A Raven from House Wiley



Part One: “You Win or you Die”

Chapter 1: Maester Hobbes Goes to King’s Landing

You are Selfish and Dangerous

The Realm Needs a King

Hobbes Takes the Maester’s Chain

The Horrors of War

Robert’s Rebellion

Lion and Direwolf, Dragon and Leviathan

Chapter 2: It is a Great Crime to Lie to a King

Lying and Deceiving in Westeros

Lord Stark’s Lies

Is Lying Worse than Deceiving?

Betraying Trust and Shifting Responsibility

The Ruses of War

Bad Consequences and Broken Oaths

Chapter 3: Playing the Game of Thrones

Virtù and Fortuna

The Downfall of Kings

Morality and Dependency

Always Wear a Mask

Those Who Make Their Own Luck

A Final Lesson

Chapter 4: The War in Westeros and Just War Theory

The Justness of Resorting to War

Just Cause

Right Intention

Proper Authority

Last Resort

Probability of Success

Proportionality of Loss versus Gain

Justness in Conducting War

Discrimination between Combatants and Noncombatants

Appropriate Treatment of Prisoners of War

No Reprisals

Respect the Rights of the State’s Own Citizens

A Just War?

Part Two: “The Things I Do For Love”

Chapter 5: Winter Is Coming!

“Is the Honorable Person Happy?”

“Is the Devious Person Happy?”

“I Do Not Know Which of You I Pity Most”

“Life is Not a Song, Sweetling. You May Learn That One Day to Your Sorrow”

“When You Play the Game of Thrones, You Win or You Die. There Is No Middle Ground”

What Game of Thrones Teaches Us about Happiness

Chapter 6: The Death of Lord Stark

“If the Wicked Do Not Fear the King’s Justice Then You Have Put the Wrong Man in Office”

“The Day Will Come When you Need Them to Respect you, Even Fear you a Little”

“Most Men Would Rather Deny a Hard Truth Than Face It”

Threats to the Realm

“The Madness of Mercy”

Chapter 7: Lord Eddard Stark, Queen Cersei Lannister

“You Never Could Lie for Love nor Honor, Ned Stark”

The Madness of Mercy—The Price of Honesty

“When you Play the Game of Thrones, You Win or You Die”: The Rewards of Egoism

“And Pray That He is the Man I Think He is”

“How Are you Any Different from Robert, or Me, or Jaime?”

Chapter 8: It Would Be a Mercy

“Give Me a Good Clean Death”

“You Love Your Children, Do you Not?”

“When Will He Be as He Was?”

“This is Not Life”

Part Three: “Winter is Coming”

Chapter 9: Wargs, Wights, and Wolves That Are Dire

What is It Like to Be a Direwolf?

Wargs and Consciousness

Descartes and Direwolves

Wargs Again

What about the Wights?

Back to the Wights

Chapter 10: Magic, Science, and Metaphysics in A Game of Thrones

Let’s Get Physical

Science in A Game of Thrones

Magic and Causation

Science and Magic in Westeros

Magic and Metaphysics

Chapter 11: “You Know Nothing, Jon Snow”

Not Knowing That You Know Nothing

What Even a Blind Man Can See

Calibrating Confidence in What We (Don’t) Know

Justified True Belief

A Trip to King’s Landing

Back to the Wall

The Horn of Winter

Chapter 12: “Why is the World So Full of Injustice?”

Is the Problem of Evil Really a Problem?

But What is Evil?

Augustine and Catelyn Defend the Faith of the Seven

Problems with the Solutions

David Hume and the Impotence of the Old Gods

Blaming the Gods for Natural Evil

R’hllor and Natural Evil

Gods Don’t Care about Men

Part Four: “The Man Who Passes the Sentence should Swing the Sword”

Chapter 13: Why Should Joffrey Be Moral If He Has Already Won the Game of Thrones?

The World Will Be Exactly As You Want It to Be (“Lord Snow”)

A Man with Great Ambition and No Morals, I Wouldn’t Bet against Him (“Fire and Blood”)

The Truth Will Be What You Make It (“Lord Snow”)

You’ve a Long Way to Travel and In Bad Company (“Fire and Blood”)

Our Way is the Old Way (“Winter is Coming”)

I Must Be One of the Few Men in This City Who Doesn’t Want to Be King (“Fire and Blood”)

Chapter 14: The Moral Luck of Tyrion Lannister

The Virtues and Vices of Tyrion Lannister

It’s Out of the King’s Hand’s Hands

The Many Faces of Moral Luck

Kant to the Rescue?

Moral Luck and the Last Laugh

Chapter 15: Dany’s Encounter with the Wild

To Each His Own?

