A Philosophical Exploration of Rapture
“No Gods. No Kings. Only Men”. In the storyline following Bioshock, a man by the name of Andrew Ryan sets out to build a city of free-minded thinkers, without the oppression of laws to dictate their lives. To do so, he constructs the city in isolation from the rest of the world, in the very depths of the sea. Promises of this metaphorical “Rapture” attracts remarkably intelligent individuals from a variety of backgrounds with ambitious ideals. One notable scientific discovery – a rare form of sea slug – eventually leads to the construction of “ADAM” by harvesting its stem cells. The potential of ADAM is limitless, with its capability of altering a person’s DNA. This comes at a price, however, as there are grave side effects associated with obtaining these super human abilities. Eventually, the city descends into chaos after a series of riots occur when citizens begin to challenge Rapture’s philosophical inclinations. Nearly all major figures in Rapture offer intriguing commentary throughout the game, closely mimicking several key philosophical beliefs set out by real world philosophers. It is to be noted that Bioshock is largely based off the work of Ayn Rand, particularly her novel “Atlas Shrugged”. In a number of ways, it is the philosophical pursuits of Rapture’s leaders, which bear strong resemblance to real-world philosophies, which ultimately lead to the city’s downfall.
Steinman is a highly regarded plastic surgeon that makes his name in the medical world with practices that revolutionize cosmetic surgery. Following the discovery of ADAM, he is presented with opportunities to advance towards true aesthetic perfection. The concept of the sublime, as presented by Immanuel Kant, is closely connected to Steinman’s experiences as a surgeon. Kant proposes that a sublime experience is one that is be based on judgment and reason and can be achieved when human reason is tested by its own limits, able to see beyond those limits into the existence of unimaginable infinity (1). In this sense, imagination is the driving factor as the mind is pushed to abandon reason and explore new ideas. It should be noted that the sublime is somewhat of a contradictory concept as it places feelings of repulsion as equals to the feelings of pleasure or admiration that the sublime evokes (2).
Steinman has his first encounter with the sublime with the introduction of ADAM, overwhelmed by the endless possibilities for reconstruction in his surgery. As a result, he becomes obsessed with achieving the impossible state of an imagined aesthetic perfection through surgeries that he performs. In one incident he describes a hallucination in which he sees Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Beauty, demonstrating the fervent emotions that are aroused by the sublime: “Aphrodite is walking the halls – shimmering, like a scalpel… ‘Steinman, ‘she calls, ‘Steinman! I have what you’re looking for! Just open your eyes!”And when I see her, she cuts me into a thousand beautiful pieces.” The Aphrodite that Steinman sees is the culmination of the sublime, combining absolute pleasure and delight at the mind’s ability to grasp aesthetic perfection with the pain and terror of reaching beyond human limitation.
In addition to the immense pleasure and delight associated with sublime, Kant also speaks to the sublime as being in a state of chaos, giving it its immense power, which distinctly separates it from a more organized and form-oriented beauty (2). Steinman’s pursuit for perfection drives him into insanity as he carves away at his clients, searching for aesthetic greatness within his own imagination. The obsession with the transcendent takes a toll on his patients, who become disfigured as a result of his work.
Steinman’s expression of aesthetics through his surgery is also comparable to Susanne Langer’s notion of art as a symbolic expression. Langer treats art as a means of self-expression that is in essence a snapshot of the artist’s state of mind. Through art, one is able to perceive a great deal of information about the artist and consequently, the society to which the artist belongs. Langer goes on to say that art can reflect the unconscious desires of the artist at the time of the piece (3). This is very similar to Steinman’s yearning for expression in his field of work: “When Picasso became bored of painting people, he started representing them as cubes and other abstract forms. The world called him a genius! I’ve spent my entire surgical career creating the same tired shapes, over and over again: the upturned nose, the cleft chin, the ample bosom. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could do with a knife what that old Spaniard did with a brush?” Steinman sees surgery as a means of self-expression and to a greater degree, self-exploration. Before Rapture, he is limited in his ability to express himself due to his archaic tools,as well as the perceived lack of “creativity” in his clients. Steinman’s obsession with creating something perfect may possibly be a reflection of his own inadequacy, and the repression he may have once felt by being limited in his work.
