The Soul in Popular Fiction: Star Wars

I know I’ve been awol for the past few weeks. I have no good excuse, but hopefully I’ll be making up for it by giving you the second-to-last section of my Senior Thesis: Star Wars. This is a shorter chapter, so there’s no second half coming—all that’s left is the conclusion. As always, the previous sections to my thesis can be found by clicking “Thesis” over there ————->. Please let me know what you think.


The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: Star Wars

In the Star Wars saga, created by George Lucas, the idea of the soul is never explicitly mentioned, but it is heavily implied. Based on that implication, the soul plays a significant role in the story. The soul in Star Wars appears to be based strongly in the Eastern concept of atman, and thus has some corresponding Eastern moral principles, but mixed in with these principles is a strong sense of Western dualism.

The primary evidence for the existence of the soul in the Star Wars universe comes in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi when the audience is shown the spirits of Obi-Wan Kenobi and then later those of Yoda and Anakin, all three of whom are dead.[1] The presence of these spirits indicates that there is some aspect of a person that survives death, such as a soul. Very little information is given about these spirits, but the fact that all three were great Jedi masters in life suggests that continuing into an afterlife, and therefore the soul, is tied somehow to the idea of the Force. In fact, Obi-Wan’s comment before his death that “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” implies that the spirit of a Jedi may actually become (or may already be) a part of the Force.[2]

The Force, as defined by Obi-Wan is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”[3] According to Qui-Gon Jinn, the Force communicates its will by way of microscopic organisms called midi-clorians, which exist in all living beings.[4] Jedi, by “using the Force” and letting the Force guide them can gain extraordinary powers such as telekinesis, telepathy, mind control, seeing the future, and skill with a light saber. The idea that the ultimate power in the universe is connected to every living being, and that people can gain supernatural powers by realizing their connection to that power sounds remarkably similar to the idea of atman, as expressed in Hinduism and Buddhism.[5]Atman” is often translated as “self” or “soul” and represents the purest distillation of what we as humans are, but atman is only a manifestation of Brahman, the ultimate power in the universe.[6] According to such Eastern philosophies, because atman exists in every living thing (or rather, is every living thing), if we are able to remove the distractions and misconceptions of life, we can realize our connection to Brahman. By doing so, we can gain extraordinary powers, including “clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-projection and the like.”[7] If one simply substitutes “the Force” for “atman,” the above philosophy is a fairly succinct explanation of the Jedi religion in Star Wars. Such similarities support the above suggestion that the soul and the Force are not only connected, but are actually the same thing.

The Force is further connected to Eastern philosophies in that it has a light side and a dark side, and that these two sides are ideally kept in balance. The balance of opposing forces is expressed in the Chinese idea of the yin and the yang, which George Lucas has said that he wanted to incorporate into his story, and he seems to have done so with the Force.[8] However, Star Wars has deviated from the idea of the yin/yang in that it is not generally applied to the concept of atman, and so, its application as a characteristic of the Force is somewhat forced (pun not intended). Also, the two sides of the Force are not just light and dark, but good and evil, whereas the concept of yin/yang does not recognize the moral polarization, and in fact rejects a dualist model of morality because it insists that both the yin and the yang are essential, which, if it were applied to good and evil would make evil a necessary thing.[9] Star Wars does contain the idea that the existence of evil helps the people to stay focused on the good, as in Episode I when the Jedi Council grows lax until they learn of a new Sith Lord, at which time they become more focused on the pursuit of good, but the story never praises the existence of evil in and of itself. Lucas borrows the Chinese idea of balancing opposites, but deviates from it by creating a Western dualist model of morality in which the dark side of the Force is entirely undesirable and is, in fact, condemnable. Lucas thus attempts to use an Eastern model of the soul, but the ethical model he pursues is more consistent with Western modes of thinking.

