Selfish Love: Why the Jedi Were Right About Attachment

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It’s a common take: the Jedi were wrong to forbid “attachment,” and Luke proved this by saving the galaxy through his love for his father.

Themes are always open to interpretation, and my reading is a little different. I’d argue that the Jedi were, broadly, correct, and whatever the flaws in their approach, I firmly believe George Lucas meant for us to view his story as a warning against the jealousy and greed that arise from becoming overly attached.

What is “attachment”?

The key is to understand what is actually meant by “attachment” in Star Wars. Anakin explains it in Attack of the Clones:

Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion – which I would define as unconditional love – is central to a Jedi’s life. So you might say that we are encouraged to love.

Attachment, here, is one manifestation of love – one tied up with “possession,” and separated from the selflessness of compassion. Yoda reinforces this in Revenge of the Sith:

Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. (…) Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

“Jealousy” is used here in its true sense. It is not the same as “envy,” which is wanting something that somebody else has; “jealousy” is the fear that somebody or something in your possession will be taken from you.

The influence of Buddhism on Lucas’s thinking is well documented, and echoes of its ideas are undeniable here. In Buddhist terms, attachment can be defined as “exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something.” Compassion is the selflessness of “wishing others to be free from suffering.” To traditional Buddhists, attachment is the path to misery, because change is inevitable; to gain peace, we must accept change and learn to let go.

It is no accident that these definitions echo the words of Anakin and Yoda. As Lucas reveals in The Making of Revenge of the Sith:

… you can’t be obsessed with holding on. (…) Because holding on is in the same category and the pre-cursor to greed.

(…)

The Jedi are trained to let go. They’re trained from birth. They’re not supposed to form attachments. They can love people – in fact, they should love everybody. They should love their enemies; they should love the Sith. But they can’t form attachments. So what all these movies are about is: greed. Greed is a source of pain and suffering for everybody.

More recently, Lucas echoed the Buddhist idea that attachment is tied up with personal suffering as he talked about the “key to Star Wars”:

If you go to the side of the light, you will be happy because compassion, helping other people, not thinking about yourself (…) that gives you a joy that you can’t get any other way. Being selfish, following your pleasures, always entertaining yourself with pleasure, and buying things and doing stuff, you’re always going to be unhappy (…) You finally get everything you want and you’re miserable, because there’s nothing at the end of that road.

If we view “attachment” in this way – not as a synonym for “love” or “relationship,” but as a jealous manifestation of love, and the opposite of compassion – the true meaning of Anakin and Luke’s struggles becomes clear.

Anakin in AotC is not merely arguing semantics to justify his feelings for Padmé. What he says is correct. His tragedy is that he fails to live up to it.

Anakin’s fall

“Fear is the path to the dark side…”

The context of Yoda’s words in The Phantom Menace is often forgotten: the “fear” is Anakin’s fear of losing his mother, and his prediction is shown to be accurate when Shmi’s death leads to anger, hatred, and the suffering of both the Tusken Raiders and Anakin himself.

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Anakin’s relationships are defined by selfishness. They are based too much on the pleasure and comfort he gets from having his loved ones in his life, and not enough on compassion for their welfare. At Shmi’s funeral, while Cliegg Lars’s words are mature and accepting, Anakin speaks only of himself. “I wasn’t strong enough to save you, mom. (…) But I promise, I won’t fail again.” He is preoccupied with his own sadness and power. This is the danger of attachment to a Jedi: the Force gives them power over the world around them, and the desire to keep things as they are leads to a lust for control that the light side, imbued with harmony rather than domination, does not offer.

Even before Anakin’s vision of Padmé’s death, his love for her is profoundly unhealthy. In the fireplace scene on Naboo he talks only of his own feelings, his own suffering, and even his later line “your presence is soothing” speaks to an uncomfortable truth: what he loves most is how Padmé makes him feel. Anakin reacts furiously to any sign of independent thought by Padmé: he becomes irritated when she questions the state of the Republic in Revenge of the Sith, and in The Clone Wars, he is possessive and controlling when Padmé undertakes her own missions. His jealousy reaches a head with the arrival of Padmé’s former lover Rush Clovis in season six. Anakin’s rage nearly kills Clovis, in a shocking display of uncontrolled fury. “You don’t have a say in this!” he shouts at his wife. “I don’t feel safe,” Padmé later says, in a grim foreshadowing of her fate.

