Human Dignity and the Politics of Dune

Dune: Part Two is a blockbuster worthy of the name. Earning over $200 million dollars so far at the box office, it is the highest-grossing film of 2024, and proof that, in the era of superhero film fatigue—as well as the failure of storytelling that characterized Disney’s Star Wars trilogy—there is a real opening to attract audiences with new and interesting stories and adaptations in the space opera genre. Frank Herbert’s son Brian argued that Dune is to science fiction as Lord of the Rings is to fantasy, which naturally invites a comparison of the film adaptations. It is similar in ambition and scale to the original LOTR films. Dune is an epic that sprawls multiple worlds, brought to life with powerful performances and eye-candy visuals (aided by CGI that, unlike much of The Hobbit trilogy, doesn’t detract from but enhances the story), and a heart-thrumming soundtrack. Another comparison that comes to mind is more remarkable: how conservative, in many of the best senses of that term, the film is. I shall focus here on the themes of human dignity, faith and reason, and political faith.

Human Dignity

The film conveys a message about the dignity of human life from conception until death. Early in Dune: Part Two, the protagonist Paul Atreides and his pregnant mother are refugees on the harsh desert world of Arrakis, their house having been wiped out in a sneak attack by their enemies, the Harkonnens. Paul asks his mother how “she” is doing, gesturing toward her tummy. A member of the shadowy Bene Gesserit order, with preternatural abilities that include the ability to determine the sex of her children at conception, Lady Jessica replies that her unborn daughter is fine. She also refers to her as Paul’s sister. It is assumed as a matter of course that the unborn child occupies objective roles such as daughter and sister and is tied by the bonds of duty and love to her siblings and parents.

As the story progresses so does Jessica’s pregnancy, and the audience sees Paul’s fully human sister develop with striking visuals inside the womb, portraying Alia from her embryonic to later stages. At one point on the threat of death, Lady Jessica is forced to ingest a poisonous substance that the Fremen call the “Water of Life,” which sends her into life-threatening convulsions. But the Fremen did not know she was pregnant. When they realize they unwittingly endangered the baby girl, they lament: What have we done!?

Rarely has the silver screen featured such a powerful, if subtle, moral condemnation of chemically-induced abortion. Dune sends a clear message that human life has dignity from the moment of conception.

Fortunately, Lady Jessica’s unborn daughter Alia survives, and the substance imparts new powers to her and the child. Lady Jessica even converses with her unborn daughter, who becomes endowed with the Bene Gesserit preternatural ability to communicate telepathically. While this serves to further the plot and deepen the mysteriousness of the Bene Gesserit, it also underscores that Alia is a person, radically capable of thought and choice.

If the Fremen clearly recognize the dignity of nascent human life, they also treat their dead with a special dignity. Every dead Freman undergoes an elaborate religious ritual that returns his body to the desert, and his water to the tribe. Using a pump system, the body is emptied of its water, which is then poured into a sacred pool inside of a sort of massive underground cathedral, which is never to be drunk from nor disturbed, even if one is dying of thirst. In the book, as Jessica observes the Fremen’s religious ritual, she reflects: “The meeting between ignorance and knowledge, between brutality and culture—it begins in the dignity with which we treat our dead.”

The ceremony contrasts starkly with how the Fremen treat their dead enemies, whose bodies are suctioned for their water to be used for mundane purposes and then burnt. But this action is not praised—indeed, Lady Jessica vomits when she witnesses this. As we are taught in the epic literary tradition, of which the Iliad’s account of the contest over Patroclus’ and Hector’s dead bodies is one of the greatest examples, there is a perennial temptation among men at war to desecrate the bodies of their fallen enemies.

Faith and Reason

The power of faith and the pitfalls of fanaticism are also central themes of the film. In the previous film, we learned that for centuries the Bene Gesserit have been carefully cultivating bloodlines in the hope of bringing about the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic figure with a supernatural mind that can “bridge space and time” and lead man toward a better future. Before Paul’s arrival on Arrakis, the Bene Gesserit order had already planted the seeds of prophecy, preaching a forthcoming savior, the Lisan al Gaib. Lady Jessica seizes upon this, and fans the flames of this message to convert nonbelievers. One of the mysteries of the film is whether the prophecies are merely manmade lies to serve the interests of the Bene Gesserit or if there is actually some higher, more-than-human invisible cause orchestrating events, including the breeding program.

Brian Herbert argues that the Bene Gesserit (whose dress appears similar to the nun’s habit) were inspired by his father’s eight Irish Catholic aunts who apparently tried to “force” Catholicism on him when he was a child. How? It may be that Herbert saw his Catholic aunts through a Machiavellian lens and this is echoed (for example) in the Bene Gesserit’s so-called Missionaria Protectiva (MP), a Machiavellian use of religion. The MP are legends and prophecies preached across the galaxy about the Bene Gesserit that would benefit and protect a Bene Gesserit Sister if she ever found herself in need. And yet, many Fremen prophecies are sufficiently elaborate and detailed that they seem to go beyond the needs of the MP, indicating a possible supernatural origin.

