Sith Exclusivism and Absolutism

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I can't resist commenting on two lines people keep talking about in Episode III. If you want absolutely no spoilers, don't read this, but this spoils so little that most of you won't care. People have been complaining or rejoicing (depending on their view on the issue) at what they perceive to be Lucas' use of this film as a jab at Bush in the war on terrorism. I haven't seen it yet, but I did hear Lucas' response to these claims, and I know enough about the film and about the issues in question to say something, pending my viewing of the film of course for a final judgment. I'll keep the rest of this in the extended entry for those who are absolutists about spoilers, but this really won't spoil much of anything.

Eric Seymour registers the complaint well over at In the Agora. He cites the following exchange as an example of Lucas getting in a brief political jab at Bush:

Skywalker: You are either with me, or you are my enemy.
Kenobi: Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

First of all, this is one exchange in a whole film, and the overall storyline was around in the 70s, long before Bush was even on the radar as a possible politician. I doubt his father had even begun his first run for the presidency. That line is from Jesus, by the way. Bush didn't make it up. Jesus said the same thing 2000 years asgo about his followers, and Bush simply made the same claim about those who try to play both sides when it comes to terrorism. That merely helps them.

I don't know if Lucas wrote the line since Bush had adapted this saying, but he wrote the first draft this script in the 70s, and the major themes were all there. I believe him when he says that Bush had nothing to do with this film and that if any American president was the inspiration for the emperor it was the Nixon in the era of power-hungry politics. (Nixon's precessor was at best no better than Nixon; it's just that Nixon got caught. Lucas didn't say that, but it's important for me to point put that both parties put ruthless men in the White House in those days.)

The absolutes line is pretty cheesy, but a proper understanding of what it means philosophically (which I'm not sure if Lucas has) might make someone rethink what someone saying that has to mean by it. There's a difference between absolute moral principles and objective moral truth. Denying absolutes doesn't mean you deny objective morality. It just means you think that circumstances will affect whether a given principle applies. No principle applies absolutely in every situation. Killing, for instance, might be ok if done by a proper authority for the right reasons or if done in self-defense. So killing isn't absolutely immoral.

Denying absolutes is simply saying that morality is like that. It's not as radical as it sounds. Lucas may or may not be aware of this, so I don't know if it has any bearing on his own use of it, but it's a point I can't resist making because so many people get this wrong. I happen to think there are some moral absolutes, but I don't think Obi-Wan needs to be taking all that radical a view in saying this, whether Lucas realizes it or not. He may just mean that in the situation at hand (whatever it is; I haven't seen it yet) the moral choices may be complex, and you can stand for something Anakin wants without abandoning something he's opposing.

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In actuality, it seems most likely that Lucas wrote the screenplay after he had done the other 2 movies. You can read about his struggles for inspiration here. I am quite sure that the original storyline has been mapped out for many years, however, the... Read More

23 Comments

I doubt Lucas put as much thought into it as we are, but to me it Lucas' way of implicating to the audience that Anakin: 1) fully accepts his role of "Chosen One"; 2) now sees his role in an absolute power kind of way -- the kind that corrupts. It's important to the story. Anakin has a desperate need to control his life, his universe because all that has gone wrong. His obsession with control prohibits him from recognizing hiw own fallible judgement, and obscures his view of his own slip into evil. Lucas has obviously studied the rise of the Third Reich. The language used is very, very similar.

This is probably the most pervasive story line in Star Wars. Lucas seems to fully realize man's "heart of darkness." It probably has a lot to do with post-Vietnam culture.

That line is from Jesus, by the way. Bush didn't make it up. Jesus said the same thing 2000 years asgo about his followers, and Bush simply made the same claim about those who try to play both sides when it comes to terrorism.

Not that you said otherwise, Jeremy, but it's worth pointing out that it's one thing for the perfect Lord to make such a statement -- that one is either with Him or against Him, with no neutral ground possible -- and quite another thing (and a potentially very presumptuous thing) for a fallible human being or a fallible nation to make such a demanding statement.

Right, and if Bush had said it about what Jesus said it about I'd be pretty worried. It's not clear to me that the 'us' in Bush's adoption of it is the United States. I took it as those who are taking part in fighting against terrorism, that those who try to walk a middle line are really helping the terrorists, not that anyone who tries to be neutral with respect to Bush or the U.S. is against Bush or the U.S.

Apropos nothing in your post or comment thread, the Anchoress has a rather long and interesting commentary that filters the film though a Roman Catholic lens, focusing on the priesthood, vows, celebacy, and several other issues.
Worth a look.

I guess the film is yet another pop Rorschach we all have to see, if only to keep up with conversations at the water fountain.