Moral Relativism

The Diversity of Ethical Codes

Love and Incest

Moral Relativism

The Dothraki Wedding Ceremony

Pillage and Plunder

The Morality of the Seven Kingdoms and Beyond

Chapter 16: “There Are No True Knights”

The Dark Side of Chivalry

Chivalry is Misguided

Sansa and her Songs

The Death of Modern Chivalry: Good Riddance

Women, Not Wards: What Has Humanity Made of the Human Female?

Part Five: “Stick them With the Pointy End”

Chapter 17: Fate, Freedom, and Authenticity in A Game of Thrones

The Freedom to Be or Not to Be

Que Sera, Sera (What Will Be, Will Be)

Fulfilling Fate

Becoming Who You Are

Chapter 18: No One Dances the Water Dance

Virtues and the Good Life

Martial Arts and Virtues

The Water Dance

Zen and the Sword Master from Braavos

Ninjutsu and the Faceless Men

The Faceless Dance of Virtue

Chapter 19: The Things I Do For Love

What is Game Theory?

House Rules

Eros’s Aim

The Nature of the Game

The Dwarf’s Gamble: Non-Zero-Sum Games and Repeated Play

Through the Eyes of Love

Chapter 20: Stop the Madness!

The Archaeologist and the Mad Fool

Pointing a Finger at the Crazies

Meet the Mayor of Crazytown

We Had to Murder the Mad Murderer!

Technologies of the Self

Am I Sane? I Think I Am. . . . I Think I Am. . . . I Think I Am. . . .

Everything is Dangerous




The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

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Elio M. Garcia and Linda Antonsson

“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

“Love is the bane of honor, the death of duty.”

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

With phrases like these, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones reveals not only a powerful sense of drama, a rich setting, and complex characters, but an understanding that at the heart of his story—of any great story—lies conflict. Martin often cites William Faulkner’s statement that the only story worth telling is that of “the human heart in conflict with itself,” and that conflict appears again and again throughout the Song of Ice and Fire series in a way that seemed unprecedented in the epic fantasy genre back in 1996 when the first novel was published. Whether the conflict entailed one lonely, misshapen dwarf’s efforts to survive in a society that looks down on him, a friend’s struggle to keep an irresponsible king on his throne, or a mother’s choice between her family and her duty, Martin presented the moral complexity of people and societies that breathed reality. Though inspired by the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien—father of the epic fantasy—Martin took a different path, and opened the door for a wave of new writers who explore characters and settings with an eye toward the darker side of human nature and society.

When it was announced that George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, would be adapted by HBO in Game of Thrones, it caused a great deal of excitement and speculation among fans who had been following the saga for a decade. Casting, budgets, shooting locations, special effects—these subjects and more were up for discussion. Yet at the heart of all of these questions was a single, overriding concern for most fans: How much fidelity would the show maintain to Martin’s novel, not only in terms of plot and characters, but in tone and themes? The first season came and went, and now we know that the producers largely stayed faithful on all levels, weaving together a drama that combined elements of the heroic epic with a moral scale that covered the range from the saintly to the monstrous.

Readers often cite the moral complexity of the novels as being a key part of their enjoyment, alluding to characters painted in “shades of gray.” Previous works of epic fantasy tended to operate with a straightforward moral compass where the antagonist was some variety of evil “Dark Lord” and the protagonists were defined by their opposition to this evil character based on their obvious moral goodness. In contrast, Martin’s series has been written with no dark lord to speak of, instead focusing the narrative on the dynastic conflicts that rend the Seven Kingdoms apart beneath the shadow of a looming catastrophe. That catastrophe may be created by nefarious creatures and it may be the ultimate end point of the narrative, but Martin’s choice to keep his eyes on the very human characters, with their very human flaws, was done well enough to win him legions of fans who appreciated the so-called “gritty realism” of the narrative.

Some of the post-Martin fantasists seem to pursue “grittiness” for the sake of grittiness—and that certainly is one approach among many. But it’s hard to find in some of these works the human core of the story. In contrast, Martin keeps a sharp focus on his characters, and though they suffer greatly at times, it tastes all the sweeter when they triumph. When they struggle, we struggle with them: Eddard Stark’s struggle with questions of honor and honesty, Jon Snow’s struggle to choose between vows and love, Tyrion Lannister’s effort to win his father’s approval because he has so little else. The inner conflict is absolutely integral to the weight of the story, to making A Song of Ice and Fire—and now Game of Thrones—such popular works. These and other questions—of ethics, political philosophy, and more—are the fulcrum on which the entire story turns. Despite the fact that many of the problems presented in the novel and on the screen are couched in the quasi-medieval context of lords and castles and personal honor, there’s a relevance to the way the characters wrestle with choices that do not seem so dissimilar to choices that we are faced with on a daily basis.

