Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Philosophy of The Phantom Menace: Faith vs. Pragmatism

As we prepare for the the 7th installment of the Star Wars Saga, I thought it would be interesting to look at the philosophy of each of the individual films in the series and see how it progresses throughout.

I know that Episode I is often maligned and I agree that it has its flaws.  But I may be one of the few people that still enjoy the heck out of it.

I recently re-watched the movie in preparation for The Force Awakens and I was struck by a few things.

I think one of the reasons that The Phantom Menace failed to connect to Western audiences as much is because it is very much filled with Eastern philosophy.  To be sure, there is a good deal of that in The Empire Strikes Back (more on this later), but not nearly to the extent found in the prequels.  Much of this can be found in the way the movie approaches thinking and attachment.

In Zen Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to reach a state where you are in pure experience.  But you cannot reach this state while you are reflecting and thinking upon that experience.  For example, you laugh when you experience a joke.  But as the old saying goes, explaining a joke ruins it.  When you analyze a joke, you may come to a greater understanding, but it stops you from experiencing it directly.  To be Zen, you enter a state of pure experience apart from conscious thought.

This is Qui-Gon Jinn's basic philosophical outlook.  He chastises Obi-wan at the beginning of the film for not keeping his concentration "here and now."  He tells Anakin "Feel, don't think.  Use your instincts."  Qui-Gon constantly obeys his feelings whether it is to take Jar Jar with them to Theed City, take uncertain paths through the planet core, or stubbornly attaching to Anakin.

This doesn't mean that they are slaves to their passions.  Instead they are called to detachment from personal connections.  I will expand on this more when we get to Revenge of the Sith, because it is the fundamental flaw of the Jedi.  But in The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon pulls Anakin away from his mother, his most fundamental connection.

Here is one of the biggest philosophical flaws expressed by Qui-Gon in The Phantom Menace.  Qui-Gon looks at Anakin and sees the fulfillment of a prophesy.  But he is blind the essential problem of slavery.  Twice he says that he hasn't come to set the captives free.  He makes a half-hearted attempt to rescue Anakin's mother, but then drops it.  I understand the limits of what one Jedi could do, but Qui-Gon ignores the real injustice of slavery to look towards a glorious destiny for Anakin.  As my good friend the Doctor pointed out, he fails to take his own advice and keep his concentration here and now.

I know that many people were upset at the introduction of midi-chlorians into the Star Wars mythos, but that is actually a very Aristotelean way to view the universe.  Plato believed in an independent spiritual reality he called the Forms, and the material things of this world only participate in them.  For Aristotle, substances are both form and matter together.   The physical and the material are not things independent of each other but they are conjoined realities that make a thing real.  Dr. Peter Kreeft uses the example of the words of a poem and the meaning of the poem.  One is physical, one is intellectual but they are inseparable from each other.

In the same way, the midi-chlorians are only the physical manifestation of a substantial reality that is also spiritual.  This is a very Catholic idea, especially when you examine the 7 Sacraments.  They are not only spiritual realities, but there are essential material components.  Just as you cannot have Eucharist without bread and wine, you cannot have Jedi without midi-chlorians.

The Phantom Menace should not be criticized for have an incarnational world-view.  I know some people rolled their eyes at Anakin's virgin birth.  But once again we have the view of the spiritual reality intimately tied to the physical.  But this failure to see the importance of the material is one of the reasons for the fall of the Jedi in Episode III.

But the crux of The Phantom Menace is in the choice between faith and pragmatism.  There is a constant pull between making a leap of faith and doing that which is morally questionable but very practical.  We see this especially in Queen Amidala's story arc.  She is constantly questioning Qui-Gon during the mission.  She complains about trusting their fate to Anakin.  It is Qui-Gon's faith that brings them to Coruscant.  But here is where she makes the fatal flaw.  Chancellor Valorum is her biggest supporter.  He secretly dispatched Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to save her planet and he called for a special session of the senate to rescue her people.

When Senator Palpatine tempts her to call for a vote of no confidence, it is a clear betrayal of loyalty.  Instead of putting her faith in her friends, she takes the morally questionable but highly pragmatic road and turns her back on Valorum.

The Jedi Council also is bogged down in their tradition and are horribly intransigent.  They cannot see Anakin's love for his mother as anything but a negative.  They do not take the leap of faith that Qui-Gon does and they hide behind their rules about age restrictions.  They want Anakin to go away quietly and not disrupt their arcane world.

But here is the rub:  the pragmatic choice doesn't work.

Amidala betrays Vallorum in order for the senate to break the blockade of Naboo.  But the election of Palpatine doesn't fix the problem at all.  Her "practical" choice actual has no practical effect.  It is only when she puts her faith in Jar Jar and the Gungans that she can rescue her people.

The Jedi Council choose the easy path of rejecting Anakin.  But in the end, he is still brought into the Jedi order because of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  And because they don't really believe in him more tragedy occurs (again we will discuss this in Episode III).

While Qui-Gon is flawed, he is the man of faith of The Phantom Menace.  He is not willing to compromise his conscience.  When Obi-Wan begs him not to defy the council, Qui-Gon says, "I shall do what I must."  This is the key understanding what makes Qui-Gon different than all the other Jedi and why his death is the beginning of the prequel tragedy.  Obi-Wan learns from him, but he is too much influenced by the older Jedi to forge his own path.

The loss of Qui-Gon and his example of faith leaves a hole in the series that can only be filled by the Dark Side.

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