Welcome, 40K fans, to a series of articles I am writing about some of the deeper aspects of Warhammer 40,000.
These articles are a thought exercise, and by writing them I hope to improve my thinking about 40K and its fiction (and maybe about much more). Topics in this series will be wide-ranging and will not shy away from moral or philosophical issues that some may consider sensitive or even controversial. I would rather risk the conversation, so while you or I may not agree, I look forward to hearing why. Consider yourself warned for lore spoilers as well. Also, check the Tactics Corner for more great articles on gaming in 40K!
Finding Some Meaning
On some level, we as an audience brush over and accept without thinking that sure, there must be some acts of good here and there in the 40K universe, but they don’t amount to much. 40K, is, after all, deliberately crafted to be an awful mix of the worst reality anyone could imagine. I sit and write this in isolation at home amidst the outbreak of a global pandemic and economic collapse, but I’d still rather be here than in the 40K universe. I think that’s pretty sensible, particularly as my effective role as professional scribe would mean that I would get a pretty menial job and be likely indentured as some kind of cog in the Imperial bureaucracy, and I hate bureaucracies in the same way that Angron would hate a spa day.
Tangents about despondent imaginings of my 40K self aside, I didn’t write thousands of words and do research for part 1 of this series without an idea of why good existing in 40K is important and meaningful, despite the darkness that surrounds it. I want to be clear that I’m not trying to rose-tint the grimdark. I don’t have enough cognitive dissonance in me to attempt an escapade such as arguing that the grimdark was secretly some kind of utopia. Instead, I’m trying to pull something valuable and applicable to me (and perhaps to others) out of these stories, because amidst the firefights and melee there is useful meaning in 40K’s themes. One of those useful, meaningful things is the simulation of a journey to utopia gone wrong. It is a lesson about moral relativism and the cost of an “ends justifying the means” mentality.
Subjectivity and Moral Relativism
Moral relativism is a plague on higher thinking. The idea that what is “good” or “bad” is solely a matter of perspective makes very little sense, and does nothing useful for people. Just because moral relativism isn’t useful doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have some compelling arguments, however. If good is good, why don’t we just know it or act it out? I think more about a scarier question. If bad isn’t real (or if bad is matter of perspective) then nothing a person can do makes them a bad person except as matters of opinion. Admitting that right and wrong are matters of perspective means that all that I have to do to get away with making you suffer is to do it in such a way as to either not let others find out about it, or convince enough others by whatever means that what I do is at least acceptable just because that’s a matter of perspective. I’d wager there are not many who could read something like that and think that a person acting that hypothesis out in the world is an admirable person, even if they couldn’t articulate exactly why they felt that way.
Moral relativism makes morality a matter of desires, and whether you look at the Western Judeo-Christian ethic or the Daoist/Buddhist/Shinto traditions, the concept of existing only to live out personal desires has never been a desirable outcome for individuals or societies. These systems have had myriad ways to cultivate discipline through the rejection of impulsive desires or the deliberate denial of material needs. Beyond ancient religious codes or ethics, even modern science and psychology points out that there are certain modes of being that produce better results than others, such as a lifestyle of discipline that comes from the denial of desires. Discipline being a path to personal growth and a manifestation of individuation.
In this, at least, there seems to be some consensus between religion and reason, despite reason’s attempts to undo religion. I’m sure you as the reader have your own favorites in this debate for a variety of reasons, but I’m not looking to settle the religion vs. reason war with this article. Instead I point it out as a theme that 40K wrestles with, and I am more interested in the act of wrestling itself than any particular final resolution so far as this discussion is concerned. In that spirit, let’s imagine an outcome. If reason were, somehow, to completely and unequivocally destroy religious thinking and determine morality to be a matter of perspective and desire, could mankind survive such a revelation? I am not the first to ask this question and consider the consequences, and am certainly not the smartest.
The “Death” of God
Nietzsche hypothesized that the rise of reason and thinking among mankind led to the death of God. The famous saying “God is dead” is a favorite among intellectuals and edgelords alike as they revel in what they consider the death of useless belief in a higher power. While Nietzsche, an atheist and avowed critic of religious institutions, did say that god is dead, he didn’t say so as an expression of triumph.
