I would like to follow the series of articles I wrote about the Shin Megami Tensei alignments by getting down some thoughts in detail about how I see the Chaos alignment and what direction I would prefer it to go. You might also see me take the chance to flex some of the Chaotic thinking that I so like to indulge in.
There are two themes that persist in Chaos that are rather observable, and in some ways dovetail together: the first is freedom being more important than order, and the second is personal power. The elephant in the room with that is always Social Darwinism, it is always “might makes right”. This was originally portrayed as something of a consequence of the freedom emphasized by the Chaos alignment, in the vein of the classic criticism of anarchism, either that or simply the removal of a government or state, but it has had a habit of metastasizing into an ideological current in itself as an expression of Chaos. The irony with that, of course, is that a lot of Chaos endings didn’t include any ideas of a might makes right society at all. In the Chaos ending for Shin Megami Tensei II, all that happens is you put an end to the rule of Tokyo Millennium and create a world of freedom for humans, demons, and Mutants. In the True Demon ending for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, there’s no talk of a world for the strong at all, and while you’re destroying the universe to abolish the cycle of death and rebirth, the whole auspice of that is that it’s done to realize free will in an ultimate sense, removed from the bonds of The Great Will, not to create a might makes right world (that project is instead one of the avenues of The Great Will being realized). The Chaos path of Raidou 2 is predicated entirely on individual free will and desire, living for yourself, in opposition to duty, “harmony with the world” (society), and living centrally for others. In the New Chaos route for Strange Journey Redux, any concept of Social Darwinist selection is eschewed entirely in favour of simply a world based in free will and co-existence with the demons. Between the games, the theme of Social Darwinism is in no way consistent.
There is a tension between the two themes that creates an obvious problem for the ideology of the Chaos alignment. At its core, in pretty much every incarnation of Shin Megami Tensei, Chaos is the alignment that values freedom above almost everything else. Its opposition to Law is predicated fundamentally on the fact that a world of Law means to some degree the abolition of freedom or at least the reduction thereof as the price to pay for a world of eternal peace and order (sorry, but the New Law ending path in Strange Journey Redux is fundamentally inconsistent for this reason), to say nothing of that order being contingent upon the absolute rule of God. The major problem with throwing “might makes right” into the mix is that, through that emphasis, it is entirely possible through that emphasis on freedom to become subverted, for tyranny to be supported on the back of power being exercized over others. Nocturne’s Reason of Yosuga, which can best be described as “officially Chaos but at the same time not really”, this manifests in the valorization not of freedom, but of hierarchy, which sets itself above and against freedom. If you think about it, to embrace might makes right as an ethical imperative leads only to self-defeat, considering that your enemy is YHVH, and YHVH got where he is by essentially knocking out the other gods. As the most powerful being, he would have the right to govern as he desires, even if that meant oppressing everybody. More consistent not only for the pursuit of freedom against the will of God and for traditional connotations regarding the namesake of Chaos would be the abolition of hierarchy itself as an enemy of freedom. It would certainly be a perfect opposite to Law, which fundamentally cannot oppose hierarchy, and you could probably count on Neutrality to be the side that deems this to be “unrealistic”. It would require that even any notions of a hierarchy shaped by the strong to be thrown out of the window.
But what to do about the question of power itself? That’s something that can’t really be divorced from the discourse of Chaos without entirely disregarding series tradition itself. But I believe I can present a take on this that may prove interesting. It all starts with how we look at power. The observation that power rules everything could be framed as in some ways different from the ethical imperative that might makes right. In fact, if you understand the state as an instrument of class rule, it’s not that much of a stretch to see politics as something that comes back to the exercise of power, or more specifically who exercises it. A small selection of people have power over the vast majority of others, and the vast majority of people have little real control over their own lives due to the nature of the economic system they live under. When you don’t have any real control over your own life, you don’t have any power that can be exercised usefully in your own sphere, you end up developing all kinds of pathologies and insecurities. Lots of older people like to complain about how people today are “perpetual children” or some nonsense, and never do talk about how they have very little access to housing, and little of the financial security their parents might have enjoyed. With independence, autonomy, power over your own life, foreclosed or at least delayed by economic realities, people lose the sense that they might actually assume power over their own lives, and can you really be surprised if people act like that’s the case? Even politicians serve as spectators as much as rulers, many of them having no real power to alter the system into which they enter, and so their recourse is spectacle and narcissism.
