The Scourge of Westeros

Game of Thrones has returned for its fifth season, and tuning in for the new episodes has left me with some thoughts I’d like to share.

Let me start by asking: Who is the real villain of Game of Thrones? A lot of names may come to mind. Is it the egotistical, conscienceless King Joffrey? Or is it maybe his mother, Cersei Lannister, with all her schemes and manipulations? What about the Boltons: Roose, who betrayed and murdered Robb Stark, and Ramsay his sadistic son? Or perhaps is the villain offstage, in the person of King Aerys II, whose madness and cruelty sparked Robert’s Rebellion?

I would argue that the real villain of Game of Thrones is none of the above. The real villain is the kindly, frail Maester Aemon of the Night’s Watch.

For those needing a reminder about Westeros lore, Maester Aemon is also known as Aemon Targaryen. Once, many years before the events of Game of Thrones, he was first in line for the Iron Throne, and could have taken power, but refused, and let the crown pass to his brother, who became King Aegon V. Aegon was the father of Aerys II, and it was when the crown was passed from Aegon to Aerys that the troubles of Westeros began in earnest.

So if Aemon had just taken the crown when he was younger, none of the troubles we see in the story would have happened. No Mad King Aerys, no rebellion, no Joffrey, no War of the Five Kings, no Lannister coup d’etat, no beheading of Ned Stark or Red Wedding or burning of Winterfell, no journey of conquest by Danerys through Essos, and a unified Westeros ready to back up the Night’s Watch if anything went bad at the wall. The Seven Kingdoms would, to the very day we join in on the story, have been ruled by the wise and kind Aemon, and everything would be alright.

Well sure, you may be tempted to say, but that doesn’t make Aemon a villain; it just makes Westeros the unlucky victim of a choice he made long ago that seemed like a good idea at the time. But this ignores a crucial concept that should have been a factor in his decision of so many years back: the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese idea that deals with many facets of leadership, but in modern times it has been adapted by reactionaries into a deceptively simple three-step process to be followed by those in, or seeking, positions of power:

I. Become worthy

II. Accept power

III. Rule

One of the difficulties presented by this concept is that it is easy for people to make a very basic mistake when contemplating it; that is, to believe that this is (in order) a list of one responsibility and two rights (or even privileges). It is not. This is a list of three responsibilities. It is not the privilege, or even the right, of the worthy to accept power and to rule; it is their responsibility. Often, it is their responsibility to do so even if they must be ruthless in going about it; even if they must break vows or shed blood along the way. Because if they don’t accept power, and if they don’t rule, then someone else will. That someone else may not be all so very worthy, and if they are not, everyone will suffer.

One of the interesting aspects of the moral universe of Game of Thrones is that, in true pagan fashion (and Game of Thrones is very pagan in moral outlook) too much of any one virtue is not seen as a good thing. Instead, a balance of virtues is seen as optimal. Perhaps most notably, Ned Stark was too honorable, and the entire realm suffered because he wasn’t more cunning and ruthless when dealing with dangerous enemies. Maester Aemon had a similar flaw springing from an excesses of virtue – too much selflessness and too much humility. Certainly, it a character flaw to have too much ambition. But for the worthy to have too little ambition only results in them effectively ceding power to the unworthy. And what good does this do for anyone (other than unworthies who are not hindered by a similar lack of ambition)?

No, it is the responsibility of the worthy to accept power and to rule, even if they don’t want to. And the proof of that is hardly restricted to fantasy kingdoms full of fire-breathing dragons. Our own world is, and long has been, filled with problems caused by the abdication of the responsibility to accept power and rule by those who are worthy, and whose leadership is needed.

Our kings gave over their effective power power to parliaments, and by doing so left us all at the mercy of King Mob. The Church, through Vatican II, gave up its authority to intervene in worldly politics, thus handing its power over moral leadership to the fanatical utopian cult of leftism. The “Greatest Generation” refused to adequately rule over their own children, ensuring their unworthiness, and then, as soon as those unworthy children demanded it, ceded power over the nation and its culture to them without any real resistance. The mainstream right, as embodied in the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in Britain, suffers defeat after humiliating defeat even when they have the raw power to win because they refuse to fully accept and effectively wield the power that they have. Most importantly, their refusal to roll back even the tiniest bit of Cultural Marxism when they have the electoral majorities to do so is what makes the “ratchet effect” possible and ensures their own continued irrelevance. And why do they refuse to do so? Because they have granted the right to judge their actions to people who hate them, thus effectively handing every group of leftists that throws a hashtag hissy-fit when something doesn’t go its way the power to veto any and all of their policies.