Steinman may also reflect society’s wish for desirable features, a superficial ambition suggesting that at the core of society, people feel unsatisfied with themselves, and seek to physically alter their bodies in order to achieve personal satisfaction (3). This is especially true for splicers (the remaining population of Rapture who have grown insane and deformed due to the effects of ADAM) as they often mention Steinman and how he will fix their deformities in spite of all that has since happened in Rapture. Even Steinman is seen to be a victim to his own mental deterioration when you encounter him in the game. It is seen through Steinman’s uninhibited determination that aesthetics in Rapture highlighted the worst qualities of humanity and made accessible an art that eventually tore apart the citizens of that society.
There is aslo a degree of Neitzche’s influence in Steinman’s art. Neitzsche affirms that art in its essence is intertwined with “illusion” and at the basis, “lies”. Richard Schacht, an American professor known for his philosophical analysis of Friedrich Nietzsche, said the following of Neitzsche’s ideas: “Art spreads as a ‘veil of beauty’ over a harsh reality … ‘art is not merely imitation of the reality of nature but rather a metaphysical supplement of the reality of nature, placed beside it for its overcoming’.” (3). Nietzsche places art as distinct from reality, arguing that it attempts to overcome all of reality’s flaws to display what could be considered the ideal (3). This is comparable to Steinman’s work in using ADAM to enhance reality, and overcome the inherent physical imperfections in his clients. While ADAM can be used to enhance one’s looks, this is only a temporary, superficial effect. ADAM has far more adverse and dangerous physical and mental effects on the user that are not discovered until it is much too late. ADAM is used by Steinman to continuously strive towards an aesthetic ideal, a disappointing illusion that can never truly be (3).
The character Sander Cohen is an artist that deals in poetry, composition, sculpting, and playwriting. After the fall of Rapture, Sander Cohen is driven into insanity, particularly in his sadistic actions towards others. Sander Cohen is introduced as a man that is quite conflicted with his self-identity, and poses as a prime example of the inauthenticity Sartre mentions in his works. Sartre uses the term inauthenticity to describe individuals who actively avoid taking responsibility in various situations. This is often done with bad faith, which stems out of self-deception – the idea that their actions lack direct consequences (4). Sartre notes that people often relinquish the responsibility of choice by escaping knowledge of the decision even being made or by convincing themselves that their choices are predetermined in such a way that they have no responsibility for their actions (4).
With regard to the context in which this appears in the video game, Sander Cohen struggles a great deal in trying to make a name for himself and has feelings of being under-appreciated. Sander Cohen is in constant competition with other artists and finds it difficult to live in a city where popular plays and musical numbers are, as he describes, “derivative at best”. Sander Cohen is rumoured to be homosexual and seems to experience a great deal of emotional turmoil and struggle with self-identity within the chaos that is Rapture. His greatest sense of insecurity comes with his inability to feel at ease in his own body.
Sander Cohen gives the notion of being trapped to a point of desperation, and writes the following poem about his conflict with self-identity: “The Wild Bunny by Sander Cohen: I want to take the ears off, but I can’t. I hop, and when I hop, I never get off the ground. It’s my curse, my eternal curse! I want to take the ears off but I can’t! It’s my curse! It’s my fucking curse! I want to take the ears off! Please! Take them off! Please!” He is essentially trapped in a body that is not his own, struggling to fulfill the function of the form he is given, but failing all the same. He describes this curse and begs someone to take his ears off, to rid him of this false form. In relation to Sartre, Sander Cohen’s analogy of being forced into a body of a bunny is comparable to living with his inauthentic self. His inauthentic self could possibly stem from his conflict in his accepting either his gender or sexual orientation, but could also extend to doubts surrounding his musical pieces and plays. Regardless of the reason, it is certain that Sander Cohen expresses a yearning to realize his true self and stop the façade that is being put up around him. Sander Cohen becomes so affected by his inauthenticity that he closes himself off to those around him and develops ways to make those who betray him suffer.
