The Force (and the Understanding) Awakens: A Philosophical Review of the New Star Wars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has captivated audiences for a little over a week in box offices now, working our natural favourite of sci-fi franchises once again into all of our holiday magic – especially with the record-smashing litany of product tie-ins, which I must admit had me, even as an avid Star Wars fan, feeling cynical. Even so, it didn’t take me long to settle back into the sheer nostalgia of the fantasy. Some critics have felt that The Force Awakens plays up the nostalgia a little too much, perhaps verging on being a little more like A New Hope 2.0. I disagree with this view. Repetition is a comedic device, and Star Wars story arcs are typically tragicomic (as in the distinct movement from tragedy to comedy between Episodes V and VI).

Furthermore, repetition is philosophically interesting. It provides a greater wealth of examples by which to argue for consistent and telling themes. And Star Wars films don’t often come with a shortage of themes to dissect. Just in time for the holidays, this philosophical review should drive home the spirit of what we hope in all earnestness that this time of year is all about. Take a break from the HP Star Wars branded laptops, Darth Vader Apples and Yoda Grapes – Star Wars: The Force Awakens is all about the family.

(Warning: significant spoilers ahead).


The Force (and the Understanding) Awakens

The film’s first act focuses heavily on the theme of running away. Finn, traumatized by the savage killing of villagers on Jakku by The First Order, defects and helps captured Resistance pilot Poe Dameron escape in a stolen TIE Fighter from a Star Destroyer; the two return to Jakku after a crash-landing despite Finn’s protesting his desire to run away. Later – after some actual running away, as Finn and the young scavenger Rey evade capture by First Order Stormtroopers along with Poe’s highly sought-after droid, BB-8, on the surface of Jakku – Rey and Finn run away again, in a stolen Millennium Falcon. Both will attempt to flee their apparent fate at several more points during the film, only to crash headfirst back into it.

Independence is important to these characters, even though it doesn’t work out too well them during the first act, and accepting their being brought together by the Force involves some overcoming of this (this is symbolized in part by Rey’s rejections of Finn trying to take her hand). In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes something like this movement as the essential movement of Force;

… the ‘matters’ posited as independent directly pass over into their unity, and their unity directly unfolds into its diversity, and this once again reduces itself to unity. But this movement is what is called Force. One of its moments … is the expression of Force; but Force, taken as that in which they have disappeared, is Force proper, Force which has been driven back into itself from its expression.[1]

The Force is literally what brings our main characters together. Finn and Rey demonstrate some level of sensitivity to the Force as they intuitively combine in the pilot and gunner’s seats of the Millennium Falcon for the first time while escaping from Jakku. Their sheer giddiness after pulling off such a fantastic escape further illustrates a deep connection. Moments like these are part of a building up of their awakening to the reality of the Force, as something actually existing. We need to remember that the Force, the Jedi and the Sith all enjoy a mythical status in the Star Wars universe. A vast majority of the populous would believe them to be nothing more than stories. Han Solo himself was once such character, making him an effective mouthpiece through which to suggest to our new protagonists that the Force is, indeed, very real.

Just as the Force disperses its independent moments throughout the galaxy before bringing them into a unity, Force for Hegel divides itself into two opposing forces in actuality. “In this, there is immediately present both the repression within itself of Force, or its being-for-self, as well as its expression.”[2] Here, I believe that we can interpret the repressed being-for-self of the Force as the Resistance, traditionally the Rebel Alliance, against the direct expression of power that has manifested variously through the Republic, the Empire, and The First Order.

The Force is everywhere. It opposes itself within itself, and divides itself into balance and the Dark Side of the Force. In this interplay, the self-consciousness of Hegel’s Phenomenology appears as the Understanding of a Force sensitive being. The Hegelian Sage in the Star Wars universe is an Understanding consciousness that “looks through this mediating play of Forces into the true background of Things.[3] The Jedi and the Sith take the interplay of opposing Forces to have the shape of Law, and posit this world of lawfulness in the beyond of the world they inhabit as actual.

Expressed in determinate moments, this means that what in the law of the first world is sweet, in this inverted in-itself is sour, what in the former is black is, in the other, white… The punishment which under the law of the first world disgraces and destroys a man, is transformed in its inverted world into the pardon which preserves his essential being and brings him to honour.[4]

This bipolar lawfulness of the interplay of Force is perfectly demonstrated when Kylo Ren kills his father, Han Solo, in a First Order castle on a snowy planet (whose name is hitherto unknown). Ren plunges himself into the inverted world of the Dark Side of the Force. Patricide is an obvious recurring theme in the Star Wars universe. Ren himself expresses feeling torn before he drives his lightsaber through Han’s gut, despite knowing precisely what he has to do to. He is torn between two worlds, with some serious daddy issues.

Rey’s awakening is the awakening of an Understanding of Force, in exactly the sense that Hegel describes. She is only able to best Kylo Ren in lightsaber combat after accepting Luke and Anakin’s lightsaber from Finn – a gesture in which she at once accepts her fate, and the unifying nature of Force. The bipolar law of Force in the actual world shines forth with an exclamation point as, at the moment that Rey has bested Ren, the earth cracks between them, leaving a gaping chasm and allowing, once again, the possibility of escape.


Human and Divine Law: The Dark Side and the Jedi; or, government against the Family.

