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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 Elemental Dualism, or the Elements, were formed and function.
For a simplified, brief writeup that serves as a primer, go here first.
Schematizing the Elements
Suppose you had to analyse the soul, the mind, or personhood (whichever equivalent term you prefer) into a relatively small number of distinct elements (or philosophies) for gameplay purposes. How would you do it? A few years ago, while working on a (still secret) project, I faced exactly this question.
As it turns out, you can arbitrarily analyze personhood into as many parts and in as many ways as your heart desires. It’s just that for almost all such analyses, the resulting categories of the soul are mostly arbitrary, the boundaries between them are hazy, and it’s not clear why or how they cumulatively add up to personhood.
When first working out the elements for Redsky, I wanted to be systematic. I wanted to start from a set of elementary concepts with sharp, clear divisions and only add elemental symbolism to them later. Unlike most elemental systems in fantasy settings, the elements of Redsky aren't kinds of magic: they're competing philosophies. So it was extremely important to me to get them right.
I settled on three philosophically separable parts of the soul: the emotional part, the epistemic (or intellectual) part, and the social part. Each part represents a different kind of relation that a person can have either to themselves, or to the world. So to answer the question with which I began: a person consists of the emotions that drive them, the knowledge of the world which guides them, and the moral communities which organize them.
Now, there are two problems with this first-order result. First of all, three elements is too few to map a diverse range of gameplay strategies and archetypes onto. Second and more importantly, these three components of personhood are simply not specific enough: they don’t tell us enough about exactly how emotions are expressed, or how one thinks, or what kind of society one regards as just.
In order to solve these two problems, I re-imagined each of these philosophical categories as a spectrum, or dichotomy. On either end of each spectrum, there’s an extreme philosophy. In other words, for each of the three parts of the soul I just described -- the emotional, the epistemic, and the social -- I imagined two extreme, contradictory positions.
The result is 6 elements, which is a much better number of philosophies to map strategies and gameplay archetypes onto. More importantly, when each philosophy represents an extreme position, it’s clearer exactly how each element feels, thinks, or socially organizes. As an additional benefit, dichotomizing the categories in this way generates a natural source of conflict: for each of the three parts of the soul, there is one chaotic element, and one orderly element which opposes it.
Altogether then, there are 6 elements, with two elements opposing each other on three spectrums which comprise the soul: the emotional spectrum (Fire and Water), the epistemic (or intellectual) spectrum (Air and Earth), and the social spectrum (Void and Aether). Fire, Air, and Void represent the chaotic manifestations of their respective spectrums, whereas Water, Earth, and Aether represent the orderly manifestations.
The Elements in More Detail
At this point, the general blueprint -- the conceptual scheme -- for each element is complete. What remains, then, is to flesh out the elements a bit more. So let’s look at each spectrum and the elements which comprise them in a bit more detail. One simple way to do this is to frame each spectrum as a question.
The emotional spectrum (between Fire and Water) can be represented by the following question: should our emotions, desires, and impulses be unrestrained and encouraged, or should they be controlled and suppressed?
Fire, in chaotic fashion, answers ‘unrestrained and encouraged,’ whereas Water, in orderly fashion, answers ‘controlled and suppressed.’
The Fire lifestyle is driven by euphoric feelings, and desires which demand satiation -- impulses to love, to eat, to hoard, to work and rest whenever it’s convenient, to scream and hate whenever it’s cathartic, to jealously desire what you can’t have, and to brag incessantly about what you do have. Fire aims for festivities without end. It is the desire to have a rip-roaring good time all the time.
The Water lifestyle, by contrast, is one of denial, judgment, and mastery. It is a life spent cultivating one’s willpower and authority over the self by reining in and denying the impulses and desires which Fire so freely indulges in. As a consequence, those who align with Water can often be as judgmental of others for their vices as they are of themselves for their own flaws. The ultimate goal of those who align with Water is to achieve a state of consciousness higher than and independent from the unrelenting demands of the passions, which they regard as an unacceptably unconscious basis on which to live. Those who align with Fire, by contrast, regard the Water lifestyle as one devoid of everything that makes life worth living -- a life stripped of all the greatest pleasures and joys.
Next up, the epistemic (or intellectual) spectrum (between Air and Earth) can be represented by the following question: should our thought -- our methods of representing the world -- be flexible and creative, or rigidly careful and certain?
