Charles Norris Cochrane, in his fascinating book Christianity and Classical Culture describes the reign of Augustus Caesar as the definitive manifestation of of said culture. From Plato onwards there was an intellectual desire to break free of contingency and the whims of history through discernment of the fundamental nature of reality and construction of an ideal, fully rationalized polis that would integrate the individual and human society as a whole into that reality.
But, according to Cochrane, this dream inevitably unraveled due to an important problem it never solved: ancient philosophy and politics could not bridge the gap between the thinking, feeling individual subject and the objective, ‘big picture’. The subject was always subsumed under idealized archetypes or dissolved into them. This gap, more or less pronounced, would always be there, and hence there would always be a degree of alienation between the individual and the polis. There would always be dissatisfaction.
Christianity, however, solved this problem. It presented a worldview where the individual subject was related to another particular individual, Christ, who is also simultaneously the logos and ordering agent of reality. This, combined with the Trinitarianism that found the source of all existence in personality, provided a framework which fully integrated the individual into the ‘big’ picture. Thus its polis, the City of God, was stronger than the City of Man, and Christendom would inevitably overtake the classical world.
XII’s Ivalice strikes me as a world having one half of this scenario. Although Vayne is a far more warlike man than Augustus, his desire to create a new world order through freedom from occult influences strikes me as an attempt to rationalize the polis and create a fully integrated world.
And the problem is – he is unable to see the individual subject as anything but a cog in the machine of all this. The common person, for him, does not have a destiny; only those strong enough, or perhaps archetypal enough, are capable of it.
Of course, there is no equivalent of the Incarnation in Ivalice to fix things. But it is worth looking into just what gives the heroes in this story a moral advantage.
In a typical RPG, the characters grow by becoming stronger. They gain experience, abilities, weapons, and often run around collecting the magical macguffins to destroy the bad guy. XII is no exception.
But, by associating the magical artifacts you collect with nuclear weaponry, the game starts asking questions about the corrupting influences of power. It asks whether, at a certain level, power just becomes too dangerous for anyone to wield, regardless of intentions. It asks whether the solution to a powerful enemy is to just become more powerful yourself.
So, in a sense, XII is interested in deconstructing the typical RPG adventure. It takes the position that, if you have the power to wipe out an entire nation, the only good thing you can do with it is to throw it away (although, in a gameplay sense, you do in fact need more power if you’re gonna beat that final boss, so this only goes so far).
What, then, prevents our heroes from becoming another Vayne?
In a key scene late in the game, Gabranth asks Basch how he is able to retain his honor after all the defeats and indignities he has suffered. Basch responds that he has found someone to protect (Princess Ashe). This leads Gabranth, who has similarly lost everything by this point, to realize that if nothing else he cares for Larsa and wants to save him. And Gabranth sacrifices his life to do so.
Princess Ashe similarly has an epiphany where she realizes that, if she were to pursue a course of revenge, she would betray the ideals of the country she has sworn to protect. The protagonists all learn in their own way to reject a realpolitik solution to their problems and to instead preserve the relationships and values that matter. They find meaning in their lives because of who they care for, rather than optimal outcomes.
Vayne and Dr. Cid, by contrast, are willing to throw even their own families under the bus in order to achieve their goals, and in doing so sacrifice their own humanity.
XII thus acts as a kind of double subversion. In spite of all the power plays, love and the power of friendship come out on top. How delightfully Tolkienesque of it!
(Images courtesy of Final Fantasy Wiki)