In the Phenomenology, there stands opposed the human and Divine spheres of law, whose respective ethical orders are constituted by government and the Family. Interpreting the opposition between the Dark and ‘Light’ Sides of the Force in this way can be telling. What more, I’m skeptical for simple fanboy reasons about the existence of a ‘Light Side’ of the Force; Terrance MacMullan points out in a recent paper on “The Platonic Paradox of Darth Plageuis” that a ‘Light Side’ is never mentioned in any of the original films.[5]

The Force isn’t a quasi-Zoroastrian religious duality of the triumph of Good over Evil. What we would expect to be called the ‘Good’ is more often referred to as balance, or moderation (hallmarks of virtue in both Socratic and Aristotelian conceptions of ethics). The two opposing spheres of law hold each other in balance, with moderation between them taking the form of a social and political virtue against the totalitarianism of either faith or empire. The antithesis of these spheres makes up the inner movement of something that Hegel calls Spirit – a term which at its best should evoke both the inner spirit so often associated with the personal soul, and what we might call the spirit of a nation, of a sports team, or of a nigh blasphemously famous science fiction franchise.

For Hegel, Spirit as government exists as a concrete power in actuality, while the power of the ethical order of the Family emanates from a spiritual beyond. This is roughly what we have in mind when we picture the Dark Side as supported by truly terrifying imperialistic Nazi-styled regimes, while our heroes – for the most part – gain their power from faith, either in their own powers or in their friends (the entire assault on The First Order’s definitely-not-a-Death-Star in TFA is gambled on Leia’s faith in Han, Finn’s ostensibly blind faith in the Force, etc.). Obviously there is also a militaristic regime supporting the Resistance in the form of the Republic, just as there are also familial and nepotistic power structures within the Dark Side’s war machine. But this is precisely what allows for the tragedy of the family of faith. When Kylo Ren kills Han Solo, he isn’t exactly committing patricide; his new father is the Dark Side sovereign (another familiar theme). Killing Han consummates a process that begins with Ren’s felt abandonment by Han and Leia. His turn to the Dark Side is an adoption, by a father whose son Ren cannot finally become until severing himself of the natural blood-relation as the son of Han Solo.

When Ren says he feels torn, presumably this is not just between achieving balance and falling towards the Dark Side. Hegel would say that he’s torn like the children of divorced parents feel torn. For Hegel, the relationship of husband and wife can be taken quite literally as two spirits coming together. The “objective reality” of these two spirits is actualized in their children. Bracketing his early 19th-century heteronormative ideas about families as mainly a historical interest, if we may,

… [the relationship] of parents towards their children is emotionally affected by the fact that the objective reality of the relationship does not exist in them, but in the children, and by their witnessing the development in the children of an independent existence which they are unable to take back again… That of children towards parents is emotionally affected, conversely, by the fact that they derive their existence from, or have their essential being in, what is other than themselves, and passes away, and by their attaining independence and a self-consciousness of their own only by being separated from their source – a separation in which the source dries up.[6]

When Rey in captivity bests Ren, through an intense force of will, and penetrates his spirit with Understanding, she discovers the latter’s fear that he will never be as powerful as Darth Vader. It would be easy to feel that way as long as you’re bearing the scars of old wounds related to abandonment, which paradoxically creates distance only in and through presence; and moreover, if power is something valued (a role prototypically attributable to Dark Lords in the Star Wars universe, and in TFA belonging to Supreme Leader Snoke, is the insinuation of power as a value). What this means is that Kylo Ren can only mend his wounds by killing Solo, which is to excise the power that his abandonment by the latter holds over him. To assert his independence, the source has to ‘dry up’.

Rey’s journey can already plainly be seen as an effort to find her father, whose figure she first makes of Solo, in order to reconcile herself with her own abandonment as a child on the surface of Jakku. The predominating prediction, which I can agree with on philosophical grounds, is that Luke Skywalker is Rey’s father; I also think that Luke abandoned Rey on the surface of Jakku. It works, because this theme is at one and the same time the theme of seeking balance in the Force. This is one of the strongest thematic currents in the Star Wars universe; the Force is simply all about the Family. The obvious next question is, who is Rey’s mother?

We should make a note here that Han and Leia explicitly contrive to bring out the ‘Light’ both are sure still remains in Kylo Ren’s heart. I’d like to think that either this misunderstanding of the Force partially contributes to their failure in accomplishing their goal, or that Disney has unwittingly bastardized a more complex tale of the presence of evil in favour of a more simple and marketable dichotomy. Moreover, Hegel would have some interesting things to say about the competing claims made on the individual by the Family and a government, which may explain some of the antipathy Ren seems to feel towards General Hux, among other things. We could explore these issues endlessly. The Star Wars universe is a philosophically rich text, which we can interpret and re-interpret time and again, with much to gain. I only hope to emphasize the philosophical products of the box office’s favourite sci-fi franchise, against the torrent of kitschy commodified junk products spewing out this holiday from every TV set, toy store shelf, cereal box (and Christmas Elf).

May the Force be with us, and us with all of our families.

[1] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, §136.

[2] Ibid., §141.

[3] Ibid., §143.

[4] Ibid., §158.

[5] MacMullan, T. “The Platonic Paradox of Darth Plagueis: How could a Sith Lord be Wise?” in The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy (2015).

[6] Ibid., §456.