Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen: a Stoic commentary

SPOILERS ALERT! This article contains a number of spoilers about the last season, and particularly the last episode, of the television series Game of Thrones. If you have not watched the series yet, and plan to do it (as you should), come back after you’ve done it and we’ll talk.

So, with a few months delay, I finally caught up with the last season of Game of Thrones. When the show first came out I was reluctant to watch it. I don’t need yet another television series to be hooked on, I thought. And I hear that there is a lot of unnecessary violence on the show (not true: there is violence, but it’s perfectly situated within the plot and the setting of the story, and therefore not “unnecessary”). Besides, I prefer sci-fi to fantasy (still true).

Nevertheless, after a couple of false starts — watching the first episode, then letting it go, then watching the second episode and letting it go again — I got into this strange tale based on George R. R. Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I presume you know the basic plot (if not, check here before continuing), and I certainly don’t have the space here to provide a synopsis of the complex story, spanning eight seasons and a whopping 73 episodes, featuring a very long list of interesting characters.

So let me skip straight to the very last episode, “The Iron Throne,” and to the crucial scene, where Jon Snow kisses and kills (with a dagger) Daenerys Targaryen, the just declared Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and Mother of Dragons (yes, she’s got three dragons at her service, though only one remains by the end of the series). And he does that immediately having told her the he loves her.

If what I just wrote were all you knew about the episode, you would probably be highly suspicious of this Jon Snow character. And yet, Snow is one of a number of people populating the Game of Thrones universe whose moral compass is highly reliable (others include: Ned Stark, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Samwell Tarly, Brienne of Tarth — arguably, not an exhaustive list). So things are more complicated than what they appear to be.

Which is one of the first lessons in Stoicism:

“For, as Socrates bade men ‘not live a life without examination,’ so you ought not to accept an impression without examination, but say, ‘Wait, let me see who you are and whence you come,’ just as the night-watch say, ‘Show me your token.’” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 12)

Which is particularly appropriate since Jon Snow, early on (and then again at the very end) is a member of a group call the Night’s Watch.

The point is that Snow must have a really good reason to tell Daenerys that he loves her just seconds before he sticks a dagger into her heart. And he does, have a good reason. The Mother of Dragons is broadly speaking a positive character for much of Game of Thrones (unlike, say, Cersei Lannister, or most of the Lannisters, for that matter). She is presented as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne (until we find out that Jon has, in fact, more of a right to it than she does). She thinks of herself as a liberator of oppressed people, and she more or less acts accordingly for a sustained number of episodes.

That said, if one pays attention to the unfolding of the various seasons, Daenerys also displays a significant amount of arrogance (the Greeks would have called it hubris), and she does make a few ethically or even just prudentially questionable decisions. At one point, for instance, she crucifies 163 Meereenese noblemen as group punishment for an admittedly equally horrifying set of executions. At another point, she burns Samwell Tarly’s father and brother to death because they refuse to kneel for her. So, the attentive viewer should have gotten a number of clues that Daenerys is not exactly sage material.

Nevertheless, Jon Snow does genuinely fall in love with her, and does renounce his position as King of the North, kneeling for her. (No, I don’t think his motivation was just to avoid being burned by one of her dragons.) But the events in the last episode slowly and painfully change his mind about Daenerys.

When their combined forces finally arrive at King’s Landing, where the Iron Throne stands, she could have taken the city with relatively little effort, sparing the citizens (as her close advisor, Tyrion Lannister, begs her to do), taking prisoner much of the enemy’s army, and finally getting her hands on Cersei Lannister.

Instead, the Mother of Dragons burns the city to a crisp, killing scores of innocents, and orders her men to execute the enemy soldiers, even though they had surrendered and laid down their arms. These actions are disturbing enough. But she tops it off with a resounding victory speech, in which she tells her army that the war is not over (despite the fact that the Iron Throne is hers), and that they will continue on until every population in the world will no longer be subjects to tyrants. Of course, they will all have to kneel for her, or else.

It is at this point that Jon makes up his mind to betray his queen and lover, ready to face whatever consequences. (Turns out, he is not executed by the new council of lords, but returned to the Night’s Watch, a sworn brotherhood of men who patrol the northern Wall.)

What Jon Snow does is, from a Stoic perspective, a virtuous action. The Stoics were against violence and in favor of a brother/sisterhood of all human beings, but recognized that sometimes violence is necessary, particularly in opposition to tyranny. In deciding to override his personal feelings toward Daenerys Jon is acting justly and courageously, that is, in accordance with Stoic virtues.

Epictetus wrote that we all take up a number of simultaneous roles in our lives, but that the one role that supersedes all others is that of members of the human cosmopolis:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Epictetus, Discourses, III.23.3–5)

Snow acts well throughout Game of Thrones in his various roles as a friend, a lover, a brother, a soldier, and the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. But ultimately he acts best of all in his primary role as a human being, sacrificing his love and potentially his life in order to stop a tyrant from pursuing her increasingly deluded dreams of grandeur.

What about Daenerys herself? What sense can we make of her, using the Stoic framework? She is not “evil,” because evil — in a metaphysically heavy sense — does not exist. People, according to the Stoics, do not commit bad actions for the sake of being evil, but rather out of amathia, a word often translated as ignorance, but that more properly means un-wisdom.

Daenerys clearly has good intentions, and she has managed to convince herself that she truly is the “Breaker of Chains,” as one of her many titles goes. And no wonder. She is the daughter of royalty (though her father was referred to as “the Mad King”); she walked into a burning fire and emerged unscathed, bearing three dragon eggs; she manages to overcome incredible odds and to raise a might army to retake King’s Landing and the Iron Throne. And she succeeds! Wouldn’t you be subject to a bit of hubris, given a life like hers?

But that’s where amathia comes in. For all her indubitable qualities, her courage and strength (and yes, of course, her stunning beauty), she reveals herself as vengeful, uncompromising, prone to cast away friends and kill innocents in order to pursue her self-imposed mission.

The contrast with Jon Snow is remarkable: while Daenerys is all bent toward achieving externals (fame, glory, power), Jon is all focused on his duties (toward loved ones and people more generally) and the goodness of his intentions. As any Stoic would tell you, a focus on externals is foolish, because they are not, ultimately, up to you, as Daenerys finds out at the moment in which Jon kills her. She would have been far better served to listen to the following words by Epictetus, which one can surmise somehow managed to reach Jon Snow:

“If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you [i.e., what is under your control] and what does not [i.e., what is not under your control], you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.” (Enchiridion 1.5)
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