Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Sin, Otherworldliness, and the Downside of Hope

This essay uses Final Fantasy X as the lens through which to examine Nietzsche and Machiavelli’s opposition to religion. The essay draws on Machiavelli’s non-Prince work, so it’s not in maximum edge mode, but it does still describe the situation of FFX like this:

The people of Spira suffer for the promise of an otherworldly reward. They want the Calm, but the religion preaches something more. Beneath the veneer of the Calm is also the complete eradication of Sin, which can be accomplished by the piety of the people. They shun technology as forbidden, in the hope of this potential reward. But should they?

“Sin,” by the way, is the name of the kaiju that constantly wrecks Spira until someone manages to kill it, which results in a temporary period of peace called the Calm before Sin’s inevitable return. So, don’t be fooled into thinking that “the complete eradication of Sin” is a reference to some promised utopia. It’s just a military objective. Also worth noting that the shunning of technology, though taken as a matter of dogma by the people of Spira, also serves a military purpose: For various convoluted backstory reasons, Sin wants to keep the people of Spira too low-tech to explore the ocean, and will prioritize places that use technology for attack. There’s no actual connection between the piety of the people and the final defeat of Sin, so that part actually is pure dogma, but it’s not like the true secret to defeating Sin is being kept secret (the theocratic government is keeping some secrets from the populace, but they don’t know how to perma-kill Sin). People are just turning to faith to give themselves hope in what otherwise seems to be a hopeless situation. Without knowing the secret truth about the Final Aeon (the only weapon known to be powerful enough to destroy Sin but which, unbeknowst to its wielders, also allows Sin to regenerate), Sin is ultimately indestructible.

The weird thing is that trying to attach an afterlife to the Yevonite religion of Final Fantasy X is not hard. There is an actual afterlife that you go and visit. It’s called “the Farplane” and it’s a place where weird astral spirit things called pyreflies congregate. Pyreflies are released by creatures upon death and, when successfully sent to the Farplane, reform into visages of the departed. According to the heretical Al Bhed, this is just pyreflies reacting to memories of visitors, and the reason why the departed can’t hold intelligible conversations is because you can’t remember a new conversation. According to the Yevonites, it’s just a limitation of being dead. The people are still there, they just can’t talk to you.

The ending of the game implies the Yevonites are actually correct, in that (spoiler alert) protagonist Tidus dies and either (possibly metaphorically) ascends to the Farplane with the dead father he’s finally reconciled with. Sort of. In the final battle, he expresses continued spite towards his father, but then in the ending cutscene they’re friends. Tidus being angry that his father died before he ever got to tell dear old Dad how much he hated him was an ongoing theme of the story, so I think at the final battle, confronted with his father’s departed spirit possessed by an evil demi-god (it’s complicated), he just felt the need to get it out of his system, despite having come to understand his father better during the quest.

Final Fantasy X always gets me sidetracked like this. That game’s plot makes sense upon close analysis, but dear God is it a mess in the telling. The important thing here is that the Yevonites do have an afterlife, which could either be a real thing where the spirits of the dead end up or else a natural phenomenon without any particular deep spiritual importance, and the essay ignores that to instead talk about Sin, the evil kaiju which presents an inarguably real military threat to the world, the end of which would be a better world for entirely non-spiritual reasons. It has to do this, because its whole point revolves around people making worldly sacrifices for otherworldly rewards, and Yevonites don’t do that. They do have a false dogma about Sin being a punishment for Spira’s transgressions, but the actual actions taken by the Yevonite religion to fight Sin are simply using the most effective weapons they have to destroy a worldly, military threat.

And this isn’t just me nitpicking the author’s shoddy understanding of the game allegedly being used as the basis of the essay. It’s a foundation on which an important point is built:

For instance, the Summoners who have given their lives to defeat Sin are revered in Spira as religious martyrs. The sacrifice of life, the repudiation of this existence, is given the highest accolade. Any attempt to solve the dilemma of Sin while trying to preserve one’s life is viewed as a serious transgression. Thus, after Yuna refuses to sacrifice herself and one of her guardians, she is rebuked by Maester Mika, “Clad in it [Sin], Yu – Yevon is invincible. And the only thing that could have pierced that armor you have destroyed! Nothing can stop it now.”

