Riddler’s Revenge and Reason’s Degeneration
By Matthew William Brake
I finally bought my copy of the Return to Arkham bundle pack today.
The Arkham games are the best Batman video games ever made. The gameplay, the character and environment designs, and the multiple side stories all combine to create the immersive experience of getting to feel what it’s like to BE Batman.
When I first played Arkham City after having not played any video games for years, I started playing at 6pm one night and played until 6am the next morning, beating the game (although to be truthful, I was playing through an already-half-played game courtesy of my friend Nick Battaglia from the Down and Nerdy podcast).
There is possibly one side story that detracts from the overall experience of the game. If you’ve played, you know which one I’m talking about: those &#^% Riddler trophies!
When the Riddler trophies are first introduced in Arkham Asylum, the player is in the process of tracking down Frank Boles, a dirty security guard in league with the Joker. Batman finds Boles, dead, with a note from the Joker.
As the player turns away from the body, they receive a message that breaks into their comm signal. The message is from the Riddler. He taunts Batman, daring him to engage him in a challenge of wits and to find and/or figure out the multiple trophies and riddles he’s placed all around Arkham Island. The riddles are laid out such that you can’t even solve them all without first completing the entire game, and when you do solve them all, Batman is able to detect and transmit Riddler’s location to the police whom you hear make the arrest over your comm system. It’s a lot of work for a small reward.
In Arkham City, the Riddler ups his game, capturing a number of innocent medical staff and security guards and placing them in death traps throughout the city, Saw-style. It’s actually one of my favorite interpretations of the character, but despite that, there are just too many Riddler trophies to find (440!). It is an almost never-ending quest that I’m surprised I allowed myself to complete multiple times.
Throughout the player’s quest to solve the Riddler’s puzzles, he or she is often mocked by the Riddler, who makes multiple claims about being Batman’s intellectual superior, going so far as to describe himself in Arkham Knight as “the World’s Greatest Everything.”
As with all of Batman’s rogues, the Riddler represents a part of Batman’s own psyche and skillset. Scarecrow represents Batman’s own use of fear against his enemies. Bane represents Batman’s physical power. And Riddler represents Batman’s intellect.
But he represents a perverted form of Batman’s intellect. Edward Nigma lacks that special element that makes Bruce Wayne Batman.
The Riddler’s problem seems to be due largely to his assessment of his own intellect. Perhaps the philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) can help us to understand the Riddler’s predicament.
The Pantheism Controversy
Jacobi is mostly known today for his involvement in what is called the “Pantheism Controversy.” In this famous controversy, Jacobi, a critic of the Enlightenment and its focus on the pursuit of knowledge using reason alone, carried on correspondence with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the Enlightenment’s most able defender. Their correspondence centered around Jacobi’s recounting of a conversation between him and Mendelssohn’s friend Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), the darling of the Enlightenment.
The conversation involved Lessing’s declaration that he was an adherent of the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza’s philosophy, among other things, is characterized by its claim to rely on reason alone and by the assertion of an impersonal God, which is the substance of all that is. It also was considered to be a form of atheism (not a popular accusation at the time).
All beings are modes or modifications of the universal substance and are caught up in and endless chain of determinate causes. All things happen by necessity; thus, free will is an illusion.
Jacobi believed that Spinoza’s system of philosophy was the logical end of all philosophies basing themselves on reason alone, which he asserted would lead to fatalism and nihilism if held consistently. If everything was a part of the universal substance and happened by necessity in a string of causes with neither beginning nor ending, then one might as well resign oneself to just go with the flow. Escaping fatalism (and thus nihilism) requires one to be a free agent, and to act freely requires one to be certain of one’s views. This, likewise, requires there to be a beginning point one may be certain of as opposed to an “infinite progression from cause to cause” (Jacobi, p. 249). Additionally, certainty requires more than a logical proof, for Jacobi maintains, “The conviction that [proofs] generate originates in comparison, and can never be quite secure and perfect” (Jacobi, p. 230).
By exposing Lessing as a Spinozist, Jacobi wanted to undermine the credibility of Enlightenment reason, revealing it to ultimately end in fatalism, and thus nihilism.
