Thursday, April 12, 2012

In Defense of Virtue and Game of Thrones

With all due respect to St. Peter's List post about Game of Thrones, which states that George RR Martin has no sense of virtue and good, only evil and sexuality, I disagree.

Granted, this is going to be about the current HBO show, and he was writing about the book.  But I feel the show accurately captures Martin's style and has his blessing.  So all of this could be more praise of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, which is ok.

On the site, HHambrose says, "The literary trap that Martin does not avoid is that of modernity. One such pitfall is the inability for modernity to understand virtue. Almost every character in the series is an anti-hero. They are lesser evils fighting against greater evils. Those characters which do appear to be good speak of honor, not virtue. Inevitably, this leads to vague notions of morality based off naval gazing, i.e., seeking the “right” and “honorable” answer by self-searching and not external standards. However, even these vague moral heroes are naive, exploitable, and ultimately lost within a Machiavellian political power structure. It is a pit almost all modern literature falls into – modernity understands evil, but it does not understand good."

While correct in his assessment that fighting for honor is not the same as virtue, I disagree that every character in the series is an anti-hero.  An anti-hero is someone who is typically a villain, but whom we are intended to root for because his actions tend towards the good.  The classic example is Han Solo, a smuggler and thief who becomes the hero because he works to destroy the Empire.  Richard B. Riddick is another, the man of immoral deeds tasked to save the universe.

Often confused with the anti-hero is the villain that we root for.  Tony Soprano embodies this character, running the mob and killing people all for the purpose of advancing his business.  If you want to make the argument for lack of virtue in their characters, The Sopranos is the best example, since each person in that show, almost without exception (FBI agents occasionally withstanding) were doing things according to a code and honor, but none of it was virtue in accordance with the Good.

Taking the fantasy world of Westeros, however, a few rules must be set down.  First, until this current season, this was a polytheistic world.  The old gods were worshiped, similar to ancient Rome and Greece, without any knowledge of the one true God.  However, this does not excuse them from a sense of morality, since the Judeo-Christian moral system that is the most commonly followed takes its foundations from Natural Law, which in turn takes its turn from God himself, whether or not people believe in him or not.  He is still there and still deciding what is right and just.

Game of Thrones, then, has the similar task that Aristotle and Plato had, to exist in a world of multiple gods and come to an understanding of good and evil that is not dependent on the god of the sun or the god of the harvest.  Intellectualism is at the service of man, needing to understand the human condition using faith and reason.  Faith in something unknown and reason to pass that understanding on to the people in a way that they will understand without proof.

Unfortunately we don't get a lot of learned intellectual discussion in Game of Thrones, and the sole proprietor of this is Tyrion Lannister.  Born a dwarf and unable to fight in a world based on war, Tyrion had no choice to read the works of the ancient philosophers and come to understand the way the world works (very similar to the way that Octavian prepared himself to become Caesar Augustus and usher in the Pax Romana).

So the question is, does Tyrion understand virtue, or does he just understand politics?  Most of the show is spent politicking and warring with other families, and aside from the Lannisters, there is no real sense of actual good vs. actual evil.  This isn't The Fellowship preventing the rise of the Dark Lord and enslaving all of Middle Earth.  We don't know why Aerys Targaryen was overthrown, and we don't know if Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark were justified in doing so.  We do know, however, that government is at the service of the people, and the moment that government is no longer acting in the best interests of the people, they have a moral obligation to overthrow it.

Is that not virtue?

Is not the Night's Watch defending the Wall against the Wildlings and White Walkers virtuous?  Putting their lives on the line so that people they do not know can live, sacrificing their well-being for others is a selfless act that could only be could virtuous.  So isn't Jon Snow virtuous?

Ned Stark leaving his family because he could do more for the Seven Kingdoms as the King's Hand, again a selfless act, when he was happier in Winterfell is an understanding of actual Good.

It's easier to talk about evil and write about evil, because it is easier than good.  It's why Luke Skywalker asked Yoda if the Dark Side was more powerful.  Living a moral life is not easy.  But in order to write about evil and in order to depict it, you have to have some understanding of good.  There are no truly evil characters (except for Joffrey of course) and there are no truly good characters, because in the world, there is no one who is all good or all evil (except for Veena Sudd, of course).

