Based on an idea from notasquib in the CoS Forums
The Four Elements
According to certain ancient Greeks (notably Empedocles), the universe was composed of four elements: earth, water, wind and fire. I heard a story somewhere about students laughing at the primitive silliness of this belief when first they heard about it, to which their teacher responded: Of course, we now know instead that everything in the universe is either solid, liquid, gas or energy, which shut the class up pretty quickly.
Of course, the term element, as used in modern chemistry, has a specific technical meaning. Here, I will be using the term with its original meaning: an element is a fundamental constituent part, and there are, according to this scheme, four elements.
J.K. Rowling has said in interviews that the four houses of Hogwarts correspond to the four elements: Hufflepuff, earth; Slytherin, water; Ravenclaw, wind; and Gryffindor, fire. Obviously, Slytherin would be a diametric opposite to Gryffindor, in the peculiar way that water and fire are. By splitting Hogwarts into these four houses, into one of which any student can be assigned, the implication is that the scheme is complete: everyone can be classified according to this scheme.
This idea, in the form she has given it, has enormous psychological appeal, because each of the houses also has one or more leading characteristics that must in some way correspond to the fundamental elements of character. (I wonder how many Harry Potter readers have asked themselves in which house they think they themselves belong. I would guess it to be a very high percentage of readers.) Schematically, we therefore have:
|Hufflepuff||Earth||Patience, Loyalty, Hard Work|
One may, I suppose, attempt to classify humans by some other set of characteristics; the notable thing about this list is that the classification scheme is one that uses peoples primary virtues or strengths. I offer another schematic, where the primary characteristic is removed, and the circumstances under which each house is most likely to shine is given:
|House||Element||Responds Best To|
One can see, by this scheme, how it is that the elements relate to the houses. Rowling underscores this, of course, by where the various houses are lodged: Hufflepuffs, underground; Slytherins, under the lake; Ravenclaws in one tower; and Gryffindors in another.
The Universal Man
Albus Dumbledore, the greatest headmaster Hogwarts ever had, was a Gryffindor in his student days. Nevertheless, he displayed the characteristics of each of the houses. I here quote the post that was the genesis of this editorial:
Dumbledore possesses notable qualities that the four Founders sought in their respective students. He worked hard as does a good Hufflepuff, he certainly has a Slytherin’s ambition (as one who has achieved all of those titles), he is courageous like a Gryffindor when making unpopular decisions and when fighting the bad guys, and he also is supremely intelligent like a Ravenclaw. When viewing Dumbledore’s leadership qualities, perhaps the Sorting Hat is correct: division is not the best answer. Balance is key. None of these qualities run away with him, and therefore he is an excellent leader.
It can easily be seen that any person who is missing any of the primary characteristics of any of the Hogwarts houses would be a warped and dysfunctional individual. The people who best harmonize all of these characteristics are the most successful in whatever they may turn their attention to. Dumbledore has been the most perfectly integrated personality of all those we encounter in the books in this sense. We do, however, have another example in the books to examine: a character, supremely intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, and brave, but whose coordination of these virtues has been the mirror image of Dumbledores. I am talking about Voldemort.
Virtues, Vices and Venality
Earlier, I referred to the characteristics that the Sorting Hat uses as leading virtues of the people making up the various houses. Here we reach a fundamental ethical idea that the Harry Potter novels espouse: possession of virtues such as intellect, hard work, ambition and bravery do not make a person good. It is the decisions we make concerning our character strengths that decide whether we shall be good or evil.
(I think a mistake can easily be made that assumes that all ambition is evil, and that all courage is good. Many of Voldemorts followers display a great deal of courage, yet their behavior is evil. Hermione Granger is an extremely ambitious character, but her ambitions are for noble things, so her behavior is not evil. I make this point here because some people, being overly simplistic I think, assume that all Slytherins are bad or all Gryffindors are good. Remember Slughorn.)
There is, I believe, only one way of bringing the various elements into working harmony within a given personality, and that is love. Voldemort, of course, loves only himself. Dumbledore (and Harry) represent the polar opposite: the coordinating force in their personalities is a love that is outwardly directed to others.
Harry, as you may recall, was told by the Sorting Hat in his first year that he had characteristics of all (okay, most) of the houses.
“Hmm,” said a small voice in his ear. “Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There’s talent, oh my goodness, yes — and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that’s interesting….So where shall I put you?”
-SS, pg. 121 (American hardback)
In leading the fight that is yet to come, Harry will not only need to lead, he will need to have all of his own faculties at full strength. The motivating power of love will hold him together. Since Harry knows love in its fullest sense, he has powers and alternatives that Voldemort does not, because he knows not only the love of countless others, but the power of self-sacrificing love in his own life.