And so the proposition arises: the idea should be that, for freedom to be universal, power should be universal. Instead of power being afforded only to the one guy who can punch out everyone in his way, at which point you already have either the rule of YHVH or a Neutral outcome, why not create a world where everyone can freely assume power over their own lives, free from the confines of existing hierarchies and structures of authority, free from the grasp of ruling gods or gods of law, and free from the ambitions of any would-be despot. At its base, this is part of the core of the way Chaos tends to emphasize the flourishing of free will, without the order of God in the context of a mythic universe, because part of having that free will is the ability to exercise power over your own life.
But we would not be doing well to sideline some of the other themes involved, such as nature or co-existence with demons. Let’s start with nature in this regard.
Strange Journey Redux introduces a split between Mem Aleph’s vision of the “return” of savage nature and the new vision of Jimenez. Mem Aleph represents the “old” Chaos, with its emphasis on the rule of the Mothers, wrathful goddesses of the Earth, who want to kill most if not all of mankind in revenge for the ravages of the planet by turning the world into a society of brutal selection of fitness, while Jimenez, should you take the New Chaos route, represents the creation of a world of limitless free will and thereby equally limitless possibilities, where humans can become anything they want, co-exist with demons, and everyone can create their own new rules in a world of freedom. The difference is pretty noticeable, and it seems that Louisa Ferre (Lucifer) prefers this New vision to Mem Aleph’s narrow-minded view of humans. But where does this leave the theme of nature, which has been important to the traditional discourse of Chaos?
Nature could either be thought of this state of homoestatic balance and purity to which we are to return, akin to the idea of the return to the Garden of Eden found in certain mystical traditions, or it could be thought of as an existential state of chaotic and primeval spontaneity. The former can be seen as a Chaotic idea from the lens of a mother goddess, but is probably more consistent with Law. The latter can be thought of in terms of Taoist ideas such as “ziran” (meaning “spontaneity”, or more literally “self-so”), which designates something spontaneous, self-arising, and therefore natural, or a state of being those things, and is sometimes related to the nature of the Tao itself. In Japan the term ziran is often translated as shizen, and while shizen is often translated in English as “nature”, from the Japanese perspective this doesn’t actually mean the way “Nature” often does in the West (basically a way of designating raw natural environments such as forests or life outside the bounds of human civilization), and instead refers simply to spontaneous flow, without coercion or contrivance.
But, to incorporate a theme of wilderness might prove to yield interesting results in any case. Remember Jimenez in Strange Journey talking about wild souls. Louisa Ferre in the Redux version refers to impulsive souls, or “araburu tamashii”. In the Kojiki, the phrase “araburu no kami”, which can mean wild, savage, or unruly gods, is a term used by the gods of Takamagahara (the high plain of heaven) to refer to the indigenous gods of the land, otherwise known as the kunitsukami. These were simply the gods of the land, not evil beings, whose land their heavenly lands sought sought conquer, and they may even include gods who were worshipped before the ascent of the Yamato dynasty. In later syncretic Buddhism, the gods of Japan were divided between the honsha-no-kami, who were provisional deities that were actually manifestations of the Buddha, and the jissha-no-kami, the “real” kami who are deemed wild, evil, demonic gods unworthy of reverence, and this category tended to include the gods of Izumo, who were kunitsukami, such as Okuninushi. Here the native gods of the land are juxtaposed against gods from heaven who seek to control that land, as part of what is ultimately a mythic narrative created for the ruling Yamato dynasty, and are later recast as demons of the wilderness. Their designation as “real gods” is fascinating in that, although clearly intended from a hardline Buddhist perspective for “real” to mean the same thing as “your true colours” in the negative sense, can from a certain point of view be used to point to a broader chaotic reality, an idea that Bernard Faure sort of points to in his discussion of Bishamonten, Daikokuten, and Enmaten in Gods of Medieval Japan: Volume 2: Protectors and Predators. We see this in some other pantheons as well. We would note that the gods referred to as Asuras in Indian myth dwelled in the underworld, where they were the guardians of substantial wealth that resided there. The Asuras had their own natural source of wealth that the Devas did not. And so, since the Asuras did not share what belonged to them to the Devas, they became the enemies of the Devas, and are remembered as demons. In a weird way, Asura Lord and Surt being paired with Astaroth and Arioch makes some sense, Asura Lord representing the rebels against the devas and Surt representing the giants lead by Loki against the armies of Odin alongside two demons who join Lucifer’s rebellion against God. Christian culture also came to see the wilderness as a gateway to the demonic powers, not unlike how the Bible viewed the deserts surrounding the Holy Land as teeming with demons.
