Author’s note: This post is also hosted on my blog The Nullspace
The Jedi Code is the set of tenets to which members of the Jedi Order are supposed to adhere. The Code says
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.
At first glance the Jedi Code appears to be an admirable code to live by, and it is not difficult to think of Jedi who embody it well. However, upon closer inspection one realizes that the Jedi often fail to live up to their Code both personally and as an Order. Moreover, in some cases the Jedi prove most successful when they disobey the Code, and in other cases the Jedi experience disaster when they try to obey to it.
Analysis of the Code is somewhat limited by the available information. The final line is essentially closed to analysis since there are competing theories even within the Star Wars universe itself about the nature of the Force (e.g. the Living Force vs. the Unifying Force vs. the Potentium), and we lack sufficient information to resolve such a metaphysical question. Analysis of the fourth line is also limited due to selection bias — the Star Wars films (and other media) would not be very entertaining unless filled with action and chaos rather than humdrum normal activities. What we do see of the Star Wars universe renders the fourth line of the Code almost self-evidently false: it is plagued by never-ending crises and numerous wars (both in the films and in the EU). Nonetheless, despite limitations in the analysis of the last two lines of the Code, there is ample information to analyze the first three lines — and these lines contain the most serious flaws.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge
The Jedi claim to be knowledgeable and in many ways they certainly are: one only needs to consider the Jedi Archives, a vast repository of knowledge of such things as the Force and the history of the Republic. However, the Jedi seem to view this knowledge as their exclusive right: the information in the Jedi Archives is restricted to the Jedi only, leaving all non-Jedi in ignorance of this potentially useful knowledge. While it is reasonable for the Jedi to hide certain forms of knowledge from outsiders (especially enemies like the Sith), such a policy nonetheless draws suspicion on the motives of the Jedi. Knowledge, as they say, is power. If knowledge is good for the Jedi then why not for non-Jedi?
The Jedi decision to hold knowledge about the Force as their exclusive right may have inadvertently helped the Empire take control of the galaxy. The Empire no doubt suppressed knowledge of the Force after the Great Jedi Purge, but if the Jedi had shared their knowledge of the Force more openly before the Purge then people throughout the galaxy — and members of the Rebel Alliance in particular — might have better understood the threat posed by Darth Vader. No one would have made such ignorant remarks as Han Solo:
Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
In addition to suppressing knowledge from non-Jedi, the Jedi also forbid knowledge of the dark side of the Force even to members of the Order. There is perhaps good reason to forbid such knowledge so that Jedi are not tempted to turn to the dark side, but on the other hand, this imposed ignorance leaves Jedi ill equipped to resist the temptation of the dark side. Obviously, the Jedi need to shield younglings and padawans — and perhaps even Knights — from the dark side, but surely a mature Jedi Master is capable of learning about the dark side without turning to it. The ancient Chinese general Sun-Tzu advised:
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
Learning about the dark side — if only to better fight it — would be consistent with the Jedi Code and ancient wisdom, yet the Jedi choose ignorance over knowledge.
Despite their exclusive access to the incredible knowledge in the Jedi Archives, the Jedi also proved ignorant by accident in numerous instances. The most glaring example of such ignorance (perhaps due in part to their voluntary ignorance of the dark side) was regarding the Sith just prior to the Clone Wars — the Jedi thought the Sith were extinct at the very moment the Sith were plotting to create a clone army (in the name of the Jedi and the Republic, no less), obtain the Supreme Chancellorship of the Republic, and purge the galaxy of the Jedi Order. With the Jedi oblivious of their plans, the Sith were able to trigger the Clone Wars and play both sides of the war for years. Mace Windu encapsulates perfectly the utter ignorance of the Jedi when he finally declares on the eve of the Great Jedi Purge that
I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi.
The Code’s declaration that the Jedi are devoid of ignorance is clearly wishful thinking. Ultimately this is due to the fact that one can never know if he lacks ignorance — it is entirely possible to be ignorant of your ignorance, which is clearly the case for the Jedi.
There is no emotion, there is peace / There is no passion, there is serenity
The first and third lines of the Jedi Code are essentially re-statements of each other since emotion / passion and peace / serenity are synonyms. There are subtle differences between the two lines but they are negligible. In essence, the Jedi Code instructs Jedi to maintain a stoic demeanor in order to achieve inner peace.
Stoicism is a quality of most Jedi, and many Jedi demonstrate a remarkable ability to remain at peace and avoid destructive emotion like anger even during combat. A good example is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s calm and peaceful acceptance of his death at the hands of Darth Vader. On the other hand, Jedi who fail to remain emotionless often turn to the dark side of the Force. The most obvious example is of course Anakin Skywalker, who turned to the dark side because of his emotional attachments to his mother and his wife. Requiring Jedi to avoid emotional attachment (except when inconvenient) seems to be a good way to prevent Jedi from falling to the dark side.
However, the Jedi often fail to maintain their stoicism, often at major events. In cases of combat some outbursts of emotion result in success for the Jedi while others result in failure (or a mix of both). Some examples of emotional Jedi include:
- Mace Windu’s face is twisted in anger throughout his duel against Palpatine, and Windu resolves to murder Palpatine (who is the Republic head of state!) rather than make him stand trial.
