Elemental Synthesis: The Virtue Ethics of Elemental Dualism
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Alexander Ioakimidis is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. He is one of the original founders of Solar Studios, and had a vision for how a unique system of thought could guide the factions and people you will encounter in Redsky. This is an in-depth article about how to interpret Elemental Dualism, or the Elements, as a system of virtue ethics.
For a primer on how Elemental Dualism works, read this first.
Elemental Dualism, or the Elements, is first and foremost a system for understanding the archetypes (or themes) that make up personal and collective identities.
Each of the Elements (Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Void, and Aether) corresponds to an extreme position in one of three spectrums (or axes) of personhood:
(1) The Emotional Spectrum (Fire and Water)
(2) The Intellectual Spectrum (Air and Earth)
(3) The Social Spectrum (Void and Aether)
If you're a visual person, the image below should help you orient yourself to the basic framework of Elemental Dualism:
Fire, Air, and Void (on the right-hand side of each spectrum) are the chaotic Elements, representing chaotic emotion (Fire), chaotic intellect (Air), and chaotic society (Void).
Water, Earth, and Aether (on the left-hand side of each spectrum) are the orderly Elements, representing orderly emotion (Water), orderly intellect (Earth), and orderly society (Aether).
Beneath each Element's symbol are some (but not all*) of the concepts associated with that Element. The terms in white text roughly correspond to virtues (or good traits), whereas the terms in red text are vices (or bad traits).
* (For a more complete list of the virtues and vices associated with each Element, check out the tables Ken and I made here!)
Essential to Elemental Dualism, then, is the fact that each Element comes with its own family of virtues and vices, where no single Element is wholly good or wholly bad. In the branch of philosophy known as normative ethics, the study of good and bad character traits (and their relationships to each other) is known as virtue ethics.
So Elemental Dualism is inherently a system for analyzing personal and cultural identities into six distinct Elements, where each of these Elements further analyses into closely related bundles (or groupings) of good and bad traits.
In this article, I will expand on and explore this basic ethical component of the Elements. I will attempt to weave a handful of insights on the moral status of Elemental Dualism into a more coherent system of virtue ethics. For reasons that will become clear, I call this system Elemental Synthesis.
Virtue and Vice
As mentioned, each Element comes with (or consists in) a set of good, or virtuous characteristics (virtues) and a set of bad, or vicious characteristics (vices).
On this point, two questions naturally arise:
(1) So which characteristics are virtuous, and which are vicious?
(2) Are some traits objectively virtuous (and others objectively vicious), or is the moral status of traits entirely subjective?
This second question is particularly thorny. Not only is it divisive, but 'objective' and 'subjective' can mean shockingly different things to different people. For these reasons, I won't be weighing in on the 'objective vs. subjective' debate, at least not here.
I will instead bypass the controversy around question (2) by defining 'virtue' and 'vice' as follows:
(1a) Which characteristics are virtues?
Virtuous characteristics are those which you can recognize (often more readily in yourself than in others) as leading to and essential for a good life.
(1b) And which characteristics are vices?
Vicious characteristics are those which you can recognize (often more readily in others than in yourself) as either harmful or as a hindrance to leading a good life.
To be sure, people can (and very often do) recognize virtue in others and vice in themselves. For instance, people recognize virtue in others whenever they look up to the character, actions, or accomplishments of others. Similarly, people recognize vice in themselves whenever they take stock of their own mistakes and weaknesses.
Nevertheless, as a rule (which certainly admits of exceptions), people are typically better at identifying their own strengths than their own weaknesses. Likewise, people are typically better at identifying the weaknesses of others than the strengths of others.
These recognition biases aside, the gist of how I am defining virtue and vice is just this: virtues are those traits which lead to and are essential for a good life, whereas vices are those traits which are either harmful or hinder one from leading a good life.
Natural Virtues and Natural Vices
Depending on which Elements a person or society has (or more accurately: where they lie on each of the three elemental axes), they will have certain ‘natural’ virtues and vices, where these are the virtues and vices which come more easily or readily to them.
