A short essay exploring some of the philosophical themes and
implications of Frank Herbert’s series of science fiction masterpieces
by Marco van Leeuwen
1 - The Ecology Of Arrakis
The scarcity of an element vital to what we consider to be normal
human existence breeds certain sensitivities - Frank Herbert, author
of the classic science-fiction novel "Dune" and its sequels,
understood this. Take away something we’ve grown accustomed to, the
possession of which has induced the formation of set patterns in our
behaviour and the way we perceive the world - a misleading sense of
security that seduces the modicum of objectivity we’re theoretically
capable of applying to our fundamentally subjective perceptions into
submission -, and the necessity of adapting to this new situation in
order to survive will force us to become aware of structures we hadn’t
Take Arrakis, the spatial focal point of a large part of the Dune
saga: a desert planet where water is a most valuable substance, where
the harsh conditions allow only the strongest to survive, but at the
same time the one and only source of the spice Melange, a drug that
enables limited prescience, which Navigators of the Guild use to fold
space, thus guiding space ships through space at superluminal speeds,
and which the "witches" of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood utilise to
unlock their "Other Memories", the knowledge, experiences and personas
of their (female) ancestors.
Only the Fremen, descendants of the Zensunni Wanderers who fled from
planet to planet and finally found refuge at this most inhospitable of
places, have managed to find a way to stay alive in the deserts that
cover almost all of Arrakis. Ingenious water-recovery techniques, a
way of life permeated by the awareness of the value of water, and
their unique relationship to the source of the spice, the sandworms
that might grow to become 500 meters in length - all these aspects of
the existence of the Fremen were forced upon them because of the
absence of water in their environment, and because of the way they
managed to adapt to these extraordinary circumstances they provided
the proper place for the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah of sorts, to
fulfill his destiny.
The ecology of Dune - absence of water, the harshest imaginable
circumstances for human lifeforms, the Spice-Sandtrout-Sandworm cycle,
and the place of the Fremen in all this - provided the structure
Herbert needed to convey his ideas on a plethora of subjects, the rich
soil in which he could plant the seeds that, in the course of six
substantial volumes, would grow to form a vast forest of interlocking
chains of events - an ecological system of ideas.
A certain amount of order, the presence of a particular structure is
necessary for us to be able to form an understanding of the way the
world around us functions. On the most elemental level, the presence
of a certain neurological structure in the form of neurons with
specific synaptic weights and connections with either stimulating or
inhibitory properties enables the formation of neural vectors and
feedback patterns, the constant modification of which forms the
physical basis of our capacity to learn. On a hermeneutical level, the
presence of dispositions to act a certain way combined with
interlocking systems of knowledge, the products of the conditioning we
call education with some genetically transmitted elements, enables us
to acquire new knowledge and fit these new observations into existing
cognitive structures, which is what we do when we attempt to
understand. And finally, on a pragmatic level, the political,
economical, religious and sociological structures, as well as the way
we furnish our physical environment (infrastructure and such), provide
us with the conditions that make it possible for each of us to
implement the design we have chosen for our life.
Structure is necessary on a number of different levels, but if you
allow the rigidification of your personal library of ideas to progress
beyond the point where malleable beliefs and working hypotheses
transform into knowledge and sets of dogmas, you render yourself
insensible to new experiences. As soon as you start applying the label
"unshakeable truth" to certain ideas, you start creating your own
environment, shielding your life from the rest of the world, thus
dropping out of the ungoing development and adaptation that is such a
fundamental trait of humanity. A perfectly stable ecosystem ceases to
evolve, and soon its constituting elements become obsolete.
This situation, balanced by self-delusion, may be thrown into disarray
by a reshuffling of the cards: either the introduction of a new
element into the system, or the subtraction of one. In the Dune series
the former can be discerned in the implications of the presence of the
Spice, as well as effect the emergence of Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz
Haderach, has on the fragile political and religious ecology of the
Empire he is born into, even though it is not the effect the
architects of Paul’s fate, the Bene Gesserit, had expected. Similar
effects were wrought by the 3500-year-rule of Paul’s son, the
God-Emperor Leto II - strangely enough in this case the disruption of
the status quo was achieved by forging a new stability - and the rise
to prominence of the Honoured Matres in "Heretics Of Dune" and
"Chapter House Dune". The latter effect can be seen in the way the
absence of water on Arrakis creates a completely new set of rules for
the political and religious chess matches to adhere to, and is also
reflected in the series as a whole to the extent that it is a science
Herbert’s choice for the genre of science fiction to present his ideas
to the world was an act of removal: by cutting away the historical and
(to a certain extent) logical constraints that tie down our
perceptions of the present and its structure, he managed to lay bare
much more fundamental structures than can be seen by our eyes and
minds, which suffer from the prejudices that govern the technocracy
that is the twentieth century. What Herbert did is comparable to the
process Alan Moore described in reference to "From Hell", his series
of graphic novels about the Whitechapel murders and the alleged
culprit, Jack The Ripper:
"It’s my belief that if you cut into a thing deeply enough, if your
incisions are precise and persistent and conducted methodically, then
you may reveal not only that thing’s inner workings, but also the
meaning behind those workings. This conviction was shared by the
historical personage whose life is central to FROM HELL, although
perhaps his beliefs were expressed somewhat more broadly than mine.
For my part, I am concerned with cutting into and examining the
still-warm corpse of history itself. In some of my chilliest moments,
I suspect that this was his foremost preoccupation also, albeit in
pursuit of different ends…" (1)
In a similar fashion the scalpel of fictionality enabled Herbert to
give us the books of "Dune", with new and fertile ways to present us
with certain ideas.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that Paul Atreides is the
centre of the Dune saga. Some critics of the movie - based on the
first novel (and some elements of the second) and directed by David
"Twin Peaks" Lynch - remark that the real focal point is Arrakis
itself. More perceptive readers might say Leto II, Paul’s son, is at
the heart of it all, because he dared to go where his father wouldn’t
and in effect became the "shortening of the way" (the purpose of the
Kwisatz Haderach) the Bene Gesserit had been hoping for, albeit in a
somewhat different form (at first glance, at least. In "Chapter House
Dune" Bene Gesserit Mother Superior Darwi Odrade realizes the
necessity of the Golden Path, which Leto II had forced humanity to
follow, to a certain extent). Readers who made it all the way to the
end of the sixth book will probably place the Bene Gesserit at the
heart of the matter - after all, it was their breeding programme that
produced Paul Atreides and his son, and their goal of coercing
humanity into maturity that in effect fueled most, if not all events
in the saga. However poetic it would have been to have the
organisation that always attempted to conduct its business behind the
scenes of the intergalactic political theatre be the most prominent
element of the series, you would be false if you were to believe this.
The core of the entire "Dune"-series is formed by a concept I’ve
mentioned several times now: ecology. My intent with this essay is to
show how Herbert’s approach in effect constitutes an ecological
philosophy, in which he tackles such thorny subjects as the essences
of religion, political power, technology and history. Every one of
these elements is part of the all-encompassing ecological system that
is the "Dune"-universe - everything part of a delicate balance,
everything constantly interacting with everything else, ever-evolving
- and there are many smaller ecological systems within that larger
system, each of the smaller systems reflecting the dynamics of the
larger system, and vice versa. The most obvious example of such a
system would be the one that is present on the planet of Arrakis
itself, but the conceptual ecological systems are the ones that have
the most potential of occupying a niche in and and become vital
elements of the ecological systems which are formed by the life, ideas
and feelings of the reader.
2 - The Dune Chronicles
The books of Dune operate on many different levels: apart from the
philosophical dissections of religion and politics (amongst many other
topics), there’s the adventure level, filled with many exotic
locations, engaging characters and and awe-inspiring creatures. As it
is within any other ecosystem, each element is vital to the continued
existence of the whole, and in the case of the Dune books the
adventure aspect provides the soil in which the varied flora of ideas,
concepts and philosophical ponderings can find stability, and draw
The first book in the series, "Dune" (1965), chronicles the transfer
of the rule over Arrakis, the desert planet ruled by sandworms and
Fremen and the universe’s only source of the valuable drug Spice, from
House Harkonnen to House Atreides. Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto
Atreides, is one of the most recent stages in the Bene Gesserit
breeding programme which has run for over fifty generations and is
aimed at producing the Kwisatz Haderach, a male who will have all the
(mental) powers of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, but amplified,
being able to not only have access to the memories of his female
ancestors (as is the case with Reverend Mothers who have survived the
Spice Agony ritual), but the memories of the male ancestors as well -
his mental powers will be able to bridge space and time. Paul’s
mother, the Bene Gesserit-trained Lady Jessica, had been ordered to
produce a daughter, but out of love for her Duke she gave him a son.
Despite this inobedience the sisterhood realises it's very well
possible Paul is in fact the messiah they’ve been waiting for.
