The Renaissance moral ideas of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga   Leave a comment

The necessity of evil from Frank Herbert’s Dune saga
A Renaissance-inspired analysis

Leto II and Ghanima Atreides


Christianity, from late antiquity to Renaissance and even further, told us that: ‘Man is the centre and the purpose of the entire creation’, but the conceptions were changed with the passing of time. After the scientific revolution, history witnessed a shift in anthropological beliefs, while the current views stipulate that the world does not have any immanent or transcendent finality, and the human species represents just a fortunate accident of nature (from the perspective of humans, of course).
One of the core philosophical ideas of Frank Herbert’s Dune was enunciated at the beginning of one of its chapters, in a koan-like style:

‘The Universe doesn’t have a center’ [physically or metaphysically].

The cycle, composed from six original books – that were continued with prequels and sequels by his son, Brian Herbert, and an associate writer, Kevin J. Anderson – presents an alternate future history of humankind, a long time after our current epoch, when our race will be spread throughout a good part of the Universe.
The history is convincing due to its realistic elements: the humans exhibit the same complexity of emotions and intentions, the technology is not overwhelming, and the social relations remind us by the feudal age.
I think that Frank Herbert initiated a new literary subgenre of science fiction, a subtype in which religion receives a bigger importance. Is no coincidence the fact that the same author, together with the poet and the writer Bill Ransom, produced a second science fiction cycle, in three books, called Pandora, where the religious topics were approached once again.
For a scientist who reads Dune its ecological implications would probably be more important, but for a philosopher, definitely, its theological and religious shades would be more significant.
Maybe it would be useful to mention that Frank Herbert was inspired to write Dune while working as an editor for a newspaper in Portland. Here he received the task to write an article about the dunes of sand from Florence, Oregon. Soon after that Herbert developed the first version of the first two parts of the saga, Dune and Dune Messiah.
One of the tricks used by science fiction writers for maximizing the plausibility of their works was to incorporate tacitly the real history of humankind or even to locate the plot of their books within the contemporary age, in the recent past or in the near future. It seems that Herbert preferred the first possibility, and his Duniverse was placed in the distant future.
The central moral idea of the first two thirds of the cycle – that reaches its apex during the fourth part of the saga, Emperor-God of Dune, – was the legitimacy of the absolute power in an edge-case, a case in which certain immoral decisions seem to be the only choices. Both the main characters of the first four books – Paul Atreides, as hero of the first two, and Leto II Atreides, as hero of the third and the fourth, – become the absolute rulers of the Universe and are considered gods by all the populations of the world, excepting the nobility.
For a better understanding of the situation I ought to say that all the scattered worlds where humans are spread according to the story – except for some notable cases, as that one of the penitentiary world of Salusa Secundus or that of the sanctuary-planets named Antanta-Tupile, which are reserved for the defeated Houses – are populated mainly by serfs or peasants – called ‘pyons’ – and which represent the social basis of a quasi-medieval social system. At the top of this system were located the so-called Houses Major, which resemble the royal families of our history, and which governed over the ignorant masses of people qua ‘siridars’ or planetary governors. The House Minor, instead, correspond to the earls of the reality, more exactly, to those earls that don’t have extensive political duties, like those of ruling a world.
Still, the entire political chessgame opposed these Great Houses, their economical and political organizations and ‘Bene Gesserit’. The heart of the plot is the fight of all the factions to control the known Universe. The highly addictive geriatric spice – which will be explained later – is the most expensive substance, enhancing mental powers and ruling the economies. If the Great Houses, the Emperor and Guild’s Navigators chosen to take their shares from Dune’s natural treasure, Bene Gesserit wants to assume the political power creating a sort of superbeing, which will allow them to subdue the whole humanity, already indoctrinated with tales about the advent of this creature.
In this ‘dark new world’ the common people were put in the background. Nobody in the narrative ever speaks about them, but in the best case the conversations were centered around the idea of controlling one or another of the worlds inhabited by them. Dune’s Freemen are the only common people which are mentioned quite often and which are heavily involved in the plot. Moreover, beginning with Dune Messiah they become tools of the Imperial power.
The action of the books speaks about a Universe in which humanity was spread across thousands of galaxies. The world is led by an Emperor, which presides over the Assembly of the noble houses – ‘Landsraad’ -, Landsraad and ‘Spacing Guild’. The Emperor himself is a representative of a noble house, namely the House of Corrino, which provided the monarchs of the Universe for the last 10.000 standard years prior to the beginning of the plot.
The ‘(Spacing) Guild’ owes its mathematical knowledge applied to the spacetravel to the constant abuse of melange. The melange or the geriatric spice is a byproduct of the physiological processes of a native animal species from Dune, the sand-worms. This substance has psycho-dynamic properties, and its daily consumption is absolutely necessary for the Guild Navigators to allow them to achieve a heightened awareness and to see the safe spacetime paths when they drive their spacecrafts.
The Guild has the monopoly of the interstellar travel, and hence it constitutes more than a professional class: it is a sui generis pillar of power.
A different pillar of power is ‘CHOAM’. CHOAM is an inter-planetary corporation whose board members are appointed by the Emperor and by the Great Houses. Basically, CHOAM constitutes the economic correspondent of the political chessboard.
The fourth pillar of power is ‘Bene Gesserit’. In Dune’s Universe, religion is used by the nuns of Bene Gesserit as a control tool for enslaving the masses of planetary denizens. This is the function of the so-called ‘Missionaria Protectiva’, a theo-political organon of Bene Gesserit that spreads religious myths about the genetical desideratum of the order, ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, with the goal of easing the future domination of the known Universe, once Kwisatz Haderach is produced.
The sisterhood prefers the hidden games for power, remaining in shadow, as a silent partner of the Emperor, Landsraad and Spacing Guild.
But, when ‘the man that can be in different places in the same time’ finally arrives, he began to rule the world in a tyrannic way, sending all the former tripods of power, including Bene Gesserit, into the background of the cosmic history.

