The Human Condition:

What is Strength? – November 20, 2011

As noted some weeks ago, I’m a longtime fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books and their guiding principles.1 I find it compelling that, of all the Imperium’s institutions and social groupings, the series’ most enduring is the Bene Gesserit. They are variously described as witches, engineers of religion, manipulators of the human bloodlines, and inheritors of human purpose from the Great Schools period. While the Fremen, the Bene Tleilax, and even the Imperium itself come and go in the series, the Bene Gesserit endure through the whole impossible history. They are the Greek chorus against which all the action plays.

The B.G., their Reverend Mothers, their acolytes, and their books and teachings contain many wise and wicked sayings, but one that has always stuck with me is from Herbert’s next-to-last novel in this universe, Heretics of Dune: “Never support weakness; always support strength.”

You might imagine that a society of women, especially those undertaking the religious education of the human race, would naturally tend to support the weak: children, other women made vulnerable by bearing children, the sick, the disadvantaged, the dispossessed. They should be following Mother Teresa into the slums of India. Supporting the strong feels all wrong. After all, the strong can take care of themselves. So, was this Herbert, a male writer, injecting an anti-feminist viewpoint into his imagined all-female society?2 Or was he simply being perverse?

To understand the Bene Gesserit in this context, we have to examine what it means to be strong as a human being. And I believe this is one of the “cleavage questions”3 that can crack open and help examine much of what is troubling our society today.

We tend to think of “the strong” as those who have the advantage: a big stick, the biggest guns, the biggest bank account, the most politicians in their debt, the most laws on their side. By contrast, then, the weak are those with no weapons, no resources, no friends, and no influence. It’s a formula that speaks to the cynical adage “Might makes right.”

Why do I call that adage cynical? Because western civilization goes back to Judeo-Christian roots that totally deny it. Justice, fairness, proportion, treating people as they deserve—everything we consider to be “right”—stands apart from the kind of force a bully, a dictator, a king, or even a democratic majority can bring to bear. The Bible bristles with counter-stories of the strong brought low, from Pharaoh to Goliath to Caiaphas and Pilate. The human sense of right and wrong comes not from external circumstances of force and power, but from the heart and its capacity to observe, weigh, and decide. Right stands outside the bustle of war and politics and resides in the eye of God.

It’s clear, also, that the kind of strength we are describing in these situations comes from factors that stand outside the person wielding power. To hold the big stick, command the strongest battalions, be able to write the largest checks, influence the greatest number of politicians—these are externals. Any person can pick up the stick, take command of the troops, inherit the wealth, and compound personal influence through a pleasing smile. It takes no special intelligence nor moral goodness to wield such power.

It does take muscles, and the discipline to build them, for a man to pick up and use a stick—but in today’s society, the one who wields the bludgeon is usually not the person in actual power. It also takes a kind of self-discipline to build a personal fortune and the political connections that represent the true power in modern society. You have to work hard and forego many passing pleasures, husband your resources, invest wisely in both opportunities and people, take risks, do favors, listen to a lot of bad jokes, and eat a lot of tasteless congratulatory dinners.

Discipline and dedication are both aspects of personal strength. Yes, they can be used for bad purposes. But any person who dedicates him- or herself to a cause, and disciplines his or her mind, heart, and body to attaining it, is halfway to moral virtue. People who make such sacrifices almost never do so for petty reasons. People do not strain and strive “because I want to be a big man and have everyone at my beck and call.” Instead, people usually dedicate themselves to causes bigger than their own personal selves. You may not agree with the cause itself—the glory of God, or greater Germany, or American exceptionalism, or Marxist principles—but these things stand outside the individual and draw him or her onward.4 Even actors and musicians, seemingly the most vain, selfish and self-glorying of people, must reach outside themselves and provide pleasure to their audiences if they are to be successful and attain the status they desire.

In this context, the contrary quality—weakness—represents lack of effort, dedication, and discipline. The weak do not want to spend the effort to achieve anything. They will accept the terms and conditions that others impose so long as they can get a fraction of what they want or need in return. The weak want to be taken care of, carried on someone else’s credit, and appreciated for some quality other than their own contributions.5

It is in this sense, I believe, that the Bene Gesserit axiom is meant. It’s a truism that if you subsidize something, you will get more of it. If you support weakness—not the temporary kind, where a man may be down on his luck for reasons outside himself, but the perennial kind that wants and expects a free ride—you will get more people with their hands out waiting to be served. If you support strength—those who have a place to go and the ambition and discipline to get there—you will have more people pulling on their oars and moving civilization forward. One effort supports doers, the other begets the done-to.

If your business is the future of the human race, as it was with the Bene Gesserit, then you can see which way the land slopes and how, left to its own devices, the water will run. You build civilization up, rather than letting the forces of sloth tear it down.

And if this kind of strength is paired with a sense of morality, equity, and proportion, you get strong people who are able to care for others in their times of need. Samaritans rather than bullies. And that’s the greatest strength of all.

1. See The Dune Ethos from October 30, 2011.

2. The first Dunenovel was published in 1965, when the counterculture was breaking away from the beatnik coffee houses of San Francisco and spreading nationwide, particularly on college campuses. This was also the time that the Women’s Movement was spreading, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Herbert was certainly reacting to that current, but I don’t think his Bene Gesserit were meant to parody it—certainly not through all six novels.

3. I take the term from diamond cutting. Carbon crystals are practically impenetrable by shock and hammer blows due to the interlocking nature of their hexagonal lattice. But find the right plane and apply a small amount of pressure, and the diamond splits easily. Some problems are Gordian knots with ready-made fracture lines, just waiting for a sword cut at the right angle with the right kind of question.

4. People who rise on the corporate ladder are seldom aiming for personal power over others. Instead, they are usually seeking the freedom to act, to do things for the good of the organization according to their own views—rather than following the views of their superiors—about what will be efficient and effective. The person who wants someone to polish his boots only so that he can plant them in other people’s backsides is quickly discovered and dismissed as a petty fool.

5. Think of “Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady” in the musical comedy Funny Girl: “Do for me, buy for me, lift me, carry me …”