Once on Arrakis it becomes apparent the Atreides have been lured into
a trap, set by a conspiracy of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and the
Padisha Emperor Shaddam IV, designed to prevent the popular Duke
Atreides from gaining too much influence amongst the Houses Major that
are united in the Landsraad: the Duke is killed, and Paul and his
mother are forced to flee into the desert.
The Missionaria Protectiva, the Bene Gesserit practice of inserting
certain religious beliefs and superstitions into the populace of
planets to the benefit of possible future exploitation by the
sisterhood, has laid the proper groundwork for Jessica and her son to
become part of a Fremen tribe led by Stilgar. Jessica attempts the
Spice Agony, the ritual where ingestion of the poisonous secretion a
of drowning sandworm, the Water Of Life, unlocks her Other Memories,
and succeeds, thus making her a Reverend Mother. She assumes her
position as the tribe’s Reverend Mother after the previous one dies.
Paul’s unborn sister Alia acquires consciousness while still in the
womb by partaking in the ritual her mother underwent, effectively
becoming a Reverend Mother herself. In the meantime Paul, who has been
given the Fremen name Muad’Dib (the desert mouse, admired by the
Fremen because of its ability to survive in the desert), has started
training the Fremen in Atreides battle tactics, to prepare them for
the coup against the oppressive Harkonnen who once again rule Arrakis.
Even though all males that have so far attempted the Spice Agony have
died, Paul succeeds in transforming the Water Of Life (detoxifying
it), proving he is in fact the Kwisatz Haderach, and fueled by the
power his new status within the Fremen religion provides, the revolt
against the Harkonnen and the Empire is successful. Paul marries the
Emperor’s daughter Irulan - doing so in name only, remaining true to
his Fremen mate Chani - and becomes the new Emperor.
The second book in the series, "Dune Messiah" (1969), describes the
burdens Paul feels placed upon him in his position as both political
and religious leader of a vast, ever-expanding empire. The Fedaykin,
his Fremen death-commandos, spread his rule and the accompanying
religion of Paul Muad’Dib and his sister Saint Alia-Of-The-Knife
across the known galaxy, killing many billions in the process: the
Jihad. Paul’s prescience traps him, forces him onto certain future
paths, and the character of the religion centered around him and his
accomplishments troubles him.
Intent on bringing down the Atreides rule is a conspiracy of the Bene
Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax (the only ones to control the axolotl
tanks, with which they can produce ghola’s [a type of clone] and Face
Dancers [shape shifters]), the Guild (the supposedly neutral
organisation that controls space travel and banking) and House Corrino
(the family of the dethroned Emperor - the representative is Irulan).
In the meantime large scale developments have been set in motion which
are supposed to turn Arrakis into a green, water-rich planet again,
but since water is poisonous to sandworms, this will also jeopardize
production of the Spice.
The conspiracy’s trump card is revealed when the Tleilaxu present Paul
with a ghola of Duncan Idaho, one of Paul’s best friends as well as
the Atreides’ swordmaster, who died during the inital Harkonnen
attack, enabling Paul and his mother to escape into the desert. A
complex mental compulsion causes the Idaho ghola to regain the
memories of his original incarnation.
Ultimately the conspiracy appears successful when Paul’s eyes are
irreparably damaged in an attack with a so-called stone burner, but
his prescience enables him to see everything around him as clearly as
if he could still see, something which adds to the myths surrounding
his person. Chani dies while giving birth to twins, Leto II and
Ghanima, and Paul, having lost his visions, goes into the desert to
"Children Of Dune" (1976), the third installment, tells us of the
problems the regency of Alia has to face. Farad’n, grandson of Shaddam
IV, plots to kill Leto II and Ghanima and reclaim the Lion Throne for
House Corrino, while Alia succumbs to the corrupting influence of the
personality of Baron Harkonnen, her mother’s father, who she has
access to by virtue of her having regained her Other Memories during
her mother’s Spice Agony. Her growing madness endangers her grip on
both the political and the religious aspects of her rule.
In the meantime the people are intrigued by "The Preacher", a blind
prophet deconstructing the Empire and the religion of Muad’Dib and
Alia in his sermons, whom many believe to be Paul. Also, the Atreides
twins allow the Corrino’s to think they’ve succeeded in assassinating
Leto II, while he retreats into the desert and ponders the
architecture of his "Golden Path", the road to salvation for all of
humanity. He is captured by Fremen who act under instructions of the
Lady Jessica, who has reverted to the Bene Gesserit ways, and
subjected to a diet saturated with Spice in order to reproduce the
prescience his father had displayed. He manages to escape, and
subjects his body to a symbiosis with the sandtrout: covering all but
his face with this larva-like stage of the sandworm’s life cycle, he
sets the first step on the path that will eventually completely
transform him into a sandworm. At the same time the progressing
plantation and irrigation projects ensure the extinction of the
existing sandworms, and a stagnation in the production of Spice. After
granting Alia the mercy of death, Leto II assumes the role of Emperor,
thus succeeding his father, having convinced Farad’n of the necessity
of the path to take.
"God Emperor Of Dune" (1981) describes events taking place 3500 years
later. Leto II, now neither human nor worm but something in between,
still rules his vast empire, leading it along the first stretches of
his Golden Path: a peace and stability enforced by his all-female Fish
Speaker soldiers, combined with an absolute control of the rationing
of Spice and the Bene Gesserit breeding programme - weeding out the
unwanted elements and pointing the evolution of humanity in a
direction that leads away from certain extinction. The supreme tools
that enable his rule are the absence of sources of Spice other than
his own vast hoard, since Arrakis is now a green and water-rich planet
with only a small patch of desert, and his status as a deity because
of his physical symbiosis with the holy Shai Hulud ("old man of the
desert", the name for the now extinct giant sandworms).
The Bene Tleilax have been supplying Leto II with one Duncan Idaho
ghola after the other, whom he uses as commander of his Fish Speaker
forces, as well as for the purpose of having genetic material of an
earlier type of human to cross-breed with current stock in his
breeding programme, which has reached its goal with Siona, the
daughter of his servant Moneo: the girl cannot be detected by
prescient searchers - her presence evades even his own amplified
Initially a rebel plotting to overthrow Leto II, Siona eventually
accepts her role in his plans when he makes her regain an awareness of
her Atreides ancestry, and the Fremen ways embedded within them.
However, while traveling to the place where he plans to wed the
Tleilaxu ambassador Hwi Noree, Leto II falls into a trap Duncan and
Siona have set for him: he falls from a bridge into a river. Being
part sandworm, the water is poisonous to him, causing the sandtrout to
detach and dissolving the rest of his body. The sandtrout, each
specimen containing a "pearl" of Leto II’s consciousness, will now
spread across the planet, encapsulate all water and once again turn
Arrakis into a desert planet, preparing it for the return of the giant
1500 years after the death of "The Tyrant", the God-Emperor Leto II,
people are starting to return from "The Scattering", the diaspora that
came to pass after the disappearance of the one element that bound the
"Old Empire" together (Leto II and his status as a living god).
"Heretics Of Dune" (1984) shows us how especially the Honored Matres,
armed with new knowledge and capabilities, are considered to be a
threat to the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilax, together with the
fledgling religion centered around the sandworms that once again roam
the deserts of Rakis (formerly Arrakis) the only forces with any
semblance of power that still endure. These Honoured Matres rule by
way of superior reflexes, staggering arrogance and sexual binding, the
latter being a form of dominance based on the ability to either
provide or witheld supreme pleasure, thus inducing a certain addiction
to the sensations the Honoured Matre in question is capable of
providing - a tool used to rob people of their free will.
The dominance of the Spice (and the importance of Rakis as its source)
has diminished considerably: the Tleilaxu have found a way to produce
Spice in their axolotl tanks, and the machine-builders of Ix have
designed a navigation machine capable of performing the tasks which
previously required the aid of a Guild Navigator in a Spice-induced
trance. On Gammu, previously the Harkonnen home planet of Giedi Prime,
the Bene Gesserit are training the most recent Duncan Idaho ghola, who
is perceived as being a potential Kwisatz Haderach, or at least in
possession of some of the characteristics. The Bashar Miles Teg, a
former military commander, is recalled from retirement to oversee this
training. On Rakis a new cult emerges around the poor fremen girl
Sheeana, who appears to be able to communicate with the worms.
