George Schmidt: Niebuhr’s Realism in ‘Game of Thrones’

game-of-thronesGeorge Schmidt, candidate for the Master of Sacred Theology degree at Union Theological Seminary, has written a complex and fascinating theological analysis of Game of Thrones. I read all of George R.R. Martin’s books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I loved them and hated them. After reading Schmidt’s essay I think I know why.

When push comes to shove, I usually land in the “faithful, rather than effective” camp. I’m an idealist. If I have to choose between my values and an effective outcome, I generally choose my values. Because life without values is life without meaning — and life without meaning leads to despair and despair separates one from God. (Ask me about this tomorrow and I may phrase that all differently but I think you get what I mean.)

I’m not saying that I avoid effectiveness. I actually value it highly — because if God gives you a job to do, you should do it very well. But the foundational assumption is that the mission is carried out under certain parameters. So when Satan tells Jesus he’ll show him how to turn stones into bread with the implication that Jesus can fill the bellies of all the hungry poor, why doesn’t Jesus do it? Wouldn’t that be a highly effective way of carrying out the practicalities of God’s mission?

No. It wouldn’t. Because turning stones into bread comes with certain requirements. Namely, placing Satan’s name higher than God’s. And one of the foundational assumptions is God is God of all and we shall have no idols before God. Therefore, the means do not justify the end.

So back to Game of Thrones. As Schmidt points out, George R.R. Martin’s books take readers into a pea soup fog between realpolitic, Christian politcal realism ala Neibuhr, and the tragedy of mercy. Read Schmidt’s whole essay, but here’s an excerpt below:

… Placing traditional theodicy aside for a moment, the question after all this misery is simple: Why did Eddard die? At the outset, identifying Eddard’s death as a simple tragedy misses an important point that is often made by Christian realists. Tragedy, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed in The Irony of American History, elicits “admiration as well as pity” for a man like Eddard. We pity him for such a terrible finality while we admire his conviction and compassion for Cersei and her children.

However, tragedy does not account for the way in which, to quote Niebuhr once again, “virtues are vices.” This lack of dialectical thinking, according to which human agency is essentially either virtuous or sinful, is unthinkable in Christian realism. An idealist who quickly classifies an event as tragic fails to take into account the evil that is an “inevitable consequence of the exercise of human creativity”: the evil that is in the good.

Irony, however, notes that the very quality that made Eddard worthy of praise ultimately led to his downfall. For Niebuhr, irony is fundamentally a religious category, presupposing a divine judge who “laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.” The Christian realist interpretatively locates irony in spaces of “hidden meaning” that “elicit not merely laughter but a knowing smile.” This “knowing smile” in turn acknowledges the failings in the virtues themselves by revealing absurd juxtapositions of “strength and weakness; of wisdom through foolishness; or foolishness as the fruit of wisdom; of guilt arising from the pretensions of innocency; or innocency hiding behind ostensible guilt.”

Lord Varys, the king’s master of spies, makes this very Augustinian point when he visits Eddard in prison to ask what kind of madness could have prompted him to tell the queen that he’d learned of her fornication. As an idealist who hasn’t yet learned politics’ most vicious lesson, Eddard answers, “The madness of mercy. That she might save her children.” To which Varys responds: “Ah, the children. It’s always the innocents who suffer. It wasn’t the wine that killed Robert, nor the boar. The wine slowed him down and the boar ripped him open, but it was your mercy that killed the king.”

Upon the execution of Eddard Stark, in perhaps the major juxtaposition of the series thus far, Tyrion Lannister is then appointed to the newly vacant office of Hand of the King. Eddard’s moral sentimentalism prompts his trusting of those who would ultimately betray him, whereas Tyrion devises elaborate ruses to trick would-be enemies. Unlike Eddard, Tyrion is not deluded by moral illusions and therefore capable of predicting the direction of self-interest in the pursuits of those around him.

Where he criticized Eddard, Lord Varys commends Tyrion, saying, “You’re quite good at being Hand, you know. Jon Arryn and Eddard Stark were good men, honorable men. But they disdained the game and those who play it. You enjoy the game. And you play it well.”

The nature of such juxtapositions is precisely what Niebuhr analyzes in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, in which he argues that the children of dark (Tyrion) are wiser than the children of light (Eddard) because they take all “factors in a social and political situation, which offer resistance to established norms, into account, particularly the factors of self-interest and power.”

What one should resist concluding at this point, however, is a purely egotist alliance with power and the children of darkness at the expense of any moral dimension. People tend to read the lesson of Christian realism without its religious dimension, as if one is determined, or perhaps doomed, to live in the world of power politics. Such is the case with Realpolitik strategies, which invariably destroy their very reason for existence, revealing the nihilism of pure power politics.

It’s the charge of the transcendent that differentiates Christian realism from pure realism. Which is to say that Christian realism’s emphasis upon transcendence, provides an enduring, critical judgment, centered on the Gospel, upon any accommodation of the ideal in politics. In Simon Critchley’s formulation, this imperative is experienced as an “infinite demand” that interrupts the politics of accommodation that so often weigh down realist efforts. Christian realism, in other words, finds its fulfillment in a synthesis between the two Hands of the King, Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister.

Perhaps this synthesis is embodied in the liberationist figure of Daenerys Targaryen (for the true Martin nerds out there, perhaps the second coming of Azor Ahai—the “prince[ss] that was promised”), who frees slaves, liberates cities, and claims whole groups of conquered women as handmaidens to prevent them from being raped by Dothraki warriors. What we find in the figure of Daenerys is an interruption of pure realism (both politically and metaphysically) by way of an eruption of the transcendent. …. —George Schmidt

Read Schmidt’s whole essay Only The Good Die Young: The Moral Universe of Game of Thrones: A Niebuhrian Reading of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire at Religion Dispatches.

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