The dark side of magic in FullMetal Alchemist
[Potential Spoiler Alert] — The popular Japanese manga and anime series FullMetal Alchemist is a tale of redemption, following the adventures of Elric brothers, Eric and Alphonse, as they attempt to heal themselves after a failed attempt to resurrect their dead mother. What they discover on that journey is that the creed of alchemy, the Law of Equivalent Exchange, is more than just a rule for performing magic; it is a guideline for all of existence.
The story so far…
FullMetal Alchemist began as a manga series in 2001 by Hiromu Arakawa. It was turned into an anime series in 2003, which deviated somewhat from the original. Another anime series called FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was made in 2009 and is more faithful to the original series.
Without giving too much away, it centres around the brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, two superbly gifted youngsters who work as ‘State Alchemists’ for the military government of Amestris. Alchemy is the magic of this world: the ability to transmute one substance into another. Different Alchemists have different specialities — for example, the character Colonel Mustang performs “Flame Alchemy”.
Ed has a bionic arm and leg, and his brother is a soul bound to an empty suit of armour. This is because they lost their bodies during an attempt to transmute their deceased mother when they were a lot younger. The story of the journey is around Ed’s promise to his younger brother Al that he would retrieve his body from the ‘Gate of Truth’ so he could be fully human again.
The reason this happened was due to something called “the Law of Equivalent Exchange”, and is an immutable law that all Alchemists follow. It is…. in order to bring their mother back from the dead, they needed to make an exchange…
We find out as the series progresses that there was more to this incident than the brothers believed, and is tied in with the political machinations of the military government led by King Bradley; it is interesting to note that he is referred to as “Führer”. We also discover that the brothers’ estranged father is somehow involved, and to further create a tangled web of intrigue, a recent popular uprising by a neighbouring ethnic group — the Ishbarans — is quelled by genocide involving a group of alchemically-created mutants called homunculi.
I won’t go further into the plot… because spoilers… I highly recommend you watch or read the series. It is certainly one of the better manga/anime out there, selling over 70 million copies, and the anime series winning five awards.
To every coin, two sides
Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius.
“What is below is similar to the above.”The Smaragdine Tablet, translation from the Arabic by Chrysogonus Polydorus, 1541
Certainly, Alchemy provides the practitioner with power: the power to transform (transmute) one thing to another thing. Legends from the western medieval times abound with stories of alchemists seeking to turn lead into gold — for what purpose? Gold was wealth, and wealth meant power: the power to buy influence. These were the earliest foundations of the science of chemistry; the modern-day alchemists nowadays transmute carbon (from fossil fuel sources) into fuels, plastics, synthetic fibres, and pharmaceutical drugs. One could certainly see how these ‘transmuted’ objects are the source of untold post-industrial wealth.
Interestingly in China, the very earliest records of alchemy pertain to seeking immortality and longevity. Pre-dating any of the western traditions, the early alchemists of the 2nd‒4th centuries were experimenting, under the patronage of the aristocratic class and the Imperial court, with herbs and mineral substances to extend life. Those with power wanted to remain in power, and that meant out-living your rivals.
In both traditions, practitioners sought a mythical object that would bring their experiments to fruition. In the east it was the 靈子 lìngzǐ, the spiritual embryo. In the west it was the Philospher’s Stone. Most of the stories of alchemists who fruitlessly searched for these read like morality tales, warnings of single-minded quests that destroy the seeker rather than give him the eternal glory they seek.
The Philosopher’s Stone would be familiar to fans of Harry Potter, being the object that Voldemort seeks to resurrect him. In FullMetal Alchemist it also is the that which the brothers Elric seek; they soon come to realise however that the object of their search may not actually be the answer they seek.
What the Philosopher’s Stone represents is unbridled, raw power. It is not so much the stone itself which corrupts the minds and hearts of those who seek it; rather it is the journey to that place which corrupts. And while the brothers seek the stone to heal their bodies and redeem them from the mistakes they made which led them to their present state, it soon becomes very clear that the price for such things are too high.
For the Philosopher’s Stone gains its power from the souls of others. This its precisely what power does: it sucks the life from all around it in order to feed an unsatiable desire. Those who seek power are like Black Holes: their lives are as voids, drawing in whatever it can. This is also seen in the symbol of the ‘One Ring’ of Sauron from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, an object that gives the wearer unstoppable power, and can control all those with power in other forms.
When one holds the souls of others to use as one desires, then who would stop you?
The law of equivalent exchange
In FullMetal Alchemist we are told about an immutable law that all alchemists follow: the Law of Equivalent Exchange. One cannot make something out of nothing. If an alchemist wants to transmute something, the energy for it must come from somewhere else. Having a Philosopher’s Stone means you have access to even more ‘energy’ to perform transmutations, and acts kind of like a battery.
But even this battery must come from somewhere — and it comes from the souls of those who have been sacrificed to create it.
On the other hand, the alchemists from the eastern Kingdom of Xing (analogous to Imperial China) turn to a different source for their transmutations: the power that resides within the earth itself.
