All Things Philosophical on Harry Potter

10 Sep

current film: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I’ve been reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and it is a really charming read. Delightful prose, interesting characters, and a magical world that should guarantee that any Buffyverse fan also become a Harry Potter fan (alas, if only the reverse were true as well!)

So as I’m reading the book and walking down the sidewalk simultaneously, I find myself veering over to the video store to rent the movie. The US version of the movie, of course, with its repeated references to the “Sorcerer’s Stone”, because we are woefully ignorant and have never heard of the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone. After all, if it aint practical, it’s just worthless nonsense. And why do philosopher’s need stones, anyway? They’re up there in their ivory towers sucking up student tuition and the working man’s taxes contributing nothing to the economy.

Anyway, I digress. This is only the third time I’ve seen the movie, and I rented the VHS tape from the corner video store instead of netflix ’cause you can’t video tape the feed from a DVD. Ssssh! Don’t tell anyone. It’s not like I’m going to sell copies or anything. I want it for my private collection.

I’m still digressing. OK, so towards the end of the movie, Harry is confronted by Professor Quirrell/Voldemort, who is looking for the aforementioned stone. He is trying to persuade Harry to help him get it, and he thinks Harry is warming up to doing just that. Pleased, he says,

“There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

This pricks up my ears. Now, I’m only on page 126 of the book, but I sneak ahead to the end and check to see how the scene goes there. Sure enough, these are Rowling’s words as well. Well, words she puts in the mouth of Quirrell/Voldemort.

And it’s interesting. Any Buffyverse fan worth two shakes of philosopher’s salt would recognize that statement. It’s almost word for word what the First Evil says to a trembling, half-crazed souled Spike in “Lessons”:

“It’s not about right. Not about wrong. It’s about power.”

But this isn’t the first time Mutant Enemy has put such words in the mouth of their Big Bads. Jasmine-in-Cordelia or “The Beast’s Master” says the same thing in Season 4 of Angel:

“What does that mean, really? Being good? Doing the right thing? By who’s judgment? Good, evil–they’re just words, Connor. Concepts of morality they forced around your neck to yank you wherever they please. You’re with me now. You don’t have to live by their rules. You remember why?”

Connor: “‘Cause we’re special.”

It was behind Faith’s infamous words in Season 3 of BtVS:

“Want, take, have.”

And her belief that Slayers could do whatever they want by virtue of being stronger than others and saving them from unspeakable demons.

Holland Manners of Wolfram and Hart has a similar philosophy in Season 1 of Angel:

“I’m talking about that sharp, clear sense of self a man gains once he’s truly found his place in the world. It’s no mean feat, since most men are cowards and just move with the crowd. Very few make their own destinies. They have the courage of their convictions, and they know how to behave in a crisis.”

Observing the actions of Wolfram and Hart over the years and the rationalizations they give for them, this is indeed the governing philosophy of the “evil” law firm:

The world is designed for those who know how to use it, those who can control themselves and others. You must find your role in the scheme of things–you are either the user or the used. “Good” and “evil” are mere constructs invented by the losers to feel better about their lot in life. But the weak deserve their lot because they lack of courage to do what they want and take what they want.

One of the reasons Mutant Enemy and Joss provide us with such intelligent shows is because their “evil” characters aren’t running around hurting people for no apparent reason. This is the problem with a lot of books/shows/movies. Trying to figure out the motivations of the bad guy. A lot of two-dimensional bad guys have to be finally just called “megalomaniac evil over-lords” because their actions lack the courage of any convictions.

But this philosophy I’ve been quoting is so compelling as a way of demarcating “bad guys” because it has a certain rational ring to it. Ultimately, this philosophy comes down to self-interest, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to serve your own. Indeed, many would not call this a “philosophy” at all, they’d call it “Reality. That’s just the way things are.”

Who says there’s any “Good” or “Evil”? These are social constructs that every society defines differently, by the way. Look around at nature and at human life, and all you see are plants, animals and people pursuing their self-interest, even these so-called “heroes” who believe in “Good”.

