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Darth Vader and the Good Hiding in Evil

March 13, AD2014

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Why do we all love Darth Vader? We shouldn\’t. He\’s a villain, right? He chokes people with the Force when they annoy him; he capriciously executes underlings who make minor mistakes; he even murdered a group of children. Why is he so popular, then?

There are two reasons, I think, one vicious, one virtuous, and together they tell us something about our fallen nature and the nature of evil in general.

We find Darth Vader appealing because he is powerful, able to work his will as he sees fit. We all would like to be able to do whatever we want; we all crave power in some way. And we can justify that craving to ourselves when we have some good end in mind, just as Anakin Skywalker justifies his move to the Dark Side of the Force and the terrible acts he undertakes by his goal of saving his wife Padme from the death he has foreseen.

Seeking and using such extreme means for these good ends, though, is wrong, for, as we know, the ends do not justify the means. It is vicious (in the sense of a vice) to use an immoral method, even for a noble goal. But notice that the goal itself is still good. This is a key point.

The most compelling villains in stories are the ones whose method in the midst of their madness can be seen and almost appreciated. Almost.

The truly intriguing villain is the one in whom you can still recognize the ember of goodness still smoldering, even if it\’s now set the drapes on fire. This is because a fundamental truth is captured in these characters: evil is a privation of good, or a twisting of the good out of shape, or a swelling of one good out of proportion to others. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas says good can even be said to be the cause of evil insofar as only that which exists can be a cause, and all that exists is good–evil is merely the privation of the form of good or the order of good. That is, it is only a good thing which can be said to cause evil, though that good thing is lacking some part of itself (Summa Theologica I, q. 49, a. 1).

Evil is not some force distinct from and opposed to good, but rather it is the good itself, misapplied, misdirected, misconstrued, misunderstood. That\’s a little vague, I know. Perhaps some more examples will help.

Take the aforementioned Lord Vader. Anakin Skywalker was a prodigious young Jedi, impatient but talented. He was devastated by the murder of his mother and his inability to save her. When his wife\’s life seemed threatened, he sought whatever could stop her suffering the same fate as his mother, even if it meant betraying his friends and embracing the Dark Side.

His love for his wife, itself good, suffocated and snuffed out the love he had for others, leading him to the terrible deeds he committed. As Obi-Wan tells us, \”He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader.\” The good in him was twisted to evil.

Examples abound. In the Doctor Who universe, the mad scientist Davros creates a race of bio-mechanical creatures devoid of all emotion except hate, who desire to eliminate all life other than themselves: the Daleks. In the Dalek heart there is no love, no compassion, no mercy. These good feelings and positive acts of the will are replaced by a single-minded desire to reign supreme and \”exterminate\” all that which is not Dalek.

Davros\’s madness even reaches the point where he creates a \”reality bomb\” that would destroy all matter in existence while preserving himself and his Daleks. His creations are deprived of the natural good of charity. He himself is so prideful that he would rather destroy all reality than not be acknowledged as supreme. But both still possess some element of self-love, which itself, in proper proportion, is good. But for Davros and the Daleks their love of themselves is so out of proportion it is no longer a good, but an evil.

Or consider Saruman from The Lord of the Rings. The head of the wizards of Middle-earth, learned and powerful, Saruman at first seeks to defeat the dark lord Sauron, but once the One Ring is found, he secretly harbors the desire to claim the Ring and set himself as ruler of Middle-earth. He even goes so far as to ally himself with Sauron, though he intends to overthrow him.

Saruman wants knowledge of the Ring, and though knowledge is a good, it leads him to evil, to the lust for power. In the last chapter of the book, we find Saruman trying to re-order the Shire, to make it more efficient and industrious, and though order and efficiency are good, this desire leads him to evil, to knocking down houses and unnecessarily cutting down trees. His good desires have fallen to evil ends.

The supervillain is often heard to tell his heroic adversary, \”We are not so different, you and I.\” And this is quite true: the hero maintains his proper perspective of what is good and evil and wills the good, in contrast to the villain, who has lost perspective and proportion and wills his own self-apparent good to the detriment of others.

