On Jedi Relativism

The Star Wars universe is of course a fictional one, but like all good science fiction stories, it teaches lessons that are applicable to reality and contains parallels to real history. The six Star Wars films themselves offer numerous lessons and parallels, and the extensive Star Wars Expanded Universe (composed of books, television shows, video games, etc.) offers many more lessons and parallels. An obvious parallel to real history is the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire from its ashes, which parallels the fall of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. A less obvious (and perhaps unintentional) lesson is the effects of relativism.

The Jedi Order, and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in particular, believe in and teach relativism. As a result, many Jedi fall to the dark side of the Force and turn against their former associates. The most famous example of a Jedi who fell to the dark side as a result of the Jedi teaching of relativism is Anakin Skywalker, who became the Sith Lord Darth Vader and nearly succeeded in extinguishing the Jedi Order during the Great Jedi Purge.

Episodes IV-VI of the Star Wars films were released before Episodes I-III so the first time a Jedi is seen teaching relativism is actually in Episode VI Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker is questioning Obi-Wan Kenobi’s apparition on Dagobah about what Obi-Wan had told him when they first met on Tatooine (during Episode IV A New Hope):

A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.

In Episode VI, Luke asks Obi-Wan’s apparition why Obi-Wan told him that Darth Vader murdered is father since Vader revealed to Luke in Episode V The Empire Strikes Back that Vader is his father. Obi-Wan’s apparition instructs Luke that

Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened the good man that was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.

Luke is quite understandably shocked by this statement and correctly objects to it:

A certain point of view?!

Obi-Wan’s response would be an excellent definition of relativism:

Luke, you are going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Obi-Wan’s adherence to relativism is as unnecessary as it is cowardly. Rather than admit he lied to Luke on Tatooine he tries to excuse his lie by arguing that it is “true” that Vader “murdered” Anakin Skywalker “from a certain point of view” (i.e. that Vader symbolically murdered Anakin when Anakin turned to the dark side). Of course, it is absolutely false that Anakin was murdered by Vader because Anakin/Vader is later redeemed by Luke on the second Death Star:

Anakin/Vader: “Now, go, my son. Leave me.

Luke: “No, you’re coming with me. I’ll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you.

Anakin/Vader: “You already have, Luke. You were right… you were right about me. Tell your sister… You were right…”

Anakin Skywalker redeemed

Anakin Skywalker redeemed

Anakin could not have been “murdered” by Vader since he was later redeemed shortly before his death (an apparition of Anakin as a Jedi appears on the forest moon of Endor, proving that Anakin had returned to the light side of the Force before he died). Moreover, Obi-Wan certainly intended to deceive Luke on Tatooine so Obi-Wan’s statement that Vader murdered Anakin fits the definition of a lie. Obi-Wan’s lie on Tatooine is entirely defensible, though: Luke the Tatooine farm boy who hated the Empire was not ready to hear that the Empire’s second in command is his own father, so it is reasonable that Obi-Wan lied to Luke in order to protect him. Rather than admit this, however, Obi-Wan “clings” to relativism.

Another clear example of Jedi relativism is at the beginning of the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader on Mustafar shortly after Anakin embraced the dark side of the Force. Vader (Anakin) tells Obi-Wan

If you are not with me, then you are my enemy.

and Obi-Wan’s reply is

Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

Obi-Wan’s repudiation of “absolutes” is another clear manifestation of his relativism. Whether or not the Sith actually teach absolutism is unclear (and Obi-Wan offers no proof), but there is no question that the Jedi have embraced relativism (to their own detriment, as we’ll soon see). Obi-Wan manages to pontificate about relativism but fails to explain how it is possible to be neither with nor against Vader. This, of course, is due to the fact that Vader has stated a true dichotomy — Vader’s mission is to exterminate the Jedi so, being a Jedi, Obi-Wan must choose to either join Vader or fight him. There is no third possibility because Vader will not allow it, but nonetheless Obi-Wan “clings” to his relativism (actually, the real purpose of this exchange between Vader and Obi-Wan is to repudiate U.S. President George W. Bush’s statement that other countries were “either with us or against us in the fight against terror[ism]”).

Relativism rears its ugly head again near the end of the same lightsaber duel on Mustafar:

Obi-Wan: I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.

Anakin: I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over.

Obi-Wan: Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!

Anakin: From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!

Obi-Wan: Well then you are lost!

Of course he is lost, Obi-Wan! You keep telling him that truths depend on our own point of view, so he has decided that from his point of view the Jedi are evil! Anakin undoubtedly concluded that the Jedi are evil using the following argument:

  1. I (Anakin) love my wife Padmé, and her safety is of utmost importance to me. However, I know from my dreams that her life is in danger.
  2. The Sith have the ability to resurrect loved ones from the dead using the dark side of the Force, according to Chancellor Palpatine. I must learn this ability to save Padmé.
  3. The Jedi forbid me to learn about the dark side of the Force.
  4. The Jedi are thus forbidding me from saving Padmé, and therefore they are evil.

    Darth Vader preparing to murder Jedi younglings

Anakin’s argument that the Jedi are evil would have been discredited immediately under absolutism. The Jedi are not evil for forbidding him from learning about the dark side of the Force and (supposedly) how to resurrect Padmé from death, and Anakin certainly could not have justified the murder of so many Jedi (including Jedi younglings like Sors Bandeam). Since Anakin was taught relativism, however, he believed that he could conclude that from his point of view the Jedi are evil and may be exterminated in order to save his wife Padmé.

