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Game of Thrones and Philosophy

on Mon, 04/30/2012 - 00:00

While the HBO drama Game of Thrones is a fantasy series set in the mythical kingdom of Westeros, there is a correlation between the sprawling narrative and the world-at-large. George R.R. Martin, who crafted the series of novels that the show is based on, originally found inspiration in the Wars of the Roses-age of medieval England. Like Westeros, the island of Great Britain was thrown into war as competing factions struggled for control of the Royal Crown during the era. Along with this historical analogy, Game of Thrones is also filled with competing ethical views, dissertations on the concept of “honor” and differing cultures and traditions. Game of Thrones may thus indeed be “fantasy” from a genre standpoint but offers insight into our own development as a modern day society nonetheless.

The collection of essays contained in Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swords (John Wiley & Sons, 2012) underscores this fact as it explores the characters and storylines of both the HBO drama and the Song of Ice and Fire book series from a philosophical point of view. The ethical and moral judgments of Queen Cersei, Tyrion Lannister, Petyr Baelish and Joffrey Baratheon, for instance, are examined against the writings of such renowned scholars as Plato, Aristotle, René Descartes and Augustine of Hippo. Because of the nature of the Game of Thrones narrative, however, two particular philosophers play key roles in the discussion—Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli.

As Greg Littmann points out in “Maester Hobbes Goes To King’s Landing,” Thomas Hobbes is in the unique position to comment on the events of Westeros because he lived through a time period that witnessed a similar political upheaval. “Hobbes, a professional tutor by trade, was a loyal supporter of the great House Stuart,” Littmann writes. “The Stuarts not only reigned over England (once seven kingdoms itself), but were kings of Scotland and Ireland as well. Like the Targaryens, the Stuarts were overthrown by their subjects in a terrible civil war. King Charles I of House Stuart, like Mad King Aerys II of House Targaryen, was put to death in the revolt, but Prince Charles, his son, like Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, escaped into exile to plot a return to power.”

Greg Littman goes on to construct a scenario in which Hobbes arrives in King’s Landing during the reign of Aerys II and serves as a Maester in a similar fashion to that of Petyr Baelish and Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. In spite of the atrocities rendered at the hands of Aerys II, Littman argues that Hobbes would have remained loyal to the monarch and opposed the eventual uprising against him in much the same way that Baelish and Varys inevitably supported Joffrey Baratheon’s ascension to the Iron Throne despite the controversy surrounding his legitimacy. “I serve the realm, and the realm needs peace,” Lord Varys states in Game of Thrones in regards to his decision, and the words could very well have been spoken by Thomas Hobbes himself if he had ever faced a similar situation.

From Hobbes point of view, society needs a strong and feared leader in order to keep civilization from spiraling into chaos and producing a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Adherence to such a ruler is thus a key element of the social contract entered by all residents of the land. While the actions of Aerys II may indeed be tyrannical and tragic, the prospect of a civil war that upsets the balance within the kingdom is a far worse outcome. By the same token, the desire for stability would likewise drive Hobbes to later support Robert Baratheon and his time on the Iron Throne despite having initially been loyal towards Aerys II, just as Lord Varys inevitably swears allegiance to Joffrey following the death of King Robert.

“The lesson that the nobles of Westeros should have learned from Maester Hobbes is not that they should never rebel, but that civil war is so horrific that it must be avoided at almost any cost,” Greg Littman concludes. “Appeals to lofty principals of justice and honor that are never to be violated are all very well, but these principals must always be weighed against the consequences our actions will have for human lives. Our most fundamental need as humans is not justice; our most fundamental need as humans is to avoid having a greatsword inserted up our nose.”

According to Marcus Schulzke in “Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli,” Niccolo Machiavelli is capable of fitting into the civic landscape of King’s Landing just as much as Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, Machiavelli was more than a mere writer of political philosophy but a practitioner as well, having served in various advisory roles in the Florentine Republic of modern day Italy. While Hobbes outlined his social contract premise in Leviathan, Machiavelli detailed his own theories regarding political power in the equally famous tome The Prince. “With its focus on the struggle to establish new kingdoms, The Prince is a perfect lens through which to view the events of A Song of Ice and Fire,” Marcus Schulzke writes in Game of Thrones and Philosophy. “The War of the Five Kings follows the logic of the Machiavellian struggle for power and illustrates many of Machiavelli’s most important lessons.”

Arguably the greatest tragedy during the first season of Game of Thrones is the death of Lord Eddard Stark. Unlike the majority of characters within the narrative, Stark is an honorable man who follows a code of ethics in both his personal life and later when he is called upon by Robert Baratheon to serve as the Hand of the King and thus act as the administrator of Westeros. Unfortunately, other members of the court fail to respond in a similar fashion and are instead driven by their own agendas—Lord Varys, to uphold the security of the realm; Petyr Baelish, the desire for revenge; and Queen Cersei, the hunger for power and privilege. Machiavelli envisioned such a scenario where a presiding ruler might be surrounded by such “less honorable” ambitions, and advocated that clinging to a strict code of ethics in such situations would only hasten one’s own downfall.

“For the manner in which men live is so different from the way in which they ought to live, that he who leaves the common course for that which he ought to follow will find that it leads him to ruin rather than safety,” Machiavelli advised. “For a man who, in all respects, will carry out only his professions for good, will be apt to be ruined amongst so many who are evil. A prince therefore who desires to maintain himself must learn to be not always good, but to be so or not as necessity may require.” It is a lesson that Eddard Stark inevitably refuses to accept, despite being told a similar epitaph by Queen Cersei in more eloquent terms—“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

Unlike the original great fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, the HBO drama Game of Thrones does not contain a clear-cut “righteousness shall triumph over evil” storyline but features a more ambiguous narrative that mirrors the uncertainty of the real world. As Elio M. Garcia and Linda Antonsson write in the forward to Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swords, “Despite the fact that many of the problems presented in the novel and on the screen are couched in the quasi-medieval context of lords and castles and personal honor, there’s a relevance to the way the characters wrestle with choices that do not seem so dissimilar to choices that we are faced with on a daily basis.” In the end, the ambitious tale that George R.R. Martin has constructed is the perfect vehicle for philosophical discourse not only from a political standpoint but within the additional perspectives of ethics, behavior, culture and society, making Game of Thrones and Philosophy an integral companion for a better understanding of both the award-winning series itself and the epic struggle of our own lives as well.

Anthony Letizia (April 30, 2012)