Stoicism in the Stars

The second essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” is “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor and the Force” by William O. Stephens, and attempts to relate the Jedi philosophy to Stoicism. Obviously, that’s a position that interests me a great deal, and I will say that Stephens does a credible job of it, although I’m not entirely convinced. But that depends a great deal on which set of Stoics you prefer, as the Roman Stoics — especially Seneca — placed a lot less value on asceticism than the Greek Stoics did. For the Stoics, the worldly desires were always indifferents, but views varied on whether one should avoid them or if one could indeed pursue them, as long as one did so virtuously and not viciously. Seneca definitely advocated that one could pursue them, and his view is the view that I’m most drawn to.

Which leads into my take on this essay. Stephens notes, correctly, that the Emperor and Yoda are a lot alike. They are both patient, disciplined, and seemingly quite ascetic; we don’t see the Emperor engaging in any kind of hedonistic pleasures. He and Yoda seem, in the original trilogy at least, to be mirror images of each other: disciplined, devoted monkish types aiming at mastery of their respective versions of the Force. So how do they differ so that one of them is evil and the other good, and how does Vader fit into all of this?

I think the key is what each serve. Stephens seems to see the Emperor and Vader as people whose souls are inflicted by vice, and that the Emperor lacks the understanding of what is virtuous and what is vicious. I see the Emperor, rather, as someone who doesn’t understand what are virtues and what are vices, but instead as someone who does know the difference, and yet chooses the vices. The key, for me, to the Emperor, is that he treats vices the way you are supposed to treat virtues; he sees the virtues as valueless and values the vices. Now, you can’t really value vices if you understand what they are, so the Emperor values them the only way they can be valued: instrumentally, as a means to his own pleasure and enjoyment. The Emperor enjoys acting in vicious ways. He enjoys hurting people. He enjoys manipulating them. He enjoys dominating people. He gets no pleasure and sees no utility in the virtues, like compassion, or in loyalty to or faith in one’s friends. For the Emperor, the vices are what have value, not the virtues … and not the indifferents. Truthfully, it’s not clear that my analysis here is that much different than Stephens’, because in a sense someone who values the vices and not the virtues doesn’t understand what truly has value and what doesn’t, and that’s pretty much the definition of what a virtue or a vice is according to the Stoics. But even to the Stoics there is a difference between the person who doesn’t know what are virtues and the person who knows what virtues are and rejects them outright. I argue that the Emperor rejects the virtues and choose to pursue the vices.

Vader is another matter. Starting from the prequel trilogy, we see someone who is manipulated by his emotions because of his deep concern for indifferents into becoming “evil”, but not as someone who, in and of himself, chooses vices over virtues. He joins with the Emperor initially to save his wife from death, and love is a Stoic indifferent. He convinces himself to commit more and deeper depravities in service of this goal. He attacks his wife in a rage over a perceived betrayal of him by her, and in a real sense a feeling of loss of the indifferent that he was trying to preserve. Even his attack on the Tuscan Raiders was done in service of an indifferent: the life of his mother and the desire for revenge when that indifferent was taken away from him.

Even his normal rage follows from this, this time in service to the indifferent of his own life. In one of the EU books — I think it was “Shadows of the Empire” — Vader is seen trying to use his rage to allow him to survive outside of his armoured suit. He manages it for a short time, but simply can’t sustain the rage long enough to keep it going full time, which frustrates him. It is reasonable to think that Anakin’s rage and anger is what gave him the power to survive the wounds he received in his battle with Obi-Wan, and even after he loses Padme his rage essentially keeps him going, and guides most of his actions. He only starts his “redemption” when faced with another indifferent: the life of his son, and the dream of ruling with him.

This, I think, can colour the scene at the end of “Return of the Jedi”. We focus in on the Emperor’s face and see his glee at hurting Luke. It’s clear that the Emperor could kill Luke a lot faster and less painfully than he does, but the Emperor is enjoying it, and so tries to extend one of the few things that still gives him pleasure. Vader watches his son being essentially tortured to death, and hears his cries for help … and looks to the Emperor. Who is enjoying it, treating it not as a necessary task, but as something enjoyable. Vader himself at that point doesn’t understand virtue in and of itself, but he still has the prod of the indifferent and can see quite clearly the viciousness — in both senses — of the Emperor. He sees, in that instant, that the path of the Dark Side is vice, not virtue … and decides to oppose vice. But he does so primarily still in service of an indifferent, his love for his son. Vader is still not a virtuous man.

In the hangar bay, Vader takes a massive step when he asks Luke to take his mask off. While he says that nothing can stop his death, it is indeed quite possible that he could be saved, if he channeled his anger long enough to get his suit repaired and new life support installed. But at this point, Vader lets go of one of his major indifferents; he lets go of life and accepts death. It was still done in service of an indifferent — he wanted to experience the love of his son — but he still understands at that point that life is not valuable in and of itself, and so releases his own dark will and lets himself die. So at the end, Vader was not redeemed as a Stoic sage, but he started down the right path. At the end, he started to understand.

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