If you want to use such an outlook on life as a way of demarcating the bad guys from the good guys, it becomes a very rational way to tempt the morally upright, law-abiding hero into doing things s/he’s been taught are wrong. Especially if they use “any means necessary” to accomplish ends they think are “good”.

And so Faith tempts Buffy.
Voldemort tempts Harry (you were wondering when I’d get back to Harry Potter, right?)

And the fact that both Rowling and Mutant Enemy have seized on this philosophy as a way of explaining their “bad guys” outlook makes me think their Hero’s struggle is also the struggle of western society at large.

18 Responses to “All Things Philosophical on Harry Potter”

  1. superplin September 10, 2003 at 11:21 am #

    Oh, this is one of my very favorite themes in the Buffyverse, the definition of Good and Evil, and the question of what these concepts actually mean. It’s the same thing Cordelia says to Connor in Inside Out, too:

    Cordelia: What does that mean? Really? Being good, doing the right thing–by whose judgment? Good, evil… they’re just words, Connor. Concepts of morality they forced around your neck to yank you wherever they please. You’re with me now. You don’t have to live by their rules. You remember why?
    Connor: Because we’re special.

    Just in case they hadn’t said “Cordy’s evil” several times throughout the episode, that was the troll hammer making sure we knew. Considering oneself exempt from the rules of society is a sure sign of trouble (see Faith).
    I wrote an essay a few months back about language and communication in S7 of Buffy (that I really need to update), looking at (among other things) how labels were used to include and exclude. It’s an interesting topic, because as you say, Good and Evil really aren’t absolute terms, so in one very real sense they are just labels. I like how you express it, as “the struggle of western society at large”, because these are the kind of questions we all do face every day, and for which each of us has to find a response.

  2. neshaffer September 10, 2003 at 11:42 am #

    Defining good and evil
    One of the important philosophical insights of the 19th-20th century is the “God is dead” “morality is relative” statement.
    What we should not conclude from this, however, is that concepts like “good” and “evil” are worthless. They are still highly functional concepts, helping us weave our way, morally speaking, through choices in every day life. I left out one Buffyverse quote (I did remember Evil!Cordelia’s, if you look back at my essay), and that’s from the undisguised Jasmine in “Peace Out”:
    “No. No, Angel. There are no absolutes. No right and wrong. Haven’t you learned anything working for the Powers? There are only choices. I offered paradise. You chose this!”
    Interestingly, Jasmine took away choice, enforcing a particular defintion of good and evil on the populace. But she’s right. There is no absolute morality written into the fabric of the universe, but that doesn’t mean humans can’t choose to develop concepts of good and evil that sometimes go against their self-interest for the sake of others, and choose to live by them.

  3. superplin September 10, 2003 at 12:10 pm #

    Re: Defining good and evil
    I did remember Evil!Cordelia’s, if you look back at my essay
    Gah–this is why I should not try to run back and forth between the computer and cooking dinner. Sigh. I’m so sorry.
    But, er, it’s significant enough to bear repeating, right? 😉
    Interestingly, Jasmine took away choice, enforcing a particular defintion of good and evil on the populace. But she’s right. There is no absolute morality written into the fabric of the universe
    I adored the Jasmine arc, for this very reason. I remember all the discussion at the time about whether she was good or evil, and was so pleased the way it turned out: she firmly believed herself to be acting for the greater good, although according to the standards of Angel (and presumably, most viewers), her methods were utterly unacceptable.
    Her justification for eating people was interesting, too.
    ::double-checks essay to avoid yet another embarrassing repetition::
    When she compares the number of her “victims” to the number of people who can live in bliss thanks to her presence, she uses a line of reasoning reminiscent of Faith in Consequences (“How many people do you think we’ve saved by now, thousands? And didn’t you stop the world from ending? Because in my book, that puts you and me in the plus column.”), and Spike in Dead Things when he tries to reassure Buffy about Katrina’s death.
    That’s the kind of pragmatic thinking that is very prevalent, and can be a sign that many have forgotten that the concepts of good and evil still have value, or that they really haven’t thought of what they mean. In some cases, I guess it may be a sign that they’ve thought about the issue, and come to a radically different conclusion than I have: it can be spun as not being about self-interest alone, but about preserving the “greater good”, a deceptively altruistic-sounding phrase.
    I sometimes tell people that philosophy is the most practical of subjects, since it wrestles with questions that affect everyone every day, regardless of what they do for a living (unlike, say, calculus). Unfortunately, they tend to look at me oddly when I say that. 😉

