Friday, July 18, 2014

Game of Thrones: Unleavened

[Warning: This post has spoilers for Game of Thrones]

"The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and buried in three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened." - Matt 13:35

This verse keeps coming back to me as I finish the third season DVDs of Game of Thrones. The world of Game of Thrones has no leaven; that is, no individuals formed in terms of the moral horizon of the Gospel. And that for good reason, for it is a world in which the Incarnation never occurred.

The leaven of the Gospel raises an entire culture, not merely the individual lives of believers. The important thing about St. Francis is not how many people he inspired to follow him in his passionate imitation of Christ, but what his example meant for the medieval world as a whole. When St. Francis joyfully rejects all standards of worldly success and failure, sings in his rags and his hunger, supremely happy with nothing but Christ in his heart, it is difficult for everyone, including sinners and unbelievers, to continue to take with absolute seriousness the worldly hopes that previously occupied them. We like to think that atheists introduced skepticism into the world, but actually Christ introduced a skepticism more radical than any atheist skepticism. The atheist, in his denial of God, leaves men where they are, focused on their temporal hopes of gold, glory, power, money, fame and romance (or simple lust). Christ shattered that existential horizon forever, and saints like Francis remind us of the fact.

Except in Game of Thrones. Without Christ, it is a world in which the secular goals of wealth and power remain absolute. It's actually a little worse than that. Even in the pre-Christian world philosophers like Socrates challenged conventional values to the point of driving their fellow citizens to execute them. Socrates never revolutionized a culture the way Christ revolutionized the West, but Game of Thrones doesn't even include a Socratic-like character, or indeed any philosophers worthy of the name. (This is one of the many ways in which it is distinguished from The Lord of the Rings, which includes genuinely philosophical figures like Gandalf who regularly shake men out of their moral complacency.)

The absence of the Gospel, and any authentically philosophical culture, gives Game of Thrones an ethically cramped and oppressive feel. The characters tend to melancholy, trapped in a variety of unhappy lives from which they'd love to be free, but escape from which they cannot conceive. Watching it, I found myself wishing that someone, somewhere, would muster a little moral imagination, sufficient to challenge the existential parameters that keep them prisoners. But this is Plato's Cave without a Socrates, who challenged the shadows from the inside, or a Christ, who shatters them from outside. For those in Game of Thrones, the shadows on the cave wall represent an absolute horizon.

The happiest people in the series are, naturally, those that have found some measure of love and romance. I say naturally because romantic love tends to subvert the scale of values one had previously taken for granted, and creates freedom by making one open to new existential possibilities. Combine this with the tradition of the nobility marrying for political reasons rather than love, and you have the primary engine of plot development in Game of Thrones. Cersei Lannister is matched in a loveless marriage with the drunk and sexually uninterested Robert Baratheon. In frustration she pairs off with her twin brother Jamie, and when Eddard's son Bran is crippled by Jaime after witnessing the incestuous Jaime and Cersei, we have the origin of the war that is the central action in the story. Robb Stark, the King of the North, is pledged to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, but instead marries the woman he loves, Talisa Maegyr, leading to perhaps the most shocking plot development of the series. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son in the family of the Stark's primary rivals, loves a prostitute but is forced to marry Sansa Stark, teenage daughter of the slain king Eddard Stark. Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard, is vowed to the (celibate) order of the Nights Watch, but falls in love with a wildling woman while out on patrol. And on it goes.

But absent any religion or philosophy that gives them a taste of the transcendent, the love-struck in Game of Thrones typically fail to break through the Platonic shadows that define their lives. Tyrion's lover suggests that she and Tyrion elope (in effect) to a far off land, but he cannot get past the mundane question of making a living ("What would I do? Juggle?"), even though he is among the most educated men in King's Landing, and confesses that he finally cannot escape his familial ties ("I am a Lannister").  Jon Snow and his love Ygritte understand that neither Ygritte's wildling tribe nor Jon Snow's Nights Watch are really worthy of their devotion, but they ultimately can find no way to transcend their connections to each, and Ygritte winds up firing arrows into Jon as he returns to his people.

We are well short of the drama and passion of Heloise and Abelard here, let alone someone like St. Thomas Aquinas. Born into a noble family, St. Thomas not only renounced his aristocratic privileges, but insisted on joining the Dominicans, a mendicant order of friars. As G.K. Chesterton put it,
Thomas of Aquino wanted to be a Friar. It was a staggering fact to his contemporaries; and it is rather an intriguing fact even to us; for this desire, limited literally and strictly to this statement, was the one practical thing to which his will was clamped with adamantine obstinacy till his death. He would not be an Abbot; he would not be a Monk; he would not even be a Prior or ruler in his own fraternity; he would not be a prominent or important Friar; he would be a Friar. It is as if Napoleon had insisted on remaining a private soldier all his life. Something in this heavy, quiet, cultivated, rather academic gentleman would not be satisfied till he was, by fixed authoritative proclamation and official pronouncement, established and appointed to be a Beggar. (from GKC's St. Thomas Aquinas)
 His resolve survived two years of imprisonment by his own family and various subterfuges designed to corrupt his virtue and his vocation, like an attempted seduction by a prostitute. But, supported by the example of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit, St. Thomas only became more firmly dismissive of the worldly goals his family had in mind for him. St. Thomas is a wonderful example of a man, inspired by the example of Christ, expressing the freedom that the Gospel makes possible. There is nothing remotely like this in Game of Thrones. The point is not that Game of Thrones is poorly written because the characters are trapped within an existence prescribed for them by their culture. In fact, the reason I am writing this post is because of the excellent job Game of Thrones does in showing what happens to people in a culture that has no window into the transcendent. It shows by contrast just what it is that (true) philosophy and religion bring.

