Game of Thrones from the eyes of Machiavelli and Nietzsche
For the pop culture of new generations, April the 14th 2019 was a memorable date – Game of Thrones hit screens globally. Over the last few years, the stories of the Westeros Houses have gained a committed audience, anxiously awaiting the surprising, unexpected, astounding endings conjured by brilliant and ruddy G. R.R. Martin. Completely absorbed by the plot of this fantasy tale, however, we did not realize how much of what we saw on-screen was a reflection of ourselves and of our world, just as thinkers, writers and philosophers of all ages have confessed.
There is a structural novelty to Game of Thrones, nonexistent in its genre. It is the novelty of gripping suspense: after seven seasons and countless plot twists, we still have no idea who will survive, of who will rise to victory. Let's rewind to the classical origins of this literary genre, to J.R.R. Tolkien – double Rs could be a sign of boundless creative ingenuity. At the very beginning of the Lord of the Rings, It is almost instantaneously apparent that Frodo and his cause will overcome everything, despite the fact that the reader knows almost nothing about the One Ring. Gandalf’s triumph over Sauron (and Saruman) is guaranteed. While, the story of Frodo and his companions fascinates us, we also know full well that the Ring will not be allowed to melt in the lava of Mount Doom - even when we do not know how. Within the Lord of the Rings’ power play (and in all of Tolkien's related works), it is plain what is Good and what is Evil. They are two clear and distinct moral poles dividing the whole world and the characters traverse between them. Of course, Frodo – the good - can be tempted by the evil of the Ring. This does not mean, however, that he would not partake in evil, or that good does not exist. It just means that he will have to face the fire of temptation. Good continues to exist, unscathed, manifesting Tolkien's profound Christian inspiration.
This Christian symbolism can be easily located in his other novels and stories as well. Good triumphs Evil is a dominant narrative in Arda. The world stands on two pillars but only one reaches its foundations. The fracture that separates Martin's work from Tolkien's and all other classic fantasy is therefore explicit. In Westeros, Good and Evil are fighting a battle with an uncertain outcome. Not only that: Good and Evil coexist and, through their struggles impact the inner lives of characters. These struggles are so fierce, so omnipotent that the dividing line between the two moral cornerstones begins to collapse. In fact, the two principles on which the whole narrative is based carry labels that don’t allow us to discern whether, in the end, they actually have a moral value: - signified by the title, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Where they do merge, there is blood, and that is no coincidence as evinced by the character Jon Snow (as we learned from season seven finale). Snow is both fire (Targaryen) and ice (Stark). This moral indifference at the bottom of the soul of every participant in Westeros power play is rather machiavellian. A Machiavellian struggle also ensures an uncertain outcome, both in nature’s exteriority, and in the secret of individual consciousness. Next is the theme of the indiscernibility between Good and Evil; and, finally, the Evil done in view of the Good, in a combination between the history of Judas and the political theories of Machiavelli. To test this proposition we should put these main themes through some parallels, and to give them a fruitful result.
<SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT WATCHED SEASONS 1 THROUGH 8. Skip directly to end of this warning>
Let’s quickly recap the events regarding some of GoT’s main characters. Starting from the aforementioned Jon Snow: he always fights against what, in appearance, is the absolute Evil – the White Walkers. In his noble deeds, however, he finds himself breaking the Night Watch’s sacred oath, abandoning the black and returning to his hometown. He suffers a terrible betrayal, and inflicts a merciless revenge. In order to pursue Good, he is unable to forsake Evil. Even Tyrion, the cynical and cunning imp, follows a path full of ambiguity. Tyrion administers the kingdom the best he can, but, for this purpose has to perform cruel acts such as driving the indigents from their shacks under the walls of King’s Landing, and burning his enemies alive. While all of this is not acknowledged, he is in fact judged a traitor, and kills his own father without trepidation. The same - Evil done for a Good purpose theme – is found in another plotline, that of Jaimie Lannister. He killed the Mad King to keep him from burning the city; and receives no credit. Instead, he is insulted and derided as a vile traitor. The moral ambiguity is furthered when he pushes Bran off a tower, but saves Brienne from a bear. Daenerys, is the ultimate Machiavellian. She fights for the good of her family, murdering her brother in the process. She frees the slaves and, in order to establish her new kingdom, she has thousands of slavers crucified. In Westeros and Essos, it seems that to do good, one must inevitably pass through evil – or remain powerless. Added to the mix is the omnipresent betrayal furthering the entropy of the system.
