Tyrion Lannister and three other Silenuses

For most who watch Game of Thrones or read the books, Tyrion Lannister is their favorite character. A dwarf, with a jutting forehead, a squashed in face, and mismatched eyes, Tyrion is often disliked or mistrusted by the other characters because of his ugliness. George R. R. Martin does everything he can to sharpen the contrast between the hideous face and the great mind behind it. In much the same manner, Plato wrote of Socrates in The Symposium:

I shall try in this way, men, to praise Socrates, through likenesses. Now he perhaps will think it’s for raising a laugh; but the likeness will be for the sake of the truth, not for the sake of the laughable. I declare that he is most strictly like those silenuses that sit in the shops of herm sculptors, the ones that craftsmen make holding reed pipes or flutes: and if they are split apart and opened up, they show that they have images of gods within. And I declare, in turn, that he bears a likeness to the satyr Marsyas. Now, that you are like them at least in looks, Socrates, surely not even you would dispute;

Like Tyrion, Socrates was remarkably ugly, and if we are compiling a list of great men with unsightly faces we must not omit Abraham Lincoln or Henry of Navarre. Lincoln characterized himself as the homeliest man in Illinois, and Henry was the ugliest man in the French court. All these men have come to be revered for their wisdom and compassion. When the generals had returned to Athens from the Battle of Arginusae and were going to be put on trial for the lives lost, Socrates serving as president of the assembly for the first and only time in his life, stood against everyone and refused to put the measure to a vote, and the generals were unconstitutionally and illegally tried and executed in spite of his opposition. Lincoln was famous for pardoning deserters who were to be shot, and Henry went so far as to pardon men who’d just tried to assassinate him.

The four men are also alike in being unfortunate in their marriages. Xanthippe is reported to have been a termagant. Neither Socrates nor his wife ever wrote anything down, but Plato and Xenophon wrote a great deal about them and the picture handed down is of Socrates as the patient, afflicted husband and Xanthippe as the shrew. The Greeks believed that a good wife should be submissive and perhaps Xanthippe was merely forthright and independent but she’ll never get to tell her side of the story.

We know a great deal more about Mary Todd Lincoln and while we must feel pity for a woman coping with mental illness and suffering the loss of a child, her fits of rage and prodigal spending were hard to bear.

Tyrion so repulsed his second wife, Sansa, that, too proud to endure her revulsion and too kind to force her to submit to a touch she found so distasteful, he gallantly forewent his conjugal rights. Despite his intellect, wit, wealth and station, he’s always been denied any female affection or intimacy. Never knowing the tenderness of a mother, sister, or lover, he’s always resorted to prostitutes.

Henry became estranged from both his wives, and Marguerite of Valois and Marie de’ Medici hated him in the end, but he was a faithless husband and the fault was his own. An enthusiastic, in fact a compulsive philanderer, he adored beauty and many of the most ravishing women in France welcomed him in their beds. Even if he were not a king, it’s hard to believe that a man with his wit and charisma would stay lonely for long.

Socrates, the ugliest man in Athens was pursued by Alcibiades, the most beautiful man in Athens. In another part of the Symposium, Alcibiades tells of his flagrant yet unsuccessful attempts to seduce Socrates. The other Silenuses found love, and it’s hard to believe that some woman won’t come to love Tyrion for his wisdom and kindness and see past his grotesque appearance. Perhaps Sansa will come to appreciate him for the man he is and they will reunite to live as man and wife. Millions across the world fervently wish for Tyrion to find the love and happiness he so richly deserves.

There is one respect in which Tyrion is very different from the other three men. Socrates, Lincoln, and Henry all enjoyed good health and were gifted with great bodily strength. In his youth, Lincoln worked as a rail splitter and legends abound testifying to the tremendous strength of his long arms. Socrates was famed for his indifference to cold and fatigue, and it is said that he never became drunk no matter how much wine he drank. It is difficult to credit that he was unaffected by alcohol, but his vitality and endurance were obviously exceptional. Henry was renowned both for his prowess on the battlefield and in the bedroom. In contrast, Tyrion’s stunted body brings him terrible pain and he walks long distances and climbs stairs only with great difficulty and discomfort.