But isn't there religion in the series? There is the Lord of Light, after all, and a priestess that is his prophet, and various characters periodically pray to a variety of gods. All this is, however, a primitive paganism that is merely an expression of the utilitarian purposes of men rather than a window to transcendence. The gods are just another way to get what you want. Stannis Baratheon pays attention to the red priestess because he thinks she, and the Lord of Light she serves, might be useful to him in his efforts to regain the Iron Throne. There is no Gandalf - or Socrates - around to tell him that the gods do not serve men, and when they appear to submit themselves to our purposes, it is only on the way to enslaving us. There is one man who attempts to warn him, an old smuggler and compatriot of Stannis's named Davos Seaworth, and while he correctly senses the danger the red priestess portends, he is not philosophically sophisticated enough to be a match for her. He is certainly in no position to tell Stannis to forget about the gods and instead fear God, the utterly transcendent Creator of the Universe and Ground of Being. Since God created all we are, He would only be frustrating himself were he to frustrate us, so we know God is by nature trustworthy, red priestesses or not. Especially if He condescends to come in the form of a man, and suffer and die at our hands, for our sakes.

One of the distinctive features of Game of Thrones is the level of torture it shows, reaching to the virtually pornographic. The bad people in the series can be very, very bad. This is not disconnected from the fact that the series lacks any serious religion or philosophy. This absence limits the moral range of the characters in the positive direction. But to maintain our interest, the story needs to morally distinguish the players, so we can root for the good guys and cheer the defeat of the bad guys. The best people in the series are not much more than moral mediocrities, since they can see no end beyond the capture or retention of their thrones - the same ends pursued by the villains. The difference between them is the level of ruthlessness and duplicity the villains are willing to use versus the heroes. The bad are portrayed as such vicious, heartless and cruel men that we can't help but root for the alternatives, even if, in a normal state of affairs, we really wouldn't see much reason why we should care if Robb Stark is to become King of the North. But given that the alternatives are men who take various amounts of enjoyment in torture for its own sake, Robb appears pretty good in contrast.

The Stark family is, in general, the "good family" in the series. And that doesn't mean much more than that they are basically honest, brave, dutiful and take no pleasure in cruelty for its own sake. That is, among the classic Aristotelian four natural virtues, they are temperate, courageous and just. But they lack the crucial fourth virtue, wisdom, which Aristotle tells us is the most important since it underlies all the others (e.g. the courageous man must not only be able to overcome his fears, but be able to distinguish when danger is worth risking and when it is merely foolish). Eddard Stark, the patriarch, imprisoned by the Lannister family, is offered the opportunity to save his daughter in return for his life. One of the "wisemen" of the series, a eunuch named Varys, urges him to take this course. In the event, Eddard gives his confession, but then is immediately executed anyway by the cruel young king Joffrey Lannister. So Eddard not only loses his life, but damages his family's honor and goes down to history as a traitor.

It was Eddard's misfortune that he did not have the counsel of a true wiseman like Socrates or benefit of his experience. Socrates, like Eddard, was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to the charges against him in return for a small fine, but on the principle that he would do no evil to himself, whatever others might do, refused. This principle was developed in Western culture to the general principle that evil may not be done that good might come of it - something the characters in Game of Thrones desperately need to hear, but no one is around to tell them.

I mentioned above that Game of Thrones is well written to the extent that it shows what happens to people in a culture with no vision of the transcendent. There is a question as to whether this an accident or a deliberate intention of the author. I know nothing of the author, so it may very well be his intention, but I suspect it is not. One of the interesting points made by several friends with whom I've discussed the series is that, in their opinion, it is more realistic than The Lord of the Rings in depicting the true moral nature of men, and in particular the way life must have been in the Middle Ages. They base their opinion on the very thing I have been discussing in this post - the moral mediocrity of even the best characters in Game of Thrones. They are impressed by the fact that most of the characters are neither completely good nor completely bad, but are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and they think this reflective of real life.

This isn't quite true, as I discussed above. There are no superlatively good characters in the story, but there are several, like Joffrey Lannister, for whom it is difficult to find any redeeming qualities. The moral range of the story does not extend to extraordinary goodness, but it does extend to extraordinary evil. And this certainly was not true of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages had its vicious characters surely, but St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Louis, St. Catherine of Siena... these are not fictional characters. The point is not that these individuals never sinned - they surely did and would insist on the fact - but they transcended moral mediocrity through the imitation of Christ, a way of life that reordered their being from the bottom-up, giving them a perspective from which the incessant chasing of thrones and whores looked petty.

I suspect that the reason we might find Game of Thrones more "realistic" is that it effectively reads our contemporary moral exhaustion into a medieval setting. The people in Game of Thrones act more or less like the people around us, and respond as we might respond in their extreme circumstances. Like them, we can see no end beyond the purely secular aims of money, security and women, and we take it for granted that no one else can or ever could. Our one point of moral pride is that we are not as violent or cruel as people once were, and the series plays on that conceit in its emphasis on physical cruelty. And yet, while we can no longer imagine the moral greatness of a medieval saint, we have no problem imagining the moral depravity of a medieval sadist. Perhaps this is the characteristic contemporary manifestation of original sin.