The Ultimate Game of Thrones and Philosophy: You Think or Die (Popular Culture and Philosophy)

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9780812699500: The Ultimate Game of Thrones and Philosophy: You Think or Die (Popular Culture and Philosophy)

The Ultimate Game of Thrones and Philosophy treats fans to dozens of new essays by experts who examine philosophical questions raised by the Game of Thrones story. This ultimate analysis provides the most comprehensive discussion to date and engages the Game of Thrones universe through the end of Season Six of the HBO series.

Ned Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Joffrey, Cersei, Brienne, Arya, Stannis, and many other characters are used to apply the traditional philosophical questions that everyone faces. How should political leaders be chosen in Westeros and beyond? Is power merely an illusion? Is it immoral to enjoy overly violent and sexual stories like Game of Thrones? How should morally ambiguous individuals such as Jamie Lannister: The Kingslayer and Savior of King’s Landing be evaluated? Can anyone be trusted in a society like Westeros? What rules should govern sexual relationships in a world of love, incest, rape, and arranged marriage? How does disability shape identity for individuals like Tyrion, Bran, and others? How would one know whether there is a God in the Game of Thrones universe and what he is like?

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About the Author:

Eric J. Silverman is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Professor Silverman is the author of the book The Prudence of Love as well as many articles on philosophy and pop culture topics. He lives in Newport News, VA.