The greatest hero/villain battles are between foes who truly seem to be mirror images of one another, similar in virtually all ways apart from their moral bearings: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the Doctor and Davros, Gandalf and Saruman. One still sees what the other has become blind to; yet there is hope.

Every thing in existence was created good, and nothing can completely extinguish that goodness, for a thing totally devoid of goodness would cease to exist at all. As long as there is that goodness, there is hope. Even the most twisted villain retains within himself the possibility of redemption.

True, we don\’t often see this. The Doctor tries to save Davros, but Davros will only curse him. Gandalf offers forgiveness to Saruman, but Saruman spurns him. Darth Vader, though, is able to hang on to that glimmer of goodness; when his son cries out to him in need, Vader gives his own life to save him. There was hope for him, and it was brought to fruition.

We like Darth Vader not just because of his shiny suit and his booming voice. We like him not only for his power and tenacity. We like him because he, like all of us, is a sinner in need of redemption, and he found his. May we find ours, too.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Nicholas Senz is a husband and father who tries every day to live Galatians 2:20: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." He is Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA, a managing editor at Catholic Stand, and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His work has appeared at Catholic Exchange, Crisis Magazine, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and his own blog, Two Old Books. Nicholas is a science fiction afficianado, Tolkien devotee, avid Anglophile, and consumer of both police procedurals and popcorn in large quantities, usually together.

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  • Ray Glennon

    Based on your Mom’s comment I assume this is your debut piece. Excellent post. Keep it up.

    My wire and I have often used several Star Wars clips (Yoda teaches Luke about the Force and Jedi Training in Episode V; the conclusion of Episode VI) and a clip from LOTR (the Stories that Really Matter in the Two Towers) for our Confirmation class with 9th graders. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Your bio helped me to realize again that the heart of my journey is “faith seeking understanding.”

    Peace and all good.

    Ray Glennon
    Twitter: @RayGlennon

  • Phil Dzialo

    “Every thing in existence was created good, and nothing can completely extinguish that goodness, for a thing totally devoid of goodness would cease to exist at all. As long as there is that goodness, there is hope. Even the most twisted villain retains within himself the possibility of redemption.”…and it is with this statement that I must take a very grave exception. I believe that we must leave the world of movies, fiction and myth to understand the nature of “theodicy”.

    A psychopath, by definition and behavior, is a primate who has no superego, is devoid of conscience, impervious to guilt, incapable of remorse…evil incarnate. And yes, these people are legion. Take example from John Wayne Gacy, Joseph Mengele, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Revs, James Porter, Paul Shanley, Rudy Kos, Carl Panzram, and on and on. Serial pedophile rapists, serial murderers, serial tormentors, cannibals of modern day…many of these people stole the lives and souls of young children. They represent evil incarnate and philosophically represent the problem of theodicy. Who could believe that redemption is possible for these and others like them? Evil does walk among us…pure evil.

    Remember Matthew 18:6 “But whoever causes harm to one of these little ones, it would be better if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.” Does this sound like Christ would hold out the offer of redemption to the serial pedophile?

    • Nicholas Senz

      I fear our disagreement is one of definitions. I have defined evil as a privation or malformation of the good, in keeping with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. How would you define evil? What would “pure evil” be? Consider: if existence itself is a good, and that which is “pure evil” would be completely devoid of any good, then that which is “pure evil” could not exist. Perhaps when you say “pure evil” you don’t mean it as an absolute, but as an intensifier? (e.g. saying “pure” when you mean “very”)

      Also, how can one say whether any other person is incapable of feeling remorse? How does one evaluate that? Remorse is a mental state that can be evidenced by outward behavior but only known or experienced by the subject. How can you state categorically, “These people are incapable of feeling remorse”?

      Are you suggesting that Christ is saying he would not forgive a repentant pedophile? I wasn’t aware that there were sins God would not forgive, apart from the sin of refusing to accepting forgiveness (because God cannot and will not force us to accept His gifts). I think you are misreading this passage.

  • John Darrouzet

    Well done, Nick! Given my interest in movies, we will have much to talk about in the future.

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  • Shannon Walsh Senz

    Fantastic debut, Nick! Catholic Stand made a good decision here; keep it up, son.