The Price of Civilization

Is it possible to have civilization without killing?

J.R.R. Tolkien and George Martin approach this question in very distinct ways but they seem to agree the answer is “no.” Both believe that civilization needs the office of the knight: Because some seek power maliciously, others must unite ferocity and gallantry. “Fantasy” may be their genre, but there is a certain realism that runs through the civilizational stories these two authors have produced.

Game of Thrones is the adaptation of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (2011) and it opens with a scene of capital punishment. A knight of rectitude in his prime, Ned Stark, beheads a hapless youth who deserted his duty on the Wall after encountering a White Walker. The scene is echoed at the end of the first season when the young sadistic King Joffrey orders the King’s Executioner to cut off Ned Stark’s head. That is but one of many examples of capital punishment in Game of Thrones. Even the generous and just Daenerys Stormborn, Targaryen claimant to the Iron Throne, does not hesitate to employ it.

Tolkien, whose storytelling also revolves around the knight, is quite different. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954, at a time in England when capital punishment was the mandatory sentence for murder. Moreover, as Tolkien was very much a Catholic, he would have known that Thomas Aquinas wrote carefully and favorably about capital punishment. Yet there are two instances when Tolkien’s heroes stop capital punishment.

In a magnificent scene in the film adaptation, Gandalf exorcizes the King of Rohan, Théoden. Possessed by the corrupt wizard, Saruman, Théoden is victim to the wizard’s mind control. When Gandalf casts out Saruman from Théoden it becomes evident that Gríma Wormtongue, the king’s own counselor, has assisted Sauron’s usurpation of the throne of Rohan. Sword in hand, the king approaches Wormtongue and rising up brings the sword to his head only to have Aragorn, the incognito King of Gondor, restrain the blow. Aragorn reaches out to help the cowering Wormtongue off the ground but the ingrate counselor spits on the offered merciful hand. Capital punishment is stopped, all the same.

When Frodo intervenes to stop capital punishment, the case is even stranger. Poor Gollum is in the sights of the archers of Gondor. He has wandered into the Forbidden Pool, his scrambled mind completely unaware of any prohibition. Gollum, a cannibal, also loves fish and, intriguingly, washing himself. The Captain of the Guard, Faramir, tells Frodo the penalty for trespass is death. But Frodo succeeds in persuading Faramir not to loose the arrows. Frodo prevails, but against what?

Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, discusses an unusual Roman institution, the piacular. Smith, a lecturer on law amongst other things, tells us that a person became piacular if inadvertently walking onto sacred grounds. The penalty, even if the person were a stranger to town, was death. Smith develops an interesting moral psychology from this mode of law where intention is irrelevant to guilt. Unawares, sad Gollum is piacular but Tolkien has Frodo suspend this ancient mode of law.

Tolkien’s revelation in a 1943 letter of his personal political preference—“my political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy”—is sometimes dismissed as the mild raving of a man with an other-worldly cast of mind. In a recent book, I have tried to demonstrate that Tolkien’s political reflection runs very deep.

The Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954-1955, begins in peace. Its opening locale is Tolkien’s idyll, Hobbiton and the Shire. The king is absent and a vague memory remains that hobbits do live under the king’s laws. Hobbits have a special knack for making things grow and some even indulge in vanity. In The Hobbit (1937), Tolkien has Bilbo a dapper man with whole rooms devoted to his clothes. The Shire is rustic, decorated with crafts, and most vices unknown. Yet the story’s rudiments are that the hobbits are pulled from their comforts, go to war, and return as knights.

The Lord of the Rings ends with the false wizard Saruman mocking the returning veteran hobbits, “you hobbit-lordlings.” Though ravaged by Saruman, in time, the Shire returns to its tranquility and, though Aragorn sits on his throne, mild is the king’s presence.

It might be worth asking: if the workings of government are this smooth, might they also be boring? As a species, we like to play—and to play at war. Testing ourselves is innate. In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga’s classic work on the role of games in developing civilization, the Dutch historian and theorist offers a striking account of the trial as a game. Huizinga points to multiple sources to identify the contained space where games happen: the playing field, being in the dock, and being called to the bar are all part of the spatiality of trial.