Robert Arp holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy. He is the author of Scenario Visualization (2008) and co-author of three books including What's Good on TV (2011) and Philosophy DeMYSTifieD (2001). He is the editor of 1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think (2013) and co-editor of at least a dozen other books, including Batman and Philosophy (2008), South Park and Philosophy: You Know I Learned Something Today (2006), Breaking Bad and Philosophy (2012), and Downton Abbey and Philosophy(2106). He lives in Overland Park, KS.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 5
Guilty of Being a Dwarf
by KIMBERLY S. ENGELS
Who are we? Are we defined by our physical characteristics?
By how others perceive us? By our own choices? A complex
combination of all of these things?
In an intensely dramatic scene, Tyrion Lannister, on trial
for killing the king, declares that he is guilty of a crime―the
crime of “being a dwarf.” He further asserts that “I have been
on trial for my entire life.” With this declaration, Tyrion
directly confronts a life-long struggle―that all of his choices
are judged against the backdrop of his “crime” and social status
as a dwarf. However, throughout his life, Tyrion is aware of
his ability to challenge and transcend the social categories he
is born into and attempts to be his own person.
His journey exemplifies Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist
concepts of nausea, bad faith, and authenticity. What does this
mean?
Jean-Paul Sartre argues that human beings are free to create
their own identities―they are, as he puts it, “radically
free.” In his lecture Existentialism Is a Humanism, he famously
says that human existence precedes human essence. When he
says “Existence precedes essence,” Sartre doesn’t mean simply
that human beings are capable of making choices about what
to do, but that they are free to choose who they are and to create
their own values.
Many religious traditions and theories of human nature are
grounded in the belief that we have an unchanging true self or
soul. Sartre rejects this, and as he says, “gets rid of the blue
print” of human nature. However, we only choose our own
essence within the constraints of characteristics that we cannot
control―for example our race, biological sex, physical limitations,
or cultural heritage, which he calls “facticity.” These
traits not only place limitations upon what we can accomplish,
they affect how we are perceived and treated by others.
Sartre argues that “bad faith” arises when we either accept
our facticity without recognizing our freedom to transcend it,
or, alternatively, focus only on our freedom of choice without
recognizing that some of our characteristics are beyond our
control. If we deny certain unchangeable aspects about ourselves,
we’re living in bad faith. Similarly, if we deny that we
are anything but those characteristics, we are lying to ourselves
about our freedom.
Instead of living in bad faith, we should live “authentic”
lives. Authenticity is usually associated with reflecting on one’s
“true self,” but according to Sartre there is no “true self.”
Authenticity means acknowledging our facticity and recognizing
that we have the freedom to choose what to make of it. In
the series premier, Jon Snow shows offense when Tyrion refers
to him as a bastard. Tyrion in turn gives him a piece of advice,
“Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear
it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you” (“Winter Is
Coming”).
Jon Snow exemplifies bad faith by hiding from his social
categorization as a bastard―something he cannot change.
Tyrion recognizes that people will always judge Jon for this
just as they judge him for being a dwarf, and suggests that Jon
own it and use it to his advantage.
Authenticity is not easy. We are often tempted to fall back
on existing social categories to define us, avoiding the burden
of choosing our own path. Sartre refers to the accompanying
anguish as “nausea.” Nausea is the feeling of sickness and
dread we get when we realize that we are the ones responsible
for creating ourselves through our choices, and cannot rely on
an inherent nature to define us. To avoid nausea, many retreat
into bad faith.
More than any other character, Tyrion exemplifies Sartre’s
existentialism and how people are a complex, multifaceted
product of their facticity and the choices they make. In Tyrion’s
full acceptance of himself as a dwarf and his determination to
still be his own person, he embodies Sartrean authenticity.
I Am Guilty
What does Tyrion mean when he says he is, “guilty of being a
dwarf ”? Tyrion is pointing out that because of his facticity as a
dwarf he is judged more harshly by others. Now, this is a very
real challenge that people can face due to a disability, their
race, their looks, sexual orientation, or other social categories.
Tyrion’s presumed guilt is first evident when he is presupposed
guilty by Catelyn Stark for the attempted murder of her son
Bran. Upon hearing that the specific dagger wielded by Bran’s
attempted assassin was last seen in Tyrion’s hand, Catelyn
instantly jumps to the conclusion that Tyrion was guilty of conspiring
to murder him (“Lord Snow”).
When captured, Tyrion refuses to falsely confess that he is
the one who conspired to have Bran killed. He does make a confession
however, “I am a vile man, I confess it. My crimes and
sins are beyond counting. I have lied and cheated, gambled and
whored . . . You want specifics, I suppose?” before presenting a
very humorous list of some of his practical jokes. Here we see
Tyrion’s authenticity: he refuses to confess to a crime he did
not commit but takes responsibility for the things he has done
(“A Golden Crown”).
Tyrion is also presumed guilty by his own family. When
Tyrion jokes with his sister Cersei when she is upset about a
ruling decision he made, she ends the conversation with a jab
that Tyrion’s finest joke was killing his mother with his birth
(“The Night Lands”). After Tyrion plays a key role in staving off
Stannis’s attack on King’s Landing, his father Tywin strips him
from his position as Hand of the King and refuses to believe he
had any role in saving the city, calling him a drunk and “illmade,
spiteful little creature,” who is lying about his accomplishments.
Tywin repeats Cersei’s accusation that Tyrion
killed his mother during childbirth. Tywin demonstrates that
he too judges Tyrion as a criminal by nature and refuses to
believe that he could be a brave, wise, or effective leader (“Valar
Dohaeris”).
The climax of Tyrion’s guilty verdict comes when Joffrey is
murdered at his own wedding ceremony in “The Lion and the
Rose.” In a scene that gave many characters (and viewers!)
pleasure, Joffrey convulses and chokes to death from poison,
and Cersei is instantly convinced that Tyrion is responsible for
her son’s demise. This is a moment for which Cersei has been
waiting a long time―when he is finally caught in the act of
being the monster that she and others have always believed
him to be. Tyrion is not only instantly judged guilty by Cersei
but by all those around him.
Tyrion’s Authenticity
Despite his presumption of guilt, Tyrion refuses to be defined
by his label as a monster and builds his own essence, accepting
that he cannot change the guilty verdict forced upon him. It
would be easy for him simply to fall back into a state of bad
faith―either by believing that he will always be nothing more
than a dwarf and thus to embrace the guilt forced upon him, or
by denying that his facticity as a dwarf affects his possibilities.
But Tyrion is more authentic than any other character, accepting
