Monday, December 28, 2015

Religion and Ideology in the Star Wars Universe

In the Star Wars universe there seem to be two main political bodies: The Republic/Rebellion and the Empire.  There are also two main religious groups: The Jedi and the Sith.  Throughout the movie series and the extended universe, there is some sort of official connection between the Jedi and the Republic and between the Sith and the Empire.  The Jedi are recognized as serving some kind of advisory, diplomatic, and military role in the Republic.  The Sith play various authoritative roles in the Empire, with the chain of command going up to the top Sith, i.e. the Emperor.  I thought it might be interesting to explore the connections between these political and religious groups, and examine whether there were any necessary connections between the ideological and “theological” views held by the various groups.

First, let’s start with the religions.  Both the Jedi and Sith believe in the existence of the Force.  It’s not clear what exactly the Force is.  We can try to come to some general account be look at particular cases of the Force in action.  We see throughout the franchise people being able to telekinetically manipulate objects via the Force.  So, the Force is some part of reality that allows individual to act on physical objects at a distance.  This action usually amounts to moving stuff around, but can also include applying a certain amount of force to an object, as when Darth Vader strangles an Empire officer from some distance away.  So the Force allows individuals to act on physical objects at a distance.  How complex that action can be isn’t clear.  We see lots of scenes of people throwing rocks around.  Can people do more?  Can Yoda play the piano at a distance?

We also note that the Force is somehow able to sustain life after death.  We see in the movies the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi conversing with Luke Skywalker.  As is conventional of most ghosts, ghosts like Obi Wan are incorporeal, but still physical entities.  While they don’t possess a physical body, and are thus probably intangible, they are still visible and audible.  If they were truly non-physical entities, then they wouldn’t be detectable by any sense. 

So far, what we seem to have is an entity of some sort that adds another layer to the physical universe.  It’s similar to the idea of Chi in ancient Chinese medicine.  Chi is supposed to be a kind of energy that flows through the body over and above the operation of other physiological systems, like the circulatory or the nervous system.  In the same way, the Force is a kind of energy that exists in the universe over and above the physical forces that I’m assuming are already in place, i.e. gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear forces, etc. 

What’s particularly relevant is that there is a distinction between the “light side” and the “dark side” of the Force.  Again, it isn’t exactly clear what this distinction is supposed to amount to.  In the franchise, light and dark side seem to be value laden terms.  However, the Force itself seems to be a value-neutral entity.  Calling the Force itself “light” or “dark” seems similar to calling gravity “good” or “evil.”  So it seems that it’s not the Force itself that is light or dark, but rather the ends to which it is employed that is either light or dark. (Some think that the Force isn’t value neutral in that has the power to benefit or to corrupt, but I think that these effects are the result of amplification.  The Force further corrupts those who are corrupt to begin with.)  Roughly put, the light side of the Force is the Force that is used to further ends like creation, order, and harmony.  The dark side of the Force is the Force that is used to promote ends like self-aggrandizement, destruction, and subjugation. 

If the light and dark side of the Force are understood as the sorts of values that the Force is used to promote, then the Jedi and Sith Orders can be understood as a groups that have more or less the same metaphysical beliefs, but differ with respect to their moral outlooks.  The Jedi Order is probably most similar to Buddhism.  Here is the Jedi Code:
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.
Compare this with the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:
1.       The Truth of Dukkha is that all conditional phenomena and experiences are not ultimately satisfying;
2.       The Truth of the Origin of Dukkha is that craving for and clinging to what is pleasurable and aversion to what is not pleasurable result in becoming, rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath;
3.       The Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha is that putting an end to this craving and clinging also means that rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath can no longer arise;
4.       The Truth of the Path Of Liberation from Dukkha is that by following the Noble Eightfold Path—namely, behaving decently, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation—an end can be put to craving, to clinging, to becoming, to rebirth, to dissatisfaction, and to redeath.
We can see in both cases an emphasis against personal desires and emotions.  The idea in general seems to be that the Jedi Order adopts a moral view that de-emphasizes the self and instead promotes a sense of harmony and interconnectedness with all things.  In this case, what is moral is what promotes this harmony.

