Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Good Inclination and the Bad Inclination

"And what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see here indications that it's his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength."--Mr. Spock, in the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"

In the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within," a transporter malfunction splits Captain James Kirk into two separate people, a "good" Kirk and a "bad" Kirk. The "good" Kirk turns out to be an ineffective Captain because even though he desperately wants to do the right thing he lacks the strength of will to make tough command decisions, while the "evil" Kirk is so corrupted by his uncontrolled lust for power and sex that he is too ruthless and self-centered to be an effective Captain. Both sides of Captain Kirk's personality--what Jewish philosophy calls the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination)--are essential for him to be a great leader but the secret to Captain Kirk's greatness is that both sides balance each other; however, it is one thing for a fictional character to maintain such balance and quite another thing for a person to maintain such balance in real life.

I am not the first person to observe that the plot of "The Enemy Within" depicts the conflict between yetzer hara and yetzer hatov (and there is at least one other Jewish element in Star Trek: Leonard Nimoy borrowed the now-famous Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" hand sign from the Jewish Priestly Blessing); David Holzel writes, "Viewed through a Jewish lens, this episode is an allegory of a man whose yetzer hara, or evil inclination, is split from his yetzer hatov, or good inclination...Far from a demonic force that needs to be destroyed, yetzer hara represents creativity, ambition and will. It is more morally neutral than its name suggests...Yetzer hara is our sneaking suspicion, or out-and-out conviction, that this life is all there is. It pulls us from the holy to the corporeal. To defy death, our yetzer hara stirs us to build monuments to ourselves--families, businesses, works of art. These, we know, will survive us. (Why else do captains of the starship Enterprise leave detailed mission logs? Why else are there reruns?)."

Just as the yetzer hara is not a manifestation of pure evil, the yetzer hatov is not a manifestation of pure good; Holzel quotes a rabbi who warns that the two inclinations must be in balance, because "Too much [yetzer hatov] leads to premature saintliness. If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal." Trying to make perfect decisions that lead to 100% positive outcomes in all possible scenarios is a recipe for disaster whether you are the fictional Captain Kirk or whether you are facing tough choices in your personal and/or professional life; doing the best you can do and then accepting the outcome is a recipe for maximizing one's likelihood for success. "Do your best" is one of the themes of Don Miguel Ruiz' "The Four Agreements":

"Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

Doing your best means enjoying the action without expecting a reward. The pleasure comes from doing what you like in life and having fun, not from how much you get paid. Enjoy the path traveled and the destination will take care of itself."

It is possible to make a subtle but significant shift in one's mindset, to change one's goal from seeking perfection to having a wider perspective: "Striving for greatness is important and meaningful but there can be a high price to pay for such striving and few people who attain greatness avoid paying for it in some fashion; that does not mean that anyone should settle for mediocrity but rather that those who strive for greatness must have tremendous self-awareness and must concentrate on maintaining proper balance mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically."

During "The Enemy Within," Dr. McCoy tells the "good" Kirk, "The intelligence, the logic. It appears your half has most of that. And perhaps that's where man's essential courage comes from." Mr. Spock has a deep understanding of such inner conflicts: "Being split in two halves is no theory with me, doctor. I have a human half, you see, as well as an alien half, submerged, constantly at war with each other. Personal experience, doctor. I survive it because my intelligence wins over both, makes them live together."

There is a very fine line between a winning life strategy and a losing one; the tools for a winning life strategy include intelligence, logic, the subtle yet vital distinction between seeking perfection/having a wider perspective and "adaptability in the face of serious survival challenges."


  1. WOW. Thank you David! I like the way you think. As much as I crave a rigorous Jewish lifestyle and Torah learning, I find myself making sense of life through the lens of a secularly-educated mind that read and thought excessively deeply into all kinds of things. I just started reading, but I wanted to let you know that I found this awesome.

  2. David N.,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and for appreciating my work.


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