The Philosophy of Daenerys Targaryen – Wisecrack Edition
We all know that Game of Thrones is just that… a game for the Iron Throne. But with all the time spent theorizing on who WILL win the Seven Kingdoms, we decided to take a different approach and pose the question: Who is actually FIT to rule the Seven Kingdoms? In this Wisecrack Edition, we focus on the Queen of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen. Through the lens of political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, we evaluate Daenerys’s leadership skills utilizing three of his most famous texts: The Prince, Discourses on Livy, and The Art of War. How does the Breaker of Chains stack up? Let’s find out!
Written by: Claire Pickard
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Daenerys Targaryen – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared again. Today we’re talking about one fierce lady with a lot of names: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Subject of A Thousand Fantasies. “Take off your clothes.” I don’t need to tell you that Game of Thrones is about the game for the throne, which is mostly political posturing with a few really expensive battles. But with so many characters vying for the Iron Throne, there’s often more discussion on who will win the Seven Kingdoms, rather than on who would actually be the best at ruling them. It’s pretty much impossible to do that comparison in a single video, so right now we’ll just focus on Daenerys. Her speeches are grand and her dragons are big, but is she actually an effective leader? She left some pretty big messes in Slaver’s Bay that may cast doubt on her ability as a monarch, but people do bow to her a lot. So today, we’re going to grade her Queen skills with some help from one of philosophy’s favorite antiheros, Niccolò Machiavelli. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Daenerys Targaryen. And of course — spoilers ahead.
Machiavelli is one of the founders of political philosophy, and he spent most of his time studying the qualities of good leadership: the traits that make a person most capable of achieving success for not only the state, but for themselves. He outlines these through three books: “The Prince,” “The Art of War” — not that one! — and “Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy.” While all these texts focus on different aspects of being the big dog, today we’re going to focus on three that they’re all pretty consistent in valuing: liberty, the support of the people, and a little something called Virtù. Now, I know you’re probably thinking: Machiavelli? Caring about liberty? Did the Wisecrack office have a gas leak, or something? Well, just bear with us. So, how does Daenerys stack up? The Mother of Dragons is pretty famous for sticking to her guns on just about everything — or at least pretending she does. She’s guided by a strict moral compass that says, “no slavery, no dead children, wrong is wrong, and no asking me questions.”
Sounds okay so far, but it means that she sometimes struggles to adapt when faced with situations that demand flexibility, like whether or not to pardon someone who kills a known terrorist. Machiavelli calls this ability to adapt Virtù. He builds it up as the most important trait in a leader, but more than that, Virtù is about having the grit and fortitude to combat the various uncontrollable circumstances that roll your way — otherwise know as Fortuna. For Machiavelli, politics is not about laying meticulous plans years in advance, or always getting exactly what you want, but dealing with the cruel assh*le that is Fortune. To quote some other assh*le from some other century, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and the ruler with Virtù is ready to adeptly turn these misfortunes into victory — no matter what it takes. Whether she realizes it or not, Daenerys is well-acquainted with the battle between Virtù and Fortuna. Her whole childhood was one bit of bad fortune after the next — being shuttled around to strangers, sold to a Khal against her will, and thrust into a new world where she doesn’t speak the language.
Yet, she’s able to adapt to the events of Fortuna and even use them to gain strength. In less than a year, she turns her forced Dothraki marriage into a powerful political position, and then turns the death of her beloved husband into an opportunity to lead her own khalasar. But once she actually has power, she gets weird about it. Danaerys is super uncompromising about slavery, which is great, but her moral absolutism undermines her own goals. After conquering Yunkai and Astapor, and freeing their slaves, she peaces out to her next project. Since she never bothers to establish any kind of tenable power structure, they collapse and return to slavery, or similar, as soon as she is gone. “The masters have retaken both cities. Outside of Meereen, the whole of Slaver’s Bay has returned to the slavers.”
Virtù means doing whatever is necessary for the good of the society, not following your ethical tunnel vision into a very sh*tty tunnel. In Season 5, she turns down a peace offer that would give freedom to the Yunkai slaves and stop the conflict between her army in Meereen and the Wise Masters of Yunkai. But she turns this down because she doesn’t want to reopen the fighting pits, even for freed slaves who still want to fight. She’s so unwilling to negotiate outside her moral comfort zone that she endangers pretty much everyone and everything she claims to care about. In a rare moment of compromise, she allows a freed slave to sell himself back to his master. “I will allow you to sign a contract with your former master. It may not cover a period lasting longer than a year.” But even this compromise highlights how Danaerys dogmatism is self-defeating: the old man was escaping the temporary shelters she had created for freed slaves that were even worse than the houses of their former masters. “I went to one of these places. The young prey on the old. Take what they want and beat us if we resist.” Tyrion, on the other hand, is the very embodiment of virtù as he leads Meereen while Daenerys is kidnapped. He negotiates with three cities to phase out, rather than out-right abolish, slavery, so that masked assassins will stop roaming the city. “We do not support the sons of the Harpy.” “Fine, fine. But you will cut it off all the same.” Tyrion is not about letting his moral inclinations get in the way of creating a stable society. “You’re right. Slavery is a horror that should be ended at once. War is a horror that should be ended at once. I can’t do both today.”