In the fine analysis of The Prince (De Principatibus, 1532) by Niccolò Macchiavelli, we find an extraordinary resonance with GoT. One’s Principality (the Kingdom) is beyond good and evil – even though good and evil may exist. Governance and power are matters of ruthless, pragmatic, and political realism. The story of The Prince, set is aimed at advising the "Prince" on how to conquer and retain power. Without ideals, without questioning the essence of virtue, Machiavelli warns the new Prince that there are well performed cruelties, and badly performed cruelties; which sounds very much like 'there is a bad evil and there is a good evil'. If you want to keep the power, you have to commit cruelties and should do it all right away, without diluting them over the years – like the Chinese water torture on their subjects.
Ring any bells? No, we are not talking about Hitler and the Night of the Long Knives, but about the Red Wedding: the Freys and Boltons murdering almost every Tully and Stark opponent in just one night, strengthening their dominion over the Riverlands and the North. As Machiavelli claims, the good prince is feared and loved, a master in the art of simulation, of appearance, just like Olenna Tyrell who shakes her right hand with the Lannisters while killing Jeoffry with her left. In short: the good Prince is both fox and lion:
“Because the lion does not know how to defend itself from the snares and the fox cannot defend itself from the wolves. He must therefore be fox to know the snares and lion to frighten the wolves”
-The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, XVIII-3
Remember when Daenerys arrives in Westeros and, while hatching a subtle game of alliances and strategies, she’s also burning alive any opponent who won't bend on their knees on the battlefield? Fox and lion, she is the most Machiavellian of all. As the renaissance writer admonished, the Prince doesn’t always have to be good; only as necessary.
<SPOLER WARNING ENDS>
However, Machiavelli's work is an attempt at detaching the political sphere from Good and Evil. They are not denied or questioned at all, only expelled from the sphere of power. So, as far as our parallelism is concerned, it is true that things have changed a lot compared to Tolkien’s novels, because there’s no longer the good Prince and the bad Prince as they are both co-existing in the same figure. Yet, Martin’s characters’ stories are not only political players – as in any well-chiseled narrative – the drama is primarily about the character of an individual. It concerns the character’s conscience as a single, unrepeatable human being. Thus, if the mixing of Good and Evil has its own justification - even authoritative – on a political level, it still remains mysterious at a subjective level as a secret that nobody knows and that tears spirits apart. Everyone, from Jon to Tyrion, from Jaimie to Daenerys, faces betrayal and sacrifice – suffered or perpetrated. Do they find a justification, this time? The transition of Good into Evil, this time, raises dilemmas involving identity. These characters revolve around their good and bad identities. Just like the character standing in the center of the cosmic episode about betrayal and sacrifice – Judas.
Three versions of Judas by Jorge Luis Borges is a part of the Ficciones collection. This story’s protagonist, Nils Runeberg, writes three studies, each with a more deeper investigation into Judas’ character. In the Christian tradition, Judas is possessed by the Devil; when he betrays, Judas is Evil; in his history, we encounter the knots of betrayal and sacrifice that we have seen widespread among the Westerosi characters. Through Borges, we also meet the theme of evil melting into the good: as a matter of a fact, according to him Judas did not betray because of a malignant greed instead, he renounced honor, good, peace, the kingdom of heaven. Borges writes,
“He acted with gigantic humility, he considered himself unworthy of being good. [...] He thought that happiness, like the good, is a divine attribute and that men should not usurp it”
Let’s not be charmed by the Argentinian poet’s extraordinary writing. For Judas, of course, the implications are religious but his actions, according to Runeberg, are not different from those of Jaimie Lannister. The question here is not just about a machiavellian looking at ends to justify means, instead, it is about an almost existential choice. Judas chooses to do evil, he chooses the flames of hell to obtain a good that will never belong to him. His memory will always be black, not unlike Jaimie’s, who saved the lives of many by means of a murder and condemned himself to eternal disgrace. The granite figures of Gandalf and Sauron are far away. At this point, are Judas and Jaimie good, or bad characters? Did they kill their Lord or did they save everyone else? During the climax that eventually leads to his death, Runeberg’s parallel between good and evil becomes complete identification. God became completely human, but human to the point of infamy and reprobation to the point of the abyss. It could have been anyone in history, it could have been Jesus; instead, it was Judas. It is a common perception, yet it has always been hidden. We had proof of this in Game of Thrones, when we discovered that the innocent and almighty ‘Children of the Forest’ were the creators of the White Walkers. Deities who choose to deal directly with evil, and the God who is Judas.
