Acton Institute Powerblog

Game of Thrones and the judgment of history

This week’s episode of Acton Line features a conversation about Game of Thrones with Tyler Groenendal and me. I won’t try to make the case that the show is salutary viewing. Having read the books and then, with some hesitancy, having watched the show, I can say with some confidence that you can certainly get by (and may well be better off) without consuming (or discerning) this element of popular culture. A great conversation could and should be had about the prudence of this kind of thing, but that is, for better or worse, a different discussion.

This post complements the podcast discussion, and is for those who either do not care about spoilers or want to get some further analysis.

John O. McGinnis has an excellent piece up at Law & Liberty today about how Game of Thrones can be taken as a cautionary tale about what the corruption not just of individuals but the lack of institutions can mean for flourishing and suffering. As he puts it, “Game of Thrones implicitly praises the institutions of liberal democracy by describing the horrors of their absence.”

Without institutions that can be relied upon, individual virtue, and even heroism, becomes all the more necessary. And there are plenty of examples of this amidst the decadence and decay of the narrative.

Game of Thrones / HBO

Perhaps the most poignant and ambiguous instance is Jon Snow’s murder of Daenerys Targaryen. Lord Acton, whose dictum about the corrupting influence of power has an indispensable role in understanding the show’s dynamics and especially Daenerys’ arc, also thought that history had an essential adjudicatory role in holding up “great men” to the scrutiny of moral judgment. What might Lord Acton think of what happens in “A Song of Ice and Fire”?

There may be ways to rationalize or even justify Jon Snow’s decision. It doesn’t seem as if Jon himself is interested in doing so. He is not sure he acted rightly and appears willing to suffer whatever consequences there may be. His act is, I think, rightly understood as that of a last resort, an ultima ratio, which in some way cannot be finally arbitrated this side of the eschaton.

We have some hint of what Lord Acton might think, however. He observes, in connection with his judgment that “great men are almost always bad men,” that “the greatest crime is Homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worse.” In this case, Jon is the assassin and Tyrion is the theorist. Is this a legitimate form of revolution against tyranny? A justifiable last resort? A betrayal of love, duty, or both?

These kinds of deep and substantive questions about human nature and political and social order are what Martin’s narrative and its visual version do best. They are not always at their best, and the indeed the corruption of the best is the worst, but when it is at its best the show demonstrates logos, pathos, and ethos worth wrestling with.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.