Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Politics, Spirituality, and Sacrifice in Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III

Episode 2 of Ground Motive's Popular Mythology Series.

by Joseph Kirby

In my previous essay, I argued that the scene where Darth Vader destroys the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi was a spiritual and political mistake. This essay will refine my arguments in light of some of the critiques leveled against it. I argue that the scene is fine if we see it as the conclusion to the original trilogy, but that the meaning completely inverts if we view it as the conclusion to all six movies seen in chronological succession.

The original trilogy is primarily about the redemption of Vader and the healing of the bond between father and son. The political drama of galactic struggle against Evil Empire is primarily backstory for this spiritual/family dynamic. By killing the Emperor, therefore, Vader is not implicitly taking a stand on the nature of political evil and how it should be fought – he is redeeming himself. In the prequels, by contrast, the political drama is not backstory. The question of how a virtuous Republic transforms into an Evil Empire is central, and the answer these movies give is unsettling: they depict our virtuous democratic system as falling into chaos because there really exists some overwhelmingly powerful and infinitely malicious person – and seen in light of this political message, the end of Return of the Jedi now says that if we kill this evil person, our political problems will magically end. In short, we now have a scapegoat ritual along the lines described by Réné Girard: the Emperor, who we are told is the source of all our woe, is sacrificed by the galactic Republic in order to purge itself of its own internal violence, and the Star Wars saga is the mythic distortion the galaxy tells itself in order to justify this horrific act. The claim that “in the Star Wars universe the Emperor really is evil” is beside the point – in the universe of a witch-hunt, the witch really is evil as well.

My previous essay was controversial because I tried to solve this political problem by changing the final scene. As was pointed out by numerous people, the changes I proposed were unacceptable because they would have destroyed the spiritual coherence of the original trilogy. In this essay, therefore, I approach the matter from a more sensible direction: how should we change the prequels? The symbolic language of these movies will give us a useful lens through which to examine one of the central issues of our time: what is the proper relationship between spiritual struggle and political struggle? My answer: if George Lucas wants to depict Yoda and Darth Sidious as acting directly in the political realm, he needs to present them as complex characters, torn between the light and dark sides of the force in the same way as Luke and Vader are in the original movies.

In most of episodes IV, V, and VI, Yoda and the Emperor act only through the medium of their proxy warriors, Luke and Vader. Yoda is something like a monk, offering guidance to Luke, giving him the tools to remember the path of goodness when he rejoins the fray. The Emperor, meanwhile, is something like a tempter demon – he only wins if he convinces Luke to freely choose the Dark Side. When the verbal seduction fails and the Emperor is forced to interfere directly in the struggle – by shooting Luke with purple electricity – he has already lost. And it is only because the Emperor finally intervenes directly that Vader is able to make the decisive movement back to goodness.

The two trilogies offer contrasting accounts of how spirituality and politics should interact: the originals leave the principles of good and evil outside the political struggle, with the demonic principle losing only when it is forced to interfere directly; in the prequels, however, the principles of good and evil act directly within the political struggle, but their status as principles of pure goodness and pure evil is not compromised in any way. According to the original movies, spirituality relates to politics through inspiring words that we, as political actors, should strive to live up to. Part of what it means to follow the words of teachers like Yoda is to realize that everybody is struggling between these two poles, that nobody actually is good or is evil, but rather that people become good or evil depending on their actions. Part of what it means to follow the words of the Emperor is to project this internal spiritual struggle into the external world – rather than me struggling with good and evil within myself, I believe that people who are good do battle with people who are evil for political power, and that the evil people need to be killed in order to protect the good. If this is apt, then the political world depicted in the prequels is the world as it would appear to someone slowly transforming into a Sith.

