19th May 2019 has marked the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace‘s release. Among other things, that also meant twenty years from the moment the word “Sith” became an official part of the film saga.
“Always two there are, no more, no less – a master and an apprentice,” is what Yoda says about the Sith at the end of Episode I, just after concluding that the Sith have finally revealed themselves.
Sith or Dark Jedi?
The word “Sith” itself dates as far as the original Star Wars novelisation from 1976 (indeed, even before the film itself!). Darth Vader is named “Dark Lord of the Sith” in the book. It is interesting to remark that it was not clear what the Sith is (or are), which is reflected in many translations of the title into other languages. For instance, many Central and Eastern European languages interpret the term “of the Sith” as a place-name, or perhaps a phrase denoting origin (“from the Sith”, you could say). Other sources later interpreted “Sith” as the name of a species on some remote planet that the Dark Lords originally ruled over. Only The Phantom Menace clarified the term “Sith” as the name of the entire order. Before that, it was generally assumed that Darth Vader or the Emperor were simply “dark Jedi”.
Who are the Sith? The Phantom Menace presents them as the antagonists of the Jedi. Dark Side Force-users who survived in hiding for a millennium after the Jedi had, seemingly, wiped them out. Even if the films did not mention much, we got the impression that the Sith have as long history and thorough doctrine as the Jedi, only instead of dedicating their lives to serving others, they only seek power. The famous “rule of two” assures that there was always only a master, who embodied the power, and the apprentice, who craved it. If the master (or the apprentice) became weak, he was killed and replaced, therefore keeping the Sith constantly strong.
The Sith Code and Nietzsche
The Sith quest for power is visibly reflected in the Sith Code, originally conceived in supplementary materials, but accepted as canon: “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.” The beginning of the Sith Code is an antithesis to the Jedi belief: “there are no emotions, there is peace”. As we know from Revenge of the Sith, and indirectly already from Luke’s training on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, the Sith rely on passion to give them strength.
The rest of the code gradually moves towards the ideal of absolutely unrestrained individual, not dissimilar to the real-world übermensch philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. That is no coincidence: the writer David Gaider, who wrote the Sith Code for the 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, claimed partial inspiration by some thoughts in Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler – who, in turn, was fascinated by Nietzsche’s philosophy. The Sith philosophy reflects the ideal of absolute egocentrism at the expense of everyone and everything else, a polar opposite to the selfless life of the Jedi, whose purpose is to protect others and help them.
The introduction of the Sith as an order changed the perspective of the Dark Side in the films. St. Augustine’s famous definition of evil was that evil is merely privatio boni, the absence of the good. As long as Vader was defined as “Dark Jedi”, his existence was “privatio boni” – a Dark Jedi, but still a Jedi (and his redemption in the end, therefore, was only a return to the original state). On the other hand, with the coming of The Phantom Menace, Darth Sidious and Darth Maul became the manifestation of proactive evil – evil that has its own agenda, the Dark Side’s own order of Force users.
Maybe that is what makes the Sith interesting as a concept. It has been determined afterwards in various sources since Episode I that if we go far enough in history, the Sith are, in the end, only fallen Jedi after all. Their history and their code, however, makes them something more – a mystery, an order that has somehow maintained a millenia-long tradition. It is rare enough to make believable “baddies” who have their own doctrine other than simply destroying the good guys. With the upcoming Episode IX, one could not stop to think about the Knights of Ren – who are seemingly only fallen Jedi. It will be interesting to see whether they have any proactive agenda aside from the negation of all things Jedi.