To draw from nature itself as a source also presupposes one understands the relative limitations implied: this power is not infinite. For power to last, it needs to be sustainable. Which also means one may not be able to ‘receive’ as much as one wishes.
The 34th Hexagram of the I Ching is called 大壯 DÀ ZHUÀNG, ‘Great Vigour’. It contains the wisdom of when and how to use (and not use) one’s power. In appropriate contexts, using the power that one has cultivated over time can be beneficial, and indeed necessary. However, to use it when it is not needed was considered bad for all concerned — including the individual wielding it. The Taoist Alchemical adept from the 16th Century, Liu Yiming explains:
The path of Great Power calls for power to be correct; if it is not correct, power is not great and its application is not beneficial. The people in the world who follow deviated paths, whether they cling to voidness or stick to forms, taking the artificial to be real, and do not fear danger and trouble, sometimes never changing all their lives, are indeed powerful, but their power is not correct — not only is their vigour unable to be great, but they even harm life by power.Thomas Cleary (trans.), 2003, The Taoist Classics, Vol.4, Shambhala Publications, p.138
Drawing on the souls of others is not only unsustainable, but it is not correct or virtuous. Power is a quality that is inextricably linked with Virtue, ‘rightness’, and acting appropriately.
Another I Ching commentator, Carol Anthony, explains it this way:
We may have taken an action (or thought of it) which would put another person at a disadvantage. Such a move would make their return to the correct path more difficult… Whenever we expect or demand someone to do a thing because they “ought to,” we prevent them from doing it with dignity… Whenever we use pressure to achieve tangible results, we do so from doubting others and from doubting the path of non-action. This doubt undermines our influence for good. If we disperse doubt the situation will correct itself.Carol Anthony, 1980, A Guide To The I Ching, Anthony Publishing
Related to the idea/practice of 無為 wùwèi is that while our own thoughts/words/deeds emanate naturally from our true nature, they also need to not prevent anyone else from doing the same; the ideal is all things living effortlessly according to their true nature.
Here’s the thing about power — does it impinge on others’ true nature? This is what ‘force’ is. And according to the teachings of DÀ ZHUÀNG, this goes against the concept of ‘rightness’; we no longer “tread with propriety”.
Anthony says that we ‘force’ others because we lack trust and confidence in the goodness of others’ thoughts/words/deeds. I would add that as well as doubt, a deeper aspect of this is fear. If we force our opinion on others, or force them to make decisions we hold an unconscious fear that their choices will somehow hurt us, or maybe impinge on our own true nature emanating.
Is it that people seek power because they do not trust themselves, or trust people around them?
Are they that afraid that they seek to dominate and subjugate others?
These are questions that are all too pertinent for us in the present moment. There are many who are seeking power and power-over-others to justify their actions, beliefs, and existence. In reaction to this are those that seek to oppose them, unfortunately making the same mistakes, also reaching to grasp the Philosopher’s Stone, with all the intentions to do good. We are living in an age where fear, hatred, doubt, and self-doubt dominate the motivations of many people.
There has to be a better way, a middle way.
The power of love
Ironically, without giving too much away, redemption for the brothers comes from sacrifice; not the sacrifice of others (which is the secret behind the Philosopher’s Stone‘s power), but the sacrifice of the self. In releasing power, and the desire for it, it no longer has a hold on anyone’s life. In a paradoxical way, power is gained by letting it go of the attachment to it. I imagine a Taoist sage would say something like, “not having power is the real power.”
Love, as opposed to fear, is a force of attraction. This is what enables atoms to bond in molecules, and what brings and keeps communities together. We only need to look to the natural world above and below to see examples of how we can emulate these bonds that allow for growth, change, and thrivability. This was the idea behind the philosophical alchemy of later Taoism. Bringing different people together, and their different ideas, is what brings us closer to a universal truth.
Ed learns this by the end of the story: it is people coming together that is real power, not the search for some magical object that sucks life from everything around it. This theme is played out with many of the characters with their own story-arcs. Forgiving acts of terror and hate are not the answer, however we can abide them enough to keep ourselves on a path of correctness, to ensure our thoughts, words, and deeds work towards doing something different, rather than playing out the same mistakes. History does not have to repeat itself.
The way to defeat the dark magic that is sucking peoples’ souls today is to counter it.
Draw your energy from the natural world; you will never be able to take more than what you need, and in this way will be sustainable as natural processes always allow time for cultivation and preservation. Remember, you can’t make something from nothing.
Being willing to surrender and sacrifice yourself is a sign that what you are trying to achieve is of value to you, it is worth fighting for.
Allowing love to be the inspiration for all your thoughts, words, and deeds will attract whatever is needed to prevent darkness from succeeding to pull everything and everyone apart. And don’t filter what that ‘force of attraction’ brings — the greatest gifts can come from anywhere, and may look or sound like anything. It is diversity and difference, not homogeneity and sameness, that is the generative force of eternity.
FullMetal Alchemist is truly a mythology for our times, with insights into what truly corrupts the innate human goodness of the soul. Power can be useful, but the seeking of it will suck the life from all around you.