The fictional context

The plot of the cycle begins when House of Atreides receives the stewardship of Dune, the planet that represented the only source of the psycho-dynamic substance called ‘spice’. The previous governors of the planet, House of Harkonnen, were removed from the stewardship of the planet surprisingly easy, and this is why the duke Leto I reluctantly accepted the task. Still, this kind of offer cannt be refused by a noble House. Everything proves to be a trap in the end, and the switch of the rulers was meant to depose House of Atreides because it started to be perceived as a threat by Imperial House of Corrino. A commando composed by Imperial troops – ‘Sardaukars’ – and soldiers belonging to Harkonnens lands on Dune and remove House Atreides from the helm of the planet. While the Duke Leto I commits suicide, his son, Paul, and his concubine, Lady Jessica, escape into the desert where they will be adopted by the native Freemen. The political control over Dune is given once again to House of Harkonnen, which re-commences its ruthless mandate over the world and its inhabitants.
Encouraged by the emergence of the young Atreides in their lives, Freemen begin to believe in the truthfulness of Missionaria Protectiva and assimilate the teenager with Usul, the Chosen one, or with Muad’Dib, the Saviour of the people and bringer of the peace. This intensifies the fights against the restored government of Harkonnens.
When the young Paul becomes big enough to run a war and command an army, the civil war from Dune takes increasing proportions, determining the Emperor to send a huge fleet there. The Emperor himself makes the tactical mistake to establish his headquarter on the surface of the planet, for a better view of the military actions. The army of Freemen, led by Paul, exploits the advantages given by weather and by the topology of the place, and strikes the opposing army successfully, thus winning the war. Paul proclaims himself Emperor and takes as wife the older daughter of the defeated Emperor, Irulan.
Arrakis (aka Dune) becomes a SiFi Jerusalem or Mecca, while the political power had already moved to the same place since the new Emperor established his capital in the regained planetary fiefdom of his family.
Also, thanks to the springs of spice, Arrakis takes its deserved rank within the economical hierarchy of the Universe. Arrakis – with its capital, Arrakeen – becomes the new axus mundi, being thus very similar with the Ancient Rome of the old Earth. Ironically, the temporary capital of Dune, which had this role during Harkonnen’s regime, is named Chartag.
Paul previously fell in love with Chani, a Freemen woman, which gave birth to the twins Leto II and Ghanima. In consequence, Chani remains his woman even after his official marriage with Corrino’s offspring. The armies of Freemen begin the so-called Jihad, a holy war whose purpose was to spread the word of Muad’Dib in the entire known Universe. Billions of people are killed during the war.
When Paul resigns due to his blindness – that contradicted Freemen Law – and goes in the desert to die, his younger sister, Alia, is appointed Regent until his son, Leto II, will be able to assume power.
Alia is an ‘abomination’ because when she was yet an unborn child she achieved consciousness and access to the memories of her female predecessors due to the overdoses of spice consumed by her mother. She was subjected to the risk of being possessed by one of the spectra of her past, as an inherent consequence of her premature awareness. Opportunist, the ghost of the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen takes charge of her mind.
Therefore, her appointment as Regent shows to be a big mistake. Atreides twins are lost in the desert after a failed attempt of Harkonnens to assassinate them. Thus, Leto II walks on the footsteps of his father, integrating himself in a Freemen tribe and enduring the so-called ‘spice agony’. Finally, he merges his body with those of thousands of sandtrouts – the haploid stage of the sandworms, whose dejections exposed to sun generated the priceless spice -. Thus he manages to increment his strength: his appearances already anticipate the future hybrid that he will become, a half-human, half-sandworm superbeing, able to defeat any enemy, almost indestructible and capable to see the future and the past. Leto II reunites with his sister and eliminates Alia, becoming the second male Emperor of the Atreides dynasty. He rules the entire Universe inhabited by humans about three millenia and a half, and had the pretension that his tyranny saved humankind from a guaranteed end.
To label the implementation of his Messianic project he uses the expression ‘Golden Path’.
Though, the expression ‘Golden Path’, despite its homophony with the ‘road to liberation’ of Buddhism, designates something different in the peculiar case of the novel. The ‘Golden Path’ is in fact the only safe way that can be followed by humanity for avoiding its extinction. I would rather say that here we have an involuntary irony – since the extinction (of the individuality) ceases to be a purpose, as is the case in Buddhism -.
Following the order of human goods exposed in Aristotle’s theory of virtue from Nicomachean Ethics, the bodily goods, and not the exterior ones, nor the inner ones, become aims or ends in themselves, receiving thus a value per se.
But, quite strange for such a stochastic alternate reality, it seems that the only way in which humanity may step on this Golden Path is in chains – because the humans are too divided by their local interests – and hence the only modality to keep them alive is to lead them as a tyrant.
Leto II chooses to rule the Universe dictatorially, becoming a necessary evil.