Or consider the case of Germany in the 20th century. The Kaiser ceded power, first to General Ludendorff, who proved himself unworthy enough, and finally to the even greater unworthies of the Weimar Republic. One could say that he was forced to do the latter, and perhaps that’s true – but still, he did. Once in power, the Weimar Republic proved itself unwilling or unable to effectively rule. I carry no brief for Adolf Hitler (sorry, white nationalists), but even I will not claim that all of his complaints were entirely invalid. Hitler complained of the moral degeneracy of Weimar-era Berlin, and indeed the Weimar Republic was unable to effectively restrain that degeneracy. Hitler also complained of the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, including the disastrous and extortionate reparations to be paid by Germany to the Western powers, who demanded ever more in order to deal with their own economic problems in the face of the global Great Depression. Hitler claimed that Germany could, and should, have simply cut off these reparations and told the Western powers to go pound sand, and he was right – that’s precisely what they should have done. It was what Hitler eventually did. But what if the Weimar Republic had done it instead?

That is, of course, a moot question. They were unworthy, they only half-accepted power, and they refused to effectively rule. Because of this, the people of Germany, to borrow a phrase from The Dark Knight, turned to a man who they didn’t fully understand. He was unworthy, too, but he did fully accept power, and he did rule. Unfortunately, the results were worse, not better. It was the end of a downward spiral, in which each unworthy ended up ceding power to someone even more unworthy, until everything, predictably, came to horror and ruin.

Understanding these consequences, then, we can see why the refusal on the part of worthies to accept power and to rule not be regarded as noble or selfless, but as villainous or even treasonous. The only circumstance in which a refusal by the worthy to accept power should be seen as a credit to them is if they live under an immoral system and their refusal is motivated by a principled desire to not do anything that would perpetuate that system. Where this is not the case, any worthies who refuse to accept power and effectively rule when the time comes and the need arises must be actively shunned and shamed. The nation and its people consistently suffer when they refuse to do so – in Westeros, in Germany, everywhere – so why should that be looked on kindly? No, for the sake of all, worthies must – they must – accept power and rule. Where they demur or defer to others who are less worthy, they should be seen as, and treated as, villains.

And that is why, as gentle, wise, and kind as he may be, Maester Aemon must be seen for what he really is – the greatest villain in all the Seven Kingdoms.

UPDATE: In reflecting on this piece, it has occurred to me that there was another Targaryen who was equally guilty of causing the series of events that ended in so much calamity for the Seven Kingdoms, and for essentially the same reason: Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Ser Barristan Selmy once called Prince Rhaegar the “finest man I ever met”, and every account of him that wasn’t from one of his enemies (e.g. Robert Baratheon or Ned Stark) seems to agree with this assessment. He was brave, beautiful, kind, soulful, brilliant, scholarly, loyal, moral, and decent. And yet Prince Rhaegar twice – once through action, and once through inaction – managed set in motion the events that led to the war that resulted in his own death, the deaths of his wife and children, the end of his dynasty, and untold suffering among nobles and smallfolk alike in Westeros. The action (taking Lyanna Stark, willingly or not, away from her betrothed) was bad enough, but almost certainly would not have caused a war just by itself. The inaction was worse. Knowing that his father Aerys II had gone murderously insane, Rhaegar did nothing to stop him, long past the point where he should have taken some manner of action. Even Rhaegar himself understood this, too late, as evidenced by what he said to the young Jaime Lannister as he rode off to a battle from which he would never come back: “When the battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but… well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return.”

As with so many things let go too long by people who should have been more responsible, that never happened. Rhaegar was (his indiscretion with Lyanna Stark aside) worthy, and his refusal to take power from his unworthy father came at a great cost not only to himself, but to everyone and everything he loved.

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Evola in Bemidji: An Analysis Of Season One Of “Fargo”

NOTE: The following contains spoilers for the first season of the TV series Fargo.

