Existential Shattering and Stoic Clemency in Sonic the Hedgehog
Elektra D. Mercutio
That iconic blue speedster Sonic the Hedgehog turns 30 in 2021. Feeling nostalgic, I reflected on a story featured in the 200th issue of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic in which Dr. Eggman, Sonic’s arch-nemesis, has an existential crisis after suffering yet another defeat and apparently giving up hope of ever beating the hedgehog.
The conflict between them, and the possibility of victory or defeat, seems to supply meaning for Sonic and Dr. Eggman. This is no minor matter. The central premise of existential psychology is that human beings are meaning-makers; we have a drive or longing to recognize and express meaning. We need meaning like we need food, water, and shelter.
In the 200th issue, nearly-catatonic and lifeless, Dr. Eggman garbles a string of nonsensical words at Sonic, who has infiltrated his base for the umpteenth time. Dr. Eggman falls to the cold, barren ground and begins to roll backward while gnawing on the soon-to-be freshly torn mustache clumps, eyes dead and without spark.
“Um…Eggman? H—hey, Doc? Doc Robotnik!… Yo! Ivo!” Sonic calls out in vain, trying to restore the roboticist to reality and bring a bit of sanity into the situation.
Eggman seems broken, cracked. He doesn’t know who he is. Existential shattering is an undoing of one’s existential well-being in which one no longer understands oneself as a unique being, situated within the context of other beings, with a definitive motivation for existing and continuing to exist.
Dr. Eggman’s existential shattering leads to existential rage, an indignation that can occur when a person realizes that they don’t truly know who they are, or that others do not know who they view themselves to be. Worse yet, there is an intense helplessness, an inability to do anything to change this circumstance, almost as if the person views themself as not living their own life, but merely along for the metaphorical ride. Often, long-held preconceptions of identity are destroyed. A natural disaster, economic recession, or loss of a loved one could upend one’s sense of security or safety. Here, Eggman’s 300-level IQ and identity as an evil genius is undermined by embarrassment at the realization that Sonic the Hedgehog might never be vanquished.
Sonic’s friends rejoice in their ultimate victory, finally free from Dr. Eggman’s tirades of terror. But Sonic reacts differently. Flashing a look of sorrow, the hedgehog cannot bring himself to celebrate. Sonic’s own identity is at risk, and he laments over the uncertainty of what to do next. Battling Dr. Eggman, saving the world, and destroying robots has become entrenched in Sonic’s psyche. Without that conflict, he would not be himself.
Thus Sonic reacts to Dr. Eggman with clemency. In his book On Mercy (De Clementia), the Stoic philosopher Seneca describes clementia, or mercy, as a virtue. For Seneca, clemency is ideally exercised by those in positions of power over subordinates. Indeed it is a virtue fitting for Sonic because it is called for when there is a possibility of inflicting more severe harm against, or exerting further power over, an inferior or otherwise underprivileged party.
Eggman probably would not act with clemency if the tables were turned. In Seneca’s view, tyrannical rulers cannot be at peace. Eggman’s self-absorption and disdain, contempt even, for all other life is boundless. It is matched only by Sonic’s moderate tempo and relaxed humanity—willing and able to lend a merciful hand to, and empathize with, his greatest enemy.
Of course, Eggman eventually recovers, and certainly Sonic isn’t perfect. There are plenty of instances in the franchise where Sonic mocks Dr. Eggman or laughs hysterically over juvenile things, sometimes at Dr. Eggman’s expense. Sonic can be snarky and self-assured, but he can also be clement and merciful—whatever it takes to continue the struggle that gives him, and his adversary, meaning.
Elektra D. Mercutio Ph.D., MBA is a neurodivergent psychological researcher specializing in existential, humanistic, and transpersonal approaches to psychology. Her primary scholarly interests center on applying transpersonal perspectives in addressing existential concerns and the juxtaposition of existential thought with popular culture.