The Philosophy of DUNE

Posted: April 18, 2014 in Books, Integral Studies, Philosophical Debris, Reviews

Two events have coincided to produce this post.

The first was visiting the Philosophy section of a book store with a friend and noticing that there was a whole section devoted to “The Philosophy of …”, the usual things including stuff like Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Walking Dead, Ender’s Game …  You get the idea.  Oddly there was no “Philosophy of Hamlet or Wurthering Heights”, although Sinefeld and The Simpsons made it.  I find that there is often a philosophical connotation attached to Science Fiction and Fantasy/Horror.  This is probably because these genres challenge human nature in ways that bring forward philosophical ideas and speculations moreso than will Mystery or straight Fiction.  That’s not to sideline Hamlet or War & Peace, or even more current authors like Marquez or Rushdie, but I find that speculative fiction is often more conducive to a popular treatment of philosophy.

The second thing was starting to read Mentats of Dune, the new contribution to the epic Dune series.  The current releases are written by the original author’s son, Brian Herbert (along with Kevin Anderson), but the original work by Frank Herbert, simply titled Dune, is arguably one of the best Science Fiction books ever written.  I think it holds its own quite well among Fiction books in general.

And so I wondered whether there was a “Philosophy of Dune” book out there anywhere.  Turns out that there is, but glancing through the table of contents it just doesn’t seem to concern itself with the same topics that I’d be likely to emphasize.

Frank Herbert’s Dune (1966) undoubtedly was one of the most profound influences on me in my teenage years, and that influence has stuck.  As I’ve reread the novel in later years I was genuinely surprised to recognize the themes that were an integral part of my outlook, and how so many new ideas dovetailed nicely into the old ones.  To properly explain the full range of philosophical ideas present in Dune would easily take 40 or 50 pages.  Maybe one day I’ll do, but right now I just want to touch on them

Dune is very much about trying to define what it means to be human.  At the very beginning of the story the main character, Paul, is given a test to see whether he is a human or an animal.  The Bene Gesserit represent the definition, having mastered themselves through self discipline on all of the levels of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.  Other special groups within the book exemplify each level separately.   The Swordsmen have the perfect physical control and discipline of warriors.  The Mentats have the intellectual discipline and skill.  All struggle with a mastery over emotion, although the B.G. are most proficient at using it.  Awareness and transcendent forms of consciousness are important parts of the definition as well.

The Space Guild Navigators bring into the story the nature of cosmic reality and it’s relationship to consciousness.  Given the new discoveries and theories in Quantum Cosmology, these ideas were well ahead of their time.

Many questions of political philosophy are raised in Dune, such as the merits of an aristocratic vs a democratic government.  It also demonstrates clearly the different styles of leadership, which can find correspondence to different levels of social evolution as described in Spiral Dynamics.  The egocentric style of the Harkonnens (Red) is opposed to the more pluralistic or even “Integral” style of the Atreides.  A lot of the characterization around the Atriedes characteristics revolve around the nature of being honorable and what that means.

The spice in the novel is a metaphor for oil in our own world situation.  The scarcity of a critical substance translates into power.  Related to that are the many environmental lessons of Dune.  I’m sure that reading Dune fostered my own environmental leanings.  The importance of the environment, maintaining its balance, and the life lessons which can be learned from a close connection and love of the land are all central to the novel, personified in the form of the Freemen.

The Butlerian Jihad was one of the first treatments of the dangers of AI domination over humanity. Skynet and all of the other paranoid scenarios around AI didn’t arise for another two decades.

The idea of cellular memory in both the Mother Superiors of the B.G. and in the Tleilax gholas is particularly interesting giving some of the recent genetic research which is starting to demonstrate a strong relationship between environmental events and genetic transference.  This isn’t going to lead to memory of past genetic lives or anything like what the B.G. experience in the novel, but the idea is still a fascinating idea.

Getting back to and ending with the idea of the definition of human nature, Paul Ateides to me was a hero who combined fine breeding with excellent training, a challenging and fulfilling relationship with his environment, a family that valued the highest ideals of character, and a mystical experience that allowed him to transcend and integrate it all.  To me Philosophy is essentially examining the nature of reality and determining how to use that in order to best live our lives.  Dune was, to me, a powerful force in developing both of those things.

NOTE:  Both Dune movies don’t come anywhere close to offering the same thinks as the novel does.  Do not try to infer anything about the book from the films. 


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