Monday, September 28, 2009

The Wisdom of Harry Potter

The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Fvorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices
© 2003 Edmund M. Kern
296 pages including notes and index.

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Although I'm interested in the transmission of philosophy through literature or similar means, I'm still amused when I see books on the philosophy of Star Trek or Star Wars. When something is so popular as entertainment, it takes a moment to adjust to the idea of it being taken as ideas about life that we can learn from. The same is true of Harry Potter. This book was written in 2001 and published immediately following the release of The Order of the Phoenix. In it, author Edmund Kern elaborates on the idea that Harry Potter is an example of Stoic virtue. My interest was doubly piqued.

This is not the first I've heard of such an idea. I encountered an article at a Stoic website I've since forgotten musing that Harry is an example of a hero who puts Stoic ideals to heart. It may have been Kern's own "Harry Potter: Stoic Boy Wonder", which you can read here. The ideal Stoic believes that there are some things we can control and some things we cannot, and that to concern ourselves with the unchangeable is irrational, futile, and potentially mentally harmful. He also believes that Virtue is the only good, and that virtuous behavior is that which is in line with the laws of Nature -- among them, to live wisely, mindful of the aforementioned division between things, and to practice a cosmopolitan spirit -- concern for all human beings. Kern sees Harry Potter as trying to live up to those standards: accepting what must be, but working within that to make things better for all.

Although the Stoic Harry theme is quite strong, it is not always present. The book begins with synopsis of the first four books, followed by Kern's commentary on the themes present in them. In The Chamber of Secrets, for instance, the central theme is the individual's power over his own choices, and thus his identity. Potter readers may remember Harry's self-doubt before Dumbledore: in light of the fact that he shares so many of Voldemort's traits, and that the Sorting Hat was tempted to put him into Slytherin, Harry fears that it is there he belongs. Dumbledore gently points out, however, that Harry chose Gryffindor, just as he choses to do good when it is not easy -- just as he chooses to love and fight when neither are particularly safe. Just past the book's midpoint, Kern also takes a chapter or two to address Rowling's critics on the series' political and religious stances (or lack therof, in Kern's view) and then examines the series as literature in multigenres before returning to the Stoic theme. The book ends with an afterword written in 2003 just days after Order of the Phoenix was released and the author read it. (He read 800+ pages in just a couple of days.)

This was an interesting read. I never found Kern objectionable, although the intersection of Stoicism and Potter wasn't as riveting as I would have otherwise expected. Still, it's recommended reading for Potter fans or for those simply interested in the series' moral tone.

3 comments:

  1. I like the pop culture and philosophy books - they're a gentle way into philosophical ideas that might otherwise be off-putting.

    I've never really thought of HP as a stoic though... [muses]

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  2. Perhaps it's a matter of degrees -- how many teenagers could endure what Harry endures with the same relative "grace"?

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  3. I guess that I'm a little biased as I never liked the books or the films.

    I can sort of see what you mean though...

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