A Philosophy of Star Wars Q&A with UML Prof. Nicholas Evans:
Before the release of the latest installation in the Star Wars saga, I sat down with UMass Lowell professor of philosophy Nicholas Evans to speak with him about the films and topics ranging from droid welfare to the influence of the 13th century Zen master Dogen Zenji. Special thanks to mvm creative director and resident Jedi Stephen Pennimpede for helping prepare this interview. ( Editor’s note: This interview originally ran in 2017 ).
The Jedi view themselves as keepers of the peace, with a high moral code, and yet they chop off limbs, control minds and use clones as cannon fodder. Are they really any better than the Sith?
So this has been a debate very recently in the [Star Wars] community. I think that it’s increasingly the case, especially in the prequels, that the Jedi aren’t quite what they seem to be. And, in fact, I think that for all that people hate the prequels, that is, episodes I, II and III, what they are trying to show is that the Jedi gave up on something that’s core to their beliefs at some point.
That doesn’t explain everything. I think that one of the first things that Obi-Wan Kenobi does is to frighten off a bunch of sand people — he chops off some limbs on Mos Eisley. So he’s not exactly a pacifist by any means.
The dominant difference between the Sith and the Jedi isn’t one about violence for its own sake. It’s about the way that they view their relationship with the Force. The Sith view their relationship between themselves and the Force as internal. It’s all about their emotions and their connection with the Force. The dominant view that the Jedi tend to espouse is that their relationship with the Force is external. They are giving themselves to the Force rather than trying to harness the Force for their own purposes. That’s the big view. What flows from this is moderately different in the amount of violence that happens. The Jedi do their fair share of lopping off limbs and killing people.
Are C3PO and R2-D2 sentient?
Are they sentient? Yes. Are they conscious? That’s not totally clear. That’s a really old philosophical debate. They are sophisticated enough and autonomous enough that we should treat them as having sentience. Which means that they ought to have some kind of welfare and rights. And, in fact, in the most recent line of comics now that Disney has bought Star Wars, there’s a number of story lines that revolve around the relationship humans and other sentient organic creatures in the Star Wars universe have with droids. Artificial intelligence is all pervasive, and yet one of the things that is rarely talked about is whether that artificial intelligence has any rights that it can claim. Campaigns for droid welfare, as far as I know, aren’t common in the Star Wars universe.
There are a number of characters, notably Darth Vader, who are kept alive due to technology. Does this echo recent debates concerning immortality or the coming of a “cyborg” era in which the lines between machine and human become blurred?
These are really old cybernetic debates and I definitely think that one of the themes Darth Vader has always brought to the table is that he is sustained by the technological fascism that is the Imperialists. A lot of people view technology as the province of our capitalist liberal democracy, but fascism has always had a strong relationship with technology and the technocratic power of the state. It’s a real part of Darth Vader’s identity. It’s not just that he’s kept alive by a breathing machine and his legs are now prosthetic. He is in some sense sustained by the technological apparatus that is the Imperial system. The Empire keeps him alive. It’s no surprise that the moment at which the Empire begins to crumble, that is, the blowing up of the second Death Star, is the moment he also dies.
Do the films raise questions about when it is right to rebel against an oppressive state? Do they express a coherent political philosophy?
George Lucas has been on the record a number of times explaining that one of the huge inspirations for him in making the original Star Wars movies was the Vietnam War and the protests against what at the time many people thought was an illegitimate war, staged by a group of people who had no business invading another country and imposing their will and ideology on other parts of the world. George Lucas was a part of the protest movement. That political philosophy has been maintained fairly consistently since.
In the prequels, it’s not merely that the Sith are the bad guys. The overblown and corrupt Senate are also the bad guys. So even though Darth Sidious takes control of the Republic and turns it into the Empire, I think that Lucas also wants to point out that the Republic gave something away in order to make that happen and is also to be blamed.
And then in the new movies, there’s this sense that it’s not only permissible to rebel against government, it’s also permissible to rebel when your government will not come to your aid. It’s not that they’re protesting against the New Republic, it’s that the Resistance is fighting against the First Order because the Republic won’t. There’s a cold war between the Republic and the First Order and a creeping authoritarianism in the galaxy. The resistance is designed to resist that because the powers that be will not.