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.