Of peoples who succumb to fideistic and rationalistic political faiths, it must be said with the prophet Hosea: “They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.”

Pauls’ love interest and teacher in the Fremen ways, Chani, takes a Machiavellian view of things. From her perspective, the tales are manmade lies and the tools of those interested in power. For, she reasons, when the people expect a savior, they wait instead of rising up against their oppressors. On the other hand, the unquestioning faith of the fundamentalist is most dangerous when it is concentrated in the savior, who then becomes their master and a despot.

For his part, Paul also does not view himself as a messianic figure. He hesitates to “go South,” where millions of fundamentalists await to crown him and fight for him, precisely because he foresees the potential for mass death that a holy war would unleash.

Meanwhile, Paul’s mentor-turned-disciple, Stilgar represents the perspective of faith. While he has witnessed Paul’s humanity, he also sees signs of divinity or a divine mission. Lady Jessica’s survival was thought by Stilgar to be a miracle proving Paul is the Lisan al Gaib. But Paul points out, honestly, that her Bene Gesserit training is the reason she survived, not a miracle. Stilgar rationalizes that the Lisan al Gaib is too humble to proclaim he is the Lisan al Gaib, further proving that he is—suggesting fideism, a sort of excessive or blind faith unresponsive to reason.

But Chani’s cool skepticism, a sort of excessive reason or rationalism closed off to the possibility of faith, is also chastened. As far as we know, no man has ever survived ingesting the Water of Life. When Paul drinks, he arrives at death’s door, and Jessica reports that he will not return unless Chani saves him. It was said that the tears of desert spring would revive the Lisan al Gaib, and Chani reveals to Paul that her secret name, Sihaya, means “desert spring” and refers to a prophecy she has no faith in. In spite of herself, Chani then becomes an indispensable instrument of fulfillment of a prophecy she has known intimately since childhood because it was her namesake. In this case, no rational explanation invoking the Bene Gesserit’s meddling, to bring about such a serendipitous set of circumstances to fulfill such a fine-grained portent, is offered.

Nonetheless, Chani remains steadfast in her Machiavellian belief that all events are explicable in terms of mere secondary causes, vying with one other. Stilgar’s pious interpretation of this event seems more reasonable. Might it actually be a miracle, a sign of some higher, orchestrating first cause? The pious and the impious alike can agree that at least some persons who have claimed to speak for God or the gods have been spinners of lies, lunacy, or legend. And yet, could not an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent First Cause work through such secondary causes, even in spite of themselves? As Herbert wrote in an Appendix to Dune, might not there have been a “higher plan” of which even the Bene Gesserit “were completely unaware”?

Hence, Dune suggests there is a need to balance faith and reason to avoid the pitfalls of fideism and rationalism. This is a deeply conservative religious message. When these two pitfalls manifest themselves in politics, bad outcomes follow.

Political Faiths 

There have been many false messiahs in human history, who seek to instrumentalize faith to the end of temporal power. One telltale sign is that they promise to build paradise on earth. Dune teaches us how powerful this temptation is. Arrakis is a desert planet that is said to have once been a world with water and trees. The promise of the savior is precisely that he will restore Arrakis into a lush and green paradise. Not unlike Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Paul goes south at least partly out of apparent necessity to preserve himself and his friends. However reluctant he once was, he thereby embraces the role of political messiah, and promises to lead the Fremen to paradise, in spite of the horrors he foresees.

Dune thus teaches us something true about the fate of all political faiths. Ancient political faiths (including the pagans’ faith in their patron gods and the Jews’ faith in their patron Jehovah), modern, rationalistic political faiths (including fascism and communism), some versions of Islam, and contemporary demagogic cults of personality ultimately instrumentalize faith to the temporal common good. And they all end, as they must, in disappointment, because a merely human king can provide only temporal goods, and no earthly good can sate the desire for eternity that is in man’s heart.

In our fractured constitutional republic, more and more Americans across the political spectrum are questioning republicanism. Substantial portions of Democrats and Republicans believe that our republican system is no longer viable and alternatives should be explored. Hence, as Joseph Holmes points out, more and more Americans are flirting with tyranny, understood as “raw power to effect change.” Dune’s conservative teaching is that the cult of personality and its telltale signs of demagoguery and millenarist scheming are dangerous and, implicitly, that political moderation, prudential compromise, and incremental change should be prized in politics. The temptation to imbue even the most attractive personages with raw power, unconstrained by constitutional norms and the rule of law, should be resisted. Even if the political messiah can successfully implement the desired changes, he will inevitably unleash innumerable furies. Of peoples who succumb to fideistic and rationalistic political faiths, it must be said with the prophet Hosea: “They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.”

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