The world of Game of Thrones, just like the one we live in, turns out to be extremely complex. It has a thousand incessantly changing direction. The two poles of Good and Evil, which merge and distinguish themselves, would otherwise end up being inert if the characters themselves were not there to keep them alive in all their contradictions. Unlike Judas, the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire do not even have the eschatological excuse offered by religion. Like us, they move in a moral structure that they themselves have built, but one that represents a normative ideal and consequently, shapes their actions and fills them with meaning. As we have seen, however, the world is not at all caged by this structure and is instead, ambiguous and paradoxical; so much so that it brings death to those who discover this contradiction – like Niels Runeberg. The world, never scratched by moral boundaries, makes fun of these characters. They believe they are good, but they are evil (and vice versa). These characters do their best for good, but they inevitably pass through evil. The world looks down on us, with a mocking smile, and whispers a great secret in our ears – it stands beyond good and evil, because good and evil do not exist.
This is both a landing and departure point of Nietzsche's philosophy, starting from On truth and lie in an extra-moral sense, passing through On the genealogy of morality and coming to – as evinced from the title - Beyond good and evil. Good and evil, i.e. the common morality, are false. This is a renunciation of the world and life, and a conviction that existence is pain and fragility, and that change is a risk not to be run, and one that is followed by instruments of control and submission, e.g. guilt and sin. This is why morality is false: it is an instrument of our (human) creation with no corresponding reality. Let’s think of Tyrion: he is a deformed man, for this he feels inferior, he feels weaker. He feels guilty, especially towards his family. Torn, he believes that things are right and good like that, he fights for the status quo (he becomes a defender Lannisters’ Kingdom of the capital King's Landing). At one point, he changes - he passes through sacrifice and betrayal, but in reality he doesn't live them as if they were evil; he sides with Daenerys, who brings a wind of change on the western continent. The drama of Judas / Jaimie is overtaken, we are on a completely different level: we are beyond. Tyrion could be taken as a small example (with all the limitations of an example) of the Nietzschean passage from the slave morality to the master morality: from a person who is subjected to the world, who is afraid of it, who suppresses it and feels guilty - and who defines as evil all those who do not draw the same consequences – to a free person, open to the world, its perpetual contradictions and its thousands of frightening faces, aware that in self-assertion and in embracing one's destiny and pain in a totally selfish way, there is nothing wrong; because evil does not exist, there is only one and entire freedom.
Winter has come, the end of Game of Thrones is awaiting us. All the affectionate spectators are a little sad at the idea, perhaps because in those characters so steeped in morals, in that world so ambiguous and elusive, we cannot fail to recognize ourselves and our world. We can find, despite the dragons and magic, machiavellian and merciless political struggles identical to those of our reality. Or perhaps because its spectacular narration reflects our desperate battles to defend value systems which, in turn, defend our sense of defeat; wouldn't it be a great last twist if the White Walkers didn't turn out to be the absolute evil, but a - still mysterious and almost nietzschean - transvaluation of all values?
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About the Author
Francesco Ziveri holds a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy from Università Statale in Milan, Italy; he also attained a first level Master's Degree in Strategic Management for Global Business from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Holding a long experience in public debates, local politics and newspapers, he strongly believes in the tools of dialectic and methodological skepticism. His unconditional love for western philosophy, perpetrated by reading books, by dialoguing and by writing, brings him in a tireless journey in search of new and alternative points of view on the world. He aspires to grow a mustache as thick as Nietzsche's.