Philosophy and religion in Star Wars

Philosophy and religion in Star Wars

George Lucas' creation of the "Star Wars" saga was influenced by mythology, philosophy, and religion and the popularity of the film series inevitably led to even more comparisons being made.

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Many of the themes within "Star Wars" reflect elements of Greek tragedy (Oedipus, House of Atreus), Arthurian Legend, Roman mythology, and Japanese chambara such as the prominence of prophecy and the inability to control one's destiny. For example, Luke's relationship with his father is very reminiscent of Greek tragedy, while the original film contained elements which were interpreted by some as analogous of the Arthurian myths: Luke's lightsaber (a "magic sword") was inherited from his father, just as Excalibur once belonged to Arthur's father. The wise mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, can be seen as a Merlin figure; and a "round table" appears aboard the "Millennium Falcon".Many concepts featured in the saga also feature prominently in Persian mythology. A central theme of the story concerns the struggle between the forces of good against the forces of evil – this good-versus-evil duality is a central concept of Persian mythology; in which the benevolent creator deity Ahura Mazda is locked in a constant cosmic struggle against his antithesis, Angra Mainyu.

The "Star Wars" films also show considerable similarity to Asian Wuxia "Kung Fu" films. In films of this genre, the protagonist almost always begins with a clear objective to avenge the death of someone dear (an old master, his father, or his entire family). Starting as an apprentice, he grows to become the most powerful Master of his art in Kung Fu and rightfully settles old scores inflicted to his loved ones. The influence of Japanese pathos is obvious in the technique of the lightsaber being similar to the use of the Japanese Samurai swords, and the etiquette-conscious Jedi humility to the Japanese bows in greetings (the word Jedi comes from the Japanese term "Jidai Geki," which translates as "period drama"Fact|date=April 2007). The Jedi also live by a code of conduct and battle similar to the Samurai Code (or Bushido) as well as providing protection without being soldiers for a particular Nation or Government, which could also be related to Shaolin Monks.

Philosophy and religion

The essential trademark of Star Wars' philosophy is its reliance on the Force.

The essence of the Sith/Jedi moral dichotomy

In Episode IV Obi-wan first explains the dichotomy of good and evil encompassed in the Force. He tells Luke that "For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic." Then moments later he contrasts the jedi with the actions of Darth Vader: "He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force." Little other doctrine is expounded on in Episode IV, nevertheless, the violent nature of Darth Vader is viewed in contrast with the mostly passive behavior of Obi-wan Kenobi.

Above all of the films, Episode V contains the most thorough explanations of the nature of the Force during Luke's training on Dagobah. Yoda states, "A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger...fear...aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice." Luke then asks, "Vader. Is the dark side stronger?" to which Yoda replies " Quicker, easier, more seductive." And Luke again asks "But how am I to know the good side from the bad?" and Yoda replies "You will know. When you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack." (Yet Lucas states in the commentary for Episode II: Attack of the Clones, that the dark side is more powerful. "We're cementing [Anakin's] determination to become the most powerful Jedi. The only way you can really do that is to go to the dark side because the dark side is more powerful. If you want the ultimate power, you really have to go to the stronger side, which is the dark side." Some speculate this is a verbalization of Anakin's rationalizations and motives, nonetheless Lucas seems to be speaking directly to the nature of the Force as it operates in the universe he created. Additionally, during the DVD supplemental features for Episode III: Revenge of The Sith, when discussing the lightsabre duels, it is explained that Anakin now has the ultimate skill level (one level above even his own mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi) because Anakin has become a Sith. Thus, the confusion with Lucas' statements persists.)

"Star Wars" stresses the self-destructive nature of fear, anger, hate, selfishness, and lust for power. In Episode I, Yoda summarizes stating, "Fear is the path to the dark side: fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering"." Patience, discipline, humility, monasticism, respect for one's elders, peace with one's self, trust in things spiritual over things physical, and self-sacrifice are extolled as virtues. However, a stoic position of setting aside personal feelings for others in order to bring about a greater good is also emphasized. For example, Luke Skywalker is told to remain on Dagobah to complete his training rather than rescue his friends from Cloud City, because doing so will "destroy all for which they have fought and suffered."

imilarities to various religions

This aligns with the philosophy of many religions, which emphasize rational thought and meditation as the path to enlightenment, as opposed to the "Dark Side", of violent passion and emotion. It also aligns with secular Enlightenment thought, based in reason (the light side) and passionate and often violent pre-WWI romanticism (the dark side).

Undoubtedly, however, the strongest influence is primarily Taoist philosophy and secondarily Zen Buddhism, which inherited much from Taoism. The light and dark side of the Force is analogous to the Yin and Yang duality of the Tai chi and the Force is also very similar to Dao the ways of the universe and also to Qi. The practitioners of dao and Qi according to the Taoist annals can live upwards of 200 years. Many true Taoist masters eventually became "san" or spirit-like beings, immortals who could partake and interact in the day-to-day earthly activities, not unlike what Obi-Wan and Yoda became after their passing, in their tutorials with Luke. Taoism emphasizes smooth flow of the Qi being the balance of the Yin and Yang forces to all manifestations including the human anatomy and the environment, again not unlike the duality of the Sith and Jedi being the dark and light extremes of the Force.

