May 26, 2005

Star Wars Morality

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at May 26, 2005 3:40 PM

In reading various Star Wars commentary I've come across a lot of the backstory to the movies, particularly about the Sith. Apparently it's standard practice for the Sith to betray each other: either the apprentice kills his master to become the new master, or the master offs the apprentice and finds a replacement. Given Sith ethics, this makes perfect sense.

But wait: at the end of Return of the Jedi Vader betrays and kills his master, and this is presented as a majorly redemptive act! This is only redemptive if we think that Vader has some loyalty to the emperor, but it turns out the Sith don't value loyalty at all, and the master/apprentice relationship only exists as long as it's mutually beneficial to both parties. In other words, by killing the Emperor at the end of Episode VI, Vader is only doing precisely what would be expected of a Sith.

In fact, we know that he was planning to kill Darth Sidious in favor of Luke the whole time—remember his proposal in Episode V, "together we will rule the galaxy as father and son". So basically this was his plan all along, except that he accidentally got killed in the process.

Now, one could argue that in the end he didn't kill Sidious to advance his own personal power, but instead did it just to save Luke (and without regard for his own safety). This is true, but again it's perfectly in line with Sith ethics. We are told over and over that the Dark Side is about giving in to one's passions, while the Jedi way is to remain detached and unemotional. Hence, when Vader betrays the Emperor out of his paternal attachment to Luke, he's still following the basic tenets of the Dark Side. (And still ignoring Yoda's advice from Episode III, to give up his personal attachments.)

So, why give Vader any credit for returning to the light at the end of the series?

[One interesting interpretation of the whole saga I've seen various commentators hinting at is that Luke represents a "third way" between the Jedi philosophy of extreme detachment and the Sith philosophy of being ruled by one's passion. Furthermore, this is the kind of balance in the Force that Qui-Gon Jinn (who had serious disagreements with the Jedi Council) was trying to engineer back in Episode I. It doesn't really seem to be what George Lucas had in mind (since he's not terribly subtle with the lessons he does intend) but it's an interesting way to look at the series.]

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I always interpreted it like this:

Vader's redemption is built around the assumption that "evil" (wow, I want to go and read _Reads_ so I know when to say "evil," evil or Evil.) is somehow an external, guiding force in the universe (just like "good"), rather than an inherently human trait. His wrongdoings were purely the imposition of the will of this greater "evil," and his redemtion was him breaking free of that outside influence. See: "Satan".

Hell, I can remember a long time ago, when I was a little (-er) twerp, my mother telling me how ridiculous it was that Vader, having done one good deed, was somehow exonerated from a lifetime of atrocious acts.

The entire notion of "evil" being an outside force, and not something that comes from our own misguided desires, is so popular because it frees us from personal responsibility, hence why it's a popular component of many religions.

Oh, all of this is naturally IM(ns)HO. If you think I'm just being a farkwad, well... the Devil(tm) made me do it!

Posted by: Lemming | May 26, 2005 4:19 PM

Yeah, let's go murder some people and confess so it doesn't matter.

I'm with you all the way on this one, Tim.

Posted by: Mason | May 26, 2005 10:28 PM

(Ok, so I didn't actually want to be quite _that_ caustic this time; I wanted to be caustic but less than that. Ah well, I probably didn't create any _new_ enemies with that comment.)

Posted by: Mason | May 26, 2005 10:29 PM

My biggest problem with the first three movies (besides the, you know, quality), was that they changed the thematic overview of the series ENTIRELY, particularly in the areas you're discussing here.

What is the thematic change, you ask? The answer is this: Episodes I-III tried to bring specificity to Star Wars. They explored the environment, tried to give cinematic "life" to the Republic, made creations and a thousand names for each of those creations, gave us the Sith, a race of people that we could use to understand further the workings of the Dark Side, and no matter how thinly veiled, they went into the politics of the galaxy at the time.