George R. R. Martin’s writing is ripe for introspection and consideration, not merely as examples of masterfully told popular literature, but as a genuine exploration of human nature in uncertain times. To provide some avenues for illumination, Game of Thrones and Philosophy presents essays on topics that run the gamut of philosophical topics, from ethics to metaphysics to political philosophy. Eric Silverman interrogates Plato’s views on virute and happiness, seen through the lense of Ned Stark’s and Cersei Lannister’s very different life strategies. Henry Jacoby explores the topic of consciousness in a series where magically created wights and supernatural direwolves exist. Richard Littman imagines Hobbes as a maester, looking on Westeros and considering the question of who should rule. These essays are just a few examples, of course; as Martin might write, there are “many and more” to engage with.

And all this, thanks to the sudden image Martin received one day back in 1991, while trying to write a science fiction novel: a huge wolf, found dead amidst summer snow. From such small beginnings, something great came, something worth reading, worth enjoying, worth examining.


Editor’s Note on Spoilers

Many of the philosophical quandaries of this series cannot be discussed without looking at events across the five books of the Song of Ice and Fire series that have been published at the time of this writing. However, we understand that some readers are fans of the HBO series and don’t want to be spoiled for events beyond the first season. Therefore, with that in mind, you may wish to delay reading chapters 3, 11, 12, 14, 18, and 20 until you’ve read further into the series; the rest are safe and relatively spoiler-free.

All citations for the first four books are from the Bantam Dell mass market paperback editions, and, of course, the citations for the fifth book are from the 2011 hardcover edition.

Episodes from the television series are referenced by their titles in the text.


How I Was Spared from Having to Take the Black

If it had not been for all the generous help I received while working on this book, my honor surely would have been compromised. Therefore, I wish to thank the following:

First, Ser William Irwin, the Lord of Pop Culture, provided constant support, encouragement, and maesterly advice throughout. Without him, there would be no Game of Thrones and Philosophy; I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job as series editor. Great to work with you, as always, Bill.

Also from House Wiley, I was fortunate to work with, first, Lady Ellen Wright, whose in-depth knowledge of A Song of Ice and Fire made for much enjoyable speculation on what might happen next in the series. Then, I was happy to be able to finish the project with Lady Connie Santisteban and Ser John Simko, who were wonderful to work with on House and Philosophy and continued to be so here. Thank you all.

My fellow philosophers—true maesters all—authored terrific essays that reflect both their expertise and their love of the source material. I’m proud to have worked with them.

My longtime friend, Ser Robin of House Riebe in the North (it’s been how long since I’ve seen you?), read everything I wrote and improved everything I wrote with detailed comments and suggestions. I looked forward to reading every raven he sent—always fun and instructive, as he is himself.

My good friend and colleague Ser John of House Collins provided helpful suggestions on my mind and metaphysics chapter and was always willing to listen and help out with any difficulties I had while working on this volume. I always appreciate and benefit from our discussions.

I want to thank two long-distance friends and colleagues as well. Ser David Kyle of House Johnson, a trusted associate of the Lord of Pop Culture, contributed valuable suggestions on Lord Schoone’s chapter on evil. And Lady R. Shannon of House Duval, “The Wonderninja,” not only wrote a very fine chapter of her own, but graciously shared her wisdom concerning Eastern philosophy and martial arts, and in so doing, enabled my Water Dance chapter to go on dancing.

I’m especially grateful to Lord Elio M. Garcia and Lady Linda Antonsson for contributing their beautifully written foreword. They perfectly captured why the works of George R. R. Martin are, in their words “worth reading, worth enjoying, and worth examining.” Their wonderful website,, as well as another great site,, entertained me, kept me updated on all the Game of Thrones news while I was working on this volume, and were there for me to always make sure I had my facts straight!

And speaking of George R. R. Martin, without him there would, of course, be no book to write. Thank you, ser, for my all-time favorite books. And further thanks go to everyone at HBO who bought it all to life, better than I could have imagined or hoped for.

My brother Alan, now a retired Lord, provided good humor and enthusiastic support throughout, and I thank him for that and for everything else he does for me. Like Tyrion (his favorite character), he’s exceedingly clever; I doubt that I could beat him at cyvasse.

Finally, my wife, Kathryn, the Lady of the Looms. Born in Craven County (I’m not making this up), but certainly no craven. As proof, she puts up with me. As long as I have you, it matters not that winter is coming.


So What if Winter Is Coming?

Henry Jacoby

Winter is coming; the Wall may not hold, and the Others may kill us all. Yes, all men must die—valar morghulis, as they say in Braavos.

