The Soul in Popular Fiction: Harry Potter Part 2

Sorry, sorry, sorry that I’ve been MIA. I just moved and my new place doesn’t have internet yet (I’m on my lunch break at work right now). I should be getting internet pretty soon, but until then….

This is the third chunk of my senior thesis. If you have not already read parts 1 and 2, I would recommend reading them first (especially HP part 1. This won’t make sense unless you’ve read the first part). You can find them under “Thesis” on the side bar Window Pane (—–>). Each section of my thesis focuses on a different story and has essentially two parts: an examination of how the soul is portrayed, and an examination of the implications of that portrayal. The following is the second half of my discussion on Harry Potter. Let me know what you think.

The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: Harry Potter Part 2

If evil actions are damaging to the soul, and the more immoral the action, the more damage it inflicts, then here we might run into a bit of a circular definition. If it is evil that damages the soul, the logical question is then “what constitutes evil?” to which the answer is that an action is evil to the extent that it damages the soul. This is only to say that evil is evil and the soul is damaged by what damages it, which is true, but not particularly helpful. This circular definition is only problematic, however, if “evil” is something external to oneself such as a broken rule or principle, or a being, such as the devil, in which case soul damage would be a repercussion of an evil deed. If however an evil action is simply “that which damages the soul,” then our definition is workable. Soul damage is not a consequence of evil, but soul damage is the measure by which we determine what is evil.[1]

Thus, Rowling seems to be employing an extreme version of virtue ethics, where actions are defined as good or evil based on what they do to us, rather than what is done. The fact that Rowling does this via the soul, however, puts a slightly different spin on the traditional conception of virtue ethics: what matters is not the state of our virtue, but the state of our humanity. These are related concepts, especially in the light of Thomas Aquinas, who maintained that “‘[g]ood’ in the context of human choice means the development or ‘perfecting’ of human nature, the actualization of man’s potentialities as a human person, or that the possession of which actualizes these potentialities and perfects man’s nature.”[2] In other words, virtue is to be sought not for its own sake, but because acquiring virtues makes us more fully human. This ethical framework explains why Rowling is so lenient towards actions which would, under a different ethical system, seem immoral, such as breaking school rules. Rowling is not glorifying these qualities of disregarding rules or these actions; she is simply placing more value on who Harry grows to be than on what principles he does or does not adhere to. This framework also means that in Harry Potter’s world the absolute worst thing a person can do is destroy someone’s nature- either their own or someone else’s.

The importance of personal character in Harry Potter’s world is reflected in the very nature of magic itself. No two wizards ever produce identical results when casting a spell, even if they say the same words and perform the same actions, because the magic depends more on the personality and emotional state of the wizard than on the ritual. For example, Harry is very good at casting the Patronus charm and at resisting the Imperious curse not because he says the incantations better than others or because he has developed some kind of skill, but because he is stubborn and hates the idea of his thoughts being manipulated. It is (perhaps ironically) this very quality that makes him a poor Occlumens.[3] The process of learning and performing magic seems to have as much to do with character development and self-control as it does with technique and rules. The importance of who we are over what we do, as demonstrated in the connection between evil and the soul, is woven into the very fabric of Harry Potter’s reality.[4]

If dehumanization is the ultimate evil for humans, then morality extends beyond individual actions produced by character and into issues of social justice. Prejudice and discrimination are wrong under this framework because they are ways by which we treat others as if they were not fully human, and thus we fail to acknowledge the preciousness of their souls. This idea is prevalent in Harry Potter as the central ideological conflict is between those who value all human life and those who think that people’s worth is determined by the strength of their magical heritage, all of which occurs in a culture built upon the discrimination against non-human magical creatures. Rowling has said that her books are a “prolonged argument for tolerance,” and while there is some debate as to how successful she has been in making her case, the argument is certainly in place.[5] There are many examples of such pleas for acceptance, such as the criticisms in the books of the discrimination against giants, goblins, werewolves, and Muggle-borns, but the case of the house-elves is perhaps the most paradigmatic and interesting, and so I will focus on it.

House-elves are the most dehumanized (perhaps the better term would be de-beingized, as they were never human) creatures in the magical world because they have not only been denied the rights that all magical “beings” ought to have (the ability to help to create the laws of the magical community[6]), they have also been denied the capability to use their own natural abilities without a human’s permission. They have been enslaved and targeted for so long that the very thought of being freed (significantly signified by the ability to wear human clothing[7]) is terrifying to them. And yet, the devaluing of house-elves has proved to be the downfall of more than one human: Lucius and Voldemort are both tricked and undermined by house-elves at crucial points precisely because they did not think the elves mattered enough to merit attention.[8] Perhaps more importantly, Sirius’ mistreatment and devaluing of his elf Kreacher and Harry’s underestimation of the elf’s intelligence lead directly to Sirius’ death: as Dumbledroe comments, “I warned Sirius… that Kreacher must be treated with kindness and respect. I also told Sirius that Kreacher could be dangerous to us. I do not think that Sirius took me very seriously, or that he ever saw Kreacher as a being with feelings as acute as a human’s.”[9] In contrast, as soon as Harry is able to stop thinking of house-elves as funny, bat-eared creatures who wear towels− after he is able to acknowledge the value of their souls− a truly fruitful relationship begins to develop with the elves Kreacher and Dobby. Even though Harry has been continually shown and lectured on the power that love has to defeat evil, it is his love for Dobby that first truly convinces him of this, causing him to make what is perhaps the most morally significant choice of his life: the decision to trust Dumbledore and not pursue the Deathly Hallows.[10] House-elves are only one example of discrimination in the wizarding world, but the principles gleaned from their example also apply to giants, werewolves, centaurs, goblins, Muggle-borns, and all other ostracized groups. “De-beingization” is harmful to both the victim and the victimizer, which is in keeping with the idea that whatever diminishes a creature’s inherent nature is morally wrong. However, the reverse is also true: respecting the creatures in their own right can help restore the oppressed as well as the oppressor.

