The Legacy of Mr. Spock: Reason and Reverence

The death last month of Leonard Nimoy reminds me of the time when Nimoy’s great character, Mr. Spock, met Abraham Lincoln. It was in 1969, in the third season of Star Trek, and the episode was called “The Savage Curtain.”

A bizarre race of rock-like creatures, the Excalbians, stage “spectacles” with other life forms, to study the effects on them and to glean their philosophies. They reincarnate history’s bad guys and pit them against two creatures who have wandered into their ken, the captain of the starship Enterprise, James T. Kirk, and Spock, the Enterprise’s science officer.

Team Evil is an assemblage of ruthless conquerors: Genghis Khan, Zora of Tiburon, Kahless the Unforgettable (said to be “the Klingon who set the pattern for his planet’s tyrannies”), and Colonel Green, a charismatic master of deceit responsible for the genocide of 37 million people in World War III (and a clear stand-in for Corporal Hitler). They have been promised their hearts’ desire—power—if they win.

The Excalbians fill out the good guys’ side by scanning Kirk’s and Spock’s psyches to discover who their heroes are. For the human it’s Abraham Lincoln and for the half human, half Vulcan, it’s Surak, the Vulcan who rescued his planet from self-destruction by establishing the supremacy of reason over passion. Spock calls Surak “the greatest who ever lived on our planet, the father of all we became.”

At first unwilling to fight under gladiator-style compulsion, Kirk and Spock change their minds once Yarnek, the Excalbian stage-managing the “drama,” threatens to liquidate the entire crew of the Enterprise. Thus, the first and most fundamental difference between good and evil emerges: the cause to which they are devoted and for which they are willing to risk their lives.

Kirk’s Lincoln is exactly as he always imagined him—“his kindness, his gentle wisdom, his humor, everything about him is so right”—as is Spock’s Surak. While each finds this encounter with his personal hero especially moving, each is also duly impressed by the other hero’s force of character. Spock admits to Kirk that he too experienced Lincoln’s “charm.”

The affinity between Spock and Lincoln goes deeper than the script writers knew. In fact, the young Lincoln was downright Spock-like in his regard for reason and logic. In the Lyceum Address, delivered before he was yet 30 years old, Lincoln sounds more like Spock than he does the highly spirited Kirk (the “T” in his middle name is for Tiberius, Rome’s great general). Lincoln analyzes the danger posed by the few who are inordinately ambitious—in quest of “the gratification of their ruling passion”—and the people at large who are also in the grip of passion—in their case, “the wild and furious passions” of jealousy, envy, avarice, hate, and revenge. Lincoln’s sobering conclusion is that “[Passion] will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.”

The United States, according to Lincoln, won’t really have attained true self-government until its citizens are self-governing individuals, which is to say that the soul of each is properly ordered with reason in command, à la Surak and his Vulcans.

Lincoln’s endorsement of the triumph of reason is even more hyperbolic in his Temperance Address, delivered on the birthday of George Washington in 1842. Envisioning the effects of the temperance revolution in breaking the bonds of a vile enslavement, Lincoln declares:

Happy day, when, all appetites controled, all passions subdued, all matters subjected, mind, all conquering mind, shall live and move the monarch of the world. Glorious consummation! Hail fall of Fury! Reign of Reason, all hail!

The over-the-top rhetoric of this passage has led some commentators to suspect Lincoln of ironic exaggeration (or, less convincingly, of unknowing self-contradiction in speaking so enthusiastically of “unimpassioned” reason). Even if he is mildly satirizing the utopianism of the radical moral reformers of his day, it is nonetheless still true that Lincoln himself, both in private and public life, strives mightily to elevate reason and to purge the hostile passions.

The hoped-for “fall of Fury” assumes more subtle and sublime forms in later speeches. In the First Inaugural, Lincoln calls on his countrymen to “think calmly and well.” Once again, he locates the obstacle to “calm thought and reflection” in the passions (a term that always, in Lincoln’s writing, has a negative connotation): “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Similarly in the Second Inaugural, the “fall of Fury” is transmuted into the more restrained poetic line “with malice toward none.”