And so how odd it is that Tolkien, a writer otherwise so fascinated by space and geography, omits the trial court entirely. Despite its being one of the iconic markers of civilization, Tolkien never has anyone in the dock. Meanwhile in Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister, wittily played by Peter Dinklage, is put on trial twice—once for killing his cruel nephew, Joffrey, and the other for the attempted murder of one of Ned Stark’s children.

Is a significant difference between Tolkien and Martin their attitudes towards the state? Perhaps we can say of Tolkien that he thought one might kill for civilization and then hope that government would be marked by mildness. This position is comparable to that of Albert Camus. No one can plausibly think of Camus as other-worldly and yet he thought wars had to be fought even as he famously railed against harsh government, and in particular, capital punishment.

If Camus is the philosopher for Tolkien, Martin’s preferred book of philosophy might be the one that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in 1532. The Prince, his famous manual on how to gain and keep a throne, seems ever-present in Game of Thrones.

With the death of Robert Baratheon, various pretenders step forward. Though Joffrey succeeds to the throne, his hold upon it is tenuous. Axiomatic to Machiavelli is the principle that no prince can survive if held in contempt or found odious, and Joffrey is a case in point. Rumors swirl that he is a bastard, offspring of Robert’s wife and her brother, Jaime Lannister. While baseness of origin makes a prince contemptible, Joffrey could do nothing about that. What he could change—his sadism—he seems unable to. Indeed in his cruelty he is his own worst enemy.

Machiavelli is not shy around cruelty but he warns that it must be deployed swiftly, and followed just as swiftly by the enactment of more genial policies. Joffrey fails to follow this rule. He is an odd creature, being not a sadist, exactly, but a voyeuristic sadist: he never tires of watching his henchmen tormenting and humiliating. That he is poisoned is predictable: none amongst the aristocracy of Westeros can be certain who will be chosen next to entertain Joffrey. It turns out that Littlefinger kills Joffrey—but someone or other was always going to do it, Machiavelli would insist.

Daenerys Targaryen is a much better student of Machiavelli. Of impeccable pedigree, and direct heir to the throne usurped by Robert Baratheon, she is no stranger to cruelty either. Machiavelli is fascinated by the idea of rule by reputation and thus counsels princes to be striking in their actions. With Daenerys’ people dispirited and scattering, she burns a witch alive only herself to walk into the flames and emerge unscathed with three baby dragons nestled about her naked body. Seldom has a population bent the knee so promptly.

Taking to heart Machiavelli’s suggestion that a prince spend others’ money, Daenerys moves from one slave-holding city to another, plundering or using each city as a base of operations. Having a deep hatred of slavery, Daenerys buys an 8,000-man slave army with one of her dragons as the price only to order her new army to slaughter their erstwhile masters, sparing, as she pointedly puts it, only the children. The dragon she sold she orders to burn alive the chief of the slavers. The slaughter over, she promptly frees her slave army and asks them to follow her freely as she sets out to liberate other slave cities.

Since both J.R.R. Tolkien and George Martin accept that civilization is not possible without killing, the real question in the end may be: If we are to kill for civilization, what kind of civilization should we hope for?

Neither author evinces the kind of humanitarian ethics that is based on a hope that war might be overcome. They give full scope to the role of knights. But the outcomes are that Martin describes an activist prince ruling through spectacle whereas Tolkien, though he has Gandalf often deploying his power theatrically, holds as his true ideal an absent prince, and a recommendation for knightly mildness in political rule.

Reader Discussion

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on September 30, 2015 at 09:01:50 am

Nice post. One nit. It's not The Hobbit, but The Lord of the Rings, that ends with Saruman mocking Frodo &c as 'hobbit-lordlings'.

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Eric Claeys
on September 30, 2015 at 10:50:43 am

I do not see how anyone paying attention can argue that Martin's GOT saga is about preserving civilization. The story is about monarchy, and the evils of a realm beset by rival claimants to the throne. The historical analog is England in the 15th century--the period known popularly as "the Wars of the Roses." It was a period of sustained brutality, in which a staggering proportion of the English aristocracy died violently. The period can hardly be treated as a time of civil flourishing.