Anakin’s inability to follow Yoda’s advice – to learn to let go – leads him to seek the power of Darth Plagueis. “I can’t live without her,” he tells Sidious: his concern is not really for her, it is for himself. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of others, even children, to save a person he cannot bear to lose. When he fears that Padmé is in alliance with Obi-Wan (“you will not take her from me!”), he chokes her – a violent act of control through the Force. Tragically, the seeds were planted from the moment he fell in love with Padmé. Whatever mistakes the Jedi Order made (we will come to those), Anakin’s attachment is still, fundamentally, his downfall.

Compassion

But was it not Luke’s attachment to his father that brought Vader back from the dark side? This is where we must look carefully at the characters’ motivations, and the consequences of their actions.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke leaves his Jedi training to try to save his friends, despite Yoda’s warnings that he is not ready. Is he acting out of compassion for their suffering, or fear of losing them? What we know of Anakin’s fall forces us to ask the question, especially since his mission is indeed a disaster – his friends end up having to go out of their way to save him, and he loses a hand in the process.

In Return of the Jedi, the key to the Emperor’s and Vader’s attempt to turn Luke to the dark side is his love for his friends. Palpatine taunts Luke about Han and Leia dying on Endor, and Vader warns him that submitting to the dark side is “the only way you can save your friends.” It is the thought of losing Leia to Vader that almost turns Luke, as he strikes out in anger to protect her. Unlike Anakin, though, he is not prepared to join the dark side and sacrifice others to keep a loved one in his life, and instead throws away his lightsaber.

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Most importantly, Luke’s quest to redeem Vader does not come from attachment, from a fear of losing his father; instead it comes from compassion. “I can save him,” he tells Leia – his goal is to save Anakin’s soul. His thoughts are for Anakin, not for himself, and he is prepared to sacrifice his life in the attempt to ease his father’s torment. Through these actions, the same compassion awakens in Anakin. He is not motivated by wanting to keep Luke in his own life, as he was with Padmé; he is willing to die to ease Luke’s suffering. He has finally found someone he cares more about than himself, and this selflessness saves the galaxy.

Perhaps this explains his manifestation as a Force ghost. Obi-Wan is able to achieve this after sacrificing himself, and in TCW, Yoda is deemed worthy of the ability only after sacrificing himself, in a vision, to save Anakin. If we need further confirmation, Qui-Gon in the RotS script reveals: “it is a state acquired through compassion, not greed. You will learn to let go of everything. No attachment, no thought of self. No physical self.” Far from being presented as a Jedi mistake, the letting go of attachment is venerated as the path to the ultimate connection with the Force.

If you doubt this reading, consider Lucas’s own words on Anakin’s redemption in The Making of Revenge of the Sith.

Children teach you compassion. They teach you to love unconditionally (…) The end of the saga is simply Anakin saying “I care about this person, regardless of what it means to me”. (…) He takes the ounce of good still left in him and destroys the Emperor out of compassion for his son.

We are free to disagree with any creator’s take on their work, but we must also recognize that their values will likely form the basis of future storytelling – especially since members of the Story Group have reiterated this reading. The Buddhist-influenced philosophy of Star Wars is subtly at odds with the more self-centered focus of most modern blockbusters, which is part of what makes it so unique and so misunderstood.

Where the Jedi Went Wrong

We can’t completely let the prequel-era Jedi off the hook, however. They are cold to Anakin, showing a lack of compassion by failing to provide the emotional support he needs. Qui-Gon, the Jedi who shows the most concern for helping “pathetic life forms,” is seen as a dangerous maverick. The Jedi show more concern for their own status as they meditate on the future in their high tower, than they do for the lives of those they should be helping. Palpatine’s argument about the Jedi in the Coruscant opera scene has a ring of truth to it – they guard their power with increasing jealousy as it comes under threat.

The need to let go of attachments is correct, but its implementation – a rule forbidding all romantic relationships – is perhaps too inflexible. It is understandable to some degree: the heightened emotional state of romantic love lends itself particularly to attachment. But had Anakin felt able to talk honestly about his feelings, he may have been able to find help. After all, RotJ shows us that healthy and mature romantic relationships are possible – when Han, who himself goes on a character arc from selfishness to compassion, worries that Leia will choose Luke, he is prepared to let go: “I won’t get in the way.”

