It’s that time of year when enthusiastic fans honour the Star Wars franchise. TRT World talks to philosopher and instructor Dr Umut Eldem about significant themes and threads in the series.
Star Wars fans around the world are celebrating May 4 as Star Wars Day. The informal day came about not due to some marketing ploy by Lucasfilm or Disney, but was entirely concocted by Star Wars enthusiasts who made a play on the words “May the Force be with you” to “May the Fourth be with you”.
The first time the sentence was in print, however, was not in the US but in the UK, on the day Margaret Thatcher had stepped into her office as prime minister. In an advertisement taken in the London Evening News on May 4, 1979, the Conservative Party wished her well by saying “May the Fourth Be with You, Maggie. Congratulations.”
The Star Wars franchise, created in 1977 by George Lucas, has been going strong for decades, with new films, comic books, TV series, theme park attractions and more added to the epic space opera continuously. Now with the corporate power of Disney behind it, it is bigger than ever, with May 4 activities planned around the world.
In Istanbul, TRT World talked on the phone with Dr Umut Eldem, who is holding a series of talks about the Star Wars universe and its philosophical interpretations on Beykoz Kundura’s FelsefeLab online, with the invitation of Culture and Arts Director S. Buse Yildirim. The last one (in Turkish) is scheduled for today.
Eldem has a PhD in Philosophy from Bogazici University and teaches at Dogus University Sociology Department. He has published papers on Kant and Heidegger, and given talks on Derrida, Hegel and the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
Eldem has divided up his talks on Star Wars and Philosophy into three parts: “Metaphysics: Is the Force with Us?”, “Politics: Opposition or mirror? The Empire and the Rebels” , and “Ethics: How does a good Jedi live?”.
TRT WORLD: In the first of three episodes of the Star Wars and Philosophy series you discussed metaphysics – “Is the Force with us?” How do you connect Hegel to the Force concept in Star Wars?
UMUT ELDEM: There is the Force in the Star Wars universe, it appears to be part of nature. In order to analyse it we can use multiple philosophical concepts. What I’m trying to do in this series of talks is both how we see reflections of philosophical thought in Star Wars and how we can understand the world of Star Wars through philosophy. I mean it in a sense of reciprocal interaction.
Here we can talk about panentheism. What panentheism means is a sacred being that extends beyond space and time and can be found throughout the universe. When we apply this concept to the Jedi, to using the Force, what do they do? They can move objects at a distance, or they can read people’s minds or foresee into the future; Star Wars characters can do that. How can they do that? All this is possible through a field of being. For example Yoda says this is what gives humans life. This being is the source of life. At the same time it is possible to use this being to create changes in the world.
When you study this state of being it goes into the metaphysics area of philosophy. We can say that Star Wars is presenting us with a metaphysical story. When you bring in Hegel, and his very important concept, Spirit (Geist), which is influenced by Spinoza[’s pantheism]. This is what Spinoza believes: Nature, or being, is one and singular. This is called Monism. There is one being in the universe. And everything that exists in the universe is part of that being.
Hegel approaches the concept in a more complex way. In Spinoza we can say there is a more passive being whereas in Hegel there is more of that reciprocal interaction I mentioned earlier. So Hegel talks about Spirit (Geist). Of course these are not one-to-one precise alignments between the films and the philosophy. I cannot say that “this is what the filmmakers thought” with certainty, but it is my interpretation.
In the second talks of the Star Wars and Philosophy series you talked about politics - “Opposition or mirror? The Empire and the Rebels”. Can you explain further?
UE: Star Wars, by definition, describes wars. On top of the metaphysical storytelling I mentioned, there is the additional political layer. We see in all Star Wars films that different parties are in conflict, clashing with each other. In the first trilogy, shot in the late 1970s - early 1980s, there is a more political alignment of good and evil. The good and the bad are clearly delineated, very obvious.
In later films, in the second trilogy shot in the 1990s especially, the distinction between good and evil is more blurry, the political standpoint is less clear. So I wanted to discuss not two polar opposites but two groups that affect each other, that define themselves through the other and even though there may be opposite views there are some commonalities too. What I mean to say is even though two political views may seem opposite of each other, they may share some common ground, more than you think. This is evident in the second trilogy which I tried to explain in my talks.
This goes back to Hegel again, the oppositions interacting with each other, [thesis-antithesis] reaching a synthesis in the end.
In the third and final installment of the Star Wars and Philosophy series you will elaborate on ethics - “How does a good Jedi live?” Can you shed light on the various ethical approaches in the Star Wars universe?
In the Star Wars films, there is a protagonist and this protagonist is always torn between choosing between good and evil. The dilemma is what makes the films so compelling. This contradiction is always between characters who represent various ethical positions.
For example in the first trilogy there is Yoda. Yoda represents what we may call Stoicism in some respects: being in control of your thoughts and emotions, no excess excitement, no excess anger, avoiding giving sudden reactions, being more controlled.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Emperor: He is filled with rage, overflowing with anger and hate. He releases these feelings and exerts control and authority over his people.
The protagonist, Luke Skywalker, is being pulled in both directions. He is living anxiously and has to make a choice. The film gives us options of what would happen if he were to make this choice or another.
In the first trilogy he can choose his father who is on the side of the Emperor, which causes a dilemma. On one hand he wants to do what’s good, what’s right, but on the other hand he wants to bring his father to do what’s right and good. He is facing a dilemma between killing his father or joining him.
We see a similar situation in the second trilogy with Anakin, with Darth Vader’s own story. But this time we see a choice leaning towards the dark side, towards evil. The films show possible ethical positions represented by various entities and the protagonists who are torn between their choices.