Martin presents the brutality of the era, but with little political sophistication--there is nothing of the thoughtfulness of a man like James I, who owed his succession to English memories of the dynastic troubles of the 15th century. James offered a penetrating analysis of kingship in his advice to his son--the Basilican Doron. Machiavelli described rule of a city state--James described rule of a mature monarchical state.

Martin's work today feeds cynicism. It owes as much to Nietszche as it does to Machiavelli. It argues that politics dissolves to the will to power. It teaches despair. It is perhaps a fitting bit of popular culture, given the times in which we live, but it represents the worst impulses of our society and culture, not the best.

All best,

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 30, 2015 at 13:25:47 pm

It would be of interest to have your comparisons of these fictional treatments of the role of violence in society to the scholarly examinations of that role by Douglas North and others; even going back to Carroll Quigley.

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R richard Schweitzer
on September 30, 2015 at 15:01:03 pm

Scholarly law discounts Albert Einstein, or at least his 2015 fans, but I think Einstein would agree with you. He said,

"For pure logic all axioms are arbitrary, including the axioms of ethics. But they are by no means arbitrary from a psychological and genetic point of view. They are derived from our inborn tendencies to avoid pain and annihilation, and from the accumulated emotional reaction of individuals to the behavior of their neighbors."

See http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/my-friend-einstein .

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Phil Beaver
on September 30, 2015 at 22:16:24 pm

You appear to be rather taken with Einstein. Fair enough. Yet, I must ask are we to look to the Einstein *ethics* of General or Special Relativity?
Or are we to venture into quantum physics? - where things are always possibilities and may be in two places at the same time or even (as recent experiments appear to evidence) that a particle may arrive at its destination BEFORE IT LEFT its origin point.

This would make for a shaky or somewhat *relativistic* (general or special, one wonders) system of ethics and civic association.

No, this physics based approach reduces us to postmodern relativism / nihilism.

I prefer my civic *myths*, thank you!

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on September 30, 2015 at 23:11:10 pm

Oops! what a knucklehead I am! How could I forget another paradigm of scientific method - *M* Theory or to use the jocular expression common to the discipline, Magic Theory, wherein we posit alternate universes and continue to posit additional universes until the mathematics works out to explain what - well, everything!

Oh heck, isn't that what our contemporary *scientific* Federal Administrative State has been doing for the past 80 years or so. We just keep *positing* additional* universes (we call them *programs*) until it all works out. It appears that the FAS types are using "new math" - or is that *fuzzy* math.

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on October 01, 2015 at 09:01:56 am


I have to confess my ignorance. I have read North for his economic history, but not for his political theory. I have never read Quigly.

My thinking here is more informed by Paul Kahn, whom I first encountered for his terrific discussion of Marbury v Madison. In his more recent work, Kahn has explored the nature of sovereignty. One of the points that Kahn makes is that authority over life and death is a fundamental feature of sovereignty.

So, in respose to Professor McAleer's opening question, if there must be a sovereign (and thus the potential for rule of law) for there to be civilization, then of course civilization requires the potential for killing.

This paper is not quite on point, but it is provocative, and thoughtful, and an excellent example of Kahn's writing: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1316&context=fss_papers

All best wishes,

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on October 01, 2015 at 09:03:31 am


I do not understand what you mean by the term "scholarly law." Can you elaborate?



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Kevin R. Hardwick
on October 01, 2015 at 09:20:38 am

Careful Kevin.

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R richard Schweitzer
on October 01, 2015 at 10:04:02 am


While it is quite densely written (some repetition) there is:

"Violence and Social Orders" North, Wallis & weingast (2013 ed.)
[subtitled; "A conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History"]


"In The Shadow of Violence" North & Wallis (2013) which I have not yet read.

This "Framework" study, which develops the "Open Access" concept of societies began with their 2006 NBER Working Paper 12795 (a bit easier read) followed on by other papers for the World Bank, etc.

Like you, most scholars identify North with his work and theories on "Institutions."