In Braavos, they also tell us valar dohaeris—all men must serve. So shall we serve the gods? Or those who rule? What good is serving anyone if winter is indeed coming? Maybe we should just drink wine and sing a few choruses of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.”

The House Words of the Starks remind us that we must be vigilant, and even though the future may be grim, we should hold our heads high . . . at least while we still have them. We have our honor, our duty; we can yet lead meaningful lives. As Ygritte told Jon Snow, all men must die, but first we’ll live. He knows nothing, that Jon Snow.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” This is a lesson Arya learned well from her Braavosi sword master. The words become a recurring refrain in her mind whenever she needs to find some inner strength and push on. They can help us, too. And here’s another lesson: “Logic cuts deeper than swords.” When wielded properly, swords can be used against an enemy. Logic, likewise, can be a powerful weapon. When applied correctly, logic can disarm or defeat opponents—or at least their arguments—and usually without too much loss of blood. While swords can defend our bodies, logic indeed goes deeper, defending our ideas, our beliefs, our values—the things that define who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of reality. Socrates said that no evil can befall a good person. One’s body can be harmed easily enough by swords, but not the inner self. The person of virtue and integrity has a soul in harmony that stands steadfast against desires and influence.

Yes, fear cuts deeper than swords, but so does logic. In philosophy, one has to learn not to fear where logic leads. All men must serve, and philosophers serve the truth. The authors in this volume have done just that. No tongues were ripped out, no fingers removed; the truth was fearlessly pursued. Maybe Hobbes would’ve made a great maester; maybe chivalry is a bad thing; maybe Robb’s war isn’t so just after all; maybe Arya can teach us about Zen; and you know, Ned really would have benefited from reading Machiavelli. Speaking of reading, in A Dance with Dragons, the master himself tells us that “a reader lives a thousand lives. . . . The man who never reads only one.”1

So get to it. Winter will be here before you know it.


1. George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), p. 452.



Chapter 1


Greg Littmann

Who should rule in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros? It’s the fundamental question underlying Game of Thrones and the entire Song of Ice and Fire saga. Lannister armies, bristling with pikes, march north from Casterly Rock in support of young King Joffrey. The royal House Baratheon divides against itself, as the brothers Stannis and Renly each lay claim to the Iron Throne. In Winterfell Robb Stark is declared king in the North, subject to none, and in the Iron Islands, the grim fleets of the Greyjoys sail out to take the North for themselves. Meanwhile, in the distant eastern lands of the Dothraki, Daenerys Targaryen, last survivor of a dynasty that has ruled the Seven Kingdoms for three hundred years, raises a horde of fearless mounted nomads to reconquer her homeland and restore the Targaryen dragon to the throne.

Considering the issue of who should sit on the Iron Throne is not just an excuse for a self-indulgent wallow in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. The question has real philosophical importance because we, like the warring peoples of Westeros, must decide who is to rule us. Philosophers have been theorizing about politics for at least two and a half thousand years, and one way to test their theories is to consider how well they work in hypothetical fictional situations, called “thought experiments.” All that it takes to turn any fictional state of affairs, like the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, into a thought experiment is to ask what the implications of our theories would be if this state of affairs were real.

One such theory comes from the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and his masterpiece, Leviathan. What would Hobbes think of the political situation in Westeros? How would he advise the nobility of the great houses? What makes the perspective of Thomas Hobbes particularly fascinating is that he lived through the game of thrones for real. Hobbes, a professional tutor by trade, was a loyal supporter of the great House Stuart. The Stuarts not only reigned over England (once seven kingdoms itself!), but were kings of Scotland and Ireland as well. Like the Targaryens, the Stuarts were overthrown by their subjects in a terrible civil war. King Charles I of House Stuart, like Mad King Aerys II of House Targaryen, was put to death in the revolt, but Prince Charles, his son, like Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, escaped into exile to plot a return to power. We readers are yet to learn whether Daenerys will finally sit upon the Iron Throne, but Hobbes’s student Charles Stuart returned to England to become Charles II. Hobbes was an avid reader of history, an experienced traveler, and a careful observer of his times. As he watched Britain’s bloody game of thrones unfold, he came to some very definite conclusions about the nature of human beings and how they should be governed.

You Are Selfish and Dangerous

“Grand Maester Aethelmure wrote that all men carry murder in their hearts.”

