The Tao of Sir Terry: Pratchett and Political Philosophy

“It wasn’t that the city was lawless. It had plenty of laws. It just didn’t offer many opportunities not to break them.” —Night Watch (2002)

In the Discworld series, Ankh-Morpork is the Ur-city, of which all other cities throughout time and space are mere echoes. But politics is, quite literally, the life of the polis, of the city, as Pratchett himself was keenly aware:

“‘Polis’ used to mean ‘city’, said Carrot. That’s what policeman means: ‘a man for the city’. Not many people knew that.” —Men at Arms (1993)

And again, in the finale of the same book: “Have you ever wondered where the word ‘politician’ comes from?” said the Patrician.” It is therefore little wonder that politics, and political philosophy, is a core subject of most, if not all, of Pratchett’s works at some level or another—and this is especially true of the Discworld novels

After all, the strength of the Tao of Sir Terry rests firmly on a bedrock of satire, and what better target for satire than politics? But, as ever with Pratchett, that satire is never vain or gratuitous, and always contains a philosophical bent that leads us to question the status quo; it’s satire that takes up surprising political stances, ranging from cynicism and suspicion of power to a brave, humanist outlook that fuels a deep-rooted hope for a responsible political future.

 

If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

Guards! Guards! (1989)

The first, and easiest, level of political philosophy in Sir Terry’s works is, of course, satire of power and those who wield it, with a healthy dose of defiance and derision of established authority to boot…

Technically, the city of Ankh-Morpork is a Tyranny, which is not always the same thing as a monarchy, and in fact even the post of Tyrant has been somewhat redefined by the incumbent, Lord Vetinari, as the only form of democracy that works. Everyone is entitled to vote, unless disqualified by reason of age or not being Lord Vetinari.

Unseen Academicals (2009)

This is clearly not cynicism in the philosophical sense—quite the contrary, since one of the central tenets of the Cynic is to live in accordance with nature and reject any quest for power. But it certainly employs cynicism in the modern, common usage of the term, to great comedic effect, from the manipulation of useless committees to Disc-spanning geopolitical issues resolved by the careful placing of people, like pawns, in the right place at the right time.

Pratchett takes this critical view of the modern nation-state into even greater detail, describing the political process as institutionalised trickery, especially when it comes to taxation. For example:

“‘Listen, Peaches, trickery is what humans are all about,’ said the voice of Maurice.  ‘They’re so keen on tricking one another all the time that they elect governments to do it for them.’”  —The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)

“Taxation, gentlemen, is very much like dairy farming. The task is to extract the maximum amount of milk with the minimum amount of moo.” —Jingo (1997)

“On the fifth day the Governor of the town called all the tribal chieftains to an audience in the market square, to hear their grievances. He didn’t always do anything about them, but at least they got heard, and he nodded a lot, and everyone felt better about it at least until they got home. This is politics.”  —The Carpet People (1971)

This vision of politics as a distasteful but necessary expedient is on par with the pragmatist and consequentialist political philosophies of the European Renaissance, as exemplified by the work of philosophers such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. The latter’s concept of the social contract is echoed in Pratchett’s work as well, and both would agree that, as a system based in the inherent selfishness of the individual, the political system produced by the social contract will only ever be as just, as noble, and as ethical as its citizens want it to be. As Lord Vetinari explains to Vimes in Guards! Guards!

Down there—he said—are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

 

“Verence was technically an absolute ruler and would continue to be so provided he didn’t make the mistake of repeatedly asking Lancrestrians to do anything they didn’t want to do.”

Carpe Jugulum (1998)

If the social contract produces political systems as petty and vile as the citizens themselves, then the opposite is also true—and this is the saving grace of the political systems Sir Terry develops throughout his work: a deep-rooted belief in the fundamental goodness of humankind and in our ability to strive towards greater social justice, however difficult or ridiculous the path towards it may be.

As Pratchett tells us in The Night Watch (2002):

“Vimes found it better to look at Authority for orders and then filter those orders through a fine mesh of common sense, adding a generous scoop of creative misunderstanding and maybe even incipient deafness if circumstances demanded, because Authority rarely descended to street level.”

Or consider Polly Perks’ reasoning in Monstrous Regiment (2003):

“And if you couldn’t trust the government, who could you trust? Very nearly everyone, come to think of it….”

This basic faith in the individual (and the individual’s ability to contend with authority) reveals the true essence of Sir Terry’s political philosophy: humanism, a belief in individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation, especially in the face of authoritarian systems. In this, Pratchett is part of an unbroken chain of thinkers and writers going back to ancient Indian, Chinese, and Greek philosophers, through Medival Muslim thinkers, and passed along through the likes of Petrarch, Rabelais, Montaigne, and Bertrand Russell.

Moreover, Pratchett’s fundamental faith in humankind is such that even his Tyrants contract a healthy dose of goodness, as if ethics were a contagious disease:

“Any sensible ruler would have killed off Leonard, and Lord Vetinari was extremely sensible and often wondered why he had not done so.” —Jingo (1997)

 

“I’m sure we can all pull together, sir.”

“Oh, I do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.”

The Truth, (2000)

Pratchett’s belief in the ability of humankind, from the man in the field to the man in the Palace, to be good and make ethical choices forms the basis for the strongest, bravest, and most hopeful political philosophy developed throughout his works: meliorism, perhaps best formulated by the Marquis de Condorcet. Meliorism holds that progress is both real and possible, and that people can, through their actions and their choices, improve the world step by step, as opposed to passively accepting the state of nature and the status quo.

Lord Vetinari himself seems to say as much in Unseen Academicals (2009): “And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”

It is this stance that reconciles the two seeming opposite poles of Pratchett’s political philosophy: his cynical distrust of authority and his fundamental humanism. In Sir Terry’s worlds, even absolute Tyranny can be moral, so long as it remains “the only form of democracy that works, with emphasis on the “works,” even if that places it at complete odds with and in deep suspicion of itself. Consider this exchange between Lord Vetinari and Vimes:

“Commander, I always used to consider that you had a definite anti-authoritarian streak in you.”

“Sir?”

“It seems that you have managed to retain this even though you are authority.”

“Sir?”

“That’s practically zen.”

Feet of Clay (1996)

Or course, nobody said that doing good work and improving the world was ever going to be popular, or even respectable, either for a political system or for any individual government:

“Verence II was the most amiable monarch in the history of Lancre. His subjects regarded him with the sort of good-natured contempt that is the fate of all those who work quietly and conscientiously for the public good.” —Lords and Ladies (1992)

But as Pratchett himself said, you can’t make people happy by law.

 

The works of Sir Terry Pratchett are a rich smorgasbord of political systems and philosophies, denouncing the faults of our own societies as seen through the dual lenses of satire and good-natured ribbing. While those who deem themselves to be in power are often the best butts of the great Pratchettian joke, Sir Terry’s fundamentally humanist message is as cutting as it is serious, and remarkably prescient—and it is certainly needed today more than at any other time since the Turtle started moving.

J.R.H. Lawless is a multiple award-winning Canadian SF author who blends comedy with political themes — drawing heavily, in both cases, on his experience as a lawyer and as Secretary General of a Parliamentary group at the French National Assembly. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, his short fiction has been published in many professional venues, including foreign sales. He is also a craft article contributor to the SFWA blog, the SFWA Bulletin, and Tor.com. His first novel, Always Greener, is coming out in Fall 2019 from Uproar Books. He is represented by Marisa Corvisiero at the Corvisiero Literary Agency, and would love to hear from you on Twitter, over at @SpaceLawyerSF!

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