As we review the great benefactors of mankind down through the ages, not all the saints and sages of history are physically repulsive. Galileo, Ashoka, FDR, Pasteur, Hillel, and many others are unexceptional in looks and indeed some are quite handsome. Yet as a rhetorical species, we delight in paradox and antithesis, and for this reason were fascinated by the idea of a Silenus, a twisted, grotesque figure hiding something wondrous and divine within.

Why it was Sansa Stark who won the Battle of the Bastards

Sansa Stark has been criticized for her conduct leading up to the battle fought between an army of Free Folk and the forces of House Bolton, commonly known as the Battle of the Bastards. The action is named in honor of the opposing commanders, natural sons of Ned Stark and Roose Bolton respectively, but it is the timely intervention of Sansa Stark that decided the outcome. This is the most highly rated and regarded episode of an extremely popular, almost ubiquitous and inescapable, television show and the events are well known to most. The Stark forces were outnumbered, but having no choice, they fought a larger, better equipped, and better trained army to retake the northern fortress of Winterfell, ancestral seat of House Stark. Jon Snow accepted battle on these unfavorable terms because he believed he had no other choice. Sansa, however, did have recourse to a large contingent of heavy cavalry, the knights of the Vale. She said nothing of this, and Jon went into the struggle with nothing but his outmatched Wildling infantry, many of whom perished in the fighting.

It’s thought that her silence lead to the unnecessary deaths of many of these brave Free Folk, and that if she’d told Jon the truth, she could have saved many lives. Why did she keep the coming of these allies to herself? Although she must have sent for them much earlier, she may not have known if they were going to come. She had to trust the treacherous Littlefinger, a man who’d betrayed her and her family in the past, to act as her envoy. Will they arrive in time? Will they come at all? If he does bring these troops, on whose side will they fight? It was Littlefinger who suggested using these knights against the Boltons, mentioning the possibility of such a step during their chilly encounter at Molestown. It was Littlefinger again who convinced Sweetrobin to join Sansa’s cause. It is unlikely that Sansa was certain of these knights joining them, and that mentioning such a hope to Jon and the rest only to have it disappointed would be ruinous for their already shaky morale. This is a generous construction and not at all improbable but I’m going to assume the opposite. I’m going to assume that Sansa was certain but that she didn’t trust Jon with that knowledge. I’m going to assume that she hid the imminent advent of the cavalry Jon so desperately needed.

How would Jon have reacted to these tidings? He would certainly be cheered. He would have waited and later confronted the Bolton army on terms of parity, or perhaps even superiority. He wouldn’t have sent his meagre force of infantry into a fight it couldn’t possibly have won. And that is precisely what he needed to do if they are to destroy the Bolton army and retake Winterfell. If they had assembled their combined host of Wildling infantry and Vale cavalry, the accession of the knights of the Vale to the Stark army would no longer be a surprise. Ramsay would have altered his dispositions, or more likely, refused battle and retreated into the fortress. Afterwards, the Free Folk and their giant were able to breach the gate and take the castle because it had already been denuded of its garrison. If Winterfell were fully manned and properly prepared, any assault was unlikely to succeed, and an army with no provisions, hungry and already close to starving, cannot undertake a siege. Mance Rayder had an enormous host and several giants, but he was repulsed in his attack on Castle Black. To recapture Winterfell, the Starks must destroy the Bolton forces in the field. They need an overwhelming battlefield victory.

How do you win an overwhelming battlefield victory if your men and resources are about equal to those of your enemy? Throughout history, the great captains have won their signature victories by thinning their ranks in some places to strengthen their reserves. The fight is joined, and these weak spots have bent but not broken. Great battlefield commanders are gifted with the coup d’oeil (it should be noted that this is a French term), an ability to watch a group of men fighting for their lives and tell, even from a distance, whether they will hold or if they are about to break and run. They may feel betrayed, they may fall, but so long as they keep fighting, that doesn’t matter. Their leader sacrifices their lives to win the battle. No one likes to fight against impossible odds. The leader of these overmatched forces will plead for help. He will beg for reinforcements. These pleas must be ignored. To lead men into battle, you must be willing to let them die. This is cold; this is hard; but that’s the price that must be paid. Many Free Folk died in the Battle of the Bastards but they didn’t die because Sansa kept it a secret that they were soon to be joined by a troop of heavy cavalry. They died because they fought a battle against a large, well-armed, and well trained, force of experienced professional soldiers. Sansa kept her secret and because she did, that enemy force was annihilated.