I gather that relatively few around the world understood Bush's words in the extremely charitable way you do. It struck many in the arrogant way it struck me. If he meant what you're saying, at least he should have been clearer. But even then...

The more general & important point is that, while we are to use Christ's life as a model for our own in various ways, it's dangerous to suppose that the fact that Christ did or said something means we should do or say the same. For of course some statements & actions are appropriate if one is God that wouldn't be appropriate for a mere fallible human.

I would have taken "He who is not with me is against me" to be in this category. That Jesus said it may license me to say "He who is not with Jesus is against Him" (though even here one must be careful, as one might be applying it to a particular occasion based on a mistaken belief about what constitutes being "with Jesus" on that occasion, but it certainly seems OK as a general statement), but certainly not "He who is not with me is against me" -- or "He who is not with us is against us" -- whoever the "us" in question is, so long as it's a fallible group. (I'd even say that the statement is out of bounds if the "us" were the church.)

I took you to be suggesting that the fact that Jesus said the line shows that (or at least provides reason to think that) it was OK (or at least not so bad) for Bush to use it. I just want to counter-suggest (alright, not just suggest but outright assert) that this is the type of statement that it is wrong for us to make, putting ourselves (either individually or as part of some group we belong to) in the spot Jesus put Himself in.

I wasn't attempting to justify Bush's use of this line. The overall point of that half of my post is that there's no reason to see anything in this film as directed against Bush, and Lucas has said so himself. I doubt he likes Bush, but he didn't base the film on Bush. The only reason I mentioned Jesus is because it gives an alternative source for Lucas to have taken the line from, not because that justifies Bush's use of the line. I've criticized the WWJD line more than once for exactly the reasons you give about this, which is why I'd be very careful about taking Jesus' words to apply to something other than what he said without giving appropriate conversational signals for whatever audience I'm talking to that I'm not taking the words the way Jesus did but simply reusing them in a new context. I would have thought that the fact that it was in a political speech about terrorism should be enough of a contextual clue for most people that it's not about what Jesus said it about, but apparently I was wrong.

I have to say that the interpretation I gave didn't at the time seem to me to be extremely charitable. I saw it rather as utterly obvious, and I really didn't even think about another way to take it. It really took me by surprise to hear people taking it in other ways, and it made me think they hadn't heard or read the context of the line. The first time he said something like that, I believe, was in his first speech after 9-11, and this is what I remember of the structure of that speech. He first addressed the American people about how we should respond, and then he made a clear break in his speech and addressed the al Qaeda organization and others like them, saying we will hunt them down. He finally moved at the very end to those who will harbor the terrorists, and he made this statement specifically about them, which I thought pretty clearly meant that they can't protect terrorists within their borders and then act as if that's being neutral rather than supporting the terrorists. I believe he even said this explicitly just before saying the line about being with us or against us. I don't believe any further speeches have departed from that intent.

I have noticed that some of the people commenting on the movie point out how "grey" the Jedi are and how "black and white" the Sith are. In many ways the line by Skywalker is really a demand to choose and Obwan's response is an effort to maintain the path of grey, sifting through the alternatives.

One thing I don't understand is if the "Dark" side is black and demands absolute obedience why Lucas didn't follow the conclusion that flows from almost every argument about the "Light" side of the force: that light demands absolute commitment also.

In the final movie, Luke makes the choice Obiwan did not make. He is for his father and offers his life to prove it. That is the transforming event. He steps up where Obiwan failed.

The problem with that interpretation is that the Jedi are forbidden to use the dark side, because they know it enslaves people. I haven't seen Episode III yet, but Lucas has said that Vader was enslaved by the dark side, and the final victory at the end of Episode IX is not the balance of the dark side and the light side (does he ever even call it that?) but the complete destruction of the dark side. Whatever is going on in Episode III has to be consistent with that.

I just noticed Gene Veith's review of the film. It sounds as if he might have been thinking the same things I have. Some formulations are almost as if he'd read this post, which I suppose is possible. There are a few great lines at the end:

Even if some anti-Bush propaganda got worked into the script, one cannot imagine the Emperor calling for less centralized government or passing a tax cut. He is far more reminiscent of Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Hitler, Caesar, and other big-government Sith

Y'all are so much more subtle than I am. I look at it much more simply. There are times when things go bad where there really are only 2 choices and you choose. Battlefields are one of those. A nation under attack is another. The choice between the Christ God and the world is one too.

I think Obi-wan's response shows that he is an idoit. And actually looking at the series from another point of view, Anakin is in a way an expression of his failure.

That may be. As I said, I need to see it before I can comment on Obi-wan's use of this expression. All I was saying is that it might be perfectly fine.

