I finally started watching Game of Thrones on HBO Max, not House of the Dragon but the original TV show. At this point of season 5, Cersei has given power to the High Septon of the Faith of the Seven (the Faith), and he is using that power to strengthen the Faith’s grip on society. Particularly striking to me is how the show’s representation of the Faith and it confessors’ actions parallel the practices developed in Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. As such, Game of Thrones is particularly useful for providing folks with a tangible experience of how guilt culture emerged. Importantly, this experience, albeit an experience mediated through a TV show, has the potential to demonstrate and inform folks that divine command theory is not the only and best explanation to moral conscience but that cultural forces can, and I think do, offer a more helpful explanation for the notion of a moral conscience.
What, though, is the emergence of guilt culture? Jean Delumeau’s monumental work Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries lays out a remarkably thorough history of sin and fear in the west. Essentially, he shows how the art, sermons, and literature of these centuries evince a macabre culture. This culture thus emphasized the centrality of humanity’s redemptive needs, human fragility, and human sin. As such, data from the thirteenth to eighteenth century evince an increasing focus on and practices regarding a consciousness of guilt for the sake of salvation and redemption. As he writes, “the focus would be placed on this confession itself (which ultimately designated the entire penitential process), and thus on the examination of one’s conscience,” “the evolution toward a culture of guilt” (197). Importantly, though, this emergence of and evolution toward a culture guilt originated in monastic communities. Therefore, the notion of a moral consciousness and the accompanying behaviors was not, in fact, the result of some intrinsic human nature but rather the result of authorities pressuring and shaping society through various mediums.
This process, I think, is likewise evident in Game of Thrones. In seasons 1-4, the religious fanatics, as they are referenced in the show, are merely in the background, a seemingly small monastic group. Only in season 5 do they begin to reinforce and assert power through a sort of guilt culture, examination of the conscience, and demand for penitence with the goal of human redemption. Through the Game of Throne‘s story, then, the audience can experience a world prior to the Faith’s practices around and responses to what they perceive as immoral and an affront to the Faith of the Seven. Likewise, the audience witnesses how High Septon normalizes societal practices and behaviors in order to reshape how society thinks, acts, and behaves. This process, I think, nicely parallels the history of guilt culture in the Primary World (i.e., our current world). (And while seasons 5 and 6 may offer more parallels, recall that I am only in the middle of season 5.)
Why does this parallel between Western history and Game of Thrones matter, then? Such a parallel matters for many reasons. First, Game of Thrones exemplifies that social processes shape how people think and act. Importantly, though, this knowledge and understanding comes not through academic books or lectures but rather is evident through a screen telling a story and constructing a Secondary World (i.e., a world similar to but vastly different from our own, the Primary World). As such, the show forces audiences to consider how society shapes one’s moral conscience at least within the world of Game of Thrones. Whether an individual then puts that consideration into conversation with the Primary World is another question.
Second, and building on the first point, the parallel between Game of Thrones and Western history offers a helpful way to teach. That is, with Game of Thrones being such a major cultural touchstone, teachers (especially university professors) would be wise to leverage Game of Thrones to teach more concrete, complex material rooted in our world, in the Primary World. (In fact, I can’t help but wonder how much students might enjoy a two-semester course introducing humanities through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones.)
Third, the parallel between Game of Thrones and the Western history of sin, fear, and guilt may explain, in part, why and how religious affiliations, practices, and trends are shifting in contemporary culture. Rather than asserting that a particular form of guilt and moral conscience existed in the same way throughout time and space, Game of Thrones demonstrates how societal forces shape perspectives, behaviors, and assumptions. This demonstration as mentioned in my first point, enables people to reconsider their assumptions regarding Christian hegemonic claims about morality and divine command theory. This reconsideration may, in part, explain the decrease in people identifying as religious in the last thirty years (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/how-u-s-religious-composition-has-changed-in-recent-decades/).