So yes, the inhabitants of Westeros lean towards what is honorable.  But what is honorable is oftentimes similar to what is just and good.  We shouldn't be so quick to write off the notion of honor as something that is contrary to the moral law, and we shouldn't make it just a personal thing.  Although they do not understand the One God, they were still created in his image, so when Robb Stark does something out of honor, he is understanding his inherent dignity and that he should behave in such a way that gives glory to that Unknown God.

17 comments:

  1. A really good review - very thought provoking.

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  2. I just started the series because my college-aged sons are reading and watching them. I was shocked at the "in your face" sexuality and wondered how that might have affected me at their age. Nothing is left to the imagination. Scenes in which men are slamming whores and sister(s) from behind with the accompanying grunts and gasps are thrown in without warning.... or... dare I say it, shame.

    After reading several Catholic reviews, I am left with a more troubling dicovery and that is that it seems we have we reached the point where we accept and even praise this?

    I am so confused. If there is a priest out there who recommends this or watches this, can you please explain how this comports with "Blessed are the pure of heart..."? i am serious. I do not understand what we are about anymore.

    How does a young man maintain a sense of his integrity and purity, while members of the church recommend he put this stuff in his visual memory?

    It truly makes me wonder about what it means to be Catholic anymore. Have we gone the way of "the Imp?"

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    1. I agree with you, anonymous! ! I have heard so much hype about this show that I decided to watch it on Amazon. Com. I couldn't even get through season 1 episode 1. I am a 45 year old mother of a 13 year old daughter. I was so disgusted with the content I wanted to throw up. There seems to be nothing shocking anymore. If my daughter ever watched this, I would be crushed . I know my husband would be disgusted as well. I have a wonderful newly ordained priest at my church who uses this analogy. . Let's say someone made a delicious pan of brownies. You are just about to eat some because it's just brownies, it's a nice treart,right? Then, you are told that there's just a little bit of dog poop in them. You wouldn't eat it would you? Garbage is garbage no matter how is disguised. There are too many other things you could be doing with your time.

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  3. First, let me start off by saying that I in no way condone everything that appears on "Game of Thrones." I understand there is immoral behavior and that at times, some of the behavior is expressed in an over-the-top manner.

    Second, my views express just that: my own, a faithful Catholic who happens to enjoy television and finds merits in its storytelling. I do not pretend to speak for the Magisterium, and just because I enjoy this show does not mean that that is official Church teaching.

    If you find elements of this show offensive, then do not feel compelled to watch it. However, if your sons are watching the show, you could have a discussion about it with them. If they understand the immorality of certain aspects of the show, then you have done an excellent job of raising them.

    The trick is to watch the show in spite of the sexuality, not because of it. There is so much richness and virtue in many of the characters, and in the dense storytelling, such creativity in the world that has been created, these are the things to be appreciated.

    I praise the show, absolutely. I would recommend it to anyone college age or older, because these usually have a well-formed conscience and understand the difference between right and wrong.

    It's a shame that HBO feels that it has to include the sexuality, and I would much prefer the show if those elements were left out, or at least toned down. The instances you have mentioned all serve to illustrate the brutal world which we are watching. But are there other ways this could have been done? I don't know, I'm not one of the writers or producers, or even George R.R. Martin himself.

    As always, thanks for reading!

    CS

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    1. I have to say that I do not agree with you. It maybe that the characters are somewhat aware of morality, and that the storyline is very interesting, but it's hard not to imagine those things when you are reading and hard to avoid watching, especially when in the teen years, and by doing it, you are affecting your purity, which means you can't be pure anymore unless you stop watching it.
      There are a lot of works which are as interesting as this one, yet pure.
      If you're catholic and really believe in God, you would not be watching this.

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  4. Anon,

    Spot on. I have read the series 4 or 5 times now - they are enthralling and suspenseful. I was contemplating sharing them with my younger brother (I am late 20s, he is mid 20s), but had moral concerns in doing so. I considered writing over the immoral parts with black marker before lending him the books.

