A Riddle about Power

November 1, 2011

Political Theory

The Riddle:

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?”

This is a riddle from the second book of the Game of Thrones series, a story set in a place much like our own Medieval Ages. The riddle is about the nature of power. Which is greatest?

Is it the power of the law wielded by the king? As Hobbes argued, submitting to the rule of a monarch is essential to preventing the state of nature. Saving the king maintains order in society. Killing the king could create a state of nature in which life is brutal and short.

Is it the power of religion wielded by the priest? Locke argued that belief in a god is the backbone of man’s morality. Most religions express beliefs about punishment or reward based on how people follow their religion’s moral code. Saving or killing the priest could decide one’s ultimate fate.

Is it the power of money wielded by the rich man? Hobbes believes that ultimately humans are selfish beings. Saving the rich man comes with the benefits of not only potentially securing one’s own survival, but one’s own comfort as well.

Or is it in fact the power of force wielded by the ordinary sellsword? In the riddle the three powerful men are in fact powerless before the man with sword. He could kill all three of them if he wanted to. Hobbes argued that force was the most important tool of the monarch. In the end sellsword’s own beliefs will dictate who he kills, suggesting that whichever power is greatest is simply the one that people believe to be the greatest.

So which do you believe is greatest? Do you think force underlies all power? Do you think people posses a selfish nature that grants money the true power? Does law have power without force to back it? Or is belief itself the most powerful? Think back to the beginning of the semester. How do we form our beliefs?



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8 Comments on “A Riddle about Power”

  1. Fixis Says:

    The answer is combination of all the characters – a great warrior with legendary skills who is rich and is king and godblessed priest at the same time.

  2. Castiel Says:

    This is mind blowing!!! Belif governs us all. Our whole system is built on belif. Belif and whomever wields it has the power.

  3. darkrageofwar Says:

    the man that put them in the same room has the power

  4. JD Says:

    The riddle is, unto itself, a personal journey or soul searching for each individual as they hear it.

    None of us know who the “sell-sword”, which is a mercenary, is going to choose. By the very nature of what a mercenary / ronin / rogue / sellsword is, is to have to define WHAT made them such in the first place.

    Was the mercenary betrayed by his king, or his government, which forced his hand to seek a living outside conventional society? If so he will most certainly kill the King.

    Was the ronin a samurai to a master who was betrayed by a religious sect that his master held close? If so, he will most certainly kill the priest.

    Was the rogue once an aristocrat who was betrayed by a fellow noblemen? If so, he will most certainly kill the rich man.

    The riddle as I see it is to make you think about what you would do, because there is no right or wrong answer when you and anyone else compare notes. It’s a personal choice based on personal experience.

    I believe you kill all three, keep the balance of power in favor of the sword, and wonder who had the power to put the four of you in the room with death on the line in the first place, because that will be your real threat.


  5. xtyronx Says:

    ya its def the preist nd rich man who die cuz the king wud just kill teh swrod if he dnt listn to him cuz he ruls the kindom n has gaurds who kill the swod

  6. Surri Says:

    The king, the priest, the rich man – who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.
    And yet he is no one. He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.
    That piece of steel is the power of life and death.
    Just so … yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a king?
    Because these kingscan call other strong men, with other swords.
    Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey? Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law.
    Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more no less.
    So power is a mummer’s trick? A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.’

  7. Xicor Says:

    You need not to be confined in a room to be in such predicament. To me the riddle invokes the perception of power, and obviously the volatility of it. In fact one would question if the shadow of power that each man casts could be manipulated to a certain outcome. Absolute power comes whit the sword and the omniscient knowledge, but the riddle confirms the impossibility of absolute power because none can determine the “will” of the swordsman. This raises also the thought that however casts the light may determine somewhat the size of the shadow of power. ” … a very small man can cast a very large shadow…”



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