Still, Anakin must bear responsibility for his choices. His decision to slaughter children in the attempt to keep Padmé in his life cannot be blamed on the Jedi Code, or anyone else. As with much of Star Wars, balance is the key. Luke truly balances his relationships – he finds strength in his friends, but does not allow himself to be ruled by his attachment to them, and he ultimately places compassion above all.

The Sequel Trilogy

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Compassion will re-emerge as a theme in the sequel trilogy, and we should not be surprised to see its Star Wars counterpoint – attachment – also reappear. So far we know little about Luke’s new Jedi, or the lessons he learned from the mistakes of the old Order – his view of attachment may be very different, though perhaps not quite as different as is often imagined. The promise of the “first Jedi Temple” also implies some insight into the outlook of the ancient Jedi, so we may be able to track where the prequel Jedi went wrong.

In terms of our new protagonist, given the recent emphasis in Rebels on Obi-Wan’s compassion for Maul, it is difficult to imagine Rey becoming a Jedi while continuing to see Kylo Ren as just a “monster.” As for attachment, perhaps Finn, the person Rey cares most for in the whole galaxy, will be placed in danger, in an echo of ESB, though Rey’s journey in TFA gives us another option. Rey’s flaw is that she has imprisoned herself, refusing to leave Jakku even though she knows deep down that her parents are never coming back. Rey learns that what she really seeks is belonging, and her journey to Ahch-to is a statement of her decision to let go of her family and instead follow her Jedi destiny.

But what if the possibility of finding her parents re-emerges? Here is a weakness that Kylo or Snoke could exploit (and given the link established in Empire’s End between Jakku, the Unknown Regions and the dark side, some form of connection seems possible). If they promise Rey that they can lead her to her parents, would she abandon her Jedi training and put the galaxy’s fate at risk as Luke did? Her greatest challenges lie ahead.

8 comments

  1. Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

    So here’s my thing with this—in a vacuum I more or less agree with all of it. Single out any one paragraph and I’m fine. But this is such a nuanced point you’re making that I think it’s almost always lost in discussion amongst fans, or at least buried in stuff people have stronger feelings about. We knew your title would be provocative because to say “the Jedi were right about attachment”, to most people, is to say “Jedi shouldn’t get married”, or much, much worse, “Luke shouldn’t get married”.

    We only have a sample size of one person for this scenario, and Anakin is the worst possible person to act as a stand-in for “should Jedi get married?” Even Luke is a very different person than Anakin in this regard, and obviously other Jedi (like say Obi-Wan) are more different still—so should they be able to get married? I think probably so. Did the attachment rule start from a valid concern? Sure, but like this topic IRL, it gets very muddy very fast, and the distinction is important to keep clear at all times. I agree with you that Story Group and Rian Johnson seem to get it, but if Luke does end up forbidding Rey from romantic attachments I’m not sure I could say as much for him.

    • I think that nuance is why it’s so often misunderstood. When Jedi talk of “attachment,” I really believe they’re talking about the emotional state of becoming too attached, but for understandable reasons it always gets conflated with the “no marriage” rule. The subtlety is in the idea that the Jedi were right in principle, but wrong in execution.

      We already know Luke separated his new Jedi from the politics and military of the New Republic, so he learned something from past mistakes, but what else did he learn? I believe all the signs are that Luke did not marry or have a family in the new canon, but we need to see an example of how his new Jedi handle romantic relationships to get a clearer sense of exactly how far the prequel Jedi went wrong by forbidding it altogether. Some of that picture is still missing.

    • John says:

      I think that the OP makes cogent points about the basic consistency of the Jedi’s philosophical position on attachment, but I also agree that in this case it is difficult to separate interesting concept from subpar execution. To my mind, the biggest issue is not the coherence of the Jedi’s philosophical position: it is the basic unreality of their practical implementation.

      Since Star Wars is a work of fiction, the real question is not so much whether the Jedi are right or wrong. The *real* problem, in my eyes, is that the Prequel Jedi are boring. I’m convinced that this is not simply an aesthetic claim: the way that the Jedi are portrayed in the Prequels unnecessarily closes off a great deal of potentially-interesting character and plot development, in favor of a series of simple binaries designed to railroad Anakin directly to his fate as Darth Vader. These simplistic plot turns are then justified in the lore via a sort of watered-down appeal to Buddhist and and Taoist philosophy. Buried in there somewhere is an interesting critique of the possessiveness of our contemporary culture, but it’s difficult to take seriously when it is being inflexibly promoted by the emotional equivalent of stick figures.

