I just read a thoughtful post on the Pop Culture and Philosophy blog about the concept of balance in the Force in Star Wars. I’ve been struggling to understand that concept myself as I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars comics, both Legends canon and new canon, and thinking them through in light of the movies, Clone Wars show, and Rebels show. I don’t think the post I linked to has it right, but I’m linking to it as a thoughtful piece trying to come to grips with this issue. A quick Google search revealed quite a number of other views on this, again none of it seeming to me to get things quite right. So I wanted to put some of my own thoughts on this into writing, however, so here are some rough musings attempting to put many months of thought on this into something somewhat digestible.
Here are several things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, when put together:
I’m not entirely sure how to put all this together. I think it’s probably tied up in the confusion in Star Wars about emotions. We see Obi-Wan telling Luke to trust his feelings, which he does when destroying the first Death Star, and his feelings for his father win the day in Return of the Jedi. But we frequently see Jedi proclaiming emotions to be bad, e.g. fear leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to destruction. And it’s not just negative emotions. Anakin is told to reject his feelings for Padme, because his attachment to her will get him in trouble (and it in fact does, since it in effect causes his turn to the Dark Side, which in turn causes her death).
The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics had a similarly confusing approach to emotions, but their view turns out to be consistent upon closer examination. They say emotions are always bad, but when you press them on it, it seems they don’t really believe what we would mean by that. They define emotions as when you are out of the control of reason, when reason could not correct your course even if you were to learn that your guiding beliefs and desires are wrong. Other feelings that don’t do that simply aren’t emotions, according to the Stoics. This allows them to say that there are good feelings like moral indignation, which can occur in response to something truly evil but not out of self-righteousness, simply out of respect for what’s right. They aren’t opposed to emotions, as we understand them, just being out of control of reason. In other words, they are like Star Trek’s Vulcans, who can find things fascinating while saying they have no emotions. But isn’t that an emotion? Yes, but not one that controls them in such a way that reason has lost control.
What about the Jedi? Is there any sense of which emotions are good and which not? Clearly fear, anger, and hate are bad. So is Anakin’s attachment to Padme. But isn’t Anakin’s attachment just love? So it seems positive and negative emotions can both be bad. But I think a case can be made that Anakin’s attachment to Padme is an obsession. He sees her after more than a decade and still thinks he’s going to marry her, while she barely considers him more than a child. He’s right in his expectation, since he does end up marrying her, but that’s not the point. He’s obsessed with someone who has little interest in him. Lucas told the story extremely poorly in terms of how she changed on that, at least if it was meant to show us how a mature and highly capable woman like the one was saw in The Phantom Menace would want to marry the arrogant, whiny Anakin whom she saw as a young child, but there’s no indication that Anakin stopped being immature in how he saw her during that courtship. (Perhaps he even managed to achieve it by using the Force to manipulate her to love him, whether deliberately or unconsciously. That would go a long way to explaining the most baffling story element of the prequels.)
Is it possible that the right balance in how to use the Force is to recognize that emotions can be good and proper while submitted to reason, but the Jedi might sometimes have gone overboard in that by trying to avoid emotion entirely, while the Sith emphasized the negative emotions particularly and so were imbalanced in a different way? Qui-Gon Jinn may well be an example of one of the few Jedi to see things differently. Quite a number of his actions would be seen by a purist Jedi as on the border of acceptable behavior. He was willing to use deception and manipulation to accomplish his goals, as long as he was deceiving corrupt and dishonorable beings, and as long as the goal was worthy enough. He fully intended to train Anakin even if the Jedi Council forbade it. He was seen by many Jedi as a Gray Jedi, which was a term they used for Jedi they saw as walking too close to the Dark Side.
It’s quite possible that Obi-Wan eventually came around to this or maybe was just more influenced by his teacher all along, and so he would tell Luke to trust his feelings when the Yoda of the prequels would never do that. Yoda, at the end of the Clone Wars show, seems to have some breakthroughs after being visited by the Force Ghost of Qui-Gon, and perhaps his defeat at the hands of Sidious and his time on Dagobah also changed his views. I’d have to rewatch all that to see if what I’m suggesting actually fits.
But it does seem to me that it may well be a plausible interpretation of the Chosen One prophecy that Anakin was supposed to restore balance to the Force (meaning Light and Dark Sides) by destroying first the Jedi and then the Sith, to have a more balanced take on things be pursued by his son Luke in the new Jedi Order. The entire Legends canon might fit that, even the Legacy comics that take place 125 years later, where a new Sith Order rises, destroys most of the Jedi, and one of the last Skywalker heirs turns out to be sort of a Gray Jedi, who then eliminates the Sith Lord who engineered the whole thing.
It remains to be seen if the new Disney stories will fit with this interpretation, of course. We know so little about Rey, Luke’s presumably self-imposed exile, the Knights of Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke, and where things will ultimately end up that I can’t even begin to think about these things just from two movies, a few seasons of a TV show, and a bunch of comics (most of which I’ve read) and novels (none of which I’ve read). But it seems to me to be a plausible interpretation of what Lucas intended, one that fits with all the canon stories as far as I know and most of what I know about the Legends canon too.
[Update as of 2 August 2018: Episode VIII doesn't help either. I don't think Rian Johnson has any interest in any of the things that I've been thinking about in this post, and hardly anything in his film has any bearing on any of this. Luke's reasons for closing himself off to the Force and isolating himself didn't get into any specific criticisms of Jedi philosophy to the point of showing much about these issues, and Yoda's criticism of Luke for doing so don't say very much either.]
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.