Thursday, December 17, 2015
The Philosophy of The Empire Strikes Back: Virtue and Soul
Many consider The Empires Strikes Back to be the best of the enter Star Wars Saga. This movie not only built upon the original film but it increased its scope and deepened its themes.
To be sure, it is the darkest of the Original Trilogy. But this darkness does is not necessarily what makes it better. It is simply the precondition where characters are revealed and changed. The crucible of fire that our heroes enter act as the flames of a forge, testing and shaping their mettle.
We see here a return to the Eastern philosophies found in the Prequels. Yoda's basic metaphysics is rooted in the teachings from this tradition. We see once again an emphasis on the Zen ideals. He criticizes Luke for spending looking away "to the future, to the horizon." He urges him to clear his mind of questions: "There is no 'why.'" The emphasis is to feel the Force around him. It is the classic idea of mind over matter. When Luke sees Yoda's great power in lifting his X-Wing from the swamp, he says, "I don't believe it." To which Yoda replies, "That is why you fail." Luke does not accept and believe in the true power beyond this world.
We also see Yoda's great flaw still at play. He rejects a classically Aristotelian view of persons. "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." In his mind we are spirits trapped in bodies. A body's shape, size, etc "matter not." This also leads him to once again counsel the hero into detachment from his relationships.
As we saw in A New Hope, the relationship between Luke, Han, and Leia is one that makes each of them better. Yoda still does not see this. For him, the cause they fight for is more important than the people themselves. And this provides an opportunity for the movie's major theme to be displayed: the enemy within must be conquered.
A New Hope does a fantastic job of showing our heroes band together against a terrible external threat. And to be sure there is some character development. But The Empire Strikes Back takes the exterior battle of good vs. evil and directs it at the human heart.
The heroes do heroic actions. But that is not enough for them to only conquer the exterior enemy.
Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas ascribed to a moral system known as "virtue ethics." The purpose of following the moral laws is not simply to follow the moral laws. The choices we make shape our souls, our character. The goal is not to accomplish a certain amount of correct moral actions but to become a better kind of person inside. This is the true challenge of the moral life.
And The Empire Strikes Back shows us this journey. At the beginning of the story Han is about leave his friends behind to take care of his own agenda. The only thing that keeps him from breaking away is the love he bears for his friend Luke. And then his love for Leia keeps him at the Hoth base longer than he should have been. But despite this, he still looks at these moments as diversions from his ultimate plan to leave. On Cloud City, Leia says that once their ship is repaired, "you're as good as gone." Han makes no reply. That is because she is telling the truth. He has not overcome his self-centeredness completely to fully commit to Leia and the rebellion. He as done a great deal from them, but in his heart, he is not yet a rebel. He is a smuggler who got caught up with the rebels.
Leia also has to struggle against herself. Like her mother, she fights an attraction to someone she is not sure is right for her. He challenges her in a way that shocks her. When he gets close to her, she lashes out. Han is actually correct when he says, "I'm must have hit pretty close to the mark to get her all riled up." But it is only when she is faced with the real possibility of losing him forever that she can finally admit her feelings. Notice though, that Han does not (more on this later). But for Leia, she is not the same woman she was at the beginning.
But the person who has the biggest internal struggle is obviously found in Luke. He is completely transformed by the events of the film. He is a boy of great power that could become a great hero or an evil monster. Very few movies I've encountered have expressed this internal struggle as well as this film does in Luke's failure at the cave. Luke ignores Yoda's warning advice that he will not need his weapons. Luke can only think of threats to him as external. But even though he physically overcomes the "Vader" in the cave, the revelation of his own face beneath the helmet is soul-shattering. Luke has it within himself to become the very monster he fears.
Vader wants him to give in to hate. Yoda and Ben want him to kill his own heart and deny the love he has for Han and Leia. Luke, being the true hero of the series, chooses his own path. That doesn't mean that he is guaranteed to succeed. While he is correct to ignore the utter detachment of other Jedi, Luke is still too weak and too immature to defeat Vader. He is defeated utterly by Vader, to the point where is mutilated and symbolically castrated (losing the lightsaber) by his enemy.
This leads to the turning point of the entire Trilogy. It also illustrates the key difference between Anakin and Luke.
Up until this point, father and son had been placed on similar trajectories. They both are impatient and impetuous. They both are fiercely devoted to those they love. And they both are confronted with the reality of death.
Anakin is so afraid of losing Padme that when the time comes he chooses to embrace evil in order to preserve her life. It is obvious that he sees the moral law as malleable to his own ends ("From my point of view the Jedi are evil.").
This is the same choice presented to Luke. He is offered a chance to end the destructive conflict. Implied in this is the ability to save his friends who, to Luke's knowledge, are still held captive by Vader. He is told that it is the only way. From Vader's point of view, there is no other option. That is why Luke's choice is as important as it is shocking.
Luke chooses to die rather than become evil.
Socrates is credited with saying (though I cannot find the citation), "It is not living that matters, but living rightly." Socrates famously accepted the sentence of death rather than compromise his conscience. Anakin would not understand Socrates' choice. But Luke does.
Luke makes the choice that Anakin could not. He understands that there are some things worse than death. And the corruption of his soul is one of them. Even when Vader appeals to Luke's connection and yearning for his father, Luke still chooses to die rather than accept that relationship.
Luke plunges into the abyss with no hope of surviving. And yet miraculously he is saved. And through this "resurrection," Luke is completely transformed. He has died to his old self and now is a new person. So like Leia, he has had a deep change in his soul. But Han has not.
This is why Han ends up in the carbonite. When Leia declares her love, Han responds, "I know." Yes, this was not in the original script but improved by Harrison Ford. But it is in the finished film and it is in there because it shows that Han has not fully changed. Instead of accepting and returning Leia's love fully, he still is arrested in his emotional development. He is emotionally frozen.
The only thing that can save him is the love of his friends.
The interior war of the soul is not one that has to be fought alone. Han needs Luke, who needs Leia, who needs Han. The company we keep molds our very character. That is why these friendships are so important:
They shape us into the people we will be forever.