Does this treaty get immediately broken? Well, it sure does. But at least he showed the ability to adapt his strategies in the face of Fortuna. Daenerys, on the other hand, has exactly one strategy, and it’s called, “Yell A Lot and Burn Stuff.” That’s not always a bad strategy. The good ol “yell and burn” has gotten Daenerys out of being kidnapped, snagged her 8,000 Unsullied soldiers, saved Meereen from warships, and earned her the loyalty of the Dothraki not once, but twice. Machiavelli tells us that boldness and violence are often necessary for mastering Fortuna, and Danaerys certainly passes that part of the test. However, this approach isn’t just a matter of reacting to circumstance: you can’t always go around figuring out how to beat fortune, once it’s already shit on your lawn. Instead, mastering fortuna requires foresight, and pre-emptive action, like beating Fortuna to the punch and shitting on its lawn first.
That’s not to say Daenerys always lacks the ability to plan. After the owner of the Unsullied refuses her offer of ships and gold, she trades her dragon for an army of Unsullied and then actually just kills the master and takes both. It might seem underhanded and possibly evil, but it was the only feasible way to achieve her goals and give liberty to thousands in the process. Some of her shining moments of adapting to circumstance are during battle. Her acquisition of the Unsullied and the subsequent Sack of Astapor demonstrate that she can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, and her decision to arm the slaves of Meereen during the siege of the city is Machiavelli-approved on multiple grounds. On one hand, it’s strategically sound since she risks fewer of her own soldiers. But beyond that, a wise leader recognizes that citizens will always fight for their own liberty, and one can use that to their own advantage. More on that in a minute. With a few exceptions, Daenerys isn’t exactly a roll-with-the-punches kinda Queen. “Where are my dragons?” Not being able to adapt your moral code in times of necessity is a recipe for trouble, as we’ve seen again and again and again. “My father, one of Meereen’s most respected and beloved citizens, oversaw the restoration and maintenance of its greatest landmarks . This pyramid included.” “For that, he has my gratitude. I should be honored to meet him.” “You have, your grace. You crucified him.”
So, I’m gonna pull a grade out of my ass and give her a C for virtù. Next up is Liberty. Daenerys, the Breaker of Chains— who could be more into freedom? She bans slavery wherever she goes and holds open court with basically every single resident of Meereen. While “The Prince” was written as a how-to guide for directing power to, well, princes, Machiavelli strongly values liberty and, despite what you’ve heard, advocates for a vivere libero, or a constitutional republic that allows for civil liberties and civic participation for commoners. Machiavelli writes in “Discourses on Livy” that one should create order by facilitating communication between nobility and common people. Daenerys tells us over and over that she has no interest in replacing the slave masters by becoming yet another diabolical overlord. Although she can never let us forget that she is queen, “Politics is the art of compromise, your grace.” “I’m not a politician. I’m queen.” she does seem to be genuinely concerned with the wants and needs of her people.
Machiavelli’s advice is practical. People will always fight for liberty, both internally and externally, so you should probably just go ahead and give it to them and avoid all of the drama of getting ambushed in the fighting pits and such. In Machiavelli’s vision of a free republic, one of the most central goals is the protection of public discourse, especially in the form of debates. Settling conflict through rhetoric means that the people get to choose the best course of action for the well-being of the state. The idea is, it’s much harder to fool a thousand people than it is to fool one leader. While we don’t see much civilized public debate in the still-chaotic Meereen, Daenerys tries to show that she prioritizes discourse by including both former slaves and the former slave masters on her small council. Now, it’s true that she mostly ignores the advice from the former slave masters, but who can blame her? Well, Machiavelli can. He says that the only kinds of political systems that truly work for the good of the people are those with open discourse— discourse between nobles and commoners, between different competing interest groups. Basically everybody should be talking to everybody else to resolve problems, or else the only option is violence. Seems obvious, right?
But in Daenerys’s city, there isn’t really discourse with the old Meereenese families. She makes a show of paying attention to all sides but never takes their concerns about culture or the economy seriously. And, surprise, this leads to violence. You could argue that it’s fine since the majority of the city clearly wants to punish the old slave masters, but here’s where she really screws up: she doesn’t even listen to the majority of the people. It’s not like she spares the former slave who kills the Son of Harpy or finds better housing for the poor. But we can’t pretend that she’s doing it all for show; her problem is that she cares more about individual petitioners than about open debate. Daenerys’s vivere libero could use some work, but she definitely gets points for trying. We’re gonna go ahead and give her a B minus. Liberty correlates pretty strongly with popular support, and Machiavelli makes it clear that a ruler needs the people’s support in order to get power or keep power.
