Religion & Liberty Online

Dune: Part Two and the Death of Freedom

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The Dune franchise is a good reminder of why advocates for freedom are losing the hearts and minds of the West, and how they can win them again. Warning: Spoilers ahead!

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Those who went to Dune: Part Two expecting a happy ending must have left the theater rather confused. For those unfamiliar with Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking sci-fi novels, the story of a young prince whose father is killed by a rival family and who must rally a bunch of oppressed rebels to stand against tyrants so as to claim his rightful kingship must have signaled to them that they were getting a rousing hero story such as found in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. Yet this is far from the case.

Let me begin my noting that the film is visually stunning and that director Denis Villeneuve does a great job of making sure the imagery and production design support the characters, worlds, and themes of Frank Herbert’s celebrated work. The planets of Arrakis, Kaitain, and Giedi Prime, the clothes the characters wear, the vehicles and weapons they use—all have wildly different pallets and textures that immerse you in the places and disparate identities in a way that feels both right and exciting. One particularly brilliant choice was to have the world of Giedi Prime (that of the film’s chief villains) lit in black and white, as the planet’s sun soaks it in an environment that’s as harsh as its inhabitants. Whenever the camera pulls out to take a wider look, the characters and environments are often breathtaking. This makes it oddly unfortunate that the film spends a little too much of its time in close-ups.

Moreover, the characters and themes are so strong that anytime the film focuses on Herbert’s story, the film soars. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and his love Chani (Zendaya) enjoy archetypal roles as hero, mentor, and love interest, yet add layers with their special performances. In addition, the story subverts what could have been cliches by making Paul’s ascendancy to Chosen One status a prophecy to be avoided rather than embraced. Like the first film, the dance between the characters, themes, and visuals doesn’t always land, but they’re strong enough that the moments when they do land carry the film.

The main flaw of the film is that all these pieces don’t come together as often as one would like. Multiple characters—such as Paul and Jessica—change personalities on a dime (aided by a miracle plot-device juice that they drink), making their arcs more alienating and less satisfying. The movie often feels somehow simultaneously padded and rushed, with long, self-indulgent scenes of landscapes alternate with quick scenes of awkward exposition (such as those between Princess Irulan and the Reverend Mother explaining how Mother’s been manipulating the family for generations), not to mention the blink-and-you-miss-it final battle scene between the Fremen and the Emperor’s soldiers.

And yet, it’s the subversive themes of Dune: Part Two that stick with you after the credits roll. Because while the film ends with a victorious Paul Atreides, the film’s protagonist, who avenges House Atreides against House Harkonnen, he is far from a heroic liberator, as he morphs into a despot himself, waging a holy war against the rest of the empire that will lead to tyranny and genocide just as his dreams predict. Fans of the original Dune novels know that this was always Frank Herbert’s intent, to warn against how easy it is to embrace the worship of a messianic political figure who becomes a worse tyrant than what you had before.

This warning is timely insofar as the movie’s release is concerned, as it seems as though more and more people in the real world are proudly abandoning a love of freedom to give more power to government leaders. A growing number of people are calling for and supporting restrictions on free speech, declining support for capitalism, supporting efforts to force parents to give their kids “gender-affirming” care, while presidents bypass Congress to do things like passing on the burden of student debt to those who did not incur it. Conservatives have often painted themselves as supporting smaller governments and more freedom. But the right, too, has begun supporting greater government power: see the rise of Christian nationalism.

The truth is: the reason defenders of freedom are losing the argument that freedom is “better” than tyranny is that we’ve forgotten a basic truth: it’s not. Tyranny, in fact, is better than freedom—if raw power to affect change is what you’re aiming for. And the only way for defenders of freedom to preserve freedom and stave off a descent into totalitarian darkness is to remember that.


For most of human history, rule by a monarch of some kind was the norm, whether the pharaohs of Egypt, the emperors of Rome, or the sultans of the Middle East. Not only were people ruled by kings, but great philosophers and theologianslike St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that a “rule of the one” was explicitly the best form of government. In his work On Kingship, Aquinas argues that logically it was definitive that rule by “one” was the best form of government.

Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several— as the most efficacious cause of heat is that which is by its nature hot. Therefore the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many. Furthermore, it is evident that several persons could by no means preserve the stability of the community if they totally disagreed. For union is necessary among them if they are to rule at all: several men, for instance, could not pull a ship in one direction unless joined together in   some fashion. Now several are said to be united according as they come closer to being one. So one man rules better than several who come near being one.

