Robert Graves Is A Liar

Robert Graves wrote a collection of Greek myths. It is one of the most thorough and complete collections there is, very well sourced, and contains a commentary on the historical origins of the myths. Neat, right? But as you may have surmised from the title, Robert Graves’ interpretations are not super accurate. Note that we’re talking about myths, not history, so this is not simply a matter of more discoveries having been made since the 50s when Graves was writing. It is a matter of Graves flat-out lying about the contents of his sources. And all of those lies seem to be told in service to what I assume is a fetishistic desire to live in a particularly brutal matriarchy.

Here’s a sample quote from the myth of how Athena and Poseidon quarreled over who would be patron of Athens:

Greatly vexed, Poseidon sent huge waves to flood the Thriasian Plain, where Athene’s city of Athenae stood, whereupon she took up her abode in Athens instead, and called that too after herself. However, to appease Poseidon’s wrath, the women of Athens were deprived of their vote, andt he men forbidden to ebar their mothers’ names as hitherto.

This, according to Graves, was part of a transition away from a matriarchal society where fatherhood was not recognized and consort-kings to tribal matriarchs were ritually sacrificed on an annual basis. On first principles, the idea that a society would kill its most high status men is barely within the bounds of credulity. It’s the kind of maximum status gap that exists mainly in the realm of fetishism. Fictional snuff images and stories are a rare kink, but you can find porn for that. People actually killing their partners is considerably more rare (excluding killings committed in retaliation for adultery, which are relatively common in lawless regions the world over and throughout history – but that’s a very different story than ritually sacrificing your husband on an annual basis not just as the personal tradition of a specific psychopathic ruler, but as a society-wide religious practice).

On top of that, it’s difficult to imagine how any human society as late in the game as pre-historic Greece – well over a hundred thousand years after modern humans with our modern human intelligence evolved – could still be in the dark as to how pregnancy works. Sure, the connection between sex and pregnancy is not immediately obvious, but cavemen weren’t stupid, they just had a sparse population that made communication of ideas slow. Technology was badly inhibited by the lack of roads, horseback messengers, and internets connecting innovators together, but basic reasoning was unaffected. Given a hundred thousand years to figure it out, it’s difficult to see how any culture could’ve failed to do so (certainly most primitive cultures still extant today know what causes childbirth).

So Graves’ claim that Greece used to be a brutal matriarchy which then transitioned to a patriarchal society, with the transition reflected in myths of male figures triumphing in various ways over female ones, is already straining credibility on two counts. Neither ritual sacrifice of high status members of a society nor a culture not knowing about the connection between sex and childbirth is completely impossible, but they’re both very unlikely.

Of course, Robert Graves has a little footnote on that paragraph, leading to his sources, and given that it is possible, we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that amongst his five sources, at least one will report that the women of Athens were indeed deprived of the vote and forced to adopt patriarchal lineage (i.e. the mother is considered to have joined the father’s family, not the other way around) as a result of an attempt to appease Poseidon.

But while you, gentle reader, can probably appreciate how you would expect that to be the case upon seeing that he’s got five listed sources without my commentary, you can probably also guess that I wouldn’t have phrased the setup that way if it were actually true. And as it happens, no, three of Graves’ five sources just refers to the story of Poseidon and Athena giving the city of Athens different gifts and subsequently quarreling over whose gift was better and therefore who deserved the city, and the fourth and fifth I couldn’t find but was from a Roman and medieval scholar (respectively) who A) probably aren’t adding any gender politics to the story and B) were  not even remotely contemporaneous to the alleged changeover from matriarchy to patriarchy that Graves is claiming had to be mythically explained by this story. Sources disagree as to who exactly settled the dispute in favor of Athena (though Poseidon is never judged the winner), but Graves’ claim that the male gods all voted one way and the female goddesses voted the other, with only Zeus abstaining, leaving the goddesses ahead by one vote, that is also totally absent in all of Graves’ alleged sources I could verify (and no such gender war angle is mentioned in secondary discussions of the other two that I found while looking for a translation, when you’d think such a controversial retelling would draw attention).

