Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2016: Star Trek, Relationships, and the View from Above

For the past few years I've been participating in an event called Stoic Week.  This year's Stoic Week is a bit earlier than usual: Oct. 17-23, 2016.

The idea is to try living like a Stoic for a week by doing things such as contemplating interesting quotes from ancient Stoic philosophers and engaging in mental exercises.  You can find out more about Stoic Week, register, and download the handbook at the Modern Stoicism blog.  You can do the exercises any time (you might say they're timeless!), but it's fun to share your experiences with others on the Facebook group and the Google+ group.

Last year I wrote four posts for what I called Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015 (see here, here, here, and here).  This year I'm not quite so ambitious, so I've decided to condense my Stoic Week blogging into one post (you're reading it!).

Stoicism, Star Trek, and Galactic Cosmpolitanism

Since we recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Star Trek and a lot of people (including me) have noted Stoic themes in Star Trek, I thought it would be nice to concentrate on Star Trek for Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2016.

The crew of the Enterprise

The theme of Stoic Week this year is "Stoicism and Love."  These days people tend to think of Stoics as cold and unemotional, much like McCoy thinks of Vulcans!  But in fact both Stoics and Vulcans are deeply committed to loving and valuing their fellow beings.

In my excitement about the 50th anniversary, I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Original Series recently.  It's obvious how much the crew members care for each other.  Captain Kirk even laments the loss of each Red Shirt -- at least until the next episode when they are apparently forgotten...

The trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, in particular, is a fine example of friendship.  As much as McCoy whines about Spock and calls him names and as much as Spock aloofly returns more subtle insults, it's obvious the two have a deep friendship.  I have a lot of misgivings about the new Trek movies, but I love Karl Urban's portrayal of McCoy and his relationship with Zachary Quinto's Spock, although nobody will ever replace DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy in my heart.

Another great thing about Star Trek is that the heroes never hate their enemies (one possible exception is Kirk's feelings about Khan, but there I don't think he hates Khan so much as sees the need to defeat him).  For instance, in episodes like "A Piece of the Action," "Mirror, Mirror," and "Who Mourns for Adonais?," the Enterprise and its crew are endangered by malevolent opponents, but the crew remains professional and seeks to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible.

In "Plato's Stepchildren" (essential viewing for philosophers who are Star Trek fans), Kirk tells the character, Alexander, who is tormented by those more powerful than himself, "... where I come from, size, shape, or color makes no difference..."  It's a powerful moment, especially for a show airing during the Civil Rights movement in the United States.  It also demonstrates Star Trek's moral message that affirms the value of all life forms.

Perhaps Kirk and his crew were inspired by the following quote from Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, which is found in the Stoic Week 2016 Handbook chapter for Friday: "Relationships with Other People and Society."
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognized the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1 (Stoic Week 2016 Handbook, p. 37)
Another exercise mentioned is the Circle of Hierocles, which, much like the Buddhist practice of metta (loving kindness) meditation, encourages us to expand our love from ourselves, to our neighbors, to our country, and to the entire world (Stoic Week 2016 Handbook, p. 39-40).  This idea of loving all of humanity is often called Stoic cosmopolitanism.

But why limit yourself to just Earth or to humans?  Combining Star Trek and the Stoic ideal of cosmopolitanism, perhaps Star Trek-inspired Stoics should get to work developing a theory of galactic cosmopolitanism!

The View From Above ... Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

The Sunday chapter from the Stoic Week 2016 Handbook features the following exercise.
A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.   
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.48 (Stoic Week 2016 Handbook, p. 47)
This Stoic exercise is meant to help us put things into perspective when we're bent out of shape about things like whether we'll get that job or whether we remembered to pay the electric bill.  The universe is a big place, and each of us is only a tiny part of it.

Nothing is better at giving a sense of the big picture than science fiction.  Our own Milky Way galaxy, where Star Trek takes place, is big.  Really, really big - 100, 000 light years across!

And if that's not expanding your horizons, consider the recent scientific finding that the universe may contain ten times as many galaxies as we thought, maybe as many as two trillion!  That's galaxies!  Star Trek times two trillion!  If that doesn't blow your mind, I don't know what will.

If your mind is still immune from being blown, consider a common staple of science fiction inspired by one interpretation of quantum mechanics: there could be many, many other universes, and maybe each one in turn contains millions, billions, or trillions of galaxies...   Sit with that for a moment...


The point is that it's hard to get all upset when the restaurant runs out of your favorite sandwich or when the cat pukes on your shoe when the universe (or multiverse) is so incredibly, inconceivably, mind-shatteringly vast.  It may also be hard to care about anything, but neither Stoicism nor Star Trek promotes nihilism, either.  The point is to get the proper balance.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, liked to talk about IDiC, or Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.  In what could be an infinite multiverse, you are just one possible combination.  But just as importantly, your combination is as worthy of respect as every other combination.  And that, I think, is precisely what the philosophies of both Star Trek and Stoicism have in common.

Happy Stoic Week 2016!

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