“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed – and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!’ Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and looked at him disconcertedly. Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’”Section 125 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche
To summarize this, the madman portrayed here realized that by killing the source of a transcendent morality, we (humanity) had freed ourselves from morality itself, and that the dire consequences in the form of moral relativism and nihilism’s fruits, would come slowly to humanity’s awareness. The madman breaking his lantern – breaking something that gives light (a symbol of guidance, knowledge, and enlightenment) – in frustration at no one realizing the significance of the death of God is very telling and deliberate in this narrative. If an atheist widely regarded as a great thinker the world over is giving you reason to feel caution about the ramifications of life without a transcendent morality, then you’ve got something to stop and consider for a moment. When you throw this idea into the 40K simulation and let it run a few cycles, you come out with a few interesting paradoxes that I want to touch on here. Many of these are driven from occurrences and observations of our own world history.
Will to Power
The rise of reason without morality led to a lot of suffering in our world, as Nietzsche predicted. Without a transcendent morality, morality became a matter of a strong will exerting its desires upon other wills. This ties into the “Will to Power” idea that Nietzsche spoke of as an inherent mechanism in humanity’s psyche. While Nietzsche’s goal of Will to Power was as a way of unifying and directing human ambition for the good of all humanity, his idea has been taken and twisted by many people and regimes throughout history to disastrous effect (as evidenced by some of the larger scale secular tyrannies of the 20th century). If anyone in 40K (or anywhere) represents a negative interpretation of “Will to Power” then it would be the Emperor of Mankind, the most intelligent and amorally rational example of moral relativism and ends-justify-the-means that perhaps has ever existed in fiction. I am going to make the case that it is exactly those traits that led directly to the Emperor’s downfall.
The Emperor has/had a dream for humanity throughout the 40K narrative. It is a bold, utopian dream divined from the desires of who is written to be the most capable, intelligent, powerful, and determined human ever to exist in this universe. This dream would, if successful, free humanity from the predations of the powers of Chaos forever, by providing for the possibility that humanity could be directed to or evolve into something transcendent and like unto himself. This aim is a good aim. His methods were not good, even if at some points they were extremely effective – effective enough that the Chaos powers imagined the Emperor to be the greatest threat to their existence. After all, if everything happened according to his plan, then the end result would be a free, transcendent race and the defeat of Chaos. That also seems like a good thing, but to accomplish his goals the Emperor ignored right and wrong, doing wrongs in the name of his “right.” As the story lays out, he enforced his will to power with the incredible competence that a being of his capability could manage.
The Road to Hell
The Emperor’s aim was built upon lies (either deliberate or of omission), genocide, and destruction of all opposition by whatever means were expedient. Credit where credit was due, not all conflicts and compliances were done by the sword, but all were done at least with the will to use the sword if necessary. To embrace what the Emperor did as the correct thing because of his aim requires an admission that to perform acts such as those he committed in the name of an aim (no matter high or low) is not bad. That same logic was applied to some of the worst genocides and tyrannies perpetrated on humanity during the 20th century. Hitler’s Third Reich had an aim and a will to power that earned him a cliched reputation for evil (cited with or without justification by the generations that followed his death) as part of a war that killed 3% of the world’s population at that time. The legacy of Stalin’s will to power nearly led to the nuclear destruction of our world, not to mention the millions of his own people who suffered and died in terrible ways. Both regimes aimed for a utopia and were willing to cross previously established lines of morality, because after all, if morality is a matter of perspective then there would be nothing inherently wrong with what they did, right? The Emperor is much the same, and despite the audacity and loftiness of his aim, it is so hard to get past all the wrong he was doing to get there, as well it should be.