It is important to note here that because the central issue regarding the house-elves is portrayed as a disrespect for their inherent worth as opposed to slavery, the solution to solving this issue is not a simple matter of freeing the slaves. This is demonstrated through Hermione’s pet project: the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare, which seeks to dismantle the whole structure of elf slavery in one fell swoop (more or less).[11] She has noble intentions in creating this project, but it is an utter disaster largely because Hermione is missing the point: slavery is not the only problem; devaluing the elves’ worth is the underlying problem. The elves do not want to be freed because they have been completely convinced by humans of their subservient position, and thus to force freedom upon them is to further disrespect them by failing to recognize their free will. The solution proposed in the books for this problem comes in the form of Dumbledore’s treatment of the Hogwarts house-elves. Dumbledore treats the elves with respect, giving them the option of payment and vacations, but never forcing these upon them.[12] This is not, of course, the ideal. Dumbledore is still using slave labor and not making giant strides towards social justice for the elves, but he is recognizing that the social justice concerns are secondary to the problems of devaluation. One might argue that Dumbledore should free all his elves and let the devaluation issue sort itself out over time by the elves slowly gaining self-worth and eventually the respect of wizards. This might be a workable solution, but to do so would be an inversion of the values of Rowling’s universe in which the most important thing is not the social structure, but the value of a being.[13]

Several characters (most notably Ron and Hagrid) make the argument that it is in the elves’ natures to be servants: they are inherently slaves. If this were indeed the case, then elf slavery would, according to the standards of the story, be morally right because it would respect the nature of the elves; freeing them would not only be insulting, it would also be morally wrong. However, despite the general tendency for house-elves to enthusiastically serve, the fact that both Dobby and Kreacher manage to turn against their masters suggests that elf servitude, which contains the element of loyalty, is not inherent in elves. One could simply dismiss Dobby as a rebellious, unnatural elf, but the same cannot be said about Kreacher, who turns against his master while still operating within the constraints set against house-elves. Kreacher is a “good” elf in that he obeys the letter of his master’s orders, but he betrays Sirius in part over resentment to being treated like he is worthless: to being treated like a house-elf.[14] If even an elf like Kreacher who values his status as a good servant can show resistance to the consequences of servitude, it would suggest that it is not actually in the nature of elves to be slaves. Rather, the elves have been lied to for so long about their inherent worth that they have come to believe the lie themselves. Thus, although the individual wishes of elves and other creatures should be respected, those wishes may or may not be in line with their natures or their potential, and the creatures may actually not understand what their nature is. In Harry Potter’s world, treating others morally involves valuing their inherent natures, which includes their free will, but unfortunately, a being’s free will may actually choose against what is best for their nature. One ought not disregard free will for the sake of nature, but if free will and nature come into conflict, nature should take precedence, as demonstrated in the case of Dumbledore’s ultimate goal of giving elves their freedom, while still attempting to respect their desire for slavery.

What then happens when a creature has no soul? The only creature in the Harry Potter books which fits this description is the dementor: a soulless, soul-sucking monster that drains the air around it of warmth and happiness.[15] Despite the fact that these creatures seem to have intelligence and the ability to make choices, they seem incapable of being anything but evil. In the same breath that Dumbledore reaches out to giants, generally considered by the wizarding community to be inherently evil creatures, he condemns the very thought of cooperation with dementors. He seems to be of the opinion that the evil of giants is part urban myth and part social circumstance, and thus that they are capable of being forces of good. But in contrast the dementors are seen as irredeemable.[16] This makes sense if the ultimate good is a healthy soul, for not only do dementors have no such goodness inside of them, but they actively destroy it in others. They way in which they do this, however, is very telling. Dementors feed off of happy thoughts, which leaves those around them with nothing but their worst memories. According to Professor Lupin, this despair is enough to destroy a soul: “If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil.”[17] This is curious, according to our previous model, because the victims of a dementor seem to be doing nothing immoral: they are simply living in fear and despair, so why should their souls be damaged? The answer is, again, the idea of dehumanization. To live in continual despair is to fail to exercise one’s potential as a human being capable of free will, practical reason, emotion, and imagination, and therefore to allow oneself to be less than fully human. Thus their damaged souls are not necessarily a result of wrongdoing on their part, but the damage is a result of a wrong: that of stunting human potential. “Natov argues… that by linking Harry’s desire to see his parents in the mirror [which reflects the heart’s deepest desire, potentially promoting insanity], and the effect that the boggart-dementor has on Harry, reproducing his mother’s last moments of life, Rowling ‘connects despair with madness and suggests that it is the loss of hope that makes us demented, that promotes criminality and destroys the heart.’”[18]