  4. dlgood September 10, 2003 at 12:34 pm #

    Re: Defining good and evil
    There is no absolute morality written into the fabric of the universe, but that doesn’t mean humans can’t choose to develop concepts of good and evil that sometimes go against their self-interest for the sake of others, and choose to live by them.
    Enters the Realist…
    But, we’re not necessarily talking about going beyond self-interest. It can be viewed as a redefinition.
    For example, it’s not necessarily in my own self-interest to give my financial resources away, in the form of a higher property tax to finance education. Except, that improving the education of other people in my community is likely to improve the economic standards of my community, and my property value.
    Essentially, because I see my fate bound up in the well-being of my community, community interest becomes self-interest. I’m Jewish. And taking a critical view of Leviticus, I’ve noticed that a lot of what are Commandments designed to tell people how to be “Good” very frequently appear to exist primarily to tie the self to the community, and to better both as the self therefore pursues community goals rather than purely personal ones.
    But the realist still speaks to others in the language of Good or Evil, because a lot of folks aren’t comfortable reducing life to a giant benefit-cost calculation, and they don’t think that way even if we do. That is not to say that “Good” and “Evil” don’t exist. How else would we realists determine how to assign weights to the variables in our calculus?
    Look at Wesley. He’s often a very ruthless and calculating individual, and he’s acted in ways that might be “Evil” taken as absolutes. But is his behavior determined based upon good/evil, or on a caculus of community interest? (As extended from self-interest)

  5. neshaffer September 10, 2003 at 12:34 pm #

    Re: Defining good and evil
    When she compares the number of her “victims” to the number of people who can live in bliss thanks to her presence, she uses a line of reasoning reminiscent of Faith in Consequences (“How many people do you think we’ve saved by now, thousands? And didn’t you stop the world from ending? Because in my book, that puts you and me in the plus column.”), and Spike in Dead Things when he tries to reassure Buffy about Katrina’s death.
    Yes, I saw the similarity between the arguments in those three episodes, too (see here and for a more general discussion, here).
    I’ve given up on trying to convince people of the importance of philosophy, because it’s one of the most transparent necessities of life. Like air, you can’t see it, but it’s everywhere, pervading everything you do. We can’t proceed in life without philosophies of things. And Philosophy is the attempt to think critically about our philosophies instead of just adopting them in a knee-jerk manner.
    For some people, that’s painful. But a spoonful of Mutant Enemy helps the medicine go down.

  6. neshaffer September 10, 2003 at 12:48 pm #

    Re: Defining good and evil
    Look at Wesley. He’s often a very ruthless and calculating individual, and he’s acted in ways that might be “Evil” taken as absolutes. But is his behavior determined based upon good/evil, or on a caculus of community interest? (As extended from self-interest)
    Wesley is an interesting case, because of his ends-justifies-the-means philosophy.
    Back in season 3 of BtVS (when, granted, Wesley was an unpopular dweeb), he angered many fans by insisting that they leave Willow in the clutches of the Mayor in order to keep their hands on the Box of Gavrok and prevent the Mayor’s ascension. In fact, I recall he pissed off Buffy as well, who has consistently taken the philosophy that saving the one life I am concerned with at this moment is more important than any consequences that may come from it.
    Angel had a similar philosophy in “That Vision Thing” when he rescued the evil Billy from the hell dimension in order to save Cordelia from W&H’s brutal visions. He told her her life was more important than anything else, and they’d deal with the consequences when they happened.
    It’s interesting that Mutant Enemy usually finds a way for their heroes to make the non-Utilitarian choice–putting the many at risk to save the one–and beat the consequences (they end up saving the one AND the many despite the odds). They don’t have to deal with the likely consequences of their actions.
    Fans usually see this as the right thing to do, too, hence their villification of Wesley in “Choices”.
    It’s interesting, though, that Wesley is depicted as accepting the consequences of his philosophy. In “Release”, for example, he is in the clutches of Angelus and he tells Faith to shoot her cross-bow, even though it is likely to hit him instead of Angelus. He believes his one life is less important than saving the life of all the people Angelus will go on to kill.

