May 25, 2005 -- With Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas faced the same problem as did the classical Greek playwrights. Their audiences already knew the stories and myths on which their dramas were based. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had to make their plays interesting, enlightening, or instructive, usually accomplished by offering lessons about hubris, unchecked emotions, or moral failing.
While the Greeks were not keen on happy endings, Lucas has already given one with the first Star Wars trilogy, and we know what to expect in the prequels. We know that Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, apprentice to the evil emperor; that Vader's son Luke joins the rebellion; that the Empire is overthrown by pro-Republic heroes; that Vader saves Luke from the emperor, abandons the Dark Side of the Force, and, before dying, is redeemed.
To make the prequels interesting, Lucas offers us political and moral lessons, but with mixed results.
In Revenge of the Sith, Lucas continues the story of the fall of the Republic. Chancellor Palpatine—secretly the evil Sith Lord Darth Sidious—accumulates power in the name of fighting a long war against separatists, a war that he himself is secretly behind. Curiously, we are told that the Senate of the Republic is corrupt, and in the text crawl that starts every Star Wars film, we're told that in the war there are “heroes on both sides." Lucas seems to be backing away from the clear-cut black-and-white, good-vs.-evil themes that so characterized the original trilogy. As he obscures that distinction, he also obscures his theme.
Some see the theme of Revenge of the Sith as an attack on President Bush and his Middle East policies. But while Lucas is no friend of the administration, he is really offering lessons from history and especially from the fall of Rome's Republic and the rise of its centralized quasi-monarchy (not empire—Rome gained that while it was still a republic). In the Roman world, wars in the first century B.C. undermined the Republic. In the end, the Senate surrendered most of its authority and gave to Caesar Augustus extraordinary powers; as a quasi-king, he called himself the Restorer of the Republic.
Similarly, in Revenge of the Sith, the Senate gives Palpatine extraordinary powers, and, even as the civil war ends, he declares the Republic reorganized as a First Galactic Empire, in order to ensure safety and security. As the Senate expresses its approval, Sen. Padme Amidala comments, "So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause."
While America has not faced a military takeover, most wars have led to a growth in state authority that has rarely returned to pre-war levels; remember that New York City still has rent control meant to deal with housing problems during World War II, and the federal government still levies a special telephone tax meant to fund the 1898 Spanish-American War. (I think we won that one!)
While Lucas shows military power as a potential destroyer of republics, his liberal views blind him to another threat that helped destroy liberty in Rome, as it is now destroying liberty in America: the welfare state. In Rome, cheap slave labor from conquered peoples pushed independent farmers off their land and into the impoverished, urban masses, where they increasingly relied on politicians for bread and circus; they cheered the Caesars who made them subjects rather than citizens. Today, high taxes and heavy-handed government regulations rob most Americans of their independence and force them to beg the government for money to send their kids to college, pay their medical bills, and care for them in their retirement. Too many Americans cheer the politicians who rob them of financial freedom while throwing them alms.
On the moral front, Lucas shows us Anakin's descent to the Dark Side, ostensibly caused by nightmares of the pregnant Padme, to whom he is secretly married, dying in childbirth—and this not long after his mother's tragic death. Further, the temperamental Anakin is frustrated by his failure to advance quickly in the Jedi order. He wants more personal power, and he wants the Senate to give the Chancellor more power to crush the enemies of the Republic. He'll do anything to save his wife, and when Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious tells him that knowledge of the Dark Side could save Padme and make him more powerful than any Jedi, Anakin becomes Darth Vader.
The Force in the Star Wars world is rather nebulous. If we take it to be self-discipline, and giving into the Dark Side is giving into anger and hate, abandoning control of one's emotions and usting after power, then the moral message is clear. But Jedi Master Yoda tells Anakin that fear of loss is the path to the Dark Side; that attachment leads to greed; and that one should release oneself from that which one fears to lose. If one lets go of fear—which by Yoda's logic implies giving up what one loves—loss cannot harm one.
Well, there's a pretty bleak choice! If you really love something—your wife, children, career—fear of their loss could drive you to commit every kind of immoral act. Self-interest leads to Darth Vader. The only alternative: self-sacrifice; love nothing. On Yoda's theory, why should he and the other Jedi love the Republic and liberty?
This false dichotomy flows from a moral confusion shared by Lucas and many others. Morality doesn't begin with a feeling but, rather, with the fact that since we have free will, we need to use our minds to discover a code of values that will guide us in our pursuit of survival and a happy, flourishing life.
The principles of such a code would have told Anakin that if he pursues his love for Padme out of all moral context, if he indulges in every kind of betrayal and atrocity to save her, then he would destroy his own moral character and capacity to love anything. Immorality would not be in his true self-interest. That is the Greek conception of nemesis and is exactly what happens to Vader. Lucas gets that right, and Vader's fate is truly in the spirit of classic tragedy. But Lucas would have created less confusion by leaving out Yoda's babble about giving up what one loves.
After two disappointing prequels, Lucas does in this film what Darth Vader does in the last film of the first trilogy: redeems himself. With its classical theme, Revenge of the Sith is definitely worth a trip to a theater not so far, far away.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.