Only A Sith Deals in Absolutes: On Anakin Skywalker and the Ambigiuty of Evil

I’ve been on something of a kick lately. Actually, it started around 1977. I just can’t stop watching those damned Star Wars movies! To make matters worse, all that philosophy I’ve been studying has somehow crept it’s way into my watching what should be — as described by its creator, George Lucas, a series of kid’s movies. Damn the man. In addition to being filmically stuck on George Lucas’ space opera, I’m simultaneously stuck on the problem of evil. It’s not that my stuckness on the problem of evil is limited to all that guesswork about how a all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good God allows evil — I’ve been thinking about the “problem” in a more general manner — that is, (and more specifically) how we use “evil” to describe the actions and psychological dispositions of individuals. I think that before I get into my topic at hand, it might do us a little good to understand the fantasy of Star Wars. George Lucas says, when taken in total, his movies are really the story of Anakin Skywalker (or Darth Vader if you prefer), who is modeled after the classic Greek tragic heroes. Plucked from obscurity, young slave boy, Anakin Skywalker is destined by the Gods (or by midichlorians) to become the greatest of all the Jedi. Our hero rises, but is done in by a tragic flaw. He eventually finds redemption and joins the gods (or in this case, becomes one with the Force). Lucas said he used classic archetypes as his templates (for more on these archetypes, read Jung or Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces). People of my generation, however, didn’t care about subtext or the references to Greek tragedy. All we cared about is the fact that lightsabers were cool. And Wookies were cooler. For the record, Ewoks are not cool. Still, even if we had never heard of Joseph Campbell, or had ever heard of the mythology behind the saga, we understood that Star Wars was a classic story of the good guys versus the bad guys, and as always, the good guys won. The second trilogy ( although chronologically filmed first), which includes the newly retitled A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, the good and the bad were clear– bad guys = Empire, good guys = Rebel Alliance. Led by the flaxen-haired Luke Skywalker, the good guys destroyed the Death Star not once, but twice and saved the galaxy from the Nazi-esque Empire led by the Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine. In a true, awsomely Jesus-like goodness move Luke resisted Vader’s temptation to join him (even after Vader cuts off his hand!), and likewise resists Emperor Palpatine’s temptation to kill his own father and stand at the Emperor’s side. Luke is good and pure-hearted way beyond golly gee. Even the roguish scoundrel Han Solo is reformed. The Empire, on the other hand, exudes nothing but evil. Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of Leia’s homeworld of Alderaan. Vader ( check this out) chokes his subordinates (killing the unfortunate Admiral Ozzel and Captain Needa), tortures his own daughter (although he didn’t know at the time, but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference), cuts off his son’s hand, backtracks on his deal with Lando Calrissian (quite possibly the only black, Armenian character in film history), tortures Han Solo and orders him encased in carbonite, just to name a few evil deeds. The only thing that I can think of that comes close to that kind of evil on the side of the Rebels is if you count the fact that Luke made out with his sister — but he didn’t know that she was when he did ( although I don’t think that if he did it would have made a difference). But, so far as episodes I, II, and III go, things are simple. Good and evil are very clearly defined ( I lifted those exact three words from a song). But, in 1999, George Lucas, probably in the desperate quest for more money (because he needs it), had to go and mess things up. Royally. Lucas decided that he needed to tell the backstory of Vader. Hello Phantom Menace! As we see young Vader, played by Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen (respectively), we see that Vader wasn’t always evil, but a guy with a couple of emotional issues who took a wrong step and wound up the personification of evil throughout the Galactic Empire. Hey, it could happen to anybody. We see that Anakin, like many of us, wasn’t born naturally bad. We see that, when we look closely, that Vader isn’t a bad guy. Vader is a guy who, like so many of us, stepped into a deep stinky puddle of moral ambiguity and got stuck. Vader’s fall wasn’t motivated by malevolence, but by (surprisingly) the want to do good. Vader was motivated by GOOD. This is what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. Evil, according