The Golden Path ("Secher Nbiw" in the ancient Egyptian language) was an expansive prescient interpretation that was only visible to the Kwisatz Haderach and the Bene Gesserit (revealed in Heretics of Dune). It foretold the fluid events of the future, both great and small. More profoundly, however, it revealed an optimum path through the countless threads of cause and effect that were encountered by the human race.
Dangers for Humanity
Through prescience, Paul Atreides and Leto II foresaw that humanity would end if it stagnated and remained confined within the known universe and rigid class structure of the Imperium. Though the Imperium's population was many trillions, Leto II's rule proved that humanity was still confined within a space that could be controlled by a single interest. Although rarely addressed directly, it was often suggested that this lack of exploration and growth left humanity vulnerable to being endangered by a single threat, which would lead to the eventual destruction of humanity. The conflict between humanity's stated desire for peace and their actual need for volatility was the strong central theme of the entire Dune series, explored in every book after the first. God Emperor Leto II's stated goal was to "teach humanity a lesson that they will remember in their bones": that sheltered safety was tantamount to utter death, however long it would be delayed.
The Golden Path entailed two main objectives:
- Leto's Peace. A restriction in spice production alongside spice stockpiling and the terraforming of Arrakis. The terraforming killed off all the worms, while the lack of spice restricted space travel. Eventually, after centuries of careful and deliberate oppression, Leto II was destined to die and release new sandtrout to begin a new worm-spice cycle. Subsequently, this caused the expansion of human domains far beyond the boundaries of the known universe, guaranteeing the preservation of humanity in the long term by inducing a massive expansion and diversification of human population, territory, and culture. This also taught humanity a lesson in thinking for themselves and not trusting charismatic leaders.
- The breeding program. An attempt to free humanity from prescient vision by introducing a gene through Leto's breeding program, first realized by Siona Atreides. This was to prevent anyone with the gene from being hunted by "The Great Enemy" and ensures that a portion of mankind will never perish at the hands of thinking machines. It also had the effect of making all of those that possessed the gene free from manipulation by future tyrants and forces that could understand prescience. This would include Guild Navigators and the Bene Gesserit's creations.
Though the Bene Gesserit had long anticipated the existence of The Golden Path, the term was first vocalized by Paul Atreides after the defeat of House Harkonnen and House Corrino on Arrakis. However, its inherent dilemmas were only apparent to him after he ingested the Water of Life. Even with his considerable powers, Paul struggled to determine the best path through the maze of decisions presented to him. This was possibly due to the fact that he was not the ultimate Kwisatz Haderach, having been born a generation sooner than the Bene Gesserit had planned. It was more likely, however, that Paul's difficulty with maintaining a clear oracular vision was because of his own emotions. Much like his father, Paul was forever tempted by a simpler life, far away from the intrigues and dangers of prescience, Imperial politics, and war. He was also continuously haunted by the death of his father and the manner in which his House was betrayed by so many. However it could also be that Paul was constricted by his own prophecy; he could not walk the Golden Path because he knew his son was the one destined to do so, not he.
After Paul's apparent death in the deserts of Arrakis, his son Leto - also technically a (and perhaps more accurately the) Kwisatz Haderach - began to see The Golden Path, as did his twin sister and Muad'dib's daughter, Ghanima, but unlike their father, they chose to begin it (or perhaps Leto II was always destined to do it). Their ability to see into the threads of causality allowed him to choose to adopt his sandtrout skin and craft a future in which he became a human-sandworm hybrid, the long-lived God-Emperor. In this nigh-indestructible physical form, he would have the necessary time and power to guide the whole of humanity as a species.
At first, the Golden Path appeared to culminate in the ascent of House Atreides, jihad, the spread of Fremen customs, and the terraforming of Arrakis. While Paul turned from the horror of the intrinsic suffering involved, Leto II saw his role and that this path was ultimately required for humanity's long-term survival. Leto eschewed prescience as a necessary - though ultimately tedious and lonely - curse, however, he used it, harnessing the infinite awareness of his "abomination". While this had turned his father to the desert and his Aunt Alia to madness, he struck a deal of sort with his multitudes: his sanity and access to infinite memory, contingent upon his sacrificing of self for the path.
