Emotional Weapons for a More Indifferent Age

Over at the Dominicana blog, Br. Humbert pulls an interesting lesson out of a schoolboy’s startled question to the Dominican friars, “Are you guys Jedis?” After running down a few of the more obvious distinctions (rosaries vs lightsabers), he gets to one of the starkest philosophical differences between the two orders:

[T]here is another way in which both Stoics and Jedi find themselves at odds with Christianity—in their idea that bodily emotions, or passions, are disturbances of the soul, and thus always evil. While the Stoics typically restricted this term to passions unchecked by reason, the Jedi go further and claim that all emotions are to be avoided.

This view is expressed succinctly, thought not very clearly, by the diminutive Jedi Master, Yoda: “Anger, fear, aggression—the Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.” The Jedi’s ideal state of mind is what Zeno and his followers called apatheia, which is not quite the same as what we call “apathy,” but is rather a total avoidance of all emotions, such as love and hate, joy and sorrow.

Before I believed in God, I thought Christianity’s anti-stoic, anti-gnostic ideas were one of the worst things about the philosophy.  I loved Javert and anything that felt like invulnerability.  But the easiest kind of invulnerability to cultivate is indifference.  You rob you enemy (maybe a person, maybe simple entropy) of the ability to hurt you by discarding your attachment to everything you value first.  Picture the man who preempts an arsonist’s threat by burning down his own house and standing, self-satisfied amid the ashes, perfectly safe  because he is already perfectly destitute.

In his essay, Br. Humbert talks about the way that emotion can be a spur to virtuous action (“Sorrow for sin leads to conversion and avoidance of future wrongdoing”), and it seems like the essential difference is that, for the Christian, attachment can cause pain, but that pain is the data that gives us our moral bearings.  The model of evil as privation means that we suffer when we feel the absence of something we love and want to live up to.

We may not want to respond to an offence with righteous rage, but we would like still less to lose our awareness that something is off.  The Jedi and the Stoics are proof against threat, but they have nothing to use their strength to protect.  They’re like emotional bodybuilders, whose power has become more decorative than functional.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

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  • grok

    ” emotion can be a spur to virtuous action”
    From today’s Office of Readings:
    Second reading: From a homily on the Gospels by Saint Gregory the Great, pope
    Christ the good shepherd

    “I am the good shepherd. I know my own — by which I mean, I love them — and my own know me. In plain words: those who love me are willing to follow me, for anyone who does not love the truth has not yet come to know it.
    My dear brethren, you have heard the test we pastors have to undergo. Turn now to consider how these words of our Lord imply a test for yourselves also. Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.”

    What is interesting to me is that in this passage St. Gregory the Great, appears to equate “love” with “loving action”- at least the Christian concept of love, as if there were no space or distance between the two. And as he baldly states: “I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love”- a challenge to us all to increase our acts of charity.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    Do you know what the stoic anti-emotion sentiment reminds me of? Depression. If emotion makes you weak, shut down emotion. (And, OK, I realize everything reminds me of depression right now.)
    You lose motivation and all sense of value when you shut down emotion, yes, but you also lose compassion. You lose the capacity for positive emotions as well as negative ones. One of the differences between Stoicism and Buddhism is that, even though both teach detachment, Buddhists do not teach that we must lose our emotional capacity to achieve detachment. Detachment comes first; only after this do we lose the negative emotions, and as a result we get to keep the positive ones. Of course, I’m not advertising for Buddhism; I think sorrow and outrage have their place. But what I think Buddhism shows us is that the Stoics not only attempt the wrong thing, but they’re also going about it the wrong way. (However, I suppose you need to believe that compassion is a virtue first.)

  • Cardunculus

    Perhaps then Dominicans are more similar to the Sith?

    After all, the Sith code sayeth:

    “Through passion, I gain strength.
    Through strength, I gain power.
    Through power, I gain victory.
    Through victory, my chains are broken.
    The Force shall free me.”

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I think the Jedi were more against having emotions control them. I don’t think they were against feeling emotions at all. But The Force does seem cold as compared to Jesus. The Sith were able to use The Force as well. Still when the Jedi get slaughtered and all hope is lost there is something there. Like The Force won’t let them be completely wiped out.

    They talk about bringing balance to The Force. What is that? Is the goal for good and evil to be balanced? So if you want to go beat some guy up then do a few nice things first to balance that?

    I do find it interesting that they have a group that deny themselves and make a lifetime commitment to mastering a supernatural discipline. That is going to smell like a religious order. The idea that they do miracles is OK but become too common. It becomes more like a new physics than real miracles. I guess any type of miracle done consistently becomes just another gap in science.

