Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule

Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version
Editor’s Note

This essay originally appeared in the anthology Faith, Reason, and Political Life Today, edited by Peter Augustine Lawler and Dale McConkey, and published by Lexington Books in 2001. It is reproduced here by permission of the author, editors, and publisher.

All rights reserved. This essay may not be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Star Trek is the only television show to have directly posed the question: “What is the Good?”[1] Over the course of seventy-nine episodes, this question and related Socratic inquiries were pursued. Star Trek paid generous homage to the philosophic and religious traditions that make up the Western dialectic. A sampling of some of the episode titles reveals the extent to which the series acknowledged both Jerusalem and Athens. There is “The Apple,” “Journey to Babel,” “The Way to Eden,” and “A Taste of Armageddon,” along with “Plato’s Stepchildren” (initially to have been titled “The Sons of Socrates”), “Who Mourns for Adonais?,” “Bread and Circuses,” and my favorite title “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Because the show employed a number of writers and directors over its three-year run, interpretation is made more difficult. There is not the same consistency of vision that one expects when dealing with a single author. Nonetheless, the guiding presence of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, really did give the series a particular stamp. Certain themes emerge as fundamental. Uniquely among television shows, Star Trek began each episode with a spoken invocation. For those of you who don’t have it ingrained in memory, it goes as follows: 

Space … the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations — to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The standard television show has a theme song and an opening montage that introduce the characters and (particularly in the case of comedies) supply a situational history (think of the Gilligan’s Island ballad). The Star Trek invocation is not rooted in that way. Star Trek gives pride of place to its mission. It is entirely oriented on the future. The invocation gives fair warning that there will be nothing comfortable or familiar in the boundless “final frontier” of space (not like the bar in Cheers “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came”). Star Trek is out-thrusting and open-ended. It is a quest, for the sake of questing. Of the voyagers themselves, as individuals, the invocation makes no explicit mention. They are dedicated to the larger “Enterprise,” but we know intuitively that the boldness of its mission will require boldness of them. We also know that the vehicle of their travels is a Starship, which means we may expect a captain and crew. Although Star Trek is often said to be a “space Western,” I don’t believe that formula captures the different status of law and command in Star Trek. Certainly, law and lawlessness are prominent themes in Westerns, with lawlessness the norm and law the work of “the lone ranger.” By contrast, the starship presents a well-constituted order. As a result, Star Trek has more to teach about statesmanship and regimes than the ordinary Western, through both the captain’s handling of his crew and the ship’s encounters with other orders — more and less well-constituted.

The invocation makes clear that space is not empty. The voyagers intend to find three things: “new worlds,” “new life,” and “new civilizations.” The listing is quite precise. “Worlds” I understand to mean other celestial bodies. The mission with respect to such objects is a scientific one, to “explore” these “strange” and unknown things. Some of these worlds may contain “life,” and beyond that, some life may have attained to “civilization.” (Again, note the contrast with the Western, where the drama often pits settlers against a savage land inhabited by “savage” Indians and equally savage outlaws from civilization.) The Enterprise’s mission with respect to life and civilization is to “seek” it out. Note that new life and new civilizations are not said to be “strange.” Contact and communication are assumed to be possible. There is ambiguity however in the injunction “to seek out.” The mission of the Enterprise is avowedly non-imperialistic. They are not colonists themselves, nor are they the advance team for later colonization by the UFP, the United Federation of Planets. The “Prime Directive” that governs the Enterprise’s contacts with other beings specifies non-interference. And yet, as we all know, that directive is violated, episode after episode. “To seek” can mean “to look for” or “to try to acquire or gain.” The dual meaning can be traced in the etymology of “seek” which is said to be akin to both the Latin sagire, to perceive keenly, and the Greek hegeisthai, to lead. Seeking, when successful, culminates in taking. It should come as no surprise that behind the Enterprise’s pose of scientific neutrality there lie particular political convictions and aspirations. But despite the fact that Captain Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius, this is not the “veni, vidi, vici” of the ancient world. The aim is not conquest, but the spread of freedom. The Enterprise interferes, setting aside Starfleet’s “Prime Directive,” in order to restore to peoples the right of self-determination.