Consider the final few conversations between Anakin and Obi-Wan in their duel at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Anakin first says to Obi-Wan: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy” – to which Obi-Wan replies that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Later, Obi-Wan says to Anakin – “Chancellor Palpatine is evil” – to which Anakin replies that “From [his] point of view the Jedi are evil.” But if only Sith deal in absolutes, how can Anakin be a moral relativist? And if Obi-Wan insists that Palpatine is evil, how is this different from the kind of absolutist thinking that characterizes his enemies? We can answer the former question by considering the first exchange as concerning the political distinction between friends and enemies, which only a Sith thinks of as absolute, and the second exchange as concerning the spiritual distinction between good and evil, which only a Sith thinks of as absolutely relative. The problem with episodes I, II, and III is that the strange similarity between the Jedi and the Sith approach to political enemies remains almost entirely unexplored.

Anakin’s transformation into Vader should have been prompted by a misdirected insight into this problem. At the beginning, Anakin really believes in the Jedi - but when he witnesses the supposedly “apolitical” Jedi interfering secretly in the political struggle, he becomes infuriated by their hypocrisy and spurns them. The Evil Empire that he helps construct is a world without hypocrisy: power is naked, honest, and absolutely brutal, refusing to don the dishonest cloak of being other than it is. Anakin tosses the Emperor down the well because he has finally realized that it is only by individual people striving to be other than they are that the human political world becomes bearable.

Joseph Kirby is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on the philosophy of religion, politics, and ecology. 


  1. I'm afraid my most substantive and germane comment is to note how COOL it is for an ICS PHD student publically admitting to have watched all of that crappy prequel trilogy. (grin) Comments to devolve starting...now:

    I am intrigued by the method of re-writing a scene as a tool of analysis since it seems like a fresh way to respond-in-kind while raising points through a new context. I've been out of the academic stewpot for some time but do many scholars now-a-days use such analytically-primed fanfic? Seems a mode that could both delight and instruct (pace Horace, dontcha know) while avoiding esoteric ivy-tower-isms.

    And evil. Hmm. Isn't there a sense that evil if left to its own devices will exhaust itself, that the "activity" of goodness is to resist participating in evil, even if it means accepting the wounds that evil causes? (MLK, ahimsa) It might be hard to convey in relatively militaristic space opera like Star Wars. Light saber is hardly a soft martial art (like aikido or taichichaun) "Good" doesn't trip up "Evil" so much as it allows opportunities for Evil to fall over all on its own. (I must confess I feel like I'm playing D&D whenever I get to talk about such fusty old metanarratives like "evil." Where DID I put that 20-sided die?)

    And I can't help but ask if you have an opinion on Leia now being a Disney Princess.

    1. I admit to having watched the prequels ages ago, but I strenuously deny having re-watched them. All I did was brush up my impressions by checking out the main duel sequences on YouTube...

      As for re-writing scenes, I agree - its such a simple technique, but it is ever so effective. Even as I aspire to be a professional "academic," I am afraid that I do not see much point in writing very precise ideas in incomprehensible jargon. My goal is to write my thoughts in such a way that non-academics will be interested in what I am trying to say. Movies provide a wonderful language through which to do this. Most people know these stories and have a general sense of what the characters represent. Re-writing a scene, therefore, is almost just a different way of making an argument. I also keep thinking of the original meaning of the word "philosopher" - lover of wisdom. As Bob always says, it is not enough to know the truth, you have to be moved by it. These stories have a meaning, so they are linked to truth, and they move us, so they are linked to love. Talking about them in a serious way, therefore, might help to build a bridge between the rational mind that we must use to make good arguments and the actual life we lead.

      As for evil, I agree completely with what you have written. I tried to take this position in my first Star Wars Essay, but people got so upset that I figured there had to be something wrong with it. Hence essay #2...

  2. I'm with you on your Augustinian cum Arendtian view of evil, Jim (to drop a few ivory-tower-isms). Joe's reflection helps me see that Star Wars, through the Jedi worldview, seems to approach such a privatio-boni view of evil, but ultimately fails to live up to it by fighting fire with fire. I agree that it would be a lot to expect of Star Wars to achieve such a nuanced position on the nature of evil, but that is what makes Joe's scene re-writing so provocative. As a rhetorical exercise, it engages you in a thought experiment, without telling you what to think.

