I don’t want to be alone; is that out of the question?… Philosophy in Star Wars

I’m yet to read the Philosophy and Star Wars book which came out a few years ago.  In a very old post, I noted that I was a fan of thePhilosophy and … genre even though some of them have been quite awful.  I’ve been worried about reading the Star Wars edition because I’m worried that it will be terrible.

Quick side note: while trying to find a link to that book, I found this.  Holy frijoles.  Somebody has gone to the effort to write a book about the ‘real’ Jedi religion.

Anyhoo, after watching the latest After Hours episode on Cracked.com about how the Star Wars universe is unfriendly to women, I thought I’d have a bit of a crack at exploring whether or not it’s good to be a Jedi.  It’s 3.30am.  This is definitely a good idea.

In the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, the plot requires Luke to begin his Jedi path rather quickly and uncritically.  To recap the film:

  • Leia sends a message to Obi Wan in R2D2.
  • Luke intercepts R2D2.
  • R2D2 runs away and Luke chases after him.
  • Luke gets attacked by Sand People but is rescued by Obi Wan.
  • Luke says he can’t become a Jedi Knight like his father but has to get back to his uncle and aunt.  Fortunately, they were murdered by stormtroopers, so it’s totally cool for Luke to become a Jedi Knight now.
  • And he does.

But let us play an extremely nerdy game of ‘What if…?’  In our hypothetical, Luke has more time to consider the proposal to dedicate himself to Jedi teachings.

We could note that most of the Jedi in the Star Wars universe don’t get that option.  They’re abducted as children to join the Jedi Order.  There’s a whole bunch of Jedi whose job it is to go and fetch Force-sensitive children.  In other words, most Jedi were not people who chose to be Jedi.  Hell, even Anakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader) was abducted via a confusingly strange wager (the ‘winner’ cheated using his Jedi powers, btw).

We could also note that the Jedi Order is overwhelmingly male.  We could also note that to become a Jedi, you had to have the right parents (effectively making the Star Wars universe a caste-based world).

But let’s get back to our young adult Luke weighing up his decision to follow the way of the Jedi.

The first thing the audience learns about the Jedi is that they have a supercool weapon.

BEN: I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have
this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He
feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic
crusade like your father did.

[…]

Ben hands Luke the saber.

LUKE: What is it?

BEN: Your fathers [sic] lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not
as clumsy or as random as a blaster.  [Source: BlueHarvest.net]

It’s a pretty cool conversion tactic.  There would be a lot more Mormons around today if they went to high schools and said, ‘Hello!  We have magic ninja blades.  You can learn how to use them if you join our religion.’  More importantly, there’s nothing about the content of being a Jedi.  We don’t get that until The Empire Strikes Back, where Yoda explains:

A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of
the dark side. Anger…fear…aggression. The dark side of the Force
are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you
start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,
consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

LUKE: Vader. Is the dark side stronger?

YODA: No…no…no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

LUKE: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?

YODA: You will know. When you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses
the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.  [Source: BlueHarvest.net]

Fleshed out further in the Prequels and Expanded Universe, the way of the Jedi is cool, detached, and dispassionate.  Emotional outbursts are considered ‘dark side’.  This less than flattering attitude towards emotions has a long ancestry in philosophy, particularly in ethics.

The complexity of emotions and their role in mental life is reflected in the unsettled place they have held in the history of ethics. Often they have been regarded as a dangerous threat to morality and rationality […] The view that emotions are irrational was eloquently defended by the Epicureans and Stoics. For this reason, these Hellenistic schools pose a particularly interesting challenge for the rest of the Western tradition. The Stoics adapted and made their own the Socratic hypothesis that virtue is nothing else than knowledge, adding the idea that emotions are essentially irrational beliefs. All vice and all suffering is then irrational, and the good life requires the rooting out of all desires and attachments. (As for the third of the major Hellenistic schools, the Skeptics, their view was that it is beliefs as such that were responsible for pain. Hence they recommend the repudiation of opinions of any sort.) All three schools stressed the overarching value of “ataraxia”, the absence of disturbance in the soul. Philosophy can then be viewed as therapy, the function of which is to purge emotions from the soul [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Emotion‘]

In the Star Wars universe, it has often been affection which has been the emotion which turned people over to the dark side.  This was explored poorly in the prequels, but there are some good examples in the EU.  Basically, emotional attachments with other people can turn to jealousy, protectiveness, &c., can serve as the catalyst for revenge if somebody harms them, &c., or can ‘cloud the Jedi’s judgment’.

There’s even a style of lightsaber fighting which draws its energy from the passion of the practitioner: it’s considered dangerous because it leads nearly everybody to the dark side.

We could ask why there aren’t emotionally normal people in the Star Wars universe who are also Jedi.  It doesn’t seem that hard to believe that there could be people just like us except they have all the Jedi abilities and don’t go slaughtering children.

Is this the sort of religion we imagine Luke would follow, if given a choice?  After all, it’s his desire to know his father better and his desire to avenge his extended relatives which drive him to become a Jedi in the first place.

Most of us are people who experience emotions.  We form attachments to other people.  In most of those attachments, don’t we become stronger people?  Although we might become enraged, upset, or frightened, we can moderate our reactions appropriately.  Not so for the Jedi.  In the Star Wars universe, if you start to feel inappropriate attachments to others, it’s only a matter of time before you’re slaughtering children and shooting lightning from your fingertips.  In our universe, it is hard to understand how emotions necessarily entail evil.  Yoda’s comment about fear leading to anger, &c. doesn’t quite seal the deal.  It’s only by privileging the cold, dispassionate, and detached that we’re able to be disparaging about emotions.  As an aside, this is something that we do almost instinctively in our society: people who get emotional and flustered aren’t as evolved and mature as logical, cognitive types.  Self-control means rational, yo.

Let us imagine that, for some reason we cannot know, it’s not possible to be a Jedi Knight and have squelchy feelings towards another.  Divine mystery or something.  Jedi-God hates sex for some reason.  Whatever.

Does it hold that, given a choice between living a life of Jedi powers and a life of having deep interpersonal relations, we should think the former more valuable than the latter?  This is the question we should put to Luke in our slightly modified version of the A New Hope.  And it doesn’t seem that a person would jump into the Jedi robe, given the choice.

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