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Virtue and Vice as stages of a cycle rather than opposites

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  • Virtue and Vice as stages of a cycle rather than opposites

    This seems relevant to Exalted, which has attempted to reuse the idea of the Four Greek Virtues in previous editions with... mixed results, but that even still today wants to explore the idea of "heroism".


    Someone explained to me recently that a Vicious Cycle (literally a cycle of Vice) had a lost nuance which also informs its opposite, the seldom-mentioned Virtuous Cycle (a cycle by which something continuously improves or becomes healthier, stronger, larger).

    Apparently the Greek philosophers who cared so much about heroism and virtue reasoned among each other and decided that heroism started with a proper understanding of reality. A sailor needs to accept the reality of how the wind and the water works in order to become a good, admirable, heroic sailor. If he deluded himself about how nature worked, he would be vicious, foolish, and ultimately a doom to himself and others around him.

    So, heroism started with Temperance, which was a soul reflecting upon itself and the world around it, observing reality and accepting both for what they were. This is reflected in the Temperance tarot card, which has nothing to do with eating or drinking in moderation, and everything to do with the angel using his knowledge of the world to mix fire and water together. Which is reflected in meaning of the word "temper", which is how metalsmiths mixed two different materials together to produce an alloy more useful than either of its constituent parts.

    Only after one practiced Temperance would it be possible to practice Prudence, because only after understanding one's self and the world can one make wise decisions. Sun Tzu said (more or less), "Know yourself and your opponent, and you will win every battle. Know only yourself or your opponent, and for every victory you will suffer a defeat. Know neither, and you will never know victory."

    The ability to make wise decisions is apparently crucial for the virtue of Justice, which is treating others as they ought to be treated. Recognizing friend from foe, recognizing how to treat friends so that they remain friends, and how to treat enemies so that they either stop being enemies or at least cease to be threats.

    From there, the virtue of Fortitude becomes indispensable for following through on what you believe to be true. Because everything has a cost. You may know it is prudent to plow your fields now even though it might not rain tomorrow, but you must choose to be strong and suffer the cost of plowing the fields. You may know it is just to destroy your enemy before he returns to threaten your family again, but the attempt could cost you your life. Without Fortitude, all of your wisdom is mere talk; shallow marks drawn in sand, easily filled or washed away. By living out Fortitude, you commit yourself to your beliefs because you pay the cost.

    Only after paying the cost and committing yourself to those virtues can the cycle begin again. If you backslide, you ultimately return to Temperance and question the truths you thought you had found. But if you complete the cycle and reaffirm those truths, you are now ready to re-examine those truths in light of your new experiences. Instead of asking yourself if you ever right, you ask yourself where you might have gone wrong. You check your hard-worn victories and your set-backs against reality to find a deeper, more accurate truth.

    With this greater enlightenment, you are ready to exercise better Prudence, and therefore better Justice. And then, once again, you must pay the cost of Fortitude.

    The cycle never ends... but it can always go in reverse. The vicious cycle.

    If you refuse to exercise Fortitude, you surrender to cowardice and sloth. Without strength to back your convictions, you fail to act justly to other people, you fail to make prudent decisions, and then in the face of your failures you face the temptation to retreat into self-delusion rather than self-reflection. Rather than facing the world and yourself as they are, you imagine them as you would they rather be.

    In distorting your own understanding of how you behave and how the world works, you unwittingly make Imprudent decisions, so you blindly practice Injustice. Practicing Fortitude at this stage could save or doom you.

    If you follow through on your convictions and thus arrive back at Temperance, you could end up in a "sunk cost" frame of mind and fall back into greater Intemperance, Imprudence, and Injustice. The Vicious Cycle continued.

    But if, at the Temperance stage, you accept that sunk costs are sunk, and that it would be more productive to try something new, you can reverse the Vicious Cycle back into the Virtuous one, by accepting the world as it is rather than as you want it to be.

    That's not to say that you give up on seeing the world as it could be, but for any journey, you will have an easier time reaching your destination if you know where you must start. Plotting a course from North America to South America is going to be easier if I acknowledge that I woke up drunk in California rather than Florida.


    Of course, attempting to model these Cycles in Exalted seems rather impossible, because Exalted is not big on Objective Truth, and is designed to allow for moral relativism. The Greek philosophers didn't agree with that notion, apparently, and were rather big on discovering Objective Truth.
    Last edited by Sunder the Gold; 09-01-2019, 09:33 PM.


    Formerly Inugami, formerly Tornado Wolf.

    My RWBY Blog on Tumblr: Semblances, Kingdoms, Grimm, and more!

  • #2
    Originally posted by Sunder the Gold View Post
    Of course, attempting to model these Cycles in Exalted seems rather impossible, because Exalted is not big on Objective Truth, and is designed to allow for moral relativism. The Greek philosophers didn't agree with that notion, apparently, and were rather big on discovering Objective Truth.
    Sounds like a great framework to hang a campaign on.

    I'm a moral objectivist myself. But even if morality is relative, that just means that what I think is absolute objective truth is actually just relatively true and thus no less valid than any other relativistic system. Moral relativity doesn't work under an objectivist framework but there's no reason an objective framework can't exist in a relative paradigm.

    You can play a character who believes themselves to be objectively right. Whether they are right or not has very little bearing on the story.


