The Politics and Metaphysics of the Jedi

7 Jun

Being a scattered collection of random personal musings on the Movies and their Prequels

I went to see Revenge of the Sith on the 23rd. And I liked it, for the most part. I fall soundly in the “good but flawed” category of (re)viewers. I only have one real quibble with the movie (assuming we take the wooden acting and excessive campiness as a given and pay no attention to it). I follow this with a general observation on one of the major philosophical differences between the Movies and their Prequels.

The rhetoric of evil

I wasn’t quite convinced by Anikan’s “turn to the dark side.” While it was a plotting coup to have Anakin torn between loyalty to the head of the Republic and the Jedi Council, with both trying to convince him the other was plotting against the good of society, freedom, and puppies, Palpatine’s rhetoric once he revealed his Sith Lord status to Anakin didn’t quite work for me.

Note to potential Evil Overlords: if you want to seduce a basically good man over to the Dark Side, DON’T call it the “Dark Side”. The truly evil NEVER believe they are evil; that’s the rhetoric of the Weak, who think of themselves as “the Good people”. Was it Nietzsche, Voldemort, or Holland Manners who said, “There is no good and evil, only power.” Well, gosh, I think it was all of them, slightly paraphrased. Plus Quark. “I’m not a thief and a swindler, I’m a business man!” The way to sell Anakin on the Sith is to talk about how the Sith believe in using “all aspects” of The Force, rather than limiting themselves to only one facet of it.

If you are familiar the back-story of Star Wars, you know that the Jedi were not only Guardians of Peace in the old Republic, they were part of its bureaucracy, beholden to its government. Fan geek The Lard Biscuit explains it this way: imagine there is a minority class of people in society who have magic powers. Assuming they don’t keep this fact to themselves and hide in the shadows (e.g., the HarryPotterVerse), normal people would likely fear this minority and (a) either persecute them or (b) try to control them, (c) lest this powerful minority take over and rule the normal people instead. In the Star Wars ‘verse, society has opted for a benevolent form of option (b). The Jedi agree to live a life of severe discipline and curtailed powers in exchange for relative freedom to come and go, and they use their powers for good only–as peace-keepers in a society without a standing army. This is rather like the compromise the telepaths on Babylon 5 made with their society: we strictly regulate the use of our powers and chase down any rogue telepaths who refuse to follow the PsyCorps’ self-imposed discipline–it’s the price we as the abnormally gifted pay to have the same freedoms as normals.

Anyway, all that is background to make the point that Chancellor Palpatine has been plotting and scheming since Phantom Menace to take over the galaxy and put it under the rule of the gifted minority (option “c”)–namely, him and his apprentice. Like any good follower of the Nietzschean Superman philosophy, he believes his gifts give him the right and he is entitled; the Jedi are fools to let the full flowering expression of their powers be limited by the plebian masses.

So if you want to sell Anakin on the advantages of being a “Sith”, you don’t couch your pitch in the same terms the weak normals/pathetic Jedi would. You say, “There is no Dark Side or Light Side, there is only the full potential of our abilities given to us by the Force.” And, “Feel all the emotions you have when you use the Force; don’t limit what you’re allowed to feel like the Jedi do. And, oh, by the way, if you explore and develop your full abilities Anakin, you can save your beloved Padme.”

I know why Lucas did it the way he did it. We as an audience are used to hearing the term “the Dark Side”, and the idiot audience needs to be cued in on what Palpatine is talking about. And yet…I would have got what was going on if he never used the expression “the Dark Side” even once. You pretty much know what’s going on once Anakin starts killing children.

This Dark Side/Light Side-limited vs. full power rhetoric also raises an interesting question for the Return of the Jedi. So, great, the good powerful!minority guys are back. How are they going to get along in their society? By once again limiting their powers and bowing to the will and the rule of the government? And what if, like in Anakin’s day, the Republic that gives them their orders is corrupt? Anakin Skywalker was supposed to “return balance to the Force.” Which means, in my mind, the Jedi need to learn how to stop being scared of the so-called “Dark Side” and embrace their full potential without being evil in the process.