They are interstellar freedom fighters and the types and sources of tyranny are many. Most obviously there are the two militaristic and expansionist empires — the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Empire — hostile to the Federation. As its name indicates, the Federation is a decentralized and voluntary alliance of free states on the Kantian model. It is like a corrected version of the United Nations, an organization that makes the mistake of not requiring a republican civil constitution as the criterion of entry. Perhaps it would be more accurate to compare the Federation to NATO (with a large element of NASA thrown in) since it is concerned with preserving the security of the participating states and since this “league of peace” does not have in view “the amalgamation of states under one superior power.”[2] Just as America is the hegemonic power within NATO, so too it is Earthlings who dominate the Federation’s Starfleet, but their hegemony does not purpose one-world government. Hegemony and autonomy are not irreconcilable.

In contrast to the Federation, the Klingons and Romulans are both imperialistic. The interstellar situation might be seen as analogous to the Cold War, with the brutal Klingons as the Soviets and the wily Romulans (inventors of the “cloaking device”) as the Chinese. Interestingly, however, the ideological component of these conflicts does not mirror the Cold War. The battle is not between liberalism and communism. Star Trek does deliver a very powerful critique of communism (and fascism as well), but not through episodes involving the Klingons or Romulans. While we never learn much about the domestic arrangements of these empires, we are told that “The Klingons are a military dictatorship; war is their way of life.”[3] Klingons and Romulans are both martial peoples, motivated primarily by honor, who seek mastery over others. They are empires in the classical sense (fittingly, Romulan titles include “Centurion” and “Praetor”). Thus, Star Trek presents the ancient, timocratic alternative to democratic liberalism, and takes seriously the challenge it represents.

While the Federation’s preference for peace over war, and democracy over aristocracy, is regularly shown to be correct, Star Trek is at the same time a celebration of a certain kind of warrior and a certain kind of commander. Captain Kirk, with his spiritedness, is similar in many ways to his enemies — a point stressed, somewhat to Kirk’s discomfort, in the very first episode to feature the Klingons (“Errand of Mercy”). The enemy commanders always admire Kirk. (Their names too usually begin with the same strong “K,” witness the Klingon commanders Kor, Koloth, and Kang, as well as the superman Khan). As a warrior who has subordinated the love of war to higher ends, Kirk does not return their admiration. He does, however, make evident his disdain for the ignoble uses to which peace is often put by its unworthy beneficiaries. Those who trigger his contempt include the con man Harry Mudd (a humorous study in greed, lust, gluttony, deceit, and cowardice), the trader in tribbles Cyrano Jones, along with assorted irritating bureaucrats and diplomats (Undersecretary of Agricultural Affairs Nilz Barris, High Commissioner Ferris, and Ambassador Fox). Note that all the names are appropriately chosen: the lowlife Mudd, the common Jones, the nullity Nilz Barris, the man of very ordinary metal Ferris, and the easily trapped Fox who turns out to lack not only leonine qualities but foxlike ones as well. One might conclude that Star Trek, despite its seeming commitment to liberalism, in fact agrees with Nietzsche’s diagnosis:

Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions. Their effects are known well enough: they undermine the will to power; they level mountain and valley, and call that morality; they make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic — every time it is the herd animal that triumphs with them. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization.

