Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Interesting ideas in Dune: conservatism, Nietzsche, free will

Let’s contemplate Dune. In particular, some sociological and political ideas outlined in Frank Herbert’s novel (so far I’ve read a half!), and Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of it (that one I’ve watched twice).

Brutalist spaceships, aesthetically spotless twinks, sandworms in killing frenzy… Fascinating things, no doubt. But was it only me who left the movie theatre with a deep impression that conservatism could be reasonable – and even appealing, after all? The way the movie (and the book) portrays the classic ideal of conservative values is attractive as hell. The intergalactic feudal aristocracy, an example of one noble family with a deep respect for the ancestors, and a spotless moral code. Who wouldn’t be drawn to such a picture?.. Well, most definitely not the modern Western world.

Aristocracy powered by eugenics

The Dune universe is organized as an intergalactic feudal society, with multiple Great Houses controlling various planets. So the first thing that Dune makes especially appealing is the idea of aristocratic elite. How appealing is it to belong to a great dynasty, a Great House, with 26 generations of the same family inhabiting the same land? Blood and soil. Ancestral dignity. Preservation of the bloodline.

In a classical sense, aristocracy equals meritocracy plus heredity. But, as we know from history, a common destiny of many allegedly noble dynasties is a steady degradation and decline (for instance – look at the main successor of the Romanov family). When it comes to the preservation of honourable virtues in time, humans tend to make poor choices, both in terms of breeding and upbringing. But not in the universe of Frank Herbert, where the humankind has one common goal covertly underlining all collective efforts – breeding the most noble men. The heredity control of aristocratic bloodlines is managed. Genetic continuation is carefully administered by the powerful sisterhood of Bene Gesserit – an all-female order that trains women to the frontier of what humans can achieve in terms of cognitive and mental abilities (we’ll focus on the training part later), and infiltrates its agents into various Great Houses. This arrangement of administered breeding must ensure that aristocratic dynasties remain noble, and don’t fall victim of degrading tendencies.

This is a pretty fascinating view of a theoretical social order. More than 100 year ago, Friedrich Nietzsche, the most famous advocate of aristocratic values among the philosophers, proclaimed that natural selection is utterly inefficient at cultivating better human beings. Evolution is good at breeding physically strong brutes, but not the noble humans – the best specimen, according to him, the Ubermenschen. But can a centralized eugenical program of a Bene Gesserit type be arranged in the real world?

Well, one single lesson supposedly learnt by the humankind in the 20th century is that centralized planning is rarely a good idea. Despite all the splendid grand-scale plans devised in theory, decentralized systems simply tend to perform better in practice. Examples can be found in the economy – where capitalism with its numerous economic agents turned out to be more sustainable than the grandeur of a socialist central planning apparatus, in politics – where the decentralized decision-making has consistently resulted in political regimes most satisfactory to its citizens (at least in the short-run), or even in biology – where all hopes to explain evolution from the standpoint of divine creation were eventually substituted with the chaotic logic of natural selection.

Same destiny would most likely await the humankind’s potential attempts to establish a clear trajectory of future biological development. Historicism is just one mesmerizing bit of a fantasy. A centralized eugenics program may easily fall victim of a human error, or political interests of totalitarian regimes. Unless there’s an agent so powerful and wise that it can bear responsibility for administering such a program throughout millennia according to the original plan. Which is exactly the function of Bene Gesserit sisterhood in Frank Herbert’s novel. Powerful, competent, infallible to corruption. Is such an agent likely to appear in the real world? That’s doubtful. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it would be cool if in the end the alleged omnipotence of the sisterhood would be revealed as a mere conspiracy theory. Definitely a more realistic ending! (Spoiler: I was right, that’s pretty much the content of Appendix III of the book). A completely different thing though would be an introduction of decentralized gene-editing initiatives – such as breeding of designer babies. Which could potentially work – as long as parents don’t repeat be same faulty patterns typical for natural selection – placing main emphasis on the secondary traits, such as brute force and physical appearance.

Becoming human

Another purely aristocratic idea propagated by Frank Herbert is the fact that becoming human is a hard work. Which reminds me of another theory of Friedrich Nietzsche – who claimed that we’re not born with dignity and respect granted to us by nature. Dignity and respect are hard things to earn. The majority of human specimen wouldn’t go too far from animals. Nietzsche proclaimed that there’s a bigger gap between man and man, than between man and animal. According to him, great humans or highest specimen are only ‘scattered and accidental’, spread over continents and centuries. In a similar way, in Frank Herbert’s novel, just like sifting sand through a screen, the sisterhood of Bene Gesserit ‘sifts people to find the humans’ through various tests and examinations, ‘separating human stock from animal stock’.