—Grand Maester Pycelle1

Hobbes believed that people act only out of personal self-interest, claiming that “no man giveth, but with intention of good to himself.”2 People often pretend to have loftier goals, of course; passionate oaths of loyalty to the crown were as common in Stuart England as they are in King’s Landing. Beneath the facade, however, we are motivated by selfishness—we are all Lord Littlefinger under the skin. Because we are fundamentally selfish, our behavior is bound only by what we can get away with. Where people are not forced to obey rules, there is nothing but violent anarchy, a “war of every man against every man.”3

According to Hobbes, conflict arises for three reasons: People fight to gain their neighbor’s possessions, like the barbarous clans who prey on travelers through the Mountains of the Moon. People fight to defend themselves from danger, even if it means striking preemptively against potential threats, as when Robert Baratheon seeks to assassinate Daenerys Targaryen just in case she ever becomes dangerous. And people fight just for the glory of it, like Khal Drogo, who slaughters his foes as much to satisfy his pride as his greed for treasure.

When everyone can do what they want, life, according to Hobbes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”4 Nobody is safe in such chaos. Even mighty champions like the Mountain That Rides, Ser Gregor Clegane, must sleep sometimes, and when they do, even a poor warrior like Samwell Tarly could kill them. Our only recourse is to establish a set of rules that we will agree to live by, mutually giving up freedoms for the sake of mutual benefit. For example, you agree not to stick a battle-axe in my head and in return, I agree not to stick a battle-axe in yours. Being part of such a social contract is in everyone’s self-interest. Of course, since humans are driven only by self-interest, we won’t keep such promises unless it is in our own interest to do so. You may promise to keep your axe to yourself, but as soon as my back is turned, you will break your promise if it is in your best interest to do so, giving me a swift chop and making off with my lunch. What people need to do, then, is set up an authority to make sure that everyone obeys the rules. Once there is someone watching us to make sure that if you give me the axe, you get the axe, it will be in your best interest not to strike as soon as my back is turned.

The Realm Needs a King

When Joffrey turned to look out over the hall, his eye caught Sansa’s. He smiled, seated himself, and spoke. “It is a king’s duty to punish the disloyal and reward those who are true. Grand Maester Pycelle, I command you to read my decrees.”

—A Game of Thrones5

Given all of this talk about social contracts, Hobbes might sound like a champion of democracy. In fact, he was anything but. So great is the need to contain human selfishness by making sure that there are always negative consequences for breaking the rules, that we must be ruled by an all-powerful dictator to whom we give complete obedience. Hobbes called such an absolute ruler a Leviathan, taking the name of the huge fire-breathing sea monster of Hebrew mythology. I assume that George R. R. Martin’s use of the dragon to symbolize the (once) all-powerful House Targaryen is a nod to Hobbes’s Leviathan (although it’s also possible that Martin, like the rest of us, just likes dragons). Hobbes understood that being all-powerful includes having the power to appoint your own successor. Holding elections to appoint the next dictator would be as alien to Hobbes’s ideal government as it would be to the kings of Westeros. But how does such a totalitarian system jibe with a social contract, according to which the power of the leaders is derived from the will of the people?

Hobbes believed that the social contract he recommends was already made long ago in all civilized, organized nations. The monarchies of Europe existed because Europeans’ barbarous and disorganized ancestors had tired of living in a hellish state of anarchy. They had agreed to submit to authority for the sake of their mutual good, and agreed on behalf of their descendants as well. The social contract having been made, there is no need for further input from the common people, who are born into the social contract and need only obey authority without question. Hobbes recognized that not all states were ruled by a monarch, and in that case, the people have a duty to establish a monarchy to rule them, but once the monarchy is in place, no more input from the common people is desirable.

As an analogy, consider the manner in which Robb Stark is declared the King in the North. He achieves this position of authority because his bannermen call on him to rule them. “[Greatjon Umber] pointed at Robb with the blade. ‘There sits the only king I mean to bow my knee to, m’lords,’ he thundered. ‘The King in the North!’ And he knelt, and laid his sword at . . . [Robb’s] feet.”6 The other assembled lords follow suit, and the rafters of the great hall in Winterfell ring with their shouts of “The King in the North!” However, once the lesser houses have declared Robb the King in the North, they no longer have the right to undeclare him the King in the North. If they withdraw support from him at a later date, they become oathbreakers, devoid of honor. As for trying to tell a Stark ruler whom he may have as his successor, the lords of the north would have a better chance trying to teach a direwolf to dance.

Hobbes Takes the Maester’s Chain

“So many vows . . . they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his.”

—Jaime Lannister7

So what would Hobbes think about the situation in Westeros? How would he advise the nobility? Let’s make Hobbes a court adviser like Maester Luwin and Grand Maester Pycelle. He can drop by Oldtown first for several years of maester training at the Citadel. Having won enough links for his chain to wind around his neck, Hobbes sets sail for King’s Landing in 273, ten years into the reign of the last Targaryen king, Aerys II. He’s to be employed as a tutor, instructing noble Targaryen children just as he instructed the young prince Charles Stuart, and we’ll let him become a valued member of court with the ear of the king, as he was in Charles’s court.