An agreement between Bene Gesserit and Bene Tleilax is designed to
supply the former with the secrets of the axolotl tanks, and the
latter with genetic material from Reverend Mothers to use in their
experiments. A parallel pact between the Tleilaxu and the Honoured
Matres fails to assassinate Idaho, who the Tleilaxu have furnished
with knowledge of some of the techniques that make the Honoured Matres
so dangerous, as well as with an as yet undisclosed array of mental
Idaho, Teg and a Reverend Mother called Lucilla manage to escape from
the attack, and retreat to an ancient Harkonnen no-globe, a structure
in which they’ll be undetectable for all devices or mental powers,
until it’s safe enough to take Idaho to Rakis, where a mating between
the ghola and Sheeana is planned; Idaho’s memories of his original
self are awakened in this place. When they emerge some time later,
they find out they’ve walked into a trap - in the battle that ensues
Teg is captured, but Idaho and Lucilla manage to escape. A session
with a T-Probe, a device intended to undo the effects of the drug
Shere which prevents Tleilaxu Face Dancers from absorbing a person’s
thoughts and memories, unlocks superior physical abilities in Teg. His
tremendous speed enables him to kill many Honoured Matres, muster an
attack force and steal a no-ship to take them to Rakis. Enraged by
their defeat, the Honoured Matres turn Rakis, with Teg on it, into a
charred wasteland, but not before the Bene Gesserit manage to escape
to their central planet of Chapter House with Sheeana, Idaho and a
The final volume in the original six-part series, "Chapter House Dune"
(1985), chronicles the desperate attempts of the Bene Gesserit to take
precautions against eradication at the hands of the Honoured Matres.
The sisterhood’s main planet is slowly being turned into a new Dune,
the sandtrout encapsulating water and dehydrating fertile land as it
had done on Arrakis after the death of the Tyrant, Leto II. Reverend
Mothers are being sent into a new Scattering to make sure the Bene
Gesserit legacy is not lost once Chapter House is found and destroyed,
each carrying the knowledge of the sisterhood in their Other Memories
and a few sandtrout, to perhaps start the Spice-producing cycle on
another planet. Murbella, a captured Honoured Matre trapped in a
mutual sexual bond with Idaho, is being trained in the Bene Gesserit
ways while at the same time providing her new sisters with valuable
information about her former masters: the Honoured Matres are thought
to be descendants of Reverend Mothers and Fish Speakers, who combined
to form a new cult somewhere in the Scattering. They’re on the run
from a terrifying force which emerged in the Scattering, and now
they’ve turned to the Old Empire to try and reclaim some of their lost
The first ghola to be born from the Bene Gesserit axolotl tanks is
Miles Teg, whose military expertise is an integral part of the plan
Mother Superior Darwi Odrade has designed to prevent the Honoured
Matres from being victorious. However, the method by which axolotl
tanks can produce Spice is still a mystery - Scytale, the Tleilaxu
Master held captive on Chapter House, will not divulge this
information. Meanwhile Idaho has found out the Tleilaxu have furnished
his body with even more mysterious propensities: he has managed to
retrieve the memories of all the Idaho ghola’s that came before, even
though it’s highly unlikely the Tleilaxu had access to the cellular
material of all of them. His awareness stretches beyond the veils of
apparent reality: sometimes he sees what he calls "the Net", as well
as two mysterious figures - highly evolved beings from the Scattering,
Tiny sandworms (a mere two metres in length) and small amounts of
Spice are detected in the ever-growing desert, Murbella undergoes the
Spice Agony and becomes a Reverend Mother, and Teg’s memories of his
original lifetime are restored. The plan to avert the Honoured Matre
threat is fragile, but the execution turns out to be successful:
during a large scale attack on Honoured Matre seat of power Junction,
an old Guild planet, both Mother Superior Odrade and Great Honoured
Matre Dama are assassinated, but Murbella manages to assume both of
their positions of power, thus combining the forces of both factions.
Sheeana, Idaho, and a few Reverend Mothers recognise the danger in
this new arrangement of things, and flee Chapter House in a no-ship.
Idaho manages to break free of his net and escape the influence of the
two beings he saw, making the no-ship emerge in an unfamiliar section
of the universe - now they’ve truly entered a new Scattering.
3 - Characteristics Of The Dune Universe
3.1 - Technology
The Butlerian Jihad, many centuries in the past of the events of
"Dune", was a great revolt aimed at eradicating the blasphemy involved
with the practice of constructing thinking machines. The main
commandment, integrated into the array of religious beliefs spread
throughout the empire, was "Thou shalt not make a machine in the
likeness of a human mind" (2). The Jihad resulted in a society wholly
based on human capabilities, with a strong aversion against anything
but the most necessary mechanical artifacts.
However, the necessity to perform complex calculations and deductions
did not disappear, which resulted in the founding of schools dedicated
to training the human mind to perform previously unthinkable mental
feats. Human computers called Mentats were capable of analyzing large
amounts of data, and the Bene Gesserit managed to develop the
so-called truthsense, and could apply the legacy of history to current
situations by way of their access to Other Memories.
Here we detect an interesting tension: a rejection of technology as
well as the arrogance to believe the application of technology would
give the user complete control of a certain situation on one hand, but
a resurrection of the need to control reality in a slightly different
Some explorations of what it means to be "human", and at what point in
the evolution of our species the Dryopithecinae branched off into what
would evolve into he current apes on one hand and into
Australopithecus/Homo Habilis on the other, locate the prime
distinguishing element on this branching point in the Homo Sapiens’
ability to partake in culture, others in his ability to use language,
or to teach, or to bury their dead, or any of a plethora of other
possibilities (3). However, the most promising avenue appears to be
the idea that the use of tools is the most fundamental trait of
humans, an idea that many might recognise from the way it was
presented in the first act of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C.Clarke’s
classic science fiction movie "2001: A Space Odyssey".
The moment our distant forefathers started using artifacts was the
moment they stopped conforming to the whims of their environment, and
started using elements from their surroundings to mould reality into a
place of their design, a new mindset that enabled the development of
coherent, outwardly oriented thought (rather than instinctive actions
and reactions), and the projection of mental designs on the world.
This is the point where the symbiosis between man and technology
started, and to this day the mutual colonisation of the spheres of man
and machine continues - the philosopher Donna Haraway even maintains
our involvement with computers has effectively turned us into cyborgs,
where the teleological structure of the computer determines the way
the user perceives reality and acts, while the computer presents a
certain reality on the basis of the input received from that user (4).
This mindset causes the world to appear to the technology-wielding
human as a collection of things, resources that can be utilised to
implement his plans. Inherent to this way of viewing the world is a
certain arrogance: the power of creation man wields by virtue of his
perceived mastery of certain tools makes him master of all he
oversees, he is free to do whatever he wants. It should come as no
surprise that resistance to this mindset often has a religious
underpinning: blatant disregard of the sanctity of God’s creation and
the self-deification of man are only possible if all religious guiding
principles have been abolished, or at least unrecognizably mutated, up
to the point where the world can no longer be seen as a place filled
with living beings or creations of a higher power, but is perceived
merely as a collection of objects.
The real danger lies in ignorance of what the relationship between a
human and his tools is really like: technology is not neutral. The
properties of a technological artifact dictate its use, and modify the
way the user approaches the world while using that artifact. A knife
might be very useful when one needs to prepare a meal, but the
properties of that object also dictate its use as a lethal device. The
possibility of killing with an object in your possession might cause
you to actually take the life of an enemy at some point in time,
something you would not have done if you didn’t have that knife, even
though your feelings towards your enemy had been the same.
This is why even the lowliest technological artifact needs to be
linked to a certain ethical system - a set of beliefs and practical
rules guiding the use of those artifacts along the proper paths.
Nowadays, the explosive growth of the possibilities offered by science
and technology have induced the dominance of the rule of possibility
rather than allowability: methods of cloning human beings and creating
artificial intelligence are being pursued because we can, and very few
people stop to think about whether or not we actually should.
This realisation is what initiated the Butlerian Jihad, and it was
fueled by certain religious dogmas. The sanctity of human life and
consciousness could not be compromised in the opinion of the
proponents of the Jihad, and, judging from the outcome of the
struggle, it appears this particular opinion was the dominant one. The
odd thing is that we see the exact same desire to achieve a certain
level of control in the actions of some of the parties inhabiting the
universe of Dune, most noticeably the Bene Gesserit.
The problem the Bene Gesserit detected was the immaturity of mankind.
Their goal with the breeding programme designed to one day produce the
Kwisatz Haderach was to educate humanity. Education is, of course, a
game dictated by balances of power: the teacher can manipulate his
students into believing falsehoods, but in order to be able to get his
message across a certain susceptability needs to be created. The tool
the sisterhood used here was there Missionaria Protectiva, in which
certain religious beliefs and superstitions were sowed in the fertile
soil of the belief systems of less advanced people, to facilitate the
advancement of Bene Gesserit goals: the myths concerning the coming of
a messiah and the cult surrounding the giant sandworms of Arrakis were
surreptitiously utilised to prepare the universe for the introduction
of the solution to the problem. This was not a trait unique to the
sisterhood: the most widespread religion in the universe of "Dune" was
designed: at one point a council of representatives of the major
religions of the time was formed to construct a religion of unity; the
tangible outcome of that meeting was the Orange Catholic Bible (5).
