Daenerys Targaryen General Tywin Lannister

What philosophies do Game of Thrones’ characters follow?

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Jake Emen is a freelance writer living in Bethesda, MD who has been published in a variety of print and online outlets. You can follow him on Twitter, and check out his musings on food, whiskey and random misadventures at ManTalkFood.com.

 

It’s no secret that George R.R. Martin has pulled heavily from history for inspiration. Even the ghastliest of his “imaginings”, such as the Red Wedding, were based in part on historical events, in this case Scotland’s Black Dinner, which occurred in 1440.

There’s also a less obvious source of inspiration which fuels the motives and behaviors of GRRM’s immense world of characters — historical philosophers and their teachings. Whether the actions of certain characters are truly based upon a particular philosophical concept or ideal, or whether they just so happen to neatly align, it’s intriguing to dive in and examine the philosophical leanings of some of the story’s most impactful characters and families.

As we’re keeping this discussion in line with the show to avoid spoilers, we’ll stick to three key cogs and their actions through the first three books, Tywin Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and together, Robb and Ned Stark….

Tywin Lannister’s Philosophy

Tywin Lannister’s ironfisted style of leadership is ruthless, focused on gaining and consolidating power, while also furthering his own cause and historical legacy. As such, Niccolo Machiavelli is likely the first name that comes to mind when you think of Tywin and philosophy.

Machiavelli is most well known for his writing of The Prince, and what has become known as “Machiavellianism”, which refers to being duplicitous or deceitful in order to get ahead. Tywin excels in this craft, infamously having entered the gates of King’s Landing under the guise of alliance with King Aerys II Targaryen, before mercilessly sacking the city and slaughtering the Mad King’s grandchildren.

Tywin may be brutal, but he’s a shrewd plotter and a planner by nature. For instance, Tywin tells Tyrion that, “Some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens,” as he plots Robb Stark’s demise at the Red Wedding. Brutal, yes, but based on the principles of furthering his own cause, and gaining and consolidating power, and, at least as he tries to explain it away, the sparing of a much greater amount of bloodshed through on-the-field battle.

One oft-overlooked component of Machiavelli’s pleadings to the Medici family was actually relative morality. Be moral if it’s possible, but if necessary, feel free to stray from that more righteous path in order to achieve results. This can also be thought of as “the end justifies the means”.

Tywin Lannister isn’t brutal for the sheer sake of it; he’s brutal when the situation calls for it, whether it’s the way he chose sides in Robert’s Rebellion, or the song-inspiring way he dealt with the Castemere family. He may wish to instill fear, but he also knows that violence and vengeance alone don’t provide a final solution in every circumstance.

He once remarks to Joffrey, “When your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you.”

This exemplifies Tywin, and his willingness to be brutal, but not blindly so. He plans and plots, he’s duplicitous, and he’s clearly out for his own best interests first and foremost. He’s also more than willing to use his own children as pieces in his personal quest for legacy and power. Yet, there’s reasoning and moral relativism behind his actions.

Daenerys Targaryen’s Philosophy

Daenerys is perceived as standing on the morally high ground. She’s freeing slaves. She’s the Breaker of Chains. She’s righteous and is seen as supporting the greater good, a cause above herself.

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau began The Social Contract with, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” He was speaking metaphorically on the state of the society he lived in and how it stripped away freedom and humanity, yet for Daenerys, the phrase is also a literal truth.

Rousseau believed that the possession of private property is the root of evil. Time and again in Dany’s journey throughout Essos, we see her in contact with those who have accumulated the most property and possessions, only to find them to be “evil”, or at best morally relative and self-interested in ways which don’t align with her world view. From Xaro Xhoan Daxos, to all of the assorted Masters of Slavers Bay, it’s a recurring theme.

(Ironically, Rousseau believed that small city-states offered the best governmental solution for providing true freedom for all of its citizens. That sounds more similar to the separate and sovereign Seven Kingdoms, and not the united Westeros which the Targaryens forged with fire, and for which Dany is actively campaigning to rule.)

Yet, Dany is no stranger herself to the concept of moral relativism. After all, doesn’t the “the end justifies the means” come to describe Daenerys Targaryen?

“Armed prophets have conquered and unarmed prophets have come to grief,” according to Machiavelli. Dany could have the most righteous and justifiable causes in the world–freeing the slaves, and reclaiming her family’s throne from a usurper–yet she won’t accomplish anything without force. Even as she’s looked upon as a savior by the people she frees, none of it would be possible without some Targaryen fire and fury.