The philosophies of life from Dune and their notable predecessors

Philosophically, the pages of the cycle are the drama of a post-Plato conflict between two types of mentalities, the Stoic modus vivendi and the Epicurean ton trópo zoís.
Practically, all the House Major, and particularily those involved in the plot, exhibit an Epicurean way of thinking and acting, therefore I can affirm that philosophically we see the evolution of an endless conflict between the ‘Epicureans’ of House Harkonnen, and secondarily House Corrino, and, respectively, the ‘Stoics’ of Dune – the Freemen, Bene Gesserit and House Atreides -.
Why Bene Gesserit were Stoics?
Because I think that the reclusive and sober life-style of Bene Gesserit imposes its subsequent labeling as ‘Stoic’. They always made plans on long term, and the importance of an individual was reduced to her participation to the great project of the order. Their supreme scope is beyond them – the creation of Kwisatz Haderach – still, they would like to control the world through it. Their sexuality is used only in political purposes, for manipulation and for selective breeding, sometimes for both.
Rene Guegnon, the philosopher of religions that finally was converted to Islam, defined the Eastern dharmic metaphysics, in opposition with the Western Abrahamic religions, as being deprived of ethics, while retaining only the doctrine and the religious practice, that is common to both.
Following this train of thought I would say that the philosophy of life of Bene Gesserit makes its members human machines, achieving a perfect control of their bodies without having any spiritual or trans-mundane intentions.
Bene Gesserit lived non-hedonically because its purpose required this: the psychic and physical qualities had to be developed during the lifetimes of different sisters, and this was achievable only with discipline and material sacrifices.
Why Atreideses were Stoics, and not Epicureans, as all other House Major?
The House of Atreides is an exception in the picture of big families from Duniverse. I think that is not so hard to understand why Atreideses are different in a positive way. They weren’t really significant in the chessboard of power from Duniverse until they received the challenge of managing Dune, the only planet where a drug nicknamed ‘spice’ was produced. Until then they lived in the Paradise-world of Caladan, and were situated outside of the fights for power of the Houses Major. Once relocated on Dune, they preserved their system of values, while the young Atreides boy, Paul, was educated as a future warrior and general, as all the families of nobles did with their male offsprings.
Why Freemen were Stoics as well?
‘Freemen’ instead were the native inhabitants of Dune, and the extremely harsh environmental conditions of this world helped them to develop a specific behaviour and mentality. Water was scarce, and they were in a permanent war with the previous governors of the planet, the Harkonnens.
The moral virtues were essential for them, and just respecting a severe code of laws they succeeded to survive in the endless deserts of the planet. Almost everything was limited and their continuous struggle with the troops of the local government constrained them to improve their survival techniques and their combat tactics.
Also, similarly to the Romans, the preservation of a certain set of ethical values – what Romans called honesta – was necessary to their further existence. In the same way in which the Roman Republic/Empire depended on the strength of its armies, that were the result of a warlike life-style, the Freemen depended by their skills and laws for their own survival.
Obversely, why the greatest Houses were Epicureans?
At the other hand, the Houses of the Empire, especially the richest and the biggest one – the Houses Major – have a pleasurable and hedonistic life, and consequently, I assume that labeling them as ‘Epicurean’ wouldn’t be too far from objectivity. In the case of the Houses Major the happiness was always conditioned by pleasure, and the control of emotions, apatheia, could represent an obstacle on the road to happiness.
I think that the studies of Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus from Rotterdam showed that Epicureanism reflected an important common feature of the existences of Epicureans and of Christians. This characteristic is universal because all the humans are searching for happiness. Consequently, you may define the quest for spiritual pleasures of the Christians as the supreme expression of Epicureanism:

‘In plain true, there are no people more Epicurean than godly Christians!’ (Erasmus, Desiderius – The collected works of Erasmus, The Colloquies of Erasmus, The Epicurean – Epicureus, 1075, 25, University of Toronto Press, Toronto/Buffalo/London, 1997.).

Conversely, you may redefine the most prudent and modest Epicurean lives as being true samples of religious behaviour. Analyzed from the point of view of their effects, both types of virtuous life, the Christian one, and the Epicurean one – with the condition that the latter to be considered ad litteram, as the founder of the school conceived it – will lead to felicity. The arguments brought by Erasmus are packed in a rhetorical foil, but his scope was to exhibit the essential identity between the Christian and the pagan righteousness:

‘But if people which live agreeably are Epicureans, none are more truly Epicurean than the righteous and godly. And if it’s names that bother us, no one better deserves the name of Epicurean than the revered founder and head of the Christian philosophy, for in Greek ‘επικουρος’ means ‘helper’’. (Ibidem, The Epicurean – Epicureus, 1086, 10, University of Toronto Press, Toronto/Buffalo/London, 1997.).