When Graves claims that the myth of Athena and Poseidon’s gifts to Athens explains the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, he’s not just giving a sketchy interpretation, he’s flat out lying about the contents of the myth.

Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy and Philosophy

I never did a round-up post for D&D&P, so now that FFP is wrapped up, I’m doing a two-for-one.

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy

Sympathy for the Devils
Paragons and Knaves
Is Anyone Actually Chaotic Evil?
Save vs Death
To My Other Self
Player Character Is What You Are In The Dark
Imagination and Creation
Dungeonmastery as Soulcraft
Menzoberranzan: A Perfect Unjust State
Who Is Raistlin Majere?
Expediency and Expendability
By Friendship or Force
“Kill her, kill her! Oh, God, I’m sorry!”
Berserker in a Skirt
Others Play at Dice

Final Fantasy and Philosophy

The Spiky-Haired Mercenary vs. The French Narrative Theorist
Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucalt
Judging the Art of Video Games
The Lifestream, Mako, and Gaia
Gaia and Environmental Ethics in Spirits Within
Objectification of Conscious Life Forms in Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy and the Purpose of Life
The Four Warriors of Light Saved the World, But They Don’t Deserve Our Thanks
Shinto and Alien Influences in Final Fantasy VII
Kupo for Karl and the Materialist Conception of History
Sin, Otherworldliness, and the Downside of Hope
Cloud’s Existential Quest for Authenticity
Is the Fear of Stopping Justified
What’s In A Name: Cid, Cloud, and How Names Refer

You may have noticed that this post is 1) three hours late and 2) on a Sunday. My wifi access is tepid this entire week, so while I’ll try to keep up an average of one post per day, you may end up actually getting those posts in weird bursts. For example, there should be a video GM’s guide post within six hours of this post going live.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: What’s In A Name? Cid, Cloud, And How Names Refer

Despite the lack of coherence across FF games, some peculiar features may arouse curiosity from a longtime fan. For instance, the name “ Cid ” appears in many of the FF games. More paradoxical is the case of Cloud Strife, who appears to be the same individual, referred to by the same name, in different FF worlds — FFVII and FF Tactics .

I am extremely skeptical of this essay’s ability to wring a genuinely interesting philosophical point out of easter eggs.

This essay begins by throwing out the idea of direct reference theory, the idea that names refer directly to specific objects or ideas in the world. This seems straightforwardly true at first, but an example (taken from Final Fantasy, natch) quickly reveals its limitations: The name of the protagonist of FFVIII is Squall, and the name of the somewhat grumpy mentor figure from Kingdom Hearts is Leon. Those who don’t pick it up immediately from character design have it confirmed pretty soon in the story that Leon is Squall. So what’s the problem? Under direct reference theory, because Leon and Squall both refer to the same person, stating “Leon is Squall” is trivial, no more informative than saying “Squall is Squall.” But that’s obviously not the case. While some people pick it up from his similar (but distinct) character design and for others it doesn’t click until dialogue makes it explicit, all players of Kingdom Hearts eventually realize that Leon is Squall, and that is new information for them. You don’t automatically know that Leon is Squall just because you know that Squall is Squall.

Bertand Russell has a better theory of names: Names are shorthand references to longer, more cumbersome descriptions. So, “Squall” is shorthand for “the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII who was trained by Garden in a secret plot to hunt down the villainous sorceress Ultimecia and who was rivals with a fellow student named Seifer who [insert entire plot of Final Fantasy VIII here].” “Leon” is shorthand for “the gunblade-wielding mentor figure of Kingdom Hearts originally from Radiant Garden who came to Traverse Town seeking the Keyblade, who Donald and Goofy were instructed to seek out in Traverse Town and who found Sora as the Heartless were [insert every part of Kingdom Hearts’ plot involving Leon here].” Simply describing every fact we know about a specific object, being, or idea takes all day. Even describing enough facts to narrow it down – “the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII” rules out everyone except Squall, although we cheated by using another name, “Final Fantasy VIII,” to get there – is way longer than just saying “Squall.”