These same institutions produce quite different effects while they are still being fought for; then they really promote freedom in a powerful way. On closer inspection, it is war that produces these effects, the war for liberal institutions, which, as a war, permits illiberal instincts to continue. And war educates for freedom. For what is freedom? That one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself. That one maintains the distance which separates us. That one becomes more indifferent to difficulties, hardships, privation, even to life itself. That one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one’s cause, not excluding oneself. Freedom means that the manly instincts which delight in war and victory dominate over other instincts, for example, over those of “pleasure.” The human being who has become free — and how much more the spirit who has become free — spits on the contemptible type of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, females, Englishmen, and other democrats. The free man is a warrior.[4]

Like Nietzsche, Star Trek expresses concern for the fate of nobility should the uninterrupted reign of peace arrive. Yet, unlike Nietzsche, Star Trek refuses to glorify militarism. It should be said that the show’s preference for peace and its critique of the Klingons and Romulans do not necessarily align it with the partisans of early modernity. These are positions that Aristotle as well as Locke would take. Indeed, it seems to me that the liberalism of Star Trek may be closer to the ancient liberalism of Aristotle than to any of the varieties of modern liberalism. Aristotle faults the manly Spartans for treating war, which ought to be a means, as the end of the regime. But he faults as well those who turn to unlimited money-making. Commerce also should be viewed as a means, rather than as the end for which men unite.

Whatever life on the Federated planets may be like, certainly life on board the Enterprise does not entail the reduction of politics to economics. The linkage of self-preservation and reason, so characteristic of modernity, is not foundational for this Enterprise. Desire is kept firmly in check. Symptomatic of this is the fact that we learn very little about the pre-Enterprise private lives of the main characters. Contrast this with the sequel series which have degenerated into space soap-operas, replete with staff psychiatrists (Counselor Troi) and bartenders who listen (Whoopie Goldberg’s Guinan). The original series had no bar, but rather a common mess, where the crew could also be seen playing chess and listening to music. Likewise there was no Holodeck (a virtual-reality machine that allows individuals to indulge their fantasies).[5] Instead there was a gym — significantly featured in the episode “Charlie X” in which Kirk becomes the mentor of a young boy and introduces him to bare-chested wrestling (as close as a television show could get to the nudity of the Greek gymnasium). At the heart of Star Trek is a rehabilitation of spiritedness, that part of the soul significantly downplayed by the moderns.

In saying that Star Trek does not delve into the private and suppresses it on board, I don’t mean to say that the show is uninterested in the human psyche (or concerned only with the question of international relations). Quite the reverse. Because Star Trek revives the tripartite Platonic soul and particularly its problematic central element, thumos, its account of the soul is fuller than the modern psychiatric account. Whereas the sequels have psychiatrists in residence, the original Star Trek assigns that most important study to the audience and gives us plenty to ruminate on. Just as the Enterprise is the spirited arm of the Federation — a set-up that forces us to think about the conditions of freedom — on board ship it is Kirk above all others who embodies spiritedness. Each of the show’s three main characters can be pretty obviously identified with a part of the soul: Captain Kirk spiritedness, Mr. Spock reason, and Dr. McCoy appetite. Now each is of course a fully fleshed character and so things are more complicated than this schematic. Nonetheless the basic identifications are strong.

Spock is a Vulcan. The Vulcans are a people devoted to logic and mathematical contemplation, a people who have purged themselves of emotions, and the illogic and vices that accompany them. At some point in their history (we are told of a barbarous and violent past), the Vulcans apparently turned spiritedness altogether inward, in order to extinguish desire. Now they are without either of those aspects of the soul. They are pacifists and vegetarians. Spock, however, is half-Vulcan, half-human. In him, the internal struggle has been renewed. In joining Starfleet, he has compromised Vulcan pacifism, but in all other respects, he strives to uphold the tenets of the Vulcan philosophy.

