The Tao of Star Wars

The Tao of Star Wars October 16, 2015

The Tao of Star Wars

Mike Chen wrote an article recently in defense of the Star Wars prequels. The second point on the list of things he appreciates about them is the moral ambiguity, the introduction of more in the way of shades of grey. I would argue that that is there in the original trilogy too. My view of the outlook of Star Wars is that it is more Taoist than Zoroastrian. But George Lucas himself has said things that sound as though he thinks in terms of good vs. evil rather than genuine balance between two opposing forces neither of which is good if taken to an extreme.

See further  Kate Daley-Bailey’s blog post on Star Wars and religion, the discussion here on this blog recently, as well as my many past blog posts about the topic.

Of related interest, don’t miss the interview with Avril Hannah-Jones that appeared on Theofantastique a few years ago.

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  • histrogeek

    There are some Taoist elements with regard to the Force and the Jedi, but good and evil are quite distinct conditions and there is a real battle between them. Laozi and especially Zhuangzi didn’t really see good and evil or right and wrong as authentic concepts.
    So I’d say that Star Wars was more Zoroastrian (or really Manichean) with Taoist elements.

  • John MacDonald

    In the original Star Wars Obi Wan Kenobi LIED to Luke that Vader had killed his father so that Luke would be inspired to go on to fight the empire.

  • Michael Wilson

    While Lukas liked to mimic Far Eastern ideas, I think he is more Zoroastrian in out look. Bringing balance to the force seemed to involve getting rid of the Sith. The Dark side seems to be a wholly evil and unneeded aspect of the universe. Taoism promotes the idea that the universe is a constant flow between forces and evil derives from trying to work against that flow of force. In a Taoist Star wars I would expect that the Dark side to be a vital part of the whole, and I think an argument can be made that fear and hate are not net losses to cosmic order.

    • Dorfl

      Bringing balance to the force seemed to involve getting rid of the Sith.

      Maybe? My headcanon is that the imbalance in the force was caused by the thousand-year rule of the Jedi, and that Anakin fulfilled the prophecy to bring balance precisely by turning Sith and killing them.

      • Gakusei Don

        Woah! That’s a very interesting concept! It’s kind of consistent with my own headcanon (love that word!) that the Jedi had become corrupted by involving themselves too much in the politics of the Republic. Palpatine was a symptom of that. He wanted to complete the corruption by turning the Jedi movement as a whole to the Dark Side.

        • histrogeek

          I’m pretty sure that Darth Sidious/Palpatine’s plan was to destroy the Jedi in the end. He corrupted them in a way by forcing them to fight a war where no matter what happened the Sith would win.

  • arcseconds

    I’m going to reproduce the bulk of my last post on the matter, as it seems directly relevant.

    This is in a narrative which actually has something called ‘the Dark Side of the Force’, the characteristic uses to which this is put is strangulation and electrocution. One is ‘turned’ to the Dark Side, by the dark whisperings of a Sith Lord and, it seems, by the insidious influence of the malevolent Dark Side itself. After one’s turning apparently one has little problem murdering children who were once your friends. The closer you are to the Dark Side, the more black you wear. Acolytes of the Dark Side happily murder their underlings for failure. It’s clear that the Sith are quite happy to destroy even their apprentices if they stand to gain another, better one.

    While there’s sometimes a hat-tip to the notion that things aren’t quite this clear cut, actually for the most part things arethis clear cut.

    Obi-wan pays lip-service to things like ‘points of view’ and ‘only the Sith deal in absolutes’ , but it’s hard to really see any sophisticated perspectival view presented in Star Wars. In the apocrypha and in the real-life Jedi movement the philosophy of the Sith has been rehabilitated into some kind of quasi-Nietzschean thing that one might have a degree of respect for, but it’s hard to square with the cackling evil pantomine villains we see in the movies.

    One thing that is done somewhat well in parts is showing Anakin’s ‘turning’ resulting from understandable and sometimes even admirable things about his character.