For instance, someone who is Fire is naturally more outgoing and adventurous, and so these virtues come more easily -- or naturally -- to them. Similarly, someone who is Water is naturally more mindful and disciplined, and so these virtues come more easily -- or naturally -- to them. Likewise, someone who is Fire is naturally more given to excess, and so this vice comes more readily -- or naturally -- to them. Similarly, someone who is Water is naturally more judgmental of others, and so this vice comes more readily -- or naturally -- to them.
Most people and cultures can be described by giving the Elements which best describe them. Core to Elemental Dualism, then, is the idea that a person or society is more likely to express the virtues and vices associated with their Elements. Indeed, that's what it means to have those Elements.
The Cultivation of Virtue
If at most three Elements are natural to any one person or culture, then it follows that the virtues of the remaining three Elements will not be natural to them.
So for any one person or culture, there will be three sets of 'natural' virtues (corresponding to their three natural Elements), and three sets of 'non-natural' virtues (corresponding to their three non-natural Elements).
Natural virtue, I mentioned, comes relatively easily. Relative to what? To non-natural virtue. Virtues which are non-natural (to a person or culture) are much more difficult to achieve. Their maintenance alone is a tenuous balancing act.
For instance, someone who is Water is not naturally very outgoing or adventurous (where these are some of Fire's virtues), and so has to constantly exert effort if they are to cultivate these virtues. Likewise, someone who is Fire is not naturally very mindful or disciplined (where these are some of Water's virtues), and so has to constantly exert effort if they are to cultivate these virtues.
In other words, virtues which are not natural require cultivation. Without constant attention and reinforcement, they wither away.
The Relationship between Virtue and Vice
Virtues, I mentioned, are those traits which lead to and are essential for a good life, whereas vices are those traits which are either harmful or hinder one from leading a good life.
So what relationship, if any, is there between virtue and vice?
If virtue is essential to leading a good life, then the absence of all virtue is an absolute hindrance to leading a good life. So the absence of all virtue is absolute vice.
Similarly, if vice is a hindrance to leading a good life, then the absence of all vice is a life without hindrances to good living. This practically guarantees the good life. So the absence of all vice is absolute virtue.
It would seem, then, that virtue and vice are inversely related; as virtue increases, vice decreases, and vice versa.
But then, surely not all virtues and vices are inversely related. For as I have already said, the virtues and vices belonging to the same Element seem to be directly (rather than inversely) related.
To use the same example as before: someone who is Fire is naturally more outgoing and adventurous, and so these virtues come more easily to them. At the same time, someone who is Fire is naturally more given to excess, and so this vice also comes more readily to them. So far be it from an inverse relationship, the relationship (for instance) between the virtue of adventurousness and the vice of excess (both belonging to Fire) seems to be direct: each makes the other more (rather than less) likely.
So clearly not all virtues and vices are inversely related. This then raises the obvious question:
So which virtues and vices are inversely related?
The answer lies in the fact that each of the Elements belongs to its own dichotomy. Recall that Fire is opposite to Water, Air is opposite to Earth, and Void is opposite to Aether.
Now, you might wonder: in what sense are these Elements opposite? Well, in the sense that each pair of opposing Elements is inversely related. For instance, to be more Water is to be less Fire, and vice versa.
And in what way 'more,' and in what way 'less'? Well, in precisely this way: to have more of the virtues of Water is to have fewer of the vices of Fire, and vice versa.
More generally, then, the virtues of each Element are inversely related to the vices of the opposite Element. For example, consider someone who is Fire. They are naturally more outgoing, adventurous, and willing to try new things. As a consequence, someone with these virtuous characteristics is less likely to be judgmental, cloistered, or overly cautious (where these are some of the vices of Water). Or again, consider someone who is Water. They are naturally more mindful, disciplined, and guided by principles. As a consequence, someone with these virtuous characteristics is less likely to be disrespectful, lacking in self-control, or shallow (where these are some of the vices of Fire).
In a phrase, the relationship between virtue and vice is just this: for a person or culture to express one Element’s virtues is to make it less likely that they express the opposite Element’s vices, and vice versa.
