Sunday, 11 January 2015

Victory in the Qun - Platonic Influences in Dragon Age

With a new university term starting tomorrow (accompanied by an increasing awareness that it is going to be academically demanding) I thought now to be an ample opportunity to write up an entry which I have been intending to write for a while. 

Once again, my attention is fixed on Dragon Age, but this time it is not a character I wish to examine, but one of the fictional belief systems: the Qun. To put a philosophical spin on things, I am going to compare the Qun to the political philosophy of Plato, as found in the Republic. Though I am loathe to make strong claims as to where particular ideas within fiction have come from, I think that there is more than enough similarity between the two systems (and also enough of a difference) to indicate that the Qun has been at the very least influenced by Platonic philosophy.

Image posted by Shalizeh7

Defining the Qun

In short, the Qun is a philosophy in both a capital "P" and lower-case "p" sense. It is both an series of positions taken towards the exploration of both the world and abstract concepts as well as, in the lower-case "p" sense, a way of life. Essentially, it is a philosophical approach to being, comparable to religion in the way it generalises its principles and seeks to extend them, sometimes through the overt use of force, upon those who do not abide by it. 

It regards itself as being singular as a form of truth: to live by the Qun is to live an ordered life of purpose, whereas to live outside of it is to live in a state of chaos. In this sense, it is highly pragmatic, focused upon end results and attempts to create a perfect society. This is further reflected in the assigning of roles from birth. Every Qunari has a singular role, which is also used as their name, and their entire lives are devoted to fulfilling it. 

We know that knowledge of the Qun is not something that is easy to come by, for not even all Qunari are fully aware of the system by which they live. For most, they simply know as much of the Qun as they need to in order to fulfil their assigned role, with only the priesthood aware of the bigger picture. 

To simply, here are the most important points of the Qun:

  • Every Qunari is assigned a role, which is also their name. Their entire lives are dedicated to this role and though the role can change, it is not a matter of personal preference or choice. 
    • These roles can have their basis in established gender roles.
  • Questioning the diktats of the Qun is seen as a moral failure, the response to which is "re-education".
  • There exists a natural order of things, embodied in the Qun. It is meaningless to struggle against this order, the very act of struggling is an illusion. 
  • The Qun is a path of faith, to abandon it is to embrace chaos. 
  • Existence is a choice, and within existence itself there is a choice between order and a mindless struggle against it.
  • Everything is part of a universal order.
Adaar doesn’t usually wear vitaar but what if
Image posted by The Minttu

The Triumvirate

Though we have relatively little interaction with Qunari society and are never shown what their people are like on their own terms (we always seem them out of their own environments and through the lens of outsider cultures who are, almost completely, in opposition to them, regarding the Qun as a dangerous force), conversations with various Qunari / Tal-Vashoth (those of the Qunari race who have chosen to live outside of the Qun) do reveal to us how their people govern.

Qunari society is divided into three parts and each of these segments possesses a different figurehead/ruler. The three parts represent the body, the mind and the soul. The bodily branch is known as the Antaam, and is ruled over by the Arishok. Mind is represented by the Arigena and consists mostly of craftsmen. Finally, Soul is embodied in the Ariqun, leader of the priesthood. 

The Arishok is a military leader and the Antaam consist of soldiers and other miltaristic agents. Their role is to protect the Qun and to spread it through military force. They are the only branch of the three who venture out of Qunari lands and are exclusively male, due to the belief that only men can be proficient warriors. Interestingly, women are able to serve in the military, if they show the aptitude, but they are regarded as male should they do so. This indicates that there biologically female individuals can be competent warriors, but that competency in martial practice is seen as masculine. This also indicates that the Qunari regard gender as distinct from biological sex.  

Always female (though others in this branch of society may vary), the Arigena rules over the industrial, agricultural and mercantile aspects of their society. They are fundamentally providers, crafting what the Qunari need and ensuring that it reaches all areas of society as needed. 

The Ariqun, leader of the priests, can be either male or female and serves as the ultimate spiritual guide of the people. Fundamentally, their role is to ensure that the Qun is upheld as well as to interpret it in times of uncertainty. Under this branch fall the Ben-Hassrath: enforcers of religious law who can be of either gender. Their role is to seek out those who are straying from the path and re-educate them, as well as ensuring that new converts to the Qun follow their assigned role. Effectively, they are inquisitors, religious police. The other important segment are the, exclusively female Tamassrans, who are in command of breeding and have huge influence with the society. They decide who breeds with who, what roles Qunari are assigned and are also responsible for educating them into these roles. 

Whilst the Qunari view these three segments as equal and necessary, their is a strong implication as to a lack of power balance. The Ariqun, who is in command of the very philosophy which dominates the lives of all Qunari, seemingly possesses the power to exile even other leaders should they see fit. The importance here is that there is no actual hierarchy, but their is an implied imbalance of power.

Image posted by Mathiaarkoniel

So how does any of this relate to Plato?