However, the Bene Gesserit had honed their skills in this particular
field more than any other organisation. An important part of history
was designed in such a way to further the sisterhood’s goals: a
technological solution, not in the sense that mechanical devices were
used in solving the problem, but in the sense that history and mankind
were seen as things, as pawns in a galactic game of chess over which
the Bene Gesserit exerted complete control, or at least were deluded
into believing they did.
The *alleged* Kwisatz Haderach, Paul "Muad’Dib" Atreides, was as much
a pawn in this as anyone else:
 He was the product of the Bene Gesserit breeding programme, so his
genetic make-up was not the outcome of a chance process;
 The relocation of House Atreides to Arrakis was arranged - the
Duke even saw the trap he was being led into (in light of a
realization of this inevitability one could perhaps redefine the role
of the "traitor" Yueh in the Harkonnen attack on Arrakeen:
unwittingly, or perhaps for the wrong reasons, he was one of the very
few that was actually effective in averting complete disaster by
arranging the escape of Paul and his mother into the desert) -, and
it’s not unplausible to assume the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam,
truthsayer/advisor to Padisha Emperor Shaddam IV, had a hand in the
process that placed Paul on the desert planet and brought him into
contact with both the Fremen and the Spice;
 The Jihad his deification unleashed had repercussions he
disapproved of - he was even bound from voicing his feelings in this
matter, lest he create an even greater chaos;
 His prescience trapped his future, locked it into paths of boredom
and inevitabilities - he finally managed to break free from his
terrible vision, not by finding a solution, but by walking away into
the desert to die, only to be saved by a band of Fremen and to return
to Dune’s capital city Arrakeen as the Preacher, once again forced to
act a certain way because of what fate had forced him to become.
The Face Dancer Scytale describes the forces that must have torn at
Paul’s psyche when he speaks of a Kwisatz Haderach the Tleilaxu once
"A creature who has spent his life creating one particular
representation of his selfdom will die rather than become the
antithesis of that representation." (6)
Wanting to choose a certain direction for your life, but knowing
circumstance will drive you away from your design - admitting you’re
powerless to prevent the future -, can be extremely difficult, even -
or perhaps especially - when you’re a messiah. Paul failed to stare
these difficulties in the face - he was a failed Kwisatz Haderach
(having realised this, a comparison study between Paul and that other
almost-Kwisatz Haderach, Count Hasimir Fenring (7), could be
Paul, in conversation with his mother and the Reverend Mother Gaius
Helen Mohiam, repeated the prophecy that the Kwisatz Haderach would be
a human gom jabbar (8), a tool to test the humanity of humanity.
Paul’s reign restored order in the Empire to some extent, but his
denial of the vision and the choas the reign of House Atreides was
thrust into when Alia accepted the regency after Paul’s disappearance
only made things worse.
His son, Leto II, did embrace the future Paul had been afraid to
accept, and became the living gom jabbar: Leto II enforced his Golden
Path upon humanity, but had to stop being a human himself in order to
do this. His plan involved over three millennia of forced stability,
in which he slowly removed the elements that had thrown the universe
 The battles for control of the Spice were stopped by destroying
the production facilities (Arrakis was turned into a green planet,
killing all the worms), and all parties in need of the Spice were put
 Leto II took control of the Bene Gesserit breeding programme, and
used it to produce a new type of human with improved abilities, one of
the most important being the socalled Mark Of Siona: an invisibilty to
 Leto II allowed the Tleilaxu to continue producing Duncan Idaho
ghola’s and even stimulated them to do so, not only to build multiple
feedback loops into his breeding programme, using Idaho’s specific
"antique" genetic code to insure the dominance of certain geno- and/or
phenotypes - for a similar reason the Atreides line featured
prominently in the breeding programme -, but perhaps also because he
was aware of the Tleilaxu plans to create their own Kwisatz Haderach,
for which they were using or would someday use the Idaho ghola’s;
 Leto II permitted Ix to continue developing its technology in
secret, despite denouncing the use of machines in public - he even
used Ixian computers and recording devices himself -, in all
likelihood with knowledge of the developments that would ultimately
lead to the invention of no-ships and navigation devices, breaking the
Guild monopoly on space travel;
 Leto II rewrote history - he actively killed historians who didn’t
agree with his views, and wrote a number of widely read historical
dissertations, mostly under pseudonyms - , but he allowed the Bene
Gesserit to live. With their Other Memories the sisterhood held a
treasure trove of of first-hand experiences from a large stretch of
history, many of which probably contradicted the rewritten history
Leto II wanted his subjects to believe. In the course of "Chapter
House Dune" we learn the purpose of this apparent oversight: the
Scattering - by definition - involved severing the ties with the
millennia of civilisation and accumulated knowledge of the Old Empire.
As I’ve explained in the introduction, knowledge both enables growth
and hinders it, providing a structure that is quite necessary, but can
also turn out to be a prison. The people of the Scattering, the
Honoured Matres in particular, were the product of an unbridled growth
in a previously unexplored direction, but, because of the very essence
of the process which produced them, not in possession of a proper
sense of history to control their growth - something the Bene Gesserit
were capable of providing;
 Leto II was teaching humanity a lesson, "a lesson their bones
would remember" (9): by using his Fish Speakers to oppress any and all
resistance he was preparing the people of his empire for the
Scattering, his actions stimulating the development of a deep aversion
to subservience, thus enabling humanity to break free of the power
structures of the Old Empire and clearing the way for evolution and
diversification - divergence from the status quo that had formed in
the three point civilisation of "(…) the Imperial Household balanced
against the Federated Great Houses of the Landsraad, and between them
the Guild with its damnable monopoly on interstellar transport. In
politics, the tripod is the most unstable of all structures. It’s be
bad enough without the complication of a feudal trade culture which
turns its back on most science." (10), as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen
Mohiam told Jessica. The role of the Spice in all this provided the
destabilising impetus, causing an erratic motion which would
eventually have led to the shattering of the whole structure. The
reign of Leto II also resulted in a shattering of this structures,
but, much like the way demolitions with explosives can result in a
very controlled collapse of an old building, his method provided the
possibility to build a new and better structure.
With regard to Leto II the application of the aforementioned ecology
model (more than a mere metaphor) is especially effective, which
becomes clear when we consider the following exchange between Leto II
and his servant Moneo:
(Moneo) "Lord, have you no improvement of the human stock in
Leto glared down at him, thinking: If I use the key word now
will he understand? Perhaps...
"I am a predator, Moneo."
"Pred..." Moneo broke off and shook his head. He knew the
meaning of the word, he thought, but the word itself shocked him. Was
the God Emperor joking?
"The predator improves the stock."
"How can this be, Lord? You do not hate us."
"You disappoint me, Moneo. The predator does not hate its
"Predators kill, Lord."
"I kill but I do not hate. Prey assuages hunger. Prey is
"For what do you hunger, Lord?" Moneo ventured.
"For a humankind which can make truly long-term decisions. Do
you know the key to that ability, Moneo?"
"You have said it many times, Lord. It is the ability to
change your mind." (11)
Leto II’s goal was to prey on the old and sick animals in the
ecosystem of humanity, removing all the evolution-impeding elements.
In accordance with the remark at the outset of this essay, Leto II’s
act of removal would allow the stalled system to start changing again,
once more adapting to the progression of time, causing the human race
to finally start fullfilling some of its potential - this is the
3.2 - History
Being able to think the ideas put forth in the previous section does
presuppose a particular view of history and the power one has to
influence its flow. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who is
most famous for his comments on the way the modern media create a
hyperreality, thus obscuring what is actually the case, offers an
interesting insight that can be utilised in this context: he likens
history to space-time. Near the end of the millennium the impetus of
the linear progression of Enlightenment - a process taking place in
Euclidean space - has worn off and history has become like
non-Euclidean space, which is to say curved. As he is wont to do,
Baudrillard focuses on the negative aspects of this state of affairs,
emphasizing the recession apparent in it. His possible solution
involves choosing a different temporal orbit, and this is exactly what
a curved space-time is capable of causing (12).
Applying this metaphor to the events of the Dune series, we can say
that the faufreluches, the "rigid rule of class distinction" (13)
forming the elements of the previously mentioned three point
civilisation, provided the bodies of mass responsible for the
curvature that caused the evolution of humanity to stall. A new,
larger body of mass emerged, appeared to be able to create new
motions, but ultimately failed to do so in a way resulting in the
salvation of mankind: this was Paul Muad’Dib. It wasn’t until the
arrival of Leto II that the curvature of history became sufficent to
send humanity into a new direction, just like several NASA space
probes have been launched in such a way that they can use the
gravitational fields of large planets to change direction and gain
In these examples, and to an even larger extent in the actions of the
characters actually aspiring to control the course of history, it
becomes clear the view of history presented by Frank Herbert is
instrumentalist in nature. Just like the Minkowskian interpretation of
the Theory Of Relativity posits space-time is an independently
existing entity (delta-s. The main advantage of this supposition is
that the entity in question is observer-invariant, a useful shred of
stability in a theory where so many things are observer-dependent),
history according to Leto II and the Bene Gesserit is a *thing*, which
can be used as a tool to achieve certain goals. This, of course, is
totally in keeping with the general attitude prevalent among the
sisterhood: I’ve already mentioned this while discussing their view of
religion, which they see as an artifact, to be used or modified as
they see fit.
