[This post has spoilers for Game of Thrones]
Ethan makes an interesting comment here on my earlier post concerning Game of Thrones. The context is the decision of Eddard Stark, while a prisoner of the Lannister family, to condemn himself as a traitor in return for the sparing of his daughter's life. He takes issue with my point that Stark would have done well to have heeded the Socratic principle not to voluntarily do evil to oneself, for even though things didn't turn out as he thought they would, at least his daughter's life was in fact spared.
Ethan is right about that, but I think to understand what is really going on here, we need to turn to Plato's modern nemesis, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli would tell us that there is a crucial difference between Socrates and Eddard Stark: Socrates is a private citizen and Eddard Stark is a king. And - according to Machiavelli - the morality of kings is different from that of ordinary citizens. Ordinary citizens live an intra-city existence in the context of the city's laws and courts; to be a good man in the city is to live well socially. It is to obey the city's laws and customs, and to follow the ordinary rules of morality with which we are familiar. It is to live in Plato's Republic. In that work Plato developed the notion of justice based on the well-ordered city, where every citizen knows his place and fulfills his duty.
But the king does not live an intra-city existence; his life is inter-city, dealing in the "community of the world", except that there is no such community. There is no world-wide law or court system, or world-wide set of customs in the context of which the king makes his decisions. The international world is not a well-ordered Republic but remains in the state of nature as described by Thomas Hobbes - a war of all against all, in which peace occurs not as a reasoned state achieved via a rational Republic, but merely as an agreement between two foes who realize they can't (for now) get the better of each other. And without a worldwide city in which to develop the notion of justice, the Platonic understanding of justice is stillborn - for the king if not the people.
The wise king, according to Machiavelli, understands this and does not make the mistake of judging his decisions in light of an understanding of justice - the justice appropriate to the life within the city - that cannot apply in the context of his life as king. The king must use "evil well", which means that he must not be afraid to perform acts that, according to ordinary morality, are base, but in the context of his rule as king he finds necessary. (Incidentally, this applies not only to his relations to other cities but to his rule as king in his own city. His rule constitutes the city, and so is not an appropriate subject of Platonic justice, which appears as a consequence of the rationally founded city. The justice that comes into existence with the city cannot be the justice against which the city's creator is judged.)
What would Machiavelli think of Eddard Stark? One thing we are taught by Machiavelli is that, if you are going to play the "game of thrones", you must play it all the way or not all. The prince who only goes halfway and remains constrained by "conscience" will find himself a victim of his more ruthless rivals. He will be the man who brings a knife to a gunfight. Eddard Stark is such a man. He wants to play the game of thrones and is not above practicing deceit in pursuing his aims, most notably in his revision of Robert Baratheon's final words concerning his heir (which Stark changes from specifically naming Joffrey Lannister to the generic "rightful heir.") But Stark is also constrained by his conscience. When he discovers that Joffrey is actually the product of incest between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, he informs Cersei in private and offers her the chance to flee with her children. Cersei uses the opportunity, and Robert Baratheon's death, to orchestrate the assassination of Stark's bodyguards and his arrest as a traitor.
Machiavelli would have predicted such a result, for he tells us in The Prince that "men must either be caressed or annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones." The most dangerous thing a prince can do is injure a rival but leave him in a position to retaliate. Cersei does not make the same mistake, for when she turns on Eddard she makes sure he is thrown in prison in chains, completely helpless. Once this has occurred, Eddard really has no good alternatives. He's lost the Machiavellian game he entered without understanding what was necessary to win it; by falsely reporting Robert Baratheon's final words, he has also compromised his own integrity and turned away from the Socratic path. In the end, he's listened neither to Socrates nor Machiavelli. So it is true that, by the time he receives Varys's counsel in prison, his doom is already more or less sealed and he makes the best of a bad situation.
It doesn't help him that Varys is hardly Socrates, and is a poor Machiavelli as well. The Machiavellian truth of Eddard's situation in prison is that he and Sansa will live only insofar as they are useful to the Lannisters. The Lannisters have already demonstrated their ruthlessness by assassinating Eddard's guards, throwing him in prison, and demanding that he falsely testify against himself. It should be obvious to anyone, and especially to a supposedly wise counselor like Varys, that the Lannister's word means nothing in this context. Machiavelli: "A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them."
Furthermore, Joffrey is now king, and it is in Joffrey's hands - a man who is an obvious psychopath - that Eddard's life will be placed, whatever agreements he might have made with other Lannisters. And with respect to Sansa, does Varys really expect the Lannisters to spare Sansa should they find it expedient to do away with her, based on some private agreement they made with Eddard? Such an expectation would be dangerously naïve. Probably nothing Eddard could do in prison would change how things turned out for himself and Sansa, except for Eddard doing an injustice to himself by falsely confessing to treason.
