Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here – Why is the Grim Darkness of the Far Future so Interesting?
(Warhammer 40K and Philosophy)
There is a meme about going to your favourite fictional universe. Star Wars? “Exciting! Jedis and Wookies!” Star Trek? “Interesting! A peaceful confederation, exploring things and pondering ethical questions.” Warhammer 40K? “Are you insane? No way!” Because in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.
A Brief Introduction
In 1987, Warhammer 40K started out as a miniature table-top war game, set in the year 40,000, in which various groups from around our galaxy try to slaughter each other. The setting is indeed grim and – lest we forget – also dark (hence: “grimdark”), meaning humanity is largely stagnating (politically, technologically, as well as ethically) and while we have conquered most of the galaxy we are beset on all sides (and from within) by all kinds of foes. “Beware the alien, the mutant, the heretic”, as the saying goes, yet also “fear not the alien, the mutant, the heretic” – but mostly “suffer not the alien, the mutant, the heretic”.
Warhammer 40K has human soldiers, genetically engineered and brainwashed super-human super-soldiers, traitorous super-human super-soldiers, demons, a fanatical church, fungus-aliens, magic, elves in space, BDSM-aliens (the same elves, but like if the Marquis de Sade had written them), a machine-cult, Terminator-aliens, blue communist aliens etc. It is way over the top and so successful that the ninth edition of the rules came out in 2020.
Alas, Warhammer 40K is not just a nerdy table-top game anymore; the franchise also comprises videogames (of varying quality, some outstanding, some … meh), a TV series in the making (Amazon and Henry Cavill recently became involved) and most importantly books, lots and lots of books (like, hundreds), which are also, of course, very nerdy. But which are very widely read as well (several of them are NYT best sellers), even by people who are not interested in playing the games at all. This manifold of media brings about an interesting problem, namely that of narrative vs. setting. For the games, Warhammer 40K is a fixed setting, but for the books, it is an evolving narrative.
So apart from the hard to paint and over-expensive miniatures and the daunting number of books, what could be the appeal of Warhammer 40K – and how is it theoretically interesting? The obvious appeal of 40K is negative escapism: the dystopian universe is so much worse than ours that it functions as a form of relief: our situation could be way worse. What is philosophically interesting is how exactly it could be worse. For while there are infinite ways for our universe to be both better or worse, any u-/dystopian setting must pick a specific way in which it is better or worse.
In the case of 40K, we have a cornucopia of things making life bad: in the course of 40K-history, humanity progressed rapidly in terms of technology, leading to a successful, prosperous, galaxy-spanning civilisation – which collapsed when the “Men of Iron” (AI) turned against it. Now technological and scientific progress is halted, even forbidden and our understanding of machinery is waning and mixed with theology: the “Cult Mechanicus”, whose home-base is on Mars, holds sway over all things technological and ensures that every toaster is used with the correct intonations and rites. What is interesting about the fear of AI (which is short for “abominable intelligence” in-universe) in 40k is that it is developed into a post-AI world, with brains and bits of brains serving as biological computers.
This world is, however, not simply post-apocalyptical, but rather post-post-apocalyptical. In fact, one might call the setting post-(…)-post-apocalyptical in several ways, as the war against artificial intelligences is not the only event in the fictional history which might be deemed apocalyptical. For as it turns out, all our emotions are mirrored in an immaterial dimension, which is totally and utterly warped (hence “The Warp”). This chaotic realm is the source of magic (“psy”) but ruled by such friendly creatures as the gods of War (“Blood for the Blood-God! Skulls for the Skull-Throne!”), Change, Desire and Decay as well as their warring legions. Oh yes, faster-than-light-travel is only possible by ripping open the warp, sailing through hell and ripping open reality to (hopefully) arrive at your destination (in roughly the correct year). Warpspace is pretty much the realised sub-consciousness of all conscious races. Accordingly, it is an absolute nightmare of a place, and its demons try to get out whenever they can. In this, Warhammer 40K is a little like Dante’s Divine Comedy, just without any purgatory or heaven and Virgil being a Grey Knight Space Marine in tactical dreadnought armour brandishing a nemesis force weapon.
Next to these two apocalyptic issues (Abominable Intelligence and, you know, demons), we get incredibly dangerous mutations, absolutely catastrophic, galaxy-spanning civil war, aliens who want to kill us for fun (Orks), aliens who want to get rid of us (Necrons), aliens who want to manipulate us (Aeldari), aliens who want to torture us (Drukhari), aliens who want to mind-control us in the name of the Greater Good (T’au) and aliens who want to eat us (Tyranids). It is bad. It is really, very bad. Were Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to live in the Warhammer 40K universe, he would absolutely not declare it the best of all possible worlds. Or maybe he would? Maybe he should, to avoid being burned as a heretic?
The lore is so rich these days that several fairly big encyclopaedias and dedicated YouTube-channels exist, which might be another appealing aspect: Warhammer 40K is a rabbit hole, a topic in which we can immerse ourselves, hours on end. And since for Black Library, everything is canon, but not everything is true, there is no end to debates about contradictory accounts and (purposely) vague descriptions and hints.
