Jedi Philosophy

Please enjoy this repost of one of my most popular essays (originally written in 2005):

For many people, the main appeal of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies is the “Jedi Way,” the philosophy/religion that guides the mystical Jedi knights. But where does this philosophy come from, and does it hold up under scrutiny?

At root, the Jedi Way is a synthesis of three Eastern religions or philosophies, with an overlay of courtly behavior drawn from the medieval knights of Europe.

The most important source for the Jedi Way is Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy whose name is generally translated as “the Way” or as “the Way of Nature.” The two main goals of Taoism are to achieve balance and to exist in harmony with nature (and with all living beings). There is no deity as such in Taoism, which conceptualizes ultimate reality as a primal energy. This energy is expressed in the world in the form of two equal and opposing forces, the “yin” or passive female force, and the “yang” or active male force. These forces are neither good nor evil, and what is desirable is that they be in balance at all times.

The tension between yin and yang creates “qi” (pronounced “chee” and sometimes transliterated as “chi”) or life energy. Qi is found in all things, but particularly living creatures. The manipulation of qi is at the root of many traditional Chinese practices including acupuncture, feng shui and tai chi. According to legend, command of qi flow (as practiced by “qigong” masters) brings many mystical powers similar to those of the Jedi, such as the ability to move objects with the mind. In the movies, the name of Jedi Master “Qui-Gon Jin” is probably a deliberate reference to “qi gong.”

(Since Taoism is more of a philosophy than a religion, it is often combined together with religious beliefs from other traditions, such as Buddhism or Christianity.)

The second major source of the Jedi Way is Buddhism, specifically Zen, a variant found largely in Japan. As with most forms of Buddhism, Zen preaches “non-attachment,” the letting go of emotional bonds to people, places and things. The ultimate goal is to reach a selfless state of dispassionate compassion for all living things. Like the Jedi knights, Buddhist monks are ascetic and celibate. Zen monks are known, at least in the popular imagination, for developing a particular ability or craft to the point where it can be practiced with no conscious effort and nearly superhuman skill.

The third major source for the Jedi worldview is Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion which viewed the world as an eternal battlefield between the forces of good and evil. Although Zoroastrianism has only small pockets of practitioners left in the modern world, it was a major influence on many other philosophies and religions. Echoes of it are present in many places, including the way many modern Christians conceptualize the devil as a force opposite and nearly equal to God.

Finally, the Jedi philosophy is overlaid with a code of chivalry based on that practiced by the medieval knights of Europe, who operated by a code of ethics including strict rules for combat, high standards of courtesy, warrior virtues such as honor, loyalty and bravery and a veneration of courtly love. The knightly facet of the Jedi is exemplified in the movies by their preference for the “elegant” light sabers as opposed to the “barbaric” blasters.

The remarkable synthesis Lucas achieved in placing together these disparate elements has proved compelling for more than one generation of viewers. However, as a workable philosophy it has major flaws.

The first and most subtle of these is the conflict between Taoism and Buddhism. Although often linked in real life, Taoism and Buddhism do not always line up. In the first chapter of the “Tao Te Ching” (the chief text of Taoism) it says “let go of desires in order to observe the source, but allow yourself desires in order to observe the manifestations.” This indicates that both “attachment” and “nonattachment” are seen as having value in Taoism, as opposed to Buddhism. In addition, the Buddhist seeks to transcend the world and earthly existence, whereas the Taoist seeks to be fully integrated into the world as a part of nature and natural existence. In the movies, this becomes an issue in the way that the Jedi Council is aloof and independent from politics, yet simultaneously also deeply involved in the galactic political landscape.

The second conflict is between Taoism and Zoroastrianism. There is no “good” and “evil” in Taoism, only balance and imbalance. Neither Yin nor Yang is preferable, and both are necessary, as apposed to Zoroastrianism, where the ultimate goal is the triumph of good and the eradication of evil. This disconnect shows up as a major plot point in the second series of movies (I, II & III), where the prophecy of “balance in the Force” may possibly mean the rise of evil.

The third conflict is between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Again, the concept of a fight between good and evil is somewhat alien to Buddhism. A fallen Buddhist would not be an equal and opposite force to a good Buddhist, but simply someone who had become too caught up in the illusions and the material temptations of the ordinary world. A person of this sort might be cruel, venal and selfish, but would not be expected to have any particular spiritual power. This creates a paradox in the movies, in that the Jedi draw power from controlling their emotions, but the Sith draw power from their inability to control their emotions. In addition it creates another instance of cognitive dissonance as the wise and dispassionate Jedi choose over and over again to resolve their problems through violence.