Is it possible to cultivate Ubermenschen though? As we have already seen, Frank Herbert suggests that yes: through heredity control and training. Nature and nurture. Arrangement of beneficial genetical mixes, coupled with intense physical and mental training.

The training part is especially interesting.

According to Nietzsche, one feature distinguishing humans from animals is our ability to control natural impulses (whether it’s pain, fear or gluttony). Ubermensch is a master of his instincts. If you think about it, all classic aristocratic virtues are in one way or another associated with self-discipline and impulse control. What’s honor and dignity if not the powerful code of internal conduct, ability to subjugate one’s passions to the rules of reason? The villains in Herbert’s novel are therefore portrayed as inferior creatures who cannot resist their impulses, indulge in gluttony, random acts of aggression, consistently show incapacity to keep promises, and tendency to get rid of people when they ‘outlive their usefulness’. Composure, self-control, ability to overcome anger and fear are therefore essentially noble features. ‘A human can override any nerve in the body’ – Bene Gesserit say.

But control and negation are different things. Interestingly, both Frank Herbert and Friedrich Nietzsche were affected by the ideas of Buddhism. Nietzsche, being exposed to Buddhist ideas through the philosophy of Schopenhauer, later rejected the idea that human instincts and impulses (such as anger or lust) need to be repudiated, and suggested that they should rather be redirected into constructive spheres of activity. On the other hand, it’s well known that Frank Herbert embraced the ideas of Zen Buddhism together with his peers from the 60s generation, with its idea of a total renunciation of human desires. Therefore, the dignity of Herbert’s characters doesn’t stem from their creative passions, but rather from the sense of duty and responsibility, liability to one’s ancestors. Here I tend to side with Nietzsche – creativity is a more fruitful pursuit than a mere sense of duty. What’s the point of having spotless morals, when you cannot use their power to create something distinguishable and outstanding? That’s the reason why Nietzsche declared artists and philosophers the most superior human beings – a status that cannot be attained by even honorable knights or judges.

The definition of strength

Originally I was a bit skeptical of the Messianic narrative in the story. Isn’t it a bit contradictive that a society, that puts an emphasis on superior heredity and tough training, also relies on a primitive idea of the Chosen One? The narrative of the Chosen One essentially devalues all virtues, inherent or developed, on the side of the character himself. According to the canons, the One must be chosen by some transcendental logic, a principle outside of human understanding – just like Moses was chosen by Yahweh, just because his modesty and humbleness appealed to Yahweh for some unknown reason. The concept of such transcendental choice therefore contradicts the aristocratic idea of perfecting oneself and consistently developing one’s virtues. Hard work doesn’t reconcile with blind chance.

What’s great though is that development of the plot dwells upon the resolution of this contradiction. Paul Atreides, the alleged personification of Fremen’s Messiah (Lisan al Gaib), as well as Bene Gesserit’s instantiation of a superior mind (Kwisatz Haderach), is constantly placed in situations that test the adequacy of his abilities. Whether it’s Bene Gesserit’s Gom Jabbar examination testing the ability to control one’s impulses, or exile in the desert that tests one’s mental awareness and ability to apply theoretical knowledge in real life (like piloting an ornithopter!). Finally, the proof of physical strength and agility is tested through a fight arranged by the Fremen tribe. In the end, Paul proves to live up to the expectations imposed on him by various groups, their hopes, prophecies and superstitions. That’s a much more appealing concept of a Messianic leader – a person, whose merit is proven, rather than simply believed in.

Let’s contemplate the idea of strength. What is strength? I tend to see it as a pyramid: relying on brutal force on the bottom and refining itself towards the top – towards superior intellect and morality. But remove the foundation of the pyramid, and everything will fall apart. That’s why in the universe of Frank Herbert, the House Atreides didn’t stand a chance against its brutally strong competitors, even despite being noble. And for exactly the same reason Harkonnen couldn’t dominate the universe either. Only combined their forces could fruit a superior power. I speculate that this is the reason why Bene Gesserit desired to mix Atreides and Harkonnen bloodlines through Jessica, and combine the genes of physically strong with the genes of morally noble and intellectually superior.

So, strength is a hierarchy. Moreover, strength requires a constant proof. How? In the universe governed by aristocratic morals – by being able to play by formal rules.

