Stoicism and Star Wars

Stoicism and Star Wars

By Adam Klinker

Much to tell us of Star Wars, the Stoics have.

The ideas of the Stoics have been fertile ground for the science fiction franchise that this year marked 40 years since the premiere of the first film.

“Yoda is one of the most Stoic characters in film,” says William Stephens, PhD, Creighton philosophy professor and an expert on Stoicism. “His wisdom echoes what Stoics like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus say: ‘Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.’ That code of the Jedi is Stoicism 101.”

Stoic philosophy arose in ancient Greece around 300 B.C. and enjoyed a significant following in Rome. The Stoics taught a philosophy of living in agreement with nature while calmly fulfilling all of one’s familial, social and professional roles. To live in agreement with nature, they believed, required accepting the aspects of the world that you cannot change, doing the best you can with what you’ve got, and focusing on improving what is in your power — namely, your own beliefs, judgments and emotions. Some two dozen centuries onward — though placed in a time long ago and in a galaxy far, far away — Yoda and the Jedi seek to impart similar lessons on disciplining one’s mind to harmonize with the logic and reason of the Force.

“The Stoics teach that true power is self-mastery,” says Stephens, who published an essay about Stoicism in the films in a 2005 collection titled Star Wars and Philosophy. “It’s self-fulfillment, self-containment. It’s not controlling other people. That’s tyranny and that’s what Yoda and the Jedi fight against when it comes to the Dark Side.”

While the Jedi stand out as the most obvious examples of Stoics in the film franchise, there are other characters who exhibit the outlook of another school of ancient philosophy.

Take Han Solo.

Stephens says that Solo, who sails into the story as a rapscallion solely interested in his own fortunes, might more closely hew to the tenets of Epicureans, a school of philosophy that emerged around the same time as that of their rivals the Stoics. Epicurus and his followers held that the good life is the pleasant life. Moreover — and like Solo, who derides devotion to the Force as a “hokey religion” — the Epicureans, too, abjured the idea of a divine, life-giving force, choosing instead to believe in a universe made up of purposeless atoms.

“But in the Meditations, Marcus [Aurelius] says either the universe is made of atoms and void with no overarching divinity, or there is a divine framework,” Stephens says. “Either way, there’s an interconnectedness that operates in a law-like fashion. Either way, Marcus believed that he ought to accept what happens and be guided by reason.”

And at almost every critical juncture, Solo is there, choosing to side with the good and forego the allure of riches. Even for the Epicureans, pleasure and happiness — and by extension, seeking the good achieved by wisdom — meant learning to be content satisfying the simplest of desires.

At the same time, and again like the Stoics, the Jedi resist simple-minded classifications of good and evil. Luke Skywalker’s conviction that some good remained in his father, Darth Vader, echoes the Stoic tenet that all people do the best they can to pursue what they perceive to be good.

Actor Adam Driver, who plays the chief antagonist Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, the latest installment of the series, told journalists in the run-up to the film’s release that director J.J. Abrams instructed the rest of the cast not to see Ren as villainous, but rather as misunderstood and misunderstanding the Light Side of the Force. The same could be said for Ren’s predecessor, Darth Vader.

“Repeatedly in the Meditations, Marcus emphasizes tolerance,” Stephens says. “He says you’ll encounter people who are rude, selfish, impatient, angry, cruel. You have to love those people and recognize the divinity within them. They just have not been exposed to the truths to which Stoic philosophy can bring them. You can say they’re evil, you can impose a regime on them but, in the end — and as we see with the Empire in Star Wars — you’re really only adding to the tyranny. You have to get to know someone, Epictetus, another Stoic, would say. You have to engage them in dialogue and find out what they believe. Dismissive judgments about others lead to conflict and hatred.”

Therein lies a central object lesson of Stoicism in the film series. While the Empire seeks to impose what it views as good — order, stability, security — through controlling people, the Rebel Alliance recognizes the fundamental yearning of people, Earth-bound and intergalactic, to be free.

“It’s a clash of values,” Stephens says. “And the Jedi on the side of the Alliance recognize something that the Emperor and Darth Vader lose sight of: that true power is self-mastery, not the control of others. Self-mastery, self-fulfillment, self-knowledge: these are the hallmarks of Stoicism.”

The Stoics also keep an eye out for signs of the future, another trait held in common with the Jedi. Yoda employs this tactic with some caution — “Difficult to see, always in motion, is the future,” he tells Luke when the Jedi-in-training wishes to abandon his studies to help his friends. When young Anakin Skywalker reports his premonitions of his loved ones suffering and dying, Yoda cautions him that the fear of loss is the path to the Dark Side and that death is a natural part of life. These are important Stoic teachings.

“There’s a divine logic permeating all things, just as with the Force,” Stephens says. “There’s an interconnection in which, if you are passive and accepting enough, you can have a vision of the future and chart the course to the good. In the cases of both Luke and Anakin Skywalker, though, their fear of losing those they love — the thought of Leia and Han or Padmé suffering and in danger of dying — reflects a disordered understanding that ultimately spells Anakin’s downfall and Luke’s suffering.”

So even when the Sith Lords are at the throats of our heroes and working woe across the galaxy, for the Stoics, as much as for the Jedi, there’s a peaceful understanding that one must hold onto.

“It’s a really hard thing to do when the other guy is trying to kill you,” Stephens says. “But it all goes back to Yoda’s original lessons to Luke: You must not fear death, you must use the Force only in defense, never for aggression. There is always a better, wiser way. The Dark Side is easier and more seductive. That’s because fear, lust for power and hate are easy to give into. To find the good, the Light Side of the Force, you have to remain calm, unafraid, mindful and be ready to accept what comes and make the best of it. These remain good lessons for us all.”