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The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

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"The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant"
Short story by Nick Bostrom
Media typeOnline
Publication date2005

"The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant" is a 2005 fable about ageing and death by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. It relates the misery inflicted by a dragon-tyrant (a personification of the ageing process and death),[1] who demands a tribute of tens of thousands of people's lives per day and the actions of the people, including the king, who come together to fight back, eventually killing the dragon-tyrant.[2]



The fable recounts the tale of a kingdom that lives next to a mountain inhabited by a terrible dragon. The dragon demands a daily sacrifice of thousands of people from the kingdom. Over the years, there are many valiant efforts to defeat the dragon, but none are successful; the dragon's scales are too strong to be pierced. People in the kingdom become accustomed to the dragon's daily appetite as a simple fact of life. A large bureaucracy in the kingdom is dedicated to efficiently meeting the dragon's demands, shipping people to the foot of the mountain by railway every night. This bureaucracy eventually becomes extraordinarily expensive, consuming one-seventh of the kingdom's budget.

One day, a sage proposes that it might be possible to kill the dragon, if a sufficiently advanced material could be developed to pierce the dragon's scales. This proposal is quickly dismissed by the kingdom's intelligentsia as wishful thinking. Many years later, "dragonologists" develop a material that is harder than the dragon's scales, and start advocating for the construction of a weapon to kill the dragon.

Popular support for killing the dragon grows, and eventually the king calls for a meeting that is open to the public. At the meeting, the king's chief advisor for morality argues against killing the dragon, using eloquent rhetoric to make the case that being consumed by the dragon is intrinsically part of what it means to be human, and that the finitude of life is what gives it meaning.

After the eloquent advisor finishes speaking, a young boy shouts out "the dragon is bad!" A sage brings the boy up to the podium, and the boy explains that the dragon devoured his grandmother, who had promised to bake cookies with him on Christmas.

The boy's guileless statement of the simple truth—the dragon is bad because it eats people—galvanizes the public to support the dragon-killing moonshot. The king dedicates vast sums of wealth to the project, and after 12 years, the dragon-killing weapon is ready.

Minutes before the weapon is to be deployed, a young man rushes to the king, begging for the final train to be stopped, because the young man's father is aboard. The king stoically shakes his head, knowing that it would be too risky to alert the dragon that anything is amiss.

The weapon is launched and successfully kills the dragon. A crowd of citizens celebrates the end of the dragon's cruel reign, but the king is overcome with guilt. Seeing the personal tragedy of the young man—who is revealed to be the same boy who cried out at the meeting twelve years earlier—makes the king realize how many lives could have been spared had the kingdom started the dragon-killing project earlier.

The story ends optimistically, with the king remarking to his advisors that, though there are many new challenges that the kingdom will face now that thousands of people are not being devoured by the dragon every day, they have vanquished a great evil.

Allegory and arguments


The story argues that humans for most of history have lacked the tools to fight the monster of ageing and death, but advances in biotechnology put humanity in the same situation as the dragonologists in the story who discover a material harder than dragon scales: the potential to slow and even reverse ageing could be within reach.[3] The fable thus addresses the themes of death acceptance and resignation to fate in the face of ageing and critiques the pro-aging trance.

Like the kingdom in the story, the United States spends approximately one-seventh of its GDP on healthcare. A vast bureaucracy exists to facilitate the process of ageing and death, and to research the various individual diseases caused by ageing, yet very little money is dedicated to the more ambitious and impactful project of ending ageing itself.

The story's chief morality advisor is the allegorical equivalent of a bioethicist, and Bostrom notes that many of the morality advisor's arguments about human dignity, the finitude of life, and death being an intrinsic part of the human experience are "lifted, mostly verbatim" from modern bioethicists arguing against research into life extension and the reversal of ageing. Like in the story, lofty rhetoric is used as a smokescreen to obscure the simple morality of the situation: ageing is bad because it kills people.

Publication history


The story has been published in Philosophy Now,[4] and the Journal of Medical Ethics.[5]

It has been translated into multiple languages, including Chinese, Czech, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian and Spanish.[6]


The YouTuber CGP Grey produced an animated adaptation in 2018;[7] it was highly praised by the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation.[8]


  1. ^ In the 6th note at the bottom of the article, the dragon is used as an analogy for the process of senescence: "the dragon is bad; it destroys people. This is also the truth about human senescence."
  2. ^ Manzocco, Roberto (2019). "Introduction: Gilgamesh Versus the Dragon-Tyrant". Transhumanism - Engineering the Human Condition: History, Philosophy and Current Status. Popular Science. Springer International Publishing. ISBN 978-3-030-04956-0.
  3. ^ Evans, Benjamin Shane (2017). Beyond Transhumanism: The Dangers of Transhumanist Philosophies on Human and Nonhuman Beings (Master of Arts thesis). Iowa State University. doi:10.31274/etd-180810-4928. p. 48.
  4. ^ Bostrom, Nick (2012-06-12). "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant". Philosophy Now. 89: 6–9.
  5. ^ Bostrom, N. (2005-05-01). "The fable of the dragon tyrant". Journal of Medical Ethics. 31 (5): 273–277. doi:10.1136/jme.2004.009035. ISSN 0306-6800. PMC 1734155. PMID 15863685. S2CID 32739628.
  6. ^ Bostrom, Nick. "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant". www.nickbostrom.com. Retrieved 2021-10-14.
  7. ^ Greene, Tristan (2018-04-24). "To hell with aging: Watch this YouTube video about a dragon". TNW. Retrieved 2021-10-14.
  8. ^ Bagalà, Nicola (2018-04-27). "CGP Grey: The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant". Lifespan.io. Retrieved 2021-10-14.