Let’s move on to the Sith Order.  While the Jedi Order might resemble Buddhism, the Sith Order seems to resemble most a sort of Social Darwinism.  Social Darwinism is a moral theory that makes normative claims out of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  The theory of natural selection observes that the sorts of physical traits and behavior that persist from generation to generation among biological species are those that most increase the likelihood of a species’ survival and reproduction.  This is merely a descriptive claim.  It describes what we observe when we look out at the natural world.  Social Darwinism transforms this description into something normative.  What a species should do is cultivate those traits and behavior that increase the likelihood of its survival and reproduction.  The slogan “Might makes right” is often associated with Social Darwinism.  The strongest (or fittest) survive, and according to Social Darwinism, they should survive.

The theory of Social Darwinism fits in nicely with what we observe in the Sith Order.  Consider the Sith Code below:
Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
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.
A code like this comes as no surprise if we assume that the Sith adhere to a “Might makes right” principle.  

So, let me sum up what I’ve said about the Jedi and the Sith.  The Jedi, similar to Buddhists, preach a loss of the individual self and subsuming one’s self into the Force, i.e. being one with the Force.  The Sith, like Social Darwinists, preach an exaltation of the self and of individual survival.  They preach the use of the Force as a tool to gain power and control.

Okay, now that we've covered the religious groups, let's move on to the political ideologies found in the Star Wars universe.  The two main political bodies found in Star Wars are the Republic/Rebellion and the Empire.  These are more familiar and thus easier to describe.

The term "empire" describes a type of political body, whereas "republic" describes a form of governance.  An empire is a political body that results when one state assumes control of other states, usually either by war or by colonization (Think Roman, Mongol, or British empires).  This is opposed to a federation.  A federation is a political body where each member state has voluntary agreed to join the larger political body (Think United States, United Nations, or European Union).  I'm assuming that the Republic in Star Wars is a federation.

A republic is a form of governance.  In a republic, political decision are made collaboratively by individuals who serve as representatives of their constituencies.  This is how the U.S. government works, with congresspersons making decisions on behalf of the rest of the citizenry.  This contrasts with autocratic forms of government, where one person has absolute political power and thus makes all political decisions.  Examples include Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Kim Jung Un in North Korea, etc.   

So, the Empire is an autocratic empire, whereas the Republic is a republic federation.  That's fairly straightforward.  Now let's examine the relationship between the religion and politics of Star Wars.  We find that the Jedi are associated with the Republic, whereas the Sith are connected to the Empire.  As far as I know, the Jedi serve primarily in military, diplomatic, and advisory roles.   Within the Empire, it seems that Sith take on roles of political and military leadership.  Here's the main question.  Is there any necessary connection between the political ideology of one group and the theology of the other?  Do Jedi have to be Republic?  Do Sith have to be Empire? 

It might seem natural for the groups to align this way.  The Sith celebrate the will to power, and this seems to fit in nicely with a form of government in which an individual rises to the top of the political ladder by virtue of his or her expression of power.  Similarly, Jedi theology and Republic ideology seem suited for each other.  The Jedi preach the denial of individuality in favor of subsuming into a greater metaphysical whole.  This is very compatible with a political ideology where consensus trumps individual wishes. 

Even though it seems natural for the groups to be aligned in the way, it need not necessarily be the case.  We can imagine a world in which a Republic-like nation is aligned with a Sith-like group, and where something like an Empire is allied with Jedis.   For the latter, we can look at the history of Asia.  Asia is an area where the predominant religions are Buddhism and Hinduism.  I argued before that Jedi though is very similar to Buddhist thought (I would also argue that it is similar to Hindu thought in that Hinduism emphasizes the subsuming of the individual (atman) to a greater whole (brahman).)  However, the history of Asia shows that empires and autocratic forms of government were more or less the norm until the 20th century.

Finding real life examples of Republic style government aligned with Sith-like groups is more controversial.  However, it's not hard to imagine.  All we have to do is think of a hyper-capitalist nation, i.e. one where the market determines just about everything and there is little to no government intervention.  The government in this scenario still plays some political role.  Typically such minimal states are still in control of military and foreign policy decisions.  However, the de facto leaders of such a society would be those that wield economic power, and these individuals will likely be highly influential in political deliberations.  Some might argue that the United States is moving in this direction.

So, hopefully this little exercise helps us to understand the social and cultural backdrop of the Star Wars universe.  This helps to add a layer of moral complexity.  Since Sith and Empire are not necessarily connected, one group can be villified while the other not.  Likewise, one can morally approve of the Republic ideology while disapproving of Jedi theology.  This allows for a more complex weave of relationships within the Star Wars universe.

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