Air, in chaotic fashion, answers ‘flexible and creative,’ whereas Earth, in orderly fashion, answers ‘rigidly careful and certain.’
The doctrine of Air proclaims that the greatest ideas and the most revealing truths are felt or intuited long before they can be put to words. For Air, representing such intuitions (with words or otherwise) is just a process of approximating: it’s an art. The doctrine of Air is embodied by great artists, avant-garde philosophers, explorers, and pioneers. It is the element of spontaneous and powerful insights. Air is epitomized by creative geniuses who can scarcely explain themselves. In other words, it is the element of cooking and not the element of baking.
The doctrine of Earth, by contrast, proclaims that absolute certainty and truth can only be achieved through enormous care, caution, and intellectual rigor. For Earth, intellectual progress is attained through precision -- precision which requires rigorous experimentation, exact measurements, and thorough criticism from peers. Whereas Air is an art, Earth is a science. The doctrine of Earth is manifested by scientists, engineers, and scholars. Whereas the philosophers of Air declare profound revelations, the philosophers of Earth are concerned more with cogent and clear argumentation.
Those who align with Earth regard the doctrine of Air as insufficiently cautious and its ‘revelations’ as flippant and arbitrary. By contrast, those who align with Air consider the doctrine of Earth as narrow-minded and view its methodological demands as repressive and needlessly conformist.
Last but not least, the social spectrum (between Void and Aether) can be represented by the following question: should societies regard as morally sacred the rights of individuals, or the well-being of groups and collectives?
Void, in chaotic fashion, answers ‘the rights of individuals,’ whereas Aether, in orderly fashion, answers ‘the well-being of groups and collectives.’
Void societies champion liberty and individual freedoms. They believe that individuals should always be rewarded in proportion to their talents and contributions, and hence that a just society is one where advancement is based on individual performance, achievement, and excellence rather than group identity or inherited status. Those who align with Void can sometimes overlook the role of chance and other external factors in people’s outcomes and overemphasize the role of personal efforts. As a consequence, Void societies are often perforated by large inequalities.
Aether societies, by contrast, advocate for the safety and well-being (if not supremacy) of certain groups and collectives. They view history as a battleground of groups and social movements where individual actors have little impact. Those who align with Aether identify with at least one such group in opposition to the rest, and can show great compassion to their group. The sorts of groups which Aether societies champion and structure their national identities around come in at least three distinct flavors: religious groups, racial groups, and class groups. In the autocratic extreme, these correspond to theocracy, fascism, and socialism.
Despite the apparently modern nature of some of these government forms, the tension between Void and Aether is extremely old. For instance, in the late Roman Republic, the Optimates (literally: “the best ones”) were powerful, land-owning senatorial families. They were opposed by the Populares (literally: “favouring the people”), politicians who swore to defend the interests of the poor and landless masses. In the ensuing civil war, the Populares (representing Aether) defeated the Optimates (representing Void). Julius Caesar’s victory (a Popularis) brought an end to the Roman Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire -- with the latter being the more Aether of the two.
Those who align with Aether regard Void societies as chaotic, disorganized, and dominated by selfishness, greed, and private interests. By contrast, those who align with Void consider Aether societies to be oppressive, prejudicial, and uniquely willing to enslave and kill entire groups of people.
In this section, I would like to say a bit about why I gave the six philosophies outlined above the alchemical names they bear. I want to explain why -- given the fact that the elements are philosophies and not varieties of magic -- they are called ‘Fire,’ ‘Water,’ ‘Air,’ ‘Earth,’ ‘Void,’ and ‘Aether.’
I selected the names ‘Fire’ and ‘Water’ for the emotional spectrum, and ‘Earth’ and ‘Air’ for the epistemic spectrum at least in part because these alchemical elements classically oppose one another in powerful dichotomies. However, I mostly chose them because the symbolic contrast they represent gets really close to the conceptual dichotomies I wanted to represent on the emotional and epistemic spectrums.
In nature, fire is heated, impassioned, and self-destructive. As Lao Tzu wrote, “the flame which burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Water, by contrast, is calm, cyclical, and seemingly eternal. Those who first see the ocean are often overwhelmed by a feeling of profound grandeur, as though it bears a mark of divinity. It is then not terribly surprising why I chose ‘Fire’ to represent passion, and ‘Water’ to represent willpower and spirituality.
