Stoicism & Star Trek
Kirk (left) & Spock (right)
The original Star Trek of 1966 was a TV show with big philosophical ideas. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a humanist who wanted to show characters co-operating with reason and humanity. The show explored ethics, philosophy and politics, had a multi-racial cast and the first televised inter-racial kiss.
But the show also had its own take on Stoicism. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry said that he intentionally created a Stoic character, ‘Spock,’ asone of the three main characters alongside Dr McCoy and Kirk.
For us fans of Stoicism and (perhaps) of Star Trek, this raises an interesting question: how ‘Stoic’ is Spock exactly? Is he your genuine ‘Stoic sage’ or is he more of a ‘stereotypical stoic’, ignoring emotions and governed purely by reason?
In this article, I set out to find the answer, by exploring the philosophical underpinnings of Star Trek.
Spock: Stereotypical ‘stoic’ or ‘Stoic’ sage?
Before we consider this question, let’s first look at what makes the ideal Stoic, in the words of Seneca:
‘The pilot’s art is never made worse by the storm nor the application of his art either. The pilot has promised you not a prosperous voyage, but a serviceable performance of his task – that is, an expert knowledge of steering a ship. And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent. The storm does not interfere with the pilot’s work, but only with his success. “What then,” you say, “is not a pilot harmed by any circumstance which does not permit him to make port, frustrates all his efforts, and either carries him out to sea, or holds the ship in irons, or strips her masts?” It is indeed so far from hindering the pilot’s art that it even exhibits the art; for anyone, in the words of the proverb, is a pilot on a calm sea…But the wise man is always in action, greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom.’
Moral Letters, 85.
To summarize, the ideal Stoic must show resilience in crisis, know what he can and can’t control and show this by action. As Seneca writes elsewhere: ‘No fortune, no external circumstance can shut off the wise man from action.’So which of the main characters in Star Trek can live up to this ideal?
On the face of it, there are two ways in which Spock might seem a genuine Stoic.
Firstly, he accepts reality, noting if something is in his control or not. He says: ‘What is necessary is never unwise.’ The Stoic belief is that if we fight what is necessary we will suffer conflict, whilst if we accept it, we can remain calm. Logic like this can simplify life greatly. Marcus Aurelius noted that much of what we say and do is unnecessary. Indeed, he often asked himself: ‘Is this one of the necessary things?’
Secondly, Spock observes without adding extra opinion: ‘Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected.’ To follow the Stoic rule to only judge things in your control as good or bad, and all else as “fascinating” brings mental calm. It links with the Stoic idea that it is our judgements that upset us more than events. This is about simply stating facts and removing the opinion associated with them.
But both of these aspects are misleading and actually belie Spock’s ruthlessly logical character, something which pushes him towards being a small ‘s’, stereotypical ‘stoic.’
This is clear in his concern with emotional control: ‘Our principles of logic offer a serenity that humans rarely experience in full. We have emotions. But we deal firmly with them and do not let them control us.’ This isn’t easy for Spock at all. In the episode “The Crying Time”, for example, Spock is seen repeating ‘I’m in control of my emotions’, before bursting into tears. Most crucially of all though, from the point of view of the ideal Stoic being a man of action, Spock’s over-reliance on logic sometimes leads him to a kind of ‘logic-induced’ paralysis. He says: ‘I have insufficient information’ and ‘insufficient facts always invite danger.’ Therefore, logic tells him the least risk is best or that more facts will create better decisions, but this is a cognitive distortion as modern science tells us there is often no correlationbetween more information and accuracy. Indeed, Spock’s logic makes him defeatist when there is no identifiable logical option or chance of success: ‘In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over, checkmate.’ For Spock, logic, and nothing else, is the most important thing.
All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.
So if Spock is not your genuine Stoic, then what about McCoy?