This combination of yin/yang and moral dualism creates the most dramatic philosophical tension in Star Wars. For example, the character Anakin is supposed by many of the Jedi to be the one who will fulfill a prophecy in which the evil Sith Lords are destroyed and balance is restored to the Force. These two ideas: destroying the Sith and bringing balance to the Force, are antithetical. If the battle is between the good Jedi (allied with the light side of the Force) and the evil Sith (allied with the dark side of the Force), as it is throughout the entire saga, then destroying the Sith once and for all would theoretically throw the Force out of balance, instead of having its balance restored. The only way that destroying the Sith would bring balance would be if the universe is already ridiculously tilted in favor of the dark side of the Force, which may be the case. However, the very fact that balance is seen as desirable indicates that some darkness is required. Perhaps what Lucas is trying to say is that the world is only stable (i.e. balanced) when evil is fought, and this interpretation does have some support as will be explored below, but the wording of the prophecy implies more strongly that the destruction, not the fighting of evil is what will bring the Force into balance. Ultimately, the attempted combination of Eastern and Western philosophies is awkward at best, and makes it difficult to extrapolate any solid ethical insights about the soul.

Another interesting aspect to the light/dark polarity present in the Force is that those allied with the dark side are fully aware that it is dark. Although Anakin allies himself with the dark side out of originally pure motives (to save his wife), and thus he is able to justify his actions, he never deludes himself into thinking that his actions are morally good. When he tells Luke, “It is too late for me,” he implies that there is something that he should be saved from, were it not too late, indicating that he is fully aware that his actions have been wrong.[10] On the other hand, Yoda and the other Jedi, although they are associated with the light side of the Force, are able to be deceived and manipulated, as when they fail to see the Darth Sidious’ infiltration of the Senate and when they are used to start the Clone War.[11] Thus the evil characters are often far less deceived, and often less self-deceived, than the good ones.[12] It would seem that Yoda’s repeated comments that the dark side clouds one’s vision refers only to the vision of those working against the dark side.

The concept of balance being found in the Force is shown to be much more consistent when it comes to individual morality than it does on a grand scale. The idea of a cosmological balance between good and evil or light and dark is quite different from finding balance within oneself, as Luke learns from his training sessions with Yoda. One of his training exercises involves him maintaining physical balance while upside-down. Such balance is a result of his internal neutrality and harmony which require that he remove disruptive voices from his mind. This training sequence was deliberately designed by the filmmakers to echo Zen meditation “and the Zen master teaching a pupil how to transcend physical prowess into some kind of mental prowess.”[13] During Luke’s training, Yoda counsels him that anger, fear, and aggression all lead to the dark side, which reveals the importance of internal balance in the Star Wars universe. Anger, fear, and aggression are all emotions or attributes that either create or are the result of disproportionate vision: seeing another as more powerful than oneself causes fear, seeing oneself as more powerful than another causes aggression, and these two unbalanced perceptions both create injustice, which leads to anger. Ultimately, Luke’s final victory over his own dark side is not when he has removed his anger, but when he has brought his anger under control, showing that the danger of anger is not inherent, but in that anger tends to lead to emotional instability and impulsive action. Controlling fear, anger, and aggression allows one to not be ruled by emotions or circumstances, but rather by the Force. This perspective makes it appear as if “bringing balance to the Force” may not be a matter of balancing good and evil, light and dark, but of bringing the light side of the Force to the fore, which is itself a thing which is not dominated by any one emotional drive: it is a thing of balance.

If this is so, then the war between the Empire and the rebels (who desire a Republic) makes much more sense. After all, in the original trilogy, until Emperor Palpatine tortures Luke at the end of The Return of the Jedi, he is not guilty of any major transgression which had not also been committed by the story’s heroes (unless having a creepy voice and scary theme music count as evil deeds), and yet there was no question that he was the ultimate villain of the story. The unforgivable crime that the Emperor commits is simply that he is a dominating emperor, and thus the Empire has an extreme imbalance of power. Admittedly, the Empire does commit some atrocious acts, such as destroying an entire planet, but these acts are more proofs of their villainy than conditions for it. The Republic, on the other hand, favors shared and balanced use of power, and it is this balance, more than any individual acts of heroism (or peppy theme music), that makes their cause worthy.

