Stoicism and The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian “Canons of Honor” from Star Wars

The Mandalorian “Canons of Honor” from Star Wars

I’ve enjoyed watching The Mandalorian and recently stumbled across discussion of the Mandalorian code of honor. It reminded me in some ways of Stoic philosophy, about which I’ve written several books — most recently How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. (The poster for The Mandalorian, coincidentally, happens to resemble the poster for my forthcoming graphic novel on Marcus Aurelius.) I previously wrote an article about Stoicism as a Code of Honor so I decided it might be interesting also to look at the similarities and differences between Stoicism and the Mandalorian “Canons of Honor”.

I’m no expert on Star Wars lore so I’ll be keeping this comparison fairly simple. Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy, inspired by the earlier teachings of Socrates, which became popular in the Roman Republic and later in the Empire. Its central doctrine is that virtue or excellence of character (arete, in Greek) is the only true good in life.

The main corollary of this is the view that everything “external” to our own character is ultimately “indifferent” with regard to the supreme goal of life. In other words, things valued by the majority of people such as health, wealth, and reputation — even life itself — are less important than the use we make of them. That means that Stoics are expected to engage in a sort of lifelong training, or discipline, in order to maintain emotional resilience in the face of adversity.

Stoicism is what’s known today as a “virtue ethic”. We’re told, for instance, by the doxographer Diogenes Laertius, that the Stoics described their supreme goal as living “honorably” because the perfection of our character requires wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. These four cardinal virtues provide a template for what we might reasonably call the Stoic “code of honor” or rule of life. We can also substitute the word “virtue” for “canon” and read the Mandalorian code, in a similar way, as teaching the virtues of strength, honor, loyalty, and of facing one’s death with integrity.

The fictional culture of the Mandalorians has several elements but for our purposes the most interesting comparison is probably between the Stoic rule of life and the so-called Mandalorian “Canons of Honor” — from the Greek kanon, incidentally, meaning a rule or philosophical principle.

The Canons of Honor consist of four basic slogans, each of which is accompanied by a short explanation.

  • Strength is life, for the strong have the right to rule

  • Honor is life, for with no honor, one may as well be dead

  • Loyalty is life, for without one’s clan one has no purpose

  • Death is life, one should die as they have lived

So let’s look at each of these in turn and make some comparisons with Stoicism as a code of honor.

1. Strength is Life

For the strong have the right to rule

The Stoic cardinal virtue of self-discipline, or temperance (sophrosune) might be worth comparing to the Mandalorian canon of strength — for Stoics it’s essentially about self-mastery rather than conquering others. On the face of it, though, the Mandalorian canon looks like an example of the sort of primitive morality found in ancient Greek and Roman society before the time of Socrates. It can be summed up in the familiar slogan: “Might is right”. Socrates disputes this concept in book one of Plato’s Republic, where he basically argues instead that a true king, or ruler, is someone who cares for the welfare of his subjects first and foremost. It would not be mere physical or military strength but “strength” in terms of the art of government that would qualify someone to rule, which we should judge in terms of a ruler’s ability to benefit his subjects — much as a good shepherd is one who cares for his flock.

According to one source (Stobaeus) the founders of Stoicism therefore taught that “only the wise man is a king and regal, but none of the base is” and that “only the virtuous man rules, and even if he does not in all circumstances do so in actuality, still in all circumstances he does so by disposition.” Strength of character, not strength of arms, makes one truly kingly. Moreover, kindness requires more strength than aggression.

And when you do become angry, be ready to apply this thought, that to fly into a passion is not a sign of manliness, but rather, to be kind and gentle, for in so far as these qualities are more human, they are also more manly; and it is the man who possesses such virtues who has strength, nerve, and fortitude, and not one who is ill-humoured and discontented. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.11

Put very simply, Socrates, and the Stoics, would potentially agree that true kingship consists in “strength” as long as this is interpreted not as physical strength but rather as strength of character, self-discipline, moral wisdom, and even kindness. Indeed, for the Stoics, being a true king or ruler is ultimately a state of mind. For instance, Alexander the Great, although outwardly the most powerful man in the known world, was miserable and a slave to his own passions, whereas Diogenes the Cynic, was genuinely free and kingly, though he lived like a penniless beggar. The Stoics believed, paradoxically, that the (inner) “strength” of character reputedly possessed by Diogenes made him a true ruler, whereas the (external) military strength of Alexander ultimately meant nothing in that regard.