Sander Cohen also takes from Schopenhauer’s philosophy in exploring the meaning of life when he realizes that despite all of his efforts to be recognized for his talents, that in the end his life does not add up to much at all. Schopenhauer, a strong advocate for the idea that human efforts are futile in dispersing the universal misery that follows existence. He believes that individuality is but a mere illusion and responsible for selfish goals which eventually leads to more suffering (5).
In the case of Cohen, he has high hopes of becoming famous and successful, finding Rapture a haven for his talents to flourish and an opportunity to be appreciated by the general public: “I could have been the toast of Broadway, the talk of Hollywood. But, instead, I followed you to this soggy bucket. When you needed my star light, I illuminated you. But now I rot, waiting for an audience that doesn’t… ever… come… I’m writing something for you, Andrew Ryan… it’s a requiem.” Despite all efforts he makes in his productions and compositions, his work for the most part go largely unnoticed, exacerbating his state of misery. It could be argued that his efforts were wasted, as all that awaited him was more suffering. Individuality is a hopeless pursuit, as all effort leads to the same miserable outcome (5).
A conflicting perspective is proposed by Nicolas Berdyaev, who describes the human body as “a victory of the spirit over natural chaos”. In this, there is a distinct difference between the soul and the body as it exists in a rather dualistic state. However, other important parts are also introduced such as elements including the “spirit”, “nature”, “freedom” and “necessity” (6). Berdyaev insists that the body is composed of all of these elements, whereas personality results from the spirit overcoming these elements. In contrast to Schopenhauer, Berdyaev believes that there is a possibility for individuality through the interplay of these elements. The personality is a sort of release of free will by the individual and is one that exists indefinitely.
The importance in Berdyaev’s theory is that one must overcome chaos in order to develop qualities such as spirit, rationality, personality (6). This suggests that people are naturally in a destructive state and it is only when one overcomes these urges that one develops the access to higher orders of the mind. This is reflected in characters such as Sander Cohen as he retains his sense of ambition and spirit in spite of the state of disarray that goes on around him in the city of Rapture. Rather than give in completely in such a dire time, his adamant determination to defending his intelligence and culture against the threat of mental deterioration further establishes him as the person he is. It is seen that even when humans are left to reside in a city plunged into an abyss of chaos, they resist, using their spirit against the mayhem that surrounds them.
Finally, it is Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan’s hopes to build a city without any limitations from the government, mirroring existing social-political philosophies that plunge the city into chaos. In Bioshock, Andrew Ryan dreams of a city with complete freedom in every sense of the word. He designs the city of Rapture with hopes of great and limitless achievements, not to be constrained by anyone: “I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No,’ says the man in Washington, ‘it belongs to the poor.’ ‘No,’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘it belongs to God.’ ‘No,’ says the man in Moscow, ‘it belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture. a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city, as well.” Andrew Ryan adopts an every man for himself type attitude, with those who are not as intelligent or skillful left behind. Eventually this city is overrun by greed and violence as a class war breaks out, resulting in a great number of casualties.
Aristotle in his book of politics describes his idea of an ideal government, and the qualities that are necessary for it to prosper. A belief that he offers is that, “the state exists for the sake of the good life” (7). Virtue is the deciding factor in what can be considered a state, and a government should exist for the sake of providing a proper means of living to citizens, through virtuous means. Aristotle proclaims the importance of a state that enforces laws which act as the means by which citizens are encouraged to follow what is virtuous, all in order to promote a prosperous society. Aristotle affirms his conditions for a good government with need for justice and civic virtue, rather than simply existing for the freedom and wealth that Andrew Ryan prioritizes above all else (7).