The logic of this should not be passed over, because it’s exactly why modern expansions of government power are so appealing to so many people. We expect government to do its job, to protect us from exploitation and to provide basic services. But they cannot provide those services if they’re constantly being hamstrung by too many people getting in the way, either by an inability to come to consensus or through incentives to inaction (e.g., so the guy in the other party doesn’t get a win).

The word tyrant, with origins in ancient Greece, originally referred to someone on the fringes of nobility who gained absolute control by bypassing the aristocrats in power and appealing directly to the people by stirring them up with the promise of providing them what those aristocrats (think “elites”) had not. In Dune: Part Two, Paul Atreides is sabotaged by the other great houses only to ascend back to the top by using the poor. And the reason the people accept Paul Atreides as Messiah is they’ve been unable to overthrow the oppressive Harkonnen military without one. Likewise, the reason that Americans on the left want the government to step in on issues of income inequality and discrimination is that those problems haven’t been “solved” via the free market or social institutions. The reason that Americans on the right want the government to stop the tide of secular gender ideology is that civil society hasn’t been able to stop that either.


 So why do advocates for freedom and limited government argue against unlimited state power if it’s so much more effective in achieving one’s goals? Because of the second part of Thomas Aquinas’ argument. Aquinas argued that “rule of the one” was the best form of government when it’s good, but that it’s the worst form of government when it’s bad. The very things that make it capable of doing great good, having the power to do what it wants without interference, are the very things that make it so dangerous when it’s directed toward evil.

Just as it is more useful for a force operating for a good to be more united, in order that it may work good more effectively, so a force operating for evil is more harmful when it is one than when it is divided. Now, the power of one who rules unjustly works to the detriment of the multitude, in that he diverts the common good of the multitude to his own benefit. Therefore, for the same reason that, in a just government, the government is better in proportion as the ruling power is one—thus monarchy is better than aristocracy, and aristocracy better than polity—so the contrary will be true of an unjust government, namely, that the ruling power will be more harmful in proportion as it is more unitary.

This is why constitutionally secured freedom of speech, association, and religion came about when they did in the United States. Philosophers like John Locke and statesmen like the American Founders argued for a limited government in the shadows of centuries of violent Catholic and Protestant wars that resulted in alternating Catholic and Protestant tyrannies. The idea was not to create the best society possible, some Utopia, but to escape the tyrannies so many in history had had to endure. As Dr. Joe Loconte wrote:

The religious Right fails to grasp that, in a profoundly important sense, liberalism arose as a Christian response to the failures of Christendom. Although their political agenda remains murky, they seem enamored of the prospect of reestablishing a nationalist, religious vision: a Leviathan wearing the robes of a priest. Under this vision, the exercise of raw executive power would vanquish the enemies of cultural conservatism. Hence their uncritical embrace of Donald Trump, the self-styled defender of Christian values: “Nobody has done more for Christianity…or for religion itself than I have,” he recently boasted.

Both the left and the right tend to overpromise by romanticizing their ideological schemes as the answer to everyone’s problems. This sets up the populace—Republican and Democrat, religious and secular—for disappointment and disillusionment when those promises don’t come true. Advocacy for freedom is not a promise to create some fantasy society. It’s rooted in the hard lessons of history that strongman alternatives are far, far worse. Perfection is not possible from fallen creatures, however brilliant they may think they are.


America outlasted and avoided the horrors of the French Revolution. America outlasted and avoided the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. As I wrote about in a recent Acton article, most of the bad things in the world are getting better, and those things are largely due to the institutions that are coming out of free societies, such as capitalism.

The ending of Dune: Part Two is explicit in its warning against utopian schemes. Paul Atreides can see the future and therefore knows that if he embraces his role as a ”savior” of the people, he will start a holy war that will lead to genocide and tyranny. And those closest to him must choose whether to remain loyal or flee from a Paul Atreides very different from the one they once knew.

People are abandoning freedom because they believe it has not lived up to its promise(s). In order to restore belief in freedom—in limited government and in personal, moral agency—we need to reestablish exactly what freedom does, and does not, promise so that people can see that, while it will not fulfill our dreams (only we can do that), it’s still better than the alternative, however appealing the notion of raw power to achieve our ends and vanquish our enemies may be.

Joseph Holmes

Joseph Holmes is a New York–based culture critic and co-host of the podcast The Overthinkers.