Off Topic: The Force Metaphor and a Middle Path

Last Updated: 2021-01-17 10:00:00 -0600

If you follow me on twitter, or made the inference from my december posts, you’re probably aware that I’ve taken delivery of the new lab machine and I’m in the process of provisioning it. In a sense, this post is partly a proof of concept that most of that provisioning work is done on the linux side of the machine, but it’s also an able distraction from a highly frustrating technical week - which means it’s going to be a little different from our usual content. Don’t worry though. Skip to the bottom for a general lab update.

Is This a Star Wars Morality Essay?

Eh, yes and no. Beyond the most basic of topics I’m extremely hesitant to make moral pronouncements. This is more of a thought experiment regarding how Star Wars handled the Geek’s Favourite Trope - alignment charts.

It’s really tempting to make Alignment Charts, if you’re a geek. They’re a helpful bit of reductionism, letting you collapse social dynamics and morality onto one two-planed graph and mask over otherwise-overwhelming nuance.

In a sense, the Sith/Jedi dichotomy is a form of alignment chart.

Let’s Define Some Terms

It should be noted among many that I am of the “do not quote the old magic to me, witch” variety of Star Wars fans. When I was a kid, nobody had heard of the Trade Federation, because Phantom Menace wouldn’t have come out until I was in middle school, and the prequel trilogy didn’t run its course until I was nearly done with High School. I grew up not just consuming the movies themselves but a whole lot of Extended Universe material, and I’m told that the new movies invalidated a lot of that, so we aren’t including them in this conversation because they aren’t urbane to my point.

That said, we need to talk about a few terms:

  • Jedi, in this use case, are the adherants to the Jedi Order during the republican period (the prequel trilogy and the period of history leading up to it). These Jedi had a comparatively strict lifestyle that shunned strong emotion, attachment, and generally tended toward asceticism.
  • Sith here refers specifically to the line of sith depicted in the prequels as arguably ending with Darth Sidious, being a much smaller order with a much different philosophy that encourages strong emotion, enforces internicine conflict, eschews traditional morality, and has a fixation on decimating the Jedi Order as revenge. The Sith are, in the deep lore, heirs to a system of belief that was the dominant power in the galaxy before the Jedi came along and changed that.

Much like any alignment chart, this is not the sum total of nuance between Force User Morality within the Star Wars cannon, with numerous other sects appearing. Of particular note because of their importance to the movies are the so-called “Dark Jedi”, who are traditionally-trained Jedi who have none the less fallen to the dark side. In the novel Darth Plagueis, the titular character explains to Sidious that the Dark Jedi are not true Sith, but view the dark side as a tool no different than the light side without the proper mentality to make real use of it. I bring these up because two of the most popular “sith” characters of all time are not sith at all, but dark jedi: Darth Tyrannus (owner of the coolest lightsaber ever depicted and himself depicted by the late and admirable Sir Christopher Lee), and Darth Vader. If not Sith, whence Darth? Sidious is an idiot - but that’s a conversation for another time.

Okay, okay, get to the point

The Jedi and the Sith are sort of the ultimate good/evil analog in the Star Wars universe. The word evil does get used in the story, almost always to refer to either true Sith or at minimum dark jedi. I’m not certain the Jedi are ever discussed as an unalloyed good, and there’s a very good reason for that - they’re just as bad.

It’s not hard to see the flaws in Sith philosophy, even ignoring the Rule of Two, which was arguably a wartime measure. The Sith deliberately court the dark side of the force as means to the most expedient power possible. They’re not above petty murder (though clever sith reserve their abilities for only the most useful of moments), and making themselves attractive to the dark side requires cultivating strong emotion, bloodlust, and the like. Give Darth Plagueis a read if you can find it - if the Thrawn Trilogy are the Episodes 7, 8, and 9 that never got made, it’s the episode 0 that never got filmed, and it goes on quite a bit, as you might expect, on Sith training practices.

It’s also not hard for a lot of us to see the flaws in Jedi philosophy. It asks for an unattached compassion, a gentleness belied by the Jedi social role of “knight of the state”. Marriage, friendships outside the order, and strong emotion of any kind, really, are discouraged or outright forbidden to various degrees. The Jedi preference for an introspective study of the force is why they were blind to the Sith threat until it was too late, and how the Sith were able to make life throughout the outer reaches of the galaxy miserable enough to cause the collapse of a galaxy-spanning republic without the Jedi being able to counteract it. We see in the books that this didn’t start with the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. It took centuries to play enough of the pieces around to cause Naboo to happen in just the right way that it caused a civil war with its own fallout.