2. Honor is Life

For with no honor, one may as well be dead

“Honor” (kalos) is traditionally another name for “virtue” (arete) in Stoic ethics, which variously defines the supreme goal of life as “living wisely”, “living virtuously” or “living honorably”. However, we could also interpret the canon of honor in relation to the Stoic cardinal virtue of practical or moral wisdom (phronesis). Virtue, honor, and strength of character are all synonymous, in Stoicism, with this sort of wisdom.

The way this canon is phrased reminds me of the Socratic teaching that “the really important thing is not to live but to live well”, i.e., to live virtuously and wisely (Plato’s Crito). Socrates and the Stoics believed that life itself is neither good nor bad, but ultimately indifferent. Life is merely an opportunity, which you can use either well or badly, wisely or foolishly, for good or for evil.

Hearten yourself with simplicity and self-respect, and indifference towards all that lies between virtue and vice. Love the human race. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.31

Indeed, virtue or honor, according to the Stoics, is what makes life worth living, and like Socrates they believe that virtue consists ultimately in a sort of moral wisdom.

This part of the Mandalorian code brings it very close to the fundamental spirit of Stoicism. As long as we bear this Mandalorian principle in mind, therefore, and remember to interpret the rest of the code in that context, the whole thing becomes more consistent with Stoicism. For instance, take the principle we’ve already discussed: strength is life. If honor is life that implies that, for Mandalorians, “strength” must always be exercised with honor. Serving the brute military strength of a powerful but dishonorable political tyrant, for example, would not be consistent with the Mandalorian Canons of Honor. For the Stoics, indeed, strength (of character) and honor are ultimately just two different aspects of the same thing.

3. Loyalty is Life

For without one’s clan one has no purpose

The canon of loyalty is probably closest in scope to the Stoic cardinal virtue of “justice” (dikaiosune), which really encompasses all social virtues. This is the part of the Mandalorian code, though, that seems to be most at odds with Stoicism, which follows the Socratic tradition in embracing ethical cosmopolitanism. Stoics view themselves, first and foremost, as “citizens of the universe”, literally cosmopolitans — and their supreme “clan” would therefore be humanity viewed as a whole. Stoic ethics is based on “familial affection” (philostorgia) and we are to view others, even our enemies, as our “kin”, i.e., our brothers and sisters. It’s often been observed, therefore, that Stoicism appears to have been a forerunner of early Christian ethics, and the Christian concept of the “brotherhood of man”.

As [the emperor] Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome; as a human being, it is the universe; so what brings benefits to these is the sole good for me. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.44

For Stoics, the cardinal virtue of justice consists in the qualities of “impartiality” and “benevolence”, or treating others fairly and with kindness. Our supreme loyalty would be to humanity, although loyalty to one’s nation and family might be understood as subordinate to that. Stoics would for instance, consider sacrificing the interests of humanity in general merely for the benefit of your own family to be vicious, unjust and unethical. You can’t just screw over everyone else out of “loyalty” to your own clan, or nation, in other words, and pass that off as a code of honor. Perhaps, though, the Mandalorian canon that “honor is life” implies that some higher ethical duty supervenes upon primitive clan loyalty.

4. Death is Life

One should die as they have lived

The Greek cardinal virtue most relevant to this canon is presumably courage or fortitude (andreia). This part of the Mandalorian code also has echoes of Stoicism and the important Socratic tradition of melete thanatou, or philosophy as a preparation for dying. The Stoics placed considerable emphasis on overcoming our fear of death, being ready to meet death calmly and rationally. The philosopher Seneca goes as far, indeed, as to say that to learn how to die is to unlearn how to be a slave. Daily meditation on one’s own mortality was therefore a common Stoic practice.

[Remember that] if one considers death in isolation, stripping away by rational analysis all the false impressions that cluster around it, one will no longer consider it to be anything other than a process of nature, and if somebody is frightened of a process of nature, he is no more than a child. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.12

Taken together, the Canons of Honor imply that Mandalorians should live and die with honor, strength, and in the service of loyalty to their clan. As we’ve seen, there may perhaps be scope to interpret that duty as being subordinate to a higher sense of honor, serving the interests of humanity (or rational beings) in general.

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