Review 214: Harry Potter and Philosophy

LL 214 - Harry Potter and PhilosophyHarry Potter and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham

When a co-worker of mine noticed the title of this book, his response was distinct and dismissive, something along the lines of, “Huh. I don’t think she went in putting anything philosophical in those books.” The air of disdain was palpable, and while I didn’t have a chance to continue the conversation, I got the distinct feeling that he was not one of J.K. Rowling’s biggest fans.

However, he may have had a point, one which mildly threatens this whole series of popular culture and philosophy books that I enjoy so much: how much of what these pop culture philosophers talk about is really there in the text, and how much are they just spinning from thin air? When Rowling wrote these books, was she consciously thinking of Aristotle and Plato, of the reasons why Harry Potter’s decision to embrace death was so similar to that of Socrates? Was she asking herself questions about the difference between the Greater Good and the Common Good, about whether her writing was more aligned to radical feminism or liberal feminism or feminism at all? Did she set out to create a world where the concept of a soul made sense, to determine the true nature of love, or to decide what makes for a great leader?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid's beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid’s beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

Probably not. Like many writers who are not philosophers, Rowling probably just set out to write a rollicking good tale. That tale, however, is necessarily supported by some of the most important issues in western philosophy, so whether she wanted to address them or not, they showed up in her work.

One interesting question that was raised in this book – and there are plenty – is the question of identity and agency. By looking at Sirius Black as a case study, Eric Saidel explores what it is that makes us who we are – is it that thing we call a “mind,” or is it something else? Sirius black is a man, who sometimes looks like a dog, and when he’s a dog he sometimes acts like a man. When he’s not doing that, he’s acting like a dog. Is there any reason why this should be so, why a man should be a man sometimes and a dog others? Who – or what – is making those distinctions for him? It seems like a trivial question, one that can probably be chalked up to Rowling’s dire need for an editor as the series went along, but for Saidel it poses an interesting thought experiment. Is there an “essential Sirius Black”, regardless of the shape he’s in, and what influence does that shape have on him?

And as long as we’re talking about matters ephemeral, what of love? Throughout the series, Harry is told that his mother’s love is what protected him from death at the hands of Voldemort. Indeed, the love that Harry feels for his friends is actually a potent protection against the Dark Lord’s evil. What is it about love that makes it so powerful, and what has Voldy done to himself that makes it so dangerous to him? Catherine Jack Deavel and David Paul Deavel explore the topic of love and its mysteries by looking at three characters that are far more similar than they might appear – Voldemort, Harry, and Snape. Three “lost boys” who grew up very differently and whose lives were drastically shaped by love in one way or another.

Really, I can't imagine how no one took her seriously...

Really, I can’t imagine how no one took her seriously…

Moving on to matters that are bigger than the human heart, Jeremy Pierce explores issues of destiny and prophecy in his chapter, “Destiny in the Wizarding World.” We all know that prophecies exist in the world of Harry Potter, rare though they may be, but what does it actually mean for an event to be prophesied? The slightly batty Professor Trelawney has had only two accurate foretellings in her otherwise fraudulent career – the first being the one that put Voldemort on the trail of Harry, and the other about Voldemort’s return. But how do we judge a prophecy for its accuracy, especially once we’ve heard it? Is there any way to stop it, or does the very nature of causality mean that hearing the prophecy necessarily forces it to happen? Pierce goes back to Aristotle on this one, and tries to untangle all the different ways that a brief glimpse at the future could be revealed without ruining everything.

There’s something for the political types as well. Andrew Mills looks at the issue of patriotism – what is it, and is it actually a good thing? How is the loyalty of a Hogwarts student to her House morally different from the loyalty of a Death Eater to their Dark Lord? Is patriotism morally acceptable in any way, and if so, how? And what about Dumbledore? His “hands-off” approach to dealing with the school has caused some people to hold him up as a model of Libertarian governance. He doesn’t meddle in others’ affairs, allows Harry and his friends all the freedom they need, and generally tries to govern as little as possible. But is he really a Libertarian? Beth Admiraal and Regan Lance try to figure that out. And what makes him worthy of the power and influence he has, anyway? Is this the sort of man who should be a leader? David Lay Williams and Alan J. Kellner hark back to the story of the Ring of Gyges and Plato’s assertion that the one best suited to lead is the one who wants it least.

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Things even get a little meta-fictional, too, if you like that kind of thing. In 2007, after the series was finished and in the hands of the fans, Rowling announced that she’d always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Some fans loved the idea, and others utterly hated it. But there were some fans who refused to grant her the right to make that declaration ex libris. As she hadn’t put it in the books, the argument goes, it’s not really true. So, Tamar Szabo Gendler undertakes the very challenging task of trying to figure out how we can determine what is “true” in a work of fiction.

Rowling probably didn’t write this series with the intention of scoring philosophical points, but the fact that these philosophers can do it is a testament to the care and thought she did put into her writing. She not only took from hundreds of years of fantasy literature, but also drew on some of the most fundamental aspects of being human – the need for love, the desire for power, the fear of death – and made them the centerpieces of her books. And, as luck would have it, those are just the kinds of things that philosophers love to talk about.

So, if you’re a fan of the books and a fan of philosophy, give this one a read. Then go back and read the books again, and see what else you can get from them.

——-

“Doing what we want to do may be necessary for freedom, but it’s not sufficient; we must also have the freedom to do otherwise.”
– Gregory Bassham, “Love Potion No. 9 3/4″

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Filed under fantasy, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, philosophy

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