Surely, Dany could have conquered Astapor and gained the service of the Unsullied with her duplicitous, yes, Machiavellian, agreement of trading Drogon away, even without proceeding to slaughter the Good Masters entirely. But the end justifies the means. Surely, she did not need to crucify 163 of the Great Masters of Meereen. But to her, the end justifies the means.

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16 Comments

  • Your summary of Tywin compromises everything I’d have said about him. Indeed, I thought of Il principe at once when I first read about him in AGoT. And Tywin pretty much embodies this Macchiavellian ideal.

  • I disagree with the philosopher you chose for Dany. Dany is absolutely not a naturalist like the freak Rousseau was in my opinion she would be a rationalist and in my opinion she follows a bit of Kant Philosophy on moral act…Basically, acting only because of duty is not enough. So then Duty takes the form of a categorical command meaning that by his reasoning man is autonomous and therefore responsible for his own acts.

  • Also, instead of just taking the philosophy of freedom from rousseau you should’ve taken his whole philosophy. Rousseau’s state of nature is what makes him the worst philosopher for Dany since he says that man is better when he is at his ”natural” state meaning without any possession or anything that concerns a couple of qualities. Now if you remember Dany often says that if she looks back she will be lost. There! thats how you know Rousseau isn’t right for Dany.

  • Here is the strange thing about Daenerys she appears (and more than appears) to be a dedicated abolitionist. Seems that came from her observations of slavery in Essos, her treatment by her brother, and even from the Dothraki’s treatment of others.
    It’s not clear in the books if the Targaryens brought slavery to Dragonstone, but it is known that the Valyrians were slavers (for thousands of years!), so maybe the Dragonstone Valyrians were too or not? (Actually The World of Ice and Fire does not explain this either.) When the Targaryens conquered Westeros they supposedly did not institute slavery out of expediency , keeping the old feudal society (where the lower classes are, one notes, not too far from slaves), tho that’s not clear either.

    We have still yet to find out what the powerful state of Braavos , an antislavery state, thinks of Dany? Or any other free states in Essos. She’s a Valyrian, yet crusading against slavery. That must not compute with the Faceless Men!
    Were there possibly abolitionists among the old Valyrian Dragon Lords?

  • damn I thought this was one of those internets quizzes that you could post the results on Facebook and watch it like chain lighting among your friends.

  • “(Ironically, Rousseau believed that small city-states offered the best governmental solution for providing true freedom for all of its citizens. That sounds more similar to the separate and sovereign Seven Kingdoms”
    I would say that sounds more like the Free Cities of Essos.

    Dany’s slaughter of the slavers seems more like moral absolutism than relativism.

  • I don’t think Daenerys is a follower of Rosseau. From her experiences, I believe she would strongly disagree with Rossea’s state of nature as the best condition for man. Having lived from hand to mouth, a pawn in the plots of the powerful, running from Robert’s assassins, sold to the Dothraki as Drogo’s brood mare, she would be more likely to agree with Hobbs about human life in the state of nature; “nasty, brutish and short.”
    Like many people, Daenerys has chosen the utilitarian philosophy of john Stewart Mill, the greatest good for the greatest number. But like so many utilitarians, she has taken her own life experiences as the basis of her philosophy. Slavery in Essos is clearly the antithesis of utilitarianism. The vast majority, the slaves, struggle, labor and suffer to support the small minority, the masters and their families. The greatest good for the greatest number demands the abolition of slavery and the creation of a new social order. However, her methods of change, the crucifixion of the masters, the destruction of the slave societies without providing a viable alternative, giving the survivors of the violent social transformation she imposed on unwilling and unprepared peoples the brutally simplistic choice of conforming to her new society or death share many features with Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia.
    Perhaps by going back to the Dothraki horse lords with her dragon, she will gain the wisdom to look beyond the perceived benefits of instantaneous change and understand that changing a society (regime change if you will) is a project that takes decades of painstaking struggle and above all patience.

    Ser Mark’s Bowman

    “I’d prefer wine, but I’ll take the water, and the mercy.

  • The greatest good for the greatest number demands the abolition of slavery and the creation of a new social order. However, her methods of change, the crucifixion of the masters, the destruction of the slave societies without providing a viable alternative, giving the survivors of the violent social transformation she imposed on unwilling and unprepared peoples the brutally simplistic choice of conforming to her new society or death share many features with Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia.Rick Opich,

    Dany is learning; she is barely past childhood. The leaders you mention cannot be lumped together as ‘evil monsters,’ and Dany is neither evil nor a monster, just a child woman without the wisdom she needs to achieve her desired results.