The stance of Lorenzo Valla is even more radical in the favour of a pleasurable life as a unique way of reaching happiness, and hence virtue, as it follows from De Voluptate.
Therefore, the hedonic life-style of the Great Houses was compatible with the theism of all the local planetary societies. Actually, religion was as necessary for the huge populations of peasants, as the geriatric spice was necessary for the ruling class. The immoral behaviour of the Houses Major was hardly visible for the simple citizens, while the waiting for the Saviour prophesied by Missionaria Protectiva made any sacrifice acceptable in the eyes of the immense enduring majority.
The fact that Bene Gesserit scheduled that this future Saviour to be born in one of the noble families wasn’t a problem for the masses, a fact which makes me to infer that the real ethical nature of Houses Major was unknown to their subjects. The felicity of the latter resided, hypothetically, in witnessing the Messiah, and, effectively, in serving patiently their earls.
Maybe that Duniverse couldn’t be the theatre of a confrontation between pagans and Christians for the simple reasons that the only real theists were the serfs, which were deprived by any narrative and political significance. Hence, the dialectics of history opposes Epicureans to Stoics, qua dominant mentalities.
The Epicurean nature of this dystopian medieval society of the future was underlined by the author himself, which advanced, with the objectivity of the story-teller, a pagan theory about afterlife. The excessive consumption of spice delivered the individuals to an altered state of consciousness which sustained this odd thesis about humans’ subsistence.
More precisely, the ideology, implicit in Herbert’s writing, speaks about the perpetuated memories of the ancestors in the bodily cells of every living human: the men inherited all the male memories of their corresponding genetical line, while the women inherited all the female experience of their lines.
The absence of an absolute death, which is substituted by a sort of cellular existence, lived into the medium of the bodies of our descendants, seems to advocate a balanced life, characterized by tranquility, as the most convenient choice during our only one epi-phenomenal’ or conscious existence.
Then, why not to live fully during your own lifetime, since the after-death has a completely disjunct meaning here?
It seems that Frank Herbert’s version of the Pascalian bet justifies Epicureanism as quasi-general behavioural norm. Since in Duniverse the humans lose their consciousness after death, but not their existences as mental contents of the minds of their offsprings, it seems that the life as a living human is the supreme ontological condition and the happiest state of being. In consequence, the wisest thing to be done by a human will be to live his or her life as pleasant as possible, knowing that his or her lifetime is the only period when he or she can positively do such a thing. Trying and not succeeding to enjoy your life will signify that you are not wise or you do not have the means to exploit hedonically your lifetime, a fact that makes your life a pathetic waste of time. Choosing to live like a monk, in total opposition with the Epicurean values, will lead to a deliberate hedonic – and hence teleological – failure of your life, since you will not be rewarded posthumously by a paternal deity. Finally, living a pleasurable live due to the power of the circumstances – as is the case of the children of the Houses Major – will be the best hazardous plot of your lifetime, and wiser than the voluntary selection of a Stoic life.
Of course, to admit the righteousness of an Epicurean life no matter the destiny of a certain life implies to subscribe to Epicureanism in the same way in which a Christian- as Pascal – already believes in God when he formulates his famous bet.

Aristotle’s political theory and the doctrine of golden mean

The sacrifice made by Bene Gesserit will reveal its sublime nature when the goal toward all their efforts were directed will be reached, and the man endowed with the ability of recalling the entire experience of his species will be brought to existence.
Leto II succeeded to impress to humankind the only evolutive path which allowed its survival – this being the Herbertian meaning of the Golden Path. His leadership was necessary:

‘Leto II is an example of the ultimate consequentialist in moral thinking […] Herbert presents the ultimate challenge: is the very existence of the human beings enough to justify any means? Leto II commits atrocities on a galactic scale, all in the name of creating a human populace that will forever despise despotic rule, ensuring the continued survival of the species.’ (Nicholas, Jeffery – Dune and Philosophy: Weirding Way of the Mentat, Open Court Publishing, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois, USA, 2011, The Golden Path of Eugenics by Semler, Stephanie, p. 23.).