The final conflict is between Buddhism and chivalry. Buddhism preaches non-attachment, but one of the key characteristics of the medieval knights was passionate attachment. Loyalty to one’s lord and to one’s comrades-in-arms was among the highest virtues, and a courtly, romantic (and theoretically chaste) love between a knight and his lady was celebrated as an ideal. Also, in as much as chivalry stems from Christianity, it carries the idea of love as a powerful redemptive force.

This disconnect creates some of the most powerful paradoxes in the movies. In the first series (IV, V & VI) Yoda and Obi-Wan counsel control of emotions, and warn Luke against the dangers of his affection for his friends, and his unreasonable love for his father. Yet it is Luke’s decision to ignore this seemingly wise advice that provides most of the high points of the first series. In the end, Luke is proven right when his ill-advised love for his father finally uncovers the good left in Darth Vader, and brings about the final end to the Sith. Therefore, love is ultimately shown to be even more powerful than the light side of the Force (which failed to conquer its counterpart in all five chronologically previous movies).

Conversely, the second series suffers from taking its doctrine of non-attachment too seriously. The Jedi Council consequently comes across as cold and uncaring –a fact which drives Anakin into the more hot-blooded arms of the Dark Side. In addition, this set of movies is in the strange position of positing love as the enemy. Although Anakin clearly has psychotic tendencies, the movie insists on blaming his moments of indiscriminate slaughter on his “love” for his mother and his wife. Even Obi-Wan’s platonic love for his padawan does nothing except cloud his judgment.

It is this too-fully-realized disdain for emotion that, more than anything else, makes the second series inferior to the first.

24 Responses

  1. aguy says:

    There is also in ancient Greek philosophy the concept of the ethir.
    It is something similar to chi.

  2. JohnnyEnglish says:

    wow, thats a really interesting essay. Just out of interest, are you an academic? You seem to have a very deep knowledge of this stuff

  3. DT Strain says:

    Very nice essay. Some points…

    1) Check out Stoicism. It too is an influence and many of its approaches can be found in the Jedi ways presented in the films.

    2) It is precisely the conflicts between these philosophies, the Jedi paradoxes, that provide the drama in the Star Wars films. I think this is by design – learning how to balance these equally valid but seemingly contradictory ideas. The Jedi would have answers to these conundrums, but mastering them is what the characters fail to do.

    3) Rather than look at Ep 1-3 as ‘inferior’ because of their take on love – consider the entire thing as one story, in which love seems to be the enemy at first, and yet eventually becomes the salvation of the universe. 1-3 intentionally leave gaps so that there is something thematically to be learned by the end of the 1-6 saga. In 4-6 we already saw that Obi-Wan and Yoda were wrong. In 1-3 we get to see where they were coming from and why they had the beliefs they had. Thus, the saga as a whole leaves us recognizing the value in all these points, and at a thoughtful place on how they might all fit together – a mental state in the viewer to which any good work of art should aspire.

    • Jedi-Ty says:

      Brilliantly put

    • JediPadme says:

      “…love seems to be the enemy at first, and yet eventually becomes the salvation of the universe…” I agree completely but I would go further and add that the love that Anikan feels for his mother and Padme and ultimately leads him to being overcome by the dark side is one of attachment, whereas the love that Luke has for his friends, his sister, and his father is one of selfless compassion. These are two very different kinds of love. Anikan’s inability to let go of this attachment leads to greed and fear of losing which is what eventually turns him to the Dark Side. Luke shows selfless compassion for his friends, his sister, and his father, and this is what allows Anikan to be redeemed and the Emperor to be defeated. Buddhism (I can’t speak for the other philosophies) teaches to let go of attachment and greed, and cultivate dis-attached, selfless, compassion – recurring themes in the series.
      This article explains it much better: http://www.livingdharma.org/Real.World.Buddhism/StarWars-Brenion.html
      This essay is interesting in that it points out parallels with several different philosophies that I didn’t pick up on, however, I think that it misses an important point. You said it: “the saga as a whole leaves us recognizing the value in all these points, and at a thoughtful place on how they might all fit together – a mental state in the viewer to which any good work of art should aspire.”

