The Philosophies of Dune Part 2: Antifragility

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The general plot of the Dune series detailed, I’ll take a look at an idea I was first exposed to reading this series. The idea itself,I discovered, is quite old and yet had only really been rigorously explored and articulated relatively recently by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his book detailing antifragility, Taleb nods repeatedly to Friedrich Nietzsche and asserts he understood antifragility better than most, even if he never defined it precisely.


What is the opposite of fragile? Resilient? Robust? Nein! According to Taleb, the opposite of fragile is something he calls antifragile. But this isn’t merely wordplay or as simple as something which cannot break. Something which is antifragile actually benefits from volatility and adversity. A glass, when dropped on the floor, whether it breaks or not, is not antifragile. Hitting the floor doesn’t benefit the glass in any way.

Now imagine for a moment the glass could benefit from the fall. Presume not only does the glass survive the fall, but each time it did it became stronger. So long as stressors, in this case a violent impact with the ground, aren’t critical enough to cripple, things which are antifragile actually benefit from volatility and uncertainty.

Taleb presents several different concepts, ideas, systems, what have you, which he believes to be antifragile. Evolution, specifically adaptation, is a form of antifragility. Stressors in the environment force an entity to adapt to them, to evolve a new behavior, with the most successful adaptation transforming them into benefits.

The human body in many ways is antifragile, which is why countless people cram themselves into gyms or run through the neighborhood from nothing at all but student loan debt, perhaps. While very few individuals have run until their debt vanished, others run to intentionally subject themselves to these stressors. Taleb takes it further and asserts while they may be exposing themselves to stressors, by using gyms they are not exposing themselves to volatility, as well. There is no volatility in a treadmill or a stair climber, the path is smooth and level. One can only find it in the great outdoors where nature doesn’t work in straight, even lines.

Political systems fail to avoid Taleb’s attentions as well. Centralized, top heavy institutions and governments are prone to toppling over with the consequences being more severe the more centralized the institution. Centralized, in this sense, means most decisions are made from a single source, like a king or a God Emperor, or even an oligarchy. Should that absolute sovereign power be suddenly and violently removed while neglecting to replace it with something equally as top-heavy, decisions by necessity will be made from a variety of sources. This variety of sources is a form of volatility again, while the centralized version usually squelches volatility whenever it can, viewing uncertainty as a threat.

Decentralized sources however, lack the power or egomaniacal drive to suppress volatility and instead must innovate and adapt to overcome them. Innovation, change, and diversity is the result of decentralized systems, where individuals have no choice but to adapt. Decentralized powers enact reforms and change from the bottom up, while centralized powers enact reforms and change (rarely, if at all) from the top down.

Now we return to the deserts of Dune.

Fremen Antifragility

Antifragility is without a doubt the most prevalent theme in Dune, rivaled only by the idea of the ubermensch perhaps. More on the ubermensch later. But from the hard-as-nails Sardukhar soldiers forged through planned abuse on the Emperor’s personal prison planet Salusa Secundus, to the harder-than-nails Fremen produced by the hostile environment of Dune, the harshest environments create the strongest human beings. One must note however, the harsh environment of Salusa Secundus is manufactured by humans, whereas the environment of Dune is not. It is naturally awful.

The climate of Dune is the harshest which has ever been described to me while also somehow barely managing to support human life. The precipitation rate on the planet is a solid zero percent, forcing those who would crawl along its surface, even at night, to produce equipment called still-suits, which captures the sweat, urine, and feces of its wearer and recycle it into what one presumes is the world’s worst tasting water. Cool caves, vacuum-sealed to keep the moisture in, are the residence of choice of the deep desert Fremen, and the only moment in their lives where these still-suits are not worn. Rather than Fremen fathers screaming about, “You’re letting the heat out!” They scream, “You’re letting the water out!”

In addition to an utter and absolute lack of rainfall, storms rage across the planet’s surface at all times. These coriolis storms are, much like everything else on the planet, intensely violent. Stories are told of the wind flaying the still-suit from flesh, flesh from bone, and finally grinding bones into so much dust in a matter of moments. These storms also utterly destroy equipment not manufactured specifically with the storms in mind, which is more or less any equipment not created by the Fremen themselves considering the Fremen are the only people insane enough to live among the storms. Understanding these storms is essential to surviving the planet.

And finally, perhaps the literally largest stressor of Dune, are the sand worms. These babies range in size from twenty-seven to well over four-hundred meters long, are the real rulers of the planet, and don’t like anyone or anything. The Fremen however, have been forced to live with them, learning how to avoid them. This is accomplished for the most part by walking in a manner which has no rhythm, something I believe I could accomplish easily as a white guy. Sand worms sense vibrations along the sand’s surface and to them, a lack of rhythm indicates naturally shifting sand dunes which they ignore. Rhythmic movement on the other hand enrages them and they never fail to attack.

