Persona 5 and Camusian Revolt

Today, I want to discuss how Persona 5 reflects the problem of revolt as described in the book The Rebel by Albert Camus. No knowledge of Camus required, although hopefully you’ve heard of Persona 5. I myself have only finished the first three dungeons, so several of these points may be subject to change in the sequel to this episode, coming out next year.

This is an approximate script for the first episode of the Bagoum Literature Club podcast.

Persona 5

Really quickly, I want to point out a few things about Persona 5.

First, the characters I’ll cite. Joker is the main character; Ann is a part of Joker’s outlaw gang; Sae is an investigator under the SIU; Akechi is a high school detective who works under Sae; “SIU Director” is a very shady guy who knows about the whole second dimension thing; Mishima is the admin for the Phantom Thieves fansite and also Joker’s classmate; Eggman (I don’t know his actual name) is a bald politician with whom Joker had a run-in in the antecedent to the game, prompting Joker’s arrest. I also mention the first three bosses — Kamoshida, Madarame, and Kaneshiro — but they’re not important.

Second, your outlaw gang is overwriting the hearts of bad people by destroying their “distorted desires”. This on its surface seems like an absolutely good thing. But the game always puts it in doubt. Will the quarry die? Will they suffer a mental breakdown? Are we culpable if they die? Even if they don’t die, is it alright to overwrite people’s hearts? This doubt is critical to the problem of necessary murder, which we will discuss.

Let’s move on to Camus.

Camusian Revolt

To Camus, revolt starts with a single problem: someone is suffering. The rebel claims that the suffering should not occur: she puts up a boundary, declaring that it must not be crossed. This boundary is a value.

This is the formation of the rebel consciousness. It’s very simple, but carries some interesting properties. Rebels are willing to sacrifice their lives for the values they defend. But, death is the absolute denial of the individual, which means that the value cannot be tied to the individual. It must transcend the individual and instead appeal to human integrity. This, however, brings about a contradiction. Rebels are also willing to kill for the values they defend — practically speaking, they must kill in order to effect change. But, to kill is to reject a universal human integrity. This, to Camus, is the core contradiction at the center of all revolt. If a rebel does not kill, she lets injustice continue. If a rebel kills, she denies human integrity, which is the basis of her revolt. Murder is necessary and impossible at the same time. Camus writes:

They know the good, and despite themselves, they do evil.

There are many ways to deal with this contradiction. Most of them are bad. We’ll discuss three of the common bad methods: Jacobinism, nihilism, and Hegelianism.

Jacobinism

Jacobinism deals with the contradiction of murder by elevating the rebel’s principles to absolute. Generally, the absolute nature of these principles are justified either via God (the religious argument) or Reason (the secular argument). Absolute principles mean, of course, that anyone who runs to the contrary gets sent to the chopping block, and that this murder is absolutely justified. During the French Revolution, a party called the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, took control of the government and began to purge dissidents during the period known as the Reign of Terror. A man named Saint-Just, the preeminent philosophical ideologue of this period, established severe republican ideals to justify the execution of thousands of Frenchmen, many of whom were themselves revolutionaries. Eventually, though, the National Convention lost its stomach for the rampant executions, and so executed Robespierre, Saint-Just, and the other architects of the Terror. The problem with absolute ideals is that you have to execute people who don’t follow them. And chances are that most people won’t be able to follow your absolute principles.

Who’s the Saint-Just of Persona 5, the pepo of absolute principles? This one is pretty apparent, I think. It’s Akechi. Akechi’s notion of justice, as outlined by the TV studio scene, is the law. Anything done outside the scope of the law is unjust. Here’s a quote:

They’re taking the law into their own hands by judging him. It is far from justice.

This is a common argument people make. Doing things outside the law is bad because it’s outside the law. But it’s also a profoundly naive argument, since it assumes that the law is just. For example, let’s say there’s a government that has a policy that says that all people of a certain type must be exterminated. That’s the law. You oppose this by forging visas for these people so they can escape the country. Presumably, what you’re doing is just. Not according to Akechi: you’re taking the law into your own hands. You are a terrible person. You should be tried in court. Of course, you’ll be executed, because that’s how this government works.