Power creates its own limitations - a lesson Paul learned the hard way
-, and a technological artifact enforces its own set of laws; the
sisterhood did realise these things. Rebecca, the carrier of Reverend
Mother Lucilla’s legacy (the horde of Lampadas, the Other Memories of
some seven million Reverend Mothers) in "Chapter House Dune", remarks
that the Bene Gesserit recognise a power greater than theirs, a
detectable movement they call "the leveling drift":
"They don’t oppose the current but seem only to move across
it, making it work for them, using the back eddies." (14)
This metaphor, which is quite compatible with the one introduced
earlier about history being like space-time, shows us how the
sisterhood attempts to control history like the object it is, but
recognises the rules they need to submit to in order to be able to do
this. Making the choice to attempt to control one thing shuts off many
possibilities of controlling other things, and they accepted the
general flowing patterns of the drift as an unavoidable inconvenience.
Just like people would build dams and rearrange the flow of a river to
have the power contained in the motion of the water better suit their
needs, the Bene Gesserit attempted to construct that person who would
be able to walk across the water instead of being forced to drift
along on it, or split it apart and lay bare the river bed, to see
beneath the water and change the course of the river if necessary.
It should come as no surprise that the Bene Gesserit should see things
this way - after all, each Reverend Mother possessed the wisdom of
ages in the form of her Other Memories. Having such a source of
historical data - first-hand experiences even - at your immediate
disposal would logically lead one to believe history and time itself
were things, fit to be manipulated and used. The Other Memories of a
Reverend Mother are not there as a reminder of "how it was", but need
to be used and applied to the current situation - history is a tool
that can be used to modify the present. Duncan Idaho realises this
during a conversation with Mother Superior Darwi Odrade:
For no reason he could explain, Idaho thought of another thing
Odrade had said: "We have no attic storerooms. We recycle everything."
He was random hunting and knew better. Not the Mentat way.
Recycle, though - Other Memory was not an attic storeroom then but
something they considered as recycling. It meant they used their past
only to change it and renew it.
Getting in tune. (15)
This conception of history can be elucidated by considering
Jewish/German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s theory of time and
A central component of Benjamin’s philosophy is the aura, a quality he
locates in original works of art, and about which he says:
"Diese letztere definieren wir als einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne,
so nah sie sein mag."
["The latter we define as the unique appearance of a certain distance,
however close it may be"] (16)
Even though Benjamin insists no reproduction, lacking the specific
history - captured in the physical traces of the maker and its
subsequent owners - of the original, is capable of possessing an aura,
my personal opinion is that the aura is a process of interaction
rather than a quality of some object, and in that sense potentially
present in anything: it can be seen as the process in which an
ideosyncratic interpretation of evocative sensory input leads to a
certain spiritual and rational enlightenment.
Linked to this conception of the one thing that makes a work of art
"special", is Benjamin’s view of history and time, which he develops
in his essay on the work of French poet Charles Baudelaire, most
famous for his "Fleurs Du Mal" ("Flowers Of Evil") (17). The first
component of his theory is the "durée" of Henri Bergson: time
conceived as flowing, a "stream of consciousness"-like phenomenon one
can only become aware of by internal perception.
The next stage is formed by the ideas of novelist Marcel Proust ("A La
Récherche Du Temps Perdu" / "The Remembrance Of Things Past"), who
describes how certain occurences in the present - something you taste,
smell, see or hear - can resurrect certain memories, unexpectedly but
nonetheless very vividly; these memories detach themselves from the
fabric of history. Sigmund Freud describes how an event you experience
deeply is isolated in your memory in order to protect your psyche from
the shock an integration of this occurence into your historical
background might cause. However, the memories you acquire in less
extreme ways, which consequently better represent the relation between
you and your environment, might become part of your unconscious
It’s this integration into the fabric of history that is central to
the concept "correspondance" (in English: correspondence), an
important element of the work of Baudelaire. It is possible that a
correspondence of an element of the now with a certain meaningful
element of your past is established, the memory firmly locked in place
in it’s proper historical context, but with the power to influence the
present in a way unique to the moment and the relevant dispositions of
the person experiencing that correspondence.
The correspondence has a neurocomputational basis in the capacity of
even the most basic neural network to display what is called vector
completion: even when presented with degraded input (a face with a
black bar covering the eyes, for instance), a neural network will be
able to produce a reliable depiction of the whole. "Vector completion"
refers to the way in which vectors depicting neural activation
patterns are extrapolated in these cases, based on patterns formed
because of conditioning (18). In a similar way elements from memory
may supplement current experiences, thus producing a unique and
potentially very valuable new perspective on things.
The role of the aura in all this is as follows: the evocative element
of the present experience is auratic in the sense that it causes a
wholly subjective but profoundly meaningful response. The distance to
the past experience is dissolved, and the mating of direct experience
of this element of history with the present produces a new
perspective, opening hitherto unexplored vistas and avenues of
This is in resonance with Benjamin’s opinion on what history as a
scientific practice should be like. Trying to objectively recreate the
past, trying to find out "wie es gewesen war" ("what it was like"), is
a fruitless project, not to mention impossible: every meaningful thing
we will be able to say about historical data will be an
interpretation, which will be in resonance with our modern ideas, our
current perspective. On top of this every history is a history of
victors - the stories of the ones that lost the decisive battles will
not be remembered. It would be much more valuable to attempt an
integration of the lessons of the past into the present, and investing
the capital we’ve accumulated in the future (19).
The Other Memories are a radicalisation of a similar perception of
history - this becomes clear in the following exchange between Mother
Superior Darwi Odrade and Streggi, an acolyte:
(Odrade) "Many histories are largely worthless because
prejudiced, written to please one powerful group or another. Wait for
your eyes to be opened, my dear. We are the best historians. We were
"And my viewpoint will change daily?" Very introspective.
"That’s a lesson the Bashar reminded us to keep fresh in our
minds. The past must be reinterpreted by the present." (20)
Even the way Herbert constructed the text mirrors this idea, which is
especially noticeable in the two books focusing on the Bene Gesserit,
"Heretics Of Dune" and "Chapter House Dune": there are numerous shifts
in time, a certain occurence in the present reminding a character of
something that was said or experienced in the past, and the reflection
on this memory providing a new perspective on the present.
The large picture, the ties between events, the structure of it all -
these are the things that are important in this view of history. An
ecology of history might be an apt description: the balance of all
elements of the system, movements of organisms, mutual influences...
Leto II was the predator invading the ecosystem of the Old Empire,
removing the elements that made it sick, and tearing down barriers
that prevented the organisms from expanding their territory. New
environments and the interaction with other organisms, which took
place in The Scattering, once again caused changes upon reinsertion
into the original ecosystem, the mating between the Bene Gesserit and
the Honoured Matres possibly creating a new generation of humans - or
perhaps proving to be an evolutional dead end, as Idaho feared.
3.3 - Bene Gesserit And Nietzschean Superman
The Bene Gesserit plan contains a very interesting tension: they often
try to avoid succumbing to the powers of uniquely human qualities in
order to better educate humanity to be human. Emotions, physically
embedded propensities and other such decidedly human affections are
treacherous beasts, always ready to pounce the unsuspecting ratio,
always lusting to devour the capacity for perceptional and conceptual
clarity. The quotes from the Dune Chronicles to fortify this claim
about the Bene Gesserit are legion. An example:
(Odrade) Love clouded reason. It diverted the Sisters from
their duties. Love could be tolerated only where it caused no
immediate and obvious disruptions or where it served the larger
purposes of the Bene Gesserit. Otherwise it was to be avoided.
Always, though, it remained an object of disquieting
Love is a dependency infrastructure, Odrade thought.
Love will dissolve one’s autonomy - an interesting line of thought if
one considers Nietzsche’s "Übermensch", an infamous concept that is
usually rather awkwardly translated into English as "superman". It can
be argued that the wish of the Bene Gesserit to educate humanity - and
the Kwisatz Haderach programme as the manifestation of that wish -
places the Sisterhood firmly in the mould that Nietzsche carved from
which he envisioned the supermen would be cast. A short exploration of
the philosophical background of this idea will reveal the
Nietzsche explores the superman at length in his most famous work,
"Also Sprach Zarathustra" (in English: "Thus Spake
Zarathustra")(1883-1885), a fictional text that is at once powerfully
evocative in its imagery, wickedly astute in its observations, and
mindbendingly complex and opaque in its conceptual content. The latter
is a problem which plagues more of Nietzsche’s writings: his refusal
to adhere to any one viewpoint, his fundamental denial of the
existence of any singular truth and his consciously adopted strategy
of self-contradiction make his virtuoso ponderings all the more
difficult to understand.