    Hopefully, Dany will learn and improve her leadership skills. Ned certainly never learned; Cat never learned; it remains to be seen what Sansa will do; however, Jon is clearly learning that there are many difficult choices to be made when leading.

    So many of us are quick to judge when so few of us are wise enough to do better than most of the characters in this story.

    Even Davos is a hugely mixed bag although we all can see his heart is pure.

    It is simply too early to judge many of these characters. All but the worst are struggling to find their way.

    A little compassion goes a long way. I don’t find much amongst GoT fans. Why is that?

  • Boojam:
    Here is the strange thing about Daenerys she appears (and more than appears) to be a dedicated abolitionist. Seems that came from her observations of slavery in Essos, her treatment by her brother, and even from the Dothraki’s treatment of others.
    It’s not clear in the books if the Targaryens brought slavery to Dragonstone, but it is known that the Valyrians were slavers (for thousands of years!), so maybe the Dragonstone Valyrians were too or not? (Actually The World of Ice and Fire does not explain this either.) When the Targaryens conquered Westeros they supposedly did not institute slavery out of expediency , keeping the old feudal society (where the lower classes are, one notes, not too far from slaves), tho that’s not clear either.

    We have still yet to find out what the powerful state of Braavos , an antislavery state, thinks of Dany? Or any other free states in Essos. She’s a Valyrian, yet crusading against slavery. That must not compute with the Faceless Men!
    Were there possibly abolitionists among the old Valyrian Dragon Lords?

    She’s not Valyrian. Valyria is gone. She’s of Valyrian descent, but she also has Westerosi blood and Rhoynish blood (from the Princes of Dorne). Even if she were Valyrian, that does not mean she would agree with Valyrian values. The Braavosi traditionally have a mistrust and dislike of all things Valyrian and dragon-related, but if a person of Valyrian descent is actively campaigning against slavery they might support this person. After all, their dislike for Valyrians and dragons is rooted in the Valyrians’ practice of slavery. Logic dictates that they would side with Daenerys, but, of course, old and persistent feelings might cause them to side against her.

  • I don’t think Tywin embodies the Machiavellian ideal at all. Everyone remembers the “is best to be feared than to be loved part” however most people ignore that Machiavelli’s number one advice is to NOT BE HATED. And Tywin didn’t follow that at all, which is what ultimately got him killed.

  • tupperwaredragon: She’s not Valyrian. Valyria is gone. She’s of Valyrian descent, but she also has Westerosi blood and Rhoynish blood (from the Princes of Dorne). Even if she were Valyrian, that does not mean she would agree with Valyrian values. The Braavosi traditionally have a mistrust and dislike of all things Valyrian and dragon-related, but if a person of Valyrian descent is actively campaigning against slavery they might support this person. After all, their dislike for Valyrians and dragons is rooted in the Valyrians’ practice of slavery. Logic dictates that they would side with Daenerys, but, of course, old and persistent feelings might cause them to side against her

    How do the Free Cities view her? She does claim to be “of the blood of Old Valyria ” , twice. I know that’s metaphorical , I think see even knows she not pure blood Valyrian. It’s true seems the Targaryens, tho very hazy to me, that those initial pure blood Valyrians did not practice slavery, maybe? For the little Valyrian blood she has … she seems to be a Dragon Lord … very Valyrian!
    It’s a curious situation I hope George gets around to since, if the non-slavers of Essos consider her ‘Valyrian-enough’ she it’s total anomaly.

  • Lost Northern,

    Dany could go in a lot of directions in terms of a philosophy she follows. I mentioned another ironic point of aligning her with Rousseau as well. She’s certainly not of a very single or narrow ideology.

    When it comes down to it, there is a great deal of alignment with her and Rousseau even if it’s not a perfectly neat fit.

  • Winterfell is Burning,

    It’s better to be feared than loved oversimplified things on my opinion, and I don’t mention it. Really, I think Machiavelli was about getting things done, and gaining and keeping power, in any way, moral or not. I think that’s Tywin.

  • Rick Opich,

    Dany is definitely jaded on the idea of trusting people and of encountering so many who wronged or wanted to wrong her. Yet, I don’t think her outlook is one of nasty, brutish and short. She’s an optimist and believer at heart and wouldn’t have undertaken any of her “mission” without those principles.