Thursday, September 11, 2014

"You Win Or Your Die" (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

Considering the popularity of the Game of Thrones series, it’s probably worth considering the worldviews and philosophies that emerge throughout the story. Games of Thrones and Philosophy, one of many books in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, gives an array of essays that are helpful in at least starting the discussion. (For similar posts, see my reviews on The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy).

The book begins by looking at the game of politics through the eyes of Hobbes and Machiavelli in “Maester Hobbes goes to King’s Landing” (Greg Littmann),“Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli” (Marcus Schulzke), and “The Death of Lord Stark: The Perils of Idealism” (David Hahn).

Thomas Hobbes, famous for his Leviathan, lived through a real-life version of Game of Thrones when the Stuarts fell to a civil uprising then rose to power again. Hobbes observed that this kind of conflict arose because of three key reasons: greed, self-defense, and glory. These three base drives bring about a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” No one is safe. Even champions like Clegane can be killed by the lowly Samwell Tarleys of the world.

Eventually, people tire of this violent and chaotic “state of nature” and agree to societal rules, willingly giving up some measure of freedom and comfort for the sake of stability. When that happens, someone will need to enforce the rules. This enforcer will be the king, a sovereign power that will keep us from returning to brutish anarchy and to whom everyone must give complete allegiance. This is the Leviathan. 

 So what would Hobbes think of Westeros? Aerys is harsh, unpredictable, and rules with an iron fist. Nonetheless, Baratheon and Stark should not resist him even though their sense of justice compels them. They would bring about civil war, and the chaos of war is worse than the cruelty of tyranny. Hobbes once wrote, “The greatest [harm], that in any form of government can possibly happen to the people in general, is scarce sensible, in respect of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a Civil War.”

Ultimately, Hobbes believed humanity’s most important need was survival, not justice. Once Aerys Targaryen is overthrown and Baratheon becomes king, Baratheon deserves the loyalty of the subjects. After all, “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long as, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.” Targaryen lost that power; now Baratheon has it. All that matters is peace, no matter the cost. To quote Varys, “I serve the realm, and the realm needs peace.” That ends will justify any means.

Machiavelli is famous for The Prince, a political discourse for ruling pulled from his life in politics. While he wrote in favor of a republic in Discourses, The Prince gives advice to a monarch. Scholars differ on whether or not The Prince is meant to be read as satire; nonetheless, it gives a sobering look at what many believe is needed for political leaders to maintain power.

The Prince argues that a ruler who wants to be loved is in trouble. Being loved is not bad; it’s just that fear is a more effective way to gain, maintain and reestablish power – and power must be sought and kept for the sake of the state. Two key principles, virtu and fortuna, determine how the battle for power will be won.

Fortuna has to do with events beyond our control, the unpredictable things that sabotage a ruler. So as not to be derailed by this, one must plan for every contingency. This is done by extending power and eliminating the competition. When Daenerys builds her own army and recruits her supporters from the marginalized and enslaved, she is controlling some key elements of fortuna.

Virtu is not virtue, as in moral qualities. It is the skill to face constantly changing circumstances. A person with virtu may well have many good characteristics, but he or she will know how and when to exercise particular virtues and when only to appear virtuous.
“A prince should seem to be merciful, faithful, humane, religious and upright, and should even be so in reality; but he should have his mind so trained that, when occasion requires it, he may know how to change to the opposite.”
Someone with this skill gathers the loyalty of others not because of who they are as much as who they seem to be. As long as they appear worthy of loyalty, that’s all that matters. Varys' comment to Lord Stark captures the idea well: “We who presume to rule must do vile things for the good of the realm however much it pains us.”

The Prince agrees;  the players in games of power benefit far more from being good than they do from being effective. That's why idealism is not a good idea for rulers. Ned Stark is virtuous, but his lack of skill at Machiavelli's virtu is his downfall. Littlefinger compares Ned's honor to a suit of armor; it keeps him safe, but “all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move.” Stark is Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead; The Prince demands The Governor. 

So what do Littmann, Schulzke and Hahn conclude?

  • Lord Stark’s idealism is appealing, and as a philosophy it is crucial in the formation of laws of a nation. However, his lack of action against the Lannister’s may well have plunged the Seven Nations into horrific civil war. 
  • Hobbes’ theory is compelling in its utilitarian simplicity, but it fails to see or allow for human nature in its entirety. To Hobbes, even honorable rebels such as Lord Stark are almost automatically bad people fighting for an ignoble cause. In addition, Hobbes’ dismissal of higher motivations within humanity is simplistic. How does he account for Lord Stark’s commitment to honor and principle, or Jon Snow’s commitment to the Wall? Finally, Hobbes fails to realize that centralizing too much power in one place can weaken a state rather than strengthen it.
  • The Prince appears to claim that honor is the inevitable price of power since effective leaders know how to sacrifice virtue on the altar of virtu, If The Prince is correct, integrity and truth are simply incapable of bringing the necessary authority and stability needed to rule. Without a ruler who knows how to use deception and arouse fear when necessary, the state will never survive.

Perhaps idealism provides a foundation that merely highlights how far we stray from it. Perhaps Leviathans and Princes are the best we can do. If so, we all lose something in this game.

PART TWO: The Ethics of Virtue and Consequence

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