Obviously, many themes and tropes are not original; Dune, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and other works of fantasy and fiction have massively influenced this universe. In Sandy Mitchell’s works starring Ciaphas Cain, we can even find the occasional Winnie-the-Pooh reference. Many authors also sprinkle in little in-jokes about obscure authors from the history of philosophy, like “the great heretic philosopher of M2 Emanuele Quant”.
As can be seen even from this very brief introduction, there is indeed much to discuss and many topics to explore from different perspectives: philosophy, theology, psychoanalysis, literature theory, science and technology studies, political science etc.
Philosophy finds purchase almost everywhere in Warhammer 40K, because there are so many assumptions and presuppositions in play, both in creating the universe as well as entertained by characters within the universe. Both can be discussed. Only recently, a returned son of the Emperor of Mankind turned to discussing the nature of godhood with one of his psykers and an Aeldari far-seer: what is a God? Can something or someone become a God? Even against their will? (An especially tricky question, since the Emperor used to be an atheist now venerated as a God himself – and presumably performing miracles through saints as well!) Naturally, the philosopher of religion can jump right in. Already in this case, we can see the ambiguity of such discussions. On one hand, it might be seen as a nerdy conversation regarding some fictional over-the-top universe, which is of no interest to the general public. On the other hand, discussions on the nature of godhood are fairly pertinent to real-world issues, given that most humans believe in some deity of some kind (but not the same) – the fact that the discussion primarily concerns fictional entities does not stop it from debating conceptual matters relevant to non-fictional contexts.
The same holds for any other philosophical topic, like ethics, for example. When Magnus the Great broke into the webway to warn his father (the Emperor) about his brother Horus’ treachery, did he do wrong? Given his father’s prohibition to do so and given the absolutely catastrophic consequences, it seems so. But are prohibitions and consequences the only measure of right and wrong? Did Mangnus not exhibit a good will, especially given that he went against his father’s will, willingly incurring his wrath, just to warn him? Does intention count for nothing? (Then again, Magnus’ intention might not have been quite as pure as some seem to think.) All in all, quite a few factions seem to have what might be called a consequentialist (good is what has good consequences) or utilitarian point of view (the greatest good for the greatest number). They just differ very much in who counts as subject in these considerations. Other are just raving fanatics (virtue ethicists?) or very hungry. While we might not have to decide whether to break into the webway or whether to scour entire planets in order to stop more from being eaten or whether to start the Octavius-war (looking at you, inquisitor Kryptman, on both accounts!), but the question which criteria are relevant for our judging an action does arise in everyday life too. Here, the extreme nature of Warhammer just serves as a foil for deliberations on our own world.
Take political philosophy as another example. Plato did (probably?) not have the Emperor of Mankind in view when he penned Socrates’ proposal of a philosopher-king (or -queen, as Plato explicitly mentions), but the idea of organising a state around the ones most knowledgeable (and lying to the rest where necessary) is something the Emperor could approve of as an adequate expression of justice. The Orks are a direct model for “might makes right” (and red makes faster) – and does the menace of the alien not constitute a cause for just war? And does not the aim of survival justify any means necessary, including unspeakable atrocities against other humans? However that may be, democracies are clearly not en vogue in the far future. But maybe they should be? Maybe a democratically organised Imperium would function much better because democracies are more stable and better suited to adapt to fluid situations? Or maybe democracies do not work across the galaxy? Or in the face of alien invasions? Something for the scholars of political philosophy to argue about.
Anthropology also has a lot to discuss in Warhammer 40K. The question “What makes us human?” gains some urgency when faced not just with Silicon Valley post-humanist Tech-Types, but by actual post-, super- and abhuman. How much cyborgisation can we endure before being more machine than human? And how can we consider these cyborgs as having free will? Since artificial computers are bad we get literal brains-in-a-vat as well as lobotomized servitors – do they count as humans? And are genetically enhanced super-soldiers still human? Do they have more or less worth than normal humans? As one character puts it, the Space Marines are tools, they have no dreams, no true human potential, although their physical and mental prowess is far greater than ours. Hence their deaths are no real loss. But that presupposes that the worth and value of a life rest on their power of their emotions and their imagination. And why should we accept that? In general, the image of humankind is fairly pessimistic in Warhammer 40K – but then again, we still cling on, and after all, love can bloom even in the grim future.
Finally, metaphysics is also an interesting discipline with regard to Warhammer 40K. For what is reality in a universe in which the minds of some can directly alter the state of affairs? In which the nightmarish realm of the immaterium is just a thought away? Is reality split into two, materium and immaterium? If so, how are soul and body connected? After all, we know (most) humans have immaterial souls in Warhammer 40K – but how should we conceive of them? Or are materium and immaterium two sides of the same coin? Maybe Warhammer 40K is ultimately a Schopenhauerian universe: As Guilliman says in Godblight, “Only will is real. And none may outmatch my will.” The universe of Warhammer 40K certainly seems to fit Heraclitus’ infamous aphorism: “War is the father of all things.”
Either way, in the grim darkness of the far future, there is quite a lot of philosophy to be had, if one dares.
Dr. Thomas Arnold is assistant professor (akademischer Rat) at the Philosophical Seminar, University of Heidelberg. He has published on phenomenology and metaphysics (and phenomenological metaphysics) and enjoys doing philosophy in, for and with the public whenever possible.