Nietzsche in 40,000 Years, Part Three:


Art by Raymond Swanland.

The Imperium fails the Nietzschean criterion, but perhaps there is another society in 40K where the individual can self-overcome. What of those hostile forces who tore from the Imperium in civil war? Were they not seeking their independent and full expressions of will? By the four hundredth century, this faction has coalesced into warbands called the Forces of Chaos, making their home in the one place which has the potential for creativity and imagination, a nexus of terrible energy, emotion, fertility, and possibility – the Immaterium. Appearing in real space as nebulous purple-pink storms, the Immaterium is an “alternate universe inhabited entirely by psychic energy generated by the thoughts, emotions, and mental life of the inhabitants of the material universe” (Compilation 40). Perhaps in this wild dimension the individual could escape the totalizing forces of an ‘opposite man’ at his zenith.

But Nietzsche was skeptical of a people’s revolution. In opposition to the doctrine of Rousseau or Paine, to those “political and social dreamers” who “call[ed] for the overthrow of all order” to let “beautiful humanity… rear itself,” Nietzsche argued that revolt would reawaken “the wildest energies; the long-buried horrors and extravagances of remotest ages,” that it would collapse humanity into beasthood (Human 334). Likewise, although the Primarchs and their Space Marine armies rebelled with “good intentions” and “just causes,” total freedom proved to be too intoxicating, especially after a “lifetime of deprivation and selflessness.” Removed from “tradition” and “responsibility,” from “physical fear” and “liability,” the rebellion began to “exercise [their] every whim,” whether it was for violence, sexual pleasure, ambition, love, or hatred (CSM 6th 3-10).

In 40K, that Nietzschean pessimism toward crude freedom has spread to the Immaterium. A non-physical dimension of psychic energy, the Immaterium is a manifestation of the mental states of the universe’s sentient creatures, similar to how radios broadcast certain sound waves. Since the 40K universe is engaged in the ‘grim darkness’ of war (and self-indulgent excess and exploitation during episodes of peace), the Immaterium has transformed into a maelstrom of caprice made corporeal—into the Warp.

Art by Zach Graves (2013).

Within the Warp are Infernal images of “worlds which are flat, where rivers of blood pour from the sky, where gigantic burning trees provide the only illumination” (WH40K Compilation 35). Under these conditions, due to the metaphysics of that plane, where a “single idea… can become so powerful… that it attains a consciousness of its own,” the most potent conflicts (mentioned before as the romanticized ideals of decline—corruption, barbarism, hedonism, and inconstancy) have incarnated into a pantheon of foul powers (40).

Each of these Chaos Gods represents a vice of both individual and empire. The mass-lust for violence has created Khorne, the “god of war, bloodshed, and anger.” Corruption and decay have created Nurgle, the “god of plagues and morbidity.” The eternal struggle for power has created Tzeentch, the “god of change, plots, and intrigue.” The youngest, the sensuous daemon Slaanesh, or the “god of pleasure and personal gratification,” has been produced by the pursuit of pleasure (WH40K Compilation 40).

Art by Zach Graves (2013).

As they reveled in obscene freedom, the humans in the Warp began to serve these gods, finding that these patrons not only approved of their new lifestyles but “actively reward[ed]” them (CSM 6th 5). The Beserkers, traitor Space Marines who followed Khorne, received the Butcher’s Nails – brain implants which enhance aggression, reduce pain, and induce euphoria when the user’s adrenaline glands are activated. The downside is that the Nails encourage insufferable headaches when adrenaline is absent, i.e. when the Marines are not engaged in combat (40K Wiki). The Thousand Sons, worshippers of Tzeentch, are immortal, but their souls are sealed in their power armor, their bodies ground to “bone-dry dust,” and their wills crushed (CSM 6th 45). Those who follow Nurgle, like the Death Guard, have become “filth-encrusted hulks” with “sagging skin” and guts corroded into “bloated sacs of gas and rancid fat.” Although they constantly evolve and endure, they have been reduced to “grotesque splendours” (31). The Noise Marines, willing slaves of Slaanesh, use “strange sensory organs and mood amplifiers” which let them “better savour the shocking stimuli of open warfare” (31). The result is constant dissatisfaction, with Slaanesh’s followers having to resort to self-mutilation, torture, and other cruelties to satiate (if only temporarily) their lusts.

While each of these gifts bestows the individual with power, they require ruinous obedience. One master traded for another. Violence, manipulation, addiction, and entropy tyrannize the will—the antithesis of power and vitality.

There was another philosopher who predicted the decline of Western Civilization and offered a solution. Christopher Dawson, in the throes of World War II, described the West as on the “brink of ruin” in need of salvation from the “law of power which destroys the weak by violence and the strong by treachery” (The Judgment of the Nations 4-6). One of these law-bringers was the rise of totalitarianism which sought to abolish the “limits which had been imposed by centuries of Christianity and civilization on the primitive instinct of violence and aggressiveness” (4). The other was the “discipline” of the machine, or the mechanical sciences and industry which had devalued the spirit of morality and human freedom and uplifted an ideology of materialism (72-73). Instead of an embrace of Nietzsche’s project, Dawson advocated for a return to the “law of charity,” a system of altruism, communion, and Christian love, because, as he eloquently put it, “the will to power is also the will to destruction, and in the last event it becomes the will to self-destruction” (6-7).

Art by Mark Holmes.

The rules system of Warhammer 40,000 portrays the dehumanization of people into statistics—unit points, strength, initiative modifiers, etc.. The lore portrays the dehumanization of people when the ‘will to power’ is embraced as a moral imperative. This slavery and stagnation occurs both beneath the totalitarian state and the totalitarian appetites of free license. Both the rules and reality lead to eternal strife, stagnation, and death. This is the lesson of 40K, perhaps dictated by commercial necessity (to explain the world’s dynamic battle system; to give the game a more spectacular context to what could be the mere movements of units and dice; to sell models). And ultimately, this lesson is redeeming. Ours is not the 40K universe. Ours is not necessarily Nietzschean. We still have the capacity to embolden and fortify what Dawson would call the ‘law of charity.’

Works Cited

Cavatore, Alessio and Gav Thorpe. Chaos Space Marines, fourth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2007.

Cook, Chris et al. Index Astartes. UK: Games Workshop, 2002.

Cruddace, Robin and Phil Kelly. Chaos Daemons, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.

Cruddace, Robin. Space Marines, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.

Dawson, Christopher. The Judgment of the Nations (1942). NY: Catholic University of America Press, 2011.

Herman, Arthur. The Idea of Decline in Western History. NYC: The Free Press, 1997.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Kelly, Phil. Chaos Space Marines, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All-Too-Human (1878). Translated by Paul V. Cohn (1911). Internet Archive. Accessed May 4, 2017.

Priestley, Rick, Alan Merrett, Jim Bambra, et al. Book of the Astronomican: Warhammer Chapter 40,000 Approved. UK: Taylor Bloxham, 1988.

Priestley, Rick. “Legiones Astartes.” Warhammer 40,000 Compendium. UK: Games Workshop, 1989.

Priestley, Rick. Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader. UK: Games Workshop, 1987.

Troke, Adam, Jeremy Vetock, and Matt Ward. Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook, sixth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2012.

Ward, Matthew. Space Marines, fifth edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2008.

Warhammer 40,000 Compilation. UK: Games Workshop, 1991.

Warhammer 40,000, seventh edition. UK: Games Workshop, 2014.

Warhammer 40,000 Wiki. Accessed May 4, 2017.

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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