On Good & Evil

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Good and evil are concepts that have been analyzed and discussed for centuries. Artists, writers and philosophers have used an understanding of these concepts to fuel their work for just as long. While in Plato’s Phaedrus, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and George Lucas’ Star Wars, good and evil are tackled through the author’s own worldview, these three works progressively and successfully build upon a strong foundation on the general interpretation of the struggle between the two powerful forces.

In Phaedrus, Plato tackles the relationship of good and evil by likening our souls to winged horses controlled by a charioteer. When it comes time for the soul to ascend to the level of the gods, it must compete with their chariot teams, which feature two good horses. The human charioteer drives two horses as well. One is beautiful and well-raised, “a lover of honor conjoined with judiciousness and a sense of what is respectable.” (2) The other horse, “crooked in confirmation, gross, and…a companion of hubris and insolence,” causes the charioteer to struggle for control, but Plato argues that this struggle is a necessary part of the soul’s ascent to the heavens. (2) In his eyes, we’re always going to have to struggle to rein in the more dishonorable sides of ourselves – it’s just a facet of life. If the charioteer is not up to the struggle, their soul returns to Earth until thousands of years later, when it can begin the struggle of ascension to the heavens once more, hopefully with more control over the horses this go-around. St. Augustine’s Confessions corroborates this worldview by exploring the idea that God does not create evil things, but rather things with varying degrees of goodness. Augustine begins his journey to the root of evil by addressing free will, suffering as a result of this evil because “[God’s] justice rightly demands that we should.” (136) God, a supreme being of good, is only capable of creating good, and thus anything that God creates is good simply because it came directly from him. However, while God is incorruptible, the things he creates are capable of being corrupted. St. Augustine further asserts that “even those things which are subject to decay are good,” because by virtue of being corruptible, that means they still have some good in them. (148) If a thing cannot be corrupted, there is no good left within its soul, but if something is no longer good then St. Augustine argues that it would then cease to exist, since God only creates good things. St. Augustine’s view of good and evil, like Plato’s, addresses the notion that there is always going to be some part of ourselves that have a tendency to stray from the good road and become corrupted by evil. However, St. Augustine also challenges Plato’s view of a constant internal struggle by attributing a good life to a Godly life, arguing that if one simply acts in a God-like manner and follows the teachings of the Bible, evil will be expunged from their hearts and souls. While Plato believes that good will always be in competition with evil inside of us, St. Augustine believes that good is a much more powerful force than evil and can be eradicated through good works.

Confessions is as much a reaction to Plato’s ideas on good and evil as it is to the Manichean view of the struggle, which he addresses early in Book VII. The Manichees St. Augustine encounters view darkness and evil as “a force in conflict with [God]” and his goodness, a concept that Augustine flatly refutes by questioning if God can be hurt by these dark forces. Manichean teachings espouse a view of absolute good and absolute evil – no shades of gray – that St. Augustine simply cannot get behind. To St. Augustine, if God is corruptible, then it calls into question the whole idea that as creations of God, humans are inherently good. St. Augustine’s interpretation of the struggle between good and evil needs the shades of gray in order to properly address the one thing that makes humans different from God: the potential for becoming corrupted. Although, he does assert that one can live a moral life without religion.

In Star Wars, George Lucas sets the stage for an epic interstellar battle between good and evil. The Empire, led by Darth Vader, and the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia Organa, struggle for control of the plans to the Death Star, a massive space station capable of destroying planets with its powerful laser. The conflict has its roots in the Force and the struggle between its light side, embodied by Jedi Knights like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and its dark side, embodied by Darth Vader, a Sith lord. Throughout the film, Lucas portrays the conflict between good and evil as a spiritual one defined by the actions taken by the story’s various characters. Lucas’ world is one where good is worth fighting for, but that fight only happens after an infiltration of evil. Luke’s decision to join the rebel forces only comes after the murder of his aunt and uncle at the hands of Imperial Stormtroopers, and his decision to begin seriously training as a Jedi Knight only comes after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who mentors Luke in the ways of the Force throughout the film, sacrifices himself in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader. By the end of the film, Luke is able to more successfully achieve good thanks to his embrace of the Force, which guides him to destroy the Death Star by steadying his aim in a taxing starship battle. Star Wars provides a compelling view of good and evil by articulating that despite the inescapability of evil, good will always find a way to triumph.