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The Fremen view the worms as gods, of a sort. They hold a deep reverence for the beasts, as I assume anyone with even a passing familiarity with them would. But rather than huddle in fear, the Fremen use them as a means of transportation to get across the hostile planet’s surface. They summon Shai-halud, the Fremen name for the worms, using hated vibrations, then hook onto the back of the worm as it passes by in search of the accursed, rhythmic source. Distances, to the Fremen, are calculated based on how many worms it takes to get from one place to another, as these mammoth titans tire just like any other biological creature. A short jaunt across the desert may only require a single worm, but long journeys can require twenty worms, or even thirty.

In addition to the climate and worms, the Fremen have been mercilessly hunted by House Harkonnen, the family traditionally responsible for harvesting spice melange from Dune. The Harkonnen are a brutal, violent, and murderous regime, stamping out the deep desert Fremen wherever they can. The Fremen, by virtue of living among enemies and dangers on all sides, have become over time the most formidable fighting force humanity has known. They merely lack a military leader, but prophecy tells them this leader will arrive, echoing messianic prophecies of the Torah. This Messiah, the Lisan al-Gaib, is prophesied to arrive from the outer worlds and will lead the Fremen into a glorious utopian future. More on utopia later.

All of these environmental stressors have not only failed to destroy the Fremen, but they have made them strong.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Political and Economic Fragility

The political system of Dune is a centralized form of oligarchy, with the Emperor making the kinds of decisions an autocratic aristocrat makes. While the Fremen are antifragile, the Emperor and the Landsraad, the Spacing Guild, the CHOAM Corporations, all these institutions are immensely fragile. The Emperor attempts to squelch any and all volatility, any perceived threats to himself or the flow of spice, and manages to convince himself he has succeeded. But he is incorrect, with his maneuvering having simply had the result of hiding the risk to himself, rather than doing away with it.

The entirety of the political system of the Padashaw Emperors and Landraad in Dune revolves around the commodity of spice melange. The real power here actually resides with whoever controls the flow of the spice allowing the Spacing Guild to continue to operate their ships. Without this substance, the universe would become dim, consisting of isolated planets unable to even communicate with each other. Most of all, the existence of the Spacing Guild would no longer have any merit whatsoever and an institution’s primary operating principle, whether stated overtly or otherwise, is always to continue existing. Here, the political system exists to support the economic system, so the Empire would also lose any justification for existence.

Upon luring the Padashaw Emperor to Dune itself, a rare event, Paul Mua’dib and his Fremen ambush him. Seizing control of the throne, Paul threatens to destroy the source of all the spice on Dune if his demands are not met. Putting his fist around this one commodity, found only one place in all the universe, Paul Mua’dib Atreides bullies the supposed leader of the universe into abdicating the throne. He bullies the Landraad into accepting himself as Emperor, and subsequently becomes truly the most powerful human in existence, able to act with impunity in all matters great and small. The consequences of not bowing to this desert madman are too severe and none take the risk of destroying such a precious and essential resource to their way of life.

This dependency on a single commodity is economic fragility, as illustrated by the fact if one wishes to seize absolute political control of a thousand-planet civilization, one need only seize control of a single planet. Imagine for a moment, as I presume Herbert wants us to, in our own time there is merely a single source for all the oil in the world. How powerful would the individual who possessed the ability and will to destroy this oil be?

From the climax of the first Dune novel:

“Do it!” Paul barked. “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it. You’ve agreed I have that power. We are not here to discuss or to negotiate or to compromise. You will obey my orders or suffer the immediate consequences!”

“He means it,” the shorter Guildsman said. And Paul saw the fear grip them.

Slowly the two crossed to the Fremen communications equipment.

“Will they obey?” Gurney asked.

“They have a narrow vision of time,” Paul said. “They can see ahead to a blank wall marking the consequences of disobedience. Every Guild navigator on every ship over us can look ahead to that same wall. They’ll obey.”

Paul turned back to look at the Emperor, said; “When they permitted you to mount your father’s throne, it was only on the assurance that you’d keep the spice flowing. You’ve failed them. Majesty. Do you know the consequences?”

“Nobody permitted me to — ”

“Stop playing the fool,” Paul barked. “The Guild is like a village beside a river. They need the water, but can only dip out what they require. They cannot dam the river and control it, because that focuses attention on what they take, it brings down eventual destruction. The spice flow, that’s their river, and I have built a dam. But my dam is such that you cannot destroy it without destroying the river.”

In later novels, specifically the God Emperor of Dune, Herbert takes the idea of a highly centralized government to its logical conclusion. Humanity stagnates, becomes ever more dependent, and more or less useless in terms of making decisions. But when the God Emperor allows himself to die, he does so in order to force humanity to stand on its own feet, to explore on its own, to innovate and create on their own. This is the Golden Path.




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R.B. Lamb

R.B. Lamb

Humor, history, and enough dick and fart jokes to choke a flappy-headed Canadian comedy duo.

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