Heavy-handed dictatorship is usually fleeting. On the face of it, it looks like Daenerys has this one in the bag. I mean, people cheer at her everywhere she goes and call her “Mhysa.” The freed slaves are really into Mhysa. The problem with this is that freed slaves are not all of the people in Meereen, Yunkai, and Astapor. And the old slavers? Definitely not into Mhysa. You know the Machiavelli quote, “it’s better to be feared than loved?” Well, it’s not good to be hated. People try to kill you. And the Sons of the Harpy try to kill Dany pretty much every time that she’s occupying their city. Shocker — she swoops in on a dragon, uproots their way of life, and refuses to negotiate. This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to off her. King Robert tried to poison her with wine back in Season 1 — but, then again, attacks from foreign rulers are just a day in the life; rebellion from the people threatens the stability and legitimacy of the crown. But all those civil liberties we mentioned earlier serve a dual purpose. Not only will the people be more likely to support you, they’ll also be more likely to fight battles for you. That way, you get a free army of people who care about the cause. Machiavelli explains in “The Art of War” that mercenaries fighting for money probably won’t be excited to die for you in the way that true believers would. And, if you want to conquer the Seven Kingdoms, you’re gonna need people to die for you.
Take the Unsullied. They aren’t exactly sellswords when they’re first introduced; they’re slaves. They aren’t fighting for loyalty or religion. However, by freeing them, Daenerys has transformed them from unwilling mercenaries to dedicated soldiers who are now devoted to her cause. So far, they’ve been her best fighters and their leader, Grey Worm, is one of her most trusted advisors. So, while freeing the Unsullied could be just another shining symbol of Daenerys’s wokeness, it’s also strategic. It’s likely no accident that she leaves the mercenaries in Meereen when she ships off to Westeros with the troops that now very much believe in her. Something similar happens with the Dothraki horde. Rather than buying their support the way Viserys tried to, she earns it by burning their leaders to death and then going all exhibitionist in front of a collapsed temple filled with smoking corpses. Hey, whatever gets the job done. But this isn’t the first time she’s lead a group of Dothraki. In Season 2, she lead her small khalasar through the Red Waste, where the whole camp nearly died of thirst, hunger, and exposure. That’s almost impressively incompetent. And if it happens again, I wouldn’t count on a lot of support. It should be obvious, but Machiavelli reminds us, you don’t get the loyalty of the people if their basic needs aren’t met.
That means Daenerys needs to feed her soldiers, but it also hearkens back to the mistake of putting up the former slaves of Meereen in some hellish barracks. She freed tens of thousands of people in five seconds and then took even less time than that to create an infrastructure that could support those people. One of Daenerys’s strongest skills is getting the support of the people. Keeping that support turns out to be a bit more challenging. But, as of the end of Season 6, she’s sailing across the Narrow Sea with over 100,000 people who want to put her on the throne. So, we’re gonna go ahead and say she gets a B in popular support. So, here are our final thoughts on Daenerys — and we have a few. According to “The Art of War,” a leader should pursue the common good of the state while also seeking personal glory. Daenerys mostly just has the second one down. She thinks she cares about helping the former slaves, but obviously not that much since she did a shit job of it and mostly just talks about how she and her Dothraki squad are going to take back the throne that’s thousands of miles away once she’s done playing Pretend Queen on the practice fields of Essos. And, just for good measure, let’s address the fact that she constantly refers to Westeros as “that which is mine.” “I want them because they’re mine by right. The Iron Throne is mine, and I will take it.” Demanding respect simply because she is the “rightful heir” to the Iron Throne is in her Signature Moves list right up there with Yelling and Burning. As Machiavelli might say: “she trippin”. A ruler only gets real power through taking and earning and keeping it, not through inheritance. “Forgive me, Khaleesi, but your ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror didn’t seize six of the kingdoms because they were his right — he had no right to them — he seized them because he could.”
And here we land at the real question — what’s Daenerys’s plan when she gets to Westeros? The Dothraki and the Unsullied will do what they do best — and then what? Does she have a plan for feeding and housing the thousands of Unsullied, who are technically not her slaves but have no other job training or any other cultural knowledge of Westeros? Sure, battling Fortuna is more important than sticking to strict policies, but you have to start with some kind of strategy. And how about the Dothraki? Maybe they’ll kill and rape and raid and win the Seven Kingdoms, and then settle down and build some houses on newly-liberated Lannister land and start growing tomatoes. If the Northerners are up in arms over Wildling raids, imagine how Daenerys’s new subjects will feel about 100,000 Dothraki raiders murdering and pillaging every inch of the continent, long after the war is over. The consistent goal in all of Machiavelli’s work is political stability, which, as we can see, is not exactly Daenerys’s strong suit. Being a ruler isn’t just about hopping around from city to city for personal glory. It’s making sure that things run smoothly once they’re yours. “How can I rule seven kingdoms if I can’t control Slaver’s Bay?”
So, is Daenerys a good leader? We’ll, we’re gonna go ahead and give her a C+. Remember, virtù is weighted the heaviest of all factors. And she kind of sucks at it. Maybe it comes down to this — she’s really a Khaleesi, not a Queen. For the Dothraki, battle is a way of life, and Daenerys’s strategy of Yell and Burn Stuff is a pretty good one. And when she does show us virtù, it’s usually in a fight. Put her on a throne, and that’s where things start to falter. “You weren’t made to sit on a chair in a palace.” “What was I made for?” “You’re a conqueror, Daenerys Stormborn.”
Thanks a lot for watching, Wisecrack. Peace.