The Philosophy of Darth Vader – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Darth Vader, where we explore the philosophical origins of one of the most tragic arcs in cinema history. What ultimately turns the innocent Anakin Skywalker into the Dark Lord of the Sith is something we all confront: a paralyzing fear of death. Anakin must choose between two competing ideologies when faced with the impending death of his loved ones – The Sith way, or the Jedi way. From Buddhist texts to Pulitzer Prize-winning discourses on death anxiety, we dive deep into one of the most iconic characters to ever grace the silver screen.
Written by: Tom Head
Narrated and Directed by: Jared Bauer
Post-Production Assistants: Sarah Haver and Sierra Valdez
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of Darth Vader
Hey Wisecrack. Jared again, and today we’re talking about the most famous cyborg sorcerer laser-swordsman in the galaxy: Darth Vader. Perhaps no villain in the history of cinema has been more iconic, or more important to a franchise. Is it the seductive voice of James Earl Jones? His badass sci-fi samurai armor? His propensity for force choking haters? Or is it something else? Perhaps Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the dark side resonates so powerfully because it represents something we all face – an all-consuming fear of death. Through Vader, Star Wars explores two different philosophical responses to death. By exploring these competing ideologies, we can better understand how this whiny lil’ shit came to be the Dark Lord of the Sith. Welcome to the Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of Darth Vader.
What will ultimately turn Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader is fear—specifically, the fear of death. In his 1973 book The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that almost everything we do is a way of managing the fear of our own demise and the demise of those around us. This anxiety, known as death denial, is especially present in Darth Vader, and is rooted as far back as his childhood. When we first meet Anakin Skywalker, he’s an implausibly wise and articulate nine-year-old boy genius with superhuman piloting skillz. He’s the product of a virgin birth, he’s smarter than any of the adults around him, and there’s a prophecy that suggests he just might be the messiah. And oh, by the way, Force aptitude is now measured in midichlorians just so we can establish, from the very beginning, that Anakin is objectively more powerful than anybody else.
But even young Jedi Jesus isn’t immune to being scared shitless of death. Anakin’s distress over his mother’s mortality will haunt him. And as he gets older, this fear will become a fixation. Yoda figures out this fear is going to be a problem pretty early on. This could actually explain why the Jedi are so hesitant to train Anakin on account of his age. Although it’s never explained in canon why only young children are trained, the dialogue suggests that Yoda and Mace Windu are concerned about death denial and its ramifications for young Anakin. See, when kids are youngest, it’s easier to indoctrinate them to not fear death. Children, according to psychologist James A. Graham, begin to understand death as permanent between the ages of 5-9, but only as something that happens to lame old people – say, your mother Shmi. It’s only later, around the age of 10, that kids realize the permanence of death comes for us all. Anakin is 9 – able to understand his mother’s mortality, and likely on the cusp of understanding his own.
The Jedi council ultimately allows Obi-Wan to train Anakin anyway, but it comes at a terrible cost. If Jedi aren’t trained beyond a certain age because of their fear of death, there may be good reason. According to Becker, human violence is a natural response to death denial. As he writes: “only scapegoats can relieve one of his own stark death fear.” Doling out death gives people a sense of control over it, whether that happens on the battlefield or as regular ol’ homicide. For Anakin, that means a one-way ticket to the Dark Side. Although it never made the final cut, the original script for Episode 1 has Anakin saying something to Padme that sums up his entire arc: “Fear attracts the fearful. He was trying to overcome his fear by squashing you. Be less afraid.” PADME: “And that works for you.” ANAKIN: “To a point.”
The script foreshadows that Anakin, fearful of losing his loved ones, will try to overcome this anxiety by attempting to “squash” death, to gain a sense of control over it, rather than actually being less afraid. When Anakin finds that his mother has been mortally wounded by Tusken Raiders, he slaughters the entire village. This kind of revenge makes sense according to Becker, who argues that killing other people gives us the illusion that we can control death, assuaging the fear that the Jedi Council warned him about. The more Anakin kills, the more death feels like something he owns.