Of course, one other way of addressing the nature theme as a distinct current may be to, and I hate to say this, borrow from Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse in terms of its “monotheism versus polytheism” conflict, or some variation thereof (it doesn’t have to be framed in such a silly way, but let’s go with it provisionally). The “monotheistic” side of Chaos would obviously be represented by the forces of Lucifer, and would probably emphasize radical free will, while the “polytheistic” side of Chaos would probably be represented by wrathful mother goddesses in the fashion of Strange Journey, with a view towards an ideology of nature similar to the one propounded by Mem Aleph and the Gaians. Under this framework, we might even finally see Gaia in the game, unless it turns out that Mem Aleph was already the “Gaia” in the Cult/Ring of Gaia. The Law-aligned application of this would be that the “monotheistic” forces are obviously YHVH and his angels representing their order while the “monotheistic” forces comprise possibly the head gods and goddesses of various pre-Christian pantheons, or perhaps the Amatsukami, thus comprising the “gods of law”. But of course it’s much more interesting and less contrived to simply have Law and Chaos as inclusive, trans-cultural absolutes that comprise of much more than just YHVH versus Lucifer, as was the case in the original Shin Megami Tensei and in Strange Journey, which thus represent an intermingling of ideological concepts that form a whole.
As long-winded as that lead was we can move on to another theme, co-existence with demons. Insofar as the games like to emphasize Chaos as “the side of demons”, in contradistinction to Law being “the side of angels” and Neutral being “the side of humanity”, there is an angle that should be emphasized within Chaos more than anything: that demons do not have to be our enemies. It’s a hard sell considering that demons can be in many ways nasty to humans and it does require not only factoring in God being a million times worse than any demon but also the willingness to take an alternative perspective on familiar mythological tropes. For me that’s no problem, usually, but at the same time it’s not at all easy for many. But, in the process of all Shin Megami Tensei games, even though it is easy to frame relationship to demons as solely in terms of them serving you, you can realistically picture that, eventually, the demon summoner and the demons can seem quite close to one another indeed, to the point that it’s not impossible to imagine the human devil summoner being as something close to a friend or a comrade by the demons he summons, or simply the summoner in turn taking certainly a less-than-hostile view of demonkind. That’s the natural outcome of getting involved with demons for long enough. It’s also a product of demons and humans existing as opposite sides of a mirror. Demons, however they may be presented as something inhuman, have always been hinted to be, in truth, all too human, being drawn from the power of desire in humans, which is something communicated rather didactically in Shin Megami Tensei IV but has probably always been present in the series to some extent or other. We can see Isogai Shougo for instance refer to “the chaos that dwells in every human” in terms of passions or desires as the basis for Jimenez’s demonic transformation. As they come from the Abyss, or Makai, or the Expanse, whatever you want to call it, the demons represent a power dwelling in the human psyche that, as much as it can be said to be “dark”, accompanies Man forever as its eternal, timeless Other, always connected and yet separated by fear. That’s why the demons can’t live without humanity, and even if many demons don’t know that, Lucifer certainly does, and Jimenez certainly figures it out in Strange Journey’s New Chaos route while Mem Aleph was counting on him not thinking that through to its conclusion.
