The finale of Game of Thrones brought to a close one of the most discussed and debated series of all time. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering that Tyrion Lannister reminded us during the final episode, “There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.” With the television version of the story having drawn to close, it’s worth examining the meaning and morals of GoT. Since the beginning on the show and throughout its filming, there have been concerns that the story embraces a philosophy of nihilism, given its seemingly gleeful destruction of many of its main characters — a charge that author George R.R. Martin decried as “moronic.” Despite all the discussion of the innovative nature of Martin’s storytelling, much of it deserved, the conclusion reveals that the moral of his story is in fact very old.
GoT’s lessons parallel the moral philosophy of the ancient Greek thinker Plato. Borrowing from the stories on Ancient Greece is nothing new for Martin, but he goes even further in his endorsement of Plato’s teachings and demotion of the lessons of Aristotle. To better understand how this is true, we can examine the biggest ideas of the show. (Be warned: Spoilers and dragons await those who read further.)
Who deserves to sit upon the Iron Throne?
When not battling undead ice zombies, the story’s main focus is on competing quests to claim power, rule over the kingdom, and sit atop the Iron Throne. The final episode ends with Bran the Broken as the new king. Although he cannot sit upon The Iron Throne, which was melted by Drogon the dragon, he is nonetheless shown to be the person most fit to rule.
At first glance, this may seem to be a curious choice, as Bran never sought power. But Tyrion argues, similarly to Plato in “The Republic,” that Bran should be king because those who do not want power are the most qualified to have it. Bran also possesses the other key trait that Plato sought in a king: He is a philosopher. “If one son of a king were a philosopher, and had obedient citizens, he might bring the ideal polity into being” (p. 68).
Plato explains that a philosopher would make the best king because they possess both knowledge and virtue. Bran’s transformation into the mystical Three-Eyed Raven allows him the powers to see into the past, present and future. He is therefore, without question, the most knowledgeable person alive. He also possesses the virtue to not be corrupted by power. As the Three-Eyed Raven, he is almost completely dispassionate, even when being reunited with his long-lost sisters. Tyrion uses this as justification for why Bran should be king when telling him, “I know you don’t want it. I know you don’t care about power.”
Who and what cannot be trusted?
Much of the final season centers on the battle inside the character of Daenerys between being the good queen who free slaves and shows mercy or the mad queen bent on power and destruction. In the story of the charioteer in “Phaedrus,” Plato speaks of two horses: one that is good and pulls the charioteer to heaven, and one that is bad and pulls him to earth. Daenerys at times resists the pull of her worst impulses but ultimately succumbs to them. She is pulled to earth by her dragon and unleashes fire on King’s Landing, killing countless people along the way. The turn from Breaker of Chains to the Mad Queen reveals that Daenerys Targaryen cannot be trusted with power. Plato explained that those driven by emotions, even love, are pulled away from reason and philosophy and toward tyranny (p. 109).
Plato’s distrust of humans extends beyond our tendency to follow our hearts. Writing in “Gorgias,” Plato argued that the false arts of the corrupt humans are makeup, cooking and communication. “Saying that as cosmetic is to gymnastic, so is sophistry to the legislative art; and as cookery is to medicine, so is rhetoric to justice” (Nichols, 1998, p. 48). The false arts of cookery, cosmetics and communication are all indicted by the series. Based on his distrust of cooking and emotional people, it is likely that Plato would not be a fan of chef Gordon Ramsey. Outside of the delectable offerings of Hot Pie, GoT is no fan of cooking, either. Poison is a common weapon used in Westeros to kill through food and drink. Both Jon Arryn and Joffery Baratheon were poisoned. In Season 8, Episode 5, Varys attempts to poison Daenerys through her food. Arya Stark also uses cookery to trick Walter Frey into eating his own sons. Cooking is a tool to deceive, murder and exact revenge.
Plato would have also been unlikely to sign up for a Mary Kay makeover. He viewed cosmetics as another form of deception. In GoT, cosmetics are a deadly means of deception, allowing Arya and the Faceless Men to use other people’s faces as a means to carry out their assassinations.
Finally, communication is denounced throughout the series and embodied by the quotation, “Words are wind, even words like love and peace. I put more trust in deeds.” Characters who rely on communication as a source of power use it as a means to deceive. Masters of Whispers Qyburn and Varys use children as spies, and both die by gruesome ends. Tywin Lannister consolidated his power through letter-writing but is shown to be without honor and dies from a crossbow wound on the toilet. Lord Petyr Baelish, known colloquially as Littlefinger, is a pathological liar who employs deceptive communication to create chaos and advance his own agenda. He, too, sees his life end by means other than old age. The most noble characters are those of few words: Ned Stark, Rob Stark, Bran Stark and Jon Snow.
The inadequacies of Aristotle
Aristotle was a student of Plato, but he disagreed with many of Plato’s teachings. Not only did Aristotle not distrust rhetoric, he wrote a book explaining how to master it. Plato saw communication as a means of deception. In contrast, Aristotle saw it as a complement to philosophy that could allow us to discover truth. GoT not only endorses Plato, it attacks the ideology of Aristotle.
The character of Tyrion serves as a stand-in for Aristotle. He is depicted as the show’s chief intellectual and most eloquent speaker. Tyrion is famous for saying, “I drink wine and I know things.” Aristotle has wines named after him. Given his devotion to the Golden Mean, “all things in moderation,” Aristotle might have disapproved of the amount of wine Tyrion consumed, but they are otherwise a good match. Tyrion served as Hand of the Queen to Daenerys “Stormborn, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons,” etcetera, etcetera. He helped her conquer the world, only to see the destruction her rule wrought. Aristotle was similarly the teacher of a leader who would go on to conquer the world, although he preferred the more abbreviated title of Alexander the Great.
Tyrion is likewise a fan of rhetoric, relying on powerful speeches to persuade his audience. Despite being extolled as having the finest mind in all of the Seven Kingdoms, the final seasons of GoT were a series of missteps for Tyrion. From trusting his evil sister to encouraging Jon Snow to travel beyond the Wall, the last several seasons were a series of bad decisions, prompting some to wonder if he had gone from the smartest person in the land to the dumbest. For all of Aristotle’s and Tyrion’s abilities to reason and speak eloquently, they are not fit to rule. Tyrion ends the series as Hand of the King, but not because he is wise, just or merciful. Rather, King Bran the Broken tells him that he should serve as Bran’s Hand because “he has made many terrible mistakes. He is going to spend the rest of his life fixing them.” At the end of the story, the rhetorician, Tyrion, is a broken man, no longer trusting his ability to reason or find truth. His position as Hand of the King is not a promotion; rather, it is to be a sentence, a chance to atone for his misdeeds. He must learn to bend the knee to Plato and his philosopher.