McCoy is the polar opposite of Spock: emotion without reason, and as such he is even further away from the Stoic sage. He takes risks which put himself and others in danger.McCoy and Spock are at a stalemate and it’s no surprise that most episodes find Spock and McCoy arguing – should reason or emotion be their guide? Consider this exchange:
McCoy: ‘I’m sick and tired of your logic.’
Spock: ‘That is most illogical, it is more rational to sacrifice one life than six. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.’
Interestingly, this dichotomy is echoed in modern neuroscience. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow says the brain makes use of two systems: System 1 makes rapid decisions based on emotion, while System 2 makes complex decisions based on analysis and logic. Nevertheless, both systems can deliver the Stoic goal of acting for the common welfare. System 1 (McCoy) does this by automatic emotional responses that trigger actions to protect those in danger. He will risk his life for what he feels is right. System 2 (Spock) does this by deliberate analysis. He will risk his life if it is logical. To him it is illogical to kill without reason, but sometimes it is logical to kill – as such he is ready to sacrifice his life to protect the crew.This dichotomy is echoed in Koenig’sstudy of moral dilemmas about hypothetically harming one person to save many more. Three groups were tested, one of which had impaired emotional function. It found removing the conflict of emotion and reason saved more people as 40% of the group with impaired emotional function agreed to harm one person to save many compared to only 20% in the others.
But what about the last of the trio, Kirk? Is he in any way closer to the Stoic ideal? Kirksays that he doesn’t play chess – he plays poker: a game of great skill and risk, all about playing the cards which have been dealt well. Similarly, Epictetus talks about the ‘roll of life’s dice’, and making careful use of the dice that has been thrown: ‘Imitate those who play dice. Counters and dice are indifferent: how do I know what is going to turn up? My business is to use what does turn up with diligence and skill’ (Discourses 2.5).
In this way, Kirk tries to balance emotion and reason, but he never loses sight of taking action. His choices and actions make him take risks for the common welfare, even when the purely logical thing might be to do nothing. Perhaps he, as the perfect mixture of good emotions and ethical imperatives, a mixture, as it were, of the best of Spock and McCoy, is Star Trek’s real Stoic: the man of both action and contemplation. In the words of Captain Kirk himself: ‘Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.’
But, of course, from the point of view of good cinema, it doesn’t matter that the real Stoic in Star Trek wasn’t the ‘stoic’ character. For that Spock should have been portrayed in such a way at all was actually crucial for the dynamics between the main characters in the show. Indeed, each episode explores the conflict of reason and emotion through Spock’s relationships with the other characters. Gene Roddenberry (in Edward Gross, 1995) says that he deliberately:
‘Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy).’
It is in Star Trek, then, that this perennial source of inner conflict between reason and emotion plays out so clearly. Stephen Fry captures perfectly how Star Trek dramatized this clash of reason and emotion:
‘You have the Captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, you have the appetitive, physical Dr McCoy. And on his right shoulder you have Spock, who is all reason. And they are both flawed, because they don’t balance the two, and they’re at war with each other, McCoy is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution. And not only that, the planets they visit usually make the mistake of being either over-ordered and over-reasonable and over-logical (so they kill those who dissent, and they do it calmly and reasonably), and they have to learn to be a bit human. Or, they are just a savage race that needs reason and order.’
And if Spock had to be made the ‘stereotypical Stoic’, rather than the Stoic sage, to bring that perennial human conflict to the big screen sage, then so much the better for generations of Star Trek fans.
Central Intelligence Agency. ‘Do you really need more intelligence?’: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/psychology-of-intelligence-analysis/art8.html
Fry, S., ‘How Star Trek Ties into Nietzsche and Ancient Greece’: http://trekmovie.com/2011/07/04/video-of-the-day-stephen-fry-explains-how-star-trek-ties-into-nietzsche-and-ancient-greece/
Gross, E., Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages. Little Brown & Co., 1995.
Kahneman D., Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin, 2011.
Koenigs, Young et al., “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgement”, in Nature, 446, pp. 908-911, 2007.