Nietzsche chose Zarathustra as the central figure of his story to
allow him to rectify the mistake he had made: the historical
Zarathustra (Greek name: Zoroaster) was a philosopher/priest who
founded a religion in seventh century Persia, and aimed to improve and
develop society. A central component of his philosophy was his
understanding of the world as the stage of a battle between good and
evil, which he both took to be objective forces.
In Nietzsche’s philosophy a not entirely dissimilar evolution of
mankind is preached, but there’s also a very important difference: all
values and apparent truths are merely relative - designing one’s life
around such external entities will dissolve one’s autonomy.
Thus it is that Zarathustra is resurrected to preach the superman.
From the Vorrede ("Introduction"), section 3 (note: many editions of
ASZ exist, which is why references to the sections rather than the
page numbers will be made):
Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen. Der Mensch ist Etwas, das überwunden
werden soll. Was habt ihr gethan, ihn zu überwinden?
[I teach you the superman. Man is something, that shall be overcome.
What have you done to overcome him?]
Zarathustra defines the superman as a higher type of human, a form of
life that needs to emerge and will supersede humanity. In a way, the
necessity of the Kwisatz Haderach in the universe of Dune and the path
beyond that the Bene Gesserit discerned can be said to fit into this
particular mould - the plan of the Sisterhood was never merely a
freely chosen development, but needed to take place somehow. The
evolutional dead end man had become or was in danger of becoming
needed to be freed from the constraints preventing its continued
development somehow. How then should we understand man?
Der Mensch ist ein Seil, geknüpft zwischen Thier und Übermensch, - ein
Seil über einem Abgrunde.
[Man is a rope, tied between beast and superman - a rope across an
A tightrope is not a place one chooses to stay for very long - the
danger of being in that particular situation generates a force that
compels each traveler to attempt to reach either end of the rope.
Allowing a society to revert back to a more primitive state - negating
all the knowledge and abilities that, over the course of many
centuries, had been acquired - is not a preferable development.
Striving to reach the other side, the side of the superman, should be
the goal, but in order to get there great fear needs to be overcome.
Lacking the ability to fly, the sensation of falling down, the
realisation that the sudden stop at the end might very well be lethal
and the understanding that he is utterly powerless to change anything
unlocks strong feelings of powerlessness in man - considering the fact
every step of man’s evolution in effect serves to increase his power
base, these feelings signal the return of precisely those demons we
hoped had been exorcised long ago.
The need to evolve should be a fundamental aspect of every man. In
what way should this evolution take place? Nietzsche isn’t very clear
on this, but it is possible to make a few educated guesses.
Was gross ist am Menschen, das ist, dass er eine Brücke und kein Zweck
ist: was geliebt werden kann am Menschen, das ist, dass er ein
Übergang und ein Untergang ist.
[What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what can
be loved in man is that he is a transition and a submergence] (23)
Man is a transition, not only in the active sense of the word - a
being that embodies a continuing process of change and accumulation of
knowledge -, but also in the passive sense - merely a stage in the
development of a class of beings, and in no way an end result of such
an evolution or crowning achievement of some plan. Man should also
allow itself to submerge, to permit its weaknesses to destroy
everything that’s holding him back.
It is here that a very interesting parallel with the Bene Gessert
becomes visible: their dismissal of unreasonable emotions and
everything that might stimulate their emergence coincides with
Nietzsche’s call to eradicate the "Menschliches, Allzumenschliches"
(Bene Gesserit Lucilla and Duncan Idaho) Her manner still icy, Lucilla
said: "We of the Bene Gesserit have learned to avoid music. It evokes
too many confusing emotions. Memory-emotions, of course."
It was meant to awe him with a reminder of all those Other
Memories and the Bene Gesserit powers these implied but Duncan only
"What a shame that is," he said. "You miss so much of life."
Leto held similar beliefs, or at least feigned that he did:
(Leto to the Bene Gesserit sisters Anteac and Luyseyal) "A
well-maintained machine can be more reliable than a human servant,"
Leto said. "We can trust machines not to indulge in emotional
However, Duncan’s criticism was not lost on the Sisterhood, and
neither did Nietzsche dismiss all "animal urgings" as undesirable:
Schwüles Herz und kalter Kopf: wo diess zusammentrifft, da entsteht
der Brausewind, der "Erlöser''.
[Sultry heart and cold head: where these meet eachother, there the
roaring wind springs up, the "saviour"] (26)
The God-Emperor, Leto II, was seen by some as such a saviour (he
himself certainly thought this - humility was not one of his more
visible traits), in a way embodied such a superman: his knowledge and
reasoning (or perhaps rather "rhetoric") skills certainly had no
equal, but he had not completely eradicated all emotions:
(Leto, thinking) He knew it was love to which he was most vulnerable.
He did not always attempt to hide this vulnerability - his proposed
marriage to Hwi Noree proves this -, nor did he categorically hate it:
as his transfiguration into a sandworm progressed further, he became
increasinly nurturing of what few traits remained of his humanity.
The superman is supposed to find a balance between reason and the
tendencies of the flesh and the lower brain. To his audience of
humans, Zarathustra praises the fact that they have not (yet) lost
sight of this:
Ich sage euch: man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden
Stern gebären zu können. Ich sage euch: ihr habt noch Chaos in euch.
[I say to you: one needs to have chaos inside to be able to give birth
to a dancing star. I say to you: you still have chaos inside] (28)
Nietzsche’s eventual conclusion (if one can call it that) that a life
of laughter and dance is to be desired indicates the ability to
indulge in chaos - to tap into a well of raw creativity - is, in
itself, not something that should be avoided. The Bene Gesserit
understood this - not always of their own free will, but they did know
the importance modes of apperception other than the purely rational:
(Bene Gesserit Mother Superior Odrade) Mama Sibia, only a foster
mother, had taught Odrade to love herself.
In a Bene Gesserit society where any form of love was suspect,
this remained Odrade’s ultimate secret. (29)
Emotionally, Darwi Odrade was a flawed Bene Gesserit. She often was
too forgiving of erring acolytes, she fell in love during her first
assignment as a Breeding Mistress and nurtured the memories of her
youth in the form of a recurring dream persona she called "Sea Child".
At times, these emotional rudiments made her the slightest bit
unstable, but overall it made her a better Mother Superior.
The Sisterhood both understood the advantages and the dangers of
creativity and chaos:
(Rebecca and the Rabbi, about the Bene Gesserit) "They have
harnessed a creative imagination, Rabbi. And they use it for all of
"Imagination was an ill-chosen word on my part, perhaps," she
said. "But imagination projects possibilities from which we pick and
choose. That works until it gets too romantic."
"Chaos," he said, clutching the scroll to his breast.
"True. When things get too romantic they are self-limiting.
They loose chaos among us."
"And that is what you bring?"
A soft smile touched her mouth. "You fear I will urge us to abandon
homely reality, things we can touch with our hands? Still romantic
imagination is where most great ideas originate." (30)
On the other hand:
(Mother Superior Taraza) Philosophy is always dangerous because it
promotes the creation of new ideas. (31)
They exploited the tension between rationality and a more emotional or
creative way of thinking - the body was not forgotten:
(Odrade and the ghola of Miles Teg) She released him and urged
him gently ahead of her. "We planted for the nose here, Miles.
Aromatic herbs. Study them carefully and look them up when you get
back to the library. Oh, do step on them!" when he started to avoid a
plant runner in his path.
He placed his right foot firmly on green tendrils and inhaled
the pungent odours.
"They were made to be walked on and give up their savour,"
Odrade said. "Proctors have been teaching you how to deal with
nostalgia. Have they told you nostalgia often is driven by the sense
of smell?" (32)
This is very similar to what Nietzsche tries to say:
Es ist mehr Vernunft in deinem Leibe, als in deiner besten Weisheit.
Und wer weiss denn, wozu dein Leib gerade deine beste Weisheit nöthig
[There is more reason in your body, than in your greatest wisdom. And
who knows, for what your body needs your greatest wisdom?] (33).
Ich beschwöre euch, meine Brüder, bleibt der Erde treu und glaubt
Denen nicht, welche euch von überirdischen Hoffnungen reden!
Giftmischer sind es, ob sie es wissen oder nicht.
[I beseech you, my brethren, stay true to the Earth and do not believe
those who speak of supernatural hopes! They are poisoners, whether
they realise it or not.](34)
The Sisterhood focused heavily on the experiences and deductions one
could make in the mind - their reliance on Other Memory certainly
indicates this. However, as the quote above about the link between
nostaliga and smell indicates, they definitely understood the immense
value of direct, physical experience, and how much more powerful that
could be in some cases than simply remembering something or having it
be remembered for you by a persona from Other Memory:
(A tenet from the "Mentat Handbook") Memory never recaptures reality.