As Science Officer, Spock might be expected to share much with McCoy, the Chief Medical Officer. In fact, however, they are usually at odds. The doctor, endearingly called “Bones,” is known for his compassion. His science is not physics (or metaphysics), but biology. In the infinities of the universe, he attends to discrete living beings: “In this galaxy there is a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets; and in all of the universe three million million galaxies like this; and in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us.”[6] He loves living beings (not on principle in the manner of the Vulcan), but directly, emotionally, as individuals whose suffering he might relieve. He cares for the lower parts of the soul, the vegetative and the appetitive. He regards Spock’s disdain for the passions as unhealthy and is always on the lookout for evidence of human feeling in Spock. Although each of the characters comes in for his share of physical and emotional distress, McCoy is the featured sufferer in the two episodes whose explicit theme is compassion. In “The Empath,” McCoy is tortured by beings who wish to test the empathic willingness of a young woman to take on the pains of another, at great risk to herself, thereby healing him. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” McCoy suffers from a drug-induced delirium (accidentally incurred in the course of his duties) and is cared for by another angel of compassion, Edith Keeler.[7] So McCoy does not just minister to the suffering of others, he himself is an embodiment of weak and vulnerable humanity. Of all the regular characters in the series, I would say he is the most Christian in outlook (although, interestingly, Spock is the more theologically-minded, in a New Age sort of way).

Both men serve as important advisors to Kirk. Spock’s powerful mind is invaluable in assessing the dilemmas that continually confront them, while McCoy’s common sense perspective bespeaks a knowledge of human limitations, the most fundamental being mortality (remember his nickname “Bones”). Rule, however, belongs to Kirk alone. Despite Star Trek’s debt to the ancient account of the soul, this is not Plato’s Republic. Instead of spirited auxiliaries assisting a philosopher-king, here spiritedness rules, in consultation with both reason and appetite. Star Trek is a correction of the Republic’s city in speech — perhaps a correction that stems from understanding the Republic’s critique of utopianism.

The creators of Star Trek were aware that a philosopher would have to be forced to become a king, and even then, might not make such a good king. Although second in command on the Enterprise, Spock — the embodiment of reason — does not aspire to rule. (The final movie, The Undiscovered Country, stays true to this characterization. Spock has become a Federation official. It is Sulu, the navigator and security chief descended from Samurai warriors, who goes on to command a starship.) In the episode “Galileo Seven,” rule is thrust upon Spock when he is sent out in charge of a shuttlecraft mission. The small party runs into trouble and must crash land on a planet inhabited by Cyclopean giants. The doctor immediately sizes the predicament up as a test for Spock’s theories: “You’ve always said that logic was the best basis on which to build command.” Spock denies that he relishes the prospect: “I realize that command does have its fascinations, even under circumstances such as these. But I neither enjoy the idea of command nor am I frightened of it. It simply exists, and I will do whatever, logically, needs to be done.” Spock’s decisions, however, prove ill. With respect to the creatures, even after they kill one of the crew, Spock administers a carefully calibrated “deterrent” dose of pain, but instead of retreating, they become enraged and kill again. “Most illogical reaction — they should have fled,” says Spock. With respect to his own crew, his mistakes are many. His perceived indifference to the dead crewman (and a failure to understand the survivors’ desire to give him a decent burial even at the risk of their own lives) alienates the crew. After canvassing their views on how to deal with the creatures, he then disregards their advice (declaring himself “not interested in the opinions of the majority”). He also deprecates their desire for revenge (stating that he is “appalled by the low regard you earthmen have for life”) and neglects their plea for “a little inspiration.” Mutinous feelings build, and it is only the intervention of Bones and Scotty that keeps Spock’s authority intact. His mistakes all stem from his failure to share in, or at least understand, an outraged sense of justice, on the part of both the crew and the creatures.

As Aristotle said, and as Captain Kirk demonstrates, thumos is “the capacity of soul by which we feel affection” and “both the element of ruling and the element of freedom stem from this capacity.”[8] In addition to his spiritedness, Kirk is powerfully erotic. Women are drawn to him and he usually responds in kind. However, we know — and they pretty quickly figure out — that his heart belongs to the ship. The other character with an overriding attachment to the ship is the Chief Engineer Mr. Scott, but the perfervid Scotsman loves the ship as a mechanical entity. By contrast, Kirk loves the body politic. He cares for the crew, as individuals and as members of the collective, and he loves the Enterprise as an idea, in the manner of the reflective American patriot. Accordingly, his sense of his own has an inherently expansive, or universal, quality. He fights whenever his and his crew’s independence is threatened, but also when the independence of others is threatened, by either foreign or domestic tyrants. Nothing is more common than Kirk stirring up the spirit of rebellion among rather sheeplike peoples. As he tells the followers of Landru, “Snap out of it. Start acting like men.” If they don’t have it in them to participate in their own liberation, Kirk conducts it anyway and presents them with the fait accompli.

