“For a Thousand Generations…” – Evolving Jedi Philosophy from Star Wars to The Last Jedi

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On April 15th, 2017, the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released to the thunderous roar of a thousand live attendees at Celebration Orlando and the individual cheers of viewers at home. The trailer closed with a line from Luke Skywalker, uttered in a gravelly voice and tinged with foreboding, “I only know one truth. It’s time for the Jedi to end.” Cue the launching of a thousand speculations as people wondered what exactly those words meant for the Jedi and the overall philosophy of the Force in the Star Wars universe.

When Star Wars came out in 1977 the concept of the Jedi, as explained by Ben Kenobi, was relatively simple – the Jedi were space-age knights, chivalrous and inherently good, wielding a mystical energy field that was ever-present but relatively unexamined and mysterious. Juxtaposed against the evil of the fallen Jedi Knight Darth Vader in a space-fantasy play, it seemed their position as the relative “good guys” was pretty much sealed.

Over the course of the original trilogy we got to explore aspects of the Jedi and their relationship with the Force. I’ve always felt that Star Wars was conceived as an adventurous morality play with the dynamic of the light side versus the dark side as the center theme of the classic films. Although it can be argued that Jedi believe in the yin and the yang of the Force where the light and dark comprise a whole that ties the galaxy together, they are firm believers that the “yang” or “light” side of the Force is morally right. Their actions and philosophies reflect this attitude and are not challenged within the original trilogy itself.

I wouldn’t say the philosophy towards the Force is simplistic in the classic films. However, I would say it is presented simplistically for storytelling purposes. There are a lot of complicated philosophical ideas introduced by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda from real world Buddhist and Taoist tenets. Still, the viewer is meant to draw one major, yet simple conclusion – the light side is good and the dark side is bad. This causes the actual morally “gray” choices of light side characters like Kenobi to become talking points for fans years later because their actions sometimes don’t line up with the dualistic viewpoint of the original trilogy.

Cut to the debut of The Phantom Menace in 1999. Where the original trilogy explored the broad philosophy of the Jedi as it pertained to the individual, Lucas seems to use the prequels to explore their dogma. No longer just chivalrous space knights cloaked in mystery, the Jedi of the prequels are presented as monks who must abide by a strict moral code. Although the general framework of the Jedi’s relationship with the Force is kept intact, it becomes less flexible, with their rigid adherence to doctrine becoming one of the prequels‘ driving plot points.

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Non-attachment, age limitations, and the pressure to not give in to negative emotions rather than accept them as natural aren’t proposed as sage advice, but law. Anakin Skywalker feels repressed by the regulations of the Order. He cannot move past his emotional decisions because even acknowledging them at all is frowned upon and could result in his expulsion from the Order. This causes the resentment that eventually pits Anakin against the Jedi and blinds him to Chancellor Palpatine’s manipulations.

It’s also in the prequels that we are introduced to opposing viewpoints within the Jedi Order. Qui-Gon Jinn is considered a maverick that refuses to abide by many Jedi conventions. He emphasizes the idea of the Living Force, of being in the moment and allowing emotions to govern aspects of your decision-making instead of treating them as an obstacle to overcome. This offers our first glimpse into differing views on the Force that aren’t starkly black and white.

On the meta side, the audience still understands that the Jedi are the overall “good guys”, but the flaws in their ideology are a little more visible. They’re not always consistent in their standards and maybe that’s by narrative design. By the end of Revenge of the Sith, some Jedi, like Mace Windu, are portrayed as paranoid and out of touch – frayed at the edges by the encroachment of the dark side. Although Obi-Wan states to Anakin, “only a Sith deals in absolutes”, by the end, many of the Jedi seem blind to their own binary thinking about the nature of the Force.

In the last few years, there’s been a push towards the idea that the Force exists on a spectrum versus its original trilogy state as a binary choice. In The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and both Dave Filoni-led TV series, there are story arcs and characters that examine or embody this newer approach. In The Force Awakens, it’s stated that Supreme Leader Snoke wants Ben Solo because of his capacity for both the light and dark sides of the Force. In Star Wars Rebels, there’s the Bendu – a mysterious Force-wielding force of nature who claims to be “the one in the middle”.

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All of these ideas lead us to where Luke’s own relationship with the Force may be during The Last Jedi. After viewing the trailer and hearing that specific line, it seems logical that the “end” Luke refers to isn’t a physical end to the Jedi, but rather the transmutation of their ideas for a new era. From what we can tell, Luke has witnessed his nephew fall to the dark side in much the same way as his own father. Ben’s fall could be the catalyst that causes Luke to rethink Jedi philosophy and ultimately push for its evolution.