The lack of context is in the original, so I’ll provide it: Yu-Yevon is the evil demi-god who created and controls Sin, Maester Mika is an official of the Yevonite religion (which, yes, does nominally worship the demi-god that they are de facto locked in a thousand-year war against – I’m not even sure why they maintain this deception), and he is criticizing Yuna for having destroyed the immortal martyred spirit who held the secret to creating the Final Aeon. Said martyr tried to kill Yuna for refusing to sacrifice one of her friends to create the Final Aeon, so it’s not like Yuna just killed her for funsies, but still, Maester Mika is angry at Yuna for getting to the very end of her quest and then not only refusing to complete it and usher in the Calm, but destroying anyone else’s ability to ever do the same. Maester Mika’s a corrupt theocrat who sends others to their deaths so that he can enjoy the benefits of the ensuing Calm, and Yuna’s “fuck the Final Aeon, let’s just punch it really hard” strategy ultimately works anyway, so it’s not like Maester Mika is in the right here.

Rather, the problem is that the assertion that “[a]ny attempt to solve the dilemma of Sin while trying to preserve one’s life is viewed as a serious transgression” totally ignores the actual transgression Maester Mika is accusing Yuna of: Destroying anyone’s ability to give their lives to usher in the next Calm. The comparison between Christian martyrs who suffer in this life but are blessed in the next does not hold. Summoners and aeons (Final or otherwise) don’t make decisions about this world based on promises of what is to come in the afterlife, as Machiavelli lamented. They make sacrifices in order to affect the world they live in, specifically, to give it a couple of decades of peace from the kaiju that’s constantly killing all their neighbors.

Likewise, this line:

Yevon gives solace to the people that they would be free from the monster Sin, but then it denies them the use of the best possible weapons.

In context, “the best possible weapons” here refers to guns and cannons and other technological weapons. But in Operation Mihen, we see an army gathering in an attempt to kill Sin with exactly that, and it fails. The Yevonites are not suppressing technology in a dogmatic blindness that keeps them from using readily available material to stop Sin once and for all. Instead, they are telling people to avoid using technology because that actually does draw Sin’s wrath and it actually is useless for defeating him.

And this cherry-picking of events to create associations that do not actually work in full view of the facts does not stop at fiction. It also includes a recap of Nietzsche’s completely inaccurate view of history:

Feeling powerless, the common people revolted against the aristocracy. They didn’t revolt using pitchforks, Aeons, or machina because they didn’t have the strength or courage to. Instead, they revolted by using a new mode of thinking that inverted the values of society. With the aid of the upstart Christian religion, they relabeled the values of the nobility, associating the nobles ’ conception of “ good ” with a newly created concept: “evil.”

Nietzsche can be forgiven for not knowing how the Russian Revolution turned out, but he’s got no excuses for asserting that the common people of America and France revolted using Christian values rather than muskets. Nietzsche’s beloved Rome actually had a non-violent underclass uprising that resulted in greater rights for the common man, although it wasn’t because of guilting the upper class but rather because at the time the legionaries were draftees and the underclass soldiers all went and sat on a hill and said they weren’t fighting any wars until they got some concessions. Christianity non-violently affecting change in the aristocracy happened pretty much one time ever in all of history. It did happen a lot in those couple of centuries when Roman emperors and Germanic war chiefs alike, upon being asked to reject utterly the gods of their ancestors to instead embrace Christianity, would as often as not just say yes for no immediately apparent reason except that they liked Christianity, but after that people went right back to killing their aristocrats like normal, with success rates predicated pretty much purely on tech level. Plus, it’s not like embracing Christianity led to any significant political change. The newly Christianized Roman empire was still run by an absolute monarch who used control of the military to enforce his will on the underclass.

Not just when compared to the story and setting of the fictional Final Fantasy X, but equally so when compared to actual, real history, this essay falls apart under any careful examination. And really, despite some people’s claims that it doesn’t matter if an essay does a bad job of matching up with a fictional setting, this is the expected result. Examining a made up history and drawing reasonable conclusions is fundamentally the same skill as examining real history and drawing reasonable conclusions. Someone who ignores huge swaths of the brief and fictitious history of Spira will form conclusions even less well informed when confronted with the far more vast and complex history of Earth.

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