If we are correct in our assumption that the soul in Star Wars is a form of the Force, modeled on the concept of atman, then the idea of midi-clorians may at first seem very strange, because they make one’s connection to the Force fundamentally an issue of biology. Although every living thing has some midi-clorians, certain beings have more than others, and the more midi-clorians one has, the stronger their connection to the Force. Training may enhance this connection, but it does not seem to be completely necessary, seeing as Luke was able to use the Force long before he ever had any training in it. Because the soul is such a valuable commodity, the fact that some characters are biologically more connected to the Force, and thus to their own soul, makes it easy to make the leap that some people are biologically better than others. The veneration that the public holds for Jedi because of their ability to use the Force, as well as Qui-Gon’s veneration of Anakin because of his high midi-clorian count seem to support such value judgments. However, this admiration is misplaced, as demonstrated in Yoda’s counsel to Qui-Gon that Anakin’s ability to use the Force does not make it wise to work with him.[14] Gaining an ability to use the Force may be seen as a “good” thing, but goodness is not inherent in the Force (it does have a dark side, after all). One does not need an affinity with the Force to be a good person, as Han, Padme, and many others demonstrate, and the strength of one’s connection to the Force has no bearing on their personal or ethical worth.

But where does one’s ethical worth come from, if not from the Force? The clearest ethical teachings in the series come from Yoda’s training sessions with Luke which, as already explored, emphasize the crucial importance of internal neutrality and claim that fear, anger, and aggression all lead to the dark side. What, then, are we make of Han Solo, one of the story’s main heroes who has immense amounts of fear, anger, and aggression, and who appears to be far less internally balanced than any of the Sith? The simple answer seems to be that Han is not training to be a Jedi, so Yoda’s warnings are not applicable; if he were training to be a Jedi, then we would have cause to worry, but as it stands, Han’s courage and his efforts for the light side of the Force make him merely an uncouth but ultimately admirable man. Thus, it would appear that the values inherent in the Force—inner harmony which rejects fear, anger, and aggression—are not universal, or are at least not the only moral ideas at play. Where exactly the idea comes from that Han and others like him are morally good people, despite the fact that they are the antithesis of the characteristics of light side of the Force, is not clear, and certainly cannot be extrapolated from the information given about the soul in the Star Wars universe, so I will leave that discussion for another researcher, but the fact that the Force appears to be only one of several ethical meta-narratives is worth keeping in mind.

However, even if characters with a small affinity with the Force can be morally good people, it does not change the fact that they have less of a connection to their own souls, and, assuming my above arguments are correct, are unlikely to achieve the existence after death exemplified by Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin. Thus, admittance into a potentially eternal afterlife is at least partially dependent upon the biological feature of a midi-cloran count, which is, from a bioethical perspective, completely absurd. It is true that there is much we are not told about the afterlife in the Star Wars universe, so there could be any number of ways around this problem. Perhaps the Eastern idea of reincarnation is used to give characters infinite chances to become great Jedi; perhaps all dead characters exist in an afterlife, but only those with a strong affinity to the Force are able to manifest; perhaps Luke was hallucinating, and this entire paper makes a moot point. Nevertheless, no such explanations are given within the story, which could be seen as a philosophical weakness.

There is one great Jedi notably missing from the lineup of spirits at the end of The Return of the Jedi: Emperor Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious. Despite his moral shortcomings, Palpatine was a great and powerful Jedi, and if a connection to the Force is all that is needed to continue to live after death, then one would expect him to have achieved this. Again, the fact that his spirit does not appear after his death could have any number of explanations—it would make little sense for him to visit Luke, even if he did survive his death in some form—but it is strongly implied that he did not survive. If this is true, then admittance to an afterlife depends not only upon the strength of one’s connection to the Force, but also upon where one situates oneself upon the light/dark divide. It is not inappropriate to extrapolate from this that the afterlife is a kind of heaven where only good people are allowed to go, but Palpatine’s conversation with Anakin suggests that there may be other factors to consider, as will be explored below.

In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Palpatine tells Anakin that the dark side of the Force can give a Jedi access to powers not available to the light side, including the power to prevent death.[15] The audience never sees such a death-defying power in action, so it is possible that Palpatine was lying in order to seduce Anakin, but let us assume for a moment that he was telling the truth. This may be the reason that no Sith are seen in an afterlife: because both the light side and the dark side of the Force have the potential to lead to everlasting life, but they do so in different ways. The light side leads to some sort of spiritual existence after death and the dark side avoids death altogether. Avoiding death has a very negative connotation in this light, reinforced by the fact that both Obi-Wan and Yoda accepted their deaths without protest.[16] Although the idea that ‘death is not the end’ certainly exists in Star Wars, the vagueness of the afterlife coupled with the negativity attached to Palpatine’s goal of living forever implies that the truth that death is not a bad thing is more important than the existence of an afterlife. Death is still portrayed as a tragedy within the series, but it is a tragedy for those left behind, not for the person who is dying. This idea may be the greatest uncontested value judgment in the series; we have already explored how the lessons taught by Yoda fail to apply to Han Solo, but this principle maintains its integrity throughout. The redemption of Darth Vader may have come from his rescue of Luke and his rejection of the dark side, but it is confirmed or crystallized only when he accepts his own death.[17]