  4. Good essay. Definitely looking in the right places.

    Taoism isn’t necessarily “more religion than philosophy”. There are numerous Taoist temples in China and elsewhere, Taoist deities, Taoist alchemical systems etc.

    “aguy” was correct to find some things in Greek philosophy too. For example the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism is also about Harmony with Nature, and understands other things in a similar way to Taoism.

    It’s worth noting that chi/qi has counterparts in every world spiritual philosophy. In India the word is prana, to the Hebrews ruach, to the Greeks pneuma etc. Interestingly all of these words can be literally translated “breath” — as can the word ‘spirit’, from “spiritus”, latin.

    I won’t comment on your psychological interpretation of the Lucas plotlines, but I will comment that this book might interest you or others with the ‘Jedi’ interest:

    Path Notes of an American Ninja Master

    Its author, Glenn Morris, was my teacher. He was an excellent warrior (hall of fame martial artist) and someone who knew all about ‘using the force’ — he made use of many Taoist and Mikkyo Buddhist techniques that can still be used today.

  5. Tom says:

    Good article, however, you have used the term psychotic in the wrong way. ‘Psychotic’ is a medical term used to describe the temporary mental state of an individual who is experiencing symptoms such as hallucinations and delusional thoughts. Anakin was obviously not hallucinating or delusional. I think the term you were meaning to use is ‘sociopathic’ tendencies. Please do not confuse the two as it is very misleading and causes a lot of stigma to those that are suffering from mental illness.

    I also disagree that there is a conflict between Taoism and Buddhism. Both are compatible and are often combined as one’s faith. Taoism explains the nature of the world that we live in and by understanding “the way” we can live more effectively . While Buddhism does the same but focuses on answering the problem of suffering.

    • sev says:

      There’s actually more than one way to use and understand the term “psychotic”
      Check out Zizek and Lacan for a different framework than the one you’re used to.

      • Morgan says:

        No, Tom is correct. This is a psychology term originally, no matter how it’s been recast more recently.

        Further, you state that the Sith cannot control their emotions, but this is incorrect. The Sith do indeed have control of their emotions, even more so than the Jedi. Rather than suppress them, they wait for the most opportune time to unleash them to afford them the best possible personal gain. (Anakin could be considered an amateur.)

        Otherwise, you’ve drawn some very interesting correspondences and differences. Nice work.

  6. Keith says:

    Thank you for the article.

  7. Jason says:

    Found this article after someone on swtor’s general discussion forum posted it several times (thanks Max!).

    I’m currently reading http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31833.Star_Wars_and_Philosophy which may’ve influenced this article, or perhaps you developed it independently. Regardless, people interested in a more in-depth look at the philosophy should check it out; it covers very similar topics on Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism etc and their relation to the Force. Very heavy academic reading too, surprisingly.

    • Jason says:

      Also people who liked this article might want to check out Star Wars on Trial, which is a series of debates between David Brin and Matthew Stover [the guy who wrote RotS novelization]. Really excellent criticisms of star wars, but Stover makes some pretty good counters too. The newest edition talks about TFA too, but not in much detail.

  8. GC says:

    No one has mentioned an error in the original essay that to anyone familiar with the Sith should have stuck out like a sore thumb, so I’ll post it.

    The Sith do not gain power from an inability to control their emotions. They stoke them and harness them to their advantage, the very essence of which is control. That is why followers of the path of the dark side appear more powerful.

    • Morgan says:

      GC, I mentioned this very thing above in my own comment before seeing yours. The idea that the Sith “cannot” control their emotions is a common misunderstanding by those who follow the Light.

  9. Tim says:

    Zen is a synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism.
    Did you know Freddie Mercury of Queen came from a Zoroastrian family?

  10. Crazycloud210 says:

    The point I believe this essay makes is that the philosophy of star wars is a philosophy of its own. And like all other philosophies it is a synthesis of the philosophies that have preceded it. It has parallels to the systems you have mentioned but the artwork itself claimed none of them. It should be recognized and enjoyed for it’s own intrinsic quality.

  11. Gerwyn says:

    We must master our own minds before we try to influence others.

  12. Megan says:

    Also has similarities to the practice of yoga. Yoda! The Force, meditation, handstands, etc.

  13. In my view, philosophy is a broad category. Buddhism is the reality, helping people to live better, towards the good and useful in life. Buddhism is especially developed in Southeast Asian countries. The most prominent of these is in Vietnam. Culture burned gold code, code in Buddhism quite developed

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