When Maester Hobbes first arrives at the court of Aerys, he would find much to admire. Here is a king who understands the importance of centralizing power! The Leviathan Aerys rules his kingdom with an iron fist and crushes those he considers enemies. The rules in the court of Aerys are whatever Aerys says they are. Even a King’s Hand stands only one step from execution—Aerys goes through five of them in twenty years. Serious miscreants are burned alive with wildfire, while Ser Ilyn Payne has his tongue ripped out with hot pincers just for making a tactless jest. At the court of Lady Lysa Arryn, Tyrion Lannister is able to thwart Lysa’s will to kill him by insisting on a trial by combat. Lysa gives in to his demand because she is not an absolute dictator and places the authority of tradition over her own authority. Conversely, at the court of Aerys, when Eddard Stark’s father Lord Rickard demanded his right to trial by combat, Aerys simply chose fire as his champion and had Rickard roasted alive. The Targaryen words are “Fire and Blood.” These are kings who rule by force, not by negotiation and consensus.

It must be admitted, Aerys was not merely strict and authoritative, as a Leviathan should be, but was harsh, dangerous, and erratic, particularly toward the end of his reign. His judgments were often more than a little cruel and unfair. When Aerys’s son Rhaegar abducts Lyanna Stark, and Brandon Stark rides to King’s Landing with a group of young noblemen to protest, Aerys executes the lot of them for treason and executes all their fathers for good measure. They didn’t call him “Mad King Aerys” for nothing.

What are Aerys’s subjects supposed to do in the face of such tyranny? Should they simply obey the king in order to maintain the implicit social contract? Or should they rebel as Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark do, in an attempt to replace him with someone better? For Robert and Ned, honor and reason alike demand that they resist Aerys, but Maester Hobbes would continue to counsel obedience to the king. Why should the people of the Seven Kingdoms endure such a ruler? The answer is that the alternative is civil war, and civil war is so much worse.

The Horrors of War

The northerners broke into a run, shouting as they came, but the Lannister arrows fell on them like hail, hundreds of arrows, thousands, and shouts turned to screams as men stumbled and went down.

—A Game of Thrones8

Civil wars are easily romanticized. The tales of King Arthur’s knights are often glamorized stories of civil war as Arthur’s realm crumbles, and Shakespeare’s historical plays make England’s Wars of the Roses seem a glorious triumph of good over evil. However, England went through a civil war in Hobbes’s lifetime, making the grim reality all too clear to him. It had been a century and a half since the Wars of the Roses, in which the lords of York and Lancaster contested for the English crown just as the lords of Stark and Lannister contest for the Iron Throne. At stake in the English Civil War (1642–1651) was not just who should rule England, but also how it should be ruled. Charles I of the Stuarts, like Aerys Targaryen, believed that the king should hold the reins of power tightly, ruling as an absolute dictator unhampered by the judgments of his subjects. Indeed, his father, James I of England, had declared that the power of a king should be that of a god on earth! Many of Charles’s subjects, on the other hand, believed that there should be limitations on the power of the king and, in particular, that only the elected parliament should be able to levy new taxes. If only Charles had compromised and shared power, he would almost certainly have kept both his throne and his life. Instead, he was determined to crush all resistance and was eventually captured and beheaded.

The English Civil War was a time of terrible slaughter, with brutal clashes like the battles of Edgehill, Naseby, and Preston. Well over one hundred thousand soldiers were killed at a time when the population of Britain was less than six million. That’s like the modern United States fighting a war in which it loses five million soldiers—and that doesn’t even factor in the wounded! The horrors of this war only confirmed for Hobbes what he had already concluded from historical studies: civil war is so awful that it is never worth fighting. Any alternative is better as long as it keeps the peace. Hobbes wrote, “the greatest [harm], that in any form of Government can possibly happen to the people in general, is scarce sensible, in respect of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a Civil War.”9

Maester Hobbes would urge the people of the Seven Kingdoms to endure the eccentricities of Aerys the Mad (and to stop calling him that); he’d insist that they show some sense of perspective. So a few Starks and other nobles get dispossessed, kidnapped, roasted, strangled, and otherwise treated with a brutality normally reserved for the common people. What is that compared with the suffering in a realm that is at war with itself?

Robert’s Rebellion

They had come together at the ford of the Trident while the battle crashed around them, Robert with his warhammer and his great antlered helm, the Targaryen prince armored all in black. On his breastplate was the three-headed dragon of his House, wrought all in rubies that flashed like fire in the sunlight.

