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40 Lessons from Warhammer 40k

Learning from the Grim-Dark Future

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It's time to talk about everyone’s favorite science fiction pulp setting: Warhammer 40000.

Since its inception, this extended fictional universe (designed as the backdrop for miniature war-gaming) popularized the image of the "Grim-dark" future. Of course, most of  40k's core ideas are stolen from pulp and early 20th century science fiction. Nonetheless, in the last two decades, Warhammer has made the iconic visage of an impossibly vast, unimaginably violent, millennia-long  interstellar war part of the core cultural lexicon of the internet, with memes and quotes galore.

Certainly, in a media environment so dominated by focus-group oriented pop culture, what is there not to love about stories of grim heroism set in the throws of an unending technological dark age? But, as many have noticed (with increasing alarm), Warhammer contains some rather prominent "right-wing" themes. Certainly, many of these themes began intentionally in the mode of parody (as with many other 1980s British fiction like “Judge Dredd”), but as the series matured the reactionary dimensions became core to its aesthetic appeal and provided a feeling of "gravity"  distinctly lacking from its more advertiser-friendly competitors. And fans responded positively. But, for many, this was unacceptable.

As think piece after think piece would highlight, there were problematic politics afoot in Warhammer. It was bad enough that the universe was enjoyed mainly by straight white young men. But did it have to go to such great lengths to lionize the aspects of the old world so decried by modern right-thinking progressives? The normalization of toxic Masculinity and conflict-oriented perspectives on politics? Xenophobia and religious fanaticism portrayed as futuristic? It was all too much. There needed to be a correction, an update, a fix to bring the Grim Dark future of the 41st millennium inline with the properly feminized sensibilities of the 21st century Western order.

Of course the franchise owner, Games  Workshop, has tried their best to downplay this political dimension, often re-framing its problematic qualities to throw their leftist allies a bone. After all, isn't the entirety of Warhammer just a parody? Right wing themes aside, perhaps 40k is simply a pointed political lampoon against the very martial and religious virtues described, in-universe, as noble and heroic? Perhaps we could ret-con the lore to make that more clear? Or maybe, layer in some narrative workarounds to highlight a more progressive message?

You see, the joke is really on the fans. We might think that stories of fanatical space marines defending humanity's home-worlds against  hordes of soulless alien invaders and demonically possessed heretics is "cool", but that's just because we’ve missed the point. The real point was to teach us Chuds how "uncool" classical notions of heroism really were. Conviction? Martial zeal? Self-sacrifice for a greater purpose? All reactionary spooks. After all, the real point of  Warhammer 40k is to demonstrate how stupid the denizens of the 41st millennia are for participating in the conflict at all. Wouldn't it just be better if they were like modern progressives who wouldn't give a damn about whether humanity prevailed over alien (or even demonic) invaders, and who couldn't be bothered to fight a war concerning the issue? The updated perspective makes sense to some progressive minds, but also misses the true draw of the source material.

For Warhammer 40k, post-hoc satirical explanations never sell, nor can a “ret-con” or "lore update" fix its problematic politics without destroying its flavor. It turns out that Warhammer's reactionary themes are the central reason why people like it. Without that edge, there is no draw nor feeling that something profound is being described. Talking to many people in the meme and hobby spaces, I am convinced the average Warhammer fan understands this. Still, I am surprised that their understanding never goes further.

The fans know their beloved fictional universe is transgressive against the modern world they inhabit. But very few ask themselves whether the pulp setting can communicate important lesson that they might not otherwise learn from the mainstream.  Perhaps they are afraid of encountering dangerous truths? The question reached a point when I asked a real-life friend, who had read an enormous number of the Warhammer 40k novels, whether he had learned anything from the setting.  "Really?”,  he responded blithely, “Do you think Warhammer has anything to teach us?".

It is a fair question. Maybe Warhammer is just trash sci-fi pulp. But it's trash pulp that scares many progressives at a deep level. So, for those of us who are curious and not wedded to the leftist vision, could we look for any lessons Warhammer might have to teach us? I was able to come up with 40 of my own.

40 Lessons from Warhammer 40k

Lesson 1: "There is only war" - Whether we learn this reality from Hobbes, Schopenhauer, or the book of Ecclesiastes, it always remains the same. Nature is nasty, brutish, and short. Life is suffering and struggle. And existence is conflict, both spiritual and physical. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Eternal war is the backdrop for all human stories and the template upon which meaningful human heroism is drawn.

Lesson 2: "Chaos is the arch-Enemy" - The metaphysical struggle we experience, both temporally and spiritually, is order versus chaos; the conflict between that which is seen by God, and that from which God turns away. The struggle within mirrors the struggle without, whether over the mastery of a single soul, or the dominion of the entire universe.