The metaphysics of the Force

In these Prequels, we get a lot of back-story on the Jedi, the Sith, the Force, the Republic–all the things the original trilogy either didn’t specify or couldn’t specify without being spoilery. Most of the back-story, once you study it in some detail, is pretty interesting and satisfying. The one thing that continued to bug the s*** out of me no matter what, though, was the damned midichlorians. And I could not quite pin down WHY until I revisited the original trilogy.

The Force is presented in a very different way in the original trilogy vs. the prequels. In the original Star Wars (AKA “A New Hope”), Ben Kenobi describes the Force to Luke thusly:

“Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

In The Empire Strikes Back, we hear a similar description by Yoda:

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s energy surrounds us and binds us. …You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship!”

In Phantom Menace, on the other hand, Qui-Gon describes the Force to young Anakin in these terms:

ANAKIN: Master, sir…I’ve been wondering…what are midi-chlorians?
QUI-GON: Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life form that reside within all living cells and communicate with the Force.
ANAKIN: They live inside of me?
QUI-GON: In your cells. We are symbionts with the midi-chlorians. Life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you will hear them speaking to you.

I really, really hated that description when I watched Phantom Menace, though I couldn’t say quite why. I mean, beyond midichlorians being a rip-off of Madeleine L’Engle’s Holy Mitochondria (where your mitochondria are little parasitical living beings inside your cells that are Deeply in Tune with God).

Revisiting the original trilogy, I finally figured out why. The original trilogy description of the Force couches it in very un-personalized terms. It is an “energy field” at once both an outgrowth of life and that thing which allows life to exist in the first place. It’s a very Holistic, non-reductionist, and yet very physicalist notion (a mysticized-up version of Einsteinian or perhaps the Grand Unified Theory of physics). The Force is primal and creative and to be respected and honored, but it is part of all of us, of everything. The Jedi–or anyone, really–can be aware of the Force as part of themselves, and directly.

The Force as Qui-Gon describes it in the prequels, on the other hand, seems to exist separately from living beings and has a (sentient?) “will” that we should “listen” to.

The original trilogy Force is Pantheism (nature is sacred, an outgrowth of a primal creative but insentient principle). The Prequel Force is mystical theism complete with little priests living in my cells mediating between me and a (sentient) God-Force.

I get why the midichlorians appear as a plot device. You need some reason why a lucky few are more in touch with the Force than others. But obviously Yoda and Obi-Wan spent the years between episodes 3 and 4 rewriting The Philosophy of the Force.

44 Responses to “The Politics and Metaphysics of the Jedi”

  1. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 7:27 pm #

    Glad you liked it. Watching the original trilogy after seeing all the prequels, I must admit, is a lot more complex experience than watching the original trilogy before the prequels. Just like watching the original trilogy when you’re a teenager is a different experience than re-watching the original trilogy when you’re middle-aged. Life experience changes your whole perception of it.

  2. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 7:52 pm #

    Ha! I was watching the old television version of Hitchhiker’s this morning. It’s been years since I read any of the books, though. But I’ve read all of them.

  3. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 8:04 pm #

    There should be a law limiting well-loved books and movies from having sequels (or prequels) too many years after the fact. Like a statute of limitations or something. The difference of perspective the years provide is good when you’re a reader/viewer, but it can mess things up when you’re a writer/producer.