Like the charioteer and team of horses’ representation of good and evil’s struggle in Phaedrus, Lucas’ view of evil reflects two sides – one light, one dark – that constantly struggle for superiority within us. However, while Plato believes that one cannot be too embroiled in this struggle without getting a handle on the evil side eventually, Lucas allows his evil characters, particularly Darth Vader, to fully embrace their evil sides and gain power from that embrace. If Plato were to look at Vader’s soul, he would see a man whose evil tendencies completely ground him from achieving any kind of heavenly ascent. However, since Vader is in control of the Empire’s forces, he does not need to worry about such an ascent. He has fully succumbed to the dark side of the Force, so his evil comes with an incredible power stemming from a knowledge of the ways in which evil can be used to further his own ends and those of the Empire. It’s almost as if Vader is one of the godly charioteers Plato discusses, except he has control of two contrary horses rather than two beautiful purebreds. However, Plato’s view that more can be done when one aspires to be good gets confirmed in the climactic battle leading to the destruction of the Death Star. When Luke trusts in his control and understanding of the Force as taught to him by Obi-Wan, he is able to successfully complete his mission and save the galaxy from the future destruction of planets at the hand of the Empire. Like the human charioteer in search of ascension to the level of the gods, he is commanding and confident, which allows him to achieve victory.

Lucas’ interpretation of good and evil also owes a great deal to St. Augustine’s exploration of the concept in Confessions. Like St. Augustine, Lucas sees the gray areas between good and evil that the Manichees do not. Han Solo is an excellent example of this. While Solo is a scoundrel – a smuggler who has no problem shooting and killing a man to end an argument – he has a good nature. He agrees to help Leia and Luke escape the Empire and travel to Leia’s home of Alderaan, saves the group from the Death Star after an initial capture, and, in the climactic battle, comes swooping in to shoot down Imperial TIE Fighters, paving the way for Luke to successfully shoot the exhaust port and destroy the terrible space station. While Han is self-interested and clearly a corrupt individual, he is not evil. His good actions, done to help the Rebels as a whole, outweigh the ones he does in order to further his own goals. While Lucas and St. Augustine share the view that good and evil are the same sides of one coin, Lucas’s interpretation differs from St. Augustine’s when it comes to the notion of escaping evil. In Lucas’ world, evil and the Empire are just as much of a constant as God and his good creation are in the world viewed by St. Augustine. God does not govern the galactic worlds Lucas creates, so evil is capable of becoming a prevalent, governing force. Sure, good is able to prevail in Lucas’ world, just as it does in St. Augustine’s, but evil in Lucas’ world is the norm, not the exception that can be overcome. The Rebels fight against the Empire with the same fervor that devils and angels quarrel with each other in God’s world, but the Rebels are at a disadvantage because good has been squelched for so long. It is only when Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself in the name of good that the Rebel forces really have a chance at changing the status quo of evil that they have grown used to.

Good and evil are concepts that have been explored endlessly over the years and will likely be explored eternally as well since they are such compelling topics. Hopefully, with strong foundations for this exploration like Plato’s Phaedrus, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and George Lucas’ Star Wars already part of the cultural canon, future works will build off arguments and ideas presented off these three compelling examples. 

Works Cited

St. Augustine. The Confessions of Augustine. Trans. John Gibb. Cambridge: University Press, 1908.

Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Champaign: Project Gutenberg.

Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness. 20th Century Fox Entertainment, 1977.