  7. yabyumpan September 10, 2003 at 1:29 pm #

    Re: Wesley
    I wonder how much of his attitude is due to his own self-loathing. I would guess that if you don’t put much value on your own individual life you’re less likely to value the individual lives of others. Simplistic maybe and I do think Wesley is more comlex than that but I think it’s a clue to his character.

  8. dlgood September 10, 2003 at 1:53 pm #

    Re: Defining good and evil
    It’s interesting that Mutant Enemy usually finds a way for their heroes to make the non-Utilitarian choice
    Meta-comment: Utilitarianism requires a certain degree of detachment, and everything I’ve seen from JW seems to indicate that detached rational analysis does not come naturally to him, and nor is it something he seems to be comfortable with – particularly as the series went on. It seemed, Whedon wasn’t content to have heroes be correct – they had to be “right” too.
    But Abraham Lincoln is a great heroic figure, and he was very utilitarian. Through the “Emancipation Proclamation” , Lincoln freed the slaves, but not because it was “right” although it was. It wasn’t about right or wrong – it was about Power. I’m hoping that S5 of Angel will show that the Utilitarian can in fact withstand corruption – that it doesn’t inevitably lead to evil or horrific choices.
    Fans usually see this as the right thing to do, too, hence their vilification of Wesley in “Choices”.
    And the vilification of Machiavellian philosophy in general. My problem with Wesley is not his ruthlessness, but rather his competence. (The primary moral duty, as a Machiavellian, is to strive to be correct.) Is Wesley making sound calculations? Does he have the necessary information upon which to make analysis – is it wise to select an irrevocable choice (let Willow die, abduct Connor) given the amount of uncertainty and high cost of the choice?
    Plus, it’s not like two people can’t offer competing utilitarian arguments based upon differing values of “the good” beyond simply double checking calculations. I always hope to see a scenario where one utilitarian counters another within the terms of their own argument.
    It’s interesting, though, that Wesley is depicted as accepting the consequences of his philosophy.
    Absolutely. It’s something I’ve really liked about Wesley. In Machiavellian tradition, his ethics stem not from a religious or moral structure, but rather from civic virtu. When tested personally, he is consistent in maintaining necessary detachment to be true to his own ethics.
    Generally, the utilitarian goes wrong in one or two ways. Incompetent calcuclation, or failure to maintain detachment. For example, I think Buffy is acting as a utilitarian in terms of what should be done with Angelus in S2. But she’s failing to be consistent because she cannot detach herself enough to do her duty and stake him as she knows is necessary.
    My problem with Jasmine, for example, isn’t that she’s a Utilitarian – it’s with her conception of “the good” that informs her calculus, and with her lack of detachedment. She is unwilling to accept a community good inconsistent with her own personal preferences, and inflicts a violation upon the masses. Further, is the happiness of a general population of autonomous individuals consistent with loss of choice and free will? I’m not entirely certain Angel’s repudiation of Jasmine isn’t fundamentally utilitarian in nature. The calculation isn’t wrong – the underlying assumption used to form the equation is…
    Sometimes, I suspect Wesley is biased in favor of risk; that he chooses the more ‘ruthless’ act to show that he can be ruthless rather than simply based upon the merits of the question.

