The Philosopher King


Like millions of sci-fi fans around the world, I consider Dune by Frank Herbert to be the seminal work in the genre. I’ve only read a handful of books that I’ve enjoyed as much and absolutely none from which I learned more. The breadth and complexity of the topics explored in Dune are amazing; indeed, though its universe is ideally suited for the silver screen, capturing it in a way that is true to Herbert’s work has proven to be a challenge that has only yielded limited success.

The themes in the book regarding politics and economics are the ones that have had the most impact on me. The basic concept of an idea being shaped by its environment was one of the most powerful. Consider the idea of liberal democracy; it seems intuitive and pretty much expected that it is the ideal form of government for our world. But is it? Consider the persistent vigor of totalitarianism, even in the face of its numerous spectacular failures. It is an idea that seems to be shaped largely by its environment. Liberal democracies tend to work better when there is far less societal “noise,” such as when populations are low and largely homogeneous and there is little bureaucratic overhead. However, when populations and bureaucracies increase, it becomes far more difficult for consensus to be reached and common goals to be achieved. From those seeds, totalitarianism often seems to spring. Consider the U.S.’s lurching move in that direction with Donald Trump. Considering the growing ineffectiveness of its government to serve a growingly diverse constituency, it’s only rational that, to maintain some semblance of stability, it would shift to the greater efficiency of simpler, non-nuanced ideas emanating from a charismatic, simple man.

Frank Herbert explored the concept of environment shaping ideas in several profound ways. One was the Imperium itself; it wasn’t an arbitrary choice on Herbert’s part to set his story in a feudal monarchy, it was a logical extrapolation based on the history he invented for the civilization as well as the reality of an economically integrated society. Consider our own globalized world: since the fall of Communism, the United States and its President are the apex of a system of nation-states that, at least for awhile, were becoming far more interdependent. Conspiracy theorists have long posited on the concept of a “New World Order” in the form of a unified global government but such an idea, at least conceptually, isn’t that far-fetched. As oligarchs and plutocrats exert more influence on the politics of countries, particularly in a world in which economies are becoming far more integrated, the idea of the nation-state becomes redundant. However, as long as our current economic and political structure allows for distortions that facilitate the accumulation and increased control of power and wealth, it will continue to exist in its current form.

But consider the political structure of Dune; the Padishah Emperor was engaged in a perpetual stalemate with his feudal lords, the Great Houses of the Landsraad. The Sardaukar, the Emperor’s army, was evenly matched with those of the complete Landsraad, ensuring mutual destruction in the event of civil war. While not completely similar, I see the same stalemate between those with political power versus those with economic power right now. The plutocrats may control wealth but the politicians have the monopoly of force. As time goes on, the struggle between those with “hard” power (force) and “soft” power (wealth) seems to favor those with the soft power. Indeed, governments across the globe seem to have placed the interests of the wealthy above everyone else. As long as the two forms of power have common interests, the system works in a symbiosis. However, inevitably, their combined goals always seem to diverge from those of the greater population.

The way I see it, fascism, the combination of both forms of power into a unified entity, is a natural result simply because it is more efficient. Another natural result is dynastic wealth, the need and practice of passing wealth to one’s progeny; this is consistent with genetic and Darwinian competition. In Dune, both of these phenomena take the form of feudalism, which itself is a product of the vastness of the Imperium. A feudal monarchy is likely the only way an economically integrated society or group of societies could exist over such a vast expanse, particularly one featuring thousands of worlds. Democracy simply would be far too inefficient as the bureaucratic overhead would be phenomenal. The same dynamic plays out in Star Wars as well. It’s easy to witness the same phenomena in our own history; it consistently shows a tendency for force, power, and wealth to consolidate with attempts then to preserve and enforce that consolidation hereditarily. It is likely that, should that consolidation ever truly come to fruition, the end result would be stability at the price of stagnation, which Herbert also astutely examines.

Thankfully, such homogeneity would be very difficult to achieve to a large degree. The dispersal of wealth as well as the forces of chance tend to degrade or destroy hereditary wealth in our world. Frank Herbert addressed this conundrum in his stories with the device of the spice melange, a naturally forming narcotic that severely prolongs the life, enhances the health and vigor, and extends the consciousness of those who consume it. He even cleverly established that it could not be artificially produced and could only be found on one planet in the entire known universe, the control of which was under a corporation wholly owned and operated by the very nobility that exclusively benefited from its consumption. The dynamics of spice are essential to the stability of the Imperium but, rather than delve too deeply into that topic, my recommendation is simply to read Dune and the rest of the Dune series. In my opinion, it won’t be time wasted.