There are also similarities between the Jedi and ordained religious instructors. The Jedi council determines who can be trained. Then through both group studies and a mentor-protégé relationship they learn the mysteries of the Force (which are not disseminated to the general population) and how to use it. Finally upon the completion of their training the student is tested by the Jedi council through a series of trials, after which the Jedi council confers upon them the rank of Jedi Knight through a special ceremony. Numerous parallels can be drawn to monastic orders. The manner by which Jedi fight evil using the Force may also be said to compare to the Christian idea of clergy calling on the power of God to exorcise demons. This perception is reinforced by Han Solo's description of the Force in Episode IV as "all-powerful," which it isn't. Instead, the Force is more like the "life force" or the "Brahman" of pagan and Hindu religions. It is apparent, however, that Jedi rely on their own mastery of the impersonal Force to exert power, while the Christian traditionally relies only on the mercy of a personal God, and not on any innate ability or "skill" as Force use requires.

The Force, in some occasions and descriptions, seems to be rather attentive and conscious despite the initial perception of it as impersonal. For instance, The Force itself impregnating Shmi Skywalker so the birth of Anakin could come about, while being strongly similar to the Nativity Story of Christianity, denotes at least some personality or consciousness to the Force, at least to the point that it is conscious but rarely personal with the universe. This parallel is undermined by the discussion of Darth Plagueis, who was said by Palpatine to be "so wise and so powerful that he could actually use the force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life."

A "Chosen One" of the Force is also similar to the Christian view of Jesus, in that it is an "Anointed" or "Chosen" or "Elect" One that redeems the Light and brings greater balance to "the Force".

The monastic tradition from Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism religions is echoed in the strict code by which the Jedi live. The Jedi do not seek after material possessions. Both Obi-wan and Yoda spent considerable time living as hermits. The Jedi code also forbids romantic love of any kind - making it similar to Catholic vows of celibacy.


The Sith and the Jedi also greatly differ in how they govern. The Sith are portrayed as wanting absolute power and then ruling with an iron fist. If absolute power is not yet obtained the Sith will manipulate and deceive scores of people until they do obtain it. Once in control they will kill underlings that disappoint them and rule through fear. However, because of their desire for power (which is an intrinsic characteristic of the Sith), they are always plotting the demise of their master or apprentice, whatever their situation may be. Vader was never a true Sith - it is strongly hinted that although he wanted to overthrow Sidious (consistent with the weak relationship between Sith master and apprentice), his motivation was originally a need to restore order rather than take power. However, it is made clear in both "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" that he considers absolute power a legitimate means to achieve co-operation among all species and factions in the Galaxy. In "Revenge of the Sith", he reveals his desire to rule the galaxy with his wife Padme, and thereby to bring order and peace to the Republic (later the Empire), perhaps becoming some sort of benevolent despot. In "The Empire Strikes Back", Vader again expresses this desire, this time inviting his son, Luke, to rule with him. In both instances, there is no question that Darth Vader himself would wield absolute power over the forces of the Empire.

In contrast, the Jedi govern through a shared power structure with many "checks and balances". As Jedi they govern with a council based on merit and seniority. In the Republic they allowed themselves to be deployed on missions according to the wishes of the Chancellor and they did not seek to manipulate the activities of the Senate. The Jedi are almost completely devoid of jealousy and competitive ambition within their ranks.

Moral ambiguity in Star Wars

There is, however, some sense of moral ambiguity associated with ethos of Star Wars. In Episode VI, Obi-Wan posthumously admits to deceiving Luke. Obi-wan asserts that "many of thetruths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." While Anakin's character changes dramatically when he transitions to Darth Vader - he is still Luke's father. This ambiguity is exactly what makes it possible for Luke to see the good in his father and so to save him. Basically, Lucas admits that the distinction between good and evil is relative, it mainly serves the instructive aims of every legend. With Vader's final act at the end of Episode VI another thesis is reversed: that of the choice of the good or the bad side being definitive. Anakin's life shows how a mistake can be redeemed.

Another recurring event is that a Jedi triumphing over a Sith in lightsaber combat usually occurs once the Jedi becomes sufficiently angry (see Anakin's fight with Count Dooku in Episode III and Luke's fight with Darth Vader in Episode VI). This raises an important question: if the Light Side and the Dark Side are equally powerful, then why does it help when a Jedi resorts to aggression to defeat his foes? The answer probably lies in Yoda's statement, "A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never attack."

However, Yoda and Mace Windu both defeat Count Dooku and Darth Sidious, respectively, while still maintaining control; although it should be noted that Mace's use of Vaapad (Form VII of lightsaber combat) required enjoyment in fighting, by definition a Dark Side concept. Also, Obi-wan Kenobi defeated Anakin Skywalker only when Anakin's judgement became impaired by an over-estimation of his own power, engendered by the Dark Side. In addition, Kenobi defeated Darth Maul by feeling the force and conquering his anger. It is also made plain in Episode V that Luke Skywalker is negatively influenced by a tendency towards impatience and anger during his confrontation with Darth Vader. From these cases it would seem that control is "good" and anger "bad". Due to these seemingly contradictory factors, it is difficult to understand exactly what kinds of Force the Jedi consider legitimate. This unclear boundary between the Light and Dark sides (and hence, the ease of transition to evil) may or may not have some bearing on the fact that Jedi are sometimes tempted by the Dark Side as soon as they become sufficiently powerful.