I like this idea. I think it’s important that the sequel trilogy tries to advance the story versus relying on the philosophical conceits of the first two. The films, like reality, should reflect our own evolving moralities and religious ideas. Still, it’s very difficult for an audience to spend forty years with an ideology they are told is right, only to potentially undermine it with a “the Jedi were wrong” plot in the sequel trilogy.

The Jedi still represent a belief system that expresses the integral values of selflessness, kindness, discipline, and acceptance of yourself, your experiences, and ultimately your death. These are valuable lessons and I don’t think that Luke will cast these Jedi tenets aside. I do think that he will start to view the Force as a whole, with the light and dark as necessary opposites that drive the energy of the universe instead of opposites in a proxy war to destroy each other.

I don’t believe this means that we will start seeing a dark side-wielding Luke or Rey, only that his new teachings will be more accepting of the emotions that governed Anakin, Ben, and even Luke himself instead of rejecting them. If this is the route the new films are going, it could pave the way for a Jedi Order much like the one Luke founded in the Expanded Universe. Luke may have even realized Ben’s potential as a conduit for both light and dark, but failed to realign his teachings in time to save Ben from the corruption of Snoke.

As always, there’s a chance that all of this speculation is misguided. The words of Luke Skywalker may just be the utterance of a disillusioned old man who feels his failures led to the downfall of his nephew and the newest generation of Jedi. They may have no bearing on the future philosophies or practices of the Order and the plot may be more conventional, following Rey as she works towards convincing the old Master to guide her.

I guess on December 15th, we will see. The Jedi, for their flaws, are my favorite faction from the Star Wars universe and I look forward to their potential evolution. I have faith that whatever direction the sequel trilogy takes with the Force, it will be nuanced, faithful, and very Star Wars.

16 comments

  1. What a thoughtful article. Eleven-Thirty Eight should publish a lot more of this guy’s stuff!

  2. John says:

    I hope this is the case. To lean into a “Jedi are actually bad” storyline would undercut most of the existing Star Wars narrative (Episode VI was, after all, triumphantly named “The Return of the Jedi”). I’m still expecting the incendiary final line of the trailer to be a line from earlier in the movie, before Rey convinces Luke to train her and bring the Jedi back. We’ll have to see…

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Some people would say even that is incendiary—for the movie to position the great Luke Skywalker such that he needs guidance from a newbie like Rey. TLJ doesn’t even have to suggest The Jedi Are Bad to be controversial, it only has to suggest that Luke Is Wrong.

      • Jim Mello says:

        Again, this is just me theorizing. I don’t consider myself an expert and this could all be proven wrong in months, but I don’t think Luke feels the Jedi are “bad”. It could be he feels that certain parts of their doctrine are closed off from the greater aspects of the Force. We’ve seen the relative dominance of either side of the Force isn’t good for the galaxy as a whole. Instead of the light “beating” the dark, he’s trying to move towards acceptance of both ideas as equal in the Force rather than opposites. By accepting the light and dark side inclinations in himself rather than accept one and reject the other, Luke accepts the meta-struggle of the viewer and life.

        Sometimes you will feel like Force pushing someone off a balcony, but its how you handle that choice, not the “feeling” that drives the choice, that defines you.

        Also, I’d like to think, like all great masters, Rey has as much to teach Luke as he has to teach Rey.

        There’s a way to do this where Luke still is the hero we knew him to be for forty years. Do I think it’ll be tough to do? Yes. But Rian Johnson is a far more intelligent and thoughtful storyteller than most of us are. I have hope.

      • John says:

        I hear that, but I think that ship already sailed with Episode VII. After all, Luke’s hiding on Ahch-To for years while the First Order builds a superweapon and destroys the Hosnian System. Billions die. Although the details aren’t entirely clear, I think it is a pretty safe assumption that a Jedi Master helping the Resistance might have been able to avert that sort of disaster. In my mind, Luke is already wrong – the only remaining question is the depth of his error.

        I think the biggest question is how Episode VIII will deal with the aftermath of the destruction of Hosnian, and Luke’s failure to stop it. Honestly, I think the easiest out is just to say that Luke was scared after failing Ben Solo and ran away. This isn’t my favorite choice for his character, but it is infinitely preferable to the Luke who intentionally hid away as part of some stratagem or longer-term plan, *allowing* the First Order to destroy Hosnian. The first may be cowardly, but it has a certain human element to it, whereas the latter is totally heartless.

