Friday, June 11, 2010
The Philosophy Of Star Wars, Episode 1
Along with being entertainment, movies are also an outlet for the expression of one’s worldview. Most movies have a protagonist and an antagonist. Someone the film-maker wants us to root for, and someone else he wants us to root against. Protagonists may be flawed, but the storytellers give them enough of what they view as positive qualities that we will sympathize with them. Antagonists may not be completely evil, but storytellers give them enough “bad” characteristics that we can tell we shouldn’t root for them.
By picking up on these kinds of basic story elements that we take for granted, we can determine quite a bit about the moral and philosophical worldview of the creators of a film. Some creators want their worldview to be expressed and appreciated by their audience. While other creators simply let their worldviews “leak out” in their creations by accident.
I’m not assuming George Lucas had any desire to mold the thinking of his viewers. But his movies have presented a number of philosophical concepts that many have adapted and made their own. So my aim here is to evaluate the philosophical ideas that have been presented in the movies and try to determine which ones are ultimately consistent with reality and which ones are logically “broken”.
My journey will take me through all six Star Wars films, starting with Episode 1, The Phantom Menace. (And yes, I even forced myself to watch the Jar Jar scenes.)
In The Phantom Menace, as we get our first few glimpses of what Jedi are about, we can pick up on a few details. First, they value preparing for the future but being mindful of the moment. They are the guardians of peace and justice. And in their work they are comfortable with manipulating others against their will to get what they want.
Did that last one catch you by surprise? It caught me too, when I noticed for the first time that Qui-Gon had no problems manipulating the mind of the chief Gungan to make him lend them transportation when their interaction was not going as he would have liked. Given that the Gungan gave the Jedi a ship against his will, it would also seem that there are times when a Jedi can steal. This Gungan had not wronged Qui-Gon in any way that I could tell. But Qui-Gon seemed comfortable manipulating and stealing from him.
Now it’s true that the Jedi believe they have a responsibility to protect the entire galaxy, and that may require doing things that do not benefit others in the short term. But it makes me wonder what moral code the Jedi are accountable to, and who gives them the right to violate the laws of others, however well intentioned their motives may be?
Qui-gon says at one point during underwater travel, “don’t worry, the Force will guide us.” If he was speaking metaphorically, he could have meant that the Force would guide them much like a map “guides” someone, even though the map has no will of its own. Otherwise, his statement implies that the Force has a will, and therefore is a being with desires of some sort. This is confirmed later in the movie several times when the Force is directly referred to as having a will.
Qui-Gon also makes reference to “the living Force” at one point. This phrase has what is probably an unintentional similarity to the common title of “the Living God” which we see repeatedly in the Bible. But it at least implies that the Force is alive and not simply a force in the sense that gravity is a force.
As the films progress, the nature of the force will be a key element to keep our eyes on.
When concerned about the Federations motives, Qui-gon tells the queen of Naboo, “My feelings tell me they will destroy you.” This came just after suggesting the federation’s moves were illogical. So it would seem that a Jedi values both logic and individual feelings as sources of guidance. Though feelings are mentioned much more often as a source of guidance than thought is.
Qui-Gon’s advice to Anakin before the podrace was, “Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts.” During athletic effort, this can be important. But instincts will only serve you well if they have been trained during practice to bring about the right instinctive responses. For example, I suck at all sports. My instincts on a basketball court would quickly make my teammates very angry with me.
So while this idea is very appealing in fiction (after all, who wouldn’t love to just trust their instincts, knowing they would always serve them well?), it doesn’t operate well in the real world.
I’d really be dropping the ball if I didn’t notice that Anakin was born without the involvement of a man. (The actress who played his mother also played Mary in a TV movie released before “Episode 1”.) This would suggest that Anakin is a savior of sorts. Near the end of the film, Qui-Gon refers to him as the Chosen One who will “restore balance”. We’ll want to keep an eye on this idea as we explore the later films in the series. We’ll also want to carefully consider what a Jedi means when he says “balance”. (A very vague but often used term in some forms of pop-spirituality.)
Fear can often be thought of as the condition of a victim, not someone who is doing wrong. But fear is a potentially dangerous thing. Yoda rightly observes that “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” When fear dominates our will and dictates our decisions, we’re not living the life God intended us to. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
Qui-gon tells Anikan, “Always remember: Your focus determines your reality.” This is another vague phrase, since we can’t be sure of what he means by “focus” or “reality”. This statement can be true in the sense that what we put our minds to will often either come about or become the priority of our lives. But it’s certainly false that reality will bow to our wills if we focus hard enough. Pop culture proverbs like this are useful if defined. But left undefined they can lead to some strange ideas about the nature of reality.