Vulcans Without Chests

by Dr. Lewis Pearson
An excerpt from “Vulcans Without Chests: Spiritual Disorders Portrayed in Star Trek”  in the upcoming anthology Science Fiction Film and the Abolition of Man. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

...When mutually exclusive goods vie for our attention, we experience inner conflict, a divided will. One voice says yes, another says no. In our efforts to settle the matter we may try to figure out which voice is stronger, and then be moved by that greater strength. Or perhaps we attempt to identify one voice as being more essential to who we are than the other, and then act accordingly—that is, in a way that we think is most “true to ourselves.” “My head says yes, and my heart says no,” I may tell myself, and then I might choose to follow my head or my heart depending on whether I fancy my “true self” to be essentially “cerebral” or “driven by passion.” When we construe inner conflict as occurring between our heads and our hearts, we are not far from the Tao. The Head represents reason, and the Chest represents emotion and the spirited part of us. Add in the Belly—representing desire and appetite—and we have C. S. Lewis’s threefold picture of human nature.

The key to successfully resolving inner conflict lies in understanding the three parts of human nature, and how they are meant to function and interrelate. Lewis reminds us this key is no secret, and that it has been around for quite some time:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. (Abolition of Man (HarperOne 2015), pp.24-5)

This tripartite picture is simply a way to make sense of the common experience of being conflicted about what we want. We seem to want a thing, and to not want that same thing, and we are at a loss regarding what to do because both desires come from within ourselves.

For instance, think about any time you have awaken to an alarm clock. The part of you that remembers why you set the alarm for this particular time—the calculating part—wants to get up. The part of you that is enjoying the feeling of sleeping—the desiring part—wants not to get up. You can hit the snooze button, giving your desiring part a momentary preference, but the solution is temporary. The permanent solution comes either when you decide finally to get up or turn off the alarm altogether. The days your calculating part wins, you “prove stronger” than yourself. When desire wins out and you succumb to a pleasure you know to be self-destructive in some way, you prove weaker than yourself, you “give in.” The difference-maker from one day to the next is represented by a third part of the soul: the spirited part. This part is something like the army of your soul, fighting for and enforcing the rule of whatever part of the soul is in charge. Lewis calls this part “the Chest.”

Vulcans without Chests

Following Plato and the tradition, Lewis sees the Chest as a link between the Head and the Belly. Our emotions are a kind of helper and motivator when they have been properly trained to obey reason; thus they can be a reliable guide, or at least a safety net, when our Heads aren't in the game. Without the Chest, we're left with Heads and Bellies to fight one another, and one will usually squash the other, so that we either become utterly enslaved to any appeal to our desires, or else a sneering and unfeeling set who scoff at any appeal to desires. In short, we either become brute animals, or Vulcans.

Vulcans do not see emotions as helpers in the quest to recognize and conform ourselves to the objective nature of the world. They see emotions as enemies of reason, as insidious influences from within that distract us from recognizing the objective nature of the world.  In outlining the flaws and limitations of The Green Book, Lewis may as well be discussing the Vulcans and their philosophy of life, for according to it, “the very possibility of a sentiment being reasonable—or even unreasonable—has been excluded from the outset” (Abolition of Man, pp. 19-20)...

Ironically, such a position is highly illogical. It is also tragic, for on such a disordered picture of the emotions, psychological health cannot be achieved through a harmonizing of the various psychical parts of oneself into an integrity ordered toward truth. Rather, psychological health can only be attained through the repression or destruction of either reason or emotion. The result of such a pursuit will always be dysfunction and psychological chaos, for hiding or destroying an undesirable part—whether it be reason or emotion, or desire for that matter—does not make the dominant or remaining part a proper integrity unto itself with proper wholeness, any more than a man separating himself from or killing his wife makes him a harmonious married couple unto himself.

One might ask what would lead a person to think that systematic repression of all emotion would be a good or logical idea. Given the way that many Star Trek episode plots unfold, it seems that the idea comes from seeing how much suffering and destruction results when people’s actions are driven by wrath, lust, greed, gluttony, envy, and so on. If not for these vices, the world would be a better place. And of course, it would be a better place. But the unnoticed mistake in reasoning comes from inferring that there are no well-ordered and appropriate forms of anger, sexual activity, use of wealth, et cetera, merely because vicious, disordered forms of all these things exist. The simple fact that a thing has a proper use or order entails the further fact that the very same thing can be abused and put out of order. But to conclude that a thing should be eliminated because it can be misused is arbitrary at best; by no means is it strictly logical. If it were, there would be no reason to prevent the same argument being applied to everything: There should be no starships because they can be used to spread plagues, there should be no languages because they can be used to insult and confuse, there should be no arms and legs because they can be used to beat and stomp, and there should be no logic because it can be misapplied and lead to an entire humanoid race extirpating an essential part of who they are...

Dr. Lewis Pearson is an alumnus of Christian Brothers University and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis.

Posted by Editorial Board at 1:31 PM

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