It is commonly understood that the ancient Greeks and alike used mythological tales to communicate philosophical teachings. Amazingly, these tales have lasted the test of time and are still told today. It seems stories with philosophical lessons and teachings have an intrinsic value to human civilization. This seems to be the case because we are still creating such stories, and those with great lessons become pop culture phenomena. One example, is the Star Wars saga. George Lucas was known to appreciate ancient tales with meaning. In my opinion, he made one of the most profound modern mythological tales. The tale of Star Wars holds many similarities to Daoism, and my understanding of WuWei (无为). Making it a beautiful tale of how the best way to combat evil in the world, is to be one of passivity, serenity, and nonviolence.
To articulate how Star Wars projects this lesson through its story, one must look at the overarching narrative of the first six episodes, the original movies written by George Lucas. I will refer to these as the original trilogy (episode 4,5, and 6) and the prequel trilogy (episodes 1,2, and 3).
The Jedi are the epitome of goodness. They practice compassion, live their lives in service of others, and strive for peace in the galaxy. Their teachings are clearly benevolent, and are such that we should take them into consideration of our own lives. Jedi are commonly advised to be mindful of their thoughts and feelings1,2. It also bears a striking resemblance to the practice of mindfulness meditation, where one trains the mind in being mindful on the present moment and taking a non-judgmental stance on all incoming emotions, sensations, stimuli, etc. Additionally, the very first lesson Yoda teaches young Anakin Skywalker is that a Jedi must let go of fear, anger, and hatred2. These three emotions lead one to the dark side in this tale, but are also detrimental to us in real life as well. They are the pillars to the way of the Jedi. However, the choice of the three words Yoda uses here is very important. We will see later that these teachings are incomplete. The flaw in this teaching, and the subsequent correction, is what sheds light onto the profound teaching of Star Wars.
Episode 1 begins with the Jedi being the rulers of the galaxy. However, all who know the story of Star Wars know that Darth Sidious/ Emperor Palpatine will one day take control over the galaxy. The entire prequel trilogy outlines the progress of how Darth Sidious manipulates everyone to create political conflict and war to drive the Jedi further into becoming soldiers. The dark emperor chooses this tactic because he knows that violence and conflict is the way of the Sith. The Jedi way is the opposite. As Macu Windu puts it, they are “keepers of the peace, not soldiers”1. However, though this is what Jedi ideally are, in practice they are not so. The three prequels are full of events where the Jedi intervene into political matters and conduct themselves as warriors in order to “keep the peace”. Here, the audience is able to recognize that the Jedi are hesitant to fight in wars. Regardless, the core teachings provided to Anakin in the first episode regarding letting go of fear, anger, and hate do not directly forbid the Jedi from using their fighting skills to keep the peace. So, the audience, and the Jedi council alike, allow the Jedi to conduct themselves in violent ways. During the same scene with Macu Windu, Yoda mentions that his vision is clouded by the dark side1. Why is his vision clouded by the dark side? Why do the Jedi not see Darth Sidious for who he truly is until it is too late? The answer to this is because the violence practiced by the Jedis causes them to lose their way. Evidence of this is brought forth in the original trilogy.
In the original trilogy, Yoda’s teachings to Luke change in comparison to the teachings he gave to his father Anakin. In Dagoba, Yoda tells Luke to let go of anger, hate, and aggression3. Notice how the word “hate” is replaced by “aggression”. This is not to say that hate is ok, but to say that aggression is what Yoda did not understand before, but now realizes as a key component of the Jedi way. The Jedi before used aggression all the time, in the name of peace. They fought evil people as warriors of justice, and Palpatine used this against them. Yoda’s vision was clouded by the dark side, because him, and all other Jedi were using a dark side related behavior: aggression. This is highlighted repeatedly throughout the original trilogy. Luke leaves his training early to go help his friends, and both Obi Wan and Yoda urge him not to do so3. They explain how Luke going off to fight Vader is what the enemy wants, and the best thing he could do was stay, train, and not fight. Yet, Luke departs anyway in the 5th episode and fights his father. This battle doesn’t end well for Luke, and he loses a hand. The hand is replaced with a robotic one, a symbol for lost humanity. In essence, he was punished for acting on his violent and fear driven urges, pushed further to the dark side. We continue to see how aggression is related to the dark side at the beginning of episode 6 when Luke enters Jaba’s palace. Here is referred to as a Jedi, yet acts the opposite: he walks into the palace in all black, and uses brute force to enter the palace by using a force choke on one of the guards4. Though we see him as our hero, he is acts and behaves more similar to a Sith.
The entire tale resolves itself in the final confrontation between Luke, his father, and Darth Sidious. During this encounter, the emperor continuously instills anger and hatred into Luke by threatening his friends, in hope that he will turn to aggression4. He even states that Luke should “strike [him] down, [so] his journey to the dark side [can] be complete”4.
Palpatine knows how to manipulate Jedi into acting upon tendencies that bring them to the dark side. It is how he came to power in the prequels. Luke goes to strike the emperor out of anger and Vader prevents the strike (Vader is saving his son from reaching a place of no return). They fight until Luke gains the upper hand and removes the hand of his father. In this moment, Luke notices that they both have these robotic hands. This is a realization of common humanity. Similar to the vision he had on Dagoba where he fights his father and beheads him, only to find that under the helmet was himself. A realization that they are not only family, but both human beings struggling with the same internal battle between the forces of good and evil. At this moment Luke has become enlightened, and becomes the truest Jedi in the entire series. He turns around and drops his lightsaber, and says “you failed your highness, I am a Jedi”4.
What is significant in this scene is after Luke’s clarifying realization, he drops his weapon, ending the violence while simultaneously claiming victory. He understands that the only way to defeat Palatine, is to not use the same methods of agression. Rather than using violence, he should use passivity and non-violence to triumph over evil. It goes without saying that he is correct: Palpatine is defeated, and he is able to save his father. In the final scene between Luke and his father, one can see that the black outfit that Luke wears is becoming undone, and the inside fabric now revealed is white. Reiterating that now Luke, being one of non-violence has saved the galaxy and everyone he loves. Luke at this moment becomes a true Jedi, one that has surpassed all before him and becomes the ideal epitome of goodness for the audience to emulate.
This is a story of WuWei. Of how non-action, non-aggression, and effortless action is most effective, and perhaps only way of bettering the world. The Jedi were constantly fighting and resisting evil, unknowingly playing right into the hands of the evil forces in the world. Only when Luke turns to non-action, does the dominance of evil end. This wisdom is not only useful in a galaxy far far away, but is most applicable to the world we live in now. A modern mythological tale of the importance of Daoist philosophy. May the Force be with you.
1. Lucas G. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.; 2002.
2. Lucas G. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menacee.; 1999.
3. Lucas G. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.; 1980.
4. George Lucas. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.; 1983.