Apparently, the only explanation of these crimes is that they were committed for saving the rest of the humankind, the following generations, and while the atrocities remained confined to the human species – fact that is doubtful since the ecological science fiction writer Frank Herbert didn’t give us details about Freemen’s Jihad – the Golden Path may be accepted as a result of a holistic insight in the probabilistic world of sands.
The doctrine of the golden mean elaborated by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics specified that the virtue always corresponds to the intermediate state, the only one that was understood as virtuous. Virtue was a condition for happiness. Taking into account the fact that human happiness, as it was defined by Aristotle, – unlike the happiness of gods, that consisted in their alleged eternal state of contemplation, theoria, – was given by the opportunity and the equilibrium of an emotion, attitude or action, the happiest individuals were those able to live in accordance with the ethical laws and also in accordance with the laws of society, and not the most powerful ones or those which lived the fullest lives.
But what will happen when a human would have the possibility to select the golden mean for the entire species, becoming thus endowed with the power of a deity, since only the hypothetical beings called gods may have this power at their disposal? More precisely, such a human would have the liberty to choose for the entire humankind, and his subsequent choices regarding the key fields of survival, as the manner of government, the economic policy or the social system will determine the continuity of his species. In other words, a temperate policy regarding the new economical undertakings combined with the preservation of the monopoly of most valued resources and implemented by a universal hereditary absolutist monarchy may prove to be the only way to save the totality of subjects which composes the human species from an otherwise certain extinction, as was the case with the alternate history of humanity that was created for the readers of Dune’s cycle.
Assuming that such a historical scenario will be possible, then we must admit that this human, if he would make a good choice, should receive the right to be called god and his behaviour would be completely virtuous. Moreover, in spite of the confinement of the gods to the immaterial realm of contemplation – as it results also from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – a human endowed with the ability of changing the fate of the entire humanity should have effectively the dignity of a god, just that his righteousness will be exhibited through his contingent choices. Therefore, his ‘godhood’ will be seen in actu, and will not be a theoretical righteousness, as in the case of the entities which populated the mythologies of ancient Greece – the gods of Homer.
Actually, Aristotle’s theory or doctrine of the golden mean, that was formulated and exemplified in Nicomachean Ethics, impressed the whole political and ethical thinking of Aristotle. Personally, I think that the ideal political system of government from Aristotle’s political and moral philosophy was a political consequence of his theory of golden mean.
More precisely, as it follows from Politics III.7, we have three types of good, desirable or virtuous systems of government with their corresponding unjust or decayed forms: monarchy (kinship) and tyranny; aristocracy and oligarchy; polity and democracy.
Aristotle is an advocate of the aristocracy – and the spirit of the concept is shared by both main thinkers of European classical antiquity, Plato and Aristotle : for both of them aristocracy is defined as being the rule of the most virtuous citizens, and is recommended as the finest mundane hypostatis of a state (polis). Still, while for Aristotle oligarchy is the deviant form of aristocracy, for Plato oligarchy represents the byproduct of timocracy, hence it is an indirect decayed form of the ideal democracy.
The next pair of systems from the political philosophy of Aristotle is monarchy – tyranny, that speaks about the cases – not so common in the increasingly liberal Greece from the age of the thinker from Stagira – in which the political power was concentrated in the hands of a single individual or of a dynasty that exerted the control over the country – monarchy – and which may decay and become a tyranny, as in the cases in which the king didn’t respect at all the wishes and the needs of his subjects.
Finally, we have the pair polity – democracy, where the first term denoted a system of government in which the politics were realized and implemented by the middle class, while the latter described a state where the leadership belonged to the poor, that represented the biggest majority of the population. Considering these depictions of the systems of government from the point of view of an ancient Greek – which lived in a time when, as in the whole world in fact, the huge majority of the people was poor – I can say that Aristotle’s notion of polity – that was alien to Plato, which classified the political systems only in five types – equals approximately with Plato’s democracy, where all the free citizens were able to express their vote, – while Aristotle’s political concept of democracy equals rather with the more modern concept of anarchy.
As we may see, the method used by Aristotle to classify the political systems was determined by the criterion of the number of the citizens involved in the act of government. In consequence, we have states ruled by a single man – monarchies and tyrannies -, by a few individuals or families – aristocracies and oligarchies -, or by virtually everybody (that mattered) as in the case of polities, or by everybody in the absolute sense, as in democracies. Again, the golden mean or the ideal government seems to be realized by the political structure located in the middle in accordance with the quantitative criterion, that meaning that the society preferred by Aristotle is aristocracy. Is not insignificant the fact that aristocracy – the government of the best, aristoi – corresponds to Plato’s virtuous aristocracy, whose utopic state from Politeia was ruled by the most noble by nature inhabitants, the philosophers-kings, but which technically was an aristocracy, since the virtuousity of a citizen was appraised from his or her early childhood.
It is almost unnecessary to say that ‘the government of the few’ or ‘the leadership of a socio-political class’ – that corresponds to the golden mean – is nearer to kingship and tyranny than to the more ‘populist’ pair polity – democracy. Aristocracy represents the intermediate political system, and hence it will appear to be the best type of state in a literal interpretation of the theory of golden mean. Aristotle conceives three types of virtuous systems, and aristocracy is placed, quantitatively speaking, in the middle. Therefore, aristocracy will correspond to the virtue because will be more likely that the most ethical citizens of a polis – the best – to be significantly fewer than the entire middle class, which represents polity. Also, the aristoi will be more than one, which is the number of the monarch. This seems to be a clear case where the point of equilibrium is located near to the negative limit (or near to the defect’s edge) than to the excess’ edge, as was also the case with some of the examples provided by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics.
According to Aristotle, this fact occurs because the humans have the tendency to listen some propensities that either are:

‘drawn from the thing itself; either are drawn from ourselves; for the things to which we ourselves more naturally tend seem more contrary to the intermediate.’ (Aristotle – Nicomachean Ethics, II.).