—A Game of Thrones10

Robert Baratheon, of course, is not the sort of fellow who would be calmed by Maester Hobbes’s appeals to the good of the realm. Hobbes’s worst fears come to pass, and the houses Baratheon, Arryn, and Stark rise up against Aerys Targaryen. Thousands die in bloody clashes like the battles of Summerhall, Ashford, and the Trident, while the great city of Kingsport is sacked by the Lannisters and comes within a hair’s breadth of being burned to the ground.

After Robert’s final triumph at the Trident in 283, in which he slays Rhaegar in single combat and puts the loyalist army to flight, Maester Hobbes has an important choice to make: he could either flee into exile with the surviving Targaryens, like Ser Jorah Mormont, or remain in King’s Landing to try to persuade the new king to let him keep his old job, like the spider Varys and Grand Maester Pycelle. Pragmatist that he was, Hobbes’s usual response to danger was to flee. When his political writings upset supporters of parliament, he fled to Paris. When his political writings upset other royalists in Paris, he fled back to London again. If there were two things Hobbes was good at, they were annoying people and fleeing. It might be tempting, then, to believe that Hobbes would escape with the last Targaryens into the lands of the Dothraki, there to try to explain social contracts to Khal Drogo. Besides, it seems natural to suppose that if subjects owe their king complete loyalty, they should maintain that loyalty if the king is driven into exile. Indeed, that is exactly what Hobbes did in the case of young Charles Stuart.

For all that, I believe that Hobbes would remain in Kingsport and transfer his loyalty to Robert. He would do this not because he is a craven or an oathbreaker, but because the same principles that led him to support the Leviathan Aerys so wholeheartedly would lead him to desire a replacement. Remember, the entire point of giving our complete loyalty to an all-powerful dictator is that we are driven to seek safety, and only an all-powerful dictator can offer us the best protection. But a so-called king like the exiled Viserys Targaryen can’t offer anyone any protection. He’s only got one knight, and even he won’t do as he’s told. Hobbes wrote: “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long as, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.”11 The Targaryens’ power to protect is gone and so is any reason to support them. Hobbes supported young Charles Stuart because the only alternative was to support a republican government. In the person of Robert Baratheon, Hobbes has a perfectly good king to support, and will concentrate on serving his new monarch loyally and tutoring Prince Joffrey to be a great dictator in his own turn.

In Hobbes’s view, despite the fact that Robert should never have rebelled in the first place, it is now King Robert who must never be rebelled against. It is just as wrong for Queen Cersei to defy the usurper Robert by plotting to place a Lannister on the throne as it would have been if she’d tried that on Aerys, who was heir to a three-hundred-year dynasty. It goes without saying that her murder of the king is even worse! Such an act puts the entire realm in terrible danger. Yet once again, just as in the case of Aerys, once Robert is gone, the important thing is not bringing the perpetrators to justice but making sure that there is someone sitting on the Iron Throne to keep the peace. Hobbes would be as eager to transfer his loyalty from King Robert to King Joffrey as he had been to transfer it from King Aerys to King Robert, even if he knew of Joffrey’s true heritage. Targaryen, Baratheon, Lannister—it really doesn’t matter very much as long as nobody breaks the peace. It isn’t even particularly important that Joffrey is so incompetent a ruler that he thinks disputes over real estate should be settled by combat to the death. The harm the little git can inflict is minimal compared to the carnage of a civil war.

The eunuch Varys would agree absolutely. He works desperately to keep King Robert alive, but when Eddard threatens the peace of the realm by preparing to reveal that Joffrey is not Robert’s rightful heir, Varys conspires to have him executed. He cannot allow Ned to undermine the power of Joffrey, regardless of his lineage, because to do so would plunge the Seven Kingdoms once more into civil war. When Ned asks Varys to at least smuggle a message to his family, Varys replies that he will read the message and deliver it if it serves his own ends to do so. Ned asks, “What ends are those, Lord Varys?” and without hesitation, Varys answers, “peace.” Like a true Hobbesian, he explains, “I serve the realm, and the realm needs peace.”12

Lion and Direwolf, Dragon and Leviathan

“The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true, Lord Eddard, tell me . . . why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”


Hobbes’s way of thinking about politics differs greatly from that of most of the nobility of Westeros. Who is right—Hobbes, or the great houses, or neither? Hobbes would view himself as a realist who is willing to face some hard truths—truths that are dangerous to ignore. To his mind, ambitious nobles like Tywin Lannister endanger the realm by defying the will of the king. It may seem that such nobles are simply being selfish, as Hobbes recommends, but a sensible selfish person would realize that they put their own safety in great danger by playing the game of thrones, and would opt for obedience to the Leviathan instead. Honorable nobles like Eddard Stark endanger the realm no less than plotters like Tywin. Their obsessive concern with the rules of honor leads to the War of the Five Kings just as surely as Lannister greed.

