The Human Condition:

The Thomassian Jihad (Redux)1 – December 5, 2021

Robot juggling

In the Dune novels, the civilization of the far future is shaped by a war in the distant past, the Butlerian Jihad, that freed humanity from the lassitude and enfeeblement of being helped—to the point of near extinction—by robots and artificially intelligent machines. The defining call of that jihad was: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

In the aftermath of this war and its upheavals, the “Great Schools” arose to develop human beings who would take over some of the necessary functions that had been handled by the now-outlawed machines. They trained the Mentats, human computers, the Bene Gesserit, female protectors of the bloodlines, and the Bene Tleilax, genetic scientists who created special-purpose humans and body parts, often with destructive intent.

As the novels thoroughly explored, the Butlerian Jihad exchanged machines for human beings, who became valued, traded, and objectified solely for their special functions: Mentats for their calculating ability, Bene Gesserit-trained concubines for their seductive skills, and Bene Tleilax-created deformities for whatever the buyer desired. In the original novel, the distinction between House Atreides (the “Good Duke”) and House Harkonnen (the “Evil Baron”) lay in their treatment of these oddities. For the Atreides, Mentats like Thufir Hawat and Swordmasters like Duncan Idaho were trusted friends and companions. For the Harkonnens, everyone other than immediate family was just a commodity.

But the underlying reality from the Butlerian Jihad remains: people who have been trained or designed to perform a specific function are acquired and valued for that function and less as beings capable of personal development, surprises, and a sense of their own destiny, and so they are valued as less than fully human.2

This background inspires me to consider what I would do to ignite a jihad that shapes the entire human universe for thousands of years, the Thomassian Jihad. And I believe my central tenet would be: “Thou shalt not treat a sentient being as an object.” That would take care of a number of our current sins, as well as the underlying fault in the Dune books.

Most immediately, the call would do away with slavery of every kind: outright ownership of human beings as productive objects and the sort of wage-slavery and contrived indebtedness that traps the poor and the immigrant and fuels sweat shops and company towns around the world. It would also outlaw the treatment of women as chattels and sex slaves to their husbands. More than that, it would forbid—or at least make the practitioner feel a measure of guilt and shame—the objectification of women and children for the configuration of their faces and bodies and as receptacles for sexual appetites.

Politically, my jihad would put an end—or try—to the treatment of individuals as no more than members of a group based on a single, obvious common distinction, such as race, gender, religion, regional origin, or other useful and objective features. This kind of pigeonholing (the objectification of birds) is useful to those who would build political strength from individuals who are thereby deprived of their individuality and the sense of their own unique purpose and destiny. Group objectification turns human beings into political widgets.

I refer to “sentient beings” rather than just “human beings” because I tend to think more broadly than our current, limited understanding. One day, we will meet aliens from worlds elsewhere in the galaxy, and when we no longer have the prejudices of physical form and DNA analysis to rely on, we will have to judge them by what we can see of their minds and our measure of their conscious awareness. And this leads back to our treatment of putatively intelligent animals here on Earth: the whales we have hunted for their oil, the elephants we have slaughtered for their tusks, and the octopi we cut up for sushi. A creature that approaches humanity in its understanding and awareness—different in scale but not necessarily in kind—should get a measure of the respect in which we hold other human beings.

Does my jihad require that we approach all such beings subjectively, evaluating them for their potential to think and respond, to care and to love, to have hopes and fears, to dream and have a personal destiny? Oh, yes! That is the essence of the Golden Rule: if you would be treated as a real human being, an individual, whole and entire unto yourself, then you must treat others of your kind—and that includes those with awareness and self-actuation equivalent to your own—with the same appreciation and respect.

Of course, the Thomassian Jihad would be nothing new. Humanity has been waging it with varying success since ancient times. That Golden Rule is essential to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and most other world religions.3 As soon as people gain a full realization of themselves as thinking, feeling, self-aware, and self-actuating individuals, it becomes inescapable to any intelligent and well-balanced mind that others of like mind must think, feel, and actually be the same. This perception was augmented and rationalized during the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries that drives the scientific and technological advances that benefit us today.

To deny the common humanity of like-minded beings is to put on personal blinders, either willfully or through ignorant error.

1. This is actually a rethinking, or restatement, of a meditation I posted on December 8, 2013. The wheel turns …

2. The Dune series—and I suspect Frank Herbert’s worldview itself—radiates a sense of ultimate failure. Or rather, a rejection of easy promises and bright futures through a regression to the human mean. Republics give way to imperial monarchies. Free people succumb to ever more refined tyrannies. And the novels’ central character—Paul in the first three books, and his son Leto II the God Emperor in the fourth book—ultimately fail despite having superb physical and mental training, immeasurable self-control, the power of prescience, an empire at his command, and in the case of Leto, physical invulnerability in a pre-sandworm body and access to the details of all human history through genetic memory. No matter how good things get or how well developed a person might be, return to some ingrained human “normal” is always coming.

3. See the American painter Norman Rockwell’s notes on the commonality of the Golden Rule.