Star Trek knows that the essence of thumos is anger. In the episode “This Side of Paradise,” the Enterprise arrives at an agricultural colony where, as a result of the effect of psychotropic flower spores, peace and harmony prevail. The colonists are like the lotus-eaters of Homer, living in dreamy indolence. The spores affect the landing party, with the exception of Kirk, and eventually the entire crew. Happy as clams, they all beam down to the surface, abandoning the Enterprise and its mission. Alone, at the helm of the vast empty ship, Kirk laments: “I don’t know what I can offer against Paradise.” At this moment of demoralization, Kirk is himself hit by the spores. A look of blissful idiocy spreads over him and he prepares to join the others below (remember, once the last man leaves the ship, there is no returning). During a last-minute trip to his cabin to gather some belongings, Kirk’s eye lights on the packet of Starfleet medals. As he gazes at them, anger rises within him, and he shouts “NO!,” breaking the spell of the spores. Once he knows that anger is the antidote to “Paradise,” Kirk devises a way to restore his crew and get the inhabitants of Omicron Ceti 3 out of paradise too and back to work. As Kirk says “No wants, no needs, we weren’t meant for that, none of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.” The closing scene has Kirk delivering a little homily on the choice between strolling to “the music of the lute” and marching “to the sound of drums.” Spock’s response is to say: “Poetry, Captain? Non-regulation.” Spiritedness and poetry are linked.[9]

Star Trek is well aware of the dangers and paradoxes of spiritedness. Kirk’s psyche is rent apart for analysis in an intriguing episode called “The Enemy Within.” A transporter malfunction causes Kirk to duplicate, but it turns out each of the doubles is really a half. His personality has split into gentle and fierce components. The ferocious opposite is thoroughly anti-social, a brute who rampages through the ship, attacking women. When he hears of the search to capture him as an imposter, he is seen seething and shouting: “I’m Captain Kirk, I’m Captain Kirk… It’s my ship. It’s mine.” Meanwhile, the gentle Kirk, who is still in command, is becoming increasingly uncertain, incapable of decision, and forgetful of the prerequisites of rule. Upon the capture of the beastly Kirk, Spock observes that: “We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind or to examine, in earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side: which you call hostility, lust, violence; and his positive side: which earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.” The doctor interrupts: “It’s the captain’s guts you’re analyzing, are you aware of that Spock?” Spock persists: “Yes, and what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it is his negative side which makes him strong. That his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.” This is a rediscovery and reintegration of spiritedness that has to contend with Christian valuations; and so, like Machiavelli, Star Trek in this very early episode (#5) must speak well of evil. The ultimate position, however, is not the Machiavellian one. By “properly controlled and disciplined,” Star Trek means something other than “using cruelty well.” It means something more like the domestication or acculturation of aggression. Aware that his force of will resides in his doppelganger, the gentle Kirk asks the doctor: “What do I have?” The doctor replies: “You have the goodness.” To Kirk’s “Not enough, I have a ship to command,” McCoy adds: “The intelligence … It appears your half has most of that and perhaps that’s where man’s essential courage comes from, for you see he was afraid and you weren’t.” Importantly, the episode does not permit Kirk to be restored to wholeness until both parts understand their mutual need of one another. The gentle Kirk, appalled as he is by the sight of this ugliness in himself, is fairly quickly brought to admit that he needs the other. He then must undertake to educate his aggressive self, a difficult task since the fierce Kirk is not to be reasoned with. Only when he comes to feel the impossibility of a separated existence, does the beastly Kirk embrace his better half, tacitly accepting his authority and consenting to be reunited. By demonstrating the possibility of a soul both gentle and fierce, the series has established Captain Kirk as a fit guardian. (In what must surely be an esoteric allusion to Plato’s Republic, the initial tip-off to the transporter malfunction is a zoological specimen, very like one of Socrates’ “noble puppies,”[10] beamed up after Kirk, which has also split into two.)