  4. hebrokeaway June 7, 2005 at 9:36 pm #

    Very interesting analysis. I disagree with some things, but most of it comes down to interpretation. Such as:
    So if you want to sell Anakin on the advantages of being a “Sith”, you don’t couch in the terms the weak normals/pathetic Jedi would
    Which Palpatine did not do. Building up to his reveal, he’s all: “Anakin, if one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi,” he says, quite sensibly. “If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace a larger view of the Force.”
    These are the things he says. More importantly is how he acts to Anakin before Episode III. He is the only character to really sit down and listen to Anakin’s troubles. He acts like more of a father figure than Obi-Wan, and certainly listened more than the Jedi Council ever did. He provides Anakin the emotional support the troubled kid needs.
    Meanwhile, Yoda and that dick Mace Windu are telling him to let go of his emotions, to forget the people he cares about. Detachment is the key to power. Take your orders without anger, do what we say without concern. Hello, what kind of bullshit is that?
    So I think Palpatine is a genius in that by the time he calls it “the dark side,” he’s already convinced Anakin that’s it’s only Jedi propaganda and narrow-mindedness. Anakin doesn’t believe in the good/evil dichotomy. Or at least, he thinks saving Padme is worth the price of losing the distant and plotting Jedi. Real emotional bonds are not something to run from. Which leads me to:
    This Dark Side/Light Side-limited vs. full power rhetoric also raises an interesting question for the Return of the Jedi…the Jedi need to learn how to stop being scared of the so-called “Dark Side” and embrace their full potential *without* being evil in the process.
    And that’s the beauty of Luke Skywalker. He has all the Jedi powers, but he’s driven by his love for his friends and sister. He could stay with Yoda and learn how to balance swamp rats, but he races across the galaxy to save them. He won’t kill his father in Jedi because of his love.
    He has reached his full potential as both a Jedi Knight and a person. This leads me to suspect that any Republic under his command at least has a better chance of starting off justly.
    The midicholorians do not bother me because you can write it off as Qui-Gon’s beliefs. People need different things out of their faiths. Yoda and Obi-Wan get to a place where they don’t need to quantify everything without losing sight of being connected to a great power.
    Great post.

  5. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 9:58 pm #

    There are a lot of writers either tempted to do that, or forced by their publishers/producers/audience to drag out a fictional world past the point of positive return (Anne Rice and poor, poor Chris Carter spring to mind).
    One thing about AtS and Buffy was that they managed to expand their fictional world past the Season 1 Buffy premise in interesting ways without over-extending it into plain flabbiness. Star Trek did this well, too.

  6. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 10:06 pm #

    I think it is a matter of perception, in that, you’re right, Palpatine did use the rhetoric of “use the whole force, don’t repress your emotions”. I would just have had him word what he said differently, is all. No references to the Dark Side because that is the philosophy of the herd (to use Nietzsche’s language). It is the language/rhetoric of the herd and it *assumes* that there is a part of the Force that is dark/evil, which is exactly what Palpatine wouldn’t believe and wouldn’t want Anakin to believe.
    Unfortunately, Palpatine and Vader both run around in the original trilogy saying “Dark Side this” and “Dark Side that” so I get why Lucas felt they should say it here, for consistency’s sake.

  7. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 10:30 pm #

    It’s one thing to decide yourself to write a sequel, when you think there’s more material to be mined (doesn’t mean they’re all good). It’s another to be *asked* to write a sequel, when there might be *good* reason to stop writing about a particular fictional world (as in…you ran out of good ideas??)
    OTOH, asking a different writer to write in another writer’s fictional world, that’s just fanfic you’re expecting to get paid for. And we know how bad *that* can be in the wrong hands.

  8. ponygirl2000 June 7, 2005 at 10:34 pm #

    Your review was twenty times better than the actual movie. Better paced and more entertaining too!
    I’ve come to the personal conclusion that while they can be fanwanked in many lovely ways til the cows come home the prequels do not on a narrative or filmic level work and should be only considered under the categories of “hubris” or “storytelling: what not to do,” allowing the original trilogy to stand on its own.

    • Edyta October 12, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

      george lucas has specifically has aswnered beyond a doubt that anakin is in fact the chosen one . and that anakin acheived his destiny by killing palpatine and destroying darth bane’s order of the sith lords . as for anakin, his full potential was reached when he became one with the force, just as with every being, not during his corporreal life .