As an effect, the golden mean may be established by the common sense as being located either to the right or to the left to the ‘geometrical center’ of a given ethical situation. Actually, the mathematically ideal ‘geometrical center’ of a concrete state with moral implications will remain in most of the cases just an abstract measure, since our contingent choices will establish the golden mean, in its quality of a moral paradigm, almost always in a different place than the geometrical center.
We have situations in which the so-called golden mean is placed either to the left or to the right of the geometrical center not only because of our nature, but mainly due to the nature of the thing itself, as in the case of courage, whose qualification as golden mean depends both by the moral beauty of the attitude and by our own moral and physiological constitution, which already determine us to label courage as being a special disposition, an effect of the virtuous nature of our character – although representing normality – reason for why is though considered as an intermediate state. In the case of courage its upper limit, bravery, seems to be nearer to it than its lower limit, cowardice.
Of course, applying the doctrine of golden mean to the three possible good or natural systems of government of Aristotle we will see that aristocracy will be located in the middle, having a preeminent place, fact that may be explained both philosophically – in accordance with Aristotle’s political theory – and empirically – since the most political systems of antiquity were constituted by a limited number of individuals, only sometimes by just one king, and rarer by a relatively extended middle class, as in the case of polity.
The Aristotelian literary sources suggest us an emergency preference of the Stagirit for polity – the rule of the moderately rich middle class – and he even presents a justification for the eligibility of a system led by this category:

‘because those who possess the goods of fortune in moderation find it easiest to obey the rule of reason’ (Aristotle – Politika, IV, 11, 1295 b4-6.).

Polity will be desired when the ideal virtuousity of aristocracy will not be tangible. In its quality of ‘the second-best state’, polity stands, as its turn, as a golden mean between oligarchy and democracy. It is interesting that polity is placed in the middle using two different criteria, wealth, which is primarily a qualitative criterion, and the demographics, which is obviously a quantitative criterion, but with clear axiological implication. The richest citizens will be always less numerous than the moderately rich, which, at their turn, will be less numerous than the poor.