Lesson 3: "The Primordial gods of Creation" - The stories of creation, both pagan and Abrahamic, agree. The universe was born from chaos. Although the ultimate meaning of this might never be fully understood, its implications are not hard to realize. That which is our greatest nemesis, is also core to our emergence. Chaos is both our point of origin and our ultimate (temporal) fate. From ashes we have come and from ashes we will return.

Lesson 4: "The Demons of the Warp" -  Whether a part of creation or not, for sentient beings,  Chaos means ruination. Evil is equivalent to willful preference of the Chaotic to the Orderly, the preference of the selfish will to the Divine Will. And those who seek enrichment in darkness, confusion, and disorder are following the path towards the demonic.

Lesson 5: "The Call to Battle!" - In a universe haunted by hostility (both natural and unnatural) war is necessary, sacrifice is essential, and death is near. Everyone fights, no one quits, and those who live on their feet will die on them as well. War in every sense is inescapable.

Lesson 6: "Progress is a Lie" - The creation of technology is helpful and, for a time, may suggest it can solve humanity's problems. But this is fundamentally untrue. The real war between good and evil, order and chaos, persists at a deeper level and will reassert itself at the moment of truth. Those who build their towers on a foundation of technical knowledge and mechanical safeguards will fall the moment this deeper substrate begins to shift.

Lesson 7: "The Majesty of the Golden Throne"  - Order is found in trust. Trust is found in responsibility, which is only ever held individually. From these foundations civilization's hierarchy is established: loyalty offered upwards and governance provided downward, a tree with a single endpoint. From this structure mankind finds a light in an otherwise dark universe, perceived by the many as an authority beyond question. As the denizens of the 41st millennia say: “The Emperor Protects”.

Lesson 8: "Beware the Alien!" The alien may not always be evil, but it is always adversarial. Since its interests and nature are separate, alien desires will, at some point, be subversive even if inadvertently. The wise trust their own people first and are wary of outsiders. A total lack of xenophobia is indistinguishable from corruption. Do not believe their lies.

Lesson 9:  "The Naivety of the Greater Good" - As the Tau demonstrate, the idea of "The Greater Good" between races and religions is illusory. Since all war is total, and all conflict religious. One theology and one worldview will always dominate. Behind any ideology that calls itself "The Greater Good" will be the machinations of a priest class, its motivations all the more pernicious due to its secrecy and false-pretense.

Lesson 10: "The Beast Arises" - As the Orks show, the animals may be innocent of true evil, but their actions are no less lethal. In the context of their own existence, a dumb creature’s antics may seem humorous, but it can become deadly at any moment.  Underestimating the beast is a quick route to the grave.

Lesson 11: "The Great Maw" - As the Tyranids exemplify, the logic of nature, unleashed from all limits and control has a demonic dimension to it. The logic of Darwinian biology can be beautiful when constrained in a natural order, but carried out in its most extreme form, the force of survival will devour everything in its path. It is a power too simple to know mercy.

Lesson 12: "The Silent Empire" - As the Necrons remind us, the greatest empire is the empire of the dead. The silence of oblivion is the loudest sound in the universe, the backdrop to all struggles, and the end to all stories.

Lesson 13: “Death to Traitors!” - While the alien may be an eternal threat, There is no more deadly strike than the strike that comes from within. There is no more vicious betrayal than that of a friend. There is no more brutal war than that of brother versus brother.

Lesson 14: "This is a War of Belief!" - As Lorgar teaches, and the philosopher Schmidt repeats, politics is always a question of theology. War is, fundamentally, a conflict of belief. It exists in men's souls just as readily as on the battlefield, and it is only won when it secures the total devotion of its opposition.

Lesson 15: "Beware the Heretic" - Innovation is sometimes necessary, but it must be approached humbly and with care. When arraying yourself against the wisdom of your ancestors never think that you are above them, that your new truth is obvious, and their own struggles were born purely from naivete. Beyond this pretense is the petty narcissism of novelty which places your morality above question and constraint. And the quest that starts with refusing to serve on Earth always ends with one preferring to reign in Hell.

Lesson 16:  "Death is Nothing Compared to Vindication!" - As Conrad Kurtz says. All lives may end in death, but not all lives are meaningless. The great war persists. And the role we play in it matters. The story of our lives continues after our deaths. And a person’s death may send a message more profound than anything he accomplish while living.

Lesson 17: "There is No Such Thing as Innocence!" - As Chesterton said, original sin is the only part of Christianity you can prove. Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor has a point. The outline of civilization is man’s constant temptation, and the structures needed to contain it must be everlasting. All men fall. All men sin. And that sin cannot be ignored or left unpunished. The society that forgets this will be doomed to be consumed by the very creeping evil it seeks to deny.

