Spockrates and the Nature of the Emotions

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“Spockrates” is a pun for the extreme among nerds.  I discovered it by myself, though a Google search reveals that it is used as a screen name by someone (or someones) or other.

I used the word in the title on a post for the 2013 Spocktober celebration at TTC‘s sister site The Undiscovered Country Project.  Now the same post appears in Spockology: Essays on Spock and Leonard Nimoy from The Undiscovered Country Project and Friends.  To celebrate the launching of Spockology, we’re running that blog post below.


For a few years, I have wanted to write a post for UCP on the episode “Catspaw” from the Original Series, but it’s been hard to find time to write an essay that would handle the various relevant issues as delicately as they deserve. (Those issues are Spock, Halloween, the emotions, Socrates, and Christianity.)

still don’t have time to write such an essay and handle these issues delicately! So instead I’m writing this post and cutting to the chase most indelicately. The advantage to my lack of time is that this post will be quick and to the point. Quick and to the four points, to be more precise.

The background: ”Catspaw” is a great (and rather campy) sci-fi Halloween episode. There’s no horror; but there is spookiness. The Enterprise crew encounters some aliens from beyond the galaxy. The aliens try to tap into their minds, but only reach their subconscious minds. There, they access various things humans have feared—witches, spooky castles, black cats; they create illusions of these things in order to test Kirk and the others.

First point: Spock does not fear because he knows there is nothing to fear. The spookiness just doesn’t get to him. He knows being afraid of it is irrational.

Second point: Spock illustrates a thesis concerning the nature of the emotions: that emotions convey information about a situation. Fear, in particular, is not an empty emotion. It means something. To be afraid of something is to perceive it as a bad thing. It is precisely because he does not think these things are bad that he does not fear.

Third point: This thesis is also Socrates’ thesis about the emotions in Plato’s Apology. (This is a text that you should probably read if you haven’t read it already; in the meantime, I offer you my cartoon version of the Apology.)

I don’t necessarily agree with everything in Socrates’ definition of the emotions. I think Robert Roberts’ book Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology develops this thesis in the right way.

Fourth point: If the emotions do indeed have content, this has relevance for the Christian life. Emotions are shaped by our understanding of the things that are important to us. Roberts has written a good book on what understandings should be shaping the emotions of a Christian. It’s very insightful, but still quite readable. I recommend it.