Machiavellian Drama Versus the Heroic Epic

Machiavelli Portrait

– By Jacob Foxx –

America is supposed to be the idyllic shining city on the hill, a place beyond the reach of the ruthless realpolitik of Europe. Our destiny is not in the hands of princes and bishops, all vying for power against one another in a tragic game of political strategy. We are a nation of hope, opportunity, and equality. It is imprinted on our national character and culture. It is why we love such romantic hero’s journeys like Rocky, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. We cheer for the little guy rising up, the David that defeats the Goliath.

Hero’s journeys are classic struggles between good and evil, where good always triumphs. Sadly the world does not work that way. The good guy doesn’t always win. Many have answered to a higher calling only to become martyrs. The lesson of history is that it doesn’t matter how righteous your cause, the winners are often the ones that wisely and effectively utilize power and influence.

In art, the sort of anti-heroic epic is one that tries to portray the world as it truly is, complicated. Distinctions of good and evil are not always clear, and in some cases there are no true heroes, only flawed characters. In some cases, the story is more about the complexities of real world situations such as competitions over power. One big example is Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin’s epic takes place in a Machiavellian world where good men die and evil may reign. Political cunning and appropriate use of power lead to victory. A prince’s moral uprightness or compassion often lead to their downfall. The first to die due to his moral principles was Eddard Stark. Meanwhile the most successful prince of Westeros was Tywin Lannister, a brilliant leader who placed his family firmly in control of the iron throne and defeated his two most powerful rivals: Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon.

Tywin Lannister was not a good man. He was responsible for the raping and pillaging of the river lands, the murder of helpless civilians, and was prepared to have his son executed for a crime he did not commit, all for the purpose of empowering his house. In the end, his son Tyrion murdered him but by then there were no “good guys” left.

Machiavellian dramas like Game of Thrones have been surprisingly successful, despite their anti-heroic nature. Shows like The Sopranos, The Tudors, Vikings, and The Walking Dead all show good people being killed while shrewd tricksters thrive. How can such blatantly anti-heroic franchises be so successful alongside heroic epics?

First, we should know a little more about the man Niccolo Machiavelli if we going to use his name as an adjective. During the early 16th century, Italy was divided among various kingdoms and warlords, suffering from decades of warfare and foreign oppression. Machiavelli wanted to end foreign rule but also end the tradition of ineffective leadership in Italy. To help, he offered his services as an adviser to Lorenzo de Medici in the form of a book, The Prince. It laid out how to be an effective prince, not a good prince. The only constraints on a ruler were what policies worked and which did not. The principle is captured by the phrase “the ends justify the means.”

Critics dismiss his work as lacking legitimate ends, preferentially aiding the rule of tyrants and psychopaths. His philosophy is sometimes called the school of evil. Yet if you read his other works, you’ll find a man who is a strong believer in republicanism and ultimately wanted liberty for his people. That was his ends but he knew that it would never become reality without utilizing effective means. To him, a good man is not a good leader if he doesn’t recognize and abide by the basic laws of political power, some of which may require him to do evil for a good end.

If he were in Westeros, it is likely he would’ve supported Robb Stark but would’ve strongly opposed his execution of Rikard Karstark and certainly would’ve advised against marrying Talisa. After the execution of Karstark he might’ve left Stark’s service and return to private life, waiting for his ideal ruler.

In some ways Tyrion Lannister is Machiavelli. He is educated, clever, and has little regard for public morality. Yet he is surprisingly compassionate, desiring to help his family but without unnecessarily harming others. Varys is also a Machiavellian character, looking for a good prince. At the same time Varys would never commit to a cause without a good chance of success. He believes he has found his cause in Queen Daenerys.

Machiavellian stories demonstrate the truth of basic political reality. They are about competition, intrigue, and power. The power relationships can be political, military, or emotional. Romantic and familial relationships are often about power and manipulation as well. While hardly inspirational, Machiavellian drama can provide practical lessons. We don’t live in an ideal world and therefore need to learn to succeed despite its imperfections.

One of the great works of Machiavellian drama is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Michael Corleone is Machiavelli’s great prince, as was his father Vito Corleone. The Godfather Trilogy is largely a tragedy but one cannot discount the incredible success Vito and Michael Corleone enjoyed during their tenures as Don. Both were smarter and more effective than their foes.

In contrast, Rocky Balboa, Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen did not become heroes through shrewd tactics or the accumulation and application of political power. Rocky triumphed through raw toughness and sheer force of will over the champion Apollo Creed. Luke’s victory was a direct result of his righteous commitment to the Jedi Order, where he successfully resists his father’s legacy to take down an intergalactic empire. Katniss was a slave who gained fame through her bravery in the hunger games. However, she was a symbolic rather than actual leader.

We love these stories, just as we love superheroes like the Avengers, Batman, Superman, the X-Men, the Arrow, and others. They were compassionate, just, and wanted to do great deeds. These heroic epics give us hope and inspire us to make better the world even when it seems it is driven by power.

Back to the question: how is it that Americans flock to see The Avengers and Game of Thrones at the same time?

All of us have an idealistic side that enjoys watching a heroic epic, and a realistic or cynical side that wants to see real stories about real people. By real people I mean characters that must make difficult decisions and do not always make the right one. Greek tragedies were known to supply such stories (e.g. Achilles in The Iliad), as well as Shakespeare (e.g. Julius Caesar). We are capable of enjoying both depending on our mood. There are few pure idealists who cannot stand the gritty, realistic nature of shows like Game of Thrones. There are also pure realists who find superhero movies silly, but I think most of us are a mix.

Another good question is where are science fiction’s Machiavellian dramas? The great sci-fi franchises of the past decade or two have been largely heroic epics or dystopian dramas. Most of the time they are at two extremes when depicting the future, utopian or dystopian. It is clear which side is good and which evil. There is no realistic balance as you’d find in a Machiavellian drama. The Walking Dead comes close but some would say zombie fiction is a subgenre onto itself. When sci-fi explores political themes it is largely from a distinct ideological perspective. When there is such a narrow perspective, the political drama is often found wanting.

Machiavelli would shake is head in disappointment at science fiction’s commitment to heroic adventures and ideologically-based futures. The only realism one can find in sci-fi is the commitment to modern science and technology, rather than realistic characters and political forces. The laws of political power are derived from human nature, something that has not changed in the past five centuries. Until we change our nature, the future cannot be a utopian vision nor driven by heroic acts of the self-righteous. Just like today, sometimes the good guys will lose.