  9. neshaffer September 10, 2003 at 1:55 pm #

    Re: Wesley
    I think it’s a reflection of his Watcher training. The Watchers were very much “sacrifice-the-one-to-save-the-many” types, the one usually being the Slayer.
    Wesley seemed to take that to heart, although not to the degree some of the other Watchers did, treating Slayers like expendable cannon fodder.
    Giles, of course, reflects Buffy’s philosophy most of the time, or at least defers to it even when he disagrees, and he did disagree with her insistence on rushing into danger to save one individual on more than one occasion. I can recall Buffy’s insistence that she wouldn’t sacrifice Dawn to save the universe as a case of this. Giles kind of looks at her like she’s gone batty, because of course, if the universe is sacrificed, so is Dawn, since she’s part of the Universe. But Buffy is so insistent that this-one-individual Dawn won’t die at her hands that she seems ready to sacrifice the universe for it.
    Of course, Joss/ME find her a last-minute way to save both, as usual. One of these days she won’t be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

  10. dlgood September 10, 2003 at 2:18 pm #

    Re: Wesley
    I don’t think it’s self-loathing, per se. Rather, I think Wesley is biased in favor of choices that favor community good at cost to himself. Why?
    To prove that he’s able to be as ruthless and detached as necessary, and to live up to his own expectations of what a watcher is supposed to be.
    Some of those choices seem to have uneccesarily harsh consequences for Wesley, but I don’t think self-loathing is the motivation. I think he’s trying to prove a point about his own “manliness”.

  11. neshaffer September 10, 2003 at 2:24 pm #

    Re: Wesley
    And it goes deeper than the Watchers, of course. Having something to prove about manliness or ruthless detachment probably goes back to Daddy.
    They’ve always toyed with telling us about Wesley’s childhood. We’ve gotten so many hints. A nice flash-back or a visit from Dad wouldn’t be a bad idea for S. 5.

  12. ponygirl2000 September 10, 2003 at 7:39 pm #

    Doing what others can’t, or won’t
    I was just reading an essay in Slayage 9 that discusses Giles’ actions in The Gift. The author suggests that one of the reasons for his murder of Ben was to protect Buffy’s heroic status – “she’s not like us.” Giles is allowing Buffy to escape the consequences of her moral position. This idea of quietly doing the dirty work that others can’t bear to know about seems to be something that Giles and Wes share. The trouble is that eventually they both seem to take pride in it – it becomes paternalistic rather than purely utilitarian.

  13. neshaffer September 10, 2003 at 8:21 pm #

    Paternalism
    is a form of patronization. “Saving” Buffy from the dirty work that comes with her job sounds noble, but one day they won’t be there do it, and Buffy won’t have the “stuff” to do it, either, because her mentors never required it of her. Her training never included that lesson.
    In the end, it hurts the hero’s standing as hero more than it helps it.

  14. ponygirl2000 September 10, 2003 at 8:55 pm #

    Exactly
    And once again it becomes about power rather than right or wrong. It diminishes the other person because it undercuts their ability to make choices, their capacity for judgment is dismissed.
    It’s interesting to see Giles go from the debatable but justifiable murder of Ben to the far far murkier plot against Spike in LMPTM. Since the earlier episode is referenced, I think we’re meant to see the seeds of Giles’ corruption in Ben’s death.

  15. neshaffer September 10, 2003 at 9:42 pm #

    But the story is cut off in mid-stream
    If there was supposed to be a story of Giles’ corruption, starting perhaps before Ben, but going through Ben, leading to his actions with Spike, it seems there should be more of the story. Consequences to Giles for his choices, or perhaps a chance to do better, or something.
    But nothing happens in the story like that. And now it seems, unless Giles comes over to Angel, that nothing like that ever will.

  16. ponygirl2000 September 11, 2003 at 7:52 am #

    That’s why it’s on the list…
    of 357 reasons why s7 still makes me all cranky. Grr.

  17. neshaffer September 11, 2003 at 8:55 am #

    Which takes us back to the usual theory
    That Giles’ actions in season 7 were written to serve the plot, not the character, which of course, after 7 years of BtVS is not entirely respectful of this well-loved character.

  18. ponygirl2000 September 11, 2003 at 9:30 am #

    true dat!
    All we really needed were a couple scenes to take us inside Giles’ head and plot and character would have aligned. Really LMPTM should have been more about Giles than Spike, and Wood should have simply served to illuminate both their characters rather than having a story of his own.
    Regrets, I’ve had a few…

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