        While a large part of Episode VIII will essentially be character triage for Luke, I think the movie can still affirm the importance of the Jedi overall, if it is willing to call Luke out on his crap. The Jedi might not be perfect, but they would sure have been useful in preventing the destruction of Hosnian. Walking away carries its own sort of moral cost.

      • John says:

        P.S. – Great article! Thanks!

  3. Jim Mello says:

    First off – thank you. Glad it’s spurring some discussion. I don’t think Luke being there or not being there would have shifted anything. The Resistance didn’t know about Starkiller Base until it was too late. Because Luke is a decent human being, he probably DOES feel some responsibility for what happened and Han’s death, but I don’t believe his presence was a deciding factor. If anyone, Leia probably feels the full weight because she knows of the threat the First Order poses.

    I DO hope the Luke we are seeing is a more proactive Luke instead of a sad sack dealing with the loss of Ben. If you’re right, his efforts on the island must seem worthwhile to the audience.

  4. Eric J Brown says:

    A lot of this is cultural. When Lucas does Star Wars in 1976, everything is dirty and gritty anti-hero no one is right because we weren’t the clear good guys in Vietnam angst — and so he writes a throw back to the golden serials of his youth where you had good and you had bad and that was that.

    Now a days American culture is much less comfortable with absolutes. As silly a line (from a logic standpoint) as “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” is – it fits the 21st Century American mindset. So just having a clearly heroic Jedi doesn’t… fit. They are supposed to be flawed. Lucas ran from the idea of the flawed in the 70s… in the late 90s he emphasized it.

    Also, we have strange attitude to power and authority. Back in the 70s, we were the power, and we were the good guys standing up to the bad guys. Now, to treat something as flat out bad is verbotten – unless they are in the position of power, at which point you can criticize away. And those not in a position of power aren’t to be critiqued. Perhaps this is why you have a resistance — you can’t have the mighty Republic fighting the First Order and seeing it’s evil… it has to be a splinter, minority group while the big power is… if not bad at least wrong and flawed and in capable of seeing with clarity. The Republic can’t be “right” — because if you have power today you surely got it in bad, nefarious ways.

    So it will be interesting. The move towards a grayer, more morally ambiguous force has been going on in the Star Wars universe since around 1999… and it’s not something I’ve been a fan of. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      A lot of this is cultural. When Lucas does Star Wars in 1976, everything is dirty and gritty anti-hero no one is right because we weren’t the clear good guys in Vietnam

      Back in the 70s, we were the power, and we were the good guys standing up to the bad guys.

      Forgive me Eric, but methinks your premises doth contradict each other. You seem to be saying that “we” want to be the scrappy underdogs more now than we did in the 70s, when the good guys were the literal Rebellion against the literal Empire. If anything I’d say that the Resistance/NR framing of the sequels suggests we have a much more nuanced understanding of power nowadays, while the OT was Fairy Tale 101.

      • Eric J Brown says:

        In the movie in the 70s (playing off of the 40s and 50s vibe) – that was unclear on my part.

        The OT is the fairy tale, now we are more gritty/jaded.

  5. chriswerms says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about some of these ideas.

    Obviously, as the power of the Order waned at the end of the Clone War, the Jediwere as corrupt as the Senate they aimed to protect. Their assassination attempt made on Count Dooku’s life, their repression of Anakin’s feelings, and their general participation in the war all show how deeply they had been corrupted before the rise of the Empire. That being said! I’m not sure if Luke would be short-sighted enough to think that the Jedi needed to end based on their state 35 years ago. It seems as if, based solely, at this point, upon his journeys to Devaron, Nar Shaada, Ahch-To, and Vrogas Vos, that Luke is becoming acquainted with a far more ancient form of the Jedi Order. And, really, there shouldn’t be many living Jedi that would teach him the older ways of being a Jedi. If Luke is merely ending the Order (if that’s what his line is signalling, obviously!), then he would be foolish to do it based on a pretty brief period of its insanely long history.

    It also seems like it is not entirely the fault of Jedi dogma that they turned out the way that they did. We remember the Sith nexus at the bottom of the temple and the corruption Palpatine introduced. Sure, the way that the Jedi were structured might contribute to their fall, but there were a lot of outside influences. Besides, I’m not sure we can say that the current Jedi teaching led to the downfalls of both Anakin and Ben. Luke was never trained in the classic Jedi style, nor would he have been able to adopt many of the bad habits of the PT Jedi. Not to mention Luke would be separated from the outside forces which affected the Jedi that I brought up earlier.

