“Logic is the cement of our civilization, with which we ascend from chaos using reason as our guide.” – T’Plana-Hath, Matron of Vulcan Philosophy
Vulcan history is a long journey from ancient civil wars that nearly destroyed Vulcan, to their embracing of logic through the teachings of Surak. Why did Spock’s home planet Vulcan turn its back on emotions in deference to logic?
Vulcans were once barbaric, war-like and “nearly killing themselves off with their own passions“. As half-human Spock put it “Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive, colonizing period; savage even by Earth standards. There was a time in the past when we were an extremely violent race. We nearly destroyed ourselves. Paranoia and homicidal rage were common.” A small group of early Vulcans, reported to be liberals, began to mentally train themselves to suppress their emotions.
None too soon. Vulcan was tearing itself apart. Rampant emotions and a hostile warrior culture led to many widespread wars using terrible weapons like atomic bombs and the Stone of Gol. But the philosopher Surak made a radical proposition: lead a life governed by logic rather than emotion. His teachings showed Vulcans a path towards peace and they quickly spread. Spock reflected on the shift to logic: “We were once wildly emotional, committed to irrationally opposing points of view, leading, of course, to death and destruction. Only the discipline of logic saved my planet from extinction.”
Vulcans are not natural paragons of emotionless logic. They are actually far too emotional for their own good. Their natural disposition is quite earthly human: erratic, volatile and quick to anger. So they go to great lengths to suppress their natural feelings with disciplined mind control. The Vulcan embracing of logic includes an iron discipline about feelings – an almost Buddhist extermination of the ego, freeing the person from illogical emotional impulses.
Spock was only half-Vulcan, the offspring of a human schoolteacher and a Vulcan father. This created a deep, ongoing and powerful conflict between logic and emotion, described by Earth counterpart Leonard Nimoy as … “struggling to maintain a Vulcan attitude, a Vulcan philosophical posture and a Vulcan logic, opposing what was fighting him internally, which was human emotion.”
Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human. (Kirk’s eulogy for Spock)
The Vulcan culture survived and thrived. End of history lesson.
(Two sources for Vulcan history: http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Vulcan_history and http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/the-vulcan-way-how-to-live-long-and-prosper-1672660.html
Is There a Lesson?
Earth is embroiled in civilization-threatening conflict. The dark side of our emotional human nature is becoming more and more dominant with greed, power-grabbing, corruption, indifference to others, brutal killings, senseless wars that are somehow always logically or morally justified.
But the Vulcan civilization survived a similar crisis and thrived. What can we learn from our distant homo sapiens cousins? Must we also banish emotions in deference to logic?
Earth’s humans face a dual threat: 1) rampant emotions and whacked out values fueling phobias and paranoia, hatred, bigotry, “me first” nationalism; and 2) blunt-force logic: cold, calculating, it’s-only-business, inhuman disregard for others in deference to profit, possessions and power.
There’s a significant difference between Earth’s and Vulcan’s strain of homo sapiens. Our issue is more complex than Vulcans faced. Earth’s science community has determined that social-emotional attributes are what makes Earth humans human. Our emotional, impulsive, intuitive side is our redeeming quality, but it may also become our downfall.
Human emotion is as essential to our survival as the physical environment. We thrive on intangibles like sense of purpose, living by our values, healthy personal relationships, belonging / being part of a strong community. As social well-being has been found to intertwine with physical well-being these are critical to sustaining the species. It’s also been verified that social-emotional well-being drives achievement and success, as well as physical health and longevity.
But there’s a down side to strong emotions rooted in the way the brain and body interact.
Emotional input or negative experiences trigger a highly sensitized involuntary fear response that is so strong it can block out logical thought. These negative external stimuli can trigger brain trauma which causes the involuntary reactions due to our “fight or flee” instinct. A traumatized brain can be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain which causes a person to have feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear.
When a threat, either real or perceived, is felt the brain and body both prioritize survival. Both go through changes to enable rapid scanning for physical warning signs and emotional signals of unsafe conditions. We react to signals physiologically, our irritated limbic system increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration with an excessive secretion of stimuli—cortisol and adrenaline—pumping through our bodies.
We’ve long known about the potential physical damage from stress responses. Chronic activation of this fear response can damage parts of the brain as well as the body due to elevated stress levels. While humans are naturally social creatures that thrive on and crave social connection and attachment to others, if we encounter physical or emotional danger problem solving, reflection, and emotional regulation are compromised and diminished.
(Brain theory information is from Brains in Pain Cannot Learn! )
So, What’s a Human To Do?
For humans, our emotions are a good thing. We cannot survive without them. But an over-leveraged strength can become a weakness. So, how do we embrace our emotional strengths while keeping them in check? Mindfulness and meditation, even at a very basic level, can do wonders. So can rediscovering our true selves (purpose values, norms, belonging…). But body and mind are one system. So don’t forget the bean sprouts. And sensible exercise too. It’s not all esoteric pixie dust.
Humanity’s struggle to harness our emotions is a matter of species survival. Thankfully, there is a broad and potentially powerful awakening underway. Live long and prosper ….indeed! As Spock would exclaim, with one pointed eyebrow raised for added emphasis…. “Fascinating!”