to Arendt, isn’t carried out, for the most part, by evil people who want to infilct pain on everyone. In her summation of Nazi atrocities, Arendt suggested that “evil” like the Nazis (or in this case the Empire) is a matter of people who believe that what they are doing is right. They see their actions as normal. ( Call it cognitive dissonance or whatever you like, but even in our own lives we see people who do incredibly bad things who will insist that their goal was some ultimate good). If, in the case of the actions of Vader, he believed that what he was doing was good, and if that is indeed the case, we may ask ourselves what is evil? In the philosophy of religion, there is much talk of evil. The discussion deals, in large part, with the problem of evil as it pertains to our arguments for and against the existence of God. We ask how can a loving, powerful God permit evil? But as we ask this question, we enevitably ask ourselves ‘what is evil?’. When we attempt to answer the question, we tend to divide evil into two types: 1) natural evils, which include earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, disease, and general pain, like the pain I am feling in my hip as I am sitting in this very uncomfortable chair writing this post, and 2) moral evils, which we believ requires some sort of deliberate thought or action. Moral evils would include murder, rape, ill will, or odd-numbered Star Trek films. Looking at Vader, we ask, if Vader’s actions are good in his mind, but in the “real” world evil and hurtful to others, does an act of evil require an additional intentionality on the part of the agent? That is, in order for an act to be truly evil, does it require an evil mind as well? Evil mindedness in the Empire is best typified by Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine is guided by the Sith Code which states the following: 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. (From Star Wars: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. 2006. by Drew Karpyshyn. Del Rey Books. pg. 79). The Sith ‘Rule of Two’ states that among the Sith there is “One to embody the power, the other to crave it” (pg. 259). The Sith value treachery, betrayal and naked unrelenting ambition. These are qualities that are, according to most of us, more than a little evil. But, even among the evil-minded Sith, there is a goal behind their outer evil — one that, in their minds, brings some good. Let’s get back to the Germans for a second. Ok, for starters, we’ll admit that Palpatne is evil. Just as it is undeniable that many of Hitler’s henchmen were in no way motivated by any sort of good whatsoever. Ok. But what about the rank and file soldiers and citizens who believed in Hitler’s vision of a thousand-year Reich? What about those people who believed that what they were doing served an ultimate good? If every German pulled out their utilitarian calculus and weighed the pain that some (and assuming a relatively few) would experience in order to get to a prosperous, peaceful German Reich, they might have, with all good intentions, thought that what they were doing or allowing to happen was good. I believe this is where Anakin’s evil lies. He is not only not evil, but not even maliciously oriented. Although the purists may kill me where I stand for saying this, I hold that Episode III, Revenge of the Sith is the lynchpin of the saga. If you can bear Hayden Christensen’s “acting” (really it’s not just him in this one), you can see that Vader isn’t evil, or at least he is in Arendt’s sense of banal evil. *There’s the scene where Mace Windu is poised to kill Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Anakin walks in on the battle. Windu insists that, to preserve the good, that Palpatine must be destroyed. But, little does Windu know, if Palpatine is destroyed, then Anakin will lose his wife Padme in childbirth. Palpatine is the only one who can help him. Anakin intervenes, but on the side of Palpatine. Windu is chucked out the window, plummeting to his death. * Anakin kills Windu because he wants to save the life of his wife and unborn child (obviously a pro-lifer. He’ll kill the adult to save the baby). This is a genuinely good thing to want to do. So let’s say this is Anakin’s primary motivation — he wants to save his family. This is good. This is something that we all would do if we knew that our loved ones were in danger. If we were in the same situation, and we genuinely believed that our actions are good (they may even be good), we ask again, is the act evil? This question, of course, has implications not only in asking questions about the nature of evil, but also in our determination of there is any evil at all. We may conclude that very few actions that appear to be evil are in fact evil. Ok, I see the guy in the