Leftists, libertarians, and anarchists (and the latter two might actually mean it) often speak of “borders, boundaries, and forms of control” as if these were all terrible things, blights on the human condition that oppress humankind, stunt its development towards a more refined and utopian condition, and prevent individuals from achieving a beautiful state of self-actualization. Of course they speak this way – as de facto (and often de jure) rejecters of original sin, they see human nature as essentially good, and human beings as blank slates except for that essentially good nature. When undeniably not-good (certainly by Modernist definitions) aspects of human nature – clannishness, laziness, greed, selfishness, violence, exclusion, even traditional gender roles or the tendency of some groups to be better at certain tasks than others – make themselves persistently and undeniably apparent, these are dismissed as “social constructs” (as if that too was a bad thing), which are invariably the fault of the usual designated villain groups. All of this, of course, is nonsense.

What philosophers can fill hundreds of pages demonstrating, artists can often illustrate far more economically. It is with this in mind that we may look at the rather unexpected reactionary implications of the recent cable TV series Fargo. Here we witness the liberation of one Mr. Lester Nygaard (played by the wonderfully talented Martin Freeman), and the consequences thereof. Lester is a fine test subject – an average everyman of Modern America in all senses of the word. He has an average job that he isn’t very good at, he has a wife who emasculates and despises him, he is childless far past the age at which he should be, and he is faring unspectacularly in financial terms. He is one of those men who, in the words of Thoreau, leads a life of quiet desperation, and he lacks the strength of will to liberate himself from it. But, as we shall learn, perhaps that was for the best.

By happenstance, into Lester’s life drops one Lorne Malvo (a mesmerizing, as usual, Billy Bob Thornton), who is a demon. Whether he is in any physical/spiritual sense is the sort of question that Coen Brothers stories always leave one with, but he looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, so for our purposes we shall call him a duck. Thus, given the opportunity, he sows chaos, as is the wont of demons. How does he do this? Via the same method that a demon (perhaps even, it is later hinted, Malvo himself) used to ruin the first man and woman – by liberating them, by giving them what they secretly wanted, by promising them that they could transcend their boundaries and limitations and be as gods. Thus with a few words (this is all it took in the Garden of Eden, as well), Malvo sets in motion the ruination not just of Lester Nygaard, but of many of those around him as well.

With those words, and two simple acts of violence which follow, he breaks Lester’s chains. But what are chains? And what does it mean to have the broken? When we use the word “chains”, images of slavery inevitably come to mind. But our chains are also the ties that bind us – to family, to friends, to community, to society, to humanity, and to God. They are the rules of conduct by which function the mutual obligations that bind us to all of these. A very few people – natural aristocrats of the soul – can transcend the rules without breaking those bonds. And, of course, virtually everyone thinks of themselves as one of those who could. But for most, the breaking of chains leads to a euphoric period in which freedom seems to lead them to triumph, after which… well, let us return to our example.

And so Lester is liberated both from his harridan of a wife and from any immediate consequences of her demise. But there is more than that afoot. Lester becomes liberated not just from the external entities to which he was bound, but increasingly from all internally-held constraints as well. He gains genuine confidence, a precious commodity which he never had before; he learns to value and believe in himself. All of which, modern society teaches us, is unmitigated good. And for a while, it is visibly good in Lester’s life as well. For a year, he has his time of triumph. He evades responsibility for his crime, he marries a beautiful and adoring new wife, he opens a successful business of his own, and he is honored both personally and professionally.

But was that ever so rosy a picture as it seemed? His new wife may be adoring, but she is clearly a trophy wife who Lester married for the wrong reasons. And his freedom comes at the cost of his brother’s. His brother was an unsympathetic jerk, to be sure – but he wasn’t a murderer, and didn’t deserve a murderer’s punishment. Part of Lester’s liberation has been a liberation from empathy; from the idea of not using others and justifying it solipsistically based on whatever that person’s worth is to him. His brother displeases him, so to Lester’s mind he deserves any punishment available whether fitting or excessive. His wife pleases him for her beauty and the ease with which she is dominated, but that produces no bonds of the sort that will prevent him from discarding her when he feels it necessary to do so. And that time will come, soon enough.

