There’s more than one way to be tough

In a recent article at Sci Phi Journal, inspired by the Bene Gesserit’s use of physical pain to test whether or not someone is “human” in the novel Dune, Scott Huggins suggests that the development of present-day humans might be stunted by a (supposed) unwillingness to endure the “pain” of engaging with those who might disagree with us. Re-reading the novel myself shortly afterwards, I took further note that one of its many fancies is also that living in a very harsh environment has made the Fremen into the astonishingly tough fighters that Paul Atriedes requires to over-run the planet and the galaxy. The Imperial Sardaukar before them are similarly said to have been made tough by living on a “hell world”.

The latter fancy might seem plausible enough at first glance. Back in the modern world, I suspect that one of the fears of working less is not just that we might enjoy ourselves too much, but that not working will furthermore make us soft and weak, ready to be overthrown by some unspecified threat. On closer inspection, however, I can see at least two problems with this line of thinking.

Firstly, it is hardly obvious that living in the desert (or on an ice cap, or on a rocky isle with poor agricultural prospects, and so on) should make one good at fighting wars, whether on Earth or across space. Someone surviving in the desert presumably knows something about protecting themselves from the sun, finding and conserving water, and so on, but it’s hard to see how this translates to equally tough but unrelated skills like swimming the ocean, storming a city, or piloting a spaceship. What’s more, numerous real-world people living in primitive conditions that modern people would probably find quite “tough” have been driven out or otherwise dominated by comparatively well-fed, well-equipped and well-trained colonial powers with access to superior technology and wealth.

Secondly, as I tried to get at in my response to Huggins’ article and of more direct relevance to this blog, there are plenty of ways to test and develop oneself that are surely just as challenging and invigorating as physical deprivation and fighting, and probably nobler to boot in the minds of most modern people. I myself conduct scientific research, create computer software, write things like this blog, and much else besides for which living in the desert or fighting with knives would provide no preparation whatsoever.

Coming back to work (or the lack of it), there are similarly plenty of ways in which one might develop other than by undertaking paid work—I’ve already mentioned learning new skills on this blog, and can easily think of other examples like raising a family or participating in the community. And if we have the resources to do so, why not develop in the way of our choosing, rather than what is imposed on us by the need to hold down a job?

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