Leonard Nimoy Gave Us a Character for the Ages

Leonard Nimoy as Spock with pointed ears and black hair

Probably the best tribute to an actor is to mourn not just that actor’s passing, but the loss of the character he brought to life.

Many are distressed not just because the actor is gone; but the character — Mr. Spock — he brought to life is gone, as well.

Spock was a fascinating character, for sure. He was part of a science fiction storyline, but he also spoke to a recurring dilemma in the human condition: the (seeming) conflict between reason and emotion.

As Star Trek fans know, the character of Spock was half human, and half Vulcan. The Vulcan race was a people who repressed their emotions, deliberately, proudly and as a means of survival.

Because Spock was half human, he struggled with emotions. He could not successfully repress those emotions as full Vulcans could. This made his character interesting to any human watching the series, because the human condition — for most — consists of a struggle between emotions and reason.

What a lot of people do not realize is that Spock’s attempts to repress emotion in favor of logic and reason were mistaken. The two can live in harmony. You can place reason in the driver’s seat, but still drive your car of life with the emotional fuel that makes the car go. A life without passion is just as unreasonable as a life where reason is thrown out the window.

Here’s how I put it in my book Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference):

I cannot overemphasize the point that genuine rationality does not require the “Mr. Spock”-like repression of all emotions in favor of thoughts. To accept the view of man as a rational animal does not preclude the fact that emotions are a normal and potentially beautiful dimension of human experience. A rational philosophy does not sacrifice emotions to thought, although to an emotionalist it will seem that way. A healthy individual listens to his emotions and isolates them without concluding prematurely they are facts. “Maybe this confusing emotion rests upon a fact,” he says to himself, “or maybe it does not. Until I look at it logically, I can’t know for sure.”

Repressing emotions is not the same as applying reason to them. To many, it’s the same thing. But there’s a world of difference.

Mr. Spock, throughout the series and the movies, often struggled with his desire to repress his emotions, on the one hand, and the inevitability of giving in to them, on the other — since he was, after all, half human.

In a quote from the original Star Trek series, the character of Mr. Spock hit on an important truth. He said, “It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.”

Although the repressing Mr. Spock may not have realized it, in this quote he identifies where human beings so often go wrong. They place emotions above reason — in romance, in purchases, in life decisions — because the emotions feel good, even though reason explains that disaster may lie ahead. Superficially, it seems like the dilemma is between reason and emotion. “Emotion feels good and is the human way; but reason tells us what’s right.”

Yet when you go against your reason or knowledge in favor of emotions, you end up not feeling too good.

Reasonable people thus conclude — as Spock did — that the only solution is to sacrifice and repress emotions for the sake of reason. But that’s not really the case. Emotions are simply a different form of thought. It’s just as possible that an emotional reaction could be closer to the truth than a reasoned out conclusion based on erroneous premises or errors in logic.

In the end, it is reason that tells us the truth. But emotions are not always mistaken or wrong. And we have our reason to prove it.

Mr. Spock’s dilemma represents the psychological dilemma of a lot of people in everyday life. Aside from Leonard Nimoy’s great skill at bringing this character to life, this is probably one of the reasons why Mr. Spock will be a character for the ages.

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