This is where we get into the preposterous satire of moral relativism that is the purported motivation for the traitorous enemies of the Emperor. While his wrongs form the primary justification for their rebellion, that justification (among all the others) for their atrocities in grimdark fiction fall flat under any real scrutiny. “The Emperor lied, murdered, and killed his way across the galaxy to get what he wanted, so why can’t we do the same? Except, let’s dial it all up to 13.” The motives here for the characters are pretty clear – “I’m justifying my worse thing because the Emperor or his servants did a bad thing, and since no one is a “good guy” in 40K I’m just going to pretend like the sacrificing the souls to malevolent entities and the deliberate and malicious magnification of the terror/suffering of mankind and all life in the universe in the name of absolute evil is just fine.” I am willing to accept that pure good and innocence is hard to come by in the grimdark, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to countenance the idea that what those aligned with Chaos do is fine because it’s all just a matter of perspective. Can anyone really justify this point of view and make a claim that it is equally as valid as any other perspective? No. Chaos is wrong. Its adherents are wrong. No wrongs done by the Emperor justify the evils wrought by the unrestrained malice of Chaos and its champions. While they are both wrong, Chaos is much, much worse by every standard of examination. If the traitor legions truly wanted to rebel and demonstrate a right to rule, they would have done better than the Emperor, not worse. Instead, they just pretended to replace the Emperor’s will to power with their own, when in reality they became slaves to things much more malevolent.
The Failure of Perspective
So, the Emperor is literally the avatar of a modern moral relativist with ‘good’ intentions, except built to be nigh-impossibly intelligent and far-seeing to the highest peaks of exaggeration that only 40K can climb. Even authors in the Black Library don’t write from his perspective because it would be impossible to write convincingly the level at which such a being would operate and think. Keep in mind, they do write from the perspective of aliens such as the Eldar and the Orks, but not the Emperor. That is the unreachable pedestal of majesty that he is supposed to represent. As such, it is worth considering the lesson staring us right in the face, that even with the supernal gifts and powers of the Emperor, he – the supreme avatar of moral relativism and reason – failed so profoundly that it caused 10,000 years of suffering and decline while he himself is locked immobile in an eternal battle with the unbridled forces of hell incarnate, slowly watching his dreams unravel and his shot fall short of his aim. His deeds, justified as some could argue them being in the name of his goals, ultimately ended up strengthening the foes he intended to vanquish. His means justified his ends.
What lesson is there in this? What meaning? Perhaps it means that we humans can’t imagine even the most outlandishly competent, intelligent, and powerful human being able to create a road out of lies, blood, and desire that would reach a utopia, even if it were paved by the best intentions. Perhaps it means we should consider all those who promise utopia and their ideas with apprehension until we can see what their road is made from (or built on top of). Who are they willing to sacrifice in the name of it? Perhaps desiring good isn’t enough, and actual good must manifest itself in the actions of those pursuing an aim more than actions of evil. Perhaps if the Emperor had put good out into the universe in the name of his aim, that would have weakened Chaos’ influence in the universe and denied them the tools they needed to subvert in order to overthrow him. Perhaps in this world of action becoming manifest in the sea of souls, Chaos could be undone in the warp by good actions. Perhaps in our cynicism, we (like 40K) overlook the good because we want to see our worst opinions about existence justified? Do we often romanticize an aim so much that we are unwilling to look down on the road we are walking on to get to it because seeing the corpses there would make us lose our nerve?
I argue that these questions are why determining that good exists in 40K matters. Like all stories, we are trying to figure out what all these things mean. The asking of these questions matters not just in a fictional universe, but also in our lives because we think about these things, and …
“The purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying.”– Alfred North Whitehead.
Think about that for a minute.
A New Look
In an effort to take this project of mine a bit more seriously, I decided to invest in some imagery for it. The result is this image, which is the culmination of the persona I’ve crafted (and been given) over the years I’ve been putting 40K content out into the noosphere. The Amasec barrel was my wife’s idea, and bless her for being patient and working with me on my ideas. I worked with a wonderful artist, Johanna, to bring this concept to life. Check out her website at johannamation.com
This is the second project I’ve commissioned from her, and I’ve been happy with each one.
An Ongoing Conversation
I’d like to apologize to and thank everyone who waited for this article. Without getting too personal, a host of life-changing events and circumstances have taken up much of my writing and personal time/energy since January, and that was before the COVID-19 lockdown started. The lockdown only made things worse. While I aspire to writing more regularly, I also don’t want to rush out something that I haven’t put the right amount of time into, so I beg your patience as I continue to muddle my way through these topics.
If you found this interesting, please check out my page Captain Morgan’s Librarius. This is the space where I test these ideas in their first drafts, and also talk about all the other parts of the hobby that I enjoy from painting, community, gaming, and all the rest. It’s also the best place to converse with me about this and many other topics in 40K. Likes and shares are appreciated. I hope you enjoyed this week’s read, and I’ll see you again next time!
And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!