Of the Vulcans, we know that they found refuge from their once-violent passions in devotion to logic and mathematical contemplation. Now governed by abstract reason alone, they are pacifists and vegetarians. Surak, the Vulcan founder, resolutely refuses to fight. He insists on approaching Genghis Khan and the other intergalactic bad guys with an offer of peace, only to be unceremoniously murdered. While Star Trek honors the principled pacifism of Surak, it could not be said to recommend it. (The show’s anti-utopian political wisdom is a theme I’ve explored elsewhere.[1]) The remaining team—Kirk, Spock, and Lincoln—enter the fight reluctantly, with Lincoln declaring that “the war is forced upon us. History repeats itself.”

While they did not want to fight, once engaged, they spare nothing in their conduct of the battle. Lincoln, in fact, takes charge of the campaign, with these general orders:

We fight on their level. With trickery, brutality, finality. We match their evil. I know, James. I was reputed to be a gentle man. But I was commander in chief during the four bloodiest years of my country’s history. I gave orders that sent a hundred thousand men to their death at the hands of their brothers. There is no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war except its ending. And you are fighting for the lives of your crew.

Kirk easily falls into the role of U.S. Grant alongside his own vision of Lincoln, the commander-in-chief; but why is Spock, the Vulcan “bred to peace,” willing to fight? While Spock in general strives to uphold the tenets of the Vulcan philosophy, he long ago decisively parted ways with Vulcan pacifism when he joined Starfleet, the combined scientific-military arm of the United Federation of Planets (think of it as NATO plus NASA). Although the primary purpose of the Enterprise is the exploration of space, the fabled boldness of its voyages guarantees there will be plenty of action. As Spock explains to Surak, “The captain knows that I have fought at his side before and will do so now, if need be.” Spock is loyal, not just to his Starfleet oath, but personally to his captain.

Spock, remember, is only half Vulcan. It is that pesky human side, which he is always seeking to repress, that explains his unshakable loyalty. Despite his pointy ears and green blood, Spock is every bit as much a compound being as the rest of us all-too-human beings. He is not purely disinterested in the manner of Swift’s Houyhnhnms. Our attraction to his character (and his considerable sex appeal to young female viewers) is connected to the impression he creates of roiling depths and unspoken, solitary struggles.

Doctor McCoy, who values the promptings of the heart, believes that Spock is fooling himself if he thinks he has extinguished the affections that spring from his human side. McCoy is ever eager to spot those moments in which another part of the soul speaks. The most famous is in the episode called “Amok Time,” where he gleefully notes Spock’s joyous reaction upon seeing that his friend Kirk, whom he has been misled to believe is dead at Spock’s own hands, is still alive.

Here Lincoln, like the good doctor, might have helped Spock to greater self-knowledge. Much as Lincoln admired reason, he did not regard reason as at odds with attachment or reverence. In the very speech in which Lincoln called for reliance on reason, he also argued that the material drawn from “the solid quarry of sober reason” could be “moulded into . . . reverence for the constitution and laws.” Reason and reverence are united in Lincoln’s “political religion.”

Lincoln stated unequivocally that this religion would require sacrifice. In the Star Trek episode that features Lincoln, he dies sacrificially as he did in 1865—in this case while trying in vain to rescue Surak. Fittingly, Spock will later give of himself in this way. To save the entire crew from certain destruction in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock pays the “last full measure of devotion,” and upon his death, Kirk gives him a great eulogy:

Of my friend I can only say this . . . of all the souls I have encountered in my travels his was the most . . . Human.

It’s a compliment that Lincoln, if not Spock, would have appreciated.

While Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, deserves much credit for the overall shape of the series and the political philosophy it expresses, Leonard Nimoy was a brilliant Spock. He was responsible for introducing the Vulcan salute which was based on a Jewish gesture of blessing, familiar to Nimoy from his Ukrainian émigré Orthodox parents. Although Nimoy at one point had a rather conflicted relationship to the character he brought to life—his first memoir was entitled I Am Not Spock—later in life he embraced the identification with a second memoir entitled I Am Spock. While a man of parts (poet, aviator, singer, and film director), Nimoy will always be remembered, at least by me, as the Vulcan who embodied the Lincolnian ideal of malice toward none, charity for all.

[1] Diana Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” in Faith, Reason, and Political Life Today, edited by Peter Augustine Lawler and Dale McConkey (Lexington Books, 2001).