Art by Alex Boyd (2008).
Warhammer 40,000 (40K) is a science-fiction property owned by the British hobby company Games Workshop, located in Nottingham, United Kingdom, with subsidiaries and stores worldwide. The property is a spin-off of Warhammer Fantasy, a tabletop strategy game involving hand-painted miniatures, rulers, dice, and a complex rules system intended to simulate medieval fantasy warfare. Typically, these games consist of two players using equally opposed forces comprised of 28-millimeter figurines battling “over balanced terrain,” like city ruins and dusky forests, to “determine a clear winner.” These miniatures are chosen from prepared army lists which limit “the overall size of the force, the proportion of special equipment, and the number of character models” (Book of the Astronomican 44-45).
40K adopted Warhammer Fantasy’s Tolkien-inspired races but re-cast them as alien combatants in the 41st Millennium. Therefore, there are the elvish Eldar, orcish Orks, and, of course, humans. The conceit, wrapped up perfectly in the game’s tagline, is that ‘in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.’
Art by Adrian Smith (2003).
The interest of my series, “Nietzsche in 40,000 Years,” isn’t the economic success of Games Workshop or the legacy of tabletop gaming, but the ideological conflict within 40K’s fabricated world—within the inner life of its miniatures. Through rulebooks, codices, magazines, video games, etc., in what is collectively called lore, 40K has created a vast galaxy splintered into xenos empires stagnating from romantic notions of decline—corruption, barbarism, hedonism, and inconstancy. Each empire’s solution to these forms of decay – the will to power – only sustains eternal conflict. In this way, 40K offers a hyperbolic survey of Western Civilization in decline—one that sometimes aligns with the fervent critiques of Friedrich Nietzsche and sometimes critiques him.
Whether Western civilization was progressing or declining was a contention among the intelligentsia of 19th century Europe. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argued that history was developing the “consciousness of its own freedom” – a maturity finally realized by the christened German nations (33, 126-127). Auguste Comte argued that civilization was reaching its fruition – the Positive Stage – in which all men could be free (Positive Philosophy 30-36). Karl Marx and Frederick Engels saw mankind as on the brink of its final stage—Socialist Utopia. All of these intellectuals contextualized history as a gradual advance from despotism and ignorance to an age of freedom and enlightenment.
Friedrich Nietzsche, however, regarded the West as beset by decline specifically because of the wide-spread virtues of Christianity and humanitarianism. Christianity, he believed, had been created by a Judaic people who’d coped with their bondage by idolizing it as a supreme good. This slave morality impeded individual will. Worse, the Judeo-Christian framework assumed the image of universal truth—disguising genealogy behind ontology. Its members were deceived into participating in “unalterable features of the world,” making them unable to adopt any other mode of living, even that which might prove useful (Nehamas 32-50). The act of ‘coveting thy neighbor,’ for example, had been codified as immoral, but Nietzsche argued that envy might be a useful way to assess desires and raise oneself to a “superior plane” (Human, All Too Human 208). Altogether, Christianity sacrificed “freedom” and “pride” for “enslavement,” “self-mockery,” and “self-mutilation” (Beyond Good and Evil 54, 212).
The humanitarian movement, a hopeful development among the likes of Locke, Hegel, Comte, and Mill, was likewise poisonous. To Nietzsche, the liberal spirit of equality promoted herd mentality. By preaching dignity, duty, and neighborly love, humanitarians predicated the medocrity of the masses (BGE 54). Nietzsche believed that a society which refrained from mutual “injury, violence, and exploitation” only worked in a society whose constituents were “similar in strength” – not the case of Western Civilization (203). Instead, history showed that “barbarians in every terrible sense of the word” with an “unbroken strength of will and lust for power” had always conquered “weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races.” These barbarians were not to be abhorred but praised—they were “more whole human beings” (201-202). Egalitarianism was a deceptive reordering which privileged the underserving. It was “sentimental weakness” whereas life was “injury, [the] overpowering of what is alien and weaker, suppression, hardness, [the] imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation,” i.e. a crucible which either improved or destroyed individuals (203).
Art by Dave Gallagher (2000).
Nietzsche’s ideal man was the individual who could best will to power (On the Genealogy of Morals 107). Some scholars like Alexander Nehamas have explored this character outside of its physical and political application, depicting Nietzsche’s ‘opposite man’ as an artistic or literary figure. Under this model, the greatest manifestations of the will to power are found in “the greatest intellectual achievements” of a society in “arts and religion, in science, morality, and philosophy.” This ‘opposite man,’ perhaps an artist, theologian, philosopher, scientist, or politician, would not only overthrow the wills and dogmas of others in his life, but embody his “particular individual picture or interpretation” so masterfully that his values would be emulated by peers and later generations (Nehamas 28).
Whether this is an accurate portrayal of Nietzsche – whether his calls to violence are not actual calls to violence – is beyond the scope of this paper. 40K translates the ‘opposite man,’ or Übermensch, into an agent of politico-physical power, just as many politicians and nations have done. 40K keeps its barbarians in every terrible sense of the word.
Comte, Auguste. The Positive Philosophy (1896). Translated by Harriet Martineau. Ontario: Batoche Books, 2000.
Comte, Auguste. A General View of Positivism. London: Routledge & Sons, 1907.
Engels, Frederick. Socialism, Utopia and Scientific. Translated by Edward Aveling. NY: New York Labor News Company, 1901.
Games Workshop Investor Relations. https://investor.games-workshop.com/
Hegel, G. W. F. The Philosophy of History (1822-1830). Translated by J. Sibree. Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001.
Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil (1886). Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All-Too-Human (1878). Translated by Paul V. Cohn (1911). Internet Archive. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Priestley, Rick, Alan Merrett, Jim Bambra, et al. Book of the Astronomican: Warhammer Chapter 40,000 Approved. UK: Taylor Bloxham, 1988.
Troke, Adam, Jeremy Vetock, and Matt Ward. Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.
Warhammer 40,000 Wiki. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://warhammer40k.wikia.com/wiki/Warhammer_40k_Wiki