Philosophies of Power

Machiavelli observed in Chapter Fifteen of The Prince: “For anyone who wants to act the part of a good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good. So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge.”

Honour or power? Ned Stark’s choice to value honour first is, Hachiavelli has told us, the wrong choice for a ruler. In Cersei Lannister’s eyes it is a poor choice that renders the King’s Hand vulnerable. It is also a fatal weakness for the Lord of Winterfell who falls victim to a conspiracy organized by Cersei, Varys and Petyr Baelish.

It is Baelish who embraces the opportunities in courtly politics. Honour is a weakness and a myth, like the stories of how many swords have been forged into the Iron Throne. Disputes and disorder are opportunities for ambitious men such as Petyr who can see that, yes, some people will fall and others will shy away but men such as Littlefinger will eagerly grab at the opportunities.

Would Machiavelli have agreed with this philosophy? Maybe not. He had the firsthand experience of living through a moment of great change and reversal. The Medici restoration had not only removed him from power but resulted in his imprisonment, torture and barely-tolerated existence under house arrest for some time afterwards. Machiavelli had learned to be wary of the unexpected and unpredictable in politics.

In Chapter Twenty-Five of The Prince, Machiavelli likens Fortune to a river and not a placid, predictable waterway, but a destructive torrent: “one of those torrential rivers that, when they get angry, break their banks, knock down trees and buildings, strip the soil from one place and deposit it somewhere else. Everyone flees before them, everyone gives way in face of their onrush, nobody can resist them at any point. But although they are so powerful, this does not mean men, when the waters recede, cannot make repairs and build banks and barriers so that, if the waters rise again, either they will be safely kept within the sluices or at least their onrush will not be so unregulated and destructive. The same thing happens with fortune.”

So, when others claim that Littlefinger perfectly parallels Machiavelli, I have to differ. So far, Petyr Baelish has not experienced the real reversals of fortune that Machiavelli knew so well in his life prior to writing The Prince. The rest of Baelish’s history in Westeros has yet to be written, of course: quite literally with Martin still completing the final two books in his series. Perhaps he will find that chaos is not so enjoyable when it turns against him in the future. Fans will have to wait and see.


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