A similar explanation obtains for ‘Air’ and ‘Earth.’ In nature, air is relatively free, unpredictable, and formless, whereas earth is comparatively stable, rigid, and fixed. This contrast perfectly matches the philosophical dichotomy I wanted to convey on the epistemic spectrum. For on that spectrum, ‘Air’ represents intellectual flexibility and creativity, whereas ‘Earth’ represents steady progress according to rigid procedures.
The last two elements -- ‘Void’ and ‘Aether’ -- were a bit trickier to name. In classical philosophy and early modern science, ‘the void’ and ‘the aether’ (or ‘ether’) were two different names which referred to the same thing: space. But whereas the void referred to the vacuum or emptiness of space, the aether referred to a universal medium which was supposed to fill all space, through which light waves were supposed to propagate. The conceptual difference, to put it simply, is between space as empty and thus disconnected, and space as filled and thereby interconnected.
Another equivalent way of thinking about the void and the aether is to consider distant stars. ‘The void between the stars’ highlights how disconnected the stars are because of the vast expanse of nothingness which separates them. This only serves to draw attention to the unique, individual properties of each star taken separately. In comparison, ‘the aether between the stars’ describes a vast cosmic medium in which the stars are just tiny albeit interesting points. This metaphor goes a long way to explaining why I chose to label the element of individualism ‘Void,’ and the element of collectivism ‘Aether.’ For the void separates individual stars from each other and highlights their differences, whereas the aether connects them and subjugates them to something larger than themselves.
Applying the Elements
Once you grasp the elements and what they represent, it is relatively easy to apply them to any given person, character, group, or society. By giving the name of the element which an entity is closest to on each of the Emotional, Epistemic, and Social spectrums, you can provide a three dimensional snapshot of how that entity relates to its own impulses and desires, how it thinks about the world, and what kind of society it regards to be just.
Someone who is Water-Earth-Void, for instance, is (or aspires to be) principled and virtuous (Water), is a meticulous and careful thinker (Earth), and admires societies which respect the rights and talents of individuals whatever their origins (Void). Or alternatively, someone who is Fire-Air-Aether might be someone who wants all of their desires to be satisfied (Fire), is a creative thinker (Air), and prefers societies which take better care of their poor and unfortunate (Aether). Not counting combinations which are ambiguous between one element and its opposite, there are 8 possible combinations of the six elements.
Having said that, the elements themselves are intentionally extremes, so it’s okay if you (or any other entity) don’t fit neatly into either of the two elements on a spectrum. For instance, most people have moments in their lives where they are totally consumed by urges to gratify one or more desires (Fire), and other moments when they are in complete and total control (Water). Manifesting one element rather than its opposite is thus a matter of degree and frequency in most cases.
Which element(s) someone aligns with can also change across a lifetime. The tension between one element and its opposite makes for interesting conflicts and powerful character development. Consider, for instance, a character like Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars. As he becomes driven by his own Fire impulses, he increasingly grates against the Water aligned culture which he is expected to conform to. It is then a turning point in Anakin’s character arc when he returns to Water at the end of his life by choosing an ideal like family over a passion, like power. Or again, take a character like Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones. Initially defined by his givenness to women and wine (Fire), his sharp, intuitive cynicism (Air), and his complicity in feudal lordship (Aether), Tyrion grows as a character by slowly coming to reject the excesses of his society and desires. As he grows as a character, Tyrion becomes more principled (Water) and individualistic (Void).
The six elements of Redsky -- Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Aether and Void -- are an indirect and powerful way of describing the nature of characters, settings, and societies. Altogether, the elements offer a three dimensional picture: one element (either Fire or Water) to describe impulses, principles, and emotions, one element (either Air or Earth) to describe methods and practices of thinking, and one element (either Void or Aether) to describe societal norms and structures. Because these three dualities are represented by alchemical elements, I call this system of describing personalities ‘Elemental Dualism.’
With the six elements of Elemental Dualism, you can say something pretty specific and detailed in extremely few words. Elemental Dualism is particularly helpful in making sense of the world of Redsky, where there’s an incredible diversity of ideas, intelligent species, lands, cultures, and civilizations just waiting to be explored.
The Elements have a big role to play in Dema. Almost everything in Redsky was designed with them in mind. As we reveal new cultures, civilizations, or intelligent species from the world of Dema, we’ll make sure to mention their primary elements. In the meantime, you can read about the Fire-aligned Hiremai Wakewalkers here, and the Aether-aligned Solar Hegemony here.
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