What Machiavelli knew and Robb Stark found out: power is greatness
Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 3, Episode 9
I couldn’t watch the Game of Thrones episode featuring the ‘Red Wedding’ on the day it was first broadcast. For 24 hours I couldn’t read the tweets or posts from my friends which went like this:
Friend: WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT??!
Other friend: didn’t see that coming!
Other friend: I’m glad no one told me that [spoiler]…
This stuff was hard to avoid. The Red Wedding more or less crashed the internet. So (spoiler alert) I managed to avoid knowing the full detail of the slaughter of heroic avenger Robb Stark and most of his remaining family. I could boggle afresh at the mass murder of men, women, children (born and unborn) and dire wolves. Next time someone describes a drunken wedding to me as ‘carnage’, I’ve got a handy visual reference.
But the internet-crashing shock wasn’t fundamentally about death. There’s loads of it on TV. I recently watched Michael McIntyre’s chat show. His guests died every week.
It’s because (more spoilers here) we’ve invested in the revenge story of the Robb Stark and his family who, in Hollywood narrative terms, should clearly win their war against the Lannisters because that’s the way things are done in fairy stories. Therefore, when they get cut into small chunks at the Red Wedding, and fail epically as a result, it’s not the way things should happen. Consider:
- Robb Stark’s wise and mostly good father, who loved his kids so much that he even fathered an extra one while he was off having a war, was murdered by the Lannisters for political reasons. Therefore avenging him is a righteous quest.
- Lannisters are weaselly snivelling cheats who make Shakespeare’s Richard III look like Nelson Mandela.
- The Starks have an attractive macho mud-caked integrity. They recall the great Wigan Rugby League team of the late 1980s; not least because they sound a bit like them too.
- As a result the Starks do not dress in silly foppish clothes or wear ridiculous little crowns. Again, not like the nasty Lannisters.
Many of the stories we read, watch and tell, the religions and beliefs we follow, the news we watch and therefore the assumptions we make are based on the idea that virtue gets a reward. We build these stories into a ‘Great Man’ (it’s almost always a man) narrative, in which a few extraordinary people shape our destiny for the better. This was first expressed by the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1841, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which he wrote, ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’
Niccolo Machiavelli, writing 300 years before him, had a rather more nuanced appreciation of the Great Man. When he wrote The Prince as a leadership manual for medieval rulers, he knew two things: first, that it really helps to get stuff done if you are perceived as great. He was less fussy about actual greatness or virtue – perhaps because he’d spent a lot of time around the Medici and Borgia versions of the Great Man. The second thing, as Machiavelli warns us towards the end of his celebrated book, is that ‘greatness’ is fundamentally about happenstance: being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
And so he undermined the Great Man Theory before Carlyle created it. But we look for a neater story, that great men are fulfilling a destiny. The Starks must win because they deserve it. It also helps us to take orders if we believe that we follow people because they are not just powerful, but better than us in some way.
Great Man Theory underpins the modern idea of the hero CEO too. There is an economic theory known as ‘just desserts’ (in the US, ‘just deserts’) which argues that the financial rewards of the additional value created by an innovation or business should flow to the person who created it. Greg Mankiw, one of the greatest economists alive today, recently wrote a paper on this called ‘Defending the One Percent’. It’s easy to read, and argues, for example, that innovators like Steve Jobs deserved their extraordinary rewards.
There are two arguments against this. First of all, Steve Jobs didn’t design the products that Apple sells. Innovation is a team effort, involving thousands of deserving, hard-working people, some of whom get minimum wage.
Secondly, even if we think there might be a limited number of great men to reward, who exactly are they? Who gets the revenues from the iPhone? Is it the person who invented the iPhone, or the telephone, or the one who invented electricity, or who created outsourced manufacturing, or even the internet? Any one of them would have a legitimate claim on a piece of the action, and few of them profited anything like as much as Jobs.
Machiavelli knew that the necessary condition for becoming a Great Man isn’t to possess greatness according to some moral or intellectual standard (it might help, but looking at the people in Mankiw’s 1% it’s clearly not essential). The perception of greatness comes from the power, not the other way around. People have to think you’re going to win, or they won’t give you a chance to prove it.
But the Red Wedding reminds us (as does much of Game of Thrones) that, while this is a necessary condition of greatness, it’s not sufficient. You also have to actually win: history never even thinks about virtuous people without power, and soon forgets losers. So when our Great Man Theories are hacked to bits in front of our disbelieving eyes, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s a useful reminder of the sources and limits of power.