It comes because Lester’s path, now bereft of borders and boundaries, has no limit; no endpoint at which anyone, including Lester, can or will say “Alright, this is enough. Stop here and go no farther”. He is not an aristocrat of the soul, but only a common man. He does not know when enough is enough, and when enough is too much. There is nothing to stop him at Aristotle’s Golden Mean; there is nothing in his past or present experience to show him even where that might be, and thus he goes sailing right past it.

Yet here a point deserves reemphasis. Lester is not an aristocrat of the soul, nor is he a saint. But neither is he particularly or exceptionally prone to evil. Lester’s key flaw – his tragic flaw, in the sense of the Greek tragedies – is simply that he is a common man; one who has come into possession of more freedom than a common man can cope with. Of course, the demon Malvo knew perfectly well when he broke Lester’s chains that this was the case, and that eventually death, misery, and chaos would ensue because of it. But again, sowing chaos is simply what demons do – Malvo is very good at it and, as his suitcase full of audiotapes shows, has done it many times before. The demon understands that giving too much liberation to those who are unequipped to rationally deal with it will only lead to their destruction and the destruction of everyone around them.

As indeed it does for Lester and those unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity when he finally implodes. His chance second encounter with Malvo in an elevator in Las Vegas sets the end in motion. It all seems very avoidable at first glance, but on further analysis, what happened was inevitable. Lester can’t help but to push too hard and too far; to ignore warning after warning and disregard common sense until it is suddenly, plainly too late. That is his new, liberated nature. To self-destruct was his destiny; the path without borders and limits can, for the common man, lead only to this and to nothing else. If it had not been this particular encounter that had sparked the beginning of Lester’s end, it would just have been another one; the fact that the circumstances involved offending the demon who liberated him is only a bit of Coen-esque poetry added to the story.

It is at this point that the effects of Lester’s newfound liberation kick into a panic-induced high gear. Consumed by cowardice, but also by a selfishness (at this point advanced into sociopathy) born of his liberation from the chains that bind him to others, Lester sacrifices his trophy wife, not an hour after she has committed a crime and taken an enormous risk by lying to a police officer in order to try to save him (Based on my own observations it was at this point that Lester’s few remaining defenders among the show’s fan base seemed to have finally given up on him). And when, as the final confrontation looms before them all, Molly Solverson tries to get him to tell her the truth, thereby sacrificing his freedom for the good of others, we see that at this point he is so far gone that he can’t even understand the parable that she uses to try to reach him (even though his faculties of reason are perfectly intact, as he demonstrates by easily solving the fox/cabbage/rabbit riddle). Thus do even more people die – the FBI agents assigned to watch him, the demon Malvo (this only through the selfless courage of Gus Grimly), and eventually Lester himself – finally dragged down to the bottom and drowned, literally, as a consequence of his decisions.

So what are the takeaways from all of this?

The first is that demons often – in fact, nearly always – appear as liberators and breakers of chains. “You will be as gods”, says the demon, who, unlike his prey, knows full well what that will mean. Giving the powers of a god to those without the godhead is a recipe for sowing chaos, which is, again, the business of demons. Thus, there should be a healthy skepticism of liberators. “Liberated from what… to what?” is a question that should always be asked. The average man may not have the vision or the wisdom to ask that, but natural aristocrats do, which brings us to our next point.

The second takeaway begins by reiterating that most people can’t rationally, much less virtuously, handle a great deal of liberation. Most people need to be taught and led, and it is, in fact, inhumane to deprive them of this structure and guidance. Lester’s basement prominently features a poster that shows a fish swimming against the direction of all the other fishes, with a caption reading: “What if you’re right and they’re wrong?”. But most people are not Socrates. They cannot rationally and virtuously find their own way; left to do so, they will, as Lester did, only turn into selfish monsters who destroy themselves and those around them. Most people can’t and shouldn’t swim against the direction of the rest of the fish, so it is the responsibility of the elites of society – of the very natural aristocrats who could find their own way – to make sure that the rest of the fish are swimming in the right direction; i.e. that the basis of the ideals on which their orderly and harmonious society is based are indeed rational and virtuous.

Because otherwise we end up with a world of Lester Nygaards. A world of utter chaos.