Akechi’s principles are doubly problematic because they’re not constitutive. His conception of justice isn’t some list of principles, but rather, whatever the law is at the time. It’s why it’s a bit risky to call it Jacobinist; it’s more of a “I don’t understand justice”-ism. However, I don’t really have another character to put under the Jacobinist label for now, so this will have to do. Though, it seems to me that Sae might take this kind of approach with a bit more maturity.

Nihilism

Nihilism takes many forms, but the simplest one is the denial of absolute principles. The Jacobinists took the first step in denying God, and the nihilists take the second step in denying Reason. Stirner, a preeminent nihilist, thought that the Jacobinist’s absolute Reason was no more well-founded than the absolute God. Here’s a quote:

The atheist philosophies which culminate in the cult of the State or the cult of Man are no more than theological insurrections.

Now, you might be worried about the consequences of denying all absolute principles. Wouldn’t that make society fall apart, or something? Here’s another quote by Stirner which should allay your fears.

[Germany], we will force you into your grave. Soon your sisters, the other nations, will follow you… Once all humanity is buried, I, standing on its tomb, finally master of my own destiny, I, its sole heir, shall laugh.

All of the first three bosses are profoundly nihilist. Kamoshida is an egoist nihilist, Madarame is an existential nihilist (insofar as he objectifies others), and Kaneshiro is a Darwinist nihilist, insofar as his entire logic is “the strong eat the weak”. I wonder if the rest of the palace-owners will also be nihilists…

Hegelianism

Moving on, Hegelianism recognizes that establishing absolute principles in the immediate present leads to the Jacobinist Terror. On the other hand, if absolute principles are denied en bloc, then we arrive at Stirner’s apocalyptic nihilism. So Hegelianism pulls a sneaky, which, if you’ve studied intuitionist Kripke models, might sound familiar. The absolute principles, it claims, exist at the end of history (or more generally, in the future), and until then, everything is imperfect conflict. Hegelianism in this respect is a lot like Christian messianism, which claims that the Second Coming of Jesus will redeem all the unnecessary suffering of history.

Here’s a cheeky Kripke formulation of Hegelianism, where ​ stands for some statement about what the absolute principles are:

​M,w |/- p, and M,w |- ~~p

For those of you unfamiliar with Kripke models, what this means is that we have a model M, and a current state of knowledge w​. This formulation states that the current state of knowledge does not justify the statement p, but justifies the statement not-not-p. Not-not-p in a Kripke model means that, at the end of the accumulation of knowledge, p will be justified. In other words, while we don’t know the absolute principles right now, at the end of the accumulation of knowledge, we will.

On the other hand, the Kripke formulation for Jacobinism would be:

​M,w |- p

and the Kripke formulation for nihilism would be:

​M,w |- ~p

Not-p in a Kripke model means that, no matter what knowledge we accumulate, it will never be the case that p is justified. The nihilists thought that no inquiry could yield absolute principles.

Returning back to Hegelianism proper, the problem is that it effectively ignores the original problem, which is that people are suffering. If your values are in the future, then you can’t justify fighting against suffering now. You can only flail around until the illumination arrives. Here’s an illuminating quote from Camus:

The sky is empty, the earth is under the whim of aimless power. Those who have chosen to kill, and those who have chosen to enslave , will successively occupy the front of the stage, in the name of a revolt turned away from its own truth.

Camus’ prime example of the failure of Hegelianism was Stalinism. In the writings of Lenin, we see that the Soviet Union wasn’t meant to be the communist utopia, but rather the state that would bring about the end of history and the communist utopia by destroying all the bourgeois. A critical feature of Hegelianism is that it always delays justice to the future, the hoped-for future where all values will be clear. But until then, it seeks power and institutionalizes slavery in the name of the future it claims it will bring about. The Hegelian-Stalinist model is “the exaltation of the executioner by the victim”, an “imperialism of justice”.

