[This piece, "George Lucas and Knowledge of Souls," first appeared anonymously in 2005 here. It was a response to the (mostly negative critical response to) Revenge of the Sith. I reprint it here because I intend to do a series of posts on The Last Jedi before long.--ES]
Anakin’s Skywalker’s fate is set in motion when some influential Jedi believe he is the Chosen One. It is tricky to interpret prophecy, or its intended time frame. Superstition need not lead to disaster, but the harm grows when the Jedi Council accepts Anakin as apprentice against its own rules (he’s too old) and ignores Yoda’s concerns over the state of his confused soul. (Born in slavery, yours would be confused, too, especially if your mom kept insisting you were result of virgin conception.)
The disorder and pain in Anakin’s Skywalker’s soul are matched by the increasing political disorder and chaos around him. The two are linked through the fatal decisions by the Jedi Council and its peculiar role in the Galactic Republic it serves. The fact that religious (the Jedi lodge in a temple; recall also the belief in prophecy, etc.), military guardians are needed suggests that the inherent instability of the Galactic Republic was once understood. (Perhaps, the Jedi are the source of disorder?) The Jedi’s mistake to train Anakin, who betrays them at the crucial moment, is the immediate cause of the Republic’s demise. (Should one shed tears for the fall of a slave-holding democracy?) But any polity that requires carefully calibrated, supra-legal wisdom to maintain itself is not meant to last. Yoda’s final attempt to save the Republic by fighting Anakin’s politically savvy father figure, Chancellor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious, Sith Lord, etc), leaves the Senate building in shambles; the Jedi cannot even save the symbols of the republic. (The fate of the Galactic Republic illustrates that by concentrating central power, universal government facilitates the rise of universal dictatorship.) Then again, as Plato taught much to Aristotle's annoyance, even the best designed constitutions may be overcome by circumstances, or bad luck.
Many reviewers note that Anakin seals his fate by attempting to avoid the pains (to his wife, himself, etc) he fears. (It also reveals that in his actions, Anakin does not believe he is the Chosen One.) Because Anakin’s fate and that of his children is known, the movie has the air of classic tragedy. The Oedipal themes are easily recognized by us--a knowing age. But it seems to have gone largely unnoticed that the Jedi and the republic they serve are unable to accommodate his desire for honour. (The clunky-ness of the dialogues in the first three Star Wars episodes is at least partly accounted for by the fact that we do not have available to us a ready vocabulary of honour aside from that anchored in legally sanctioned nationalism. Gladiator had it easier by evoking Republican values.) For Anakin is naturally gifted, and is ambitious for recognition of this. Anakin needs empire – in which power rules -- to satisfy his craving for flattery. (He also reveals dynastic imperial ambitions in episode five.) Even Padmé’s love -- one fears part of his attractiveness to her is his ruthlessness -- does not soften him. In their final scene, she shows her lack of insight into his need for acclaim by offering him domestic bliss and a retreat from public life. (Not long thereafter he kills her, too.) Love is impotent sometimes.
A contrast with the Russell Crowe character, Captain Jack Aubrey, in Master and Commander: the far Side of the World is useful.* Aubrey's love of honour is probably no less than Anakin’s. But it serves, rather than undermines, his society because of the external constraints (of space – i.e., the ship as metaphor for home --; of custom and law of British Navy; the size of the crew, etc) set on him and his own understanding of how to employ authority; we should hasten to add, that he also knows how to sublimate his sexual needs through music, exploration, homo-erotic male attachment in war. These constraints, unavailable to Anakin, enable the intensity of Aubrey's exploits to be channelled into ruthless, albeit law abiding behaviour. (The cultivated and urbane taste of the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane approved ecstatically, while savagely, albeit funnily, attacking the monkish code of the Jedi and the general aesthetic of the Star Wars.)
To return to and conclude on my main point: the Jedi have immense powers available to them. Like scientific magicians they can bend nature to their wills. But like many powerful they overestimate their ability to interpret the meaning behind the divine will. Worse still: not unlike other ruling experts, their training fails them in ignoring the political art which presupposes knowledge of souls. This makes them vulnerable to betrayal from within and without. The mature episodes of George Lucas’ space opera do not deserve all the scorn of their snobbish viewers.
*This movie , which in many ways is a better-plotted-integrated-story, flirts cleverly with counter-factual history in which Darwinism-avant-Darwin could have been discsovered during the Napoleonic wars.