  9. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 10:50 pm #

    I now believe the prequels are flawed and cryptic, but adequate. Examined with a fine-tooth comb and a copy of the Geek Backstory Analysis, they make sense.
    If only Lucas could have arranged for them to make sense *without* needing additional background material than what was provided in the films itself. If only Lucas had left off the silly, juvenile sight-gags every five minutes (especially in PM), if only Lucas had hired real actors (or directed the ones he had better)…
    I have a lot of “if only’s”, but I must say the prequels give new depths to the original trilogy, which is something.

  10. cactuswatcher June 7, 2005 at 11:11 pm #

    I thought the midichlorians were mostly to soften objections to Anakin’s virgin birth. You say, whether it’s little priests or little angels in your blood, its still a big shift in philosophy!

  11. neshaffer June 7, 2005 at 11:21 pm #

    Oh, yeah, forgot about the virgin birth thing. That also ads evidence to my claim that the prequel religious subtext is more theistic than the pantheistic.

  12. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 3:38 am #

    I don’t know about other writers, but *my* fiction writing has to grow organically out of ideas *I* come up with, and even after the initial idea, I have to wait for the details to slowly reveal themselves from my subconscious. I can work on the plot for hours and days, but the really good ideas pop up unannounced on their own. It’s a slow, “growing” of a story.
    Which is why I will *never* sign up for a ficathon where you get a premise from another person. *Maybe* their premise will spark a truly interesting idea in me. More likely, I will have to force a story out that I’m not interested in writing and comes out all mechanical and uninspired.

  13. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:04 am #

    Yes, slow and mostly underground.

  14. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:07 am #

    I’m not crazy, am I? L’Engle did have that bit with the mitochondria, didn’t she? It’s been decades years since I read her “A Wrinkle in Time” series, but that stuck with me. I thought it was pretty damned cool at the time. But then I was probably 12 or something.
    There are many parallels between Star Wars and B5. One hopes they are merely parallels and not rip-offs (from either to either).
    That mitochondria thing, though. That’s just too weird *not* to be a rip-off.

  15. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:18 am #

    I knew it was in one of the Wrinkle-verse books, that’s all I meant.
    And yeah, it was very very Christian, which didn’t bother me at the time I read it. I’d start twitching if I read it now.

  16. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:22 am #

    Yeah, it’s probably archetypes/the power of myth stuff.
    I like how Evil is almost always couched in the same terms with Nietzschean Superman=Sith Lords=Voldemort/Death Eaters=Wolfram and Hart.
    It’s not done consciously by all these writers, I think it’s archetypal too.

  17. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:24 am #

    Hey, any sentient being can be Tempted. That assumes mitochondria are sentient beings, and *temptation* is the root of all sin.

  18. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:30 am #

    But Good wins over Evil despite that!!
    Except in Nietzsche.

  19. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:31 am #

    Quote of the week!
    “I could have handled the singing or the tempting but not BOTH.”

  20. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:35 am #

    Re: Quote of the week!
    Yes, L’Engle with her The Whole Universe spends all its time singing the praises of the Lord.
    I wondered, “Does God get a big head over that?”

  21. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 1:20 pm #

    Re: Quote of the week!
    There’s a character on Queer as Folk whose mom is always telling him he and his friends are going to hell. But if *she’s* what heaven is like, and he gets to be in hell with his buds…..

  22. arethusa2 June 8, 2005 at 2:25 pm #

    Re: Quote of the week!
    It was the Austens who finally made me give up her books. So young. So gifted. So sensitive. I compared their lives to mine, and then started reading mysteries instead. At least corpses don’t lecture you.

  23. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 2:28 pm #

    Re: Quote of the week!
    Are you saying they’re a family of Mary Sues??
    It’s been many many moons since I read those books. I remembering liking them, which is why they’ve been sitting on my bookshelves for 30 years.