Free will, per Chaos parlance, may partly mean exactly the freedom to explore this Other, the power associated with it, and its potential for humans. As strange as the idea of co-existing with demons is, there exist myths and lore which do contain this idea. In fact, certain folkloric traditions in India and China, adjacent to Hinduism or Vajrayana Buddhism, apparently contain a belief that it is possible for humans in search of siddhi (spiritual powers) to access the underworld realm of Patala, home to the Asuras and the Nagas, through what are called “Asura’s Caves“, and stay with the Asuras (and Nagas) to live among them, acquire knowledge, access treasures, or even have sexual intercourse with female Asuras. Vedic Indian myth and folklore depicts the women of the Asuras as exceptionally beautiful and the bearers of magical drugs, which can apparently be procured by going to the mansions of the Asuras. In medieval European folklore, particularly within Germany, there is the legend of Venusberg, in which Tannhauser goes to the mountain in order to frolic with “the fairy queen” or worship a pagan goddess and he ends up living with them, sort of following a similar theme to the “Asura Caves”. If medieval beliefs regarding succubi and incubi are to be believed, the idea of demons living around humans and interacting with them was simply par for the course in the Middle Ages, just that the Christian culture of the day considered this a bad thing. In medieval Sweden, background folklore concerning spirits such as nymphs assisting hunters, fishermen and others may have transformed into the idea that those same spirits were agents or even manifestations of the Devil, and apparently there were some individuals who confessed to making deals with and even having sex with those spirits (though, confessions like this should usually be taken with a grain of salt). More saliently, in Japanese folklore, while there are many dangerous and hostile yokai, there were also many yokai who were considered rather friendly or at least simply amusing, some of whom are actually encouraged to live alongside humans, and the idea of yokai and humans co-existing seems to have been established enough in Japanese folklore and culture that there’s countless manga and anime that run with that premise.
In the games, it’s hinted that this is tied to peace with or liberation of desire, or even the invocation of it as a source of power. That’s not for nothing, in that in many religious cultures the “demonic” element is interpreted as a representation of desire that is usually seen as an obstacle to the realization of whatever spirirtual teaching or divinity the religion in question has in mind. Aleister Crowley recognized the spirits of the Goetia as “portions of thr human brain”, with the demons of the Lesser Key of Solomon representing the “lower” aspects of the psyche. But, it could also point to the theme of broader reality that we went over earlier. As Bernard Faure points out, again in Protectors and Predators, there was once a time when Mara was seen as an ambiguous source of reality, in the fashion of hongaku (“original enlightenment”) interpretation, at least according to Yusuke Takahashi (as in not the tennis player). Hongaku interpretation stressed a duality and unity between ignorance and enlightenment, the latter deriving its source from the former, which is reflected not only in some hongaku interpretations of Mara, but also Kojin, Mahakala, Matarajin, and Susano-o, positioning the wild realm of chaos, darkness, demons, and even desire and ignorance as an ambiguous source of enlightenment. That is a position that can seem very congruous with the conceits presented within Chaos, because it is the forces of Chaos, and uniquely them, who might take this view, since it is they who consider the demons to be potential the brothers and teachers of humans.
But there is one theme that hasn’t really been addressed at all here, one that Shin Megami Tensei IV introduced for Challenge Quests but never explored further: the dispensation of the universe. The Law-aligned Ancient of Days, representing God, seeks to carry it out, while the Chaos-aligned Sanat seems to oppose it. The game does not explore the theme further, but perhaps it is something worth exploring in a sort of return to the theme of free will and a core tenet of Chaos. Sanat, at least from his perspective, is trying to save humanity from the dispensation of the universe by getting mankind ready for war against the Ancient of Days, and presumably God. But what does “the dispensation of the universe” mean? The game never really explains that, but perhaps we can piece something together. Judging from Ancient of Days’ dialogue, he makes it seems like this is supposed to be some sort of destructive act of purification, at least in that he seems intent on destroying what’s left of humanity, but perhaps there’s more to it than that. Apparently the Japanese line for it is “uchuu no setsuri”, which means “providence of the universe”. Dispensation is a word that seems to mean, at least in certain contexts, the order of things that prevails at a given time, but in Christian theology it can mean certain ages of history or God’s plan, the distribution of good and evil, or it can mean something like divine providence. Providence can mean the governance, guidance, or the will of God. In context, the destructive act of purification presented by Ancient of Days can be thought of on similar terms. Remember that, in Nocturne, The Great Will’s whole deal is that it imposes a ruthless of death and rebirth for the purpose of destroying and creating new universes again and again until it can create a universe of perfection, free from sin but also devoid of free will. Even Apocalypse’s version, The Axiom, still seems to carry that over. A brutal regime of fate may thus be the true nature of the dispensation of the universe, which conflicts with the flourishing of free will. This, I think, should be explored more, and in a different way to Nocturne where completing the Amala Labyrinth meant annihilating the universe.
