Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Philosophy of The Force Awakens: The Generational Choice

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With The Last Jedi coming out in a few days, I thought that it would be a good time to revisit the philosophy found in the Star Wars Saga, particularly in the latest episode: The Force Awakens.

If you would like to read the previous articles on Philosophy and Star Wars, click any of the below links.

The Philosophy of The Phantom Menace

The Philosophy of Attack of the Clones

The Philosophy of  Revenge of the Sith

The Philosophy of A New Hope

The Philosophy of The Empire Strikes Back

The Philosophy of Return of the Jedi

A New Hope represented the first reset button for the story.  The Force Awakens does the same for the Original Trilogy.  A Catholic movie critic I respect, T.Martin, has a problem with what The Force Awakens does to the happy ending of Return of the Jedi.

And I must admit that this is a big concern.  After all of the blood and sacrifices of our heroes, they deserve their happily ever after.  But The Force Awakens makes clear that there is no happily ever after.  At least not on this earth.

The Force Awakens, therefore, is clearly anti-Utopian.  I would not go so far as to call it dystopian, but it does not appear as though you can achieve happily ever after.  This is a condemnation of any kind of Marxist anthropology that would have us believe that with just the right circumstances, human nature can create heaven on Earth, or in this case, in a galaxy far, far away.  That is because of the fallen nature of the person. 

While I want happiness for the heroes of the Original Trilogy, I cannot argue with the anti-Utopian point.  This universe, if it is inhabited by fallen creatures, cannot rebuild paradise.  That isn't to say that there can't be some goodness and justice.  But that light is very tenuous, always in danger of being snuffed out.

A friend of mine pointed me to a letter JRR Tolkien wrote about his attempt to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.  He had to give up because it began to turn into something more akin to Game of Thrones.  Tolkien wrote; "I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men, it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a 'thriller' about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing."

That damning indictment of men and "their quick satiety with the good," is on display in The Force Awakens.  The hard earned victory of goodness from one generation cannot be automatically transferred to another. 

There must be a generational choice.

The first conversation in the film shows two men of different generations with different world-views.  Lor San Tekka calls Leia royalty, but Poe Dameron knows her only as a general.  Already from the beginning we are made aware of how the Original Trilogy is something that this new generation stands on the outside looking in.  The defeat of the Empire was a victory, but it was not their victory.  Each generation is called to choose a side.

Finn makes this point early in the movie when he is in his first battle and doesn't fire.  He later tells Rey that he was cut off from any family and was raised to be a killer.  But when the time came, he says, "I made a choice."  The movie is filled with characters who were raised to be something but choose to be something else.

This choice is made clearest in the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren.  Rey is an orphan, cut off from her family.  She longs to find a connection to those that have come before her.  She lives in the relics of a dead past among the hollowed husks of great ships and vehicles.  She has dolls of star pilots and wears their helmets like a child at play. 

Kylo is the opposite.  He was handed a galaxy of peace, paid for by his parents and uncle.  He is given love and attention.  His gifts are nurtured.  And then he rejects his family's life and embraces a more rebelious path.  He throws away the one thing that Rey wishes for more than anything.

This highlights the essence of choice.  Kylo and Rey may have preternatural gifts and fate may play a hand in what they are, but ultimately they will be defined by their choices, not the choices of the people around them.

That isn't to say that the previous generation is finished with its journey.  While the goal of parents is to raise children into the adults who will take over, the parental generation must still carry on, despite the failures.

We can see this in Luke, Han, and Leia.  The loss of Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), is a crushing defeat.  I had a student ask me today how could a good parent have an evil child.  But this brings us back always to the element of choice.  Your character is heavily influenced by your environment.  But your soul is your own.  Regardless, Luke, Han, and Leia all believe themselves to be failures and they retreat.  Luke retreats from the world.  Han retreats into his scoundrel ways.  Leia retreats into battle.  As I wrote in my reflection on A New Hope, each of these three is incomplete without the help of the others.  The dissolving of these bonds unglues the entire fabric of the saga.

Leia is the only one who does not give up.  She sets Poe on the path to find Luke.  She sends Han to save their son.  And even though there is failure here, she does not give up.  The big mistake, as we can see, is pulling away.

In Han we see the regression some people have with age where they try to relive their "glory years."  We see this in his hunt for the Millennium Falcon.  In the end, it is only a ship.  The real thing he should have been hunting for was his family.  When he arrives on the Falcon, he says: "Chewie, we're home."  And he is right, but not in the way he thinks.  He is home because he finds someone with whom he can find a strong, fatherly connection: Rey.

Maz Kanata says to Rey, "The belonging you seek is ahead of you, not behind you."  The same could be said to Han.  Intransigency is the curse of age.  The older we get, we close ourselves off to new experiences and relationships.  Han is lost until his encounter with Rey brings him back to Leia and then to his son.  And he tries to reach Kylo, but is rejected.

But this goes back to the larger philosophical question: can virtue be taught?  We can attain virtue for ourselves, but can we teach virtue to others.  We will not know the full answer until this trilogy is finished.  But it would appear that the answer is "no."

The Force Awakens appears to take the view that virtue is not a kind of knowledge that can be taught.  If that were so, Kylo should be virtuous.  Instead, virtue must be won anew by the next generation.  All the previous generation can do is model virtue.  But in the end, the acceptance or rejection of virtue is a choice.

As Maz says, this is the only fight that ever matters.  Sith/Jedi, Empire/Rebellion, First Order/Resistance... these are all skins that cover the heart of the matter: Evil vs. Good.  This is something that each generation must awaken to in its own way.  We see this play out in human history where peace and prosperity give way to moral decay and yet war and struggle and purify the soul of a society.  It doesn't always happen this way, but no generation seems to hold on to its victories for too long.  The next generation must always choose as if it is all new.

Wisdom would be found in learning from the mistakes of the past.  That is why it is important to know our story.  Instead, Luke Skywalker has become a distant myth not connected to the real-life struggle of the new heroes.  But if Rey and Kylo really learned and studied what had come before them, if they had really learned from the lives of the previous generations, they could avoid their mistakes.

And this loss of legacy is partly the fault of the older generation's retreat.  While they cannot pass on their virtues, they can live the example of virtue and happiness for the future generations to follow.  This is why we venerate saints so that we can see an example of how to live.  But if we retreat away from that responsibility, we make it easier to fall.

This is one of the reasons I love the ending of The Force Awakens.  Rey holds out Luke's lightsaber and not a word is spoken.

Is it a plea for help?
Is it a sign of her devotion?
Is it a reminder of his past?
Is it a condemnation of his abandonment?
Is it a call for Luke to find redemption?

All of this is left unsaid and unanswered because everything depends on the choice that will be made.  The movie ends not with the decision of what is to happen, but the moment of choice.  Rey has made a choice to find Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. 

What that choice means is something we will have to find out.

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