Most battles are won by the side that can pitch in the last reserve. This means that this reserve must be held back until the very end. At Austerlitz, Napoleon weakened his right flank, and although his men were under terrible pressure, facing onslaught after onslaught, he waited until the enemy moved their troops off the Pratzen Heights in the center to join those attacks. Only after the enemy had thrown their last reserve troops into the fight, did he strike his final blow. The timing is everything. Had he launched his assault against the center too soon, there would be troops still present to meet and repel the attack. Had he waited too long, the overburdened right would have given way and he would have lost the battle before he could put in the killing stroke.

At the Battle of Issus, Alexander and his best cavalry were deployed on the right wing, and Parmenio was assigned auxiliary troops to hold the left wing against the Persians who were far superior in numbers and quality. The Persians hit Parmenio again and again, and his wing was pushed back. His Thessalian auxiliaries gave ground as more and more of their number were cut down. They bent but they didn’t break. They fought and died to buy Alexander time, and he used that opportunity to unleash his own charge on the other end of the field, and this charge frightened Darius into fleeing and won the battle. Were they happy? They won the day but they must have felt aggrieved that their lives were treated as a commodity to be bartered for a foreign king’s triumph.

When the Army of the Potomac was coming against him in overwhelming strength, Lee broke up his own army into pieces. The smallest of these pieces was given to Jubal Early to hold off Union forces much stronger than his own. He was given a fight he couldn’t win but he wasn’t supposed to win. His defeat was inevitable but he must make sure that he fights long enough for Lee to win a much larger battle miles to the west. A thankless job to be sent into a certain defeat, but the greater victory is impossible without this sacrifice. The Confederates lost the minor Second Battle of Fredericksburg, but won the Battle of Chancellorsville and that decided the entire campaign.

The knights of the Vale mounted their charge only after the Bolton army had surrounded the Wildlings and were crushing the life out of them. The Wildlings had fought valiantly, but the arms, the weight, and the discipline of their foes were too great. The Bolton men interlocked their shields, couched their spears and advanced in an impenetrable shield wall. The Wildlings heedlessly and savagely rushed the enemy trying to break through, but not even Wun Wun could shatter their formation. Ramsay threw everything into the fight, holding nothing back, and all his men were committed, and that is when the knights of the Vale were unleashed. As far as timing goes, the moment was perfect. The Bolton deployment was much like a Macedonian phalanx, and at the Battle of Cynoscephalae a Macedonian phalanx was slaughtered when Roman legionaries managed to get in behind them. It was just the same for the Bolton army. When the wave of heavy cavalry hit them, their entire army was swept away. The Free Folk suffered losses but the Bolton men were nearly extirpated.

 

Am I saying that Sansa Stark is a superb battlefield commander, like Caesar, Frederick the Great, or the Duke of Marlborough? I like the girl and take up cudgels to defend her, but I won’t make such a ridiculous claim. It’s clear that while Arya reads about Nymeria and Visenya Targaryen, Sansa reads about Jonquil with flowers in her hair. But it wouldn’t be out of character for Littlefinger to have familiarized himself with battlefield tactics in his reading. Maybe the knights had been on the march throughout and entered the fray as soon as they came up. Whatever the case, whether deliberate or inadvertent, things could not have worked out better for the Starks. The Free Folk suffered and died on the field, but most of them survived to fight again in the wars to come, and it was their enemies who perished nearly to a man. It was Sansa who called on the knights of the Vale; it was Sansa who won the battle; and it was Sansa who retook Winterfell.

 

Of Fear, or why Rickon Stark didn’t Zigzag

Thomas Hobbes defined fear as aversion coupled with the belief that the object of our fear will hurt us. Evolution instilled fear in our species, and in other species with a highly developed nervous system, to enable us to survive. Fear is the apprehension of danger followed by an impulse toward fight or flight. A vestige of a more brutal and also a simpler past, fear gives us a burst of strength and speed but at a cost. We are spurred to tremendous exertion but rendered incapable of deliberation. Mr. Spock was right; the adrenal gland can be most inconvenient in our modern world.