The Stark family in general suffers the same ambivalence of character shown by Eddard and, unfortunately for them, learn no lessons from his demise. Robb Stark accepts the consensus of northern nobles and becomes King of the North. He prosecutes the war against the Lannisters with both skill and zeal and, moreover, claims to fight in the name of justice. He executes Lord Karstark, again in the name of justice, for the murder of two Lannister prisoners, even though his mother Catelyn correctly predicts that this will cause the Karstark forces to abandon Robb's army and seriously weaken it. But when it comes fulfilling a vow he made to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, his commitment to justice wavers and he breaks the vow in favor of marrying the woman he loves, a healer attached to his army named Talisa.
Robb later realizes he can't win his war without Frey's forces, and attempts to reconcile with him by offering to apologize as well as have one of his nobles marry a Frey daughter. Robb would have done well to listen to this piece of Machiavellian advice : "And whoever thinks that in high personages new benefits cause old offenses to be forgotten, makes a great mistake." And, as happened with Eddard, Robb find himself in a situation where he has injured an enemy and also put himself in a vulnerable place. At the wedding banquet at the Frey castle, Robb, his family, and their forces are all slaughtered at the infamous Red Wedding.
The argument I am making is that the Starks come to a bad end because of their ambivalent moral nature: They follow neither Socrates nor Machiavelli; they attempt to play the game of thrones, but don't do it with the ruthlessness that Machiavelli teaches us is necessary to succeed. Instead, their half-hearted commitment to justice, sometimes submitting to it and other times ignoring it, only creates a series of dangerous enemies who are powerful, devious and ruthless, and furthermore, are themselves more consistent followers of Machiavelli.
It's clear how a more consistent Machiavellian approach might have changed things for the Starks. After Eddard discovers that Joffrey is a product of incest, instead of warning Cersei and giving her a chance to escape (as well as retaliate), Eddard would have used the information to destroy Cersei outright, and in a context in which he was safe from retaliation. Robb would not have executed Lord Karstark, the justice of the situation not even entering the calculation, and his forces would have been sufficient for him to continue his string of battlefield victories.
But how might things have changed for the Starks if they had been more consistent followers of Socrates? Socrates would surely have advised them that they can't both be committed to justice and yet pursue the game of thrones. This doesn't mean they couldn't be kings. But it does mean they can't try to manipulate events, especially when doing so involves compromising justice. Eddard could have honestly reported King Robert's final words and let the chips fall where they may. He could have acknowledged Joffrey as Robert's successor and simply gone back to Winterfell, forgetting any notions of scheming events to his liking. And Robb Stark could have forestalled his unfortunate end by simply fulfilling in justice the vow he made to marry a daughter of Walder Frey.
It remains to ask the question: Who is truly wiser, Socrates or Machiavelli? We can first note that Machiavelli takes the prince's motivation for granted. He addresses the question of how the prince shall gain and retain power and defeat his enemies, and never asks the question of the ultimate purpose for which the prince wishes to use power. It is a Socratic principle, however, that one should pursue wisdom before power, for the man who gains power without wisdom will only become a danger to himself as well as others. Joffrey Lannister is a good example of such a man. But we may also ask the question of a thoroughly Machiavellian character like Tywin Lannister. Tywin is no fool and regularly demonstrates his superiority in the game of thrones over his opponents. He is not constrained by notions of justice in formulating and carrying out his plans. Nor is he constrained by sentimentality in using the marriages of his children for political ends. But what has he won with all that scheming? Power, yes, but he is hated by both his daughter Cersei and his son Tyrion. He has no real friends and has in fact become a lonely, bitter old man, prosecuting the game of thrones in the name of the family Lannister when the meaning of family has long since been lost on him. He is reminiscent of Michael Corleone, another man who ends up destroying his own family by "being strong" for that family.
We might also consider the character of Robert Baratheon. He ends up miserable as king, frankly confessing to Eddard Stark that he thought being king meant doing whatever he wanted, when it turns out he is constrained by the necessities of state and politics. Worst of all, from the Socratic perspective, is Joffrey Lannister, whose ascent to the throne permits him to unleash the worst aspects of his character. The fact that Joffrey fails to appreciate the evil he does to others and himself only makes the situation all the more horrifying.
Perhaps the difference between Socrates and Machiavelli can be cast in terms of being careful what you wish for. Machiavelli may be able to get you what you want (if you are a prince), but he cannot help you understand if it is something you should really want after all. For that, you need Socrates.