    • Erick

      Do the lines “Stretch out with your feelings”; “Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi’s life, so you might say we’re encouraged to love.” mean anything?

      Yoda felt sorrow when Anakin went all bonkers on the Sand People. Obi Wan felt heartache at the destruction of Alderaan.

      I think Jedi are more like Buddhists than Stoics. What they wanted was to make sure one had a cool head. Anger, Hate, Fear are emotions that cloud judgment.

      Randy says,

      They talk about bringing balance to The Force. What is that?

      I believe they mean the elimination of the Dark side. The Force in it’s natural state is only light. The Dark Side is a cancer.

      • TerryC

        Erick says:
        “I believe they mean the elimination of the Dark side. The Force in it’s natural state is only light. The Dark Side is a cancer.”
        But is that really true? Aniken was destined to bring balance to the force. How did he do that? He helped the Sith Lord basically destroy all of the Jedi but two. Yoda and Obi Wan, his apprentice. So basically the Jedi was remade in the image of the Sith. Obi Wan dies and Yoda takes a new apprentice, Luke, but the order is still an image of the Sith.
        And lets look at what the Jedi are. Basically a non-democratically organized hierarchical organization based on genetics. Last time I looked the most famous group following that line wore black uniforms with lightning “S’s” on them. They believe they’re above the law, as is evident in Mace Windu attempting to kill Palpatine, rather than arrest him. They basically, as a group, are the enforcement arm of a hopelessly ineffective corrupt government which seems very much to resemble the UN. Basically a legislature which is more or less powerless, while the government is actually run by the bureaucracy, as is evident when dissolution of the Senate has no real effect on the running of the Empire. Lets face it, when your whole Republic can be destroyed based on a motion by Jar Jar Binks (with the support of the Jedi Council) its already obvious you’re corrupt. And the so-called “light” Jedi are right in the middle of it.

        • Brandon B

          I love a good reduction ad hitlerum as much as the next man, but I would like to point out that the Nazis actually wanted to rule the world, and their emphasis on genetics was the basis of their eugenics program. The Jedi seemed to want to make the galaxy a better place, and their genetic insularity (such as it was) was only a side-effect of the fact that you can’t be a Jedi if you don’t have the cool powers.

          I think the best criticism that could be levelled at the Jedi Council is complacency and too much trust in the Senate. Even this doesn’t resonate with the way the characters act, because the Jedi are busy doing things, and they seem to grasp that something is afoot. Maybe they’re just incompetent? I dunno. I blame the writers.

        • http://turmarion.wordpress.com Turmarion

          Terry, I tend to agree with you on this (although I think Lucas was totally incoherent on what “bringing balance to the Force” even meant, to say nothing of Annakin’s apparent virgin birth). One thing that never seems to be commented on is that in Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan seems not content merely to defeat Annakin/Darth Vader, but SEVERS ALL HIS LIMBS AND LETS HIM FALL INTO A POOL OF LAVA, then after giving a moving, impassioned speech about how he (Obi-Wan) loved Annakin like a brother, he WALKS AWAY, LEAVING ANNAKIN TO DIE IN AGONY! Can we all say “questionable morals”? One thing that really struck me about the prequels (aside from the fact that by comparison with the originals they pretty much stank) is how really, really badly the Jedi Order, even Yoda and Kenobi, come off.

          Of course, the Order must have been corrupt and decadent in order to be disposed of so easily, but I think a lot of this results from poor plotting, lazy writing, and Lucas not really quite knowing where he wanted to go with it, aside from having lots of battles and FX.

          I think the comparison of the Jedi to Zen Buddhists is appropriate not only for the reasons mentioned in some of the posts below, but for a darker reason as well. As has been documented, much of the Zen establishment in Japan allowed itself to be swept up in the war effort in WW II, and many respected Zen masters delivered jingoisitc, xenophobic, and militaristic sermons supporting even the worst atrocities of Japan during the war. I doubt Lucas had a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of Zen or Japanese history to have had this in mind, but the parallel does hold up.

          • Erick

            TerryC and Turmarion,

            Ironically, both of you just presented good evidence that the Jedi were right that the dark side should be removed from the Force. The question must be asked, would Jedis even be fighting and honing fighting skills if the dark side did not exist?

            One thing that never seems to be commented on is that in Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan seems not content merely to defeat Annakin/Darth Vader, but SEVERS ALL HIS LIMBS AND LETS HIM FALL INTO A POOL OF LAVA

            Because this is a very simplistic reading.

            For one, Vader initiated the attack that resulted in his loss of limbs. Obi-wan warned him that he was defeated. Let’s not pretend that Vader was a victim here. He was executor of his own demise.