Horses will often run into a burning barn, and it isn’t only animals that become misdirected when frightened. Montaigne recounts:

When Monsieur de Bourbon took Rome, an ensign who was on guard at Borgo San Pietro was seized with such a fright upon the first alarm, that he threw himself out at a breach with his colors on his shoulder, and ran directly upon the enemy, thinking he had retreated toward the inward defenses of the city, and with much ado, seeing Monsieur de Bourbon’s people, who thought it had been a sally upon them, drew up to receive him, at last came to himself, and saw his error; and then facing about, he retreated full speed through the same breach by which he had gone out, but not till he had first blindly advanced above three hundred paces into the open field.

The discombobulated ensign is not alone. Panic flings us into furious action, but into courses which will often kill us rather than save us. Nearly every swimmer has been told what to do when caught in a rip tide but when they’re being swept out to sea, so many of them try to make directly for shore, vainly thrashing and struggling as they’re borne away. Moving bodies that follow a set track independent of impinging forces aren’t found in nature, which is why animals never understand that to avoid a car they must stay off the road, and why so many creatures will run right under the wheels of an oncoming car. The flight responses that evolution has instilled in our brains will put speed ahead of everything else and set us to running in a straight line.

Most of us are acquainted with life or death situations by watching them in movies or on television. We become very impatient with characters when we see them fall into panic. We had wanted them to survive but in our disgust, we conclude such stupidity merits death. At the end of Prometheus, Charlize Theron is running away from a huge rolling disc, and she runs straight, falls, and is crushed. The viewers become very angry with her. From their couches, they work out the geometry of the situation and they calculate the angle optimal for escape. The answer lies somewhere between ninety and forty-five degrees, and perhaps only a physicist can know for certain.

Our viewing culture has become reflexive, and it can be more instructive and entertaining to watch people watching a show, than watching the show itself. Everyone who’s watched The Battle of the Bastards, episode 06×09 of Game of Thrones, reacts in the same manner. We see Rickon Stark led to the front of the Bolton forces, we see the knife drawn and held up, but then used to free and not to kill the prisoner. The more observant have noted the finger tabs Ramsey’s wearing. We call out to Rickon as he starts running, we implore him to zigzag. He doesn’t hear. He runs straight. Ramsey misses on purpose until Jon has nearly reached him, and then he sends the last arrow through Rickon’s back. We see him fall with a cry of anguish.

Another Stark is lost. They’re so noble and so utterly hopeless. Why do David Benioff and D.B. Weiss make them so incredibly stupid? Why does Arya allow the waif to come up behind her and stab her? Nobody can be constantly keyed up and vigilant. The human nervous system can’t be put on high alert indefinitely. Why does Rickon run straight? Because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and panicked human being in flight wants to put as much distance between himself and danger as possible. Perhaps it would be instructive to watch a character who did everything right, who stayed calm and thought matters through, who followed the steps most likely to result in survival and didn’t make any mistakes, and who died anyway. Such an exploration might be intriguing; it would certainly be sobering. Perhaps after watching this exercise in futility, we’ll conclude that we prefer that our protagonists blunder into their untimely end. A sorrowful death we can bear, but an inescapable one may be too bitter.

Pyrrho, David Hume, and Living with Skepticism

Montaigne writes of the manners of the ancient skeptic Pyrrho:

Pyrrho, he who erected so pleasant a knowledge upon ignorance, endeavoured, as all the rest who were really philosophers did, to make his life correspond with his doctrine. And because he maintained the imbecility of human judgment to be so extreme as to be incapable of any choice or inclination, and would have it perpetually wavering and suspended, considering and receiving all things as indifferent, ‘tis said that he always comported himself after the same manner and countenance: if he had begun a discourse, he would always end what he had to say, though the person he was speaking to had gone away: if he walked, he never stopped for any impediment that stood in his way, being preserved from precipices, the jostle of carts, and other like accidents, by the care of his friends: for, to fear or to avoid anything, had been to shock his own propositions, which deprived the senses themselves of all election and certainty.