Lesson 18: "Blood for the Blood God" - They say that truth is the first casualty in  war. So too might be the reason for fighting in the first place. Chesterton said that a warrior fights for the love of those behind him, but that love grows ever distant as the  conflict rages on. As the fog of war becomes all consuming, compassion and noble purpose are eclipsed by blood lust and the love of the fight itself. On a long enough time-scale everyone who does not re-dedicate themselves to ordered goodness  becomes a soldier in the army of the Blood God, pursuing war for war's sake.

Lesson 19: "The Maze of Tzeentch" -  Long experience has taught me the difference between knowledge and truth. Truth hangs lightly for all to see, simple and elegant. Truth enlightens and liberates. Knowledge, however, may take darker turns by twisting into endless complexity and abstraction, piling on subsequent counter-intuitive revelations in an endless ladder such that the machinations of those at the upper rungs are totally obscure from those at the bottom. The masters may therefore sit in darkness dangling half-truths in front of the masses to bend them to their wills. A path to knowledge where truth is mixed with lies, used to deceive the very people who seek it, will quickly crescendo until the act of inquiry itself is hated by those who genuinely want to understand the universe.

Lesson 20: "The Wisdom of Grandfather Nurgle" - Nurgle is not the god of plague, but rather the god of Democracy, the temptation to place “low” over “high” and invert the hierarchy of existence. The constant thread that defines all maladies (from viruses, to bacteria, to cancer) is the process by which the function of life at the lower level subverts the function of life at the higher level. The disease subjugates the ordered purpose of a sentient being to serve a disorganized organic chaos not even aware of its own existence. It is the revolt of the lower order against the higher nature it was designed to serve. Each infection betrays the logic of revolution at a biological level. And the result is the same both in the context of the body and the body-politic, a shambling corpse of what once was: government as a mockery of government, life as a mockery of life.

Lesson 21: "The Ravages of She who Thirsts" - In an age of progress, modern man thinks he can find purpose either in the pursuit of pleasure or the aspiration to greater perfection. But the philosophy of Epicurus is fatally flawed, for the nature of  desire resists all constraints and eventually become subversive towards its original purpose. We understand the process well when we see it in drug-addicts, but the danger is much deeper. In all appetites (high or low) there is temptation and draw to the extreme, towards a  "limit experience", until the horizon of perfection and indulgence destroys the very form that gave it birth. Seems like science fiction, but this was the fate of Faust, Foucault, George Bataille, and maybe, soon, Natalie Wynn.

Lesson 22: "One day, I will be a Generous god!" - It is said that those who follow the path of order inevitably are drawn to the worship of one God. But the followers of Chaos inevitably worship two: Chaos and themselves.

Lesson 23: "Let the Galaxy Burn!" - Chaos is “war of all against all”. Its language is contempt, and the horizons for that contempt always expand. As such, the followers of Chaos inevitably find themselves in a war against the universe for the crime of existing.

Lesson 24: "Death to the False Emperor!" - Perhaps I can leave a humorous aside here, but speaking as a denizen of a dying Empire regarding another,  it's good to know I am not the only one who feels that humanity is languishing in a tumultuous universe while its potential is shackled by a corpse sitting on a gilded throne.

Lesson 25 : "Master of the Universe, Slave to Darkness” - The small wisdom tells us that crime does not pay. The deep wisdom knows that the dark powers make promises, not all of which are false. The wages of sin are not simply death. There is a dark corollary to Christ's own words, one might bring the world to heel for the price of a single soul.

Lesson 26: "Empire, built by Titans, defended by Weaklings”  - Internet memes have already made the cycle of civilizations common knowledge, “Strong men create good times, weak men create hard times”, etc, etc. Still, the pattern bears repeating. It is the common fate of all empires that new generations forget that which made their society vital and cease to be worthy of its original promise. Eventually those raised within a civilization forget, not simply the techniques necessary to defend a nation, but also the morality that would make them believe their nation should be defended.

Lesson 27:   "Beware the Mutant" - While there are many examples of heroic souls trapped in misshaped bodies, often a malevolent form is a harbinger of a malevolent spirit. The spiteful mutant is an ever-present danger, as malformed individuals have a tendency to subvert their society for the simple reason that it does not reflect their own desires. In this way the mutant is like the alien, but more pernicious since total separation is never entirely possible.

Lesson 28: “The Machine Spirit Sings” - The boundary between man and machine may never truly be breached. But if true cybernetics is possible, it will be in the form of the spiritual computer and the holy code. Man is more fundamentally religious than he is fundamentally flesh and bone. And any machine that is manlike, will be a religious machine.

