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Star Trek and the State of Nature

March 3, 2011

In the midst of reading the works of Hobbes and Locke and their analysis of man in a state of nature, one recalls another great philosophical work – Star Trek. Underlying many, if not most of the episodes of that classic television series are moral lessons and intellectual analysis that raise the show above mere pulp fiction. One episode, “Arena,” is especially relevant to the debate over whether man without government is a noble beast or an animal condemned to live a solitary, brutal life, rescued only by the strong hand of dictatorial government. In fact, that episode provides a link between the writings of Hobbes and Locke and another great philosopher, Nietzsche.

“Arena” involved a confrontation between Captain Kirk’s Federation and an alien race called the Gorn. The Gorn had attacked a Federation outpost and Kirk’s starship confronted the alien attackers. Before an outer space battle between the two vessels could commence, Kirk found himself on a desolate planet pitted against the Gorn commander in a battle to the death. This combat had been arranged by an advanced civilization, the Metrons, who had decided that whomever killed the other would save not only his life, but also that of his crew, with the defeated warrior and his men condemned to death. Although Kirk initially fought the Gorn with the intent to kill his enemy, when Kirk eventually gained the upper hand, he refused to kill the creature. This triggered the appearance of an angelic-looking Metron who, while hovering over the ground, congratulated Kirk on his decision. The Metron told Kirk that in sparing his enemy Kirk had shown that “you are still half savage, but there is hope.” However, mankind, according to the Metron, still had a long way to develop. For this reason the Metron made it clear that his people did not yet want to associate with humans. He suggested that perhaps in a few thousand years his people would make contact with humans, with this long period of non-association needed to permit mankind to outgrow its brutal instincts.

Man’s instincts are exactly what Nietzsche had in mind when he glorified the state of nature envisioned by Hobbes in which the strong minority exerts brute force and power over the weak. Nietzsche regretted that this natural state of affairs had been superseded by a slave morality preached by the Jews and Christians, which glorified weakness over strength, the low over the mighty. This Judaic-Christian philosophy, that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” is, as Nietzsche recognized, an artificial construct that seeks to restrain man’s natural instincts. Economic stresses and other societal upheavals severely tax this alien philosophy. While it is true that sometimes during disasters people act humanely towards one another (e.g., the outpouring of emotion and good spirits exhibited by Americans, especially New Yorkers, after the tragedy of 9/11; the “Christmas Spirit” around the Holidays), the period of good feelings is invariably short-lived. The adrenalin rush of helping one’s neighbors is inevitably replaced by the more normal human traits of self-interest and apathy (e.g., the long delay in providing sufficient aid for rescue workers; the return to “normal” behavior within days after the Christmas holiday).

It is not, therefore, that the state of nature is so horrible, but that in that state there are insufficient protections against man’s natural instincts. It is tolerable, as Locke noted, as long as there remains enough food and land for everyone. Everything changes when mankind is faced with serious dislocation. Thus, the Nazi rise coincided with the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic; the atrocities in Darfur are related to drought and the famine it has caused. Today, the popular uprising in Egypt which at first seemed to be a noble endeavor stands on the brink of falling into the abyss of a military dictatorship as the emotional rush of the early days of protest gives way to fears about security and survival. These examples indicate that the Judaic-Christian teachings of what are essentially middle-class values are not yet strong enough to withstand severe disruptions. The Metrons were correct, however, that the human race has possibilities. It is just that, in the overall scheme of the universe, mankind is in its infancy. It will take a while for Judaic-Christian values to take deep enough roots to fend off the solitary, brutal and nasty state of nature that Hobbes feared.

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