Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: “Others Play at Dice…”

The title quote (“others play at dice”) comes from Aristotle, and the essay is dedicated entirely to explaining Aristotle’s categorization of friendship through the lens of D&D groups and fantasy stories. So, essay author Jeffery L Nicholas intersperses the essay with examples from fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and also from his own gaming group. Hearing about other people’s gaming stories is eye-glazing by default and Jeffery doesn’t have the talent to climb that hill, but he doesn’t lean on it too strong so it doesn’t hurt the essay that much.

Aristotle divides friendships into three categories. Friendships of utility are friendships maintained by pragmatic cause. Using the example of Legolas and Gimli, this is the friendship that exists between the two when they first join the Fellowship. They agree to put the enmity of their people aside in order to guard Frodo on his way to Mount Doom.

Friendships of pleasure are friendships maintained by enjoying one another’s company. Using the same example, from around the time of departing Moria onwards, Legolas and Gimli cultivate a deeper friendship based on shared love for natural beauty, Legolas of plants and Gimli of rocks. They agree that if they make it out of the War of the Ring alive, they’ll show each other the finest examples of each.

True friendships are friendships maintained by common virtue, and Aristotle believed that there was one, objective kind of virtue, so this isn’t about having a specific moral code in common, rather, Aristotle believed there was one moral code for all humanity and true friendships are built on adhering to it. This is a pretty controversial stance to take, but as it applies to true friendships specifically, it’s less so, since the morals in question involve things like loyalty. It’s not very controversial to say that a true friend is someone who isn’t going to run a cost-benefit calculation on how many resources they’re going to sink into maintaining your friendship, and whether or not your ongoing company is worth the price. They’re going to help you out because they’re your friend, and they want you to be happy and successful. That’s what true friendship is. Not so controversial as Aristotle’s virtue ethics as a whole, and by the time we get to the Black Gate, Legolas and Gimli are exchanging lines that make this level of loyalty reasonably clear, even though it never gets tested (Sam’s friendship with Frodo gets tested rather a lot more, but they’re already friends of pleasure when the story starts, so you don’t see them pass through each stage in turn).

The full essay explains things in slightly more detail, and also has more examples than just the one. It does that thing where it tries to justify D&D’s existence, in this case by saying it helps people forge friendships, which is a lot better than Paragons and Knaves’ justifying D&D’s existence because it’s an effective propaganda tool, so that’s a lot better, but I still don’t like the idea of justifying D&D’s existence at all. It exists because we like it. It doesn’t need a better reason.

The point of this series of blog posts is fundamentally “rant about flawed philosophy essays in a hopefully entertaining manner,” so it’s a bit unfortunate that we’re going out on an essay that actually kind of works, but I don’t want to try and wring flaws out of an essay that mostly works. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d expect from a pop philosophy book about D&D: It explains a philosophical concept using D&D.

So that’s Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy. Now that I’m out of essays to be angry at, I guess I’ll have to go back to producing real content.

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