Obi-Wan’s response to Anakin’s statement that “from my point of view, the Jedi are evil” is a feeble one: since Obi-Wan is a relativist he cannot tell Anakin that he is wrong, but merely “lost”. According to Obi-Wan’s relativism, Anakin’s point of view that the Jedi are evil is not wrong — Anakin’s point of view is simply clouded by the fact that he is “lost”. Anakin is lost, of course, but as a result of the Jedi teaching of relativism. Anakin is not only lost but he is also wrong (though a relativist can’t say it) — at the very least one can say that the Jedi are less evil than Anakin (who has by this point already committed many murders after assaulting the Jedi Temple and executing the Separatist leaders), and in truth the Jedi Order as a whole is not evil…just misguided by relativism and other doctrines.

The Jedi Order’s relativism allowed one of its own to turn against them and nearly exterminate the entire Order. Only a handful of Jedi survived the Great Jedi Purge and those who remained were forced into exile as the Republic was transformed into the Galactic Empire led by the absolutely evil Sith Lord Darth Sidious (Palpatine). Such are the fruits of relativism.

The fruits of Jedi relativism: the Jedi Temple burns

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12 thoughts on “On Jedi Relativism

  1. There’s a character named Vergere in the expanded universe that I found rather intriguing. Some would say she was a renegade Jedi, others would call her a Sith. She was of the opinion that the force was one; there was no light side or dark side except the darkness or light in a person’s heart.

    • Yes, there are others who say that the Force has no light or dark side but rather one’s intentions determine whether they are “light side” or “dark side”. There was a sect called the Potentium (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Potentium) who believed this, and Kyle Katarn tells the player (Jaden Korr) in the Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy video game that the powers the player can learn and upgrade are not inherently light or dark side but rather how they are used. “Dark side” powers like Force Lightning have also been used by Jedi (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Force_Lightning#Use_by_Jedi), and Darth Tyranus used it to save General Grievous’ life at one point.

  2. Yes! When a friend and I first watched the movie, we couldn’t believe how it caricatured itself: “Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes,” but then, basically within the same conversation, “Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil”! The contradiction was so conspicuous that it was hilarious! Did George Lucas even read the script?

    But maybe relativism is always and inherently self-contradictory. I’ve heard some say, if you say that no statement is really, objectively true, then haven’t you just made a statement about objective reality that you claim is true, and thus contradicted yourself?

    I agree, the scene also struck me as intended to criticize President Bush. Maybe trying to sell an ideology or to make a point about current events always tends to blind an artist to the weaknesses of his art as art, such as characters who can’t get their story straight. On the other hand, as you suggest, the movie could be a perfectly accurate portrait of relativism, a way of thinking that makes real people unable to get their story straight.

    • “Revenge of the Sith” unfortunately has some bad script writing, especially in the Mustafar scene (though there are some gems as well).

      I think the Star Wars films give an accurate portrait of relativism, but unintentionally. I think it’s unintentional since Lucas seems to be supporting relativism with lines like “only a Sith deals in absolutes”. I think Lucas got so wrapped up trying to make a political point that he missed the logical contradiction in the script.

      I agree that relativism is inherently self-contradictory, and I’ve written a post about relativism in general here: https://thenullspace.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/on-relativism/

  3. “Only Sith deal in absolutes”.

    Uh….Obi Wan, what you just said WAS an absolute, so ipso facto you are also a Sith?

    As much as I love Star Wars, the more modern incarnations are choked by Lucas’s fuzzy lefist beliefs. I wonder if he is even aware that his arguments regardign the fall of a republic are applicable to a leftist takeover as much as a right wing one?

    Then again, from a certain point of view, a leftist takeover of a republic is an improvement on that republic, not a destruction of it.

    There are absolutes, and it is impossible to argue otherwise without declaring “there are ABSOLUTELY no absolutes (except this one, of course).”

    Relativism is the essence of illogical thinking.

    • Uh, I actually don’t agree with this (comment or post somewhat). First, I think what’s overlooked in the movies is that Obi-Wan was not exactly in paragon jedi mode when he was on mustafar. You never hear any other Jedi say anything like “Only sith deal in absolutes” in any other part of the series. We actually see the most intense, passionate fighting from Obi-Wan in the movies (maybe against Darth Maul after Qui-Gon is mortally wounded). Think of his words and crying at the end of the fight. ANAKIN WAS HIS BROTHER!! This is extremely NOT jedi-like. He shows _attachment_ with Vader and that is a path of the dark side. We’ve seen in the EU that Jedi do come close to the dark side at times, and I think this idea that Obi-Wan is always a paragon of light at all times is extremely misleading.

      As far as Luke is concerned, I think Obi-Wan is not concerned with cowardice or necessity. He’s about to turn into a force ghost. His adaptation of the truth was telling Luke what he felt that Luke needed to hear as a young padawan who WAS susceptible to compassion, attachment, hatred. He made a very human-like decision, perhaps like we tell our children about Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. Again, we think of Obi-Wan as a ‘paragon’, but perhaps that is how he rationalized his loss of Vader to the dark side and merely felt this was the best course of action at the time to get Luke to where he needed to be. And he was right (just saying…). Humanize this character!

  4. You make many valid points here. I always hated how Obi-Wan defended himself with the “certain point of view” argument. WEAK. He does cling to this feeble relativism which is just so, so…I can’t even find the right word.

    I also love how your post brought together so many points about this, which I’m pretty sure was unintentional on Lucas’ part.

    • Thanks! When I realized how Obi-Wan’s relativism was immensely important in both trilogies I knew I had to post about it. I definitely think it was unintentional on Lucas’ part, but I think that’s part of what makes it interesting.

      I also never understood why Obi-Wan tried to defend himself to Luke from a “certain point of view”. I thought the obvious reason was that he was protecting Luke the Tatooine farm boy from that soul-crushing knowledge, and I think Luke would have understood Obi-Wan’s actions better if Obi-Wan had explained it that way.

  5. Pingback: The Dark Side for the win | The Null Hypotheses

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