Well, on the level of appearances, Plato too devises his 'perfect' society as having three distinct branches: the Crafters, the Warriors and the Rulers. Furthermore, Plato envisages a society in which everybody is given a clear role based on the aptitudes they display in youth. His system does not possess the concept of family as we see it, instead raised collectively by a branch of the rulers in charge of educating the youths. 

The connection to the Qun is evident, as the three elements of Qunari society very easily map onto the three Platonic categories. The Arigena has the crafters, the Arishok has the warriors and the Ariqun is in charge of matters spiritual. Each three areas has an important degree of overlap. Plato's crafters exist to provide for all within his Republic, they keep things running on an agricultural and industrial level, so do those ruled by the Arigena. Warriors of the Qun exist to protect it, as do the Warriors of Plato's Republic. Importantly, there is no indication within Plato (as far as I am aware, at least) of there being any reason for the Warrior caste to invade other lands to spread the Republic's ideals, as there is the Qun. Though they are not known as rulers, the priesthood under the Ariqun serve the same role as the Philosopher Kings in the Republic: they guide the society and control the roles of those born into it, as well as raising the children collectively. 

Another interesting point of comparison is in the ability of those who live by the systems to understand them. Plato argues in the Republic that certain incorrect mythologies must be used in order to ensure that people of the Bronze (and perhaps Silver) category are discouraged from questioning the order of things. In this sense, it is a white lie in order to prevent them from trying to understand something that they, as Bronze souls, are unable to. Likewise, as aforementioned, those who live by the Qun know only enough of the Qun as is relevant to their position, with only the Priests able to fully understand how the system functions in regard to itself. Both systems seem to have an attitude that some people just cannot grasp the bigger picture and therefore cannot be told it. 

by Egor Gafidov
Image posted by Shinmakoss

However, there are some interesting differences.

Perhaps to be considered as a central difference is the concept of hierarchy between the three categories. The Qun, at least theoretically, considers each segment of their society to be equal. Plato certainly considers each of the categories to be necessary, for a healthy society (he compares society to a living organism in which each part needs to function properly if the whole is to function at all). However, he does make a value distinction between the three categories. He assigns each segment a metal. The Crafters are bronze, the Warriors are silver and the Rulers are gold. This has the implication that the Rulers are more important, if not overtly more valuable, than the other segments, and establishes an overt hierarchy. The more egalitarian nature of the Qun is further embodied in each part of society having their own ruler. Whereas the Qun implies that each aspect of society has a command of itself, Plato has a distinct class whose role is to philosophically rule over all aspects of society. 

A second important difference is gender roles. Plato does not discuss gender specifically in the Republic, though some discussion is given to biological sex (there is also no indication that he would have considered the two to be different concepts). Interestingly, he seems to abolish it as a problem within his Republic, arguing that men and women are equally capable. This is, however, specifically regarding positions within the ruling class of Gold Souls, which is open to both genders, somewhat, within the equivalent Qunari caste. However, there is no statement that women would be excluded from the Silver Souled warriors. 

A third point I find interesting, is the terminology used within the Qunari triumvirate. The three segments are thought to represent body, mind and soul. Plato talks of his Republic as an extension of the individual soul, which he sees as consistent of three parts: appetite, spirit and reason. Illustrated in his allegory of the charioteer, he views appetite and spirit to be the lower portions of the soul (bronze and silver in turn) and argues that they must be guided (though, at least under my interpretation, not strictly controlled) by reason (the charioteer). There is a discrepancy between the way in which these terms correlate between the two systems. Appetite, the most bodily portion of the soul, nicely fits with the category of Body with the Qunari. Yet Plato assigns this to his Bronze crafters. The Qun assigns it to the Warriors. Further, spirit, the portion of the soul assigned to Warriors by Plato closely correlates with Soul, which is given to the Priesthood under the Qun, who are representative of the Ruling class within Plato. Reason, which correlates more closely with Mind is given to the crafters. It seems here as if there is a clear reference to Plato's system, though a deliberate turning it on its head. The portion of the soul (or, at least, its equivalent) given to the Rulers, Plato's highest caste, is instead given to the equivalent of his lowest class. 

Image posted by Bitter Siha

Therefore, whilst I do not think that the Qun is simply a fictionalised representation of Plato lifted directly from the Republic, I do consider it to be a fictionalised account of Plato in the sense that many of its key concepts and ideas are clearly derived from various aspects of Platonic philosophy. Personally, I think there there is something absolutely enthralling about representations of the Qun throughout the Dragon Age saga, something that is at once extremely attractive and yet utterly repellent. What draws me to it is its evident basis in what I consider to be a fundamentally very interesting philosophical system. It breaths a new kind of life into the system, placing it into a fantasy context, trying to understand how individual characters might feel about the system, personalising Plato's relatively impersonal system. 

Needless to say, I hope that we learn more about the Qun in further Dragon Age instalments and that it does its job of providing a fresh supply of food for thought. . 

Image posted by Kalenkos
Thank you for reading!

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