Hobbes and Throne Theory

As I await April and the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones, a TV adaption of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I can’t help but find parallels between the series and our PoliSci class. Game of Thrones, for those of you who don’t watch the show, examines power, justice and identity in the context of Martin’s fictional world. Of the main characters that vie for power, each embodies a different theory as to what makes an effective ruler. Only to name a few, Ned Stark allows honor alone to guide his rule, while Geoffrey takes a ruthless, semi-Machiavellian approach.


As many main characters differ in political philosophy, they all fight for their supposed legitimate claim to the throne. According to Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign can attain his power one of two ways; “by natural force; as when a man maketh his children, to submit themselves, and their children to his government, as being able to destroy them if they refuse; or by war subdueth his enemies to his will, giving them their lives on that condition” or, by subjects collectively agreeing “to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others.”

In Game of Thrones, one such war of legitimacy was fought between the North and the Iron Throne. The Lannisters, rulers of the Iron Throne, were clearly in the advantageous position of “might,” much like the Athenians in the  Melian  Dialogue. On the other side, the North and the Starks, while at an economic disadvantage, fought for what they deemed a morally just cause.

In the ultimate exhibition of might making (supposed) right, Tyrion Lannister ends this war in a scene known as “The Red Wedding,” ordering Robb Stark, the leader of the Northern army, and his officers to be murdered at a wedding celebration. Amanda Marcotte writes in her blog on RawStory, “When Tyrion confronts his father over the infamous Red Wedding, Tywin dismissively says, “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.”

This question, reminiscent of our own involvement in debatable foreign affairs( firebombs, atomic bombs, ect.) reaches an interesting conclusion in the context of Game of Thrones. Robert McNamara said, in his 5th lesson in The Fog of War, “proportionality should be a guideline in war.” However, in the case of Tywin, the question of his nobility does not reside in his war strategy, it relies in his motivations of self-interest.


Tywin’s approach to the “game” of war would be considered cheating, according to Hobbes. From a Hobbesian perspective, Tywin plays the part of the fool, or the man who believes “there is no such thing as justice… there could be no reason, why every man might not do what he thought conduced thereunto: and therefore also to make, or not make; keep, or not keep covenants…when it conduced to one’s benefit.” During “The Red Wedding”, the Starks had been invited into a guest’s home, thus entered into an established covenant between host and guest. Consisting of the agreement that guests remain safe while in their host’s home, the violated covenant, while resulting in immediate gain, will cause distrust in the entire system of social covenants, as Hobbes predicted.

While, in the short run, Tywin, technically opts for the political/war strategy that endangers fewer lives, he cheats to do so. By violating a social covenant, which Hobbes suggests requires a purely self-interested man; Tyrion undermines the entire social system of covenants that result is far more detrimental moral consequences.


One thought on “Hobbes and Throne Theory

  1. The actions of Lord Tywin Lannister call into question a debate between two separate Machiavellian principles- the sanctity and honor of covenants, and the ends justifying the means of immoral actions. In order to determine whether or not Machiavelli would consider Tywin justified in his actions requires looking at what Weber defines as necessary conditions for a strong leader/politician. He claims that leaders must be passionate over the long term, have judgment with rationality, and the ability to set themselves apart from their subjects in order to perceive long term consequences. Lord Tywin, although undoubtedly in the wrong when it comes to laws of nature and the covenant, is simply pursuing a Machiavellian practice. He believes, as you stated above, that there is no difference in terms of the final outcome, between killing men at the dinner table versus at war. Lord Tywin allows himself to be feared and hated, due to his ability to set himself apart from the current situation. Instead, he can see the benefits to the Lannister legacy that arise from his command to kill Robb Stark. Furthermore, he goes on to embody all three characteristics of a good politician/leader. Combining this cognizance of future outcomes, which requires the long term commitment to the cause of upholding the power of the Lannisters. Lastly, he is responsible, he takes the consequences for his actions, understanding that indeed, the ends do justify the means, because “a Lannister always pays his debts”.


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