Star Trek is a kitsch guilty pleasure with big philosophical ideas. The show’s creator was an atheist and humanist who aimed to show characters co-operating through reason and humanity. First broadcast in 1966, it explored ethics, philosophy and politics and challenged its audience with a multi-racial cast and the first televised inter-racial kiss.
Star Trek’s Mr Spock is probably the Stoic icon of pop culture. His character has brought Stoic ideas to millions. The use of Stoicism was deliberate and the show’s creator is quoted as saying he “gave Stoicism to Spock.” Spock is the ship’s science officer, guided by his Vulcan philosophy which is based on logic and emotional control. He controls his emotions and withholds judgement. He uses meditation and finds human emotions “illogical.” Yet he (as well as Stoicism) is often misidentified as being without emotion, coldblooded and unfeeling. This post looks at Spock’s Stoic virtues as shown by both internal and external conflicts of reason and emotion and asks if Spock truly represents the good Stoic.
Spock’s Stoic Virtues
The following quotes show the similarity of Vulcan philosophy to Stoicism.
First, Spock accepts reality:
“What is necessary is never unwise.” – Spock’s Father
Or as a Stoic formulation, if it is necessary it is beyond our control. If we fight what is necessary we suffer conflict, if we accept what is necessary we gain tranquillity. Conversely, we can formulate that what is unnecessary is clearly unwise. Marcus Aurelius observed that most of what we say and do is unnecessary. His advice being: “On each occasion we should ask, is this one of the necessary things?” If unnecessary, simply avoid it. Using logic to find the core necessity simplifies life greatly.
Second, Spock calmly observes without adding opinion.
“Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected.” – Spock
I love this. One word achieves Epictetus’ emotional distance and definition as something you can or can’t control. To only judge things in your control as good or bad, and all else as “fascinating” brings rapid mental calm. Spock observes and states facts. There is no conflict with reality.
Third, Spock strives for emotional control. Like the Stoics, Spock is misrepresented as lacking emotion, but he neither avoids nor evades emotion, rather:
“Our emotions are controlled, kept in check. This adherence to principles of logic offers a serenity that humans rarely experience in full. We have emotions. But we deal firmly with them and do not let them control us.” – Spock
He works to replace conflicted and destructive emotions with ‘proper’ ones e.g. contemplation not fear. His tranquillity is not upset by others or the unhelpful thinking of his ego. Such emotional control is hard work. Despite constant meditation practice, in one classic episode “The Crying Time” Spock is seen repeating: “I’m in control of my emotions… control of my emotions” before breaking down in tears.
Mr Spock, Dr McCoy and Captain Kirk
In addition to his internal conflicts of reason and emotion, the show’s creator used Spock with two other main characters to work this conflict out in each episode. He realised that TV did not allow the exposition of a character’s stream of consciousness in the way a novel did, and so he:
“Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy.)” – Gene Roddenberry
Dr McCoy represents the human irrational appetites. He is guided by emotion, compassion and his Hippocratic oath. His emotions create conflict, his outrage at injustice leads him to act rashly and put himself and others in danger.
Captain Kirk represents the human spirit, guided by his mission statement, human values and morality. His task is to balance the two extremes of reason and emotion. In a great interview Stephen Fry talks about how he used Star Trek in his dissertation on Nietzsche and the dichotomy of human nature and rational philosophy:
“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.” 
Science Officer Spock and Captain Kirk differ in their views of whether a Captain should be ruled by his head or heart:
“I neither enjoy the idea of command, nor am I in fear of it. It simply exists and I will do whatever logically needs to be done.” – Spock
“Intuition, however illogical is a command prerogative.” – Kirk
These two views are echoed in modern neuroscience by Daniel Kahneman. He sees each brain as operating two systems: System 1 makes rapid decisions based on intuition and emotion – while System 2 makes complex decisions based on analysis and logic. 
A Stoic is exhorted to act “for the common welfare.” Both these thinking systems can achieve this; System 1 by automatic mental responses where emotion triggers an action to avoid danger or protect those in need and System 2 by logical analysis.
Star Trek depicts these systems in the personality of Science Officer Spock, and Doctor McCoy.