If extreme fear has the power to destroy souls, this would explain the emphasis in the books upon the virtue of courage. All Hogwarts students are sorted into school houses upon entering the school, each house representing a virtue: Slytherins are ambitious,[19] Hufflepuffs are diligent, Ravenclaws are wise, and Gryffindors are courageous.[20] Despite the fact that all four houses are defined by a virtue, nearly every character portrayed as virtuous is, or was at one time, a member of Gryffindor House (there are notable exceptions such as Tonks, Snape, and Luna, and there are Gryffindors who have supported Voldemort, such as Pettigrew, but the general tendency still stands). This may simply be because Harry is a Gryffindor, and thus his interactions are mainly with other Gryffindors, but one is hard-pressed to name a Ravenclaw in the Order of the Phoenix (the organization formed to fight Voldemort). The reason for this imbalance is not that courage is a ‘better’ virtue than wisdom or diligence, but rather that no virtue can withstand testing without courage. The significance of courage again is an echo of Aquinas who “maintained that the steadfastness of courage is required for the exercise of any of the virtues when they are threatened.”[21] Harry never “saves the day” because he is nervy, but the faith, prudence, sense of justice, perseverance, and love that do save the day would never have been put into effect if he were not also brave. The virtue of courage is placed in the forefront of the Harry Potter books because it allows for the fullest expression of virtues, and thus the fullest expression of humanity.[22]

The entire moral structure of Harry Potter’s universe is informed by its conception of the soul. Because the soul is eternal, it is the most valuable good to protect, and because it is affected by one’s actions, one should orient one’s actions so as to preserve or restore one’s soul and the souls of others. Since the soul is the fullest expression of who humans are at their core, the highest value is placed on one’s essential humanness; the highest condemnation upon dehumanization, both of ourselves through evil actions, and of others through devaluing them. The best way to maintain the soul is through the exercise of virtues, particularly the virtue of courage.


[1] Although Rowling maintains a Thomistic line of thought, especially in regards to nature, her definition  of evil is very different than Aquinas’, who believed that the soul and the human  nature could not be damaged.

[2] Copleston, Aquinas, 192.

[3] Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban , 246; Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 232; Rowling, Order of the Phoenix), 536.

[4] It is important to note here that this does not mean that in Harry Potter’s world what we do is not important. Rather, it means that what we do and choose is important insofar as it shapes who we are. For example, in Chamber of Secrets Harry worries that his core nature is that of a Slytherin, and he has plenty of support for this theory, but Dumbledore reassures him that because he chose to reject Slytherin House over Gryffindor House he truly is a Gryffindor: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 333.). Harry has many Slytherin qualities, but by choosing Gryffindor he became a Gryffindor, and it is that status of being that truly matters.

[5] J.K. Rowling at Carnegie Hall, Oct. 19, 2007. Available from http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2007/10/20/j-k-rowling-at-carnegie-hall-reveals-dumbledore-is-gay-neville-marries-hannah-abbott-and-scores-more.

[6] J.K. Rowling, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2001) xii. I am using the word “being” here in its technical sense within the story as defined by the Ministry of Magic.

[7] Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 177.

[8] Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 335-338; Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 195.

[9] Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 832.

[10] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 563.

[11] Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 224-225.

[12] Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 377-379.

[13] This paragraph has been heavily influenced by Travis Prinzi, Harry Potter and Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds (Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009), ch. 12.

[14] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 198.

[15] Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 187.

[16] Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 707-708.

[17] Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 187.

[18] Prinzi, Harry Potter and Imagination, 78 quoting Roni Natov, “Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary.” The Lion and the Unicorn 25.2 (2001) 320.

[19] Ambition is not a classical virtue in the way that the others listed are, and this may be why Slytherin has the reputation for being the most morally suspect House. For an argument as to why ambition may have made the list see “Is Ambition a Virtue? Why Slytherin Belongs at Hogwarts” by Steven W. Patterson in Harry Potter and Philosophy, p. 121-131.

[20] J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1997), 118.

[21] Steven J. Pope, “Overview of the Ethics of Thomas Aquinas” in The ethics of Aquinas, edited by Stephen J. Pope, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press: 2002), 43.

[22] Of course, Aquinas would argue that although all virtues may depend on courage, courage also depends upon the other virtues. The virtues are all interdependent—no one virtue can be fully expressed without the others being present. Although in Harry Potter courage is given precedence, the idea of virtues being interdependent is expressed in the House system: the school is strongest when the Houses are united, or when all the virtues are working in tandem.

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~ by ntertanedangel on August 23, 2010.

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