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.
(Image 1 used from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Star_Wars_Episode_III_Revenge_of_the_Sith_poster.jpg; image 2 screenshot from 2005 Lucasfilm production used from http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/File:YodaDuel.jpg)