I’ve been working on a book review of the Handbook of Source Material for Cyrenaic Philosophy, which will feature in the Society of Epicurus page later this month. The book is a compilation (with no commentary added) of everything that we can find in the ancient sources on the Cyrenaics, and it’s a great resource for students of pleasure ethics.
The Cyrenaics were not a single, unified School but a collection of various lineages that go back to Aristippus. One of those lineages–the sect known as the Theodorians–was initiated by Theodorus the Atheist, who was not actually atheistic and whose ideas inspired Epicurus’ own theology. In the Handbook, this is attributed to him:
He taught that there was nothing really disgraceful in theft, adultery, or sacrilege; but that they were branded only by public opinion, which had been formed in order to restrain fools … The wise man would indulge his passions openly without the least regard to circumstances.
Theodorus believed that laws and religious superstitions about punishment in the afterlife were all contrived in order to restrain fools, and that the wise did not need these restrictions–real or imagined. This is not a view that is unique to him. Hegesias (another Cyrenaic) shared it. Diogenes of Oenoanda was cynical about religion’s ability to bully people into having a good character:
Clear proof of the complete inability of religion to prevent wrong-doing is provided by the example of the Jews and the Egyptians. These nations, while being among the most religious and superstitious of men, are also the most vile.
Nietzsche shared both Theodorus’ opinion that laws are meant to restrain fools and that the higher men do not need the same restrictions as those of mediocre intelligence, as well as Diogenes’ cynicism about religion’s inefficiency in restraining the most vile, and about the ignoble instincts that lurk underneath people’s pretensions of piety. Nonetheless, because Nietzsche had a deep understanding of human nature, he recognized that the mobs of lower men and women needed and would always have their own religions, and he recognized that these religions would be reflections of their uncultivated characters, and even thought that they could be of utility to the higher men. This nuanced view was shared by Seneca, who said:
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
As some of you may know, I’m stoked about the upcoming Dune film (which coincides somewhat closely with my birthday), and I expect that the Seneca adage will be brilliantly illustrated in the plot of the epic, as it is in all of the Dune Universe in general, and in the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in particular. I discussed the sisterhood briefly in my Winds of Dune book review, saying that they are
a galactic sisterhood of witches who manipulate human societies and their histories by seeding folk myths in the cultures that they can later exploit, and are obsessed with bloodlines and with the creation of superhuman messiah-like beings …
… I don’t remember previous Dune novels treating the Bene Gesserit as the insidious, tyrannical, dangerous, and evil sorority that they are …
Dune serves a fascinating future history that features religions that will have evolved from modern mainstream faiths after much syncretism. It also explores the sinister effects that a new religion can have in an entire planet in a manner that evokes the first few centuries of Islamic expansion and the first few centuries of Christian hegemony in the Roman empire, both of which were among the bloodiest and cruelest episodes in human history. The battles for power among the descendants of Muhammad were of Game of Thrones proportions and involved massacres and petty feuds that continue to this day.
Similarly, the “Messiah” or God-man of Dune carries out genocide against infidel planets, and erases entire planetary systems. That the Duniverse is situated more than 8,000 years into OUR future gives us an idea of the danger, pessimism and cynicism that saturates Frank Herbert’s fiction. One of the things I love about the science fiction genre is the potential for an author to offer warnings to the future generations and engage them in a critical conversation. For all the undeniable grandeur, seduction, and beauty of Dune, the planet is a dangerous den of fanaticism, authoritarianism, and cruelty–all of which religion serves to cement. A reader might be perplexed by the author’s magical pen and by how these contradictions are not sugar-coated. They coexist, even dance together, producing a tragedy so beautiful that we STILL want to visit Dune.
It’s this beauty mixed with horror that makes Dune such a powerful saga. Dune should be seen as transhumanist and Nietzschean mythology. The higher man is a god, literally. Having been the result of genetic engineering in order to produce a being that blends Mentat and Bene Gesserit powers, he has evolved so far past the rest of humanity, that he has physically transformed himself and assimilated the powers and attributes of Shai Hulud–the serpent-like avatar of God in the epic. The rules and conventions of his world do not apply to him.
They also do not apply to the members of the Sisterhood, which in many ways are the true hands that stir the cosmic puppet-show. They are Nietzschean in almost every way. Their whole business is the manufacture of the higher man, of the Overman. They view history and society as Nietzsche does. While they conspire to have the common folk believe in traditional religions, they themselves follow the Nietzschean code of seceding in order to experiment with the fashioning of the higher man:
Ye lonesome ones of today, ye seceding ones, ye shall one day be a people: out of you who have chosen yourselves, shall a chosen people arise: and out of it the Superman. – Thus Spake Zarathustra.
They even consume mind-altering spice mélange as part of a practice of a form of shamanism by which they give meaning to their world, which is one of the achievements of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
If you, like me, look forward to the release of Dune this year and enjoy Dune-related content, you may enjoy Quinn’s Ideas–a YouTube channel by a huge Dune fan who frequently posts video commentaries on aspects of Dune. If you love Dune imagery, you may enjoy this CAW page.
Dune (Book 1), the original Nebula and Hugo-award winning novel
Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga (three-book series)