    Unfortunately praise has to be somewhat cautious even here, because there just doesn’t seem to be sufficient motivation or sufficient time for conditioning for him to start killing kids. He’s just plain evil by this point and he went the last few steps by magic.

    Obviously people have asked ‘is the way of the Sith really just plain bad, or could there be some underlying philosophy which could be worth something?’. But the answer from the films seems to be just ‘No. You may come to the Dark Side by an understandable route, but once you’re there you are Evil and Bad.’

    Fans have constructed another answer, but finding this in the films is eisegesis.

    • arcseconds

      I should point out I don’t really have a problem with the black and white aspects of Star Wars. Moral ambiguity, neither side are right, anti-heroes, nuance, staring into the Abyss, complex multifaceted exploration of the depths of the human psyche the web of motivation etc. are all very well, but sometimes you just want good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats, and get a nice satisfying righteous victory at the end.

    • I have wondered myself whether I am finding things in the films or reading them in. The talk of balance, the fact that the Jedi compromising their ideals leads to Anakin shifting his allegiance, the way Luke is able to allow his attachment to his sister make him strong, and yet stop precisely at the point of achieving balance – a hand for a hand, all makes me think that there is something more Taoist about the Force, with balance between the dark and light being achieved – not by having two Jedi and two Sith, but by having the two sides in balance within the individual.

      • arcseconds

        Anakin shifting allegiance is partly because a big part of his personality is his absolutist thinking. He’s kind of a fundamentalist sort of spirit: he wants a list of rules that everyone abides by, and a powerful father-figure enforcing them. So he admires the Jedi Way as a solid rule. But he can’t abide by it himself, as whenever he’s pushed to he isn’t reluctant to kill (and he kills Dooku as a result of Palpatine’s insistence, despite complaining about it). Which makes him a failure , but I think he’s well aware of that. He doesn’t like messy diplomacy or compromise. He’s starting to see that the Dark Side offers the kind of power he sees as necessary, and isn’t afraid to use it, and has other benefits. But the Jedi are still his heroes. So when he sees Windu prepared to betray the principles too, while in some respects it’s a disappointment, but it also allows him to say to himself “see?! they’re no better than I am! No point in sticking with this lot.”

        He has difficulty seeing any kind of give-and-take or compromise as part of being good, and he certainly can’t see the Jedi and Windu as being good people pushed to the limit.

        But I think it’s pretty clear that Anakin is never capable of thinking very well on these issues, and at this point his thinking is thoroughly twisted, aided and abetted by the noxious whisperings of Palpatine, of course.

        I agree that Anakin’s fall is pretty well done for the most parts, although with important caveats. However, it’s definitely a fall from being on the side of Good (albeit imperfect) to something which is most definitely irredeemably Evil (you can be redeemed from it, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish actually, but the evil itself (and Palpatine as its foremost instantiation) are not redeemable).

        And the Jedi are definitely not portrayed as perfect. But it really seems like their hearts are in the right place. The message here seems to be not that the Jedi are truly a mixed bag with some of them having questionable motivations and that their power is used for their own ends (which might be realistic given the set-up), but rather that good people can end up doing bad things through no real fault of their own, or through honest mistakes, or something.

        So there’s some subtlety and moral grey areas here, but it’s still done in a world where there are very distinct Black and White sides.

        One of the things the Jedi might get a bit wrong is their monasticism and detachment from ordinary family relations, etc. This doesn’t help when it comes to Anakin’s relationship with Padme, although the fact that that turns out so spectacularly badly might suggest a vindication of this policy, rather than a criticism of it. Maybe the mistake was really leaving two attractive and no doubt randy teenagers alone in beautiful surroundings with nothing to do and entirely unchaperoned!

        So one can draw out a moral against absolutism here, that good isn’t to be identified with rules and there’s something plastic about being good, and it’s compatible with emotional attachment with individuals. Which means it’s possible to make mistakes and still be good.