‘Golden Path’ and its inherent earthly (real) philosophical back-ground

– the necessity of evil

All the readers of Frank Herbert’s Dune know that the political system that sustained the trans-galactic society of our alternate distant future was a quasi-feudal organization of local societies – the so-called system of ‘faufreluches’ – while at the global level the hereditary monarchy that ruled the entire Known Universe – which firstly belonged to House of Corrino and after about 10.000 standard years was transfered to House Atreides – it became, probably from the time of the first Emperors, a de facto tyranny.
It was quite clear that the oligarchy decayed after a time in tyranny, and that the further decisions made by Atreides Emperors didn’t generate a change of the type of the political system. In accordance with the human nature, whose socio-psychological laws and tendencies were reflected by the evolution of Dune’s plot, something that initially was intended to be an aristocracy became an oligarchy – or a plutocracy – and shortly afterwards collapsed into a tyranny, stage where remained nailed for ages.
Of course, the purpose of Golden Path instrumented by Leto II Atreides was to save humanity, and not to offer a readable political theory. But if we would try to analyze its consequences from the perspective provided by the historical forms of government from the real world then we will easily see that the natural evolution of these systems of government is shared by those from Duniverse. Leto II Atreides used a morally unacceptable system, the tyranny, to lead humankind toward the only road that allowed its survival.
Insofar as the course of events determined by aforementioned Golden Path has achieved its aim – and it seems that at least this assertion can not denied since the cycle of Dune continues long after the death of the last Emperor – I may say that Golden Path was Leto’s political golden mean, since all the other ways of managing the Universe would had led to the extinction of the human species, and hence they should correspond to vice, all of them incarnating as many instances of failure.
Therefore, from a consequentialist and pragmatist point of view, the tyrannical way of leading the world that was chosen by Leto II was the only virtuous modality adequate for performing this task, and the fictional history may prove the truthfulness of this conclusion.
Analyzing the history of most of the major states from antiquity and Middle Ages, as Macedonian Empire, Persian Empires, Mongol Empire, Ottoman Empire we may see that the political success of all these ‘extended countries’ has relied in good part on the existence of a powerful leader, an autocrat, which gave unity and stability to the trans-national political structure. Implicitly, the quasi-tyrannical epoch of all these states represented the most memorable part of their history, as in the case of the ancient Greek poleis, whose political peak of success was accomplished by the Empire of Alexander the Great, and not by the democracy from Athens, neither by the military timocracy from Sparta. Also, nor the Buddhist short-lived democracy, nor the contemporary corrupted oligarchy, but only the extremely harsh rule of Genghis Han has ensured functionality to the Mongol state.
I am not saying that dictatorship is a good system of government, but I am asserting that there were instances in the history of our species when this type of rule produced positive effects for certain countries. It seems that, empirically speaking, these were cases in which tyranny constituted the golden mean. Of course, the examples don’t include the most progressive states – usually they speak about demographical powers whose inhabitants live from memories – but at least they gave us reasons to explain the practical rationality that lies behind the Golden Path of Leto Atreides.
Indeed, the political decisions made by Leto Atreides didn’t concern the domain of intellect, because wasn’t practical to neglect the inter-planetary businesses as he did maintaining his subjects in a medieval social system – all the Houses Major were labeled, in Dune Dictionary, as being ‘inter-planetary undertakers’ -, neither to bear a bloody war of religious conversion – which was in fact a political subordination – with the entire mapped Universe. Also, the decisions done by the last Emperor didn’t concern the domain of speculative reason, since Freemen’s and Bene Gesserit’s god was as human as the nuns which sang the Litany against fear, while his prescience was conditioned by the overdoses of a drug. Similarly, the choices of Leto II didn’t concern the faculty of judgment, since the only art mastered by humanity of that age it was the art of politics.
Leto Atreides wanted to save his species, and hence he applied the most suited policy to achieve this scope. Definitely, his categorical imperative was changed drastically when he realized that his purpose is not every human, as an end in himself or herself, but the humanity as a whole, thereby a simple individual may be sacrificed in the same way in which a man spends all his talents to buy the house of his life.
In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that happiness – eudaimonia – is the supreme aim of our lives, being the only condition that is desirable per se and that has an intrinsic value. Basically, all other scopes and ends are subordinated and relative to this supreme purpose, only happiness or felicity can not be a mean for a higher and a different end, excepting a bigger happiness. In other words, happiness may be overcame only by itself, being true that we may have different ways or degrees of happiness, but not that we may have things more precious than happiness, at least this is what follows from the moral doctrine of Aristotle.
At the other hand, is quite clear that this entire psychology of emotions would had been useless without some sentient subjects able to provide the empirical material for the entire discussion. In any hypothetical case in which humanity as a whole would be subjected to the risk of extinction the objective of survival should offer to the humans the highest possible pleasure, becoming even a condition for any further happiness.
In consequence, I think that I have the right to say that the path of survival which was chosen by Leto II Atreides had the highest hedonic value, and had given to the people the biggest conceivable felicity and also constituted the most natural deed, since the main purpose of every living thing is to survive.
Still, may be perplexing the fact that a tyranny was able to constitute the basis for the most Epicurean life-styles, and that it was also capable to have the moral virtues that were familiar to the philosophers from Stoa.
I think that the edge-case exposed by Frank Herbert within the pages of his saga has showed us that in some peculiar circumstances the tyranny may give to the people the chance of living their lives as they would like – once the tyranny itself faded and died, as an already unnecessary political device of history, – and to be in the same time the noblest living paradigm of honestum, despite of its apparent lack of righteousness, which relegated it to the level of the vices in the overwhelming majority of the historical instances.
Although I do not think that Frank Herbert was influenced somehow by Aristotle’s moral and political philosophy, I think that the comparison that was just performed by me between the theory of golden mean from Nicomachean Ethics and Leto II Atreides’ Golden Path makes sense.
The point of equilibrium of the human species was reached within the clearly outlined frames of tyranny, while the supreme aim of the government was to ensure the survival of the species, and not necessarily a pleasant present life, but a certain future for the descendants of the Imperial subjects. The present good has became secondary when compared with the projected higher good of the survival of the race. Here we can see a zone of convergence between Stoicism and Epicureanism, since the classification of ‘goods’ and ‘evils’ relatively to a given contingent context and to its expected evolution in time certainly bears an Epicurean mark.
But taking into account the means used to reach this ‘happiness of survival’ I would rather say that both the character Leto II Atreides and his trans-galactic policy have mainly Stoic features. Definitely, Epicureans never thought that they themselves – and not some nickel or copper men from the immemorial past – have to sacrifice their pleasures and even their freedom for the sake of their distant descendants, but at most they accepted times of austerity for a future personal prosperity or a happy and short life rather than a longer and painful one.
The Stoics from God – Emperor of Dune have rather Christian shades. In a poetic way, after the twilight of the idol, Leto II, humanity reaches its parousia and receives the right for a new life.
Since the process of saving humankind overlapped the entire life of Leto II and of so many generations of his subjects it would be extremely difficult to say that the Duniverse from God – Emperor of Dune preserved its Epicurean shades from the first book of the cycle, Dune.
Of course, the highest good conceived and applied by Leto II wasn’t moral virtue, but the noble aim of survival, which implied a series of decisions and sacrifices.

General conclusions

Although is not presented as a conflict of ideas or of philosophical schools, the dispute between Atreideses and Freemen, on the one side, and Harkonnens, on the other, corresponds clearly to the dialectic tension between Stoic and Epicurean philosophies.
In an essentially immoral world the most ethically valuable individual proves to be the one able to ensure the survival of his species:

‘This violence spurs us on in mutual war until someone emerges with the power and authority to force peace upon us. Hobbes calls this figure Leviathan. Herbert portrays him most elegantly as Leto II.’ (Ibidem A Universe of Bastards, by Butkus, Matthew A., p. 76.).