It is another concept explored in Dune, related to what I have presented, that motivated this post:

The Philosopher King.

Introduced by Plato in The Republic, the Philosopher King is the proposed ruler of what Plato envisioned as the ideal nation-state. Plato defines the Philosopher King as a ruler who philosophizes, most often interpreted as one who is guided by the pursuit of optimality through enlightened wisdom. In other words, a Philosopher King rules with good judgment derived from understanding, not just knowing.

On the other hand, for the purposes of this post, I will use my own definition of Philosopher King, which I think will allow for greater context:

Philosopher King – one who is driven to, seeks, and gains the power to lead by his belief in his right to do so, either by capability or necessity, while maintaining the empathy and understanding of his own inherent fallibility.

I think the concept of the Philosopher King is a deceptively significant motivator in human dynamics. There seems to be an inherent, subconscious, almost metaphysical desire for humans to identify and elevate a Philosopher King. I think it is a significant motivator in the development of cults of personality of all stripes, one so powerful that it often defies logic.

First, let’s explore the dynamics of the Philosopher King. By nature, he is one that lives in a state of contradiction. A Philosopher King assumes power largely because he believes that he is most capable or that his capabilities best match necessity. A fundamental belief in his right or purpose to rule is paramount. However, what separates the Philosopher King from a run-of-the-mill tyrant is the complete understanding of the costs of his decisions. A Philosopher King understands that some, even many, of his decisions will have a price. He makes those decisions with no hesitation yet carries the weight of them in perpetuity, which allows him to make decisions of greater benefit for everyone with greater time and experience. The cumulative effect of making decisions of both ruthlessness and empathy is undeniable progress or, in times of desperation, ultimate survival.

The irony of the Philosopher King is that, as much as he is desired, by nature, he cannot ever be fully embraced. He is both loved and hated, accepted and envied. By nature, some will suffer as the result of certain decisions; the staunchest of the Philosopher King’s believers who are impacted by those decisions will interpret them as betrayal. Some will simply envy him because he represents something to which they aspire but can never achieve: greatness. They don’t fundamentally understand that that greatness comes at the price of a wounded soul, the deep understanding of all who may have suffered because there was no other choice. The Philosopher King is a man of destiny who’s greatest strength is the ability to gracefully bear the weight of his sins.

Frank Herbert explores this dynamic primarily with two characters, Paul Atreides, who buckles under the weight of the responsibility, and Leto II, who embraces it and becomes “God Emperor” of the Known Universe. Each is motivated by a terrible purpose. But another characteristic of the Philosopher King is that he possesses one or more gifts that he is aware are completely unique. For Paul Atreides and Leto II, that gift is prescience. I’ve always thought this was a particularly powerful device because it provides both the certainty of action and the burden of knowledge. It also separates them from everyone around them, even those closest to them. Most profoundly, the Philosopher King is alone.

If you look at history, you can identify this theme quite often. Hitler, Muhammad, Jesus, Steve Jobs. The writings of Machiavelli inadvertently describe the basic politics of the Philosopher King. It is my belief that the Philosopher King even plays a major role in religions. Indeed, the so-called “Anti-Christ” is a being who is primarily loved and worshiped even when he commits unspeakable acts, a clue that such a person, should he ever exist, will embody the traits, at least superficially, of a Philosopher King.

In the end, the Philosopher King guides society to greatness even at great personal expense. In my opinion, Frank Herbert’s exploration of this concept is incredibly important because it reveals a psychology that I think exists in all of us. In my opinion, there is a part of all of us that seeks a “father,” one who rewards generously for what we do right and punishes justly for what we do in error. In history, there have been many who have climbed to the heights of power by promising just that. They have largely failed though I can think of at least one who did succeed in his lifetime.

These topics are just a few of those that I discovered in Frank Herbert’s work. Even now, I think my understanding of it is largely superficial. I grapple with the themes in his books every day, in my own thinking and writing.

I will forever appreciate his work. Thanks Frank.


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