    • Camfrog October 12, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

      Thank you, Tricia, for that comment, which I cotelpmely agree with. The point of Anakin/DV’s arc is that we emphathize/sympathize with him, not approve of his choices. I think it’s painfully clear that Anakin could have made other choices throughout his life, but instead choose to go the way he wanted, trusting his personal viewpoint/instincts over those of other (and sometimes wiser) heads. He doesn’t allow for anyone else to be right but himself. We can of course feel empathy for the poor orphan, the lonely teenager, the wounded warrior. But approve/justify his choices? No. I don’t think that’s the point of his story at all, and in fact, cheapens it. Choices have consequences. In Anakain’s case, consequences that spilled over into everyone else’s life as well as his own.

  24. ninerva June 8, 2005 at 4:21 pm #

    Well done. Musings as promised and a lot to think about.
    The first 30 minutes was very boys own, not a bad thing in itself I suppose, though I wish I had watched the first two before this because I was a bit confused about whether they were rescuing Palpatine or arresting him. It took a moment to remember that they didn’t know he was evil yet. Once I was back on track I was just watching for the ‘slow descent’. I had only waited 20 years, what’s another hour? At first it was a bit unclear, I saw the manipulation, but I didn’t want Anakin to be fooled into choosing the dark side, I wanted him to make that final decision himself. Then came the dreams. A powerful motivator I suppose, which of course was manipulated too. The descent did not descend quite as much as I imagined it would until he finally lost the plot. Then he just sort of plummeted.
    Dark Side/Light Side-limited vs. full power
    Hmmmm, on an individual basis there may be those that can handle the ethical decision making process that comes with that kind of power, but there will be those that don’t. The argument that comes to mind is the one that argues against any kind of class system. A class system would develop if these integrated Jedi were to do anything but serve a democratic cause. Not sure I am comfortable with that at first thought, the first thought being the old saying about absolute power, but I will think about it a little more.
    Hmmmm, lots to think about, but I only saw the film once, and haven’t seen the others for a while, so I’m trying to think hard about the whole thing.

  25. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 4:34 pm #

    I loved the space battle at the beginning; it’s just, once they got onto the Separatist’s ship they started acting like what they were doing was a big joke, which would confused anyone who wasn’t quite following Palpatine’s Byzantine machinations in the first two movies. I myself had to go back and study them in detail and read fan analyses of them before I got what he was doing. And I *still* don’t know what anyone hopes to accomplish with a trade embargo (“Phantom Menace”). Sheesh, if I really wanted to understand that crap, I’d watch CNN, not science fiction.
    Sorry I’m cranky this morning. I’m busy being jerked around by United Parcel Service.

  26. ninerva June 8, 2005 at 4:45 pm #

    Yes, very frustrating about the UPS problem, its one of the reasons I’m loathe to order anything on line, if I have to go down to the depot to fetch it anyway, I may as well go into town and shop myself.
    I loved the R2D2 fight, that was hysterical, the little guy kicked arse. Though I admit the tension lessened a bit when they got inside, just when you would think the tension would have gone up. Fairly tough odds, but then I guess if you are a Jedi…
    All in all I think I need to see all the films again to get any real perspective on them.

  27. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 5:03 pm #

    I found the R2D2 stuff veered on camp, mostly because the robots he was fighting were so silly to begin with.
    I order off the internet regularly, but I usually have my work address specified as the delivery address. This was a new merchant I was dealing with, and when I entered the address, I thought I was entering the billing address of my credit card, not the delivery address.
    Obviously having a brain cramp that night. ; )

  28. ninerva June 8, 2005 at 5:16 pm #

    Brain cramp? Do you get that from thinking too much?
    Totally camp, but StarWars always walked the fine line of camp, usually landing firmly in the camp camp. Its interesting actually because there has been huge discussion over the new DrWho series. Dr.Who is seen as pure camp by some, action adventure by others, and now there is a heavy lean towards character and angst. But its been revived by the guy who wrote Queer as Folk, a self-confessed Whovian, who admits to being heavily influenced by Joss Whedon. RotS did the camp, did some action adventure, but I wasn’t feeling the angst until Anakin started killing the Jedi, by then the angst was coming from my direction. I loved that last bit of the film. When Anakin was confronting Obi-Wan, having just attacked Padme, he did a split second of pure Darth Vador pacing. I was squeeing at this point, but it took a while to get there. I guess I’m more drawn toward subtle character progression, yet strangly excited by pure evil. 🙂

    • Candy October 12, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

      I’m not a big fan of the victim mtnlatiey. Anakin chose the darkness from a purely selfish place. Rather I think the intention of his tragic character arc is that we empathize with him. He’s still one of the best characters ever.