My view on the entire series, as an enthusiastic fan of Star Wars, and as a Christian Disciple and Youth Minister, is one of observance. The three original films, being epoch 2 and the later three epoch one. There are many instances, in both epochs where as a Christian I am nonplussed.

***************** SPOILER ALERT ***************

The grey that was mentioned in an earlier post, which is displayed by the epoch one Jedi is most profoundly evident, in episode six return of the Jedi, when Luke asks why Obiwan lied to him about Vader murdering his father. Obiwan's response was "It was true from a certain point of view. You will come to find that many things change depending on your point of view." The Emperor uses this same languange when he is tempting Anakin, during the light show scene. The point of view issue is where the lack of absolutes is most profoundly in obvious.


********************* End of Spoiler

I tend to agree, that there is no direct relationship between the script and any Political leader. It is merely that the philosophical posture of the two George's are in conflict.

What Obi-wan was saying is fairly straightforward. It's not clear that he lied if it's not clear that Anakin is still alive as Darth Vader. As it turns out, Anakin surived Vader's slavery to the dark side, but we don't see that until the end of Episode VI. Obi-wan may not have known that when he said it in Episode IV. So if he considered it true, because he considered Anakin dead because of Vader's destruction of his former self, then it was not a lie. It may have been deceit, because it did hide part of the truth, but it wasn't technically a lie.

I don't myself think there's a moral difference between the two, but most absolutists about lying disagree with me on that. For absolutists about lying, it seems Obi-wan wasn't necessarily lying. On the other hand, there are people who agree with me that there isn't necessarily a moral difference between lying and other kinds of deceit. They, as it turns out, don't usually believe all deciet is wrong. That is, they're not absolutists about lying. I'm certainly not. There are morally good lies. I don't know if lying to Luke is one of them, but I've given examples in my extended treatment of the morality of lying.

That post makes exactly the kind of point I was making in this post. You can deny absolutism without being a relativist. You can deny absolutism without thinking all of morality is gray. There may well be clear blacks and whites, but lying might be on either side depending on the circumstances. Absolutism and relativism are simply about different issues.

OK

If the statement "Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes" is factual.

Then how would one explain this fact without stating the fact?

The logic doesn't apply to the rest of the english language, so why is everyone having a hangover about this one.

Obi-Wan was not the one who put the choice forward in the first place, his answer was one that avoided the absolute choices Anakin laid down. (OK they still fought, but thats hardly the point)

Besides if we look at in context, it was really Lucas trying to put his political viewpoint across in the film - it shouldn't be seen as more than that.

Bush said: "You are either with us, or you are with the Terroists!"

Lucas' reply through Obi-Wan is "Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes".

So hence Bush is Evil, and Bush is a Sith.

So this in effect implies Osama Bin Kenobi and Dr. Zawa-Yoda are in fact the Jedi.

So Lucas is saying join the Jihadi-Jedi's

9-11 was just an attack on Economic-Wing of the Death-Star.

Is that right Lucas?

Kris, see my followup post for my more detailed explanation of why the context shows that Obi-Wan was saying exactly what you're saying. I agree 100% with the first half of your comment (everything before "Besides").

On the other hand, the second half of your comment displays an amazing inability to read and respond to the arguments I've already given against the thesis you're putting forth, and most of it relies on the very point you made in the first half og your comment. I don't need to repeat my argument. It's your job to respond to it, not simply to pretend I didn't say anything against that claim. There's more on that issue in the followup as well. There's nothing more annoying in the blogosphere (except perhaps spam) than crafting a careful argument and then have some commenter come in and deny the conclusion of the argument without even acknowledging anything that the argument said, especially when this is someone showing some clarity of thought, as the first half of your comment certainly does.

PALPATINE: (continuing) Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis “the wise"?

ANAKIN: No.

PALPATINE: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life … He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.

ANAKIN: He could actually save people from death?

PALPATINE: The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.

ANAKIN: What happened to him?

PALPATINE: He became so powerful . . . the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. (smiles) Plagueis never saw it coming. It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.

ANAKIN: Is it possible to learn this power?

PALPATINE: Not from a Jedi.

This story is analogous to the story of Jesus Christ, who had such power that he was able to heal the sick, cure people of their infirmities, and raise the dead. Jesus taught everything he knew, including the healing power, to his disciples. One of the disciples betrayed Jesus and had him put to death. As Jesus hung on the cross, the people cried out “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.��? Matthew 27:42.

I suppose there are a few similarities if you want to work really hard to try to make this be about Jesus, but it's such a stretch to think that Jesus even entered Lucas' mind as he was giving the classic "disciple kills master to take his place" bad guy theme.

“but it's such a stretch to think that Jesus even entered Lucas' mind��?