      As the OP notes, the Prequel Jedi philosophy concerning attachment is defensible when understood in its proper context. (One could still disagree with its tenets, but it is not obviously wrong or emotionally unhealthy in the way that some critics claim). What is *not* defensible, however, is the organizational application of this philosophical principle. The entire Prequel Jedi Order seems to operate on the principle of “believe everything we believe exactly, or you’re out!” Large, diverse organizations are not able to enforce total orthodoxy on all their members – there is always a process of boundary-work that separates acceptable dissent (heterodoxy) from exclusionary dissent (heresy). I believe that many critics of the Prequel Jedi are reacting to the unrealistic demand for slavish conformity, as much as they are to the actual content of the Jedi Order’s demands. The Jedi philosophy on attachment is not so objectionable in its broad contours. The Prequel Jedi Council’s insistence that this philosophy of attachment be interpreted and implemented *exactly* according to the Council’s beliefs, with no dissent, *is* objectionable.

      The simplistic organization of the Prequel Jedi is doubly unfortunate, since the emotional “boundary work” of determining who is and who is not a member provides some of the most interesting story space. Take, for example, Qui Gon Jinn. People latch on to Qui Gon as one of the most interesting Prequel Jedi, in large part because of the hints that he holds heterodox views. We are told that Qui Gon has paid a price for his dissent, being excluded from Council membership, but there is never an indication that the Jedi Council might expel Qui Gon simply because he disagrees with them on some points. With only a few short lines, Qui Gon becomes a more interesting and well-developed character: he is the sort of individual who is willing to suppress his personal ambitions and stand up for what he believes is right, even if it means disagreeing with his peers. More importantly, though, Qui Gon actually makes the Prequel Jedi Order more interesting: it is an organization capable of mediating differing viewpoints, but within a realistic hierarchy of power that prioritizes some viewpoints over others. It has actors with differing motives nonetheless cooperating towards certain common goals. It is a goldmine of potential character conflict and development.

      Unfortunately, with Qui Gon’s death the Jedi Order becomes a monolithic orthodoxy, with no hint of tolerating reasonable dissent. In the face of his emotional crisis, Anakin receives the same advice from every Jedi he meets: avoid attachments, *especially* romantic ones. There is never any hint of an alternative viewpoint, never any suggestion that Anakin might have a choice other than living as an emotionally-repressed hermit or an emotionally-damaged sadist. The entire structure of Episodes II and III is designed to avoid difficult questions concerning Anakin’s role as a Jedi, and instead railroad his character towards the Dark Side by leaving all of his mentors holding the philosophical equivalent of the idiot ball.

      Similarly, the Prequels seem unwilling to explore the disciplinary role of the Jedi Order in dealing with dissent. Again, we receive some hints that Qui Gon’s status is limited because of his viewpoints, but the penalties for disagreement remain relatively vague. What if Anakin and Padme announced their marriage? Would the Jedi Council really kick Anakin out entirely? Obi-wan hints that this is a possibility in Episode II, but the context is Anakin’s desertion during an ongoing military operation. If not expulsion, then what sort of penalty would Anakin face? Is his decision to keep his marriage secret one of necessity, or is it driven by Anakin’s ambition to sit on the Council (an ambition that Qui Gon apparently surrendered)? And what if he were expelled – would he really cease to be a Jedi, or just a member of the Jedi Order? Is being a Jedi a fundamentally political and social activity, or is it an aspect of personal identity and choice? The Clone Wars explored these issues with the character Ahsoka Tano – unsurprisingly, she is one of the most popular Prequel-era Jedi.

      Engaging fiction is built on interesting conflict. For all its martial pomp, the emotional core of Star Wars has always rested in more mundane personal conflicts – between parents and children, teachers and students, debtors and creditors, captors and prisoners, leaders and followers. The most memorable of these conflicts are built on the shades of gray that exist in difficult and complex relationships (perhaps most memorably, the desire to reconcile with a father who is also a monster). I believe that Qui Gon and Ahsoka indicate that the Prequel Jedi had the potential to provide that level of interest, if given the chance. Unfortunately, they were quickly reduced to two-dimensional mouthpieces for a half-baked dictum of “no attachments… EVAR!” Rather than confronting that belief head-on in a realistic and interesting way, the Prequels instead opted to use it as an easy way to force Anakin over the edge into murder-dom.