  29. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 5:42 pm #

    I noticed in the second film that Hayden Whathisname (actor who played Anakin) walked just like the actor who played Darth Vader in the original trilogy. Have to give the boy points for that.

  30. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 5:43 pm #

    yet strangly excited by pure evil. 🙂
    No wonder you’re aiding and abetting my Dark Lord tendencies!

  31. ninerva June 8, 2005 at 5:44 pm #

    Yes Master, its not just the mind control, its admiration. 🙂

  32. ninerva June 8, 2005 at 5:45 pm #

    Just spotted the icon, you’ve got me all figured out now!!! Just keep it quiet.

  33. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 5:48 pm #

    Come to the Dark Side, my young apprentice!

    • Alexis December 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

      *** WARNING: Plot spoilers, don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movie. You’ve been warend. *** -I just re-read your post, and thought I’d add some more.The reason every one laughed at Yoda in that final scene with Palpatine, was because of the way Yoda dispatched two of the (early versions of) the Red Guard protecting Palpatine’s inner sanctum in the Sentate.

  34. ninerva June 8, 2005 at 5:50 pm #

    Eeeek! Can I at least have a night light? Just at first.

  35. neshaffer June 8, 2005 at 5:54 pm #

    The Sith embrace all sides of the Force, dark and light!
    And milk chocolate!

  36. ninerva June 8, 2005 at 5:56 pm #

    I’ve already been seduced by the chocolate-coloured side, I really am a lost cause am I not. *sighs*

    • Nilesh October 12, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

      Returning to the original post about Darth Vadar, it has been nice for me to see some of the links beweten my BPD-ex and Anakin and now I can feel a bit like Amidala Actually, my son who is only 5 is starting to see his father for the broken person he is and talking to him about Anakin has helped. So, while ts far from a perfect diagnosis of Darth Vadar I’m finding it a helpful way to explain BPD to others.

      • Jacquiline January 2, 2013 at 5:24 am #

        These look cool. I like the winter sets betetr though. Jabba’s palace sounds awesome, and the desert skiff would be cool to go along with it. However, I hope they add another really cool set, because the winter line is getting some awesome sets and I’d love to see the summer be the same.

  37. ljash June 10, 2005 at 3:53 am #

    Heh. I also was annoyed by the midichlorians. Not just because they’re little priests talking to me :), but because they made it all measurable and scientific. In the original it was half philosphy half religion, and not everyone even believed in it. In Phantom they were taking blood samples and measuring how many midichlorians there were. Someone can be powerful not just because of wisdom or a kind of family heritage, but because there’s tons of critters running around in their blood. It annoyed me.
    I like your musings on the politics of Jedi. And it would be interesting to hear that description of the dark side, that point of view. We basically didn’t get it, though. I don’t think Palpatine (as portrayed in the movie, at least in my opinion) really thought he was doing the right thing overall. I’m not sure he would have come up with such an elegant description of the dark side, or even think it not dark. I don’t think he thought he deserved to rule, he just wanted to. He wanted the power. I think he was pretty sure he was selling out his soul, and his words to Anakin were manipulations to sway him.
    But it would be so nifty the other way–I think you should have written the movie. 🙂

  38. neshaffer June 10, 2005 at 3:56 am #

    Hey, there’s a fan fic–my own version of “Revenge of the Sith”. But if I did that, I’d be tempted to rewrite “Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.”
    And I’m up to my ears in my other fandom!

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