    1. The thing is, the original movies did have a fairly nuanced position on the nature of good and evil, but the prequels totally undercut this position by refusing to bring the Jedi/Sith dualism into question. That being said, the situation the prequels presented to us was far, far more complicated than the situation the original movies presented. It is perhaps easy to discern evil when the evil is overtly building giant battle-stations called "The Death Star," then using these Death Stars to blow up entire planets in order to intimidate beautiful princesses; when the evil is mixed with goodness (like it is in "real" life), it is perhaps a bit more difficult to figure out how to fight it. The prequels present us, unfortunately, with a foolish and potentially disastrous way of thinking about this second kind of situation - they are basically saying that a little Death Star is hiding somewhere, and we just have to find it and kill it before it becomes a big Death Star. In the Reformational philosophy seminar, Jim corrected my understanding of Dooyeweerd on precisely this point: the antithesis does not split the world into good people and evil people, it cuts through the heart of every single human being. The original Star Wars movies make this very point, while the prequels say the opposite...

    2. But that's just it: The later prequels are too dualistic about evil. They portray it as a substantive, radical counter-principle to the good, rather than as the emptiness that it is and that it will become if we refuse to offer our power up to it. Like you said, when Luke refuses the temptation to join the dark side (thus refusing to give his power to it and thereby refraining from extending its life), the emperor has already lost, and he must then deplete his limited supply of usurped energy (purple lightning) to combat Luke, who is now a direct threat to his very being. But like you said, at this point he has already lost, even if Vader does not throw him down the well (I'm not sure the movie itself sees this point; like you said, a better ending, in terms of understanding evil, would be for the emperor completely spend and thus annihilate himself in his attack on Luke, but then the story would have to find another opportunity for Vader's redemption. But the question remains whether his act of killing the emperor is even redemptive in the first place, given Luke's previous example; the movie cops out here). So in the original trilogy, there is tension and ambiguity between a gnostic understanding of evil as an original, substantive principle in competition with the good (which necessitates Vader killing the emperor), and a more Augustinian notion of evil as mere insubstantive privation (whereby Luke, in refusing to give over his power, defeats evil by absorbing it into himself). But the subsequent prequel, as you point out, externalizes evil as a substance out there to be eliminated. The peril of that view is that, when we go to hunt the evil down, we inadvertently give it more power, thus extending its life. No matter what, according the privation view, evil is bound for nothingness and exhaustion, as it is nothing on its own, but relies for its energy on usurping the substance of the good. The moral question remains whether or not it will be able to take all the good down with it on its nihilistic path to extinction. I think this is a hard teaching, for it means that evil, to be defeated, must not be resisted, at least not resisted in kind. Our resistance must take a different path, one no less resistant, and perhaps even moreso, insofar as it refuses to give evil more juice with which to operate and extend its life. There is a profound paradox here, because the deeper form of resistance I am speaking of is a way that does not seek to confront and annihilate evil, but simply recognizes that evil's power comes from its usurpation of the good, and thereby this resistance is simply the negative refusal to allow evil to access the good in oneself. I think this understanding of evil is difficult to appreciate, and I would be surprised if the Star Wars narrative has it consciously in mind. It is even more difficult to live by.

    3. A pertinent quotation from Origen: "To express this idea more clearly: the light is the truth. When untruth and every kind of deceit - this is the darkness - persecutes the light, it is dissolved and dispersed when it approaches what it persecutes. For when the truth appears, untruth and deceit is dissolved. This is paradoxical, for when the darkness is distant it persecutes the light, but when it approaches in order to overcome the light, it disappears. For it is only as long as it keeps its distance from the truth that untruth has any power or room to operate in human beings to drive truth from their minds. As soon as it draws near, its complete nothingness is revealed. It is from this necessity that God has permitted evil to exist, that the greatness of virtue might be demonstrated."

