Observations On MLP: Free Will/Analyzing “The Return of Harmony”

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I know I did a video Thoroughly Fanboying The Return of Harmony a couple months ago, and I love that video, but it is what it’s called. Over time, I’ve been giving it more thought, and come up with some observations on the way free will is treated in Equestria, as well as on the moral structure of this fantasy world.

To start with, let’s talk about Discord. I’ve seen the case made a number of times that Discord is not evil, and I’m here to disagree.

But first we need to clarify just what “good” and “evil” ARE. After all, these concepts are completely subjective, and most people will give you a different answer when asked. Personally, I like to refer to “good” as anything that promotes life and livelihood, whereas “evil” is anything that disrupts life and livelihood. I could probably go on for hours and hours pontificating on things being good or evil, but that’s neither here nor there—what’s more important is that we figure out THE SHOW’S definitions of good and evil.

Friendship Is Magic is sparing on using the words good and evil, which is great because given the subjective nature of the words, they tend to be unhelpful. Teaching a lesson about the more concrete elements of Harmony and Discord has a lot more weight and meaning behind it than the battle of good vs. evil would have. But make no mistake that in the context of this show, “Harmony” and “good” are synonymous, and the same is true of “discord” and “evil.”

Taken straight from the ponies mouths, when the CMC speculate that the discord statue could represent confusion, evil, and chaos, Cheerilee tells them that all three are technically correct. It’s not that Discord isn’t confusion, evil, or chaos, it’s simply that “discord” is a more specific and efficient word for describing what the spirit represents. “A lack of harmony between ponies,” directly in opposition of Equestria’s ultimate force of good.

In representing Discord as an antagonist, and allowing the protagonists to defeat him, the show is promoting the triumph of good over evil—of harmony over discord—and I think we’d all pretty much agree that it’s a lesson worth teaching, right? Except… we wouldn’t ALL agree. There are bound to be those who would favor Discord’s way of life over that of the ponies. After all, if we are to ascribe a meaning to the word evil, then there must be people whom we regard as evil. By using these words, we’re taking sides and making convictions for ourselves to stand by, and while that may seem very obvious and like, something everyone does, it’s nonetheless an important fact.

Friendship Is Magic takes a moral stand. It makes statements about what is or isn’t okay, and it’s actually very adamant about these things. In Equestria, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BE WRONG. Evil DOES NOT go unpunished, and you will be forced to CONFORM to the moral standard of society, whether you like it or not.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is an interesting question. Here in the Western world, and in a growing part of the global community, we put a LOT of value on the concept of free will. Us Americans in particular are very proud of our freedoms, and we will champion the idea that any *one* can do any *thing,* within certain, often unclear boundaries. We are often violently opposed to the idea of monarchy or dictatorship DETERMINING what we can and can’t do, and who we can and can’t be.

But, as I’ve claimed in nearly all of these observation videos, Equestria is NOT the Western world, and is in fact a society based around embracing the ideas of determinism. (Which is what I usually mean when I use the word Destiny. Yeah I need to rewrite that video.)

Equestria is in fact a monarchal society, if not a… quad…archal society, and follows a moral standard ultimately set by its leaders. I mean, when a new villain shows up, you never see a congress meeting about how to deal with them—just Celestia telling Twilight to go stop them, pronto.

There is no scene in The Return of Harmony, or Friendship Is Magic Part Two, or The Crystal Empire, or A Canterlot Wedding, or Equestria Girls, wherein the mane six attempt to reach a compromise with the villain, or weigh their differences. What we get is the mane six telling the villains, “you are going to conform to our moral standard, whether you like it or not,” and then proceeding to force them to do so.

And the roads to these final confrontations are filled with some really interesting themes, especially throughout all three episodes of the Discord arc. The Return of Harmony is essentially a struggle between Twilight and Discord over controlling the value sets of Twilight’s friends. And the battle is handled with a decidedly determinist slant.

At first glance, Discord’s game looks like a sort of Faustian gambit, in which he tricks and tempts the ponies into changing their values into those of disharmony. But this isn’t really the case. The ponies aren’t really transformed by their own emotions, but by Discord’s magic. We see this clearly in the scene with Fluttershy, wherein Discord fails to make her depressed, and just transforms her anyways. Other than Twilight, the mane six are not transformed by their own free will, but by Discord casting a spell on them to make them act that way.

And when Twilight changes them back, it’s the same story. She forcefully reinstalls the memories of each pony being an element of harmony back into their heads, to reinstil the value sets that she wants to preserve into their heads.