So when we say “Leon is Squall,” we’re taking one set of facts about the mysterious grumpy adventuring mentor from Kingdom Hearts and adding a critical new fact, that this is the same entity as the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII. The new fact is that every fact applied to Squall applies equally to Leon.

This stands up well when we consider the case of Cid, as well, which also fares poorly under direct reference theory. Every Final Fantasy game has a character named Cid (although I think Cid from Final Fantasy 1 may have been added in only in remakes? Certainly he is only referred to by dialogue rather than actually being present in the game), and all of them are different people with different backstories and personalities. Under direct reference theory, “Cid” must refer to some abstract idea that each of these individuals somehow inherits, which breaks down because anything that applies to every Cid (i.e. is good with machines) always applies equally to other, non-Cid characters. Under Bertrand Russell’s theory, “Cid” is a shorthand reference that refers to fifteen and counting different characters. So, it’s not a very good shorthand reference, but it usually works in context, and in any case, that is actually how discussions about Cid work.

This is where the easter egg gets brought in, and yes, it is dumb: Is Cloud in Final Fantasy Tactics the same Cloud as the one in Final Fantasy VII? Answer: No, because the Cloud from Tactics is a non-canon easter egg with purely mechanical function, whereas the Cloud from Final Fantasy VII is an actual character. Like Cid, the same shorthand label is applied to two different characters, who in this case also look the same and have similar abilities, but are distinguished by the fact that one has a personality and a backstory and the other is just a hollow reference to its original.

But objections to Bertrand Russell’s theory aren’t limited to failing to understand how easter eggs work. The essay goes on to give the example of a hypothetical version of Final Fantasy X where Braska, the summoner who (temporarily) killed world-wrecking kaiju Sin just a decade or two before the game’s beginning, didn’t actually do that. Someone else kills Sin anonymously, and Braska steals the credit. Of course, killing Sin with the Final Aeon (the method Braska allegedly used) requires dying so Braska has to figure out a way to steal the credit from the real hero despite the fact that he has to already be dead in order to make his story plausible. But it’s a hypothetical situation, so just roll with it. He ropes Auron, the surviving member of his party, into propagating the deception somehow. Whatever.

This means that one of the “facts” people use the name Braska to refer to is “the man who most recently killed Sin using the Final Aeon.” In this hypothetical example, however, Braska didn’t actually do that. But Braska did actually live and breathe and used that name long before it was associated with a lie. Upon the people of Spira being deceived into thinking Braska killed Sin, does the name “Braska” suddenly stop referring to the real man and suddenly begin referring to the hypothetical Braska who actually did the things people believe he did?

Here’s a simpler example. If Cloud Strife had brown hair, would he still be Cloud Strife? In an alternate FFVII where Cloud Strife was completely identical to the Cloud we know, but also had brown hair, is he now a different person? When we ask “what if Cloud never defeated Sephiroth” are we talking about a different person from the Cloud from Final Fantasy VII?

Side note, the example used by the essay:

What if Cloud Strife died at a young age in Nibelheim and never went on to join SOLDIER?

He didn’t. Jesus, Cloud’s not having been part of SOLDIER was a major turning point for his character and the game is over 20 years old. Just referring to Cloud as a mysterious badass is missing the point of his character arc, but describing him as having joined SOLDIER is just completely inaccurate. Like, did neither Andrew Russo and Jason Southworth actually get through the entire game, or even think to look up its plot on Wikipedia? Why not just stick with examples from games they’ve actually completed? It’s not like you couldn’t have this exact same conversation using what-if scenarios about Squall.

End side note, because despite that rant, the philosophical point brought up here is that if Cloud had died at Nibelheim as a child (not part of the Nibelheim Incident much later but just because, like, he fell off a roof while trying to impress Tifa or something) and Tifa wound up picking up a buster sword and killing Sephiroth, does this mean that “Cloud Strife” the name now refers to Tifa, because she is now a buster sword wielding protagonist of FFVII who defeated Sephiroth? Obviously not, seeing as how in order to make that sentence comprehensible I had to refer to her as Tifa.

