Star Wars: The Nature of The Force

“All energy from the Living Force, from all things that have ever lived, feeds into the Cosmic Force, binding everything and communicating to us through the midi-chlorians. Because of this, I can speak to you now.” Qui-Gon Jinn

“In darkness, cold.
In light, cold.
The old sun brings no heat.
But there is heat in breath and life.
In life, there is the Force.
In the Force, there is life.
And the Force is eternal.” Sunset Prayer of the Guardians of the Whills

This is a tale of competing philosophies and teachings and how they may have worked themselves into the Star Wars universe. It is a tale of Stoicism, the Hellenistic philosophy, and Epicureanism which stemmed from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. It’s a tale of my father’s Irish spin on the Epicurean ways. It is a tale of how the Gospel of St John used those philosophies in the development of early Christianity. It’s a tale of what ancient paths can tell us to enhance our understanding of the Force, and why they may resonate with modern viewers of the Star Wars saga.

The Stoics

Let’s start with the Stoics. They get a bad press nowadays as a bunch of grim faced tough guys. In ancient times though the Stoics developed a sophisticated philosophical system. They developed a nuanced and balanced account of a unified world, centering around the deployment of logic, monistic physics (explained in terms of a single reality or substance; in other words “oneness” or “singleness”) and naturalistic ethics (the strict laws of nature). They emphasized that the latter should be the main focus of human knowledge.

At the heart of their philosophy was an aim to develop clear and unbiased thinking. The Stoics taught that to achieving such a state would allow one to understand the universal reason (logos) that underpins life and nature. To arrive at that understanding would permit an individual to be in tune with nature and its ways.

Importantly the Stoic philosophy taught of the harnessing of self-control and fortitude to combat destructive behavior and emotions. That principle extended to interpersonal relationships where the Stoics advised of the need to control emotions such as fear, or anger or pain. That control could be gained by thinking logically and considering and developing an understanding of the world and its ways. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline to be practiced. Sound familiar?

The Epicureans

The Epicurean way of life is often depicted as a counterpoint to the Stoic philosophy. Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus was what was known as an “atomic materialist”, which in layman’s terms meant that he perceived everything as being made from atoms including the human soul and human thoughts.

Epicurus believed that what he termed “pleasure” was the greatest good a human being could obtain. Nowadays Epicureanism is equated in common parlance as some form of mad hedonism. This is largely a misrepresentation. Epicurius actually taught that the absence of pain and fear would constitute the greatest pleasure, and advocated a very simple life. Moderation was to him the ideal, because this avoided the ill-effects of overindulgence.

In essence he taught that the structures of life, the body, the soul, the Gods, etc. could all be broken down at an atomic level. Atoms, by this logic, were all. He saw humans as having free will, and determined that Gods would have little interest in them and were broadly detached; in any event all beings (Gods and humans) were for Epicurus broken down into the same component parts; atoms. He didn’t believe in the after life. All there was was this life; therefore his logic was to derive the greatest pleasure you can from this life while you are here.

As an Irishman, I know the Epicurean philosophy well. My father, I have now learned through my reading of ancient history, has actually (to date) led the life of one of history’s greatest Epicureans. Of course, just when I finally took on board this wise example from my father, another Irishman’s writings came along to spoil it. Oscar Wilde threw me into a state of chassis and confusion again with his one life lesson – namely that one was to partake in “everything in moderation, including moderation”. What’s a guy to do? Pass me the bottle.

The Gospel of St John

Unsurprisingly to some, St John’s Gospel did not preach the example set by the Epicureans. There is however a very neat structure to the Gospel of St John in the New Testament that links with the lessons of the Stoics. Remember when we looked at the Stoics and I provided the hyperlink to the word ‘logos’? That was what the Stoics depicted as universal reason. Well the Gospel of St John, starts as follows (Ch 1 v 1–4),

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.”

In this passage the use of “the Word” comes from the Greek word λόγος (logos). That’s right the same word the Stoics used. It is a powerful term, packed with meaning and sub-meaning. Distilled down though it is an all encompassing term that in John’s eyes embraces and goes beyond the conception of the Logos as understood by the Stoics. Logos or “the Word” (as translated in the King James Bible) in this context is the sum-total of the divine energies, nature and the laws of the universe. God, so far as he reveals himself to us, is called Logos; while the Logos, so far as he reveals God, is called God. John is categorically not a Stoic, but the Stoics have influenced the expression he uses to give testament to his gospel. His though is a testament of faith, not philosophy.

