By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
Nietzsche suggests that Good and Evil are merely a moral points of view. He also vehemently opposed the ‘slave morality’ the Church used to keep society in line and which, in turn was destroying it—causing it to regress. He probably would endorse what Palpatine does in Star Wars—move beyond good and evil and embrace the ‘master morality’.
Nietzsche’s ‘Points of View’
In Star Wars, the idea that the Jedi are no better than the Sith is essentially the idea that the Emperor is trying to get Anakin to draw. And to do so he gives an argument that mirrors the arguments of the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which are found in his works like Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil.
Nietzsche suggested that our evaluations of good and evil are merely a result of what Obi-wan might call our moral ‘points of view’, which in turn are merely a result of our culture and upbringing.
Christian culture, for example, teaches charity, forgiveness, and sympathy. The Chinese value honor, Muslims submission to Allah. And in creating these moral codes, Nietzsche argued, they are all motivated by ‘the will to power’—what he believed was the main driving force in humans for higher positions in life that grant one more control over others. But if we have only our perspectives on morality, then there are no moral facts.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
‘God is Dead’
This nihilistic conclusion follows, Nietzsche argued in Zarathustra, from the realization that ‘God is dead’—perhaps his most famous utterance.
Now, by this he did not mean that God had lived and died; he meant that the idea of God was dead; it was no longer useful in daily or academic life. He argues that because of the influence of science, philosophy, and biblical criticism, the idea of God was on its way out.
But Nietzsche wasn’t a nihilist—someone who thinks there are no moral facts. Indeed, a lack of moral facts terrified him. He thought conceptions of right and wrong were necessary for society to function. But he also thought that the ‘slave morality’ was pulling it backward.
Learn more about Nietzsche, a student of the classics.
‘Master Morality’ and ‘Slave Morality’
Borrowing from Hegel, Nietzsche saw history as a struggle between ideas. In The Genealogy of Morals, he sees the history of ethics as a struggle between what he called the ‘master morality’ of the Greeks and Romans—found in the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey—which prized things like nobility, strength, courage, power, achievement, and individual freedom. And then the ‘slave morality’ of Judeo/Christianity—preached by people like Jesus—which prized humility, weakness, and submission to others.
What happened, Nietzsche argued, is that in reaction to being oppressed and enslaved, people like the ancient Jews convinced themselves that being oppressed was noble. Instead of recognizing that being oppressed was bad, and seeking to overthrow their oppressor and take their place, the Jews vilified their oppressors and made being powerless a moral good.
For Nietzsche, this kind of slave morality was humanity’s biggest setback. Only abandoning it for something like the Greek master morality could move the human race forward. If one was to agree and say that Nietzsche is right then what Palpatine is doing—trying to move beyond good and evil and embrace the master morality—is right.
The Codes of the Jedi and the Sith
In the ‘Opera Scene’ in Episode III, where Palpatine lays the groundwork for turning Anakin, he tells Anakin that our evaluations of good and evil are, just as Nietzsche said, a result of our ‘point of view’.
He also suggests that the Jedi’s treachery is motivated by their will to power—their fear of losing it. Palpatine seems to be rejecting a slave morality for a master morality. Consider the code of the Jedi:
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.
Jedi don’t get angry or seek revenge. They avoid attachments, like marriage, and always submit to the will of the Force. They always have a selfless regard for others and can’t even fear their own death. This sure sounds like a slave morality.
But consider the Code of the Sith that Palpatine has embraced, which has tones of Nietzsche’s master morality:
Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
Rejecting the Slave Morality
Nietzsche was critical of democracy because he thought it was rooted in the slave morality. It takes power away from dominate powerful individuals and spreads it among everyone, making everyone a slave. And, in Episode IV, Palpatine actually dissolves the Senate, thus erasing democracy.
So Palpatine, recognizing that good and evil are mere points of view, and motivated by his sheer will to power, rejects the slave morality of the Jedi. But he doesn’t embrace nihilism; instead he embraces a new morality that he believes will better organize the society. It certainly sounds Nietzschean.
Learn more Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols.
The Nietzschean Way
Unfortunately, however, the Emperor doesn’t follow through in a Nietzschean way. His main failure is the misapplication of his ‘Will to Power’. Although Nietzsche thought that it was the main driving force, but, he did not think that the proper way to channel it was by imposing your will on others. Indeed, Nietzsche thought that being kind to others—and thus ingratiating yourself to them—was a much better way to gain power.
Ideally, according to Nietzsche, this drive would instead be redirected into creative life-affirming endeavors. Nietzsche called it ‘self-overcoming’—that allows you to overcome your base desires and impulses, and become ‘your true self’—a self that, as Nietzsche says in Schopenhauer as Educator, “does not lie buried deep within you, but rather rises immeasurably high above you.”
Clearly, this does not describe what the Emperor is doing. So even if Nietzsche is right, the Emperor is not the hero of the story. But then, neither are the Jedi.
Common Questions about Star Wars and Nietzsche’s ‘Master Morality’
Nietzsche used the words ‘God is dead’ because due to the influence of science, philosophy, and biblical criticism, the idea of God was on its way out.
Nietzsche refers to the Greeks and Romans who had a ‘master morality’ which prized things like nobility, strength, courage, power, achievement, and individual freedom.
Nietzsche refers to the ‘slave morality’ of Judeo/Christianity—preached by people like Jesus—which prized humility, weakness, and submission to others.