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Philosophy

Who Was Mr. Spock?

Actor Leonard Nimoy in 2006. i

Actor Leonard Nimoy in 2006. RIC FRANCIS/AP hide caption

toggle caption RIC FRANCIS/AP
Actor Leonard Nimoy in 2006.

Actor Leonard Nimoy in 2006.

RIC FRANCIS/AP

Leonard Nimoy, who died on Feb. 27 at age 83, wrote two memoirs. One was called I Am Not Spock and the other was called I Am Spock. Whatever the fact of the matter, Nimoy's passing makes me think of Mr. Spock and why the Star Trek character is of such enduring fascination and appeal.

Is courage the absence of fear in the face of known danger, or rather the ability to master one's fear?

This sort of question comes up again and again in Star Trek. And it's the key to getting clear about the Vulcans and Spock. Sometimes Vulcans are represented as if they are a race that has, as it were, mutated so that emotion plays no role for them. Spock, like the android commander Data in the later series (Star Trek: The Next Generation), pretends to having no feelings and, in turn, to being vulnerable to no emotional insult. That this very idea makes no sense is one of the shows main themes. Spock, who, admittedly, is only half Vulcan, says he is unmoved by emotion, but it is nothing other than emotion that could conceivably move him to act as he does — always loyal, always true, always sensitive to the demands of the situation. Indeed, it is only when he plays games like chess that he lets his pure intellect get in the way and hamper his spontaneous understanding of what is important; and, so, he is always check-mated by Captain Kirk.

The underlying argument in the show's trajectory is clear: Emotions, appetites, desires, reason — these are not self-standing ingredients that make up a person. We talk that way of course — and sometimes the show pretends that we can dissociate the parts of the soul in this way: Vulcans are supposed to be pure reason, Klingons pure emotion, Ferengi pure desire, and Betazoids pure empathy.

But, really, it is the characters themselves that give the lie to this composite conception of personality, and demonstrate that appetite and emotion, thought and awareness, are always present in each of us. A person is not made up of reason, impulse, desire: It would be better to say, rather, that these are tendencies we can discern or abstract from that essential unity which is the (human or, indeed, Vulcan) person. Just as the beauty in a melody is not something behind or beneath or below the melody, but an aspect of the music itself, so the humor or sadness or joy is not a mere accompaniment of the way a person lives but, precisely, the way a person lives.

At its best, then, Star Trek represents not only Spock but all Vulcans, not as emotion-free, but as enacting a certain kind of emotional discipline or mindfulness or self-control. And this makes Vulcans — though not human (for human is a biological category) — at least very fully persons.

Plato said that in the well-balanced person, the different parts of the soul stand in the right relation; in particular, reason rules over appetites and passions. The just society, in this scenario, is one in which philosophers — who are rational and concerned only with truth — rule over the people. But just as there are no societies made up of philosophers alone, so there are no mortal souls that lack passion and desire. Spock's burden, then, is our burden, as people, and also, even, as citizens.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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