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Star Wars and the Stoics: What ancient philosophy has in common with a galaxy far, far away

A long time ago, in a galaxy … well, this galaxy, really … on a planet beset by strife and warring factions, a set of deep thinkers and noble warriors began developing some code for living that might alleviate the pain and discover the good.

Stoic philosophy, which traces its roots to 3rd century, B.C., Greece, has much in common with some of the tenets of the Force in the Star Wars franchise, so much in fact that several books have been written on the subject of Star Wars and philosophy. One such volume, 2005’s Star Wars and Philosophy, contains a contribution on Stoicism from Creighton University philosophy professor William O. Stephens, Ph.D.

Stephens saw that the Stoics, not unlike the Jedi, worked out a basic creed boiling down to sage Yoda’s words of caution to Luke Skywalker in the midst of the neophyte Jedi’s training: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

“The main thing for any Stoic was not to get angry,” Stephens said. “You attempt to rid yourself of all negative emotions. And how do we see Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi counseling young Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker during their Jedi training? Doing just that. Not allowing fear, anger, hatred to take over and lead one to the Dark Side of the Force.”

Stephens, who often works on relating the wisdom of the ancients to sports, films and pop culture, says Star Wars has much to tell us about Stoic philosophy on both the Light and Dark sides of the Force. As the billion-dollar Star Wars franchise opens up the third trilogy of its films, Stephens said he plans on continuing to watch for Stoic maxims coming out of the generation that follows such heroes as Luke and Leia, Han Solo and Yoda.

“It has been interesting to note the uses of Stoicism in the film series,” he said. “The ideas tied up in the Force have given a lot of people a philosophy to think about.”

In an effort to live harmoniously with nature, Stoics like Zeno of Citium, Chrysippus, Seneca and Epictetus, asked their adherents to be impassive, strive for the rational in all thought and deed, and accept fate in order to lead happy lives in the service of a higher good.

Yoda speaks of being passive as a Jedi, of allowing things to come and being calm about them, instead seeing events — even negative ones — as an opportunity to serve.

“A Stoic lives in agreement with nature,” Stephens said. “But it doesn’t follow that a Stoic is immobile, inert.”

There’s also a caveat in Stoicism not to become too attached to any person, place or thing. A similar lesson is at play in Star Wars’ Episodes I, II and III as Anakin Skywalker tussles with his desire to become a Jedi and his overwhelming love of Padmé Amidala.

Ultimately, Anakin’s visions of Padmé’s death lead him to make a bargain with the Dark Side. When his visions become almost unbearably real, Anakin arrogantly squares off against his former mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is defeated, and takes on a new life as Darth Vader, but not before he accuses Padmé of betrayal and grievously injures her.

“The Stoics teach that all of us are basically on loan from God or from the universe,” Stephens said. “People are gifts that come into our lives and go out from them in a natural cycle of birth, life, growth, death. Obi-Wan is constantly reminding Anakin of this in his relationship with Padmé. Anakin is of the opinion that if he can’t have Padmé, no one can. And he believes he can be with her and be a Jedi, something that leads to her death and his turn to the Dark Side.”

As for the Dark Side, Stoicism also has a role to play in Emperor Palpatine’s governing worldview.

Notions of Stoic impassivity and the rejection of compassion — which went along with Stoics disavowing the irrational, generally — factor into the Dark Side’s teachings, according to Stephens. The Sith, enemies of the Jedi, are able to use some of these ideas to their advantage.

The Dark Side also has an affinity with the structured Stoic life of security, stability, peace and order, just choosing to give it different language and execution. The Dark Side counsels patience and a rejection of false beliefs, including belief in one’s individual freedom.

“In the Emperor’s view, this is where misery stems,” Stephens said. “The freedom to choose often ends in anger and the mastery of one’s desires is crucial. The anger is still there, however, and the Sith are able to channel their anger and this is where their strength comes from.”

But the vindictive nature of the Dark Side is decidedly un-Stoic in the final analysis. The Dark Side relies on fear and intimidation, reprisals and aggression, all irrational, evil pursuits. The Dark Side is countered by the Light Side’s use of the Force as a defense, something that can rationally be used for the good and the gaining of wisdom rather than power.

Moreover, Stoics believe in compassionate action in the aid of helping individuals or communities.

“If you can act to alleviate suffering or you can provide some philanthropic aid, you are acting rationally and virtuously,” Stephens said.

One of Stoicism’s early (ahem) Jedi, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, committed to paper a series of maxims that are collected as his Meditations. A great many of these maxims speak to the control of emotions and the importance of forestalling anger, especially. Like Yoda (whose name in Sanskrit, Stephens notes, translates as “warrior”), Aurelius was a warrior-philosopher and his thoughts are often found in the millenarian Jedi’s words.

Yoda appears to have reached some sage status, what the Greek Stoics sometimes called spoudaios — a serious person. But in Aurelius’ work, it’s clear that even as an old man, he wrestled with the basic tenets of Stoicism. It wasn’t uncommon among the Stoics, Stephens said, given the constant push of emotion and the often irrational behavior of human beings.

“Virtually no one reaches the pinnacle of becoming a Stoic sage,” he said. “The Stoics themselves said the sage was as rare as the phoenix and one of those comes around every 20,000 years. It wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t achievable by any of us. Many people derided the Stoics and said, ‘Well, if we can’t get there, why even try?’ The Stoics have an answer: ‘The closer we approach this kind of rational, virtuous life, the better off we will be, the better off the world will be. If I can be consistently less fearful, consistently less angry, I can become more rational, and more virtuous, and happier.’ This is what Yoda is consistently imparting to Luke and the Jedi.”

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