        But this is absolutism in terms of rules, or master values, or something. There’s still ‘absolute good’ in the sense that Luke, Obi-Wan, and Yoda, while they may make mistakes (and Luke is nearly led astray), are thoroughly good people motivated entirely by goodness, and that the way of the Force without qualification is about being like this.

        And I still can’t see any message to the effect that there’s anything admirable about the Dark Side. It seems to be entirely about power, cruelty, and selfishness, twisting everything that comes into its sphere to those ends.

        • John MacDonald

          Anakin’s big motivating factor is he is terrified Padme is going to die in childbirth.

          • arcseconds

            it’s a big motivating factor, but hardly the only one. Palpatine has been grooming him for this for some time.

          • John MacDonald

            Palpatine was the architect behind everything that happened from the beginning of the first episode. Palpatine knew from the beginning that Anakin would not allow himself to lose Padme the way he lost his mother.

      • arcseconds

        This is all just to say: no you’re not reading all of this in.

        But it seems fairly clear that the metaphysics (and a very moral metaphysics it is, too) of Star Wars is this:

        There’s the Force, which stems from life and binds you, me, the rocks, the ship, etc. etc.. The practitioners of the Force are Jedi, and they are calm, peaceful, compassionate, and act for the good of everyone.

        Then there’s the Dark Side of the Force. This is not on some kind of equal footing with The Force (there’s no ‘The Light Side of the Force’), but rather some kind of aberration. The practitioners of the Dark Side are Sith, and they are selfish, cruel, power-hungry, and frequently motived by anger. The Dark Side almost appears to be an active principle in its own right, but at any rate in some sense it’s a constant temptation for Jedi, and once you start going down that path there’s a particular destination, and it’s difficult to turn back. Eventually you become Darth Vader.

        There is no balance to be had here, no resting place between these two.

        There might be a bit of Taoist flavour here, with the Dark Side being some kind of unbalance.

        But really I think this is ultimately Christianity, at least in it’s manichean-flavoured, Satan-equipped, mythic version. The fundamental principle of the universe is good, but there’s a dark aberration of this out there also acting, which can tempt you down a dark path until you become a Personification of Evil yourself. This path is easier, and you need particular spiritual training to resist it.

        • Tony Prost

          But there is no repentence and salvation for a Sith, and ordinary boogies out in the economy, do not participate in this universal battle, and are not offered the opportunity to be players. Not Christianity.

          • Have you not seen Return of the Jedi? The films are all about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker…

          • arcseconds

            As James points out, Anakin is certainly redeemed, and in fact gains eternal life!

            Yes, though, like a lot of fiction with psychic powers, those without are relegated quite secondary status and don’t participate directly in What’s Really Important.

            But I wonder whether this is really that different from some forms of Christianity, which have a small number of Elect.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not really a big fan of the idea that someone can be a monster, but then get redeemed just because they have a change of attitude. But I guess that goes along with a worldview that thinks you can be a “saint by your actions,” but still be lost because you don’t believe the right things.

          • John MacDonald

            Recall that Vader slaughtered children: . He also oversaw the destruction of an entire planet:

          • arcseconds

            That is what I was referring to above, with this comment:

            you can be redeemed from it [the Dark Side], which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish actually

            Actually, of course, Star Wars is hardly the only setting that does this. The bad guy turning good is a fairly common trope, and they are seldom held accountable for their actions whilst a baddie.

            Often this is accomplished by having them die conveniently before the credits role, because one thing that must never happen is to leave the audience conflicted about someone: good guys shouldn’t have bad things happen to them and suitable punishment for murder (let alone mass-murder and unjustifiable wars) is usually pretty bad.

            Sometimes it’s just ignored.

            Apparently in the EU Luke turns to the dark side for a trilogy or something. Which undermines his turning away from the dark side in Jedi rather. I don’t think he gets put in jail for decades at the end: he’s just redeemed.