Memory reconstructs. All reconstructions change the original, becoming
external frames of reference which inevitably fall short. (35)
The Bene Gesserit incorporated Mentats into their organisation and
thus borrowed from Mentat training to a certain extent, which means
they must have realised the relativity of their reliance on the purely
mental experiences contained in Other Memory. The following quote
(Odrade to Tamalane) "Walking on that sort of desert changes you, Tam.
Other Memory becomes clearer. It’s one thing to tap experiences of a
Fremen ancestor. It’s quite different walking there as a Fremen
yourself if only for a few hours." (36)
This can be understood as a call to move away from desiring an
existence as pure spirit, as Other Memory might tempt a Bene Gesserit
One aspect of the superman - which both the Sisterhood and Leto II
strived for and even already realised in various ways - is his
self-gouverning power. The death of Leto II shows to what extent he he
had such power. He knew his death was coming, and ultimately wanted it
to happen the way it happened, even if his desire to be with his bride
induced other thoughts in him for a short period of time. He, who was
virtually immortal, chose to die.
Nietzsche also recognised the importance of such self-limitation:
Stirb zur rechten Zeit.
[Die at the right time] (37)
It is important to note that death here means "den freien Tod, der mir
kommt, weil ich will" [free death, which comes when I want it to]
Nietzsches superman has become very controversial. A central element
of the theory is the "Wille zur Macht" [the will-to-power], an
expression of a fundamental drive not to merely survive, as Darwin
would advocate, but to thrive, be the best you can be, reach ones
goals. This is not conatus (self-preservation), nor hedonism -
self-realisation is the goal in itself.
The Nazis grossly misunderstood Nietzsches philosophy, and abused the
concept of will-to-power and superman in the most horrifying manner
imaginable. Contrary to what they might have claimed, the superman is
not envious of others, and would never even consider eradicating
entire groups of people - envy fundamentally negates the autonomy the
superman is supposed to strive for.
This doesn’t mean the superman-philosophy is not dangerous. Nihilism
coupled with the very concept "Übermensch" has, if the underlying
philosophy is poorly understood, the inherent power to create a
hierarchy. Using the word itself to denote a certain layer of society
will induce a separation of humanity in "we, the supermen" and "they,
The universe of Dune is not completely nihilistic, but apart from the
goals and teachings of the Bene Gesserit the stability of the
Duniverse depends on the power of people (the rulers, the gods) and
the reliance on the need for a certain substance (the Spice) instead
of autonomously and rationally generated moral guidelines. Religious
guidelines are insufficient in this respect, because these are adhered
to because someone else (a god, or in a more immediate sense the
authority figure who taught you to believe in that god) says you are
Ethical rules need to be categorical - without exception - in the
sense that they spring forth from your very essence, and reflect your
position in the world. The most famous proponent of this idea is
Immanuel Kant, but his ethical categorical imperative is often
misunderstood as "do unto others as you would have done to you."
This is not the correct phrasing of the categorical imperative. Kant
explicitly says (39) the "do unto others..." is not categorical, and
he dismisses it as trivial: in this case the basis for the rules you
follow in your actions is your own needs and wants, which means they
cannot serve as a general, exceptionless law, which it's supposed to
The first formulation of the categorical imperative is "Handle nur
nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie
eine algemeine Gesetz werde" [Act in such a way, that the rules your
will feels obliged to follow could be accepted as general laws].
The second formulation is very similar - it replaces "law" with "law
of nature", thus placing the ethics in a broader context and forcing
man (and every being that possesses reason) to extend his moral
behaviour to his entire life, not just interpersonal relationships -
but it's in the third formulation that we really get something we can
use, and which indeed sounds quite similar to the colloquial version
you quoted: "Handle so, dass du die Menschheit sowohl in deiner Person
als in der eines jeden anderen jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals
bloss als Mittel brauchst". This means something like "act in such a
way that you treat yourself and others in such a way, that you never
just use them, but always also see them as a goal."
The ethical laws law that one must adhere to are supposed to follow
from the structure of reason themselves, and the will as the outward
manifestation of that reason. What Kant basically wanted is construct
a system of ethical rules akin to the divine commandments (which must
be followed and derive their authority from (a) (G/g)od), but without
the assumption of the existence of a divine being.
This is where even the plan of Leto II shows its shortcomings: his
rule did not teach just expansion, but expansion without guidelines -
the evolution of the ability to independently use reason was severely
lacking under his rule. His rule consisted of oppression based on
military (the Fish Speakers), economical (his control of the Spice)
and apparent divine power (his merger with Shai-Hulud, the sandworm),
and it failed to indoctrinate a moral code into humanity, neither did
it *educate* them to be autonomous - all his Golden Path did was point
It might be compared to a child having been trained to idolise its
parents by being completely dependent on them, not only for physical
necessities but also for solutions to even the most basic problems,
only to be kicked out on the street one day with the message "Go be an
The Golden Path created the conditions for a physical expansion of
humanity (which tookmplace in the Scattering), not a mental expansion.
Leto II intended the Bene Gesserit and their Other Memory to be the
conscience and reason of humanity after he was gone, but the fact he
allowed the Bene Tleilax to exist, assumed a religious position (which
was initially necessary, but should have been phased out. He must have
understood his role would continue to hold humanity in its grip, and
would prevent them from becoming autonomous) and denounced the Bene
Gesserit (at least publicly) made this virtually impossible.
The emergence of the Honoured Matres in the final two books and the
continued existence of the Bene Tleilax were the (undesired, except
perhaps as a test) result. The Tleilaxu dissolved the Melange-monopoly
and served a purpose that way, but they also continued their
moral-less intrusions upon the sanctity of the human body. This can be
contrasted with a symbiosis (to whatever extent) with technology,
which, almost by definition, should be regulated by a well-developed
4 - Reading The "Dune" Books.
The books of the "Dune" series operate on many levels. Readers looking
for action are usually most infatuated with the first of the series -
warring families, political intrigue, a great villain (Baron
Harkonnen) and breathtaking scenery (the planet Arrakis) make for a
great read. However, the series being the ecological unity that it is,
it isn’t until after multiple readings of the entire series that the
real depth of Herbert’s universe reveals itself - I hope some of these
depths have now become even the slightest bit less unfathomable
because of this essay.
Despite the many philosophical concepts introduced within the pages of
the saga, I don’t believe it would have vastly improved if Herbert had
chosen to present his ideas in the form of a series of philosophical
essays. Standard philosophy more often than not attempts to emulate
mathematics in its logic, demanding strict deductions and rigidly
defined concepts. However, this is not how the human mind works. The
mind is not filled with highly structured bits of knowledge, the mind
is not an array of propositions; a proposition is merely a rigidified
idea. It’s the content of someone’s working memory pertaining to a
certain subject, but fit into the constraints of language. The most
fundamental occurences of thoughts - that is, those mental phenomena
that can in some way be attributed ‘meaning’ - are not thoroughly
language-like. Human thinking is more accurately understood as a
patchwork of several different types of mental representation:
languagelike, visual, auditive, and perhaps even tactile and
olfactory. The way a certain piece of information is stored and
therefore how it is entered into the active parts of the mind depends
on a number of things, one of which being the way the event from which
that info was derived is usually experienced. Some people remember
written text better, others prefer to hear it, others have a very
effective visual memory, and so on. Pouring a thought into neat,
grammatically correct sentences [propositions] is usually the very
last stage of thought-processing): a proposition is merely secondary:
it is capable of receiving a truth-value (the label of either "true"
or "false"), but that ultimately depends on the truth-value of the
thought that preceded its construction.
Understood like this, the choice for mental content as the most
primitive occurence of thinking could be seen as rather arbitrary. Why
not consider the activities of neurons and synapses primary? However,
it is very well possible to defend the thesis that there’s a
qualitative gap between brain activity as can be described and
calculated in neurocomputational terms on one hand and actual thinking
on the other - there’s a fundamental difference between the mechanical
causation that rules the physical aspect of the brain and the
meaning-causation captured in mental activities. It might be possible
to come up with a system of translation that connects the physical
description with the mental one, but it’s exactly in that translation
that the qualitative change between the two levels becomes apparent:
this translation is an artificial construct and ignores, abstracts and
generalizes just like any translation between two "normal" languages
in order to match the content of mental states with (micro)physical
states. Proof for this position is supplied by experimental data that
suggests it’s as yet impossible to find a one-to-one correspondence of
mental states with activity of neurons: a certain thought, no matter
how precise, is never produced (neurally) in the exact same way twice.
A thought, the basic building block of the process of thinking, can
never exist on its own: it always needs to be embedded in a web of
references. In real life, this web usually takes the form of a
narrative - the story of one’s life. This is why literature provides a
fitting forum for the exploration of these webs. In contrast, a
philosophical text will usually attempt to explicate a limited number
of singular concepts, and will in doing so fail to provide the reader
with the proper context.