Remember in my Look Before You Sleep video, how I claimed that differences between people should be embraced, but that some differences are irreconcilable if we hope to maintain a functioning society? The Discord arc is about how ponies deal with irreconcilable differences. Their initial tactic is outright imprisonment, and their second tactic is reformation by force.

In Keep Calm And Flutter On, Discord is not given any options. Twilight fully intends that if Discord does not somehow alter his mindset to fit in with society, she actually can use a spell to reform him by force—a downright Orwellian tactic of forced conformity. And with Discord having eaten this spell, if he hadn’t conformed, they would have simply turned him bacck to stone.

In conclusion, Equestria does have a strict moral standard and absolute monarchy, and does not seem to put much value into the idea of free will. The reason their society still resembles ours is that for all our ideas about freedom, even we ultimately have an underlying moral foundation determined by the majority, and regardless of what we believe, the inherently determinist system of our universe will cause us to work in that system regardless of how we perceive ourselves operating. Equestria isn’t really different from our world systemically, it simply is a society that recognizes and embraces those systems more openly.


8 thoughts on “Observations On MLP: Free Will/Analyzing “The Return of Harmony”

  1. A clarifying post! This subject gets into the whole “secondary world” thing, again. What’s figurative in MLP, why, and to what degree?

    One of the toughest things to figure out with this series is what it conflates (conflation not necessarily being a bad thing). How different is Equestria from the other nations? We’ve seen diplomats from Saddle Arabia, and they don’t have cutie marks. What’s the deal? Are they “unenlightened?” Do they just have their own “system?” Are cutie marks *really* linked to the so-called cosmos, to the “order of the universe?”

    You could, after all, make the argument that Magical Mystery Cure subverts the order: the universe is bigger than Equestria or switched cutie-marks. It’s Twilight’s unwillingness to settle that brings everyone to a new level.

    Philosophically, evil just comes down to the immoral (or the unjust—the more preferable term, but take your pick). So, yeah, it’s pretty reasonable that a country mystically deriving its political hierarchy from metaphysical enlightenment would see disharmony as a bad thing. Disharmony is the result of injustice. At least, as Plato-Socrates saw it (Neal was coming at it from that angle, if you remember). You could even argue that *is* injustice—depends on your framework. I emphasize that word because Equestria’s the only country shown to us that *is* so obsessed about cosmic order in the first place. Injustice would be whatever deviates or causes deviation from that order.

    Insofar as the established order is right, correct, valid, the goal of detaining injustice/evil makes sense. Insofar as the order is still finite, guessworked, and imperfect, taken actions remain morally-tenuous.

    The magic thing is somewhat comprehensible, too: if all beings in the universe are linked together and to the source “stuff” of the universe, and the Element of Magic is capable of drawing that out of noble-minded people, then I could see it working on ponies aligned enough with the other Elements so as even to bypass the needed for the five stones. If justice participates in the concept of “good” (meaning justice is not goodness itself) and justice is harmony and harmony is friendship…you’ve got a weird conflation that maybe works.

    The real-world problem, of course, is that you have to articulate such links convincingly. Those who want secondary-world consistency aren’t going to settle for muddled or bad philosophy. What this means is that the thematic links have to be tight or consistent, even if they aren’t super-elaborated. Fiction isn’t required to elaborate painstakingly its moral systems—just be adequate.

    P.S. Quad(r)-, by the way, is a Latin root (quat(r)-). Tetr- is the Greek one.

  2. I’m afraid I must insistently disagree with you this time. From a meta standpoint, the show CLEARLY considers the kind of violent enforcement of ideas you’re claiming champion determinism to be IMMORAL.

    Discord is evil not because he represents chaos, but because he forcibly exerts his will on others. In fact, in Keep Calm and Flutter On, the “morally” violence-advocating mane 6 (excluding Fluttershy), are painted as just as villainous as he himself is, and it’s Fluttershy’s gambit of giving a legitimate chance that does what violence did not manage and coaxes him into willingly trading in his overbearing ways. In addition, this very same point demonstrates that in-universe, chaos is a FALSE OPPOSITE, and that the, or at least A, true opponent of Harmony is forcible determination.

    While I do agree that MLP speaks for determinism, it is a very particular brand thereof. I personally would describe it as Determinism as a product of IDENTITY, and would posit that the advocation of submissivity and the notion that “all paths lead to the same place” are not remotely a part of the messages of MLP’s story. If you need logical support for this, look no further than the fact that the cutie mark appears only when the pony truly bonds with an identity and realizes not what they MUST be, but what they would BEST be.