Of course, you don’t have this problem if you just assume that “Cloud Strife” refers to a much longer description. If we use Cloud as a shorthand description for everything we know about Cloud, then Tifa can’t yoink that whole description just by picking up a buster sword and killing Sephiroth.

But is hypothetical brown-haired Cloud a different person to the blonde Cloud we got in the actual FFVII? Why not? Like, sure, if Cloud dyed his hair brown we wouldn’t say he’s a different person, but that’s because his hair color changed as a result of something that happened to him (he put dye in his hair – not an earth-shaking event or anything, but it did happen). Hypothetical brown-haired Cloud isn’t the same person as actual Cloud, and you can tell because I have to refer to them by different names in order for the sentence to make sense. Just like with Cid, “Cloud Strife” can reasonably refer to two different things, with which is which being made clear by context. When we talk about both of them at the same time, however, we need to expand their name to distinguish between them, making them clearly different entities.

But, okay, new example: Squall as a child lived in an orphanage with all of his future party members. He then became an amnesiac due to the magic system of the game and re-met his party members at Balamb Garden, the special school that trains high school kids to be mercenaries. Is child Squall a different entity from teen Squall? I had to refer to them separately just now, and a different set of facts applies to each of them. Child Squall has his memories intact, but teen Squall can use magic superpowers. And in fact, most of us think of our younger selves as separate entities. It’s not uncommon (not ubiquitous, but not uncommon either) to imagine hypothetical conversations with past versions of yourself, and the conversation goes differently depending on whether you’re talking to 5-year old you or 15-year old you – which is why we have to refer to them with separate names.

Ultimately, the only limit on when a different name has to be applied is when we need to refer to a different entity, and entities can be subdivided almost endlessly. I can’t imagine a non-contrived circumstance in which “Chamomile in his kitchen” and “Chamomile in his bedroom” would be distinct enough to be worth bothering to refer to us separately, particularly since one can become the other with about five seconds of effort, but if such a circumstance arose, we would in fact use different names to refer to one and the other. In a certain context, even the minutest of differences can qualify entities as separate from one another, even when we usually consider them the same.

Petals and Thorns Illustrations

Those of you who keep track of my posting schedule will notice that this is looks suspiciously like a Tuesday/Friday article, and those of you who keep track of the day of the week will notice that it is Thursday. I’ve had a really terrible routine for the better part of the past week where I write up a blog post first because that’s most urgent, then prep for one of my D&D games because, being scheduled just a few hours after my blog posts go live, that’s second most urgent, and while in theory that should leave me about 1-2 hours to work on Petals and Thorns II before I have to run the game, in practice it always ends up being more like twenty minutes. That’s not enough time for me to get into flow, and after the game is over I’m usually too tired to do good work. Petals and Thorns II is therefore behind schedule for having a deliverable (though very hard to parse – I don’t have the commercial license for the maps yet, so you’d just have to follow instructions in the room descriptions like it’s a text adventure) draft for its March 1st Kickstarter.

Thursday is the only day when I don’t have to prep anything, so I’m dedicating today completely to getting Petals and Thorns caught up, which means I’m having a Friday article on Thursday, which is actually just “hey, look at these illustrations I commissioned for the Petals and Thorns II Kickstarter,” and tomorrow we’ll be back to Final Fantasy and Philosophy.

Hey, look at these illustrations I commissioned for the Petals and Thorns II Kickstarter.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Is the Fear of Stopping Justified?

As is often the case, I’m writing the first paragraph before having read the entire essay, which I usually use when a snarky opener occurs to me and I decide to write it down before I forget. This time it’s because the essay’s opening pages ask whether it’s reasonable to fear death, and I want to register in advance my prediction that the argument for death secretly being a good thing is probably going to be one of those dumb arguments where someone desperately tries to self-delude themselves into being okay with something they’re not okay with.