Liberty Fund published "The Evolution of Civilizations" (1961; LF 1979) by Carroll Quigley who provides a great "antidote" to Toynbee.
Wish it were in the JMU Library.

I will send you something privately.

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R richard Schweitzer
on October 01, 2015 at 11:34:16 am

Truly and excellent article.

I write Sword and Sorcery fantasy novels myself, from a Libertarian perspective, and I often consider such questions and take them head-on with my books.

I also use knight and nobles but the idea of a stateless society, an empire of the willing, is the ultimate goal. There are difficulties getting there, it must be acknowledged!

Thank you, Graham!


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Tom Liberman
on October 01, 2015 at 12:54:19 pm


Nice essay by Kahn; rather liked the notion of a "web of meanings" and as I have argued the civic myths that a nation state may view as necessary for its sustenance.


Many thanks for the John Phillip Reid recommendation; pretty persuasive!

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on October 01, 2015 at 14:22:40 pm

I write Sword and Sorcery fantasy novels myself, from a Libertarian perspective....

Really? Cuz I'm working on a book idea, but my spouse says it's too derivative. What do you think? Here's the gist:

Out of a fiery terrorist attack, the populist President Sauron is able to fashion great and powerful legislation with the power to control all the people. This legislation would enshrine unchecked powers in the Executive Branch. Initially some Senators and Congressmen are reluctant to support the bill, unsure about whether this legislation would serve their constituents. But Sauron is able to craft other pieces of legislation to promote the legislators’ interests. "Besides," cajoled Sauron, "you are members of our government. A stronger central government makes you stronger, and strengthens your ability to promote your constituents’ interests." And so the legislators were appeased, and the PATRIOTIC Act became law. And, by selectively sharing information gathered from the Act’s surveillance powers, the legislators gradually became slaves to the Act.

Using the Act, Sauron was able to amass great power unto himself. But not all the people were enslaved. In a climactic battle, one Senator stood forth in combat. Sauron accused him of being soft on terrorism, a wound from which he would die in his next election. But a junior Senator leapt to his aid, pointing out Sauron’s pattern of demagoguery, culminating with the cry, "Have you no shame, Sauron? At long last, have you no shame?" And so Sauron lost his popular support and was cast out of Washington.

Yet the PATRIOTIC Act remained on the books. Given the stigma associated with Sauron’s abuses, future leaders avoided having anything to do with the Act, and it fell into disuse. Over time, law reviews ceased to publish articles on it and it fell from popular memory.

* * *

Years later, Bilbo defeats the unpopular President Gollum and ascends to the White House. Bilbo enjoyed the power of incumbency, but lacked the ambition to exploit it much. After four terms he leaves office and his Vice-President Frodo succeeds him. Only upon taking office does he learn how much Bilbo had concealed from him, including the extraordinary power of the PATRIOTIC Act (and how Bilbo was able to use those powers to persuade Congress to amend the Constitution and thereby gain additional terms in office).

Political activist Gandalf arrives to warn Frodo that Sauron is not entirely dead. Following Frodo’s election, Sauron had interrogated Gollum about the continued viability of the PATRIOTIC Act. Recent terrorist attacks on US embassies were breathing new life into latent suspicions about Arabs and Muslims, and Sauron is riding a new wave of populism. Sauron tells people that only he has the strength of will to use all the powers of the Act to clamp down on these terrorists. Even now, agents within government were using the Act’s powers to monitor others, and were funneling this information to Sauron.

Appalled, Frodo summons his cabinet. Attorney General Boramir scoffs at concerns about Sauron. "I never realized there was such a law. With it, we can monitor the activities of all our opponents! Who do they sleep with? When do they pick their noses? Then, by playing on a populist revulsion to some personal habit or other, we can crush anyone who would oppose us!"

But Gandalf rebukes him. "The Act is a curse, and it is a fool’s errand to try to wield it against a demagogue like Sauron. Sauron drafted it for his own purposes, and has hidden within it clauses and provisions the purposes of which we can only guess. No, the only choice is to destroy it. And, alas, the law can only be destroyed as it was made - in the fires of public outrage."