            Second, that final attack makes it clear that simple defeat would not do. Vader had to be eliminated.

            Third, you are making two false assumptions: a) that another, more humane method was possible and b) that Obi-wan was capable of dealing the actual death blow (something he stated in the film that he could not do).

            This comment of yours actually brings us to another morally questionable idea that annihilation is a morally better choice than existence. From a Catholic viewpoint, this is simply untrue. Existence is categorically better, no matter how long/short, pleasant/painful, etc. it can be. We know this because there is a universe.

    • Newp Ort

      I think Erick is on to something that Jedi are more like Buddhists – a religious order of monks like the Shaolin. The Shaolin mythos describes skilled martial artists capable of superhuman feats more aptly described as a new physics than miracles.

      In Kung-Fu movies the good always seek the ultimate peak of fitness and skill as part of their spiritual quest and discipline. They can fight, but never seek out power through violence. (Conveniently in the movies, the good martial artist is always presented with situations that leave him no choice but to dish out large helpings of whoop-ass.) It is always the villain who uses martial skill for power and cruelty.

      Transpose the Shaolin onto the skills demonstrated by Obi-Wan or Luke, and it’s a good match. Yoda, presumanbly more powerful than any other Jedi, never shows any fighting skill if you don’t include the shitty prequels.

      Yoda more resembles the wily Shaolin or Zen master than any stoic, constantly challenging Luke but often laughing, teasing him, confusing him or allowing Luke’s own assumptions to reveal his own foolishness to him.

      The Jedi detachment I think resembles more the Buddhist’s self denial and seeking of enlightenment instead of stoicism.

      I would also say that the talk of balance doesn’t mean elimination of darkness but rather something akin to enlightenment where such distinctions are lost and all is part of a great non-knowledge of blissful nirvana.

      It’s like what the Zen monk said to the hot dog vendor…

  • Fides et Ratio

    Excellent post. The need to defend what is worth loving is something I am working on right now and struggle with. I had long conviced myself that it was forgiving and turning the other cheek to accept without complaint casual verbal abuse from a certain set of friends. I then realized that I was complicit in their foisting the same on others. My stoic fix was withdrawal from their company, but that is assent by silence. Trading one indifference for another is no kind of strength.

  • JohnE_o

    Hmmmph, back in my day, the go-to guys for SF Stoics were the Vulcans.

    • http://turmarion.wordpress.com Turmarion

      Me, too–we’re showing our age….

  • http://www.brotherpriests.com Benjamin

    I think you fall short of a really key point about Christianity that allows the Christian to feel pain, love, and all the other emotions very deeply without being moved. The key is absolute, total, passionate attachment to God, as the source of all goodness. The other side of the coin is what spiritual writers call detachment; not being attached to anything else.
    The reason you do not fear the arsonist who wants to burn down your house is that you cannot really lose anything of value because he cannot take God’s love away from you. This is what St. Paul is talking about with “who can separate us from the love of Christ?…” and “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him,” (Philippians 3).
    This is also the reason why you can forgive the arsonist who burned down your house with your son inside it – the arsonist has taken nothing from you because the love of God will raise your son fron the dead and give him back to you.

  • Theodore Seeber

    The only other religion that ever had any great draw for me, was Zen Buddhism. Zen considers all of the evil in the world to be caused internally by the person expecting the evil to be different. Thus a huge key is learning to adjust one’s attitude to fit reality, and thus end suffering.

    The reason I’ve ended up Catholic is because I’m stubborn and that isn’t a good enough answer for me.

  • Don

    For what it is worth the original comment that start this discussion from Humbert is flawed. In it he states that the Jedi see emotion as a disturbance of the soul and always evil. That is absolutely not the case. It isn’t emotion that the Jedi teach to avoid, it is passion. It is strong emotion that overrides logic and sense. They still display empathy and a basic range of emotions and such behavior never seems to be actively discouraged. Only the very strongest emotions, hate, rage, love, lust, etc. are frowned upon, those emotions which could drive a man to strike a deal with the devil, or give into the dark side as the case is here. It was Anakin’s passions which led him to the dark side. His love for his murdered mother. His love for Padme. His love for the people of the Empire, and his desire to grow strong enough to protect and help them all caused him to give into a corrupting force in hopes of gaining new “forbidden” abilities. That has nothing to do with the emotions that he displays elsewhere in the films, let alone the emotional range of virtually every other Jedi with a speaking role. As was suggested in a previous comment, Vulcans are a more appropriate analog to stoics than Jedi. They do actively discourage emotion.

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