Is there such a Hegelian character in Persona 5? Yes: it’s Eggman, the bald politician, who, presumably, is also the guy who had a run-in with Joker in the antecedent. It’s patently obvious that this man thinks himself superior to other people. The masses only get in his way. This is quite apparent in the elevator scene in the hotel buffet, where he shoves past the line for the elevator as if he owns the place. That’s pretty trivial, though. In the antecedent, Eggman is trying to rape a woman before Joker intervenes. He also blackmails the woman via some money laundering practices for which she was forced to be a proxy. So clearly he disregards the suffering of others. But does he do so in the name of a messianic future value? I’ve found one extremely telling dialogue line which suggests so. After Kaneshiro turns himself in, the SIU director gets on the phone with someone and says:

Only a few people are entitled to change the world… like you, “future” Prime Minister.

Now, I don’t know who exactly this “future Prime Minister” is, but I’m willing to bet it’s Eggman. And this is direct evidence of not just messianism, but egoistic messianism. So in total, Eggman disregards and directly causes the suffering of others, in the service of some ill-defined messianic future which he plans to bring about. That’s Camus’ model of bad Hegelianism.

Thought at the Meridian

Camus, of course, proposes a proper approach to the contradiction. He constructs a single absolute principle: the principle of the right to revolt. All other principles are temporary, living things. Just like the rebel creates his values by setting a boundary, this single absolute principle is the principle of the existence of boundaries on values.

This principle carries a lot of good baggage. It affirms human integrity, since it affirms this core right for all humanity and continues to oppose suffering. It also refuses to eternalize itself by declaring present principles absolute, and also refuses to yield to nihilism or Hegelianism by denying the existence of present principles. It recognizes its own limitations, which is why it commits itself to revision and subjects itself to revolt.

Revolt will die only together with the last man.

There is an interesting parallel, which I just want to note, with the great revolutions in physics during the early 20th century. It was commonly believed before the 20th century that Newton had latched onto the absolute deterministic objective principles of reality, and that the other sciences would see similar progress soon. But in modern physics, there is no such confidence. Even something as seemingly absolute as “two events occurring at the same time” is a subjective experience in relativity, and quantum mechanics affirms the incompleteness of our knowledge regarding any system. The only principle is that all our principles are approximative.

Relativity of Simultaneity

This, the last category, is of course represented by the Phantom Thieves. Their core mission is to give courage to the downtrodden — in other words, give them the power to revolt against society in the same feel as the Phantom Thieves. Their philosophical justification is that they free people to revolt. And at the root of their cause is a belief in human integrity, a rejection of all the villains’ ranting about “strong” and “weak” and “deserving” people.

Recall that there are two ways that rebellion can fail: Hegelianism, which arises when present suffering is instrumentalized for the messianic future, and Jacobinism, where present principles are eternalized and defended with the guillotine. Insofar as the Phantom Thieves are constantly opposing suffering, they avoid Hegelianism. However, they might fall into Jacobinism if they take an absolute stand on whose hearts will be rewritten. This is a potentiality dispelled by a certain interaction with Mishima. At a certain point in the game, Mishima, who manages the Phantom Thieves fansite, starts becoming somewhat obsessed with his own power and fame as a website admin. He also starts threatening people who criticize the Phantom Thieves, which is basically Jacobinism to a J. So you and your friends pay his Shadow a visit in Mementos. The Shadow’s language recalls the fear of the Jacobin guillotine, which so often turns against its closest allies. Here’s a quote.

Hahahaha! So you wanna change my heart, even after everything I’ve done for you guys!?

What is so critical about this scene is that you don’t drop the guillotine. You don’t overwrite his heart. You let the Shadow vent, and then you leave. This prevents a slide into Jacobinism, which might take the stand of SHADOW BAD. Mishima fixes his attitude on his own: he is free to establish his own principles without your forceful interference.

Government of Revolt

A related complication in anarchist thought is the notion of “revolutionary government”. Is it possible for government to be revolutionary, given that the government is what people rebel against? Here’s what Proudhon, an early anarchist, had to say:

It would be a contradiction for a government to be revolutionary, by the simple reason that it is a government.

