April 12, 2014

"Divergent" film brings up big questions

Divergent is a recent film that tells the story of a society that separates individuals into five factions. Organizing citizens into specific groupings allows the government to provide guidance in the attempt to create a peaceful existence. If everyone knows their role, chaos diminishes, but what happens if you don't fit into the boxes set forth by others?

Children grow up in their mother and father's faction. They are exposed to one of the five long before they have to choose. When kids grow up a bit and turn sixteen, they are administered a test that is meant to determine in which faction they belong. The next day, now that they know where they belong, they are given the opportunity to choose their role for the rest of their life. Once you choose, there is no opportunity to switch.

The five factions are:
(1) erudite - seekers of knowledge, logic above emotion
(2) candor - hold honesty and justice above all
(3) amity - joyful farmers who value kindness
(4) abnegation - those who devote themselves to serving others
(5) dauntless - cultivate fearlessness and physical strength

When Triss takes the aptitude test to determine the best faction for her, the results are inconclusive, she learns that she could be erudite, abnegation, or dauntless and is told to pretend that she was sick during the test and to tell no one that the test failed to provide just one answer to where she belonged. Triss is 'divergent' and though her test results are not public information, she must do her best to fit into a faction, for to be factionless is to be without support, and in turn without food or shelter.

Being forced to choose a faction eliminates an individual's ability to create their own path. It is an egregious loss of individual freedom. The question is whether seeking the best for the most people is more valuable than allowing individuals to innovate to find their way. Who is to decide that the current five archetypes are the right ones? What if the needs of the society changes and the groupings are insufficient?

Though some choose a mold and conform, others are simply not meant to be tamed.


  1. Have you identified which faction you fall into? Or are you one of those who refuse to be tamed and categorized?

  2. Most people are divergent but fall into a faction based on career choice and their location. Divergent humans must escape the game to ensure full self-expression. Choosing a faction is to negate parts of the self. A small minority decides to remain factionless. To step away from the system is a dangerous and brings about extreme consequences.

  3. The movie is a clumsy caricature of the premise of Plato's Republic that "there is unity where there is community of pleasures and pains" and "where there is no common but only private feeling a State is disorganized" (Republic, Book V). This is the premise of political philosophy, through Hobbes' Leviathan, until the Enlightenment, when Rousseau wrote that "Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains". Freedom of the individual replaced order as the ultimate good of statecraft in the liberal (in the 18th century sense) outlook, and John Locke and David Hume constructed the political philosophy, and Adam Smith, the economic philosophy that reconciled individual freedom with social order, based on the "unseen hand" that made the free market of ideas and goods orderly and beneficent. History since then is filled with examples of the struggle between the principle of order and the principle of freedom as the guiding principle of social organization between, and within states. A third guiding principle arose in Europe in the form of nationalism, which typically elevated that principle above individual freedom, sometimes with horrendous results. "Divergence" is a clumsy polemic in the argument between order and freedom because no one today seriously advocates such a rigid classification of any society, or such a rigid view of human psychology. We are all "divergents" to one degree or another. Societies based on order subjugate the will and the well being of the individual to the will of the leaders, and the well being of the state, without pretending to offer self-actualization through membership in "factions" based on exclusive personality archetypes. Forcing the population into such archetypes is particularly offensive in societies that value individual freedom, although even those societies compromise freedom for the sake of order, through taxes and criminal and civil laws and regulations. The movie reflects the anxiety of the effects of these limitations on freedom in a society that to one degree or another, has valued freedom as an organizing principle.