McCoy is System 1, guided by compassion and his Hippocratic Oath he will risk his life for what he feels is right. This is the base human level. But McCoy’s emotions often lead to irrational decisions. Spock is System 2, he works from data to hypothesis to test to conclusion.
Spock and Dr MCoy are seen arguing in nearly every episode as to whether reason or emotion should be their guide. Spock ruthlessly applies pure logic to ethics:
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”. – Spock
Spock is following the Stoic exhortation to apply the same logic to yourself as you do to others. He of course takes this depersonalisation to its “logical” conclusion and refuses to save his own father’s life in order to save more lives. He says:
“We have adopted a way of life that is logical and beneficial – we cannot disregard that for personal gain – no matter how important that gain”. – Spock
He believes it is illogical to kill without reason, but if it is logical to kill he will, even if it means sacrificing himself. In one episode Spock decides to sacrifice his life to protect the crew:
McCoy: “I’m sick and tired of your logic”
Spock “That is most illogical, it is more rational to sacrifice one life than six.”
Spock’s unemotional way of making ethical decisions seems to be supported by a 2007 neuroscience study which found the first causal link between emotion and moral decisions. Three groups were tested, Group 1- with brain damage connected to emotion, Group 2 – with brain damage unconnected to emotion and Group 3 – with no brain damage. The subjects were given moral dilemmas about inflicting harm on one person, to prevent harm to many. 20% of Group 2 and 3 were willing, but Group 1 was twice as willing. Moral judgement involves a conflict of emotion and reason at physical and intellectual levels. This was simply not there due to a lack of empathy but arguably did lead to a greater good (saving more people).  This raises interesting questions of whether emotion can actually be a limiting factor in decision making if morality is looked on in a utilitarian sense.
The Stoic Ideal – Kirk or Spock?
In conclusion, the character of Spock made a great contribution in bringing Stoic ideas into popular culture. He has shown millions of viewers the concept of a person seeking to control their emotions to achieve tranquillity and good choices. He is set up to clash with Dr McCoy who represents emotion without reason. McCoy’s emotions are raw and unexamined and he is forced to: “direct the body in one direction, the mind in another, to be torn between utterly conflicting emotions.” – Seneca.
Following these differing views of reason and emotion, I looked to Seneca’s description of the Stoic Captain:
“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……He 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”. – Seneca.
In this formulation, the ideal Captain needs four virtues: inner resilience, to avoid self-destruction, to know what is in his control and what is not and most critically, to know when and how toact.
Spock’s logic gets him to the third virtue, but his logic inhibits action. He often says:
“I have insufficient information” – Spock
“Insufficient facts always invite danger.” – Spock
Logic says the least risk is best. Logic says deferring judgement will create better decisions. In fact studies have proven this is a cognitive distortion and there is no correlation between more information and greater accuracy.  Logic paralyses Spock into inertia. When the ship is under attack and all options used, Spock sees no logical move:
“In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over, checkmate”.-Spock
But to move from uncertainty and to show your skill you must risk. Kirk retorts he doesn’t play chess, he plays poker. In this he is closer to Epictetus’ instruction for life:
“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.”
A player needs to know the rules, how to play and how to gamble. The first two rely on reason, the last on will. Kirk adds to logic with moral precepts which drive action.
Who then is the true Stoic?
I would argue the Stoic ideal is the best of Spock’s thinking with Captain Kirk’s bold heart. Star Trek shows this as follows:
First, that emotion without reason (Dr McCoy) and reason without emotion (Mr Spock) cannot lead to virtuous acts as to live according to reason has a moral as well as logical requirement.
Second, Kirk in representing the human spirit and moral principles shows you can reconcile the unexamined reactions of emotion (Dr McCoy) using counsel from reason (Mr Spock).
Third, Kirk is able to balance logic, principles and emotion to come to ‘proper’ emotions. These proper emotions are the basis to fire him into virtuous acts for the common welfare.
Lastly, Kirk has the will to do ‘the right thing’ when ‘the logical thing’ is inaction. His proper emotions drive virtuous acts, he is in accordance with nature as a moral and logical being.
“No fortune, no external circumstance can shut off the wise man from action”. – Seneca.
So when stuck in a stalemate of reason and emotion, picture Spock and McCoy head to head and follow Kirk’s lead:
“Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.” – Kirk