            This also underscores a bit of a problem with the EU, and perhaps ‘fan fiction’ of all kinds (even though some of it might be sanctioned by the mothership): what people want to see is more of the same Star Wars they love, so there’s a tendency for endless recapitulation. Which means happy endings at best mean a brief respite before it all starts happening all over again.

    • Dorfl

      I basically agree. I’ll say one thing for the Sith though: As far as I can tell, it is canon that the way to become a master is by killing your own master. Even so, they willingly choose apprentices and train them to become as powerful as possible. That means they must have some kind of ideological motivation beyond just doing everything for the evulz.

      • arcseconds

        Does this appear in the movies?

        I’m a ‘sola cinematographea’ Star Warsist 🙂

        Seriously, though, the Dark Side and the Sith do seem to undergo some kind of rehabilitation in the ‘deuterocanon’ of the books and video games. It appears to be given a pseudo-Nietzschean gloss, where rather than doing things in order to get you stuff you desire, you are committed to struggle and competition in the abstract, which means that you are OK with the notion that succession entails your death.

        I would really like to see a genuine attempt at displaying a philosophy like this in fiction. A follower of this dao might be an antagonist of a sort, but if the motivation for fighting you is to make both you and them better, they’d behave very differently to most villains (indeed, than most characters in ficition!). They might be quite inclined to save your life, for example: that’s the ‘what does not kill you’ bit. And if you’re their best opponent, then it makes sense to keep you alive for the purpose of their own development.

        Difficult, if not impossible, in Star Wars, due to the establishment of the Dark Side as basically evil and cruel. Might be done by introducing a new Force-tradition that insists that both the Jedi and the Sith have completely misunderstood the Dark Side.

        • Dorfl

          Does this appear in the movies?

          You’ve got me there. I believe there is a deleted scene where Palpatine mentions killing his own master, but I don’t think it’s ever stated that this is the norm.

          Which is a pity. I really like the idea of Palpatine seeing Darth Vader as basically the thirty-year old son who still has no job and lives in the basement.

          I would really like to see a genuine attempt at displaying a philosophy like this in fiction.

          That would be very interesting to see done well.

          Even if they’ve tried to make the Sith act like that in the EU, they really mostly come across as chaotic stupid. According to a friend, who is really into Star Wars canon, the Sith main strategy in war boils down to

          1. Get within an arm’s reach of victory, because they’re naturally much better at violence than the good guys can ever hope to be.

          2. Second in command backstabs commander.

          3. Third in command stabs second in command.

          4. Infighting Free for All!

          • It is at least strongly hinted that Palpatine was talking about his own action when he spoke of Plagueis’ apprentice killing him in his sleep.

  • arcseconds

    Regarding Chen’s article, I agree as far as it goes.

    But in a way, that’s part of the criticism.

    It is possible to see some far better movies lurking in there, and if a better script-writer had hammered it into shape and deleted the worst aspects of them, they might be the best space-opera out there.

    The world-building I totally agree with. It’s one thing that Star Wars has done consistently well. In the first 10 minutes of A New Hope, we get consular ships, a vastly powerful Empire made palpable in the form of a Star Destroyer, stormtropper, droids, Darth Vader, beautiful princesses, backwater desert planets, scavengers, farm boys, and Uncle Owens, largely without expository dialogue. Of course, we don’t understand most of this yet, but we understand enough.

  • John MacDonald

    There is a theme in the movies that the Jedi ideals are somewhat out of touch with human nature. In episode 2 we see: Padme: To be angry is to be human. Anakin: I’m a Jedi. I can be better than this.

  • John MacDonald

    The Sith plan to use Anakin to destroy the Jedi in the temple and eliminate the separatists was in place from the very beginning of the first Star Wars episode. Palpatine says of Darth Plagueis that he could use the force to create life. This is how Anakin was conceived. As Anakin’s mother said, there was no father involved with her pregnancy with Anakin: