meta-truth". I am also curious as to what can be problematic. ..I don't think "meta-truth" is defined officially.

Jordan Peterson has many online lectures where he takes a popular stories and explains why we find them to be captivating and applicable to real life scenarios.

One of his claims, that stories contain a "meta-truth" has captivated me. I believe that this would be analogous to Socrates idea of "essence" but applied to stories and what we can learn/utilize from stories.

As an example, in "The Boy that Cries Wolf", we are left with the "meta-truth," that is something along the lines of: "if we lie often, we will not be taken seriously when needed." ...I notice their are infinite variations of the the boy that cries wolf, as well as infinite interpretations, (which leads us to accepting interpretations,the fallacy argumentum ad populum or fallacy of popular wisdom), but if we are to use the boy that cries wolf as a a story/tool we can utilize in real life, don't we need to accept that we must behave as if it has a truth? at some point we need to either accept that story as a some-what true example (meta-truth) or as not applicable.

..This all being said, I could see how accepting stories and meta-truth could be problematic as in cases of religious texts like the bible as true. I don't condone of things like slavery in the bible as something we should re-interpret. I am in favor of cherry picking only the best parts of stories in order to learn. I want to keep an open perspective to a wider interpretation of stories, but stay skeptical.

..Just to reiterate my question: Do you think their is a "meta-truth"? Do you think "meta-truth" is good or problematic? Where can I learn more about "Meta-truth?"


  • "meta-truth" ? Maybe a truth about truth ? Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 8:11
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    Why "philosophy-of-religion" and "skepticism" tags ? Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 8:11
  • Frankly speaking, I'm suspicious about a term like "meta-truth"... It resembles to me to "post-truth" that often means "fake". Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 8:23
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    Is meta-truth supposed to be something the moral of a story? If so, the concept exists for millenia and there is nothing particularly problematic with it as such. The problem is that for any moral one can tell a story with the opposite moral, such as The Boy who Didn't Cry Wolf (and got eaten eventually). The hard part is deciding which "meta-truth" applies in a particular situation, and that involves judgment calls on a host of context-specific factors. Stories are there to suggest factors to consider and decision options to choose from, not "truths".
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 9:02
  • From the lectures I've watched with Peterson, and particularly his discourse with Sam Harris, he seems to use meta-truth not as truth about truth, but as a metaphorical truth: one that isn't in the literal reading of the text, but is the wisdom encoded by it. Particularly, he talks about how the Christian mythology is one which essentially ends the practice of child sacrfice in the Old Testament since our absolution of sin is no longer contingent upon Abrahamic child sacrfice, but God's sacrfice of His son in our stead. His notion is that there's some survival value to ending ritual sacrifice.
    – J D
    Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 6:53

2 Answers 2


Peterson holds a specific (minority) theory of Jungianism, and how and why it works, defended in Maps of Meaning. But his POV includes basic Jungian principles. The point for most Jungians about stories containing a truth deeper than what can be consciously found there is not about the moral or contents, but why the story is engaging. A better example than one of Aesop's fables is one of Grimm's fairy tales. And you would be better off looking at Joseph Campbell than at Peterson.

Hansel and Gretel or Sleeping Beauty do not really have life lessons to teach us. We are not taught how to avoid falling prey to witches who wish to eat us or vengeful fairies whom we need to avoid slighting (much less that all stepmothers are selfish). We are not being taught to take advantage of our opponents' poor eyesight, or yearn after two-dimensional love interests. Nor can one really make a direct mapping to any useful metaphor.

But there is something deeper that makes us feel like we have learned something from the story. We just cannot put our finger upon what. So why are these good stories? What are those things that are there in the story but not in the text? Almost nobody but Peterson calls this meta-truth, though these are generally referred to as metamessages and there is presumed to be a truth in the interaction of metamessages.

The metamessage of Sleeping Beauty is not a moral. That would just be a message, if a bit encoded. It is something different. It is not even directly about the tragic unfairness that power can bring, or the fact that there may always be someone out there who will not give up on us. Those are just 'tropes', another layer of messages, speaking more to the unconscious than the conscious and feeding necessary faiths.

Jungian theory says that a story that survives fits together as a message about archetypes, because these deeper thematic messages are related in potentially useful ways that tell us about how humans work. The fact the story holds together and evolves over time indicates its tropes of tragic unfairness and unbidden devotion need to be linked for some segment of the population, and that this cannot be accomplished with actual advice, but needs a story.

The same kind of reasoning is traditionally applied to the Bible all the time, if less explicitly. It is full of archetypical metamessages. No single family could possibly be as dysfunctional as the one we find in Genesis (or the lineage in the Mahabarata, for that matter). Those flaws and competitions, why the lying supplanter wins and becomes the good guy, why serious taboo sexual nonsense happens, etc... are, presumably, metamessages. And the strange situations are recounted from millennia ago for a reason. They make for excellent homilies, from numerous perspectives. And for that to be incidental would require some kind of superhuman obsessiveness on the part of our whole culture. It makes more sense to think that those stories are compelling for deep, if shifting, reasons. It is from this exegetical tradition that most of Jung's ideas about the rest of traditional literature evolve.

  • +1 I would say the Hansel and Gretel story is likely to dissuade our children for venturing alone into the woods, Not sure about Sleeping Beauty. Most of these stories have a message. Why we have to use the term 'meta-truth' I have no idea and it seems inappropriate. Joseph Campbell is a good suggestion on the topic of mythology and meaning. Far more interesting, profound and on the ball than Peterson. .
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 12:11
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    @PeterJ. They did not wander (the story is not related to Rose Red or Pinocchio, those are stories from kinder, gentler cultures). The husband was ordered to get rid of them. They were taken away once and 'abandoned' but he left them a path back home. The second time, they were locked out of the house, and went to find shelter. There is no neat moral about wandering there. Only 'famine and disease can make people heartless'. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 19:51
  • Okay. Maybe the moral was about stepmothers.
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 15:11
  • It is common for there to be multiple layers of meaning, in a culture where you can be killed for heresy. It has been suggested the gingerbread house indicates a psychedelic experience, and Gretel is initiated into a tradition of lone female spirituality that required intimidation for practicioners to be left alone. The real 'treasure' they return with may be hunter-gatherer knowledge to survive famine, like which mushrooms to eat.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 10:28

The term “Meta-truth” has entered into our world of semantics and is here to stay.

The reason? It meets Judge Learned Hand’s standard of discovering “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” When the Psychologist speaks of a man’s religion as “myth”, he has left many a lay-listener on the near side of complexity. He offends him. He knows there is something BEYOND mere myth. This “common man” has experienced something within the myth that gives him identity, meaning and purpose.

It has become the heartbeat of his community values, of his life. As he experiences his “myth” in everyday life, he comes to believe (through those experiences) there is truth within it. When Peterson uses the term “meta-truth” in connection with, say Christianity, he has struck a cord within many of his listeners. To call a man’s faith a myth within the common meaning of the term does not “fit” with the man’s common experiences within his daily life.

Similar to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton or George MacDonald, Peterson says there is a greater meta-physical truth within the Biblical Myth. It is a true myth. Another way of expressing it is by using the term “Meta-Truth.” Peterson may have coined the term for the current generation, but it’s “true-myth” sister has been around for at least ten decades. They are synonyms.

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