Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Home of the Fighting Phenomenologists"

One of my ongoing , never-run RPG projects is The Mighty Sons of Risus, a campaign set in the world of the Italian sword-and-sandals movies. These feature an anachronistic jumble of Greek myth, Roman gladiators, historical anachronisms, and outright fantasy such as clones and aliens.  I wanted to include a section on Greek philosophers, since they are a prominent feature of the ancient Greek milieu.  Making them interesting, however, is quite a challenge...


Bedivere: "...And that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana-shaped."
Arthur: "This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedivere. Explain to me again how sheep's bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes."
--Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Cliff: "Due to the shape of the North American elk's esophagus, even if it could speak, it could not pronounce the word 'lasagna'."

          Often shunned for their tedious rambling, eccentric behavior, intellectual smugness, ability to detect free food and drink with extraordinary precision, and a scandalous disdain for religion, Philosophers were a nigh-ubiquitous feature of urban Greece, and deserve some representation in a Sandalpunk campaign. But philosophy itself seems like an unlikely addition to role-playing games, in part because most gamers who studied Philosophy in college had notebooks with more doodles of dragons in the margins than actual notes themselves. How, I pondered glumly, can we use Philosophers, in a game without dragging down the level of fun?

          Here's my best shot at solving the dilemma of how to tell all the wooly-bearded, wooly-headed guys apart.  I hope there is enough information, scant though it is, to help you play a philosopher as a PC or an NPC.  The numerous different schools of philosophy, each with its own particular brand of "the truth", eccentric notions, and cutthroat rivalries, can be a good source of entertainment and (mis)information.  Having party guests from two opposing schools at the same dinner party might be sophisticated fun, scandal, a brainy brawl, or the beginnings of a full-scale war of the wise guys.
Schools of Philosophy
Socratics, Platonists, and Aristotelians
          Even other philosophers sometimes have trouble telling these groups apart. Both are known for studying ethics, logic, rhetoric, and other esoteric subjects, and for crowds of disaffected youth and malcontent intellectuals gathering at their "symposia" (drinking bouts). They sniff at the thought that philosophy might have any practical applications (take THAT, Archimedeans!), but are good at spreading the notion that philosophy makes one a better human being.
          Socratics are notorious for corrupting youth with questions like "What is Justice?", "What is the best way to live a good life?", and "What happened to all the olives?". They believe that the wisest man in the world is the one who is aware of how ignorant he is, and many wise people agree that the Socratics certainly qualify for that.
          Platonists believe that the world as we see it is a corrupt version of the ideal form, which cannot ever be reached by material beings; gamers with visions of making off with the "Ideal Form" of a mountain of gold should just keep that to themselves. Oh, and the Platonist version of the perfect ruler is the Philosopher King, which lets you know what they're really plotting late at night over a bottle of ouzo.
          Aristotelians scoff at Platonists' notion of "ideal forms", but spend an inordinate time looking for "First Causes" and "the Unmoved Mover". They believe that to be fully developed as a human being, they must master a variety of disciplines. Thus, they have developed a variety of trivia games which they play against each other, fielding random questions about Geography, Entertainment, History, Arts & Literature, Science & Nature, and Sports & Leisure.

Suave and mysterious in the way that only math geeks can be, Pythagoreans crunch numbers the way Epicureans munch olives. Reclusive and mystical, these "mathemagicians" are always finding obscure relationships between numbers in odd places, be it in poetry, architecture, geometry, music, astronomy or (theoretically, of course) women's undergarments. Strangely, Pythagoreans also believe in reincarnation, and that foods like rabbit and beans are evil.

          Stoics personify the expression "stiff upper lip". They believe in ignoring pleasure and pain, thinking that these distract them from Logic and Reason, the only thing in life worth having. They can be the featured attraction at a gladiatorial bout, witnessing the slaughter of helpless screaming widows and orphans, or consummating their marriage with their childhood sweethearts, and they won't bat an eye.
          Mr. Spock from Star Trek is probably the bestknown  example of a Stoic (minus the green blood, pointy ears, and the Vulcan Neck Pinch). American Indians (not so native to Mythic Greece), Spartans and die-hard traditional Romans are also unofficially Stoics.

These scruffy philosophers believe in "living a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature."  Therefore, Cynics give up all worldly possessions, including money, houses, and personal hygiene products, to live a simple, frugal, shameless, and often naked life on the street.  They eat what they find, sleep wherever they can, and say whatever they want.  They scoff at the false values of those who indulge in materialistic lifestyles, care about things like honor and glory, and wear clothes free from embarrassing stains. 

Epicureans and Hedonists
          The only important goal in life, according to the founder of Epicureanism, is the pursuit of food, drink, and company, which means they turn up at parties a lot.  They can often be found expounding on the benefits of seeking "modest" pleasures (while pilfering hors d'oevres and pouring libations of the host's best wine) to attain a life of tranquility and freedom, free from bodily pain and distress. "Everything in Moderation", they caution, making sure to sample at least one of every tasty tidbit at the table.
          A rival colloquium of sensual sages, the Hedonists, disagree: "Everything in Excess!" is their creed. Too much of a good thing is never enough for a true Hedonist. They wax eloquent about the virtues of stuffing every orifice full of whatever gives it the most pleasure, and praise the tranquility and freedom that only massive overindulgence can bring (at least until inevitable blackouts, hangovers, and crossbow weddings).

       All the other philosophers claim that Sophists are giving their profession a bad name. They are reviled for two things: their greed for money and power, and their ability to bend logic and reason like a pretzel, Known for twisting the truth until it cries for mercy, they function much like con-men, used chariot salesman, shyster lawyers, and career politicians.  They specialize in splitting hairs, putting words into their opponents' mouths, padding expense vouchers, and buttering up wealthy patrons
          Debating a sophist is like standing in front of a monkey cage wearing your best white tunic: you're just begging to be pelted with dung.

          Derided by as "mere tinkerers" or "menial craftsmen" by the other philosophers, Archimedeans are the inventors, engineers, and gadgeteers. Their workshops are full of sputtering aeolipiles whistling like a teakettle, half-finished prototypes of siege engines, scale models of leaky aqueducts, and the like.  They consider themselves the inheritors of the legacy of Daedalus, the legendary craftsman. Archimedeans were inspired by childhood tales of the mechanical servants of Hephaestos and the bronze giant Talos; they are driven by a desire to take things apart to see how they work, and yearning to improve on the design.  They dream of creating burning mirrors capable of setting fire to ships, one-man vehicles that fly or swim or roll across the ground, and meddling in the gods' domain.
          Contrary to modern sensibilities, the possibilities of mechanized warfare have not yet caught on with the rulers of the Bronze Age.  This may have to do with the novelty of the technology, the expense of research, or the hazards of actually using these half-tested deathtraps.   

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