Hobbes was right to recognize that political theory must take into account the degree to which people are motivated by self-interest rather than duty. The Starks in particular could have used some instruction from Maester Hobbes on this point. When Ned comes to King’s Landing, he tragically puts his trust in Littlefinger to do the right thing, when it should have been obvious that Littlefinger’s interests would be served by betraying Ned to Queen Cersei. When Robb first marches against the Lannisters, he expects his bannerman Lord Frey to answer his call to arms because that is Frey’s sworn duty, while Catelyn understands that Frey will be moved only by his self-interest, including an advantageous marriage for his daughter.

On the other hand, Hobbes was surely mistaken that people are only motivated by self-interest. Like Eddard, whose attachment to honor is so great that he dies rather than serve an illegitimate king, people in real life sometimes die for what they believe in. Similarly, like Jon Snow, who gives up home, safety, and luxury for a life of hard service on the Wall, people sometimes make extraordinary sacrifices for the benefit of others. Tales of courage, honor, and self-sacrifice in fiction ring true for us when they capture something of the best in real humanity. If we were all motivated by self-interest alone, stories about people like Ned and Jon would be absurd, even incoherent. We understand the motivations of characters like these precisely because we understand that a human being can be motivated by higher concerns.

Perhaps it is his oversimplification of human psychology that leads Hobbes to miss the way that overcentralization of power can weaken, rather than stabilize, a state. When Aerys went insane, it was the very fact that he held the reins of power so tightly that left civil war as the only alternative to enduring his abuses. After all, he could not be voted out, forced to abdicate, or restrained by law in any way. Perhaps Robert’s rebellion could have been avoided if only the Targaryen Leviathan had not been so powerful! The same problem arises under the reign of Joffrey. The War of the Five Kings erupted because the only way to replace Joffrey was to rebel. Hobbes really ought to have learned from events in Britain that flexibility in a ruler can be more important than the will to dominate. Few supporters of the English parliament even wanted to get rid of the monarchy, until Charles I made it so clear that he would never share power that the parliamentarians were left with a choice between servility and civil war.

For all his failings, Hobbes understood the horrors of war a little more clearly than the scheming nobility of Westeros. The War of the Five Kings was every bit as terrible as Maester Hobbes feared it would be. Tully forces are slaughtered at Riverrun and Mummer’s Ford, Lannister forces at Whispering Wood and the Battle of the Fords, and Stark forces at the Green Fork and at the Red Wedding. From Stannis Baratheon’s terrible defeat against the Lannisters at King’s Landing to Loras Tyrell’s Pyrrhic victory against Baratheon defenders at Dragonstone, from Ramsay Bolton’s murderous sacking of Winterfell to the terrible carnage inflicted by Greyjoy Ironmen invading across the north and west of Westeros, the history of the war is a tale of shocking loss and human suffering. Worse yet, all of this happens when the realm is most in need of a unified response to external threat. Winter is coming and the Others are returning to reclaim their old stalking grounds, while in the east, a Targaryen khaleesi with a sideline in hatching dragons prepares to reclaim the Iron Throne. Wherever we situate the point at which a people simply must rise in rebellion against dishonest, vicious, or incompetent rulers, surely the cost of the War of the Five Kings is so great that the decision to go to war should have depended on more than a matter of principle regarding legitimate succession.

The lesson that the nobles of Westeros should have learned from Maester Hobbes is not that they should never rebel, but that civil war is so horrific that it must be avoided at almost any cost. Appeals to lofty principles of justice and honor that are never to be violated are all very well, but these principles must always be weighed against the consequences our actions will have for human lives. Our most fundamental need as humans is not justice; our most fundamental need as humans is avoiding having a greatsword inserted up our nose. As citizens of Western democracies with the duty to vote for our leaders, we are all, in a way, required to play the game of thrones, in our own nation and across the world. When we forget the cost of our principles in terms of human suffering, to ourselves, or to those who fight for us, or even to those we fight for and those we fight against, then we are in danger of doing more harm with our good intentions than any Targaryen tyrant ever inflicted with his greed for power.


1. George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005), p. 253.

2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), p. 100.

3. Ibid., p. 85.

4. Ibid., p. 84.

5. Martin, A Game of Thrones, p. 620.

6. Ibid., p. 796.

7. George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005), p. 796.

8. Martin, A Game of Thrones, p. 687.

9. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 122.

10. Martin, A Game of Thrones, p. 44.

11. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 147.

12. Martin, A Game of Thrones, p. 636.

13. Ibid.