Warning: This post, like my previous post on the subject, will involve a discussion of plot points and spoilers for the Dune series. If you haven’t seen the movies or read the books and wish to avoid spoilers, feel free to skip this one. 

I recently discussed what I take from the character arc of Paul Atreides in the books Dune and Dune Messiah. I see it as a story about how absolute power does not become less dangerous when wielded by a good person. As I said in that post, if there was ever anyone who could have been trusted to wield absolute power and use it to good effect, it should have been Paul Atreides. Yet, his reign unleashes devastation. This raises another interesting question – why was Paul’s reign so much more devastating than the previous regimes? 

At first glance this might seem puzzling. And it’s not something that gets spelled out explicitly in the books. But I think there is a consistent, in-universe answer for that question. It requires understanding the world Frank Herbert built.

The world of Dune describes a civilization with a very complex and sophisticated political system. A good summary of how this system was set up can be found in this video, but a few quick points can be made here. First, in the world of Dune, the Emperor was not all-powerful. The Imperial House was one part of a vast and complex system of organizations that all stood both in tension with each other, and also depended on each other to one degree or another. That is, it was a system of checks-and-balances, with dispersed power. 

While the Imperial House Corrino was by far the most powerful individual House, there were a number of other Great Houses making up an organization called the Landsraad. The Great Houses of the Landsraad included House Atreides and House Harkonnen, along with scores of other Great Houses. The combined military strength of all of the Great Houses of the Landsraad would be enough to challenge House Corrino and their fearsome Sardaukar army – but it would take a truly unified effort to do so, and it would come at great cost. This served as a check on the Emperor, with the Landsraad ensuring each Great House was protected from the possibility of the Emperor picking them off one by one. Any attempt by the Emperor to do so would provide the Great Houses with motivation to rise up in unity against him. 

Another important player was the Spacing Guild, which held total control over all interstellar travel. Without a Guild navigator to find safe pathways, interstellar travel would be all but impossible. Houses that got too ambitious or aggressive, or otherwise run afoul of the Spacing Guild, might find themselves suddenly isolated, unable to secure travel or engage in trade. Even the Emperor couldn’t afford to cross them. But at the same time, the Spacing Guild needed customers in order to survive as well, ensuring another system of checks and mutual dependency. 

There was also CHOAM, which was essentially a giant corporation that oversaw all economic activity. Great Houses and the Imperial House, along with powerful political actors, all held shares in CHOAM to various degrees, and as shareholders all had some degree of vote and influence with CHOAM, but none of them could fully control it. The Imperial House held 25% of CHOAM shares – significant, but not controlling, and ensuring any economic changes the Imperial House might want would need cooperation and agreement from a wide range of supporters. 

Lastly, there is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, a quasi-religious organization that often operates in a clandestine way to guide activities toward their own ends. Their behind-the-scenes manipulations included a breeding program where they selectively combined bloodlines over thousands of years with the goal of bringing about a superbeing – Paul Atreides gains his powers as a result of this program, although the Bene Gesserit fail to control Paul, as he was born a generation earlier than they intended. 

At the beginning of Dune, this system has existed in a stable equilibrium for thousands of years. It’s not exactly anyone’s idea of a political paradise, but it is at least stable. When Paul Atreides rises to the Imperial Throne at the end of the first book, however, this system of dispersed power with its various checks-and-balances is shattered. The Bene Gesserit order was severely weakened. Paul Atreides managed to bring the Spacing Guild to heel under the threat of the destruction of spice production (spice being necessary for Guild navigators to chart safe passage though space). The shares in CHOAM held by Great Houses that were destroyed in the Fremen onslaught of the galaxy were taken over by the new Imperial House Atreides, leading to the Imperial House holding 51% of the shares and creating the first time any single entity had a controlling number of shares. And the devastation wrought by conflicts after Paul rises greatly weaken the strength of the Landsraad, reducing them as a check as well. 

As a result of all of this, Paul Atreides replacing the previous Emperor Shaddam wasn’t simply replacing one ruling monarch with another. If that had been the only change, things might have gone better. All the advantages Paul had – his sense of justice, his Mentat mental abilities, his prescient sight into the future – could very well have led to better outcomes. But there wasn’t simply a replacing of one ruler with another. The system of checks-and-balances and dispersed power that existed before became a system of concentrated power lacking any real checks against it. And this, I believe, is why Paul’s seemingly superior qualities as a leader still couldn’t prevent devastation. 

In the story of Dune, morally compromised people holding dispersed power and serving as checks against each other turns out to be better and more stable than a system of absolute and concentrated power led by a morally strong, superhumanly intelligent, and presciently foresighted leader. Tyranny isn’t prevented by ensuring that sufficiently well-intentioned, intelligent, and noble people are in power. The only effective check against tyranny is to ensure that no organization or institution holds a controlling power over civilization. And this lesson is just as true in the real world as it is in the story of Dune.