* * *

Frodo sets out to seek re-election with Aragon as his running-mate. But Sauron promises to reward Gov. Saruman, a member of Frodo’s party, if Saruman will run as a third-party candidate and siphon votes away from Frodo. Saruman agrees, but he secretly harbors a delusional hope of winning the election outright. While Saruman’s campaign spends much of its money on attack ads against the Frodo/Aragon ticket, both Saruman’s and Sauron’s campaigns also expend resources battling with each other for the support of Southern Christian evangelical males with pickup trucks.

Against all advice, Frodo accepts ex-President Gollum’s offer to work for the Frodo/Aragon re-election. And using this access, Gollum assassinates Frodo.

Gollum immediately confesses that he killed Frodo because Frodo was trying to weaken the PATRIOTIC Act. Candidate Sauron denies that he had anything to do with Gollum, but given the lingering public doubts about Sauron’s previous obsession with the PATRIOTIC Act, new revelations about past contacts between Gollum and Sauron, and a wave of sympathy for Frodo, the public again turns against Sauron. The political fortunes of Gollum and Sauron are utterly destroyed, and they are convicted of conspiring to kill the President.

Vice-President Aragon takes the oath of office as President, and his first act is to sign the repeal of the PATRIOTIC Act.

Epilogue: Aragon’s father-in-law, Elrond, was Secretary of State in the Frodo administration and a former human rights activist. He had had misgivings about Aragon’s potential as presidential material. But observing Aragon’s conduct throughout the campaign and realizing that human rights in the US are reasonably well protected now that the PATRIOTIC Act is repealed, Elrond decides his work here is done. He resigns his post, boards a ship and sails off with ex-President Bilbo, never to return ... because advancing human rights in China will take forever.

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on October 01, 2015 at 14:50:53 pm

It's my expression for law built up on opinion, often false opinion. The alternative is law built up on physics-based ethics.

The law that Einstein spoke of in 1941 has an undeniable source: physics (energy, mass and space-time) from which everything emerges. Physics does not respond to reason, faith, tradition, precedent, force, words, laws, or human contrivances of any kind. Humankind has rendered "the heavens" a travel space using the benefits of physics. To start, see http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/my-friend-einstein. "Physics" is not in Einstein's title, perhaps because he was speaking at a conference on S&R in Chicago.

I have been fascinated with Einstein's essay since before 2011. He assumes persons can understand him without examples, so his only example regarding ethics is lying. I have done more with it and have learned by discussing with people at meetings at libraries in town, in person, and at LSU. I am trying to interest constitutional lawyers and others to help direct the effort toward civic morality. In other words, A Civic People of the United States cannot take the idea to its optimal end, because they do not have the background. I'm a chemical engineer, for example.

Take slavery as an example, Einstein did not cite. Physics-based ethics says that a person can own the labor of another person only by force or coercion. Thus, a person can go in with guns, capture a person, chain them, take them off to a market and sell them. The Bible, as we know, empowered people to use the master-slave passages to rebuke physics-based ethics. Thomas Paine tried to reverse the Christian momentum in 1775 but was too little too late. The US Supreme Court is bemused by the Bible to this day; they can escape by focusing on physics-based ethics.

Another way to enslave people is to create a system based on a false concept and build up interconnected laws that support the fallacy. This country was founded on the false idea that if people with guns and disease for natives explore a land and find no Christian prince there, they are entitled to the land and everything in it including the natives to either repress with Christianity or kill.

A Civic People of the United States is working on reform and seeking integrity in all corners. It seems the first barrier is: "I've never heard of this so it is not important." I don't think that will prove true--at least it has not in the library meetings.

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Phil Beaver
on October 01, 2015 at 14:54:26 pm

"Scholarly law" is based on opinion, often false opinion. Often it finds itself in an attempt to rebuke physics-based ethics, which is futile.

Sorry: I was out for a day.


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Phil Beaver
on October 01, 2015 at 15:33:27 pm


I think I am getting ready to take up "physics-based" ethics after all this murder and mayhem.

Well done, nobody! Well done!

Take care
Strider (one of my Chocolate Labs, BTW)

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.