    Hi, I'm JohnDoe244. My posts represent my opinions, not facts.

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    • #3
      I think any attempt to base things on "the Greek philosophers" is going to be hard because it's not really that simple. They were not a unified body of people that ever really come to much consensus about anything. Even within the same schools of philosophy, there were strong disagreements about all sorts of essential ethical and moral concepts.

      Aristotle would probably object highly to this whole thing, as his ethical system rejected the idea of Virtues and Vices as things in opposition of each other. His whole ethical framework was based on the concept of the Golden Mean, where virtue is the middle ground between a passive vice and an active vice. There are dozens of other Greek philosophers with very different concepts around ethics and the pursuit of truth; including differing opinions on moral relativism.

      I also think it's useful to look at Exalted as a game that's more about contextual moral absolutism than actual moral relativism. Or in other words, Creation presents some very clear moral goods and moral evils, but also presents them in a complicated environment where two reasonable moral people coming from different perspectives are bound to reach different conclusions on the most ethical course of action. If they both had perfect knowledge of the situation, they'd come to the same conclusions, but they lack that knowledge and thus come into conflict.

      In any case, I think the idea of Virtue and Vice as cycles is interesting, but I'm not sure how you'd implement it in a fun way for the game even beyond any constraints of the setting. If they are mechanically traits the reinforce themselves and are meaningfully hard to escape... there's not a lot of player agency in their character's morality. A slothful character just gets more and more slothful, while an honest character just gets more and more dedicated to honesty. It's too simple for this to get in the way of playing something unless all the PCs have aligning traits.

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      • #4
        Originally posted by Heavy Arms View Post
        If they are mechanically traits the reinforce themselves and are meaningfully hard to escape... there's not a lot of player agency in their character's morality. A slothful character just gets more and more slothful, while an honest character just gets more and more dedicated to honesty. It's too simple for this to get in the way of playing something unless all the PCs have aligning traits.
        The way you gain Limit or regain Willpower and especially the way in which you can earn XP by upholding or betraying Intimacies seems closer to a proper mechanical representation for it. Especially the XP.


        Formerly Inugami, formerly Tornado Wolf.

        My RWBY Blog on Tumblr: Semblances, Kingdoms, Grimm, and more!

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Sunder the Gold View Post
          Which is reflected in meaning of the word "temper", which is how metalsmiths mixed two different materials together to produce an alloy more useful than either of its constituent parts.
          I kmow this wasn't the main point ofyour post, but I think the semantics here may be relevant to your discussion; combining metals to create one with different properties is just "alloying". Tempering, in a metalworking context, is the use of heat and cooling (e.g. the repeated application of fire and water) to control the properties of the material, like trying to create the desired balance of hardness and brittleness.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Blackwell View Post
            I kmow this wasn't the main point ofyour post, but I think the semantics here may be relevant to your discussion; combining metals to create one with different properties is just "alloying". Tempering, in a metalworking context, is the use of heat and cooling (e.g. the repeated application of fire and water) to control the properties of the material, like trying to create the desired balance of hardness and brittleness.
            Ah yes. My mistake.

            The metaphor still seems to hold, given the use of elemental opposites (fire and water) to reorder something according to your desire, and to achieve a desired balance between qualities.


            Formerly Inugami, formerly Tornado Wolf.

            My RWBY Blog on Tumblr: Semblances, Kingdoms, Grimm, and more!

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            • #7
              OK, sorry to further nitpick on this a bit:

              Heat treatment as a whole is a number of techniques using a number of materials to control the final crystal structure of your alloy.

              Tempering is - and I feel this is important to the initial point - specifically the process of reducing the hardness of a metal (generally to also reduce the brittleness of the metal). It's a method of dialing things back to avoid extremes.

              The need for tempering generally comes from the quenching process, since quenching (rapidly cooling the metal in a liquid such as oil or water) usually is done at critical temperature (that is the heat where the hardest possible crystals are formed and more heat will just harm the alloy's intended properties). In order to get a less hard metal, the smith goes back with heat below critical temperature, undoing the hardening.

              Tempering is rarely done repeatedly to the same project (the risk of mucking things up is very high), and usually uses slow air cooling to avoid temperature shocks from the rapid cooling water or oil would result in; you need the metal to stay in the appropriate temperature range for the crystals you want for long enough that it sets there and if you cool it too quickly you get a jumble of different crystals that results in worthless metal at the end. After air, the most common cooling mediums are actually lower temperature molten metals or salts (again, to cool things in a slower and more controlled fashion).

              To complicate things, there are methods that perform multiple processes at once. Traditional Japanese blade smithing applies clay to the spine of a blade before quenching it. The clay acts as a buffer between the critical temperature steel and the cooling oil, resulting in the spine cooling slower than the edge of the blade. This effectively tempers the spine as the rest of the blade fully hardens in quenching.

              --------------

              That all said, I do think the general metaphor holds as tempering is a process that requires detailed knowledge of the interaction between different elements so they can be applied harmoniously instead of damaging each other. For the ancient and classic Greeks, air and earth were also opposites, and smith had to use all four elements in balance.

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              • #8
                I’d think each temperance stage of a virtuous cycle would be more like making a new tool with the previous tool than refining the old tool.


                Formerly Inugami, formerly Tornado Wolf.

                My RWBY Blog on Tumblr: Semblances, Kingdoms, Grimm, and more!

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