Religious and ideological motifs

A shift from Eastern religion to Western religion, however, occurs between the original and the prequel trilogies. Old Republic Jedi appear to bear a stronger kinship to medieval knights, than Taoist monks. The prophecy of a chosen-one (which Anakin fulfills), born to a virgin, is very similar to the concept of the Christ. The final scenes of Episode III add a symbolic emphasis to this role. After Anakin is “killed” on Mustafar, a robed emperor mourns over his “dead” protégé, in a composition reminiscent of the Pieta. This would suggest that the “dead” Anakin will be resurrected. The hierarchy and role of the Jedi Knights also bears a strong resemblance to the Knights Templar of medieval Christendom.

The sequel started in Episode IV with the obvious cliché — Darth Vader in matte and shiny black outfit, with Leia Organa in pristine white robes, alluding to the concepts of Good versus Evil. With the exception of Anakin in the teenage years in Episodes II and III (although one could arguably say that he was a bit "destined" for the Sith, so maybe this does not count as an exception to the rule) and Luke Skywalker in Episode VI, black costumes seem to be reserved exclusively for the darker Empire and its Emperor. Whether intentional or not, the use of language was dramatized — the Empire minions almost always spoke with British accents, while most of the Rebels spoke with American accents, except Obi-Wan. Likewise, all Imperial officers were outfitted in tailor-cut Nazi-like uniforms, with the Rebels, except for fighter-pilots, in looser and more ascetic overalls. It has been suggested as well that the Imperials/Rebels axis could also be a reference to real-world Reactionaries vs. Revolutionaries, but this theory is speculation.

The Galactic Republic is noted as a morally ambiguous entity. As such, the Republic characters speak in a mix of American and British accents. Generally, the American accents predominate at the low end of the Republic's hierarchy while the British predominates at the top. In addition, the clone troopers speak in New Zealand accents, which is a possible indicator of the clones' own moral ambiguity and amorality, since this accent is variously described as being in between British and American. As the Republic goes further down its path to the Empire, its ships and vehicles become less colorful, more monochromatic and less stylised. In Episode II, the clone armor has classical, rounded stylistic influence. However, by Episode III, the armor has lost a lot of its elaborate detail in favor of a menacing "skeletal" appearance. At the end of Episode III, the Republic's star destroyers and starfighters are totally colourless, steel-grey and sharply styled, symbolising the final transformation of the Republic into the Empire.

Also, the greeting of those on the side of light, "May the Force be with you," is similar to the Christian greeting, "May the Lord be with you.", used responsively throughout Christian liturgies such as the Roman Catholic Mass.


Technology, like the force, is represented as a double-edged blade, depending on the intentions and characters of those who wield it. Technology, like the force, is an unchanging and neutral aspect of life, but whoever is manipulating it will draw on its dark or light aspects depending on what kind of person they are. The movie shows the Empire as misusing technology to suit its own selfish agenda, at the cost of other people's freedoms; and it depicts most of the Rebels as utilizing more-or-less the same types of technology in order to fight the Empire and stand up for freedom and justice.

Furthermore, it is ingenuity, adaptation and diversity that largely dictate how effective or just the use of technology will be, rather than a particular piece of technology merely being powerful or technically advanced, or being possessed by the dominant culture. For example, the Ewoks are underestimated by the Empire because it regards them as little more than animals, but they are revealed to be intelligent beings that are adapted to their environment and are experts in utilizing their local technologies: they have a culture, and the ability to create a variety of traps and possess numerous weapons such as slings and bows and arrows. The Rebels have also adapted their gear with camouflage to blend into their surroundings, whereas the Empire's stormtroopers blunder through the forest in their usual synthetic, bright white armor, and pilot giant two-legged walkers that, although they possess superior firepower, seem ill-suited to irregular terrain and are easily tripped.

A certain union between technology and nature exists in the concept of droids. Although R2-D2 and C-3PO are prominent and beloved characters, it is stated that droids cannot actually "think". Lucas has said the creatively-thinking clone army was meant to contrast the droid army of the Trade Federation, which is inferior because droids are clumsy and can only follow their original programming. In this way technology is always regarded as nothing more than a tool to be used or misused by living beings. This stands in stark contrast to other science fiction such as The Matrix, Blade Runner and Star Trek, in which the possibility of artificial intelligence being as aware and valid as natural intelligence is explored in depth.

External links

* [] A page that reproduces the National Air and Space Museum exhibit "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth".
* [ Star Wars Episode III: Jedi Spirituality]
* [ The Star Wars Phenomena & The Revenge of the Sith]
* [ The Other Side of Star Wars]

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