The Riddler and Reason Alone
Jacobi tells Lessing that making reason one’s foundation for life is like walking “on one’s head” (p. 194). It’s doing life upside down. Making sense of life through reason alone causes “even the greatest mind, if it wants to explain all things absolutely, to make them rhyme with each other according to distinct concepts and will not otherwise let anything stand, [to] run into absurdities” (p. 194). He notes that even Spinoza “degrades himself to a sophist here and there,” seeking to “hide his fatalism when he turned to human conduct” (p. 194). One might call to mind all of the ways that the Riddler “cheats” or “artfully obfuscates” in many of his riddles, some of which if you discover too soon in Arkham City without the right equipment are merely unsolvable death traps.
In seeking to live one’s life through reason alone, Jacobi believes that “man loses himself…as soon as he wants to ground himself in himself alone” (Jacobi, “Jacobi to Fichte,” p. 523). As reason degenerates, corruption results from personal conceit, akin to how the Riddler’s self-assuredness progressively breaks down the closer a player comes to finding all of his riddles and solving all of his Riddler rooms and challenges.
This corruption becomes evident from the beginning of the Riddler’s journey in Arkham Origins before he adopted his villainous persona, when he was simply Edward Nashton (later Edward Nigma) attempting to expose Gotham City’s dark underbelly by blackmailing various corrupt public officials. The Riddler starts with a relatively noble intention, but as Batman matches wits with him and wins, whatever moral resolve the Riddler has degenerates, such that once you complete his sidequest and make it inside his hideout, Batman finds his very first Riddler trophy as Edward Nashton’s criminal persona has been fully formed.
Jacobi notes that we “[t]ry to grow in virtue perfectly,” and if “[our] resolve is all [we] bring to the task,” then [we] will fail, for we are “so imperfect and weak that [we] can neither find [our] law nor keep it” (Jacobi, “Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza,” p. 243). The Riddler loses himself in himself and refuses to understand that his “understanding does not have its life, and its light, in its self” (p. 248). Life becomes an endless, nihilistic game (or riddle) “that the human spirit devises to pass the time” (Jacobi, “Jacobi to Fichte,” p. 511), which makes all the beings in the world out to be nothing (pp. 508-509). This can allow someone like the Riddler to experience the type of disregard for others encapsulated by one of his Arkham Asylum interview tapes:
Dr. Penelope Young: Patient Interview 21. Patient’s name is Edward Nigma, also known as the Riddler. So, Edward, Warden Sharp tells me you’ve been leaving threatening riddles scrawled on the asylum walls, again.
Riddler: One would have to be severely paranoid to read threats into harmless riddles, Doctor Young. May I test you with one?
Dr. Young: Very well.
Riddler: What is it that walks on four legs, then two legs, and finally three legs?
Dr. Young: A human being. As a baby it crawls on four legs, as an adult it walks around on two and in later years it uses a cane.
Riddler: (laughs) Good try, but the answer to all three is a baby. True, it crawls on all fours, but cut off its legs and it can only wiggle on two limbs. Give it a crutch, it can hobble around on three. You see?
Dr. Young: That’s horrible. How can you even joke about that?
Riddler: Easily, Doctor. It’s not my baby.
Faith and Revelation (OR “Yes, father. I shall become a bat”)
Jacobi maintains that reason, in order to be whole, requires faith in the revelation from God about the certainty of the world’s existence.
“But wait!” you may ask, “How is Batman all that different from the Riddler? Isn’t he a man of reason? Doesn’t he rely on himself and his own mind?”
In Batman: Year One, the story begins with Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham City after 12 years away. He’s prepared both his mind and his body for the task of fighting crime in his city, but he feels like he’s being held back. Like something’s missing.
One night, Bruce disguises himself and goes out into the city where he gets into a fight with a pimp and gets shot by the police. He escapes and returns to Wayne Manor. Sitting in the living room, he offers what might almost be taken as a prayer to his dead father: “How, father? How do I do it?”
As if in response, a bat breaks through the window and lands in front of Bruce. This provides him the revelation he needs to move forward in confidence as he utters those famous words: “Yes, father. I shall become a bat.”
There’s a trust in something “more” that grounds Bruce’s ability to become Batman. It goes beyond the endless reflection that reason performs and is something the Riddler, for all his intelligence, can’t understand.
Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, “Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza (1785),” The Main Philosophical Works and the Novel Allwill.” Translated and Edited by George di Giovanni. Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2009.
Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, “Jacobi to Fichte (1799).” The Main Philosophical Works and the Novel Allwill.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.