Thursday, December 02, 2004

Harry Potter and Philosophy - If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts


Open Court has a series of books exploring how popular fiction illustrates and is illuminated by philosophy. In Harry Potter and Philosophy, editors David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein have opened the doors of Hogwarts to Aristotelian (and other) thought. The result is an accessible, easily-approachable, even delightful, discussion of some important philosophical concepts.

The book (like Hogwarts) is divided into four houses. Gryffindor covers the characters of Harry's world with essays about courage and self-deception, friendship and feminism. Hufflepuff examines morality in Rowling's universe: heaven and hell, the ethics of technology (whether magical or scientific), social justice and the danger posed by the Mirror of Erised. Slytherin asks whether ambition is a virtue and takes a look at the nature and effects of evil (magical and Muggle). Finally, Ravenclaw ventures into metaphysical issues like parallel realities (Platform 93/4), space/time, personal identity, and (my favorite) what foreknowledge implies about freedom of will.

The value of the Open Court books comes in their connection to concepts and characters already in the public consciousness. We can use Voldemort, Malfoy and Dursely as examples of evil without long examination of their qualities; we are already familiar with them. So for example, the arguments of St. Augustine and Boethius that evil is parasitic on goodness and prevents happiness can be succinctly illustrated by Draco Malfoy: "...[who] consistently taunts and bullies Harry, Hermoine and Ron. Boethius would argue that these actions prevent Draco from achieving happiness. In this way, Draco not only injures his classmates, he also injures himself by acting in such a way as to impede his own happiness."

(In Boethius' own words: "Since goodness alone can raise a person above the rank of human, it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition...")

Other Open Court books have used Seinfeld, The Simpsons, the Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Lord of the Rings, baseball, The Sopranos, Woody Allen, and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as launch points for popular philosophy. Robbie Fischer has a well-prepared review of the book on MuggleNet. And Patricia Paddey echoes Canadian philosophy professor and contributor Jennifer Hart Weed on why Christian parents should not fear to let their children read Harry Potter. (Weed wrote the essay citing St. Augustine and Boethius cited above.)


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