    Ultimately, I decided against the whole idea and got rid of the books. I havent read the latest, and don't plan to. The books don't "offend me" - they offend God. Sure, they might not lead you into mortal sin, but its nevertheless trash. If we desire to be pure of heart, we need to forsake such follies. It doesn't really matter how good the story is, or how exciting.

    To your points: service on the wall is far from honorable - there may be a number of characters who see it as a good thing, and there are many stories about the history of the Watch that make them appear heroic, but remember why most people end up there.

    Tyrion wins many readers' hearts in his early encounters with Jon. And he does struggle to bring some order and justice to his work as the story progresses. However, by the fourth book he is reduced to satire and cynicism.

    Christopher, I think you give the books far too much credit in comparing them to the struggle of the Greek philosophers.

    There are countless works truly filled with virtue and grace that there is no need to compromise. No matter how enthralling the temptation.

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  5. The author is deluding him/herself by believing that they are capable of blocking out the full frontal nudity, sexual content, and extreme violence portrayed within this show without doing harm to their soul. Game of Thrones is one of the filthiest shows and novel series currently entrapping young minds and pulling them down the path of sin. I read the book series and watched the first episodes, but found that these exposures put the cleanliness of my soul at risk by encouraging sin.
    A post defending this fantasy series on moral grounds under the guise of a devout "Catholic" perspective is scandalous (a sin in itself). How many people have read this site to later watch GoT, and thereby damage their immortal souls through it's soft core pornography and sickening gore/violence? The author should stop leading faithful Catholics astray and remove this post, God will hold you accountable for those you have guided to sin.

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    1. I agree..have you looked at the 10 commandments lately?

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    2. You worry about the books putting the cleanliness of your soul at risk, but you judge the author of this post(and effectively everyone who watches/reads the books). Does not God say "judge not, lest you also be judged"? I'm not using that as a blanket defense for myself.

      I will say, GoT is not what causes sin to blossom. Pride and self-righteousness is FAR worse, and this is coming from a prideful and arrogant person(or else I wouldn't be writing this to you).

      Porn is more prevalent than Game of Thrones. I would wager that more men and women have seen and masturbated to porn than have seen Game of Thrones. When I was 12, I watched and masturbated to porn daily in private, yet I condemned those who watched things like Game of Thrones in public. I am still a white-washed tomb and I don't suppose I will ever have a "pure soul" until I am in Paradise.

      I would ask that you take a look at your pride and self-righteousness and weed that out before you condemn the author of this piece to hell and all those who watch or read GoT with him.

      And I ask for your prayers as well, even if it's only "Lord have mercy on the dirty bastard who responded to me and called me a whitewashed tomb" one time, I need it more than you, I'd bet. We are all sinners. None of us common folk are better than the others, and the saints do not judge like us.

      Forgive me for my strongly worded post and angry tone(I assure you I am not angry, just upset at the treatment of the author in your comment).

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  6. Thank you for your post, and for your kind remarks regarding my role in the damnation of the population.

    Let me first point out that at no point have I ever condoned any of the nudity or graphic sexuality. I do not support these creative decisions, and I would also not let a child watch these.

    I would also like to thank you for pointing out my sins and how I consider myself a "Catholic." I am not writing from the perspective of the Catholic Church, and I don not carry the weight of her teaching. I am simply a Catholic man who enjoys television, and who seeks to find the virtuous and the good in a form of art that has garnered a negative reputation throughout the years.

    I do not believe, or at least I hope that people have not read this site and watched a show based on my recommendation and then do damage to their soul. I have never tried to claim that every show is free of the possibility of transgression, but instead I have tried to point out that people with properly formed consciences are free to make their own decisions.

    "Game of Thrones" is not filmed in a nudist colony and it does not try to claim that the actions being depicted are moral and the standard by which everyone should do. Most of the show, in fact, does not contain the pornographic images that you associate with one episode. It's fine that you have chosen not to watch it, I'm not going to sit here and claim that you are really missing out or that you'll be fine. What I am going to claim is that you should allow people to make their own decisions.