To finally summarize everything, we have a world to work with instead of the classical might makes right vision that, if we’re very honest, only serves to justify the order of things rather than smash it. Again, if the strongest has the right to rule, then logically YHVH would be the rightful ruler pf the universe because he is almost the most powerful being in the universe and got where he is by smacking down the other gods (as is explained straightforwardly in Strange Journey). Indeed, does YHVH not invoke his power to justify his authority and rule and therefore your obedience to him? But then I suppose that pint could also be turned into something salient from the Chaos perspective: namely that anything else YHVH justifies his rule is ultimately arbitrary or illusory and that it is power that is ultimately the real basis of his justification. In any case, the summary for what I’d like to see can be presented in bullet points for a collection of ideological flanks that form a broad ethos:
- Freedom and the flourishing of free will as the primary emphasis, rather than strength as a way of organizing hierarchy, and because of this opposition to the Great Will/Axiom – or, to put it another way, freedom from God’s control
- To that effect, hierarchy, at least worldly or human hierarchy, as something distinctly opposed to Chaos and therefore to be opposed by Chaos – such is consistent with the way Lilith talked about destroying existing structures of authority in Shin Megami Tensei IV
- To the extent that power is still important for Chaos, the idea should be that everyone is able to attain power over their own lives, rather than be subject to a hierarchy of interchangeable absolute rulers who win and reign by brute force at the expense of freedom
- Co-existence with demons as a key flank that separates Chaos from the other alignments, given greater emphasis as an expression of harmony between the two poles of human life
- The gods and demons of Chaos as the representatives of a kind of wild nature defined not simply by the lands of the Earth but by a nature found within humans, something raw that is obscured by the order of God and civilization
- The war between Law and Chaos as war over the dispensation of the universe, as the mechincal providence of The Great Will/Axiom, with Chaos on the opposing side whose mission it is to give mankind the power to oppose The Great Will/Axiom
If you are looking for something “extreme” from this, to fit the ambiguousness and difficulty of the choice between Law, Chaos, and Neutrality, I’d say you could still make the point that what the zen of Chaos amounts to could be described as Anarchy (no, not the shitty Apocalyse ending), not only in the sense of doing away with worldy hierarchies and authority but also in the sense of existential anarchy, doing away with the supreme authority over the universe itself, to leave only the flourishing of freedom among humans and demons. To realize Law is to realize the Thousand Year Kingdom or the dispensation of the universe, to realize Chaos can be to realize Anarchy, and to realize Neutrality is basically to just do neither of those in favour of, well, anything really.
With Shin Megami Tensei V on the horizon it is still too early to say what Chaos wilI mean here, but beyond that there are reasons to be excited. Arioch, one of the four demon generals of Chaos from the original Shin Megami Tensei, is making his grand return to the main series, and with Surt also featured in one of the trailers, it’s easy to be left wondering if Astaroth and Asura-Oh will make it as well. That’s a big deal because it means that, at last, the Four Archangels of Law might be paired against four Chaos counterparts once again for the first time since the original game. With Mara, Beelzebub, and classic Lucifer in the mix too, it’s safe enough to assume that the old gang of devils is getting together again, and we can safely assume the presence of Lilith as well. Without knowing exactly what Chaos entails in this game this says little, but it should be a welcome development in the time that remains.
And now, in the words of the Chaos Phantom in Shin Megami Tensei, let us walk the path of Chaos, from which everything is born.
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