- Yoda displays immense (and entirely understandable) grief on Kashyyyk when he realizes that Jedi are being killed by clones carrying out Order 66. Yet this is in direct contradiction to the Code as well as his own words:
Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.
- Even Obi-Wan, who would die so peacefully on the Death Star, displays anguish on Mustafar over the loss of his “brother” Anakin to the dark side (also understandable, but the Jedi Code does not hint at any exceptions).
- Luke Skywalker finally defeats Darth Vader on the second Death Star after a vicious assault fueled by rage (more on this later).
Even setting aside examples of emotional Jedi, stoicism is not a distinctive hallmark of a Jedi as implied by the Jedi Code: the Sith often display a distinct lack of emotion despite the fact that they are not bound by the Jedi Code and are presumably ruled by their passions. In comparison to the Jedi, the Sith are generally quite passionate — Darth Maul is perhaps the archetype of the violently angry and bloodthirsty Sith, and Vader is prone to fits of murderous rage. But other Sith do not follow this pattern. For example, Darth Tyranus displays remarkable diplomatic skills and fights with a calm, elegant lightsaber form. And as evil as Darth Sidious is, he is often very emotionless and calculating; consider this line which is delivered with a hint of malice but mostly deadpan apathy toward others’ lives:
Emotional Jedi and apathetic Sith call into question the truth of the Jedi Code, but the wisdom of the Code is called into question by the most definitive violation of the Code which is also the greatest Jedi victory. This violation, of course, occurs during Luke Skywalker’s duel against Darth Vader on the second Death Star. Luke is determined to turn Vader back to the light side of the Force and refuses to give up on his father, saying “there is still good in him”. If Luke had obeyed the Jedi Code here he would have either dispassionately set out to kill Vader without trying to turn him back to the light, or more likely he would have joined the attack on the Death Star’s reactor core — a move which would have had a much higher chance of succeeding but which would have doomed Vader with no chance of redemption.
Luke’s passion in this duel is not directed only toward his father. During the fight Vader realizes that Leia is his daughter and threatens to turn her to the dark side if Luke will not do so. Luke explodes into a fit of fury at this threat to his beloved sister and he launches a vicious barrage of lightsaber strikes against Vader which results in Vader’s defeat. The danger of Luke’s passion is revealed when the Emperor then goads Luke to kill Vader, but Luke remains true to the light and refuses to do so. The whole duel demonstrates that a Jedi can be passionate and emotional without turning to the dark side, and that such passion and emotion can even help a Jedi defeat his foe. Luke completely violated the Jedi Code, proving it to be poor philosophy at the most pivotal moment of the films.
Looking at the battle from Vader’s point of view is just as enlightening. Going into the duel Vader had coldly promised the Emperor that Luke would “join [them] or die”. When Luke refuses to kill a defeated Vader and turn to the dark side, the Emperor attacks Luke with Force Lightning. Vader is now forced to watch his son writhing in agony and dying from the lightning.
Though we cannot see Vader’s face through his mask and he says nothing, it is clear that he is in great emotional turmoil — a combination of anguish, guilt, fear, horror, rage, and, most importantly, love for his son. Though Vader had heartlessly participated in countless atrocities (including the mass murder of all the inhabitants of the planet Alderaan) it was ultimately this moment of intense emotion that freed Vader from his fear of the Emperor. Love for his son is what finally drove Vader to turn back to the light side of the Force — and the Jedi Order — even to the point of his own certain death. If Vader could commit such a selfless act as a result of emotion then is it really so wise for the Jedi to suppress their emotions?
The Jedi Code appears at first to be a good way to live, but in practice it clearly proves to be bad philosophy. Flaws in the Jedi Code undoubtedly lead to the downfall of the Order, and the redemption of Darth Vader by Luke Skywalker was in many ways a direct repudiation of the principles espoused by the Code.
One of the most significant contributing factors to the downfall of the Jedi Order was the second line of the Jedi Code, which claims that the Jedi lack ignorance. This statement is pure hubris, with predictable consequences. The Jedi proved remarkably ignorant in the years leading up to and including the Clone Wars — during this time the Sith managed to create a clone army while the Jedi were oblivious of the existence of the Sith and orchestrated the (entirely legal) purge of the Jedi by inducing them to commit treason against the Republic’s Supreme Chancellor. In the face of such ignorance it is no surprise that the Jedi were nearly exterminated.
The first and third lines played a smaller role in the downfall of the Jedi Order but disobeying them proved instrumental to the return of the Jedi. These lines’ warning against emotional attachment can be good advice, but if a would-be Jedi can’t handle emotional attachment then he isn’t mature enough for the power and responsibility of a Jedi. The idea that a Jedi must have no emotion is foolish and impossible to obey in practice — even highly successful Jedi developed emotional attachments. The most successful Jedi of all defeated Darth Vader — his own father — in a fit of anger over a threat to his sister. And where the entire Jedi Order of the Old Republic had failed against Palpatine it was ultimately Vader’s love for his son — to the point of his own death — which defeated the Emperor and ended the rule of the Sith over the galaxy. The Jedi Code precludes positive emotions like familial love — and that is why it failed.