    If you have read any of my other reviews or posts, you will find that I point out what could be problematic in a show to a person without a properly formed conscience. I grade a show based on quality, but I leave it up to the individual to watch. It is possible to view certain shows without falling into sin, and it is possible to take away the good from a show that may have problematic themes.

    If I have led anyone into sin, then I do apologize. But if I have given anyone else food for thought or reason to think, then I have done my job. I know I will leave the judgment of people's souls to God, though, and I will continue writing my own thoughts.

    Thanks for reading.

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    1. I also had the misfortune of watching GoT recently, and was wondering why other people are watching it, keeping it on the air. So you can imagine I was disappointed in doing a search and finding this blog, expecting a faithful Catholic Christian to let others know to stay away from this one. To my surprise, that was not the case.

      It may be true, as another anonymous here said, that you can't live in a hole...but if you're living in Sodom and Gomorrah, you don't offer your virgin daughters so you can be one of the crowd!

      So I would submit that you should probably not be writing reviews of shows, at least not from a Catholic perspective...

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    2. And I would submit to you that you read the rest of my material first before making a blanket statement that I not be writing reviews of television shows. If you had, you would find that I have said on numerous occasions that I am simply a Catholic layman writing from my own perspective. I am not the Pope, I am not a Cardinal, a bishop or even a priest. I am someone who has studied and taught Theology, and who enjoys television and writing (which I haven't been able to do in a long time due to the constraints of life).

      My enjoyment of Game of Thrones comes from the human elements of the show, the nature of humanity and the way people interact with one another. It's not always with kindness and love, and I recognize that. There is a lot of sex and violence, and I do not condone this. I wish everyone was faithful to their spouses and worked through their problems with words instead of swords. But this is not the world the show represents.

      The show itself is well-written, well-acted and well-filmed. It's complex, emotional and humorous. It's entertainment. And I recommended it, and still would recommend it, to people with a well-formed conscience who are able to distinguish between good and evil. Martin is not Lewis or Tolkien, and their worlds or even purpose for writing are not the same.

      If you do not want to watch the show, that's fine., that's your perogative. If you don't agree with me on my stance on the show, that's fine, too. I welcome dialogue. But don't for a moment question my ability or Catholicness when writing.

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    3. "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 5:19-20

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  7. Christopher, thanks for a very thought-provoking review (I only came to this blog through a google search). Your detractors seem to think that blinding themselves to the ugliness in this world will make it go away (for both them and their children). Sadly, it will not. I grew up as the child of parents who had very similar philosophies to the above commentors and went through quite a bit learning to deal with the world as it is (and sadly the modern world more closely resembles GOT then it does LOTR). I think it would be far more useful for good Christians (I am not catholic) to be able to make ethical moral choices when faced with some of the situations depicted in GOTR (eg political backstabbers, incest, violence etc) rather than metaphorically closing their eyes and pretending it's all not happening.

    You can turn off the TV when GOT is on, but how are you going to deal when eg your boss turns out to be a backstabbing schemer or someone you know is assaulted and left for dead?

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  8. If you go to www.imdb.com, you will find a Parental Advisory Guide for the show. It breaks down each episode and how sex/nudity, graphic violence, etc. manifest themselves in the show. The great thing about this is that you can then know when certain things are coming, and therefore be alert. And the great thing about DVDs, in turn, is that you can avert your eyes and fast-forward when you get to the scenes in question. Perhaps that would be helpful to serious Catholics who want to watch the show without exposing themselves to potentially scandalous material. I'm just speculating...don't take my word for this

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  9. It saddens me that even Catholics have fallen to such compromise with the devil. Of course there are elements of so-called natural virtue, but it is weak, and it does not triumph over evil.

    Mixing bits of good with evil does not make it less evil or less dangerous to our salvation, for this reason we are clearly instructed:
    "Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
    But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them." - Ephesians 5:1-7

    Jesus Himself says that even natural virtue is worthless to those adopted as the children of God:
    "For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." - Matthew 5:46-48

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  10. The Catholic Faith is indeed great. "TV" is utter filth and damns innumerable souls to hell.

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