The idea of a fair conflict, a duel, is yet another example of aristocratic code of conduct. In the Biblical story about David and Goliath, Goliath, the leader of the Philistines, proposes to David a formal battle: ‘Choose your man to meet me. If he can kill me in a fair fight, we will become your slaves; but if I prove too strong for him and kill him, you shall be our slaves and serve us. Here I now defy the ranks of Israel. Give me a man, and we will fight it out’ (Samuel 17:8–10). Fair enough. But not in the universe governed by Christian morals. Instead of accepting the rules, David rejects the proposal, and kills Goliath in a treacherous way. That’s one of the examples how ‘progressive’ Christian morals are unreconcilable with classic aristocratic values. On the opposite, in the universe of Dune, Paul Atreides, when invited to prove his strength in a fight with Fremen (playing the role of Goliath), chooses to comply with their code of conduct, accepts the conditions of a fair battle, and ultimately wins – proving strength in a fair way, ‘a clear superiority of mind and muscle’. A sign of dignity is therefore the ability to play according to existing rules of the game, and win without treacheries and tricks (definitely not what the Harkonnens do in the story!).

Determinism vs free will

Another curious topic that Frank Herbert explores in the book is the conflict of determinism and free will. Through the description of Paul’s talent of prescience, as well as peculiarity of his visions, Herbert contrasts determinism against its most important limitations:

‘The prescience was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed – at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw. And what he saw was a time nexus within this cave, a boiling of possibilities focused here, wherein the most minute action – the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand – moved a gigantic lever across the known universe. He saw violence with the outcome subject to so many variables that his slightest movement created vast shiftings in the pattern.’

This is the most substantial philosophical criticism of determinism at the moment. The fundamental uncertainty, stochasticity, essential randomness of all processes. Even on the level of atom nuclei, where classic laws of physics fail to work, chance becomes one of the most significant factors determining the particle behaviour. Even though compatibilist philosophers are trying to reconcile chance with determinism, it doesn’t really seem to work: in order for determinism to work, we need to imagine two identical worlds at a time t, where stochastic processes based on the same inputs will be triggered at the same time, and will essentially result in identical outcomes: Brownian motion, movement of electrons, results of stochastic equations. Doesn’t seem particularly realistic.

As there’s no way to predict anything, it’s much more likely that the universe is ruled by chance – not by a hidden force. The same idea is elegantly expressed through the thoughts of the planetologist Liet Kynes, dying in the desert: ‘Then, as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error. Even the hawks could appreciate these facts.’

Traditional vs ‘progressive’ values

It’s not a secret that Frank Herbert was a devoted Republican – he even briefly worked a speech-writer for a Republican senator in Washington! As we have already seen, the ideas expressed in Dune essentially gravitate towards conservatism.

What do conservative values include? Very similar things as traditionalist and aristocratic values. According to Alain de Benoist, typically aristocratic (and, in his view – pagan) features include: ‘ethics founded on honor, a heroic attitude towards life’s challenges, sacralizarion of the world, beauty, the body, strength, and health’. Similar thoughts are expressed in Dune by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: ‘A world is supported by four things… the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous, and the valor of the brave.’

Words like greatness, wiseness, righteousness don’t seem to be particularly popular these days. Aiming for greatness implies existence of some universal standards for humans to strive for. Unfortunately, the critical theory that started with Michel Foucault and has permeated philosophy in the past decades has solidified the idea that all standards are essentially arbitrary, and primarily stem from the relationship of power and command. What is strength in the 21st century? Merely the power that human males from the top economic class and Anglo-Saxon origin manifest to the world to promote their authority. What is reason? Same power manifested through their discourse. What is beauty? Something solely reserved for women whose visual appearance matches the aesthetic preferences of men in the position of authority.

As we see, all classic standards traditionally regarded as noble are now interpreted through the critical lens. And since all standards are rendered arbitrary, there’re no irrefutable higher ideals that humans may consider worthy of striving for. We are merely encouraged to accept who we are, and treat our animal nature as a virtue in itself. The modern age is therefore the opposite of aristocratic. Every representative of the human species, regardless of his merit, has a natural right to be honoured and respected. Using the progressive logic of modern days, a regular soldier of Harkonnen would be regarded as having as much dignity as the Duke of Atreides.

