Having come of age in the 1970s, a major formative influence in my teenage years was the movie Star Wars. I say that only slightly tongue in cheek. Luke Skywalker was, believe it or not, a kind of a role-model: the young man struggling to become a warrior for goodness, having to overcome various temptations and doubts along the way. I used to listen to John Williams' musical score for inspiration as I meditated on Luke's journey to manhood and what it meant to me. Yoda even bore a strange resemblance in my mind to the Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball: bald, small in stature, old and feeble, and uttering pearls of wisdom in a raspy voice. One of Yoda's aphorism's ("Try not. Do!") reminded me of Spencer W. Kimball's famous "Do it!" The thing about Star Wars was that it was a classic tale of Good versus Evil. Who in our culture can't relate to that? Even Ronald Reagan couldn't resist alluding to it when he called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire."
My partner and I of course had to make the pilgrimage to childhood by attending all three of George Lucas' latest offerings, Star Wars "Episodes I, II and III." Even though we both found Episodes I (The Phantom Menace) and II (Attack of the Clones) disappointing, we still showed up for the premier midnight showing of Episode III (Revenge of the Sith) with cloaks and light sabers on. Whatever one might have to say about the latest trilogy's artistic merits, I found it interesting if only because of the subject matter: an exploration of the problem of Evil. Namely, how does an individual who starts out fundamentally good end up "turning to the dark side," and becoming evil? The exploration was enlightening for me, if only because, unlike when I took in the original trilogy as a preteen growing into a young adult, I found the story so utterly uncompelling.
And it was not for lack of trying on Lucas' part. He spent an entire three movies -- more than six hours of screen time -- trying to make a convincing case for Anakin Skywalker's descent into pure evil. And what did he come up with? Anakin is impulsive. He frequently disobeys those who are older and wiser than him because he thinks he knows better. He is a thrill-seeker (he gets off on intense "speeder" chases and "pod" races). He falls in love with Padme, a former princess of Naboo and now a Senator, and secretly marries her, against the rules of the Jedi Order. He has a bad temper, and, in a significant scene in Episode II, he gives in to his anger and slays an entire village of "Sand People" as revenge for their kidnapping, torture and murder of his mother. None of that -- even the killing of the Sand People -- makes him evil, though arguably he has come close to what we think of as evil. But even then, he realizes that what he has done is wrong, and he regrets it. He is still not evil incarnate, he is fallibly human with both good and bad traits, just like all of us. It is in Episode III where his fear of losing the great love of his life (spurred by dream premonitions in which he sees her dying in childbirth) makes him vulnerable to the manipulations of the evil Chancellor Palpatine, who eventually convinces him to turn to the Dark Side so that he can have the power to save her life.
I was almost convinced; except that in order to accept Anakin's descent into pure evil, you have to really believe in his great love for his wife Padme. But then, once he "becomes evil" he almost strangles his wife to death. I'm sorry, but that made absolutely no sense to me. Padme eventually does die in childbirth -- of a broken heart. So Darth Vader does kill his wife, causing the premonition that drove him to the dark side to come true, an irony I'm sure Lucas hoped we would relish. But again, it didn't compute for me.
The problem, I realized, is the construct or concept of Evil itself. People certainly do bad things, but invariably they do them for very good reasons. Search hard enough in any "evil" deed, and you will find behind it some motivation that leads back to a desire to protect or enhance the good. That is why "ultimate" evil -- the annihilation of all that is good -- is impossible. Because once there is no good left, there is no possible motivation for evil. Just like, once Darth Vader's wife is dead, what motivation does he have any more to be Darth Vader? None at all. That was why the movie logic sort of fell apart for me.
Enter the Devil. When all other explanations for the existence of "pure evil" fail, there is always one last ditch explanation, and that is, "The Devil Made Me Do It." And Lucas does not have too much pride to resort to this explanation as well. Pulling all the strings behind the scenes, the grand puppet master who causes the Republic to fall so that he can become an all-powerful Evil Emperor, is Palpatine. If the explanation that Anakin turned to evil because of his great, passionate love for his wife fails, there is always the manipulations of the Dark Lord. But that begs the question: what are Palpatine's motives? We don't know. The Devil needs no motives, he just is pure evil. If we make that leap of faith, we can accept it.
But if you pursue it, which I find I must, that leads into that great, nettlesome question of Western Philosophy that has caused more than one Great Thinker to burn a bulb or two: what is the true nature of Evil? More importantly, if there is a True God, and Ultimate Good, how is the simultaneous existence of true and ultimate evil even possible? (Also known as the "Theodicy" problem.) Without getting into gory details, suffice it to say that none of the greatest thinkers, philosophers and theologians in two thousand years of Christian history and another three hundred years of Jewish history before that (the portion of Jewish history in which notions of the Devil and Ultimate Evil were operative) have managed to answer this question satisfactorily. It always came down to acceptance on faith that Ultimate Good exists, and along with it, contradictorily, inexplicably, Ultimate Evil.
The Theodicy Problem is unsolvable for the simple reason that evil is an impossible notion. Our error is to reify "the Bad" into ultimate Evil. Of course bad things happen; but every bad thing is intimately connected to a good. Loved ones die; but that would not be bad if they were not loved ones, which is good. People suffer, but that would not be bad if there were not a state of health and happiness from which suffering detracts, which is good. People do bad things, but always for understandable reasons. It seems the true source of evil is failing or refusing to understand that. When we embrace a belief in evil, that is when differences suddenly become irreconcilable; when bad people are reified as witches, demons and monsters; when the true mayhem can begin. The belief in evil can be used as a rationale for doing the most evil things we know; after all, if your enemies are evil, almost anything you do to them is justified, for the sake of defending goodness. You can burn witches or heretics at the stake. You can go on crusades against the Infidel. You can send demonic Jews to the ovens of Auschwitz. You can kill thousands of innocent Afghans and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis in order to stop the "terrorists." But it comes down to the fact that all our most "evil" behavior is based on a false, absurd belief, one that doesn't even make sense in the movies.