It is evident that Andrew Ryan is strongly repelled by Aristotle’s philosophy of altruism which shapes the way he chooses to govern Rapture. Andrew Ryan argues that morals simply limit a person’s capabilities and allows people who rely on others for support (referred to as “parasites”) a chance to take advantage of the system. Andrew Ryan’s laissez-fare type government has serious repercussions for Rapture; corruption floods the city and businesses overcharge without any regulation from the government, tearing apart the economy as well as the people who live in it. The lack of virtues in Rapture deteriorates the quality of life experienced by the majority of its citizens.
It also appears that Andrew Ryan is quite strongly dictated by Locke’s political philosophy, with regards to defining the relationship between a state and its citizens. Locke’s basis for his philosophy is the idea of a state that runs with the consent of its governed. This idea reappears in the philosophical discussion surrounding property and what it means with respect to the government. Locke’s response is that “….every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands we may say are properly his.” (8) This idea is undoubtedly echoed in Andrew Ryan’s philosophy when he asks, “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” Andrew Ryan uses this very basic philosophy of fundamental property that cannot be taken away or governed without one’s consent. Locke extends this idea in every aspect, such as when he suggests that the protection of the government should require citizens to contribute to the cost of supporting it; however, even such a thing as paying taxes is an issue that calls for the consent of tax payers. The emphasis is on the idea that, “every man has a property in his own person”(8)
Andrew Ryan takes this original premise pointed out by John Locke, and magnifies it in his own way through Rapture’s philosophies. Andrew Ryan denounces any individuals he deems unfit to live in society – those who cannot contribute their share to society and seek to place limitations on those who would otherwise have an infinite capacity of freedom and wealth. He asks, “What is the difference between a man and a parasite? A man builds. A parasite asks, “Where is my share?” A man creates. A parasite says, “What will the neighbors think?”A man invents. A parasite says, “Watch out, or you might tread on the toes of God…” Andrew Ryan wholeheartedly believes that people should be free from any restriction that could be placed by another person, institution, or government. Citizens should be at liberty to reap what they have sowed with their own work and skill.
Likewise, he creates Rapture with the intention that the government would not interfere with its citizens, and so the state of Rapture is left at the hands of its citizens to govern themselves as they please. This is where Andrew Ryan’s path takes a turn from Locke’s beliefs, as Locke found it necessary for law to exist in order to protect freedom for all individuals (8). Locke states that contrary to what one might think, every man is not necessarily entitled to do whatever he pleases, but should act in the interest of the law to promote the preservation of freedom for all society. Law protects the interests of everyone equally from outside threats that may challenge their very fundamental freedom. In Andrew Ryan’s Rapture, the state is entirely at the hands of its citizens, which eventually leads to great conflicts between institutions and individuals that destroy Rapture as we know it.
The reflection of real-world philosophies are apparent in the views shared by key figures of Rapture. The compelling characters featured in Bioshock, with their inspiring yet disturbing monologues, ultimately drive the city to its demise. In this article, I delved into Steinman’s obsession with the field of aesthetics, Cohen’s conflict with metaphysical ideas of self-identity and his own personhood, and finally Andrew Ryan’s strong reactions to previously held social-political philosophies that shaped his own when creating the city of Rapture. In Rapture, these founders had the ambition to create a city with new ideals and philosophies, dissimilar to the ones they believed had made society weak and flawed. Despite these efforts, it is evident that these characters and their perspectives are rich with philosophical inspiration, which in one way or another, crafted the tragedy that is Rapture.
(1) Meredith, James Creed. Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.
(2) Hagman, George. Aesthetic Experience . Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.
(3) Dickie, George, and R.J. Sclafani. Aesthetics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.
(4) Cox, Gary. Sartre: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, 2006.
(5) Singer, Irving. Meaning in Life. New York: Free Press, 1992.
(6) Berdyaev, Nicolas. Slavery and Freedom. Glasgow: The University Press, 1943.
(7)Rackham, H. Aristotle Politics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1944.
(8) Gough, J. W. John Locke’s Political Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.