“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?