I have no way of knowing what is in Lucas’ mind, and I doubt that he would intentionally create a metaphor of an evil Jesus Christ in his movie. However, this isn’t the classical “disciple kills master��? theme. This is the master obtains power over death, servant kills master, observers ponder over the master’s inability to save self from death paradox. This theme appears in the New Testament and in the movie.

My best guess at how this theme ended up in the script would be as follows: Lucas was aware of the story of Christianity from his Methodist childhood. Lucas converted to a new-aged form of eastern religion, and came to believe that moral absolutism is evil. While developing the concept of the dark side (moral absolutism), Lucas inadvertently included the metaphor of Christ as an evil Sith Lord.

Admittedly, my knowledge of classical literature is limited. I would be interested in other literary instances of this paradox (Someone who can save others from death, but can not save self). I would be especially interested in instances where this paradox is intermingled with the servant kills master theme.

Someone who can save others from death, but can not save self

If you want to describe it that way, it makes it pretty clear that this theme is not in the Bible at all, certainly not with respect to Jesus. His death was voluntary. He could easily have saved himself. He knew it was coming (Plagueis apparently did not.) He even wanted to avoid it on one level, but he wouldn't. Plagueis didn't know and perhaps couldn't have stopped it if he had known.

Why does combining two classic themes need to be a reference to some other combination of those two themes (not that Jesus is such)? Why couldn't it simply be taking two classic themes and combining them? Isn't that what writers do if they want to avoid rehashing what others have done?

Now that you've posted this further explanation, I'm seeing some of what's confusing you. You're starting with the assumption that Lucas thinks moral absolutism is evil. He does not, and watching any of these films will demonstrate that. I'm not going to repeat all the aruments I've given in this post and the followup, since I've already given them.

I'm not talking about classical literature, either. There are classic themes that originated in the 20th century. Many of the classic science fiction themes are less than a half century old. You don't need to look to classical literature to find classic themes.

You have a point. When taken in context, the New Testament explores the unwillingness of Christ to save himself from death, whereas the tragedy of Darth Plagueis describes the inability of Plagueis to save himself from death. On the surface these stories appear to be quite different.

However, you must remember that these stories are told from entirely different perspectives. The New Testament was written by Christ’s loyal followers with the intent of proving that Christ was the divine Son of God who willingly gave His life. The tragedy of Darth Plagueis was told by Palpatine, who expresses no particular loyalty to Plagueis.

If the tragedy of Darth Plagueis were told by a loyal follower, he may claim that Plagueis willingly gave his life to bring about a higher cause, or that some good came from the death of Plagueis. If, on the other hand, the New Testament were written by those who stood in the crowd and yelled for Jesus to come down from the cross, then the New Testament might simple observe, “It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.��? This difference in perspective doesn’t alter the fact that these two stories are essentially the same.

Your other point, that Jesus was crucified and Plagueis died in his sleep, is really just an unimportant detail. Palpatine didn’t say “It’s ironic that he died in his sleep.��? Palpatine said “It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.��?

I don't see how the unwillingness but ability of Christ to save himself is an unimportant detail when the whole point you're basing the connection on is the inability of Plagueis to save himself. That's simply not true of Christ.

There are, I have noticed, very strong themes in the third episode of moral absolutism versus Sophism, and they're at the very core of the movie: the conversion of Anakin to the Dark Side. However, the roles here are reversed, with the Jedi cast as the moral absolutists in the matter of using certain powers, and also on the subject of Jedi celibacy. Meanwhile the emperor uses the rationality of moral relativism to attract Anakin to dark powers, casting Jedi absolutes as so much religious dogma. Obviously, it's only a trick to get Anakin into the absolute evil club, for the Star Wars universe leaves little room for ambiguity on the subject of good and evil. I find this a very interesting sub-plot within the prequel series, particularly because of Obi-Wan's later comment on absolutist reasoning being the sole province of Sith thought. I'd like to think that what we're seeing with that comment, juxtaposed with the emperor's earlier statement, is a fallability of the Jedi, and a fallability in Obi Wan in that he can't see it.

Had Lucas been writing Shakespeare rather than a rollicking space romp with a hint of Kant, he probably would have done a better job of developing the spaces of ambiguity in the Star Wars world, rather than forcing us to pick them out amidst frame after fram of pure eye candy and marketing drek. But I think we can perhaps make something out of this juxtaposition of both the good and evil senex calling the other an "absolutist," and the irony of them doing so in the middle of a battle between such a clearly delineated good and evil.

I don't know. It seems much more plausible to me that Obi-Wan is just speaking in a more restricted way, as I explained above. We speak this way all the time when something can't be absolutely fitted into two hard-and-fast categories. We say that you can't speak in absolutes. That doesn't mean you never can or that you can't speak of moral absolutes. It just means that, in the context of your statement, absolutes are inappropriate.

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