Star Trek’s understanding of man as a compound being is the deepest source of the show’s consistent opposition to all forms of utopianism. Utopia is achieved only at the price of denying human nature. The lesson that emerges is that “utopia” is not so much impossible as undesirable. Star Trek’s critique of communism is particularly important since so many people think communism is a worthy ideal that just doesn’t work in practice. Star Trek criticizes the ideal itself. There are episodes like “This Side of Paradise” and “The Way to Eden” that deal with the counterculture’s version of communism — a sensual paradise of free love. There are other versions of communism more austere and religious in character like those depicted in “The Return of the Archons” and “The Apple.” Whereas the first sort of communism aims at the open sharing of private bodily pleasures, the second sort suppresses private pleasure and seeks to create a larger, artificial body. The indulgent version, which might be compared to Aristophanic communism, kills human greatness; the austere version, which might be compared to the communism of the Republic, kills human love. Moreover, both versions of communism (the dispirited and the anerotic) are hostile to the exercise of human reason. Vacant stares characterize the residents of these regimes.

Star Trek understands that the pleasures and pains of the body, whether the individual body or the body politic, can never be fully shareable. Thoughts, by contrast, are fully shareable. There are some interesting episodes that deal with beings who have transcended the body, with its needs and desires, and who experience the true communion of disembodied minds. Star Trek may be the only television show that has attempted to convey the peak joy of philosophic contemplation and philosophic friendship. While Star Trek admits the superiority of certain noncorporeal beings, it also suggests that this superiority is rapidly eroded whenever such beings are forced to assume human form, as happens in both “Return to Tomorrow” and “By Any Other Name.” Possession of a body, and all that entails in the way of passionate self-preference, renders highly questionable any claim to rule over others by natural right, without their consent. Star Trek humbles those beings who think they are gods by reminding them of their common subjection to the human condition, or if not the “human” condition precisely, at least something very like it.[11]

This denial of the existence of natural masters is not a denial of politically significant inequalities, for at the same time that it humbles the imposters to rule, Star Trek insists upon the dignity of those who meet the difficulties of the human condition with maturity and virtue. Its anti-levelling animus is most apparent in those episodes that deal with children (“Miri” and “Charlie X”) or overgrown children (“The Squire of Gothos,” “Elaan of Troyius”). There is none of the contemporary idealization of youth. Self-control and responsible action are presented as choiceworthy.

Despite its repeated suggestion of history’s progressive character, Star Trek seems to me more committed to a belief in the eternity of the human struggle. Given our compound nature, which each of us must confront as an individual, there is little likelihood of moral improvement on the part of the species. Freedom is precarious, requiring vigilance and even violence to preserve it. Wherever the Enterprise encounters peace, it turns out to be the stagnant tranquillity of despotism. Interestingly, technology is often an essential instrument of this despotism. Despite the show’s frequent celebration of technological wizardry, it remains suspicious of technology’s hold over us and very aware of potential dangers. Kirk’s own command of the Enterprise is challenged by an artificial intelligence machine in “The Ultimate Computer.” That machine is knocked out by Kirk; and the M-5 joins a list of other computers destroyed by Kirk in order to reestablish human dignity.[12] My favorite bit player in the series was the eccentric lawyer Samuel T. Cogley, who speaks of the virtues of owning and reading printed books rather than accessing them on a screen, and who defends a court-martialed Kirk.[13] It turns out that the evidence in support of the court-martial was produced by malicious tampering with the ship’s computer banks (a fact discovered by Spock in a Kasparov-like chess match). Because human nature is as it is, the technological works of man are always of doubtful goodness. Thus, Star Trek does not endorse the project of conquering nature, either human nature or cosmic nature. Particularly illustrative of this is the role the show assigns to luck and chance. Whereas Machiavelli spoke of the prince’s conquest of Fortuna, Captain Kirk freely acknowledges that there are incalculables, things beyond human control. Unlike Spock, who is paralyzed in the absence of hard data, Kirk acts on hunches, and does so happily, at one point saying “I’m dependent on luck. It’s almost the only tool we have that will work now.”[14] While it is often Kirk’s practical wisdom that saves the day, almost as often it is the providential intervention of superior beings or simply good fortune. At day’s end, Kirk always displays a sort of Churchillean good cheer. As Churchill wrote in describing a dislocated shoulder:

