Tradition, Interests, and Principle in the Game of Thrones

I do not apologize for posting yearly on the Game of Thrones. Tens of millions of people watch the show and thus its analysis of the structure of politics reaches far more people in contemporary American than does that of Hobbes and Machiavelli. And its sketch of the political world is quite insightful and revealing.

This season ends with three forces contending for the Iron Throne of the Kingdom of Westeros and each of these forces sees the essence of politics completely differently.  For the Starks, one of the seven aristocratic houses in the Kingdom, political and social behavior should be guided by tradition.  Living in the most rural, northern part of the kingdom, they worship the old gods, and believe in norms of honor and reciprocity that have developed over centuries. As a result, they are the only noble family that behaves consistently nobly.  That wins them loyalty from many of their retainers.

But their adherence to tradition is also their tragic flaw. The patriarch of the family, Eddard Stark, chivalrously allows a female enemy, Cersei, time to escape, before he reveals her incest. Instead, she successfully schemes to have him captured, which leads to his execution. His son, Robert, foolishly believes that the traditional safeguards of hospitality will protect him from being slaughtered by another aristocratic family at a wedding.  More generally, the Starks have trouble adapting their traditions to new situations.

The party currently holding the Iron Throne sees politics through the prism of interest. These are the Lannisters, the richest family in the kingdom.  It is implied that they are urbanite merchants, who, like the Medici, have translated their wealth into political power. Their motto is commercial: “We always pay our debts,” but that reputation allows them to focus political power in times of need.  Lest it be thought, that interest is necessarily an evil perspective on the world, the closet approximation to a hero in the story is a Lannister– the dwarf Tyrion. He represents the best product of commercial calculation,–a recognition that self interest requires taking into account other interests over time.   Being long-term greedy, as it were, makes him a tolerant pluralist.

But for other Lannisters, the understanding of life as essentially constituted by interest leads to villainy. Cersei, another Lannister, justifies incest, torture and mass murder on the grounds it makes her feel good and propels her to seize the Throne  at the expense of her own son. And even Tyrion, lacking any absolute commitment to principle, commits the crime of parricide when anger and expediency moves him.

The last party is the party of principle in the person of Daenerys Targaryen. She wants to regain the throne that other nobles have usurped. But she does it in name of higher principle. She wants to break the wheel of violence between the aristocratic houses, end slavery, and create a regime of justice. In this respect she is the admirable liberal  (in the political theory sense) of the story.

But to achieve her aims against entrenched power, she must be willing to use weapons of mass destruction (in this case dragons) and make alliances with groups dedicated to rape and pillage. There is a real question whether any principled politics can survive the drive for power in a world as fallen as that of the Game of Thrones.

While this schema of opposed politics will surely drive the conflict between the three sides, the Game of Thrones is too subtle a program to be content with putting its all its characters in one category or another. Two protagonists in the Game of Thrones are now hybrids. Sansa Stark began as a parody of a traditionalist, an aristocratic lady confident that she would make a fairly tale marriage to a prince. But through terrible adversity, she has learned to temper adherence to tradition with a healthy dose of calculation.  Tyrion has defected from the Lannisters to Daenerys. At end of this season, he says that he is dropping his cynicism about the world and believing in Daenerys’ adherence to principle. My money is on Sansa and Tyrion to fuse elements of different approaches to make  the best moves in  the coming power politics.  It is not only in botany, but in politics, that hybrid vigor wins out.

Reader Discussion

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on July 11, 2016 at 09:04:18 am

Traditional classical and neo-classical theory contrasts governments premised on three principles: maximal commitment across the breadth of the polity (ie. Democracy); wisdom and mature deliberation (ie. Aristocracy); and decisiveness and capacity for rapid and efficient action (ie. Monarchy).

Dr. McGinnis suggests--plausibly to my eye--that GOT explores three different, perhaps more modern principles: tradition, interest, and liberalism. To my eye, this schema is less analytically clear than the neo-classical trilogy, since interest and liberalism are intricately linked. So it seems to me, perhaps, that there are actually only two principles in GOT, not three.

This in turn suggests, to me at least, that the real contrast in GOT is between conservativism and liberalism--ironically, then, a modernist contrast given the late-medieval, 14th century societies on which GOT was modelled.

I find GOT deficient because it never explores the problem of legitimacy. Of the three principles Dr. McGinnis describes, in the show only one contains an account of allegiance. It is clear why bannermen and soldiers would fight and die for the Starks. But given the traditional neo-feudal ethos of mutual and reciprocal obligation the Starks embody, I am not sure how much the Starks provide us insight into our own situation. Theirs is not really a Burkean Whig kind of conservatism the Starks represent.

Why, however, would anyone be willing to lay down their lives for the Lannisters? We never see them making the case "fight for us, its in your best interest to do so!" to their followers.

Similarly, and more oddly, in the show the forces of liberalism consist largely of a bunch of recently arrived ex-pat Vikings and two very different groups of former mercenaries. We are a long way here from the democratic armies described by Victor Hansen (see eg. Ripples of Battle).

There is only so much one can ask of a drama. I think the show nods to political theory more than it explores is deeply.

Just some undeveloped thoughts. Thank you for an intriguing essay.

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Kevin R. Hardwick

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