On Living Long, and Prospering

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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.

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