Another interesting thing originating from aristocratic ethics, and consistently repeated by Frank Herbert is the preoccupation with one’s family, ancestors and continuation of the dynasty. End of the bloodline is considered the worst horror that could happen to anyone. This is, for instance, illustrated through the status of Emperor, described by Bene Gesserit in the following way: ‘He was an emperor, father-head of a dynasty that reached shack into the dimmest history. But we denied him a legal son. Was this not the most terrible defeat a ruler ever suffered?’ Preoccupation with continuation of one’s dynasty and well-being of the future generations is of paramount importance. From the biological perspective, there must be something deeply appealing about this thought to the human nature, essentially driven by genes – whose only goal is to preserve themselves through time. This sentiment is illustrated in the book, in a powerful moment when Paul realizes that he’s destined to start his own ‘race’, having visions of the shrine of Duke Leto’s skull, with green and black Arteides banners all over the universe. Dreams of selfish genes manifesting their power!

Obviously, the idea of genetic determinism and bloodline importance is essentially non-liberal. According to the doctrine of liberalism, humans are formed by means of nurture (exercised by a society), while being liberated from their nature. It’s considered offensive to view someone’s ideas or actions through the lens of his origins. We’re supposed to be blind to one another’s gender, ethnicity or social background. Unless it’s identity politics that postulates exactly the opposite – the liberal world has become utterly confusing!

This leads me to another instance of aristocratic virtues portrayed in the story, which is the ability to retreat. When one’s successors are properly raised and trained, it seems noble to step aside and give room for the next generation. Life requires a certain amount of death: whether in the body, or in a society, healthy continuation is ensured through the constant renewal, either of body cells, or of outdated ideas. The honorable skill of a timely retreat is portrayed through Duke Leto accepting his fate with dignity, knowing that his successors will continue the family’s work. On the opposite, the House of Harkonnen lacks such dignity. The Baron of Harkonnen is barely alive, having to rely on bizarre techniques of maintaining his body functions (fat suspenders, or mud baths!), and yet refuses to step aside from his role. Unfortunately, this is a common feature of way too many real-world tyrants and dictators.

Human evolution, machines and drugs

Another entertaining idea Frank Herbert explores is the evolutionary path chosen by the mankind (in our own universe) – instead of developing own capabilities, we’ve opted to outsource many of our talents to the machines. From invention of the wheel to construction of computers, the technology has been progressing, making humans more and more dependable on it. Only powerful as machine operators, we become helpless in absence of technology. Herbert suggests that it’s a dangerous path of evolution. In his universe, with events taking place 20,000 years from now, people live according to the new dogma: ‘Thou shalt not make a machine to counterfeit a human mind.’ A jihad-like event has erased all thinking machines in favor of training ‘human computers’. As Bene Gesserit described it: ‘The Great Revolt took away a crutch. It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents’.

That’s a concerning thought, which reminds me of the ‘Childhood’s End’ novel by Arthur Clarke. In the novel, humankind encounters a civilization that’s far more developed than ours. Upon the original excitement and eagerness of human scientists to share their best achievements in the area of science and technology, the alien race remains unamused. The cutting-edge frontier of the human science is thousands of years behind of what’s considered basic among even the most average space civilizations. On the other hand, what attracts the increasing interest of the aliens is the uniquely human talent for intuition, and capacity for other esoteric and supernatural instincts.

The book left me depressed when I finished it. The possibility remains though. Mathematics is clearly not our native language – so, what if truly unique human talents lie outside of the rational realm of the machines? That’s the fundamental premise of Herbert’s universe. Whose perspective is right? I often tend to condemn natural human form and endorse the bright future of transhumanism. Man is now capable of transforming physis according to his own wish. We’re no longer determined solely by nature, destined to perform roles reserved to us solely as representatives of a biological species. How do we transform the physis, and to which ideal we adjust it is a much serious question though. Will the new ideal be based on pure rationality, or something more subtle?

On the other hand, coming from the generation of the 60s, Herbert is not against improving human mental capacities by psycho-active drugs. Spice, the drug that ‘opens an inner eye’ and allows to look through past and future, at the same time facilitating performance of the human mind, seems like a weird combination of psychedelics and stimulants to me:

‘Paul’s mind climbed another notch in awareness. Mind, which went on in its steady pace – dealing with data, evaluating, computing, submitting answers. The clockwork had been set in motion. The training, the sharpening of talents, the refined pressures of sophisticated disciplines, even exposure to the O. C. Bible at a critical moment… and lastly, the heavy intake of spice.’ ‘The spice. It’s in everything here – the air, the soil, the food, the geriatric spice. It’s like the Truthsayer drug. It’s a poison! A poison – so subtle, so insidious… so irreversible. It won’t even kill you unless you stop taking it. We can’t leave Arrakis unless we take part of Arrakis with us.’