The Unity of the Elements
As mentioned, individuals and cultures can be described by giving their (natural) Elements. Although this is true, the notion of 'having' some Elements and 'not having' others can be misleading. For it gives the false impression that it is possible for some of the Elements to be completely absent.
Whatever a person or culture's natural Elements are, all six of the Elements are always present and united in some admixture. For the Elements are the necessary parts of each person’s psychology and (in a more abstract sense) the threads woven into each society’s complex fabric of norms.
For example, even in societies which worship pleasure (which is to manifest Fire in the extreme), they inevitably make a principle of pleasure. They idolize pleasure. They idealize pleasure by declaring it the greatest good (and perhaps even the only good). But notice this: 'worship,' 'principles,' 'ideals,' -- these terms and concepts are distinctly Water. So even in this most extreme of Fire examples, Water is inevitably present. This is because at a fundamental or basic level, all six of the Elements are united.
In other words, for any given person or culture, there is a specific sense that all six of the Elements are unavoidable and ever present. No Element can be wholly removed from a person or culture. A person's natural Elements may dominate in their expression, but never to the total exclusion of the other (non-natural) Elements.
In other words, the unity of the Elements is just this: that in any person or society, all six Elements are ever present, and that none can ever really be removed.
Well, if all six Elements are unavoidable and ever present, what happens when a person completely demonizes an Element? What happens when a culture attempts to eliminate or repress an Element entirely?
Well, failure. By the unity of the Elements, it is simply not possible to eliminate an Element entirely. Many have tried, and the result is the mere repression of an Element, rather than its elimination.
Failure or not, the result is worth considering. I call it antinomy. To put the matter more exactly, whenever a Element is rejected as important, and there is an attempt (either personally or culturally) to do away with it, the result is an antinomy.
Antinomy comes from the Greek ‘anti,’ meaning ‘against’ or ‘opposed to,’ and ‘nomos,’ the Greek word for ‘law,’ ‘custom,’ or ‘cultural norm.’ An antinomy, then, is an anti-culture. It's what happens to those who choose to identify by what they're against or opposed to. In the context of Elemental Dualism, an antinomy is the pathological attempt to reject, remove, or eliminate an Element (where this Element is almost always a non-natural* one). It is the denial of an Element as important to leading a good life, and the denial that its virtues are virtues.
* (It is much more common for people and societies to reject one of their non-natural Elements rather than one of their natural Elements.)
As an example, to adopt an antinomy of Fire is to totally reject ambition, pleasure, and exploration as necessary to a good life. Indeed, it is to go even further and label them as vices. Moral busybodies often have an antinomy of Fire.
Alternatively, consider an antinomy of Water. To adopt an antimony of Water is to completely reject restraint, discipline, and self-judgment as necessary for a good life. As before, it is really to go further and label these as vices. Ne’er-do-wells often have an antinomy of Water.
The Vicious Synthesis
Now, for the fun part.
These four ideas -- cultivation, unity, antinomy, and the relationship between virtue and vice -- interact with each other and have some pretty major consequences. The first major consequence is the doubly-vicious nature of antinomy.
By unity, all six Elements are united within us and cannot be removed. So the rejection of an Element -- in the form of an antinomy -- does not totally remove an Element, but rather just ignores or represses it. The first consequence of antinomy (i.e. repressing a non-natural Element) is that only the rejected Element's vices will be expressed. Why? By unity, every Element has to express itself in some way. An Element that someone is repressing is not one that they’re actively paying attention to and trying to cultivate. So by cultivation, the virtues of repressed Elements wither away through lack of care -- and so they don't get expressed.
In other words, by adopting an antinomy of an Element (which is the same as rejecting its virtues), someone ends up expressing only that Element’s vices. Now, there is a second problem with antinomy. As mentioned, someone who adopts an antinomy of an Element abandons the virtues of that Element, and so fails to cultivate them. But by the relationship between virtue and vice, these abandoned virtues would have counteracted (or made less likely) the expression of the opposite (almost always natural) Element’s vices.
So by adopting an antinomy of an Element, the opposite (almost always natural) Element's vices go unchecked, which makes them much more likely to be expressed.