At the other hand, peace, that marked almost the entire period of rule of Leto II, is a good in itself, and the most of the societies that aren’t structured on the basis of Roman or medieval Mongol principles regarded the peace as a desirable and positive condition.
It would be tempting to say that the peace brought by the autocratic regime of Leto II was an archetypal expression of an ancient human demand, and Frank Herbert himself was inclined to conceive the reign of his hero in a static political background, as in an idealized historical fresco, whose beauty consists in what can be glimpsed above the arched vaults of the cathedral, and not necessarily in the mural painting itself.
It is quite clear that a peaceful political climate should be more appropriate for the accomplishment of the Stoic peaceful inner state, providing an adequate environment for the tranquility of the mind and the righteousness of the life, and precisely this was ensured by the tyranny of Leto II.
Trying to appreciate the philosophy that is immanent in the cycle of Frank Herbert – and even sometimes sparkles above the surface of the lexical tissues taking the shape of the koan-like sentences and phrases, extracted from a fictional library, – it would be easy to see that the Stoic samples of philosophy belong to the big creators and moral fighters of the saga, Atreideses, the Freemen people and Bene Gesserit nuns, while the main exponents of the Epicurean philosophy are usually the negative characters and group of interests: the Harkonnens, House of Corrino or the Spacing Guild.
Consequently, the practitioners of the hedonic life-styles aren’t creators, they just benefiting from an already existing system. But, as real history has showed to us, these behaviours are opportunistic, they being possible only within the confines of a stable political and economical system. Even in the case of the ancient Rome, Epicureanism flourished when Rome started to emerge as a military power, although Carthage wasn’t yet defeated, and the most important, the Epicurean way of thinking enhanced its importance as the time passed and the power of Rome became unchallengeable. The Epicureanism started to define a certain mentality, which was criticized by Petronius, in Satyricon, and which finally led to the decline of Rome.
Stoicism instead was by far more popular and was represented by a bigger number of thinkers. Although Stoicism wasn’t directly connected with the policy of Rome, it perfectly expressed the mentality of the citizens of the ancient Rome. As long as Rome was a healthy culture, and not a decadent Empire, the writings of the Stoics had their customers in the same way in which the dialogues of Plato had their own target audience in their own era.
If the core of the definition of virtue, as was understood by the father of Stoicism, Chrysippus, is ‘virtue is the ability to differentiate good from evil’, then both Atreides Emperors, but especially the son, Leto II, are excellent paradigms or human embodiments of a virtuous life.
Though, it would be important to note that Herbert’s heroes, Paul and Leto II Atreides, are active figures, they are acting and fighting for the future, trying to change those paths that aren’t adequate to their will, that endanger humanity, therefore they adopt an attitude contrary to the serene apatheia of the Stoics, despite of their virtuous lives, that value and appreciate a non-hedonistic happiness, precisely as the Stoics did:

‘So what his Atreides heroes do? Like all the good heroes, they act. No Stoic calmess of mind and imperturbability for them. They foresee the possibilities for the future, they see also which are become more or less probable as they act, they try to steer the course of the history in the direction they want. As oracles, they have a small amount of freedom, to raise the chances whichever possibilities they prefer to happen will happen.’ (Ibidem – Son of the Curse of the Golden Path, by Gates-Scovelle, Sam, p. 217.).

Although it wasn’t intended as a philosophical debate, neither as a literally Academic dialectic dispute, nor as a Scholastic medieval prosaic controversy, nor as a modern university confrontation of divergent ideas, when it is analyzed philosophically the saga of Dune reveals an ideological tension – maybe not so unfamiliar for a neoHegelian – that corresponds to the syncretic ideas of antiquity that were proliferate in the early Middle Age and gave a little bit of colour to the sombre doctrines of medieval theosophia, for achieving a better expression in the more intellectual environment of Renaissance.


Herbert, Frank – Dune, Collection Nautilus SF, NEMIRA Publishing House, Bucharest, 1995, 2005, 2 vol.,
Herbert, Frank – Dune Messiah, Collection Nautilus SF, NEMIRA Publishing House, Bucharest, 1996, 2005,
Herbert, Frank – Children of Dune, Collection Nautilus SF, NEMIRA Publishing House, Bucharest, 1997, 2012, 2 vol.,
Herbert, Frank- The God Emperor of Dune, Collection Nautilus SF, NEMIRA Publishing House, Bucharest, 1998, 2013,
Herbert, Frank – Heretics of Dune, Collection Nautilus SF, NEMIRA Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999, 2013,
Herbert, Frank – Chapter House of Dune, Collection Nautilus SF, NEMIRA Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999, 2013;

Aristotle – Ethica Nicomachea, Scientifical and Encyclopedical Publishing House, Bucharest, 1988/ IRI Publishing House, Bucharest, 1998;

The Epicurus Reader – Hacket Publishing Company, Inc, Indianapolis/Cambridge;

Erasmus, Desiderius – Collected Works of Erasmus, Spiritualia, Enchiridion, De Contemptu Mundi, De Vidua Christiana, ed. by John W. O’ Malley – University of Toronto Press, Toronto/ Buffalo/ London, 1997;

Long, A, A. & Sedley, D. N. – The Hellenistic Philosophers, vol. I: Translations of the Principal Sources with Philo- Sophical Commentary, Cambridge University Press, 1987;

Nicholas, Jeffery – Dune and Philosophy: Weirding Way of the Mentat, Open Court Publishing, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois, USA, 2011, the chapters: Paul Atreides, the Nietschean Hero by Roy Jackson; Son of the Curse of the Golden Path, by Sam Gates-Scovelle; Friedrich Nietzsche Goes to Space by Brook W. R. Pearson; Shifting Sand, Shifting Balance by Louis Melancon; A Universe of Bastards by Matthew A. Butkus; The Golden Path of Eugenics by Stephanie Semler;

Plato (Aristocles) – Politeia, Collection Universitas, Teora Publishing House, Bucharest, 1998, 2.vol.;

Valla, Lorenzo – On Pleasure – De Voluptate, The University of Chicago Press.

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