After Anakin’s mother dies, he starts having anxiety dreams again—this time that Padmé will die in childbirth. He’s ready to blame himself for both deaths; his mother died after he left her, and he believes his wife will die because he knocked her up. It’s at this point that Anakin is given a choice on how to deal with death – the Sith way or the Jedi way. Anakin goes to Yoda with his concerns. Yoda’s answer comes straight out of Buddhism—not surprising, considering that its said Lucas specifically based Yoda on the Tibetan Buddhist lama Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche. According to the Buddhist text “The Pali canon” , jaramarana—the desire to escape old age and death—is a dangerously seductive human impulse. Nonattachment – or letting go of your desires – is the only way to defeat it. And Yoda practices what he preaches: when he meets his own death in Return of the Jedi, he’s so chill about it.
Becker would call Yoda a “knight of faith,” a term he borrowed from the Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. According to Becker, having real, authentic faith in something more powerful than death is a great way to manage our terror. For Kierkegaard, this meant faith in God. For Yoda, his nonattachment to jaramarana is grounded in his faith in the light side of the Force. Either way, it’s not something you can choose. This kind of faith is, in Becker’s words, “a matter of grace and not of human effort.” Anakin doesn’t have Yoda’s faith, so he goes to Palpatine for an answer. The Sith approach is to embrace your desires — in this case the desire to prevent Padme’s death-aka: death denial. In telling him an old Sith legend about Darth Plagueis the Wise, Palpatine lets it slip that the dark side of the force may enable you to defeat death.
Anakin takes sides and becomes a Sith Lord—on one condition. Anakin sacrifices his name, his loyalty to the Jedi, and even his conscience to learn how to protect Padmé from death. In refusing to accept death, Anakin is set down a dark path: he kills children, his wife, and even tries to kill his mentor. He has completely sacrificed his personality and values and become little more than a zombie trapped in a machine. This is the terminal point of death denial, according to Becker. He writes: “the person seeks to avoid death, but he does it by killing off so much of himself and so large a spectrum of his action-world that he is actually isolating and diminishing himself and becomes as though dead.” Left with nobody to protect from death, Darth Vader has become an instrument of power and little else.
With this in mind, we can finally understand what the hell Obi-Wan was doing in Episode IV. If The prequels were the story of how the Jedi Order lost Anakin to Palpatine because of Anakin’s death denial, then it could be argued that Kenobi’s death was the Order’s way of confronting Anakin’s ill-fated choice. Look back at their lightsaber duel on the Death Star. It’s doesn’t look like Kenobi wasn’t actually trying to kill Vader. They spar for a few minutes, and then he basically offers himself up as a sacrifice. But not before saying something cryptic. Vader swings the lightsaber, and then Kenobi is just sort of raptured.
We could just say the first movie had a lower special effects budget, but Vader seems confused by what just happened, too. Kenobi showed off the fact that he had another solution,that made him, well, more powerful than Vader could possibly imagine. Seeing that Kenobi was willing to embrace death offered an alternative to Vader’s death denial. Meanwhile, the Sith still hadn’t figured out immortality. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, we find out exactly how Kenobi learned to cheat death. This doesn’t quite mean conquering death in the traditional sense, because Kenobi and Yoda are still technically dead. It’s more transcending death. They can interact with living Jedi by taking the form of blue glowing Force ghost entities. Even Anakin gets to join the squad, after he redeems himself.
We can also see this discrepancy between death denial and death acceptance in how Anakin and Luke confront death. Anakin’s most telling confrontations with death was when he indiscriminately killed the Tusken Raider’s to avenge his mother. Ultimately Anakin even killed Padmé in his rage. Or she just died from bad writing. It isn’t really clear which. Meanwhile, Luke is willing to give up his own life to avoid turning in the thing he hates. When asked to kill Vader by Darth Sidious, he refuses. This willingness to accept death is what truly separate a Jedi from the Sith. It is only when Anakin takes a cue from his son and learns to renounce his own life that he embraces the reality of death and conquers jaramarana.
The story of Anakin Skywalker is the story all of us have to live through. Jaramarana can rot out our personalities, strip us of our values, and drive us to do terrible things. According to Becker, denial of death is responsible for our drive to inflict violence on each other, to conquer, and to control our surroundings. Evil Empires, in the real world and in the world of Star Wars, owe their existence to our inability to accept mortality. But no matter how much of ourselves we’ve invested in our denial, accepting the reality of death can give us dignity, build our courage, and expand our compassion. It’s never too late for Darth Vader, and it’s never too late for us. As long as you’re still breathing, you can come to terms with the reality of death—or deny it, and risk giving in to the Dark Side.