      All that said, I actually wouldn’t mind if Luke opens Episode VIII with a lecture to Rey on the dangers of attachment, especially if it were somehow rooted in his own insecurities over the failure of his New Jedi Order. Bring that conflict on! The message that even benign attachment is ultimately selfishness and greed is profoundly countercultural, potentially on the same level as the non-violence and reconciliation at the heart of the Original Trilogy. But if Lucasfilm is going to go there, then they need to *go there.* Let Luke and Rey fight about the virtues and vices of emotional attachment – the young student who is desperate for family versus the old teacher who has watched too much of his family die. Let them grudgingly work together even though they still disagree. Let them each pay the price of their honest-to-goodness convictions. Maybe one or both of them changes their minds, or maybe they agree to disagree, or maybe in the end they never speak to each other again. As long as the issue is approached with a serious attitude and a willingness to portray interesting and authentic conflict between characters, I think we will be in good stead.

      • John says:

        P.S. – Thanks to the OP for a thought-provoking read!

      • Those are all valid criticisms. I think there are a couple of elements to this. One is the sheer amount of story Lucas was trying to tell in the prequels, which meant some ideas were not as fully developed as they needed to be (hence the perceived “abruptness” of Anakin’s turn). The other is Lucas’s preference for visual film-making, which isn’t ideal for a nuanced “clash of philosophies” story. The ideas are all in there, which is unique in itself in this kind of film, but does the story succeed in putting them across in an engaging way?

        Your ideas about Rey and Luke are fascinating. I hadn’t considered that, but you’re right – most of TFA is structured as the story of Rey finding an adopted family through Finn and Han. She very quickly becomes attached to them, to the extent that 1-2 days after meeting him, Kylo senses that Rey sees Han as “the father you never had.” Then she loses Han, Finn is gravely injured, Rey flies into a rage against Kylo. But then, rather than wait for Finn to wake up, she leaves to find Luke and be a Jedi. I can see this being a source of conflict – what “belonging” does she really want? The Force, or her “found family?”

      • Eric J Brown says:

        One of the major forms of subtle attachment that can arise is attachment to an organization or an institution. This allows you to justify the “greedy” attachment under a pious face: “I’m only doing what’s best for the Order/Church/Country/Family” – while actually just doing things for your own direct benefit using the institution as a proxy for yourself.

        Compassion is a giving of one’s self – but we can give ourselves to things that serve us… and that is no longer compassion. That is a veneer of compassion over self-service.

        I think the prequels show that well — we can’t tell the senate about our diminished abilities… we have to protect the institution. We have to make these harsh orthodoxies, not for the good of the students, but to protect the institution.

  2. Alisha says:

    You must not grow too attached, too fond, too in love with life as it is now. Those emotions are valuable and should not be suppressed, but you must learn to rule them lest they rule you. Depa Billaba ‘Kanan The Last Padawan’

  3. Patrick Hui says:

    One thing about the Prequel Jedi that bothers me is that they apparently didn’t even try to buy the freedom of Shmi after the events of TPM. If not for Clieg Lars, she would have remained a slave. For all the talk of compassion, in this case the Jedi had not shown any compassion to Shmi other than freeing Anakin (and only because he could be the Chosen One).

    Also, there is a difference between Anakin and Ben in their respective journey to the dark side. For Anakin, getting power and control was the means to the end of not losing Padme. For Ben, however, getting power was the goal. Losing his family was viewed as the means to achieving his goal, hence the killing of his father.

    After failing the test in the PT, Anakin faced a similar test in the OT. Once again he had a family member who could be an object of attachment. Indeed, initially he was tempted to believe that in order not to lose his son, Luke must join him and together they would kill the emperor and then rule the galaxy (i.e., gaining more power and control in order not to lose his son). Ultimately, Anakin realized his error and instead “succeeded” in the test by sacrificing himself to save Luke.

    So assuming Ben will also be redeemed, it will be interesting to see if he will earn his redemption by facing a test similar to the one that he had failed in TFA, i.e., will there be another family member who could be viewed by Ben as the obstacle to his goal of getting power? Will that family member be Rey (rather than Luke or Leia)?

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