Lessons in The Force

The beauty of Star Wars is that it doesn’t just follow or parallel any existing real world religion or philosophical system. This universality means that we can inform our Star Wars viewing by reading widely about other subjects, and I like to thinking that the process works the other way too for most fans.

So what can this knowledge do to develop our understanding of The Force? For me Qui-Gon Jinn holds the secret. For all his importance as a character, we actually know very little of what Qui-Gon actually taught. Happily though I think the examples from above can shed some light on the character and his role in the saga.

In the years prior to his death, Jinn began studying the secrets of eternal consciousness. He had long been a student of the Living Force, and after his death came back in the form of a Force Ghost and informed Yoda that “All energy from the Living Force, from all things that have ever lived, feeds into the Cosmic Force, binding everything and communicating to us through the midi-chlorians. Because of this, I can speak to you now.

The Living Force was one aspect of the Force as an entity. It was fed from the energy of living things. It was the Living Force that made possible the phenomenon of Force spirits. The Cosmic Force by contrast was fed by those energies and bound the galaxy together. In Rebels we learned that the Lasats used to call the Force “Ashla” and understood it as “the spirit of the Galaxy”. I draw a lot on the lessons from the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Gospel of St John in any ruminations on the Force, this spirit of the Galaxy.

The Stoics, I see as an influence in terms of their views of inter-connectivity, of oneness. The Jedi concepts of the Force are also similar to the Stoic eschewing of emotions that seem to strike dischord with the law of nature, of logic — emotions such as anger and actions such a violence. Like the Jedi the Stoics saw such actions as violating a natural logic that underpinned the cosmos.

Aspects of the Epicurean philosophy, whilst a competing school of thought to the Stoics in ancient times, is also represented within the Force as depicted in Star Wars. This time in the Epicurean perception of the strength of moderation in one’s behaviors.

So, to take a Star Wars example, Anakin Skywalker had he been taught the ways of the Force by Epicureans would have known that true happiness would have been found through moderation. Instead Anakin became subsumed with excess — he indulged in excessive vengeance, he aspired to be on the Jedi Council and gain Master status as early as possible, he was taught he was The Chosen One and believed it. In a way it wasn’t Anakin’s fault — moderation was unlikely when you are prophesised to be the one who will restore balance to the Force.

Finally, the Gospel of St John, with its depiction of “logos”, the Word. As seemingly influenced by the Stoic philosophy as aspects of John’s writings are, they differ in one crucial way. The concept of faith. The Stoics sought an answer to their concept of “oneness” in the laws of nature and physics. John may have had a value for those concepts but his teaching was underpinned by a greater role of faith.

At the end of it all the concept of faith is critical to comprehending the role of the Force within Star Wars. We can talk about the Living Force, and the Cosmic Force, the midi-chlorians, Force sensitivity and Force Users. What is central to all of them is faith. Han Solo lacked it, “I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything.”, but he ultimately gained faith over time as expressed to Rey. Chirrut Îmwe had faith in The Force and died with that faith intact having served his role.

More than anyone however Yoda summed up the role of faith in the concept of The Force. To Yoda a Jedi couldn’t always wait for evidence, couldn’t always believe with their eyes. To Yoda a Jedi can embrace the logic of the Stoics and also trust in moderation. In the main though a Jedi has to be guided by faith and hope that the Force will join them.

Remember his words, “No! Try not! Do or do not, there is no try…”, and when you’ve finished watch his full lesson to Luke below. He’s much wiser than I’ll ever be.

May the Force be with you all good readers, always.

3 Comments

  1. Yes! This is why I’ve loved Star Wars so deeply for so long. Sure, it’s a fun adventure tale and that would have always captured my attention (and probably have been fun to revisit too). But Star Wars draws so much from the religions and philosophical traditions in our history, synthesizing it all, teaching it in pieces through the story but also pushing the viewer to want to know more. It also calls on us as viewers to look more deeply – at the films we watch and our lives in general. Then we see that the more we learn the more we can see in Star Wars as well. There’s SO MUCH here and I love it all. This is Star Wars to me, valuing the depth below the surface and where it takes us.

    Like

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