For 3,500 years, he used totalitarian, ultimate theocratic tyranny, including breeding programs and other genetic manipulation, to enforce domestic tranquility. And, via the enforced switching of certain conventional power roles of genders, by maintaining an all-female, universal military force (Fish Speakers), deathly loyal to his apparent Godhead, amounting to significant manipulation of humanity's evolution away from traits that lead to war and tyrannical organization. Leto II himself eventually lost his own genitalia due to his transformation, but he was of course multi-gendered in memory, wisdom, and sensory-recall experience. In the design, Leto II describes men as requiring a period of maturation, away from playing at war like a game of adolescent, aggressive ego.
With his vast Fish Speaker army imposing his will throughout known humanity, Leto maintains a complete economic monopoly on the most valued currency, melange, executed by eradicating the worms' prior habitat in the terraforming process, hoarding the remaining spice, and taking control of all planetary stores of inhabited planets. As a result, he leveraged the resulting extreme inflation for total political and transport/resource control.
Altogether an intricately crafted design, he used extraordinary powers of total human genetic memory, Bene Gesserit encyclopedic knowledge, unlimited enhanced human intelligence (pattern induction/deduction) and prescient awareness to guide and/or manipulate all known humanity on a continued path away from certain self-destruction. His final, fatal stroke would ultimately be to use his own death to take The Golden Path even further; first from the chaos of the enormous power vacuum and The Scattering following his death, then eventually via his surviving "pearls of awareness," dreaming endlessly among the newly-forming worms, waiting to be awoken again. Never wanting the truth of his manipulations to stay hidden, Leto II planned the eventual discovery of his "hidden journals," intended to detail his reasoning for future generations to comprehend over time.
The intention of the Path was always to enlighten and mature humanity beyond its worst tendencies - toward stagnation on one end and total chaos on the other. Chaos and its inherent surprises were cherished above all by Leto II, but humanity had to overcome its jingoistic propensities in order to gain from the chaos (innovation or "wildness") and learn, survive as well as harness new awareness throughout the millennia of continued revelation and diversity of the great scattering following Leto's Peace.
Importantly, another main aspect of the Golden Path is preventing Mankind from being trapped by prescient prophecy, both by removing the ability to see into the future from humanity through extended spice deprivation as well as by breeding a human strain invisible to prophets through the traits inherited from Siona, who used this ability to successfully slay the prescient Leto II.
Despite the death of the two men who had enforced The Golden Path, its effects and ramifications were obviously still felt beyond the return of the Honored Matres and their eventual merger with the Bene Gesserit. Indeed, The Golden Path saw humanity explode across the universe, taking with it what it had known and returning with it knowledge and technology never before encountered in the Old Imperium. Moreover, The Golden Path saw humanity's physical attributes change, so that their reflexes, nervous responses, and physical movements were significantly faster than during the time of the Faufreluches.
The effects of Leto's Fish Speaker military and the subsequent deprivation of military experience by males are unclear, but likely myriad. The Fish Speakers became apparently irrelevant between the fall of the Tyrant and the rise of awareness through Sheeana. As a lesson in unintended consequences, threats such as the Honored Matres formed in the Scattering, with ambitions. In this case, destroying and supplanting the Bene Gesserit, which lead to highly destructive conflicts.
Future Time Strands
The "great enemy" that threatens humanity in Leto's visions is not discussed in great detail. Frank Herbert makes vague references to visions of future-time strands seen by Paul and Leto II. In these visions, humans are fleeing machines, possibly of Ixian manufacture, designed solely to seek out and destroy human life and equipped with prescient abilities allowing them to hunt down all of humanity without fail. A future containing that fate would be the type of future that would compel a prescient Leto II to take humanity down his Golden Path -i.e. enforced tranquility- and accept his own fate of returning to the sand. Another possibility is that the great enemy was a superior alien race, originating in another galaxy, or even dimension.
Some might say, however, that the enforced tranquility of the Tyrant's rule was building up pressure for the Golden Path, which was implemented by the Scattering. The Tyrant's rule certainly forced technological evolution, because anybody interested in escaping or ending the Tyrant's power first needed ways to nullify his prescience. This was eventually accomplished by no-globes and no-ships in a way that paralleled the Tyrant's own breeding for humans that were biologically invisible to prescient vision.