Altogether then, for someone to reject an Element as necessary to leading a good life is for them to invite two distinct kinds of vice into their life. First, the vices of the repressed Element, and second, the vices of its opposite Element (which is often the natural Element). An example might help with this idea.
Imagine someone that is Water who adopts an antinomy of Fire. They are suspicious of those who love broadly and freely, and reject that these character traits are virtues. Indeed, they go further and consider these character traits vices.
There's two problems with adopting this (and every other) antinomy. First, repressing Fire doesn't get rid of it -- it just makes sure it can't be expressed in a healthy way. So someone who adopts this repressive antinomy is likely to express (albeit secretly) some of the related vices of Fire, like engaging in inappropriate or exploitative behavior. The second problem with this antinomy is that the repressed free love of Fire would have counteracted (or make less likely) the expression of some of Water’s vices. For instance, someone who loves broadly and freely is much less likely to be excessively judgmental of others. So someone who represses (i.e. antinomizes) free love is much more likely to be excessively judgmental of others.
In this way, someone who antinomizes Fire ends up with the vices of both Fire and Water. That's the doubly-vicious nature of antinomy. I call this the Vicious Synthesis (which is really just another name for antinomy).
In review, antinomy gives rise to two kinds of vices.
First, the vices of the repressed (non-natural) Element because (by unity) every Element must express either its virtues or its vices, and (by cultivation) virtue requires cultivation. Repression makes cultivation impossible, so to repress an Element’s virtues in an antinomy is (by unity) to invite only the repressed Element’s vices.
Second, antinomy gives rise to the vices of the opposite (natural) Element because (by the relationship between virtue and vice) for someone to express an Element’s virtues is to make it less likely that they express the opposite Element’s vices. Alternatively, for someone to repress an Element's virtues is to make it more likely that they express the vices of the opposite Element. So to repress the virtues of the (non-natural) Element is to make much more likely the expression of the opposite (natural) Element's vices.
The Virtuous Synthesis
By leading to not only one Element’s vices, but both Elements’ vices, antinomies are the closest thing in Elemental Dualism to ‘badness’ -- to something which almost everyone will readily recognize as either harmful or as a hindrance to leading a good life. But what, then, is the opposite of antinomy? What corresponds to ‘goodness?’ It may already be clear from the title of this article (and section), and more subtly from what I have already said:
The opposite of antinomy is the virtuous synthesis of the Elements. A virtuous synthesis of two opposing Elements is achieved by striving towards and maintaining the virtues of both.
For instance, if someone is Fire, they may achieve a virtuous synthesis by cultivating the virtues of Water. For by the relationship between virtue and vice, mastering the virtues of Fire counteracts the vices of Water. Likewise, mastering the virtues of Water counteracts the vices of Fire. By synthesizing the Elements in this way, a positive feedback loop emerges which promotes and multiplies the virtues of both, while at the same time minimizing the vices of both.
The Three Virtuous Syntheses
Yet to synthesize the Elements is easier said than done. It requires a tremendous amount of effort because each member of the three pairs of Elements -- Fire and Water, Air and Earth, Void and Aether -- inherently repels the Element opposite to it.
The goals of Fire and Water, for example, are very often inconsistent with each other. Yet there is nothing theoretically impossible about bringing them into agreement. Indeed, as I will try to show, each Element’s own goals are actually maximized by synthesizing with the Element opposite to it. Here again, examples help. In what remains of this article, I will provide as vivid a description as I can of each of the three virtuous Elemental syntheses.
The Virtuous Synthesis of Fire and Water
Fire-aligned characters long to lead an exciting life brimming with unique experiences, adventures, and pleasures. Water-aligned characters, by contrast, work hard to pursue their ideals, and strive for things to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday.