This sudden revolt against spice is interesting. The drug clearly has features of a stimulant that makes the mind sharp. Naturally, after being exposed to mind-stimulating substances, no one would voluntarily want to return to the tedious slowness of normal human cognition, not accelerated by the drug. Does Herbert try to warn us that, just like the use of machines for aiding computations, the use of stimulants ultimately leads to the degradation of organic capacities of the human mind? Perhaps that’s why Mentats and Bene Gesserit, the most advanced groups in terms of mental abilities in the Herbert’s universe, mostly prefer to rely on the mental training, not psycho-active substances, in their practice.

Religion as a political instrument

Let’s focus on one final line of narrative in the book that’s worth exploring. It alludes to both politics and religion – the story of Bene Gesserit sisterhood seeding legends and prophecies across the native population of Arrakis, in order to facilitate achievement of their political goals. They call it Missionaria Protectiva and Manipulation of Religions.

Indeed, a culture used to the religious narrative of a Messiah, coming and saving people from misery, must be easily fallible to preachings of populist political leaders. Which is true – it’s not a secret that Frank Herbert was inspired by the story of Lawrence of Arabia – a charismatic leader that led Arabic society into a political revolt in the beginning of the 20th century.

The religion of Arrakis is stemming from conditions of a desert just like the three main monotheistic religions of our world. How did the spread of Christianity interplay with Western political developments of the past? No doubt, Christian beliefs played a very comparable role to the prophecies portrayed in Dune, at least at first – facilitating obedience of the local population. Resisting no evil, turning one cheek after another, passively accepting one’s earthly fate – values of a Christian society are a perfect thing for a dictator to wish for.

Ideas used as tools of political manipulation don’t have to be limited by the sphere of religion. The following passage is interesting, as it depicts the thoughts of Jessica after seeing Fremens’ fanaticism with ecological transformation of Arrakis, from a desert to an eco-system with lakes, grasses and plants that retain water: ‘This is the scientist’s dream… and these simple people, these peasants, are filled with it. This was a dream to capture men’s souls, and she could sense the hand of the ecologist in it. This was a dream for which men would die willingly. It was another of the essential ingredients that she felt her soon needed: people with a goal. Such people would be easy to imbue with fervor and fanaticism. They could be wielded like a sword to win back Paul’s place for him’.

That’s way too relatable, as ecological alarmism is becoming a similarly emotional issue among numerous people these days, who wholeheartedly believe in the evil nature of human beings, a soon-approaching extinction of the human race, and may therefore easily fall victim of political forces playing upon such sentiments to promote agenda of their interest. What distinguishes the real-world ecological alarmism though is its apocalyptic stance, while ecological fanaticism of the Fremen is essentially positive and life-affirming. By committing to bring paradise to their planet, they affirm life in this world – instead of projecting pictures of the paradise on another world beyond the empirical reality – as the monotheistic religions originating from the real-world’s deserts typically do.

And speaking of monotheism and deserts, what’s also worth considering is the controversial role of Messiah historically played in the context of various religions. As an example, let’s examine the role that Jesus played in Judaism after the foundation of Christianity. Christianity evolved from Judaism – at the same time, none of the other religions of the world has become as anti-Semitic as Christianity. Christians claim that Christianity has essentially superseded Judaism, has fulfilled it and gave it its true meaning. As Claude Tresmontant suggested: ‘If the last of nabis of Israel, the rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth (namely Jesus), is truly the Messiah, then Israeli’s vocation to become the ‘light of nations’ must be fully achieved and the universalism implied by this vocation must be put completely into operation. The Law has reached its end with the Christ and has become meaningless.’ This way, the forthcoming of Messiah clearly puts an end to someone’s past beliefs. It represents introduction of the new laws that render the past ones meaningless. The minority adhering to the old law has to either be converted, or condemned. The Messiah therefore brings as much destruction, as creation and renewal. The Messiah often brings a split in a society, causes hatred and initiates a war. Perhaps even the very existence of Messianic prophecies in certain religions indicate the state of their decline, dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, and hope for religious reforms. And it’s ultimately a difficult choice to either accept this change (as Christians did), or to reject it (as Jews chose to do).

How is this problem going to be solved in Dune? Well, I haven’t reached the end of the book yet. But even the first half of the first book proved to be a source of such an immense food for thought, that I’m afraid to think what the next 30 books in the series are going to do. I guess 4,500 words are sufficient for the first post – stay tuned for the follow-up analysis!

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