Saturday, February 28, 2015

Spock, Stoics, and Buddhists: A Philosophical Tribute to Leonard Nimoy

I normally don't dwell on celebrity deaths, at least no more than I dwell on the deaths of the countless other strangers who die every day.  Many people in these celebrity-crazed days seem to forget that, unless you are a celebrity or actually hang out with them, celebrities are after all strangers.  And celebrity obsession is perhaps the strangest when it comes to people who pretend to be other people for a living (i.e., actors).  Why should we care what they think or what they do?

Still, I can't help but be broken up about the death of Leonard Nimoy.

Not only did he play one of the most iconic characters in science fiction, but he seems to have been an all around decent human being who advocated for his fellow actors, gave advice to children forming biracial identities, inspired authors, was shaped by his Jewish background, had thoughtful things to say as exemplified by his final tweet, was a guest star on Futurama, had a great role on Fringe, had numerous directing credits (including Three Men and a Baby and Star Trek IV, which has a special place in my heart), and of course got campy and awesome singing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins."

His death has been mourned by his family, his colleagues, other celebrities, fans around the world, and the President of the United States.  Appropriately enough, he has even been mourned in space.

Without downplaying Nimoy's other accomplishments and his full humanity, I'd like to focus on Nimoy's portrayal of Spock.  Spock shows us that you can love your friends without over-the-top emotional displays, that you can co-exist in two different worlds, and that you can be curious and care deeply about logic, reason, and the pursuit of knowledge without being a jerk about it.  As a bookish, awkward nerd, the Vulcans are my favorite Star Trek species, and Spock is my favorite Vulcan (okay, technically, half Vulcan and half human).  The character of Spock is, as Spock would say, "fascinating."

Some philosophers have debated whether Spock is a true Stoic in the sense of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical school of Stoicism.  He's definitely "stoic" in the lower-case, normal English sense of the word (as an unemotional person), but some people have suggested that Spock is actually too cerebral and inactive to be counted among real Stoics like Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius (see for instance, "Stoicism and Star Trek" by Jen Farren in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings).  I contend that Spock would be at home with the ancient Stoics, who likewise saw the value of reason and compassion in a full human life (or, as the case may be, a half human/half Vulcan life).

Likewise, I think there are Buddhist themes in a character who is obviously compassionate toward his fellow beings, but without harmful attachments.  Despite the fact that Buddhism has a reputation for irrationalism in Western cultures today, many Buddhist philosophical traditions (especially in India and Tibet) contend that irrational errors and harmful attachments are the cause of suffering and that it is thinking clearly and rationally that will set us free from the intellectual and emotional prisons of our own making.

Stoics, Vulcans, and Buddhists are criticized for suppressing their emotions, but in all three cases this rests on a mistake.  Stoics, Buddhists, and Vulcans alike all have emotions, but they are training themselves over time to feel the right kind of emotions.  Even though many people have the view that emotions are brute forces not subject to gradual modification, the fact that anger management classes sometimes work would seem to falsify this view.  Stoics, Buddhists, and Vulcans are learning to avoid the harmful, petty emotional attachments that all but the most enlightened among us have, and they do so while cultivating positive, healthy emotions like love and compassion for everyone.  As the great philosopher Spock said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

Whatever the correct philosophical interpretation of Spock might be (and we should remember that he is a fictional person!), I personally have learned a lot from Leonard Nimoy's portrayal of Spock.  So, even if Leonard Nimoy was a stranger who is most famous for pretending to be another person, I am thankful that he lived long and prospered so that he could bring that fascinating character to life.


  1. Thanks for this, Ethan! I had been mulling over writing a post on this myself (and maybe I will). Star Trek is in many ways responsible for my interest in philosophy, and Spock is the character that I most identified with, like many young nerds.

    One thing I'd add is that, in Buddhist terms, Spock seemed to struggle a lot with aversion to emotion, and it seemed like part of his character maturing was to be able to accept his human "side" and his friendship with Kirk. I think that while Star Trek falls flat in its representations of masculinity in many ways, the evolution of that friendship is one where it succeeds.

    1. Thanks, Malcolm! That's a great point. I didn't really get into Spock's personal evolution in terms of his friendships with Kirk and McCoy, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the crew. This is a great example of how friends can make you a better person. Also think about the evolution of their relationship from Star Trek II through III and IV. Star Trek shows us that men can care about each other and form healthy relationships, and that's probably a lesson a lot of men in our culture need to learn.

      I'll look forward to reading your post about Nimoy and Spock!

  2. Hey everyone, check out Malcolm's blog post partly inspired by this one:

  3. Here's the piece by Jen Ferren that I mentioned:

  4. One of the most interesting things about Star Trek was the concept of Vulcan culture. It is not that its portrayal in ST is all that great but what would a rational culture that eliminated ancient pre-scientific nonsense be like?