Today, we’re going to address the question you’ve all been wondering about… Yes, that’s right, it’s…
How does Puella Magi Madoka Magica square up with Thomistic psychology?!?!
Well, don’t get too excited.
For the full story, go ahead and check the Wikipedia page, or even better, watch the show. For the purposes of this post, we only need to know a few little details.
Part of the plot of Madoka Magica involves a mysterious creature called “Kyubey,” who appears to teenage girls (for reasons explained near the end of the show) and offers to grant them a wish. In exchange, he gives them a crystal that bestows its owner with magical powers, and asks them to use these powers to fight malicious beings called “Witches.”
… Or so we’re led to believe. In a horrifying plot twist (of which the show has several), it’s revealed that in reality, Kyubey isn’t just “giving” them magical crystals at all—he’s actually taking their souls and transforming them into magical crystals, leaving their bodies as lifeless husks that are then operated by the crystal as if by remote control. This secret is exposed when the title character, Madoka, takes her friend Sayaka’s crystal to stop her from using magic to hurt someone, and without the crystal Sayaka’s body falls limply to the ground.
This raises some interesting questions, and to answer them, we’re going to need psychology in the Aristotelian/Thomistic sense—the philosophical study of the soul.
In Aristotle and Aquinas, the soul is defined as the form of a living body, where “form” refers to whatever it is that makes a thing what it is. So “to have a human soul” essentially means the same thing as “to be a human,” and “to not have a human soul” essentially means the same thing as “to not be human.”
So this has a human soul.
This doesn’t either, but it does have a cow soul.
Now, here’s the million dollar question. We all recognize that there are certain characteristics that belong to humans—walking on two legs, talking, seeing, having consciousness, having intelligence, and so on. But does a person have these characteristics because he’s human, or is he human because he has these characteristics?
The Aristotelian position is that, while in the order of inference we might go from characteristics to what a thing is, in the order of being, an entity has its characteristics by virtue of what it is and not vice versa. The reason we have to take this position is to explain defects in living things.
For example: As I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago, there are certain characteristics that belong to humans. But suppose we include any of them in the definition of a human. Then we’ll always find people who don’t fit the definition, but are human anyway.
Suppose we include walking on two legs in the definition of humans. Then what do we do about paralytics?
Suppose we include talking. Then what do we do about mutes?
Suppose we include seeing. Then what about blind people?
Suppose we include consciousness. Then what about comatose people?
Suppose we include intelligence. Then what do we do about the government? Or the internet?
And don’t even get me started on babies and fetuses.
So from all this, it’s obvious that we cannot define humanity in terms of characteristics. But at the same time, we can’t simply say that having sight or speech or consciousness or intelligence has nothing to do with being human, either, considering that A) the vast majority of people do have them, with those who lack them being the obvious exception, and B) people who lack them are at a clear disadvantage with respect to certain activities compared to healthy people. So how do we reconcile these facts?
The answer is that rather than use properties to define humans, we see properties as “following” or “flowing” from human nature. In a healthy human, this flow is unimpaired, and the person shows all the usual properties of humans. But in a person with a disability of one kind or another, the flow is blocked and only some of the properties are observed. Both cases are equally human because they both have the same nature as the source of all their faculties; it’s just that in the latter case, some of those faculties are hindered in their expression. So if we observe what looks like a human with non-functional eyes, then rather than draw the conclusion, “This isn’t a human,” we can tell by their other characteristics (walking, talking, etc.) that they’re human and attribute the lack of the sight that ordinarily follows from being human to some sort of accident or the like. This is how we’re able to understand defects in living things.
A clear consequence of this is that we cannot deny that people who lack certain faculties are experiencing a real deficiency. The simple fact is, that person’s human nature is not different from other people’s, but is actually the same nature being hindered in its expression—it lacks something that it should have. And in fact, this is exactly how we define wellness and illness; a healthy body is one that is able to exercise all its faculties easily, while an ill one is one whose faculties are hindered in one way or another, culminating in the complete inability of the body to function, at which point the body ceases to be a body at all—in other words, death.