Now, it’s worth noting that evolutionary forces would make us fear being removed from the breeding pool no matter how obviously superior death was to life. For example, imagine that Heaven verifiably existed and you could Skype with people there whenever you wanted and various scientific experiments had proved to every non-crazy person’s satisfaction that it wasn’t any kind of hoax or illusion. When you die, there is undeniably an afterlife, but the trip is completely one-way, with only video calls being able to go back from Heaven to Earth. If that suddenly happened to the world we live in right now, then it might indeed cause mass suicides as people had no reason not to go there. Our fear of death has evolved around the death we actually experience, and suddenly introducing a far more transparent vision of what happens after death would change our behavior. If that was what we had evolved with, however, we would evolve to fear Heaven in almost exactly the same way we fear regular mysterious death, because Heaven’s out of the breeding pool. Every baby born of people on Earth would be born of people who stuck around long enough to have kids. Genes that encourage people to go straight to Heaven at soonest convenience would become scarce, cultures that raised people not to fear death would become extinct and cease propagating their memes.

So “is death something we should fear” is a legitimate question, for the same reason we should question all instincts that are clearly useful to propagating our bloodline and culture. Such instincts will always remain strong regardless of whether they’re useful to us, and can continue on inertia for a long time after they’ve ceased being useful. Instincts once useful to survival and reproduction don’t disappear because they’ve stopped being useful to those ends, only when they become detrimental to those ends.

With that said, this essay makes the assumption that death is a total cessation of all sensation and being, that death is pure nothingness. This isn’t an unreasonable starting point, because a significant fraction of people believe this and the argument over whether it’s true is a completely different topic of discussion. More people reveal a belief that death is cessation than will admit as much, in fact, which we can tell because people react very differently when speaking of the dead than when speaking of people who’ve moved to another country, and did so even before the rise of the internet made it easy to communicate back and forth across large distances. Someone who believes with certainty in an afterlife should react to someone’s death the same way as someone who’s going to be out of touch for a couple of years or even decades, but much fewer people actually behave this way than claim to believe with certainty in an afterlife.

The problem is that if death is cessation of being, then almost any argument that it is good or even neutral is deluded. With few exceptions, any system of morals is better served by living (or afterliving) adherents than by a lack of being. There’s a few exceptions, for sure: If you’re a utilitarian and also believe that to live is to suffer, then a state of feeling (and being) nothing would be an improvement. And yet, utilitarians who claim to believe this rarely become anime villains who go around killing people all the time in order to reduce the suffering of the world, despite the fact that presumably they would have no qualms evading capture via suicide if they were ever cornered.

People who claim to believe such radical things as “death is a blessing” reveal through their non-radical behaviors that they don’t actually believe these things at all. They might have convinced themselves, but a belief that doesn’t inform behavior isn’t really a belief, it’s a fashion accessory.

So when this essay presents the Epicurean view that happiness is the absence of pain, and death is the absence of everything, therefore death is eternal happiness, the answer is that this is stupid, because obviously it is possible to be happier than a mere absence of pain leads to. It happens all the time. And Epicurus and his followers committed suspiciously few suicides and murders for people who claimed that death brought about eternal happiness.

Having Service Groups In Corporatist Paranoia After All

Back in the Corporatist Paranoia article, I talked about how to take the basic ideas of Paranoia XP’s shift of the game from a communist dystopia to a corporatist one and really make them work. One of the unfortunate necessities of that premise is that service groups must be done away with. The neo-feudal structure of the corporatist dystopia demands that, much like the Computer itself, service groups must be sliced up so that each ULTRAVIOLET has their own functioning copy of each, capable of acting independently from all the others. Corporatism is capitalism gone horribly wrong, and capitalism is about wanting stuff badly enough to do things you otherwise wouldn’t in exchange, and that means that ULTRAVIOLETs don’t have to wrangle for influence over a single government-run PLC, they can buy their own distribution network, and most of them do. That isn’t just in-theme, it’s the defining difference between communist and corporatist dystopias.

