New Star Wars: Should We Move beyond Good and Evil? (Is the Emperor Nietzsche’s “Superman”?)
Episode #10 of the course Sci-Phi: Philosophy through science fiction by David Kyle Johnson, PhD
No film series is more notorious for setting good against evil than the original Star Wars trilogy. Indeed, few films tell the viewer so blatantly who the bad guys are. Darth Vader is a vicious warlord, armored in black; the Emperor is a wrinkled-faced space wizard that cackles as he reveals his plans. These “Sith Lords” are obviously who you should root against. And the “Jedi Knights”—like Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke Skywalker—are the good guys you should root for.
A Change for the Better?
But when Disney bought Star Wars from George Lucas in 2012, things changed. It began to offer up new characters and stories that were much “grayer” than the originals. Take the “villain” Kylo Ren. He’s the offspring of heroes, isn’t actually a Sith, was nearly assassinated by his Jedi uncle, is constantly tempted by the light, and (in The Last Jedi) teams up with the heroine of the film, Rey (who herself is constantly tempted by The Dark Side), to defeat the vile Supreme Leader Snoke. Kylo is not always clearly “the bad guy.”
In fact, The Last Jedi makes us rethink the legacy of the Jedi as “the good guys.” As Luke Skywalker points out, “If you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, from the birth of the Sith to the fall of the Republic, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy. Hubris. … At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious [aka Sheev Palpatine] to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out.”
Indeed, in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, when the Jedi attempted to remove Chancellor Palpatine from power, they did so without justification. According to philosopher John Locke, an executive can be removed from power only when they
(a) hinder, corrupt, or abolish the legislator,
(b) govern without the consistency of law,
(c) refuse to enforce the laws,
(d) refuse to submit to the rule of law,
(e) turn over rule to a foreign power, or
(f) dissolve the courts.
It’s hard for fans to recognize this because they know what Palpatine will eventually do, but at the time the Jedi tried to remove him, Palpatine had done none of these things. Indeed, he had taken careful steps to make sure everything he did was legal. Watch the movie again. Mace Windu tries to assassinate Palpatine simply because he was a Sith (a member of a different religion), not because he has any evidence of wrongdoing.
Is Sheev the Good Guy?
That raises an interesting question. Could Palpatine actually be a good guy? Perhaps, if we consider the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argued that our opinions about what’s good and evil are merely the result of our “point of view.” He decried the church’s “slave morality” (which equates “powerlessness and oppression” with virtue and “power and achievement” with vice) and argued that it was holding back humanity’s progress. The solution? Embrace the “master morality,” which praises power and achievement. Abandon democracy, which defuses the power from achievers to the populace. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche called the person who would fully embrace his philosophy—whose “will to power” would put them in control and propel the human race forward—the “Ubermensch” (or “Superman”).
We see almost every one of these ideas embraced by Palpatine. At the opera (in Episode III), he tells Anakin that good and evil is merely a point of view. He sees the Jedi philosophy (which embraces peace, serenity, and harmony) as an inferior morality, when compared to the Sith philosophy (which emphasizes strength, power, and victory). And he destroys the democracy of The Old Republic to place himself in power.
Indeed, the only thing that seems to have kept Palpatine from becoming an Ubermensch was how he ultimately executed that power. According to Nietzsche, the Ubermensch would use their power to better humanity—not kill it. (Think Elon Musk or Bill Gates.) And even though Palpatine, in his rise to power, kept the casualties among droids and clones (who, in the Star Wars universe, don’t have minds), his rule eventually led to the deaths and oppression of millions. He’s not an Ubermensch.
So, ultimately, Palpatine wasn’t a good guy, but the Jedi weren’t unquestionably good either. And this, I would argue, makes the new Star Wars films better in some ways than the old. They are grayer, more morally ambiguous, harder to figure out—just like the real world. And as I have tried to show throughout this course, this is what sci-fi does best: It helps us deal with and think about the real world.
That brings us to the end of the course. Hope you enjoyed it!
P.S. We’ve dealt with a lot of science fiction and philosophy in these ten short lessons. Truth be told, however, when it comes to the way that science fiction helps illuminate and indeed, is philosophy, we have only begun to scratch the surface. For more, see my lecture series, Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy with “The Great Courses.”
“Hate ‘Last Jedi?’ The Star Wars Expanded Universe Is Worse” by Sean Buckley
The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy edited by Jason Eberl and Kevin Decker
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