Why do the Jedi keep screwing up?
WARNING: This post contains very vague spoilers about The Last Jedi. Do not read if you have not seen.
The Jedi-Sith false dichotomy is actually a very handy way to discuss how our culture sees emotions and logic.
I was talking to a friend the other day about the Jedi themes, and I do think that the biggest issue with the Jedi is the fact that their beliefs essentially create extremely broken human beings.
They believe in repressing emotion and attachment, giving up two very human qualities (which comprise the ability to care) and somehow expect it will make them better than human.
The cycle repeats itself because the Jedi never learn to deal with and process emotions like healthy people, because they aim to be nothing but mind without emotion.
Emotions are a vital part of our regulatory organism. They are in-the-moment reactions that reflect our innermost beliefs, both conscious and subconscious. Our emotions can tell us a lot about ourselves, because when we find ourselves in a conflict between what we outwardly believe versus how we feel, we can use that conflict to introspect: We can wonder whether we truly do believe something, or if there is something deeper within. Have we made a mistake? Have we embraced values we weren’t conscious of? Are those values good? How can we reconcile the contradiction?
This part of the process is a vital and integral part of psychological growth for humans. It is no wonder, then, that the Jedi suffer terrible losses insofar how many of their number ultimately join the rank of the Sith. And all of that is without taking into account the fact that chemical unbalances and other neurological afflictions can create emotional reactions that have no direct origin outside of the physical and chemical- provided mental health issues exist in the Star Wars universe, you could make the argument that a lot of the Jedi who turn to the Sith could be suffering from undiagnosed mental health issues… although it is hard to conceive the idea of a civilization capable of jumping to light-not developing its own branch of mental health science*.
Then again, as George Lucas pointed out, this is also a universe in which wheels (and underwear**) don’t exist. Since we haven’t seen anything of the subject mentioned in-canon, we have to assume psychology isn’t a prominent field in the Star Wars universe.
On the other corner we have the Sith, a reactionary running-to-the-totally-opposite-extreme kind of movement that embraces the full gamut of uncontrolled emotion without the guiding supervision of a mind.
The Freudian perspective is not exactly useful nowadays when addressing the complex spectrum of personality, but it does remain a keystone in how we currently perceive the emotion-logic dichotomy in popular culture. From a Freudian perspective, whereas the Jedi were trying to be full-on Super Ego, the Sith became the unrestrained Id, full of nothing but appetites and rampaging emotions.
In response to the stultifying stoicism of the Jedi, the Sith abandon themselves to a bacchanalia of peaks and valleys that eventually become a downward spiral. The Sith seek power above all things, but they believe that the path to power is through their emotions. The tenets are not only wrong, but also self-destructive, since the Sith seek mastery of others instead of mastery over themselves, their focus is always external and they become the slaves to the flow of their emotions.
This is not to say that the Jedi seek self-mastery, either: their ascetic denial prevents them from ever attaining that goal, since you can never master that which you never address.
At the end of the day, you would think that the exaggerated caricatures that make up the philosophies of the Jedi and Sith would be displeasing to people, but that is not so: The Star Wars narrative of the light and dark sides of the force finds resonance in our culture because of thousands of narratives that have, for thousands of years, reinforced a false dichotomy: that reason and emotion can never co-exist peacefully.
This particular split has been framed in different ways, but it can be described as essentially the recurring theme of mind-body dualism or ‘Cartesian’ dualism (the body as the source of ‘base’ desires, with the immaterial mind the master of the lofty goals and thoughts, and the spirit.) Descartes is only one of a line of multiple philosophers, though, since Plato believed that the body and the soul were separate and the soul survived the death of the physical body through metempsychosis.
Whereas Descartes went to some trouble to try and find a framework through which these two ‘substances’ could interact and co-operate, the part of the narrative that is most present in our popular consciousness is the existence of the irreconcilable duality itself. Indeed, it is a trope that comes to life with ease, this body-emotion mind-reason split: from the Kirk-Spock dichotomy to Doctor House portrayed as a logical problem-solver at his work but a completely dysfunctional mess in his personal life, it seems that the Western world firmly believes that reason and emotion are tenuous and occasional allies at best, and constantly at odds with each other the rest of the time.
The struggles of the Jedi, the struggles of House and the tension between Kirk and Spock are reflections of our shattered image of the self predicated on this fragmentary belief. In the dualist world that is painted in this light, people are either emotional or logical, rational or irrational, and it even extends to saintly and self-obsessed behavior. There is little nuance for mixed motivations, and certainly very little room for reconciliation.
To the Jedi, anger is always a gateway to the Dark Side because it can potentially lead to violence. This, for example, closes the door to the notion of righteous anger, indignation before injustice being one of the most heroic responses someone can have. This is one of the reasons why a Jedi stepping up for justice is a relatively rare event- Qui Gon Jinn does what he can to get Anakin out of slavery because of his Force potential, but he does nothing to save Anakin’s mother or dismantle the institution of slavery. Han Solo, the scoundrel character, is in this case more heroic than the Jedi because they remain passive, whereas he is actively disrupting slavers***. The Jedi preach freedom from attachment, but attachment is the source of many goods, because it is impossible to do good without caring for that which one fights, no-one has ever performed a good deed out of sheer disinterest and apathy. One could make the argument that obsessive and all-consuming attachments are bad, as they impede growth and the ability to adapt to change, but the Jedi are so immersed in their stark dualism that they cannot draw distinctions.
This brings us to the cycle of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke Skywalker. The common thread of their narratives is that all three had close brushes with the Dark Side and, for all of their alleged mastery in the Force, they could not keep an individual from turning to the Dark Side, or turning others.
Yoda completely failed to detect the evil in Senator Palpatine, Obi-Wan failed to provide Anakin with the stability and support needed to keep him from succumbing to the temptations of the Dark Side, and Luke Skywalker likewise could not stop Ben from falling down that path. After their moment of failure, all three masters went into retreat and anonymity in remote locations of the galaxy, each one seemingly to live out their last remaining days in seclusion.
Fans who saw The Last Jedi are upset about what they consider to be a betrayal of Luke Skywalker’s character, considering it inconceivable that young, idealistic Luke could ever turn into such a bitter hermit… but, is it really that far-fetched?
Let’s remember that Luke’s own history had him set on the path of the plucky young hero who came across two Jedi masters who had retreated from the world, and who received training from them. Eventually he came to know that his father, Anakin Skywalker, was Lord Vader himself- the one who had been hailed as ‘the chosen’ one who would bring balance to the Force, only to fall into darkness. Although Vader was redeemed at the end, it still took the concerted efforts of his son and his daughter, and he still plunged the galaxy into war and despair for at least nineteen years.
Luke Skywalker was meant to be a new beginning for the galaxy and the Jedi. So we can only imagine what Skywalker’s reaction must have been when he discovered the seed of darkness growing in a young man of his own blood- the Skywalker lineage that had already created miseries for the galaxy. All at once, he must have remembered Obi-Wan failing to keep Luke’s father from straying to the Dark Side, the countless lives lost in his rise to power, all ready to repeat itself in front of his eyes.
And he failed to stop it. Ben Skywalker became Kylo Ren, and the cycle started anew.
Luke must have felt rudderless and abandoned, disenchanted with the Force that kept allowing this endless repetition of struggle and pain. A feeling that must not have been too dissimilar to what Yoda and Kenobi experienced, a disappointment so profound as to want them to retire from the world entirely.
Luke’s ultimate end was, in fact, as inevitable as Yoda’s or Kenobi’s: it was a course that was etched into the very nature of the Jedi code itself.
The Jedi do not understand emotion and do not know how to deal with it. Their code requires them to shun it, not to understand and learn how to heal. In their hands, a clearly emotionally damaged young man (whether the emotional damage is due to a disorder or due to a bad relationship with Han is not clear) like Ben could only grow worse in his dysfunction and rebellion. The Jedi become the artificers of their own undoing.
And yet, every time this has happened in the series, the Force seems to send a new, plucky hero or heroine to receive training and give the Jedi yet one more chance at a clean start.
In the expanded universe of the series, the concept of the ‘Grey Jedi’ has been addressed several times. Historically, the Grey Jedi had a code much like the Sith and the Jedi code, but theirs goes something like this:
“Flowing through all, there is balance
There is no peace without a passion to create
There is no passion without peace to guide
Knowledge stagnates without the strength to act
Power blinds without the serenity to see
There is freedom in life
There is purpose in death
The Force is all things and I am the Force.”
At once we can see that the Gray Jedi are not the passive ascetics like the Jedi or the unrestrained hedonists that the Sith are, but they seem to try to find an almost Aristotelian like balance by looking at both extremes and trying to settle into a golden mean. While the expanded universe of the Old Republic (especially the prequel games) seem to remain canonical, much of the post-original trilogy regarding the Grey Jedi remain unexplored. The code of the Grey Jedi seems to strive for an emotionally healthy attempt at understanding and integrating different types of emotions instead of simply shunning them altogether or giving them loose rein, which is only more the pity that they seem to be absent from the current Star Wars universe.
It is too late for Luke Skywalker (in more ways than one), but maybe Rei will be the Jedi apprentice who figures out why the Code always seems to churn out so many broken people who go on to create calamities across the galaxy. There’s a chance that, instead of simply regurgitating the textbooks of the old Jedi order, she will be able to go beyond their dualistic view of the mind/body emotion/reason dichotomy and adopt a more wholistic approach towards a more functional and integrated model. At the end of the day, it seems that the Jedi (and us) would could benefit themselves and reach out across universes (and franchises) once they realize that they don’t need the Force or the Jedi Council… as much as they need Counselor Troi.
* In fact, psychologists have only been referenced three times in Star Wars canon- their only mentioned use was employing psychic interrogation techniques to persuade captured Imperials to talk.
** Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.
*** Even though the Extended Universe is not canonical anymore, the circumstances around Chewbacca’s Life Debt to Han Solo still hint to Solo’s opposition to slavery.