It’s very difficult to believe the truth of this report. Montaigne concedes that the account comes from reports themselves derived from hearsay. He took this description of Pyrrho from Diogenes Laertes who drew from someone named Antigonus, and the portrayal is several steps removed from the man himself. But it isn’t that the sources are scarce and tenuous that makes it difficult to believe, but rather that the characterization itself is so improbable. The ancient Greek philosophers pondered the ultimate nature of reality, whether it was matter or thought, many or one, finite or infinite, changeable or immutable but they lived in the same world we do. When walking they sometimes tripped and scraped their palms, when cooking they sometimes burned themselves, when banging their head against a low ceiling they felt a sharp pain. They were as aware and as certain of the ordinary course of cause and effect as anybody else. There is the famous story of Samuel Johnson, upon hearing of how Doctor Berkeley claimed that all objects were ideal rather than material, kicking a large, heavy stone and crying out “I refute it thus.” Johnson refuted nothing because Berkeley, like any philosopher, knew perfectly well that when somebody kicks such a hard, massive object, the result is obstruction, pain, and possibly a broken toe.

Acquaintances of David Hume were often astonished that so thorough and infamous a skeptic turned out to be so worldly, urbane, and genial. He was such a contented, affable gentleman that only a Rousseau could quarrel with him. Hume was also known for being fond of billiards and when he played, despite his skepticism, he little doubted that the cue ball would transfer its momentum to the colored balls upon striking them, and that they would be propelled onward according to the laws of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics. The laws of nature prescribe that certain effects follow from certain causes. Most are certain that there is something tying the cause and the effect together. This causality is an intuition, a feeling, a prejudice, or a habit of association. We see the movement of the cue ball, the two balls clicking together, and the movement of the colored ball, but we don’t see the causality. Hume pointed out that the cause and the effect are both perceived, and the causality is assumed but is not itself the object of any perception.

It is induction that leads us to think the effect will proceed from the cause, but simply because it is an induction doesn’t mean that it’s untrustworthy. We’ve learned the laws of nature, and we’re certain that they will hold true in the future just as they have in the past. All our behavior is based on our knowledge of these laws and if they all suddenly changed, we’d be unable to survive. If objects suddenly flitted out of existence, if time looped so that after travelling or laboring all day we ended up at our starting point, if we couldn’t tell which objects were permeable and which objects were impermeable in advance, if the operation and direction of gravity changed without warning or pattern, we’d be unable to cope with a world that’s challenging enough in its predictable form. Very few of us are worried on any of these counts and we are quite sure that the laws of nature will continue to pertain as they always have.

Yet we seem unable to come up with an ultimate basis for these laws. We don’t have a reason that these laws must be the way they are and they can’t be otherwise. This means that the laws of nature are contingent. This doesn’t mean that they sometimes operate and sometimes don’t. It means that they will remain in effect and must be coherent but they still could be completely different than they are. We can imagine possible worlds where gravity is repulsive (as it is at high enough temperatures), where the laws of atom building are different and there is a completely different table of periodic elements, where the four fundamental forces are replaced with completely different interactions. This contingency is unsettling, and in our distress, we shouldn’t be sneered at as a vain and parochial species who want to believe they’re special. Randomness should be unsettling for any thinking life form because thinking involves a search for the simple, for the compressible, for the rational.

Philosophers are as fully aware of how the everyday world works as the rest of mankind. Some like Thales, and Adam Smith are famously absent-minded, but Pyrrho knew full well that a kicking a stone lying in the street in Athens will hurt just as much as kicking a stone in London. That doesn’t mean that philosophy is the business of coming up with bad reasons for what everyone knows. Everyone knows that if a stone is rolled down the street in Athens or London it will eventually slow and come to a stop, but Aristotle believed that the stone moved because of a force acting upon it, while Jean Buridan believed that it moved on its own and stopped because of a force acting on it. The difference is immaterial on the streets of Athens or London but if we escape the Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational field, the difference is critical.

Similarly, some thinkers like Lucretius believe that the world is ultimately matter, and some like Berkeley believe that it is ultimately ideal. Just as Newtonian physics perfectly describes the world of slow-moving, medium-sized objects but breaks down when describing the very small, the very large, and the very fast, so the descriptions of materialism and idealism match our ordinary world equally well but when they are pushed past the boundaries of our experience one of them may be vindicated above the other. Plato or Aristotle, Hegel or Kant, Heraclitus or Parmenides, we may have to venture beyond the borders of our world into the twilight zone to settle the dispute.