These are all things that go directly against anything Star Wars Episode IV-VI ever did, and thusly, most all fo these attempts ended in horrific failure. Sure, we get to see that Coruscant is a good looking planet created by Industrial Light and Magic, but other than saying "Hey, here's the Star Wars World you envisioned all these years!", the in-depth tour of the galaxy did us no good as far as storytelling goes.

I hate the idea of the Sith particularly for several reasons. First of all, this kind of specificity. We did not need to know about this line of dark jedi going back through millenia simply because we did not need to know that much about the dark side, period. We didn't need to know much of any of the inner workings of the Star Wars universe. Unlike Star Trek, which is a much more thorough environmental saga that makes a specific point at developing political and atmospheric differencces, Star Wars begins its movies with a very mantra that establishes its theme: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." That's generality to the max. It establishes the fable atmosphere, the unseen elements that never are realized because they're legend by now. In Star Trek, you can go to Vega IV and negotiate a peace treaty between two races. In Star Wars, you have a world created in null space, and the absolutes of Light and Dark are destroyed when you bring it about to a specific world.

Speaking of absolutes, Star Wars was a story about nothing BUT absolutes. You have the vague idea of the "Empire" and the plainly-named "Rebellion", and you have the Light side of the Force and the Dark side of the Force. We don't learn more about these things in the movies because it isn't necessary: this is a moral fable about good versus evil, right versus wrong, and there is no room for moral relativism, because that sort of notion did not exist in the time of giants, in a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

The Sith undercut all of that because they give a "soul" to the Dark side. A people that the Jedi have banished due to their particular ideals, and though the introduction of the Sith people may give Senator Palpatine another dimension story-wise, it ultimately failed as a plot technique because the Star Wars world is incompatible with that kind of story. When Anakin says "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil", that says more than someone swayed by the Dark side should, because the Dark side is about those who are ruled by their passions, those who can't make such logical conclusions as perspective and notion.

Ultimately, the Sith wind up being another story-notion tacked on with many others. At least they escape with their dignity, though, which is more than I can say for every droid in those three movies.

Christ, you'd think they'd quit once the GUNGANS beat them.

Posted by: Josh | May 29, 2005 10:39 PM

Anyway, I did that long rant that was quite tangential, so let me take a stab at addressing your issues here...

I think the point of Jedi mythology where Lucas shoots himself in the foot most is in fact this very question about passions as rooted in the Dark side. He waffles quite a bit between the Buddhist philosophy, where clearheadedness and a lack of emotions are key, and the Christian philosophy, where one act of selflessness redeems a life of sinning.

This is especially key in the first 3 movies, where Lucas spends a lot of Yoda's lines (when not making them as cheesy as possible), explaining how attachment is a bad thing, whereas all of the hero characters act with their emotions (Qui-Gon defies the council and chooses to train Anakin; Obi-Wan did indeed say "I loved you"; and so forth). However, I think that the ultimate conclusion drawn about the Force is that a lack of emotional control is an easy pathway to the Dark side, because the consequences of emotional decisions can be rash and ultimately more harmful than helpful.

However, the coin can be flipped and some actions based on emotions can have sincerely good consequences. Han Solo is an example of this, since he's always shooting from the hip, always emotional, but never "Dark", because though he's blinded by emotions, he still has a choice to make.

The choice, here, becomes key in the Star Wars Galaxy. Remember my last post when I said that the universe was about nothing but absolutes? Dark and Light, no shades of grey. The reason that Han is a good guy even though he's very emotion-driven is that every time he comes to a decision, guided by his emotions or no, he does the right thing (relatively speaking). Thus, Darth Vader is not rewarded "because he sacrificed himself for Luke", or "because he killed the Emperor", but because in that moment that he made the decision to kill the Emperor, the decision was defined in Lucasfilm terms as simply, "because it was the right decision."

Posted by: Josh | May 29, 2005 10:55 PM
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