The Moral Genius of ArcaneThe show reveals how pursuing knowledge for the sake of greater manipulation, power, and control can open the floodgates of chaos
The 2021 show Arcane, based on the video game League of Legends, is fantastic. The animation style, writing, and world-building all merit its 100 percent scored rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Apart from its entertainment value, which is formidable, Arcane explores the pertinent themes of power, progress, and the promises and pitfalls of technological advancement. It does this without heavy-handedness, “instructing by delighting,” in the words of C.S. Lewis.
A Powerful Civilization and a Chaotic Underworld
The story takes place in the utopian city of Piltover, which prides itself on its innovations in science, technology, and infrastructure. On the lower edges of the city lies the unruly Zaun, an oppressed underworld overrun with crime and an addictive drug called “Shimmer.” The show follows the paths of two sisters, Vi and Powder, residents of Zaun, and Powder’s tragic transformation from a little girl eager to be included in the group to a complicated villain, dubious mastermind, and underground terrorist. In Piltover, an inventor, Jayce, and his partner Viktor, have incorporated a powerful kind of magic into an array of technologies, making their civilization remarkably powerful and wealthy. The tension between the two worlds intensifies with each episode.
The show involves several other narrative threads and conflicts, most notably, the relationship between Vi and Powder (who comes to be known as “Jinx,” a nickname she was given as a child). Family, friendship, the tragic effect of deception and misunderstandings, and the complexity of good and evil all have their screentime in Arcane. One of the show’s core themes, however, involves the powers and pitfalls of technology. And not just technology, but tech wedded with a special magic called “Hextech.” While an elder in the city council warned against concocting such an amalgam, two young idealists, Jayce and Viktor, move forward with its production, leading to unprecedented growth and wealth for their civilization.
However, the allure of Hextech’s full potential builds over the course of the show. Without spoiling what happens, one of the inventors pushes the technology to the limits in search of a cure to a bodily ailment. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well.
Magic and Technology
The creative minds behind Arcane aren’t the only ones to make the connection between technology and magic. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, related the two and said technology (or what he called “applied science”) can operate from the same basis. While creating technology is natural to humans, as Andrew McDiarmid discusses in this Mind Matters podcast episode, it can be akin to the magical when we use it to manipulate nature and ourselves towards devious ends. The lore of magic involves incantation and following a technique to produce a desired result, like curing the warts or casting a curse on an enemy. In like manner, we can apply technology and “technique” in formulaic, mechanical ways that are geared towards nothing more than outcome. It can become a utilitarian, depersonalized way of relating to the world and other people. Lewis wrote,
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious — such as digging up and mutilating the dead.C S Lewis pondering science and magic | WIRED
This isn’t a takedown of genuine scientific inquiry, but a recognition that the more powerful our technology becomes, the greater its potential for harm. If we pursue knowledge for the sake of greater manipulation, power, and control, we can open the floodgates of chaos. Elsewhere, Lewis says that it’s not bad fleas that make demons, but bad archangels, meaning that the greater something’s potential for good, the more destructive it can turn out to be. Nuclear energy can power cities or decimate them. People can use their energy to rape and pillage or nurture and restore. In the biblical story, Satan was heaven’s greatest created being, only to transform into the demonic horror he is commonly seen as.
At the end of the first season of Arcane, Viktor says to his partner, “We lost ourselves. Lost our dream. In the pursuit of great, we failed to do good.” Those lines sum up the brilliant moral wisdom of the show. It is well worth the watch and is streaming on Netflix. Rumor has it that a second season will premier sometime in 2023.