What of those beings who have no life to give up and no connection to the Force at all, such as droids? The status and abilities of droids is inconsistent and varied throughout the series, with some droids being expendable and without any sort of personality, and others being treated as full-blown characters. The value placed upon droids seems to correspond to their autonomy: R2-D2 and C3PO are both capable of independent value judgments and decision-making, and as a result, are treated with relative respect; R2-D2 is even formally thanked by Queen Amidala at one point for his brave actions.[18] The battle-droids of the Trade Federation, on the other hand, seem incapable of any action which they are not directly programmed for. Note, for example, one droid’s response to Qui-Gon: “That doesn’t compute…err… you’re under arrest.”[19] Such lack of autonomy is what makes the slaughter of battle droids acceptable, whereas the damaging of R2-D2 is a matter of concern.[20] The value of autonomy again goes back to Eastern philosophies such as Hinduism, which is deeply concerned with finding the “I” (the atman) which is not controlled by any outside forces. Of course, droids will always be programmed, so no matter how autonomous they become they could never truly achieve the Hindu goal. Yet they are also not alive, so they could never have a connection to the Force or, by extension, a soul. However, the fact that freedom from controlling influences is valued in the Star Wars universe shows that the idea of atman is not merely a model for the Force, but also has some influence on the stories’ system of values.

It may seem to be a bit of a stretch to say that the translucent image of dead Obi-Wan implies a particular system of values which emphasizes internal balance and the acceptance of death, but that is what his image does. Since his “ghost” is connected to the Force, and the Force is connected to atman, a great deal can be extrapolated. Star Wars is somewhat inconsistent in its portrayal of the Force, and this inconsistency disrupts the cohesion of its implied ethics, mostly in its attempt to marry Eastern philosophies to a Western dualist model of morality. However, in its very inconsistency Star Wars demonstrates that the way we view ourselves- what makes up our soul or essential core- is crucial to our understanding of how we ought to behave.

[1] The audience had already been introduced to the idea that Obi-Wan may have survived his death when Luke hears his voice giving instructions in A New Hope, but this could easily have been explained away as Luke remembering what his mentor might have said.

[2] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 1977.

[3] Episode IV: A New Hope.

[4] Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 1999.

[5] Many fans and commentators hold that the Force is more closely modeled on the idea of the Tao, and while I accept that there are some similarities, I am more struck by their differences. The Tao is not an energy field; it has no moral polarization; it is beyond being ‘used.’ The similarities that the Tao shares with the Force are the same ones that it shares with atman and Brahmin, which I believe to be a much closer match, although, admittedly, still not a perfect one.

[6] It should be noted that although both Hinduism and Buddhism recognize the idea of atman, Hinduism includes the idea of the soul, while Buddhism does not (Thich Thien-An, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1975), 170.).

[7]Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, 94.

[8] Walter Robinson, “The Far East of Star Wars” in Star Wars and Philosophy, ed. Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 31.

[9] J.C. Cooper, Taoism: The Way of the Mystic, (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, The Aquarian press: 1972), 34.

[10] Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Directed by Richard Marquand, 20th Century Fox, 1983.

[11] See Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 2002.

[12] They are also often far more honest. See “’A Certain Point of View’: Lying Jedi, Honest Sith, and the Viewers Who Love Them” by Shanti Fader in Star Wars and Philosophy p. 192-204.

[13] Laurenk Bouzerau, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays (New York: Ballantine, 1997), p. 180 as quoted by Walter Robinson, “The Far East of Star Wars” in Star Wars and Philosophy, p. 31.

[14] Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

[15] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 2005.

[16] See Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi.

[17] It is important to note that this acceptance of death does not have the connotation of self-sacrifice. Even Obi-Wan, who allows himself to be killed, does so in order that he may gain power, not so that someone else might be spared (Admittedly, the power he gains is used to help others be spared, but that is more of a benefit than a motivation).

[18] Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

[19] Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

[20] See Episode IV: A New Hope.


~ by ntertanedangel on December 22, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: