Corey Stephan

Philosophy

On Obi-Wan, Vader, & the cultural isolation of rejecting democracy for true religion

Corey Stephan

Immediately before what could have been the greatest battle of the Star Wars franchise (if not for poor dialogue and the bizarre setting of Mustafar)the long-awaited first duel between Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and his former apprentice who had just turned to the Dark Side and pledged his subservience to Darth Sidiousthere is a perplexing exchange:

Obi-Wan: You have allowed this Dark Lord to twist your mind, until now…until now you’ve become the very thing you swore to destroy.
Anakin: Don’t lecture me, Obi-Wan! I see through the lies of the Jedi. I do not fear the Dark Side as you do. I have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new Empire.
Obi-Wan: Your new Empire?
Anakin: Don’t make me kill you.
Obi-Wan: Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republicto democracy.
Anakin: If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.
Obi-Wan: Only a Sith deals in absolutes. [Draws lightsaber.] I will do what I must.
Anakin: You will try. [Draws lightsaber and attacks.]

Right before Kenobi draws his lightsaber, he realizes that Grand Master Yoda was right when he said that Anakin had been “consumed” by Darth Vader. No longer torn between love for his “brother” (as he calls Anakin later in the duel) and duty as a Jedi, Obi-Wan resigns himself to fight in a last-ditch effort to save the Galaxy from its collapse into tyranny. Thus begins the scene of hand-to-hand combat that serves as the climax not only of The Revenge of the Sith but, rather, the whole arc of Episodes IIII.

The dialogue is forced. As elsewhere in Episodes II and III, Ewan McGregor’s laudable performance as Obi-Wan overcomes neither a jejune script from a lost George Lucas nor Hayden Christensen’s unimpressive effort as Anakin. Yet by this scene at the end of the prequel trilogy, all of that is to be expected. What has confused me for some time is the critical line that seems to propel Obi-Wan to draw his saber, i.e. the line that is in bold face and underlined above: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Prima facie, Obi-Wan’s statement sounds contrary not only to the ways of the Sith but also to the ways of the Jedi. The Jedi Code is a list of absolutes:

There is no emotion; there is peace.
There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.
There is no passion; there is serenity.
There is no chaos; there is harmony.
There is no death; there is the Force.

https://starwars.fandom.com/wiki/Jedi_Code

Now, Christ Himself would not oppose (philosophically) radicalizing the dichotomy between friend and foe. At Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23, both of which were presumably drawn from the older Q (especially since the quotation is a saying), Jesus states: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” The fact that Obi-Wan, the most philosophically astute character in the main Star Wars series (save Yoda)and, along with the Luke of the original trilogy, one of the most thoroughly virtuousopposes a statement that could be a paraphrase of Jesus is also odd. Granted, the Star Wars universe is its own fictional universe, and it is governed by the Force rather than the Trinity, but good philosophy is good philosophy.

It is possible that even Obi-Wan, the most dogmatic of the major Jedi in the main Star Wars series, had come to question the truth value of the Code. If following the Code had led him to train the traitor who destroyed the Jedi Order, then perhaps the Code was faulty per se. However, this understanding fails to explain why the statement seems natural for the Jedi Master. It does not come across as a cry of existential angst but, rather, a definition learned through years of study in the Temple in Coruscant.

Perhaps the sentence’s key word is the verb: deals. Obi-Wan does not say, “Only a Sith believes in absolutes.” That statement would be self incoherent when applied to its giver. Obi-Wan also does not say, “Only a Sith defends or upholds absolutes.” Every Jedi defends and upholds absolutes. Rather, he says, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Deals in might suggest regular occupation or even obsession.

Perhaps Obi-Wan’s preceding statement is telling: “My allegiance is to the Republicto democracy.” Kenobi was indoctrinated to believe that the Republic is good in itselfthe self-evident will of the (Light Side of the) Force.

Anakin’s transformation includes a fundamental rejection of the notion that the Republic is good per se. Vader is not wrong to observeas Count Dooku seems to do, as wellthat the Jedi Order’s wholesale allegiance to the Republic hindered its members from adhering to its original operative principle, which was to provide a path for immersion in the Light Side of the Force. The Jedi are the Galaxy’s monks, and there is something misguided about monks becoming police officers and diplomats for a particular state. Jedi are supposed to follow the Light, even when the Light is contrary to some principle that otherwise seems good. Obi-Wan should have said, “Anakin, my allegiance is to peace and reason in the Light Side of the Forceto virtue,” but what rolled off his tongue was his commitment to a federal government. It is likely that Obi-Wan’s statement of allegiance only heightened the anger toward him inside the new Sith Lord.

For a republic to function, decency must reign. Decency takes many shapes, but it is inevitably synonymous with relativism. Live, and let live. You do you. If he is not bothering you, leave him alone. Everyone is entitled to her opinion. Who am I to judge? Decency does not include dealing in absolutes. A decent person might believe in absolutes, but she rarely (if ever) lets those absolutes determine her outward words and actions.

Perhaps, for Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, anyone who rejects the norms of republican civilization, i.e. anyone indecent, is a Sith. “A Sith” is more than a literal Sith Lord; rather, “a Sith” is a hideous outsider, the ἰδιώτης (idiot) of Athens who will not go along with what the functioning of the republic requires. If this interpretation is true, then Obi-Wan Kenobi is as misguided as Darth Vader. Vader’s error is obviousembracing evil over goodnessbut Kenobi’s error is insidiousembracing democracy as though it were part and parcel with the Jedi religion.

It is the responsibility of the Catholic faithful to put aside allegiance to government whenever such allegiance conflicts with fidelity to God. From the majority perspective, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Well, then, let me be a Sith. A Catholic deals in absolutes. A Catholic is indecent. A Catholic lets absolutes determine her outward words and actions, even when they cause offense to others. A Catholic is more faithful to religion than to state.

As our real-world republic (the United States of America) struggles amidst a raging pandemic and various exchanges of violence between police and civilians, my prayer is that we will all remember a revised, true form of Obi-Wan’s statement for the real world: “My allegiance is to the Churchto the Trinity.” If we must start a new government, although we ought not follow the Dark Side and build an evil empire, we also ought not fear the change that true religion might require. Cultural isolation is an infinitely small price to pay for the hope of eternity. May the Force be with you.

Deus vos benedicat,
Corey Stephan

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