Harry Potter, Courage and Liberty

It is my pleasure to congratulate our friend Russell Arben Fox whose review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was so excellent that Ross Douthat picked it up on the Atlantic Monthly.

Russell’s review is multifaceted. I will take issue with his observation that the Harry Potter series was a children’s story after all.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are about heroics but the heroes are not superhuman. Liberty has always had a difficult relationship to the virtue of courage. It is neither an accident that the Scottish enlightenment emphasized the ethical superiority of self-interest over self-denial nor that the First Republic was overthrown by its premier soldier. Courage and heroics do not mesh well with equality and liberty.

However, it remains true that courage is indispensable. One cannot run the fire department, a hospital, or the armed forces primarily on self-interest. And the Latins were right when they supposedly quipped that courage was not the only virtue but without courage all other virtues would be irrelevant.

Emphasizing mortal and fallible heroes, Rowland’s message is deeply committed to democracy. Unlike the Founding Fathers, who appreciated the limitations of human nature but housed our government in Greek temples, Rowland applies her message about human potential and limitation consistently.

Harry cannot do it without his friends and has to rely on the memory of his parents, god parents, and mentors. Dumbledore is susceptible to the corrupting effects of power. Neville could have substituted for Harry. The greatest jerk in the tale, Severus Snape, turns out to be the most courageous character in the book.

Rowlings’ pathos eschews the romantic temptation of hero worship. In the process, she also dispatches the various Nitzschean approaches to heroism that continue to plague us in various posty versions.

Unlike the philosophers Joseph Ratzinger and Gertrude Himmelfarb who fear that liberal states and multiculturalism cannot inspire its members to defend their state, J.K. Rowling has learned the lessons of the twentieth century without having to resort to stale traditionalism. The logic of self-defense are sufficient to bring about collaboration among different groups that respect each other.

Furthermore, Rowling uses the voice of Dumbledore to reject Robert Michels‘ Führer solution to the inevitable corruption of democracy.

The American variant of Michels’ skepticism about democracy is by the way best expressed by a couple of Jimmy Stewart movies: Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Entire cities and nations would be lost if it were not for one man motivated by naiveté and ignorance and who could not prevail except for the implausible emergence of a conscience in his nemesis.

Rowlings has no use for moral exaggerations. She embraces imperfect characters. That has to be an implication of her message that love will prevail for love requires no effort when our companions are perfect. It is imperfection that requires loves.

Instead of staging superhuman or super-stupid leaders, Rowling acknowledges that we shall have to rely on our own efforts, which are not only imperfect but more likely than not tainted. The final battle is only won when the community confronts evil.

Rowlings’ prescription of heroism tempers the arrogance and idolatry that often accompanies courage by shining a bright light on the self. If there has been a problem with western civilization, it is the propensity of the bourgeois mindset to indulge into self-righteousness and hypocrisy.

In that context, J.K. Rowling’s message is the perfect medicine, perfectly communicated to children and their parents as we struggle to sustain our democracy in a world where liberty and democracy remain as fragile as ever.

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