The problem a book, as a narrative attempting to recreate such a web
along with its main ideas and concepts, faces is that it is
constructed using language. Language is a fairly rigid system of names
denoting certain states of affairs, and as such forces the user’s
thoughts into predetermined structures - in its attempts to capture
the essence of structures that in themselves exist in non-language
media, it creates abstractions, ambiguous references and culturally
bound imagery. Nietzsche once described language as "an army of
metaphors", and it is there that the biggest problem finds its root: a
metaphor is only functional in a collective of people using the same
system of denotations, automatically repressing any and all
ideosyncratic explanations or references one might be inclined to
Nonetheless, the novel, despite its many flaws as a medium of
idea-transfer, is reasonably well-equipped for the construction of an
environent of ideas for the reader to consume - adapting one of Sir
Winston Churchill’s most famous insights, one could say literature is
the worst medium of conveyance, but it’s the best one we have. A
multiplicity of characters representing varying viewpoints, situations
in which certain ideas aren’t simply explained, but are also shown in
action (philosophers subscribing to the prominence of the performative
or behaviouristic aspects of processes should be able to appreciate
this) - attempting to grasp the writer’s ideas on certain matters in
this way can be very rewarding.
The novel allows the reader to integrate its content into his or her
own web of knowledge, beliefs and dispositions - every reader will
latch on to different aspects of a book or series of books, should the
narrative in question be rich enough. This is exactly why Frank
Herbert’s "Dune" saga is so successful as a collection of
philosophical ponderings: it’s extremely rich in profound thoughts,
and manages to explicate their meaning by allowing the reader multiple
viewpoints, most of them remarkably well-developed. The added benefit
caused by Herbert’s choice to present his ideas in a science-fiction
novel, the release from the ties of the rules of logic and common
sense that characterises the "real" world, only increases the number
of possible perspectives.
In this sense Herbert can be compared to Leto II, one of his own
creations. We have settled into our own particular belief systems,
have found our niche in a particular eco-sociological system, but
reading these books dissolves our bonds to that system, and sends us
into the Scattering, each of us in our own direction, alone to
interact with all these new ideas, being changed by them and
consequently altering the meaning we read into those ideas. When we
return to our daily lives - the "Old Empire" - we realise we’ve
changed, we’ve won something, and we’re better-equipped to face our
future. Such is the power of great literature.
5 - Conclusion: An Ecological Philosophy?
A very important lesson the books of "Dune" teaches us concerns the
importance of the whole, of the entire system. Strangely enough, many
schools of thought - in philosophy, but also in other forms of science
(in its meaning as a direct derivative of the Latin "scientia": the
art of knowing) - strive to reduce complex systems to a singular
premise or rule. This tactic isn’t entirely incomprehensible - after
all, the human mind is severely constrained in its capacities, and
every trick that can be used to simplify the complexities of reality
Formal logic hopes to find a way to locate the entire meaning of a
sentence within that sentence itself and represent that sentence using
a limited number of content-carrying symbols, while it should be
obvious that each element of a language, language being a communal
practice, should depend on the internal consistency of the entire
system: only when you’re aware of the context of a sentence (namely:
the conversation per se, the relevant circumstances the conversation
is embedded in, the language it is in and the cultural background of
the speakers), can you explain each and every word. Similarly, the
desire to find the wave function of the universe (a quantummechanical
representation of processes that can so far only be explained in
relativistic terms) will, if such a beast is in fact possible,
probably result in a very general and effectively useless equation (or
inequality, whatever the case may be).
An ecosystem, where each and every constituting element has ties to
other elements and is irrevocably changed if those ties are severed,
cannot be understood by only analysing some of the parts, or just
analysing the system as a singular entity. All aspects need to be
felt, seen, heard, smelt, tasted and thought about. Regarding
fictional ecosystems it appears that until the day Virtual Reality
technology has progressed so far it can actually give us a lifelike
multisensory experience, we’re going have to be content with the best
thing currently available - brilliant narratives such as Frank
Herbert’s "Dune" series. Granted, a novel, by virtue of it being a
collection of symbols only comprehensible when transposed into the
mental building blocks of sensory data, favours the mind over all the
other senses - but isn’t the mind the place where the most interesting
-Marco van Leeuwen.
(1) "From Hell", Volume One, back cover. Alan Moore (author), Eddie
Campbell (artist), Kitchen Sink Press (publisher), 1991/1992/1994.
(2) "Dune" (D), Frank Herbert, page 521. Ace Books (New York).
(3) "Encarta 98 Encyclopedia - Winkler Prins Editie" (Dutch Edition),
entry "Mens" (eng: "Human").
(4) "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism
in the Late Twentieth Century", Donna Haraway, excerpt at
(6) "Dune Messiah" (DM), Frank Herbert, page 19. New English Library
(8) D13. The entry for "gom jabbar" in the glossary explains: "The
high-handed enemy; that specific poison needle tipped with
meta-cyanide used by Bene Gesserit Proctors in the death-alternative
test of human awareness" (ibid., page 519).
(9) "Chapter House Dune" (CHD), Frank Herbert, page 8. New English
(11) "God Emperor Of Dune" (GEOD), Frank Herbert, pages 69 and 70. New
English Library (London).
(12) "Reversion of History" - Jean Baudrillard. English translation by
Charles Dudas available at
(16) "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen
Reproduzierbarkeit" - Walter Benjamin, section III. The customary but
not entirely correct english translation is "The Work Of Art In The
Age Of Mechanical Reproduction".
(17) "Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire" - Walter Benjamin. An english
translation of the title would be "On several themes in the works of
(18) "The Engine Of Reason, The Seat Of The Soul" - Paul M.
Churchland, pages 53 and 54. The MIT Press (Cambridge/London).
(19) "Über den Begriff der Geschichte" - Walter Benjamin. An english
translation of the title would be "On the understanding of history".
(20) CHD231, 232.
(21) "Heretics Of Dune" (HOD), Frank Herbert, page 132. New English
(22) "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (ASZ), Friedrich Nietzsche, "Vorrede,
(23) ASZ, Vorrede 4
(26) ASZ, Section: "Von Den Priestern" (On The Priests)
(28) ASZ, Vorrede, section 5
(33) ASZ, Section: "Von den Verächtern des Leibes" [On Those Who
Despise The Body].
(34) ASZ Vorrede 3
(37) ASZ, Section: "Vom Freien Tode" [On Free Death].
(39) In a note in his "Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten"
[Groundwork Of The Metaphysic Of Morals]. In the classic
"Akademie"-edition, it's on page 430
*The "Dune" Saga by Frank Herbert:
"Dune Messiah" (1969)
"Children Of Dune" (1976)
"God Emperor Of Dune" (1981)
"Heretics Of Dune" (1984)
"Chapter House Dune" (1985)
*Other texts used:
"A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in
the Late Twentieth Century", Donna Haraway, excerpt at
"Also Sprach Zarathustra" - Friedrich Nietzsche, 1883-1885. English
Title: "Thus Spake Zarathustra".
"Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" -
Walter Benjamin. Available in "Illuminationen", Suhrkamp Verlag
"Encarta 98 Encyclopedia - Winkler Prins Editie" (Dutch Edition).
"From Hell", Volume One. Alan Moore (author), Eddie Campbell (artist),
Kitchen Sink Press (publisher), 1991/1992/1994.
"Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten" - Immanuel Kant. English
Title: "Groundwork Of The Metaphysic Of Morals"
"Reversion of History" - Jean Baudrillard. English translation by
Charles Dudas available at
"The Engine Of Reason, The Seat Of The Soul" - Paul M. Churchland. The
MIT Press (Cambridge/London).
"Über den Begriff der Geschichte" - Walter Benjamin. Available in
"Illuminationen", Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt a.M.).
"Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire" - Walter Benjamin. Available in
"Illuminationen", Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt a.M.).
"those of you who are already familiar with the original version can scroll
down to section 3.3: "Bene Gesserit And Nietzschean Superman", which wasn't
present in the old version."
As always, constructive criticism is more than welcome!
I'd like to offer some well deserved praise. This in-depth discussion of
Nietzsche's ideas, particularly those contained in his most famous work
"Thus Spake Zarathustra" indicates a great deal of intellectual diligence
and learned analysis. I found the introduction of the original German
quotations to be refreshing because it subtly emphasized that language
shapes thought, and drew attention to the fact that Nietzsche was brought up
in Germany. In reading this I was reminded that Carl Jung enjoyed reading
Nietzsche in college, but was embarrassed because so few of his
contemporaries found Nietzsche's ideas compelling. Since the superman theme
is so essential to the Dune Chronicles I would assume that Frank Herbert
read "Thus Spake Zarathustra" as well. Great job!