Lesson 29: "In War there is Poetry, in Death a Release!" -  The wisdom of the Harlequins’ dance teaches us that damnation may be escaped through levity and dedication. The pride in ones’ craft releases a soul from narcissism, and humor in the face of failure releases the spirit from pride. The dance deters the devil at the door for as long as it goes on. Perhaps, for all time?

Lesson 30 : "The Bond of Battle Brothers" - True human connection is built on constraint and sacrifice. The gravity of emotion is found in the experience of risk and survival. No where is this more present than in battle. As such, war creates more heroes than it destroys, forms more bonds between men than it tears asunder.

Lesson 31: "The Armor of Contempt" - Wrath is a sin, but anger, in the proper context, is a gift. Hatred for true evil is righteous even in the heart of a saint. And many men find their courage first in disapprobation. After all, is there anything more disgusting than a being who cannot feel anger when they witness genuine injustice? As the space marines say: “Show me what passes for fury among your misbegotten kind!”

Lesson 32: "Sanity is for the Weak" -  The experience of life and its principles exist beyond our ability to justify them with logic. True warriors are not rationalists, neither are true poets. And the apex of poetry and war dovetail in the maniac. True soldiers fight for principles they cannot fully comprehend, and any one who fights well fights like a madman.

Lesson 33: "The Ever-Vigilant Eye" - If our enemy is Chaos, and Chaos is the direction of all things in our fallen universe when left alone, then those who wish to live in order and civilization must maintain their lot through constant discipline, attention, and effort. The price of life is eternal vigilance.

Lesson 34:  "Beware the Psyker" - The inquisition of the 41st millennia remembers what the ancients knew, and what moderns have forgotten. Those who reach for esoteric knowledge expose themselves to corruption, and the danger of that corruption grows the more those men control the tools that influence the masses. Man in particular is fallible, and mankind in general is malleable. In combination the missteps of one mind may mean many must perish.

Lesson 35: "How do we have a right to let them live?" - If the world is a war then our decisions have large consequences. Any political action will involve the application of force. Any choice we make will send men to kill and people to die. We can argue endlessly over the ultimate effect of our decisions, but the consequences, either way, will be grave.

Lesson 36:  "An open mind is like a castle gate with its gates unbarred and unguarded" - We  understand that people can be brainwashed. We know human belief is a product that can be manufactured by malevolent actors. Why then do we never apply these lessons to public opinion generally, or to ourselves? When it comes to exposing our minds to new information caution is required. Inquiry can be healthy, but ideas themselves contain temptations towards narcissism, indulgence, and corruption. To properly navigate these hurdles a mind must be fortified or not approach the task at all. As the inquisition says, “Blessed is the mind too small to doubt”

Lesson 37: "Why do I still live?" - The world may be locked in a conflict between good and evil, but most ordinary peoples’ lives never bears on any epic battle. The struggles they face are small ones, but no less agonizing for their obscurity. For most, the great war is an internal struggle to find hope, to live another day, and to confront pain and fear with courage. The task may require more bravery than fighting in the grimmest of all battles.

Lesson 38:  "Faith Makes us Strong "- While anger at unrighteousness may drown out the fear of the moment, the greatest battle is in the quiet moments of despair and the long nights of the soul. The long hours and years wondering what the ultimate purpose is, or whether our struggle is all for naught. Faith is the simple act of seeing through the despair of the world to a Higher Love. It is mankind’s greatest weapon.

Lesson 39: "Path of the Living Saint" - Faith is not simply a palliative or a stratagem. It is a path to something higher and something greater than even this material universe. Chaos may be the origin and destination of our crude material reality. But there is a greater eternal order that stands apart and above the pit. May humans escape their doom by reaching towards this Higher Good? Might this be, not only the ultimate weapon against the arch-enemy, but the fulfillment of all human desire? No one knows for sure, but many great examples proceed before us. And not following their path, along the straight and narrow, is life’s one true tragedy.

Lesson 40: "You can Give a Life!" - The universe is cruel, the magnitude of the struggle vast, and the hope of salvation uncertain. But despair is the only real damnation humans rightly fears. And the awesome proportions of the evil we face might be overcome by accepting the smallness of our role in the great design. There is solace in understanding that we are only ever asked to fight the battles presented to us, choosing good over evil, day to day. And here there is an unexpected camaraderie shared between all souls locked in the struggle. From the most powerful super-man plotting the destiny of the galaxy to the lowest invalid facing the pain of existence, humans are only asked for one thing, not more than they can provide. The meek ask what they can give to make a difference in war so vast. The answer is simple. You can give the same thing as any other soul. You can give a life.

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