On Living Long, and Prospering


There are several different archetypes of virtue in the history of Western culture: the patriot, the rebel, the artist, the statesman, the woman of faith. Socrates seemed to invent in his own life and personality a new type, and while that type played a huge role in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and was transmitted down to us in various forms, combined with various types, it was the Stoics who in a way embodied what was central in Socrates. Stoicism had a kind of oblique revival in the thought of Spinoza and Kant, but it could never quite compete with the other images and models in the larger culture. Ironically for us today, the Sixties made matters worse, and the notion that virtue is a sham and a self-betrayal, that what is truly necessary is to get in touch with your feelings, your appetites and passions, seemed to triumph over all else.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t quite sure at first what he was doing with the Spock concept. At first he was supposed to merely be provocatively alien, and the notion of a cold character who was second in command was planned for a woman, with the intention I imagine of making a feminist statement. The grand pooh-bahs of television wouldn’t wear it, and so the notions were merged and we got the Spock that we know. Without quite knowing what they were doing, Star Trek re-invented Stoicism and presented it to the modern world in an accessible form. Philosophers sometimes say that the image of Spock misrepresents Stoicism, but on further reflection, I think Star Trek got it right in the first place. The forgotten Stoic Poseidonius knew that to achieve the ideal of dignified, self-possessed rationality, one would need to struggle with passions and appetites; in this he followed Plato rather than Zeno. Modern Stoics like Lawrence Becker have insisted that a proper Stoic does not exterminate his or her emotions, but cultivates them selectively, by the light of reason. Spock showed us both the struggle, and the proper role of dignified, rational sentiment, especially the sentiment of friendship. Remarkably, what Roddenberry and Nimoy created did justice to one of the central and yet most often forgotten ethical ideals our culture has produced, and showed that it was worthy of our affection and respect… and for some of us, emulation. From what I know of him, Nimoy had reason to understand from the inside the invisible battles and victories of those whose passions and appetites clamor to overtake their judgement, and he had reason to know what is was like to be an alien in a culture with very different values… and perhaps this was why he was able to make the character so compelling. Though Leonard Nimoy tried fitfully to break out of the role with which he became identified, in the end he acquiesced, and, I think, wisely. He is one of the few non-philosophers I know who gave much of his life to modeling for us The Life of Reason. We philosophers haven’t done a tenth as much in that regard. Leonard Nimoy will be missed, but the character he created is immortal. Mr. Quinto, you now have some pretty big shoes to fill: live long and prosper.

A Pretty Problem

Here’s the thing. We want individualism. We want as much freedom as possible for the individual without it limiting the freedom of other individuals. This is what we are about. Happily, having such a thing goes hand in hand with peace almost always. Unhappily, it also goes hand in hand with: ignorant or indifferent citizenship in the republic that makes it possible, an absence of political community unless politics becomes a branch of the entertainment industry, rampant consumerism, narcissism, and vast, ever-expanding inequalities of wealth. It means, increasingly, no public intellectuals worth a damn, no public, ultimately, no republic.

We also want democracy. We want as much commitment to an intelligent, educated engagement in our political institutions as possible. This is what we are about. We want people to set their sights higher than their next smartphone or how many of their Tweets get re-Tweeted. We want people to care about the fate of democracy both here and abroad. We want to nurture and grow the institutions and values that create this kind of citizenry.

Unhappily, that goes hand in hand with war. Just that: war. Only war can make people care about something larger than themselves, even when, perhaps especially when, it is a war for freedom itself. Only war makes people step out of their private lives long enough to care about the state of their community, and especially their political community. War makes political values literally a matter of life or death rather than a matter of attention or inattention, entertainedness or unentertainedness. Only war can make elites care enough about social cohesion to want to redistribute wealth in any serious way. Only war can make elites care that their fighting populace is healthy. Only war can make elites care that their working class is accommodated in any meaningful way. It’s not just that war and socialism go hand in hand: we cynics have always known what no progressive is ever quite able to see. It’s that public-spiritedness even on behalf of individualism itself requires death. (Don’t believe me? Before journalists started getting murdered in their offices, when was the last time you thought about, let along acted on, the Voltaire maxim about defending to the death the right to say things?) But idealistic war is a task that can have no end other than in enforced defeat by a superior power. With endless war comes empire, and eventually the curtailment of the very institutions that make democracy possible. It means, ultimately, no republic.