But service groups are fun, and there is a way to salvage at least a good chunk of them. Rather than specific organizations, service groups are a set of aptitudes that Friend Computer evaluates for on the tests used for the competent half of the “loyal and competent” security clearance evaluation. The Algorithm thinks that Housing Preservation and Development is fundamentally linked to Mind Control, such that someone with aptitude in one is highly likely to have aptitude in another, and no one understands enough of the code to figure out if this is a bizarre bug or if millions of simulations a second have allowed the Algorithm to cleave reality at its joints and discover surprising truths about the hidden connections between building apartment blocks and filming TV shows.

And since the Algorithm thinks these are closely related, HPD&MC departments at your sector university will give you a rigorous education in both – for an outrageous fee that will leave you in debt for the rest of your six lives – that will fast track you to GREEN or BLUE levels of competency. Like websites cracking SEO in an arms race with the Google algorithm, educational institutions are in an arms race with the Algorithm’s evaluation of these eight areas of competency. R&D is not an organization, but a loose academic grouping, like “life science” and “philosophy.” And yet, the guys from the Humanities departments at ABC University have more in common with the Humanities guys over at XYZ University than they do with ABC University’s own STEM departments. The rivalry between chemistry and physics not only lives alongside, but actually overshadows the rivalry between Harvard and Yale or whatever.

A ZAP sector graduate with training in Power Services isn’t getting anything so prestigious as a university degree, but they’re still inheriting a tradition and a culture that’s shared across almost all Power Services graduates, no matter what university they went to, and since the Algorithm has decided that Power Services and Technical Services are different things with different scores even though they’re both involved directly in maintaining the power grid, the two departments both exist separately from one another and have the same physics vs. chemistry sort of rivalry that crops up between two very slightly distinct sub-cultures.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Cloud’s Existential Quest for Authenticity

I’m beginning to suspect that 2009 was near some kind of peak Nietzsche, a point in time when every two-bit philosopher tried to seem edgy and profound by citing all the ubermensch stuff all the time, and that we’re now living in the era of the backlash. I suspect this because dear God does Nietzsche come up a lot in Final Fantasy and Philosophy.

Nietzsche, in this case, is just used to set up the idea of radical freedom, although he didn’t call it that. Instead, Nietzsche uttered the famous line “God is dead,” meaning that the notion of absolute morality delivered from above was no longer viable in the modern world. Without a source of absolute morality, everyone has to figure out for themselves what is right and wrong, an idea that today is usually considered to be a normal part of growing up.

The essay’s back half focuses more on Sartre’s notion of authenticity, however. Sartre gives the example of a waiter who tries to imitate a good waiter, having stiff and overly formal movements and mannerisms. This is a dumb example, because wanting to be good at a job is something that plenty of people might just genuinely want to do, even if it means straightening out a slouched posture.

Final Fantasy VII gives us a much better example, though: Cloud’s efforts to pass himself off as a SOLDIER. In the first half of FFVII, Cloud is cold and aloof from the rest of the party, committed to his paycheck as a mercenary rather than any ideals. He (allegedly) doesn’t care if the planet is dying and Shinra’s killing it. He even wears a Shinra uniform. After the truth is revealed midway through the game, that Cloud was never a SOLDIER, just a common grunt who played sidekick to Zack, an actual SOLDIER first-class, Cloud’s mannerisms change. Cloud tried to behave like his image of what a SOLDIER was in order to pass himself off as something he wasn’t, not just someone who held the literal rank of SOLDIER, but as a badass anti-hero who played by his own rules and wasn’t scared of anything. It was inauthentic, because the truth was that Cloud was a kid from Nibelheim who never fit in and wanted to do great things to win the respect and admiration of his hometown – but who never did. At least, not until the back half of the game, when he saves the world from a SOLDIER juiced up on JENOVA cells who’s trying suck the planet’s life force out and become a god. That all happened after Cloud came to terms with the fact that his life was unexceptional and kind of pathetic, though.