    It is also hard to see how we can give up the dualism of sorts between the light and dark sides of the Force. The whole concept being rooted in Buddhism already makes that hard enough to remove. Even when we move toward more medieval Catholic views of the Force, the dualism still exists. We’ve seen Snoke’s view of the Force, where he trains Kylo in both light and dark side practices. The Visual Dictionary shows us how this adversely affects Kylo. Can Luke do the same and not be affected? I doubt it.

    Good article!

    • John says:

      This is one thing that I hope the New Canon takes the time to embrace – the Jedi are an ancient order (a thousand generations?!?), so it makes sense that the Jedi would be different at different points in their history. Once upon a time Legends did a good job of this with the Tales of the Jedi comics in the 90s, but by the early 2000s the Jedi of all remaining Jedi stories were Prequel-ized in a very awkward way (i.e., the basic homogenization of KOTOR, Bane Trilogy, the Prequels, and even Luke’s Jedi Order post-NJO, stories which take place centuries or even millennia of years apart). This was doubly unfortunate, since not only did it not make *any* sense, but it also took some of the least-attractive elements of the Prequel Jedi and universalized them, suggesting that those elements were somehow intrinsic to what it meant to be a Jedi, rather than the teachings of a specific set of Jedi in a specific time and place.

      Fortunately, with the New Canon there is an opportunity to re-explore the ancient history of the Jedi from a more sensible perspective. I totally buy the idea that even if Luke is disillusioned with the teachings of the Prequel-era Jedi, it would make sense for him to seek wisdom from an older, less corrupted source – a concept which seems consistent with his seeking out an ancient Jedi temple. I still worry that Luke’s quest for “a better way” will be framed in the context of “all Jedi *must* be like the Prequel Jedi, ergo to improve we must reject any Jedi identity,” rather than “the question of what makes a Jedi is an open one, which has changed over time, and over which we have some control.” The former leads back to Legends’ old narrative cul-de-sac, while the latter opens up interesting opportunities for character and setting development.

  6. NrNone says:

    Part of my problem with the increasingly popular Gray take on Star Wars is that it often seems to suffer from what is sometimes referred to as “invisible monkeys”: rejecting a position while preserving its basic frameworks and definitions. “I don’t believe in God, but any God that isn’t like the one I used to believe in isn’t a proper God”. You think you’ve left the fold, but the monkey’s still on your back. In the case of the Gray Jedi and their proponents, they tend to rhetorically reject the Jedi while maintaining the basic philosophy of a dichotomous Force split into Light and Dark, and split along a certain line. Were the Jedi right about that part, then? Why are familial attachments proprietary to the Dark side? Because the Jedi, whose authority you reject, said so? If there are aspects of the classical Dark side that are healthy, why not simply recategorize them as Light? For that matter, why would a person who’s rejected the Good/Evil connotations of Light and Dark even bother with Light and Dark instead of skipping straight to the Potentium? Or is the idea that there are objectively two sides to the Force, which are objectively to be referred to as Light and Dark, and that things such as marriage and patricide objectively belong to the same category, while selflessness and parenthood are elemental opposites?

    It boils down to someone’s preference. There’s either a Jedi who’d rather see Good in the Dark than upset his monkeys, or a screenwriter in the same position. Like all of you, I’d rather see the Jedi reevaluated than rejected, and personally, I’d rather see the dichotomy redefined than crowbarred into a balance narrative.

  7. Gregg says:

    Eric J Brown, I like where your mind is at. You mention some very thought-provoking items in the form of culture and decades. Great stuff! I found that to be very true and intriguing. As far As Episode VIII is concerned, I am a bit worried about how this will play out. They could go the Batman route, which is to say how some people of Gotham blame Batman for the existence of the Joker, Riddler, etc. If there’s no super hero, then no super villain shows up to rival him. Perhaps Luke thinks without Jedi, the Sith wouldn’t exist to rival them. That theory in the Star Wars universe, however, would be considerably flawed and likely not worth a dime.

    As for this gray Jedi concept, I kind of like it. Being family, maybe what Ben did while under Luke’s tutelage was heinous that the relationship magnified his (Luke’s) reaction to the whole thing. Maybe he sees serious flaws with how the Jedi operated. Just a thought. The part that worries me is how Mark Hamill said in a recent interview that after he read the script, he approached Rian Johnson and said this is totally out of Luke’s character. I hope his character hasn’t gone down some road that’s completely illogical for him.

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