This accident was a serious piece of bad luck. However, you never can tell whether bad luck may not after all turn out to be good luck…. One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse; or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision. Life is a whole, and luck is a whole, and no part of them can be separated from the rest.[15]

Star Trek argues that humankind’s proper place is situated between humility and hubris, a position that allows for both moderation and greatness. The lessons that can be learned by studying statesmen of the past[16] or the philosophic teachers of statesmen (Aristotle in particular) are abundantly on display in that statesman of the future, Captain James T. Kirk.

[1] Episode #22, “The Return of the Archons.”
[2] Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in On History, ed. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1963), 100, 113.
[3] Episode #27, “Errand of Mercy.”
[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 541–42.
[5] There was an episode called “Shore Leave” that featured an “amusement park” with direct access to one’s deepest desires. The place is quite a nightmare until the crew learns to be careful of what they wish.
[6] Episode #9, “Balance of Terror.”
[7] Through the permutations of time travel, we learn that the grateful McCoy then saved her life. We learn as well that she went on to found a pacifist movement so powerful as to delay American entry into World War II, thereby allowing for the triumph of Hitler. If the past, present, and future as we know it is to be righted, then the misguided or untimely compassion of both McCoy and Keeler must be averted. Kirk, who by this point is in love with the beautiful Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins), must stop McCoy from rescuing her from an onrushing car. The episode is typical of Star Trek’s stance toward pacifism. Keeler’s aim of a world without war is admired, but her understanding of and insistence on moral purity are regarded as a recipe for the victory of evil. A similar point is made about Surak, the Vulcan Founder, in “The Savage Curtain.”
[8] Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 208 (1327b41 and 1328a5–6).
[9] See Paul Cantor’s argument respecting the Shakespeare-quoting Klingons in the final Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country, collected in his book Gilligan Unbound (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).
[10] Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 52–53 (375a–376d).
[11] See Episodes #2, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”; #24, “Space Seed”; #46, “The Gamesters of Triskelion”; #67, “Plato’s Stepchildren”; #73, “Who Mourns for Adonais?”; and #74, “The Cloudminders.”
[12] Landru (Episode #22, “The Return of the Archons”), Nomad (#37, “The Changeling”), Vaal (#38, “The Apple”), and the war-gaming computer on Eminiar VII (#23, “A Taste of Armegeddon”).
[13] In his opening tribute to booklearning, Cogley declares: “Do you want to know the law — the ancient concepts in their own language? Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha III.”
[14] Episode #14, “The Galileo Seven.”
[15] Winston Churchill, My Early Life: 1874–1904 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 102.
[16] Lincoln is the statesman most admired by Kirk, and the two fight together against an assemblage of the universe’s ultimate bad guys in “The Savage Curtain.”
Diana Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” in Peter Augustine Lawler and Dale McConkey, eds., Faith, Reason, and Political Life Today (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001). Republished on on September, 8, 2015.
Paramount Pictures

Delivered to your inbox:

Humane dissent from technocracy

Exhausted by science and tech debates that go nowhere?