A government needs to exercise arbitrary violence over its citizens, in accordance with laws that very well may be unjust. If people are revolting against those laws, the best the government can do is turn a blind eye, and eventually yield to the people’s revolt. They themselves can’t participate in revolt, since that would destroy the consistency of their rule. A government must protect the right to revolt by — practically speaking — light sentences or turning a blind eye. This is why the Mishima episode is so critical: it gives us a view of what the Phantom Thieves’ doctrine of government is like, and it is one in which Mishima’s shadow’s revolt is protected, even if it is misguided. Sort it out yourself, as Joker says.

Complications and Discussion

Rehabilitation

One problem, though, is rehabilitation. Japanese society hardly admits rehabilitation, and this is well evinced in the crowd dialogue whenever a confession occurs. It’s always, “His life is over.” Now, murder isn’t the only way you can deny someone’s humanity. Absolute imprisonment is another method. The Phantom Thieves seem quite fine with their quarry going to prison and never being rehabilitated. Ann, in fact, takes specific pleasure in it. Here’s a quote where she explains why she prefers life in prison for Kamoshida:

I just believe there are fates worse than death.

While this point is at least an indictment of Ann, for the Phantom Thieves as a whole, prison for their quarry seems more like an unavoidable result. There’s nothing they can do about it. In fact, the smaller quarry in Mementos often claim they’re going to reconcile when you banish them, and I’m pretty sure at least one of the palaces have a boss who ends up joining your party. So rehabilitation is at least a possibility, albeit not a strongly theorized one, in the principles of the Phantom Thieves.

Necessary Murder

Necessary murder is a contradiction core to the problem of revolt, but contemporary media is absolutely terrible at dealing with it. For example, let’s look at Avatar: The Last Airbender. It poses the problem very well: Aang must kill Ozai, but murder is forbidden. Everyone around him emphasizes very well the absolute necessity of killing Ozai. What, then, is Aang’s solution? He pulls out a deus ex that allows him to render Ozai harmless without murder. He denies the problem of necessary murder by appealing to a divine power that instantly stops bad guys being bad. Then, after lauding itself for not approving of murder, the show puts Ozai in jail for life. As we just mentioned, life in prison is still an affront against human dignity — just of a lesser degree than murder. There’s a reason why so much media does this: liberal democracies have inculcated the belief that imprisonment isn’t “violent”, and that it is therefore more just than execution, which is indelibly violent even if operated by the state. Now, when media faces the problem of necessary murder, all it has to do is appeal to the “peaceful” solution of life imprisonment.

What a mess.

Persona 5, on the other hand, does start to grapple with this dilemma in its family-friendly way: Might the quarry actually die when the palace is destroyed? Would that be bad? Is it just to brainwash people even if they’re criminals? Even if the heart-overwriting deal seems “good”, it’s always fraught with these real dangers and real questions of impinging on people’s fundamental human rights that only get louder as the game progresses. Murder is necessary, that’s why it’s so difficult to deal with. The Phantom Thieves risk being murderers in the name of human dignity, even as they don’t want to kill. Let me repeat that line from the beginning:

They know the good, and despite themselves, they do evil.

Conclusion

To review, Persona 5 gives us examples of Jacobinism, nihilism, Hegelianism, and finally true Camusian revolt. Unlike much other contemporary media, it actually raises the question of necessary murder, and hints that it will continue doing so. As a result, it becomes an inspiration for our real-life revolts in a way that other media just doesn’t.

I’m looking forward to finishing Persona 5 over winter break. Afterwards, I’ll write a continuation to discuss how the themes I presented today are strengthened or weakened by the rest of the game. If you pepos are interested, I can also present some of my thoughts on the game’s design. I drew on Persona 5 as an argument for a research paper I’m writing on video game localization, so I have at least something interesting to say.

I plan to do at least one more episode, on a different topic, before then. Currently, I expect to discuss either nihilist memes, the culture industry, or Monster Hunter World. If you have any suggestions, let me know on Discord.