    P.S. I myself believe firmly that “God does not play dice,” as it were, but your antagonism of the concept of freedom is not something I agree with. I personally believe that freedom is something that exists within the functioning of the universe and that to cast it aside is to dismiss some invaluable aspects of the system of the progression.

    • “Discord is evil not because he represents chaos, but because he forcibly exerts his will on others”
      By the same measure, it can be considered that princess Celestia (and the Mane 6 afterwards) were evil by transforming Discord to stone against his own will.

      Not that I disagree with you, quite the opposite. I just wanted to point out that, just because you do something for the greater good, it doesn’t make it any less evil. Like sending Luna to the moon for a thousand friggin years, what’s up with that? :/

  3. I would argue that Discord isn’t evil, nor is he good. He is the spirit of chaos. If you where to look at it like a compass (think DnD) Evil is opposed to good and order is opposed to chaos. So one could be “good” and be chaotic (kind of like Pinkie.) To blindly say all chaos is evil isn’t a fair representation of the word chaos.

    • I think Discord is ABSOLUTELY Chaotic Neutral, yeah.

      And I would suggest that the Elements of Harmony are Neutral Good implements, rather than Lawful like most folks assume.

  4. I would only like to point out the difference between “Determinant Universe” which you said and what would be better called “Societal Totalitarianism” which is more like what you described. In a “Determinant Universe” there is NO freedom and therein no choice. The show (and logic for that matter) says that that isn’t what goes on; their cutie marks are a good example however of this going both ways. On the one hand, the mark is basically predestined to appear when somepony comes to the realization of what may, to others, be already obvious (which I can concur with; you are the worst at judging your own self accurately). On the other hand, ponies are encouraged, and even required, to explore and find this “destiny” for themselves. The question is raised then of how accurate this is.
    It would the depend on you belief set. If you believe we are born with our personality, then nature wins and this determinism is correct. If you believe that we are the product of our upbringing, then nurture wins and this foolish determinism breaks down.
    That isn’t to say that the “Societal Totalitarianism” you described breaks down. It is clear that Equestria Is not the western world, but a false utopia in which “Unity” or harmony is the ultimate decider of “Good” as apposed to gods.

    The argument for a logical free will is as such:
    If there is no choice then there must, by merit of definition, be a force in control (“controlled chaos” and “randomly predisposed” are paradoxes by definition).
    If that force exists and controls totally then there is not good or evil, right or wrong. How can anything be wrong when it was only being a cog in the machine? How can we punish evil when it was doing what it was supposed to?
    Therefore, I would argue that free will must exist.

  5. I find that while your analysis is mostly very sharp and consistent, you tend to give some key terms a rather hazy definition. What are you exactly referring to when speaking of “determinism” and “freedom of will”? I’m sure that you are aware of the fact that the history of western philosophy gives these terms a higly different meaning depending on the era and context. Now I can see readings of your text that could give these words either a metaphysical or a political meaning and even those two categories divide into smaller segments. I know this is not excatly an academic essay but I’d really appreciate some more attention to the context of the words you use, mainly because I’m propably going to refer to this video (and to perhaps to some other material you have uploaded) in a pressentation I’m working on. But that is just me being selfish.

    Your notion that Twilight actually used very similiar methods of “saving” her friends from Discord as Discord himself used in the first place is particularly clever. They both used forces external to the subject in question in their goal of winning them on their side, although it can be argued that Twilight merely dispelled the curse of Discord. Still, other aspects you mentioned seem to hint that Equestria really is a deterministic system (in the broad sense you use the word), although I would rather classify it as a theocracy rather than a monarchy, since Princess Celestia, while certainly being royal, is first and foremost a divine entity. Then, of course, one could argue that a theocracy is nothing but the hegemony of the clergy, which Equestria lacks. So many intriguing analogies can be made of the show that it really just stuns me.

    As a final note I’d like to present the question of how you understand the statement you make at the very beginning of the analysis, the one that while there are many subjective notions of the meaning of Good and Evil, you are interested to know the one of the series MLP: FIM presents. Do you believe that there is this kind of abstract and ultimate Truth that we can reveal by a careful analysis of the series and to which the analysis is based? Or do you believe that every analysis of the series is fundamentally correct (since there is no “Truth” to be available) and so our discussion of those analyses can only meaningfully be evaluated based on other analyses, to their internal consistency and to their general level of attractiveness? That is to ask, are you a realist or a relativist concerning the truth value of analysis based on the series.

    The last question really just makes me so happy, to think that such an inquiry could be made in the first place. I don’t even care if you answer it or even read this post. Keep up the good work!

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