that his actions are always subject to intense scrutiny,
while at the same time using his power of choice.
One striking way that Tyrion acts as his own person is by
showing sympathy for others he sees having similar experiences
to his own. When Tyrion encounters Bran and builds him
a saddle that will allow him to ride a horse despite his accident,
Tyrion states that he has a weakness for “cripples, bastards,
and broken things” (“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”).
Tyrion’s own experience of being considered broken fostered in
him a sense of empathy for marginalized others.
When Tywin orders Tyrion to marry Sansa in “Kissed by
Fire,” he protests that Sansa is still a child and should not have
to suffer being married to a dwarf. Tyrion seems genuinely
more concerned with Sansa’s happiness than his own, and
knows Sansa has no control over her predicament. After the
wedding, in the bedroom chamber, he tells Sansa that they will
only sleep together if and when she actively wills to do so. With
this act he shows virtue and compassion far beyond the other
men in King’s Landing (“Second Sons”). Tyrion shows he will
use the power of his choice to be a compassionate person in
spite of circumstances beyond his control, promising Sansa
that even in these dire straits he will act justly.
Tyrion also strives to be a cautious and wise ruler in the
time he serves as the King’s Hand, approaching ruling decisions
with acumen and caution, even though his efforts go
unappreciated. He shows skilled strategy as Hand of the King
when Stannis’s army is approaching King’s Landing. Due to his
size and stature, Tyrion has never been able to get what he
wants through brute force, so it is natural that he comes up
with a unique plan for defeating Stannis. You remember the
scene―he sends a single ship leaking Wildfire out into the sea
into the midst of Stannis’s ships, then sends fire arrows onto
the surface of the water, causing an explosion that devastates
Stannis’s fleet!
When Joffrey cowardly retreats from the battle, Tyrion
stays and rallies the troops, using his stature to shame the rest
of the men into defending the city, “If I am half a man, what
does that make all of you?” (“Blackwater”). While his ruling
efforts go unappreciated, he accepts what he cannot change
and defines his own essence in spite of it.
The Monster You Say I Am
Now, let’s return to where we began: Tyrion’s dramatic speech
in the “Laws of Gods and Men.” Tyrion’s outburst is the result
of frustration built over the years as he attempted to be his
own person while always being met with a presumption of
guilt. At his trial, witness after witness testifies against him,
including his lover Shae.
With frustration and rage Tyrion directly confronts his
accusers. He snarls, “I saved you. I saved this city and all your
worthless lives. I should have let Stannis kill you all! Yes, I am
guilty. Guilty. Is that what you wanted to hear?” Asked if he
admits to killing the king, he responds, “No. Of that I am innocent.
I am guilty of a far more monstrous crime. The crime of
being a dwarf! I have been on trial for that my entire life.”
He denies killing Joffrey, but says he wishes he had. He
addresses the crowd once more, growling, “I wish I was the
monster that you say I am.” Tyrion expresses a desire he has
never explicitly acknowledged until now. Embracing his social
categorization would enable him to avoid the nausea that
accompanies the acceptance that existence precedes essence,
and the deep burden that comes with self-creation. A belief
that being a monster is his pre-given essence would relieve him
from the sickness that accompanies the responsibility to
choose.
We then see a different side of Tyrion, in which he finally
embraces the accusation of others. After he has lost the trial by
combat, his brother Jaime sets him free, and he does not slip
away quietly into the night (“The Children”). He enters the
King’s quarters and encounters Shae, who has slept with Tywin.
In the past, Tyrion may have left the situation in order to take
the moral high ground and prove that he is not a monster. But
having embraced the verdict of others, he strangles Shae, takes
a crossbow, and finds Tywin sitting on the toilet. When Tywin
mocks him and calls Shae a whore, Tyrion shoots him.
Has Tyrion finally become the monster that others have
accused him of being all these years? Tyrion’s choice was made
against the backdrop of a presumption of guilt that he could
never fully escape, and a betrayal from both his lover and his
father. Although Tyrion appears to have given in to a moment
of weakness, the upside of Sartre’s existentialism is that he
still has the opportunity to change himself through his choices.
In Seasons Five and Six, we see Tyrion do just that.
Someone to Look Up To
Immediately following the murders it appears that Tyrion is
willing to resign from the burden of self-determination and, in
bad faith, accept a predestined future. Drunk and hopeless, he
tells Lord Varys, “The future is shit, just like the past” (“The
Wars to Come”). But Lord Varys insists he still has a choice: to
drink himself to death, or come to Meereen to meet Daenerys
Targaryen. Tyrion chooses the latter.
As he continues his journey, he even does away with some of
his old habits. Meeting a prostitute on the road to Meereen, he
finds himself, to his own surprise, unable to sleep with her
(“High Sparrow”). Realizing that aspects of his past behavior
are not desirable moving forward, he resumes the burden of
self-responsibility. Tyrion’s authenticity returns; he does not
hide from his physical condition and the social categorization
that accompanies it. When Missandei speaks of Tyrion saving
her life during the battle in Meereen,“I would be dead if it were
not for the . . . little man,” he corrects her: “Dwarf. I believe
that’s the word” (“Mother’s Mercy”).
As Tyrion grows to have faith in Daenerys, we see him flourish
with a friend who finally appreciates his talents. Tyrion
sees something unique in Daenerys―possibly because she does
not judge him with the harsh presumption of guilt that has
characterized his life. He also sees some of himself in her. Her
life path has been shaped by the difficulty of being the daughter
of the notorious Mad King, which she refuses to allow to
control her life path.
Rewarding his wise ruling decisions in stabilizing Meereen,
Daenerys names Tyrion Hand of the Queen. While preparing
their army to sail to Westeros, Tyrion recalls how he had long
ago stopped believing in things, but he cannot help believing in
Daenerys (“The Winds of Winter”). Tyrion shows a remarkable
change from his previous resignation that his future was destined
to be just as awful as his past.
And this shows the power of Sartre’s existentialism. His
philosophy is often interpreted as pessimistic because it argues
that our lives are inherently meaningless and that we are
responsible for who we are, leading to nausea and bad faith.
But Sartre insists that his philosophy is extremely optimistic―
it provides us with an opportunity to create our own meaning
and identity for those willing to take on this difficult task.
While maintaining awareness and unwavering acceptance
of the things about himself that he cannot change, Tyrion
chooses to foster the best that is in him: his unique empathy
and sympathy for marginalized others, his acumen and creativity,
and his adherence to his own moral code.
Sartre’s message is always the same―Tyrion’s essence is
his for the making: he is the dwarf who roared and the Hand of
the Queen. (Kimberly S. Engels chapter 5)

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