The Expanse and Philosophy

The Expanse and Philosophy

“We Can Be Our Own Gods!”

Jeffery L. Nicholas


In Season 3 Episode 1, “Fight or Flight,” the crew of the Rocinante change the name of the ship, partly to disguise themselves, to the Pinus Contorta. Prax, the botanist they picked up on Tycho, believes the name is fitting; “Pinus Contorta” is the name of a tree that needs fire to survive. Without fire, the tree won’t release its seed, and new trees can’t grow.

This image sparks one of the themes running throughout The Expanse, both the book series, and the television show: the relationship between human progress and aggression. The TV show takes it further than the books do, as we see it developed in the characters of Erinwright and the Secretary General. It first appears, though, in Season 2 Episode 2, “Doors and Corners.” This episode deals with the attempt to capture those responsible for the deaths of thousands on Eros, all in the name of science. Dresden, the scientist behind it all, is trying to defend himself, appealing to the Butcher of Anderson Station, Frederick Johnson, as well as the hero of the Cant, James Holden.

“The protomolecule is proof that we’re not alone in the universe, and are taken out of the limitations that bind us to these pathetic little bubbles of rock and air. If we master it we can apply it… to everything. We become our own gods.”

Later, in Season 3, Episode 3, “Assured Destruction,” Undersecretary Erinwright is trying to convince the Secretary General to make a first strike against Mars’ weapons. He argues that leaders “Are remembered for how they move civilizations forward.” And in the same episode, Dr. Strickland is attempting to convince Jules-Pierre Mao, the money behind it all, to continue with the experiments which are torturing children and making killing machines. “Great men are strong,” he says.

These quotes may call to mind Friedrich Nietzsche and his hope for the great man—the Űbermensch—to make his appearance. Science fiction fans will recognize Frank Herbert’s Dune, as an attempt to answer Nietzsche.

Rather than appealing to Nietzsche, let’s consider Sigmund Freud and Herbert Marcuse. Whereas Nietzsche believes we need great men, and Dune counters that heroes are dangerous, Freud and Marcuse attempt to wrestle with the “drives” in human nature and human civilization that make these choices appear less black and white and yet all the more demanding of our attention. The Expanse, I think, wrestles with these issues more carefully than do Nietzsche or Herbert.

Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents argues that human civilization is driven forward by the conflict between the pleasure principle and the death drives. For Freud, the pleasure principle is the drive for pleasures, to seek a hedonistic lifestyle and hedonistic civilizations. Yet, humanity is also driven by the death drives, which give rise to aggression and destruction. For Freud, the death drives often impede our desires for pleasure, and these impediments can both drive civilization forward—by leading to technology and culture that overcomes the pleasure principle—and can cripple it.

Marcuse takes up these themes in his Eros and Civilization. According to Marcuse, the death drives, which he calls variously the Thanatos principle or the reality principle can be defeated.

“The reconciliation between pleasure and reality principle does not depend on the existence of abundance for all. The only pertinent question is whether a state of civilization can be reasonably envisaged in which human needs are fulfilled in such a manner and to such an extent that surplus-repression can be eliminated” (EC, p. 151, Kindle Edition).

Marcuse sees the potential to satisfy all human (vital) needs through technology at the service of humanity. This satisfaction will rid us of the aggressiveness and destructiveness tied to the suppression of pleasure that allows the death drives to dominate humanity, leading to horrors like fascism, the Holocaust, and World War II. Marcuse calls for an aesthetic rationality to think out of the blind drive to death, and an Eros that celebrates and expands life.

Life or death? Freud and Marcuse offer different answers.

The Expanse asks after life and death, after the truth of these drives, and wonders at how humanity survives in their conflict. In his defense, Dresden, the scientist discussed earlier, argues that Genghis Khan killed tens of thousands of people. Yet, without the swath of death he created, civilization would not have moved forward. We watch Fred Johnson become more and more convinced by Dresden’s argument to the point he considers giving Dresden immunity. Perhaps we too are convinced by Dresden’s arguments: doesn’t human progress demand sacrifice? Yet, one simple man, tortured in his own life and his failings, challenges the argument. Joe Miller walks up to Dresden and shoots him in the head. For good measure, he looks down at the dead body and shoots him three more times in the chest.

The Expanse seems to posit that human beings are driven by a death drive. Mars and Earth are ready to kill each other, and the Belters want nothing more than to fight for independence from Mars and Earth. Aggression detracts from life. The protomolecule is alien tech sent to destroy life and remake it in its image. “We can be gods,” Dresden says, wanting to make the protomolecule serve his ends. Earth, Mars, and the Belt fight despite technology that we can only dream of at the moment—technology that allows us to terraform Mars and harvest the belt. And where on Earth vital needs are satisfied through a government allowance, only the few struggle to make their lives better—unlike what Marcuse seems to think would happen.

The Expanse drops in the middle of this conflict over the death drives and the pleasure principle. How do we deal with aggression, with great men or men trying to be great? (And in this series, all those trying to be “great” are men, which is its own discussion.) Joe Miller might be one answer, and the crew of the Rocinante another. And the conflict itself depicted in the story might be the final answer, a Freudian answer which says there is no escape, versus the Marcusean answer which posits hope.

Jeffery L. Nicholas is an associate professor at Providence College and a research associate at the Center for Aristotelian Studies and Critical Theory at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania). He is co-founder of and serves as executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyre Enquiry. His publications, including Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre’s Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), build a critical theory from the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and early Frankfurt School Critical Theorists like Marcuse. His current research project involves developing a politics of liberation on love as the final rejection of alienation.

6 thoughts on “The Expanse and Philosophy

  1. Great stuff here. Does the protomolecule really “destroy life?” It certainly remakes it, but you could make an argument that it doesn’t destroy it.

  2. Pingback: “Killing Justice” in The Expanse | The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

  3. “We watch Fred Johnson become more and more convinced by Dresden’s argument to the point he considers giving Johnson immunity.” Can fix that so that it ends, “…considers giving Dresden immunity.” ?

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