Another corollary of this is that the idea of “wellness” is relative to species. A human’s idea of wellness is different from a spider’s, which is different from a lion’s. A spider that can’t spin a web is fatally crippled, whereas a human who can’t spin a web is perfectly fine. A lion that can’t chase down its prey is incompetent, whereas a spider is OK as long as it can spin a web and wait. A woman that doesn’t eat her husband’s head after mating is perfectly normal, but a female black widow that doesn’t eat its mate’s head after mating has psychological problems.
Incidentally, the Aristotelian contention is that morality functions in the same way—the morality of lions or spiders, if they had a morality, would be fundamentally different from human morality. So in a way, morality is both more absolute than people think (because within a species, it is absolute), and also more relative than people think (because between different species, it could potentially be completely different).
It should also be noted that, while certain attributes of humans do flow from human nature, others really are simply “extras,” like hair/skin/eye color or height and weight. Barring extreme cases (e.g. albinism, dwarfism, gigantism, anorexia, obesity, etc.), it really doesn’t matter whether a person has one color or another, or one height/weight or another. In Thomistic terminology, the former are called “properties” or “proper accidents,” while the latter are simply “accidents.”
Alright. Now, 1000 words into the post, we can FINALLY start talking about anime.
So the big question about Sayaka’s situation is—disregarding the question of how it’s possible—in what sense is her soul “transferred” to or “transformed” into the crystal?
On the one hand, if she actually “becomes” the crystal, then all her intuitions of morality and well-being should be rephrased in terms of the crystal—her new idea of pain would be getting scratched, her new idea of hygiene would be staying nice and shiny, her new idea of death would be getting shattered, her new idea of fatigue would be running out of magical energy, and so on.
But this is not what happens; rather, Sayaka’s outlook stays decidedly human. She still experiences romantic love, and after finding out about the soul-extraction situation, she finds she can’t bring herself to confess her feelings to the boy she likes, because that would mean that if the relationship ever got physical, then essentially the guy would be making love to a corpse.
At one point, after hearing a guy on a near-empty late-night train bragging and laughing with another guy about how he had essentially abused a woman, she gets genuinely angry.
(^ It’s strongly implied that she kills them.)
These are signs of a very clearly human psyche. If she had really ceased to be human, then she would no longer have human values, or at least she would no longer identify with them on the emotional level. This is not the case, hence her soul must still be a human soul.
And speaking of emotions: Emotions may be more than a simple physical reaction, but they do always have a physical substrate, and when that substrate is removed, the person becomes unable to experience the corresponding emotion. But if Sayaka’s soul has really been cut off from her body, then (unless the crystal has a similar substrate, which I think we can agree it presumably doesn’t) she should no longer experience emotions at all.
So all this raises the question: In what sense has her soul been cut off from her body?
It still moves the body. It still experiences sensations through the body. It still experiences emotions through the body. So how is it different from a normal soul inhabiting a normal body?
What we have here seems to be Madoka Magica trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to have the body horror of a girl being turned into something that isn’t human anymore, but it also wants her to agonize over this as if she were still human.
As a matter of fact, according to Catholic theology, angels and devils take on bodies in a way similar to what Sayaka’s soul is supposedly doing in Madoka Magica, sort of like a really complicated puppet. But they don’t actually “experience” any bodily processes or emotions when they do so, and if they seem to it’s only the angel/devil mimicking the external signs of such processes and emotions. In reality, angels and devils have no emotions or sensations (as we understand them) at all.
A more believable portrayal might have been if Sayaka had suddenly started acting “off” (becoming emotionless, not caring about other people anymore, having an abnormal Gollum-like attachment to her shiny new crystal) and Madoka had been the one to get freaked out. Of course, in that case Madoka and Sayaka probably would have gotten creeped out by Mami right at the start of the series, they probably never would have even been tempted by Kyubey’s offer, and the story probably never would have started…
So Madoka Magica is still a very entertaining and well-written series, but from a Thomistic perspective (or my understanding of it), it doesn’t quite hold water.
Incidentally, while the whole soul-transferring thing doesn’t quite “work,” it just so happens that the existence of a creature like Kyubey is completely believable under Thomistic psychology. Morality and emotion are relative to species, so it’s to be expected that a species of aliens would have completely different moral intuitions and emotions from ours, if such moral intuitions and emotions are in line with how individuals of this species use their faculties for their own wellbeing and the continuation of their species.
So there’s some food for thought, I guess.
I should probably start doing my homework now.