The goals of Fire and Water can come apart, as when considering whether to eat that last slice of cake you know you shouldn’t. Fire beckons you to wolf it down, whereas Water invites you to exercise self-control for the sake of your health. Situations like this one are numerous and familiar to everyone. In such cases Fire and Water can seem like irreconcilable opposites. Yet this appearance is deceiving. For who leads the more pleasant, exciting life (these being Fire’s goals)? The person who all too quickly indulges themselves into a state of unhealth, or the person who cultivates self-control and enjoys the fruits of their health for the rest of their life? And who leads the more principled and ideal life (these being Water’s goals)? The person who assumes they have all the answers and overlooks the perspectives of others, or the person who is constantly exploring new horizons and different ways of life? The dual mantra of the virtuous synthesis of Fire and Water is therefore:
I exercise self-control so that I may enjoy life, and I explore beyond the limits of my experience so that I may become a better person.
The Virtuous Synthesis of Air and Earth
Air-aligned characters aspire to make something creative and original. They strive to leave their own unique mark upon the world, or perhaps to just carve out their own path through life. Earth-aligned characters, by contrast, aim always at certainty and truth. In these pursuits, they regularly exercise caution, and place their trust only in well-tested or well-argued ideas. The essential aims of Air and Earth often grate against each other. Air-aligned characters often try to break out of the intellectual confines established by their Earth-aligned communities. In every entrenched idea and standard practice, Air-aligned characters often see a huge number of unjustly dismissed alternatives. Earth-aligned characters, by contrast, often see something egoistic about Air-aligned characters' seemingly baseless attempts to overturn tried-and-true traditions.
Yet this tension between Air and Earth is also deceiving. For who is more likely to contribute something genuinely original (this being Air’s goal)? The person who merely contradicts traditions with no grounded sense of the alternatives, or the person who works in close proximity with the leading thinkers of their time to expand the frontiers of thought? And to who does the truth more often reveal itself (this being Earth’s goal)? The person who uncritically accepts the practices of a stagnant tradition, or the person who questions them and offers alternatives? The dual mantra of the virtuous synthesis of Air and Earth is therefore:
I am systematic so that I may explore new possibilities, and I explore beyond the boundaries of my traditions so that I may improve them.
The Virtuous Synthesis of Void and Aether
Void-aligned characters prize freedom and personal merit. They aspire to be excellent and to do extraordinary things. Aether-aligned characters, by contrast, seek security and community. They long for a sense of unity in their societies. In many situations, Void and Aether can seem like opposing, incompatible worldviews. For instance, we often speak of the choice to do either what is selfish and good for ourselves, or to do what is selfless and good for everyone in society. Similarly, we sometimes imagine that there is an inherent trade off between freedom and security, and that we can only have freedom at the expense of security, or vice versa. Yet these two dichotomies are far from absolute. The goals of Void and Aether, although distinct, are very far from being incompatible. For who lives more freely (this being one of Void’s goals)? Those people who live in a chaotic free-for-all, confined forever to a selfish struggle for existence? Or is it rather those people who live in a compassionate society, who act each day with the freedom that comes with having their most basic needs secure? Likewise, who lives with more security (this being one of Aether’s goals)? Those people under the yoke of an orderly authoritarianism, who live with the constant fear of being reported and receiving a knock in the night? Or is it rather those people who live in a free society, where rights protect individuals from oppressive punishment and systematic abuse?
The dual mantra of the virtuous synthesis of Void and Aether is therefore:
I build myself up as a pillar of strength so that those in need may rely upon me, and I cultivate a compassionate society so that I may live freely.
In review, Elemental Synthesis is a system of virtue ethics.
In layman's terms, if Elemental Dualism is a system for understanding the various traits (some good and some bad) of a person or society, then Elemental Synthesis is a system for figuring out ways that people and societies can improve or get better.
The gist of the whole system is just this: for each person (or society), there's going to be some virtuous traits that take a lot of work to maintain. Those are the virtues typically associated with each person's (or society's) respective non-natural Elements.
When someone (or some culture) rejects the virtues of their non-natural Elements by (for instance) slandering them as evil and unnecessary, they end up viciously synthesizing the Elements. This leads to antinomy, where vices double up and the hindrances to leading a good life pile up.
Or alternatively, if someone (or some culture) puts in the effort and masters their non-natural virtues, they end up virtuously synthesizing the Elements. As a result, they become more integrated as a person (or society), and people not only live well, but they flourish.
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