The characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune have bothered me for quite some time. You see, there’s an early comment in the work that few people become truly human. So, the theme of what Herbert thinks that it means to be truly human intrigued me. By page 350, the answer to the question “What is a true human being?” seems to be that a true human being is one who masters his passions and emotions through reason and will. That’s not bad, especially considering that modern society has a tendency to place passion and emotion above reason, which leads to moderns making foolish decisions. (As may be reasonably expected.) Passions and emotions will more often than not tell one to do the wrong thing unless one has so educated them that they bolster the rational course of action. Sometimes, one only accomplishes the rational thing because one’s will has the push of passions and emotion behind them (e.g. defending an innocent person from calumny even though it costs us esteem); but, this does not change the fact that passion and emotion are usually unreliable in differentiating between right and wrong.
However, Herbert’s characters almost seem hyper-rational. I am reminded of Descartes’s image of man as a mind in a machine. However, Dune‘s characters are focused on the body and the tangible for the most part. Our heroes are preeminently concerned with survival–whether surviving the deserts of Arrakis, escaping Harkonnen attacks, or seeking to gain enough power to end the Harkonnen threat forever. But, why do they want to survive? What makes their lives so worth living? Revenge? Power? In that case, what separates them from the villains in terms of motivations? Doubtless, the Atreides have justice on their side because they have been assaulted by Harkonnens while they wished to live in peace. But, what is the point of their justice? To promote peace, I suppose; but that leads to the question of why peace is preferable to war among people motivated by the quest for power?
My gripe with Paul and Jessica might be summed up in these words of C. S. Lewis: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Neither Paul, Jessica, nor any of the good guys have friends! All their associates are useful to them in some way except in the case of Jessica, her husband, and Paul. And even among the three of them, we discern parts of their relationships which feel utilitarian! They may be honorable, good, and reasonable people, but they appear the less human for all that–and the less good. After all, bad people can only have relationships of utility! What does it say about our heroes when they don’t have proper friendships with other people–friendships based on enjoying another’s personality and virtue?
Frank Herbert gets many things right about living as a true human being–but he misses too much in forsaking the heart for the sake of the head. How much value does living have without love?