  3. Hello Cosmognome, and welcome!

    I'm sure Joe will respond too, but I couldn't help jumping in on your first question about the method of re-writing as a tool of analysis... turns out the practice is much older than one might think! I did much of my PhD work a few years ago on the writing of a particular medieval thinker named Christine de Pizan (15th century)and one of her favourite things to do was re-write stories to make particular points. Now, she did not begin by saying "let's re-write this story..." so she doesn't show her method up front in the same way that a modern audience would expect, and she re-writes the stories she works with to change perceptions and not just to analyse (though analysing can of course be aimed at perception change) but it's fun and fascinating to see what she does with the stories she re-tells. Her "Book of the City of Ladies" is full of such re-tellings.

    Stories can be incredibly powerful, and re-writing them as a way of thinking through a particular issue or topic to which they are related (Christine de Pizan re-writing Boccaccio's stories about women to rework conceptions about gender and women's capacity; Joe re-writing Star Wars to re-work conceptions of good and evil) can be a powerful way to challenge and develop the way we approach those topics. It isn't the only way, of course, but the stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell a lot about who we are, what we believe, and what is important to us.

    (It's funny you mention D&D because even that, at it's best with a good DM, can be an extended form of storytelling and re-telling. And with a *really* good DM, participants can explore all sorts of conceptual issues while they're fighting their metaphorical dragons. Or they could just have fun with their 20 sided die.)

    I could write reams more on stories if I'm not careful, so I'll shut up for a bit and let others weigh in, but as to the rest of your comment (grin)--I've already spent years showing Leia to five- and six-year-old girls who, after watching Disney films, tell me they want to be princesses when they grow up. You'd be surprised how many of them opt for Leia over Belle or Jasmin, once they've seen her in action. And while I may prefer Luthian (who I pray will *never* be picked up by Disney) over Leia, having another kind of princess out there in mix won't be a bad thing for those whom the Disney princess meme is aimed at. And the rest of us will just have to sigh and see what happens next!

    1. I just wrote a bunch as well, so I'll also shut up for a bit to let others weigh in... but allow me just one more quick point: if we lived in an oral culture, "rewriting" stories would be a lot easier. On the other hand, if we lived in an oral culture, the stories we told ourselves would have already been rewritten by generation after generation of story-tellers, so they probably would not need much revision in order to make intelligent points about the nature of evil. I've been reading the first few chapters of Genesis in this way, on the assumption that these stories are the result of hundreds of generations of people wiser than me tweaking this and tweaking that, leaving those of us alive today with something we should try to interpret as opposed to try to change. Does that sound like a sensible way to think about a holy text?

    2. Joe, I took it that your rewriting exercise was really hermeneutical rather than an attempt to change what is at any rate a fait accompli unless you have more money and cinematic talent than seems on the surface. I saw your rewriting as a way of entering into the world of the text with your own philosophical antennae primed to collect ethical data so to speak. That is somewhat different than the situation Allyson describes with Christine who has already worked through the material she rewrites in that way and is now determined to use such rewriting to open up possibilities that are at one and the same time new to and yet implicit within the tradition of authorities she is "thinking-with" [and where necessary against] as Levi-Strauss would have it. What is fascinating is that rewriting as a way of inserting oneself into the world of the sacred text is a mode of scriptural reading in the twelfth-century. The hermeneusis in play was Augustinian. One followed the verbal signs presented by scripture to the things they signify. When such things are living things (say Jephthah's daughter) to arrive at them is to experience an encounter. They have agency; they do and think and feel things whether you like it or not, whether you quite approve of them or not. One is likely to feel a little squeemish (this comes through occasionally), but they were convinced that one does well to watch and describe, nonetheless. The Victorine exegetes like Hugh and Richard did just that. It makes for imaginative at times bizarre re-narrations of Old Testament stories (for example). The point is, they went to the words of their sacred text to encounter the living and pulsating heart, and the effect seems quite spontaneous and uncontrolled (even chaotic and disquieting). In their view, such encounter was a mark of Scripture's leading--a being available for God in the grammarian's art of explication (enarrationes). Anyway, your attempt to think about sacred texts and a proper approach to them reminded me of the Victorines and one of the more exotic phenomena of twelfth century Latin religious culture.