corner frantically waving his hands in the air. He’s saying that there is evil, and in fact Anakin is evil for what he has done. A miscalculation doesn’t absolve us from moral responsibility. If we can’t see that our actions are evil, then we are doubly at fault. First for our actions and second, for our stupidity. So noted. But I say that, despite the fact that the acts are prima facie evil, that Anakin’s acgtions are not evil in the true sense of malevolent motivation. His actions are, at best, ambiguously evil. That is, we can still say that his actions, however painful to others, were not intentionally so, and were motivated by good. Where did I get this answer? From George Lucas himself. Lucas says that, despite all of his misdeeds, Anakin is still the “Chosen One”. Lucas, like Luke and Padme, insist that deep, down inside of Vader, there is good. He is not as “twisted and evil” as Obi-wan Kenobi claims. Lucas says that, had he stopped his story at Episode IV, Vader would have remained a personification of evil. But, he says it was his goal to show us that Vader was as much of a victim as a villain. In the long run it seems that Vader is the victim of his own rationalization. According to Lucas, Vader’s entire motivation for everything he does is that he will not betray the Republic. Lucas says, ” Nobody evil thinks of themselves as evil. They always believe that they’re doing good…” ( Lucas explains this point of view on the Revenge of the Sith bonus disk feature “The Chosen One”). Lucas explains that people thought of Vader as pure evil, but according to Lucas he is not. Lucas says that Vader is not a heartless machine but a guy who has “lost everything”. Vader, Lucas says, is motivated by the loss of his mother, by the fact that he is going to lose his wife, at his frustration at being denied — not exactly evil emotions. Actor Hayden Christensen says (and he should know), Vader still believes that he is the “Chosen One”. He’s committing evil not knowing that his actions are hurting other beings ( we can assume that in believing that he is the “Chosen One” Vader believes that he does no wrong). Christensen says that Vader’s inability to see his acts as anything but good may be due to the fact that Anakin is naive. That’s exactly the point. It may be naivete, or rationalization or plain bullshiting — it complicates judging an act. Our actions are not simple matters of yes/no or black/ white, but are complicated and infused with all sorts of reasoning and emotions that cloud motivations — even to ourselves that we cannot simply brand one act “evil” and another “good”. Palpatine tells Anakin that good is a point of view — not an objective certain fact ( amazingly, Ben Kenobi tells Luke this same sentiment in Return of the Jedi. Strange words to hear from such a principled Jedi Master). We see (later in the film) Anakin tell Obi-wan that, from his point of view, the Jedi are evil. How can we be certain what is truly good or evil, especially when we can reduce it to a point of view or an intention, or relies on the outcome of some expected result? This may lead us to a frightening possibility: there may be no such thing as “evil”. Throughout history, theologians, philosophers and laymen alike has wrestled with the question of evil assuming that not only is evil a clear-cut morally wrong action, but also that evil actually exists. Michael Hardt of Duke University says, ” Human nature is changable. Human nature isn’t good or evil”. Evil is a thing of which we are all capable. Evil, if we call any act as such, in its most common form, isn’t Nazis, or Darth Vader or even Dick Cheney. It’s the garden variety little scheming that we all do to ever-so-gently undermine a co-worker, or sabotage a good friend’s budding relationship with someone you despise, or giving yourself a leg-up on the competition. We may say (and we may be right) that any and all or these banal evils we commit are in their own painful way, good — not just for us, but for everyone. They may be more in the way of moral mistakes than moral evils. Ewan McGreggor, who plays Obi-wan Kenobi in Trilogy 1, says of Vader, “His [Anakin’s] slide to the Dark Side… comes from very human things– that he’s in love, and he’s going to be a father, and he’s jealous… we’ve all done it. Messed up things because we’re young and naive, and not able to step back and go ‘oh no, it’s ok'” (From the Star Wars Trilogy bonus disk feature “The Return of Darth Vader”). Then again, George Lucas said that there’s a tendency in some people who watch movies like Star Wars to dismiss them as mindless entertainment. There are others, he says who take the opposite track and read too much into it. Which is what I, and every other philosopher does when we write things like this.

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