I would argue that in much the same way the Sith are obviously not good, the Jedi are not inherently good. There’s a reason so many in their order fall to the Dark Side of the Force and become people like Count Dooku (who left the order to return to a family political position, then almost immediately became the dark jedi known as Darth Tyrranus), Darth Vader (who left the order to formally pledge himself as an apprentice to a Sith Lord directly, because he couldn’t marry the woman he loved and the secret nature of their relationship made her pregnancy with twins precarious), and the like.

The closest example of a Good Jedi we have is arguably Qui-Gon Jinn. While it’s not expanded upon well in the movies, Jinn was a Jedi Knight of equal power to the masters themselves, who none-the-less was refused the position because he had the heretical idea that Jedi should focus on the immediate present (what he called the Living Force) and on practical results over philosophical satisfaction.

And he was right.

If you wanted to create a truly-good order of force users, you’d need some measure of the temperance of the Jedi, the compassion they espouse made practical, but more freedom. Much more freedom, not unlike the freedoms enjoyed by the Sith. I strongly suspect that Qui-Gon was not above admitting to feeling angry, frustrated, sad, scared, or any other strong emotion - and if the books are cannon, then you know that in the end, after founding the New Jedi Order, Luke Skywalker gets married.

History would demonstrate that this is largely a bad move and made a lot of people very angry, but that’s sort of beside the point; and I’m not wholly certain it can be the case based on the newer movies anyway.

I think this metaphor is a useful construct for explaining middle path philosophies to other nerds, because it’s applicable in real life. The reason people see Anakin Skywalker as an identifiable/tragic figure rather than a Pure Asshole is because they themselves love having their freedom to love and can absolutely identify with the outrage that would come from having that suppressed.

Personally, I think the Sith had more right than the Jedi. I just think that they would have done well to think harder about what Darth Plagueis said to Darth Sidious during the younger’s training. “Any sith can feign compassion and live through a happy and productive life in the Jedi Order.”

While I don’t expect it was literally true, I think if you tempered the self-actualization of the Sith with Jedi compassion, you’d come close to creating an ideal philosophy.

A Note On Middle Paths and Centrism

I’ve noticed something that’s happened over the last 4-5 years, and it’s something that seems to have happened largely due to the enormous overlap of my friend circle with the United States, and the influence US politics has on my own country. Centrism - the political philosophy best expressed by simultaneously rejecting both strongly-left and strongly-right-wing ideas, has become sort of a byword for “closet fascist”.

This is symptomatic of a lot of things, which I’ll avoid getting into in the interest of not having to go back through the arguments, an umpteenth time, as to why that viewpoint is highly idiosyncratic to the US’s specific political situation. For the moment, it’s sufficient to just say this: advocacy for a middle path between the sith and jedi is not an analogy for a middle path between Republican and Democrat. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about multi-party democracy which are idiosyncratic specifically to Canada’s situation, and I’m not certain I can disengage those entirely.

Suffice it to say that I don’t fully endorse any political party in any country and this post in no way should be construed as either.

Shit, Patch, just get to the lab updates!

Okay okay okay!

So, obviously, the new computer is working just fine. I’ve got a few small projects lined up for this quarter, and a few bigger ones. By march, I hope to have basically done all of the following:

  • Finished the architectural planning for the next phase of PETI, which is just about done.
  • Released an update to Tapestry which will be mostly bug fixes, by way of making the SFTP functionality native, as well as a guide on using Tapestry with AWS; and,
  • Done a one-day-build of a docker image and docker-compose file that supports use with nginx-proxy.

That concludes our work for Q4 of 2020. If for some reason you enjoy PETI, or any of the other projects I’m working on for Kensho Security Labs, and you wanted to show your support financially, your best avenue is via my Github Sponsors account or by making a one-time donation to my KoFi fund, which is being held over specifically for replacing this broken machine. I also have a few copies of my novel, Sanity Line, left, that I have been offering for sale with a personalized message inside, so send me an email if you want to talk about that.