The Trio and the Three-Part Soul
According to modern scientists, the human brain is structured with a vegetative core that controls things like our desire for food, our hearts beating, our kidneys functioning, etc; an animal layer on top of that, which contains emotions and passions like love, hate, fear, sense of honor, etc; and a human layer on top, that contains the thinking and reasoning faculties. This is very similar to the ancient theory of the tripartite (three-part) soul as given by Plato: the soul contains separate generative, animal, and rational parts, with the rational being the most distinctively human. In The Republic, Plato uses his model of the soul as being optimally perfect when each element is given its proper sphere. He, as a philosopher, wants the rational portion to guide the other two. But other thinkers have come out in favor of the emotional level (as in Kant or Rousseau) or the level of basic instincts and domination (as in Nietzsche).
There has been a general agreement for many thousands of years that the human psyche contains an inherent struggle between instincts, emotions and reason. It is part of the basic psychological drama that makes up all of our lives. And J. K. Rowling has placed this fundamental clash between the basic parts of the human soul in brilliant relief by making each of the three major Harry Potter protagonists a torch bearer for the parts of the human soul.
Ron, it is repeatedly stressed, is the appetitive or vegetative one of the group. In his dealings with food, in many of his early dealings with girls, or in his reactions to various situations, he represents the dominance of instinct. I am not discounting, of course, the other aspects of his personality, which include both brains (chess) and bravery. He usually represents the most instinctive reaction to almost any situation.
Hermione, of course, would be the representative of the rationalistic part of the soul. Her hesitance to draw conclusions without adequate information, and her insistence that they are absolutely sure about actions before taking them puts her on the side of reason, even at times, at the expense of rapid instinctive or emotional responses. Of course, like Ron, she is far too three-dimensional a character to be limited to this one characteristic. She has instincts and emotions as well.
Harry represents the emotional or mammalian aspect of the soul. That part of the soul is where bravery and love reside. It has been repeatedly stressed that he and Ron are equals in terms of brain-power. His strengths lie in his will and the emotions that he gives play to. As a matter of fact, these same traits are a weakness in Occlumency. Of course, like the other two members of the trio, Harry also displays all of the characteristics of a well-developed soul, including appetites and reason.
In many of their interactions, the three take on the viewpoints of the part of the soul for whom they serve as something of an archetype. For instance, in OOTP, the trio have a conversation about what to do when Harry has the vision of Sirius being held by Voldemort in the Ministry. Their reactions:
Harry: Must go save Sirius at once. Hermione: It’s probably a trap, we should check first and only go if we can verify that Sirius isn’t home. Ron: First, is shocked at the idea of going. Then spends the rest of the conversation reacting to the arguments of the other two, denying heatedly, for instance, that he was accusing Harry of “acting the hero.”
Another way of describing the three-part soul is as reactive, active, and analytical. This is probably more recognizable as Ron, Harry, and Hermione, respectively.
I think one of the reasons certain fans react negatively to Ron is that they see no value in the instinctive, the appetitive, or the reactive in life. Typically, these aren’t characteristics dominant in persons who spend their lives analyzing literature or surfing the Internet, so it is not surprising. These things are a vital important part of life, however. The instincts determine what we find enjoyable and what we spend our lives doing.
For the same reasons, fans probably give Hermione more of a positive reaction than is entirely warranted. She reflects the type of people we, Internet-obsessive-fan types are, ourselves.
Harry represents the aspects that JKR obviously thinks are most important: bravery, love, and decency in the face of evil. Dumbledore makes plain in HBP that these are the aspects that set Harry apart: in this regard, we can probably take Dumbledore as representative of the author. Not that the other aspects aren’t important.
So, while each character has all the elements of an integrated human psyche, Ron, Harry and Hermione can be seen (particularly when arguing) as primarily reflective of the vegetative, animal, and rational parts of the soul, respectively.
A question now naturally occurs, namely, “So what?”
As I mentioned earlier, there is a long-standing philosophical debate as to which part of the human soul is most important. Throughout most of history, most great thinkers have said that the rational, thinking faculty is what makes us most distinctly human and is what should govern us as people and as societies. There have, of course, been adherents of other views: libertines and epicureans, who come out for the vegetative or reproductive parts of life as most important. And the mass of average humans, for whom qualities like “heart”, kindness, bravery, and so on, are considered more admirable than purely mental ones. While recognizing the importance of, and cherishing, all aspects of human character, JK Rowling is clearly siding with the mass of humanity (versus the intellectuals and the sensualists) in highlighting qualities like love and bravery as the most admirable ones for her characters to have. Voldemort, it can be argued, has all of the instincts and intellect a person could ever have; what he lacks, is any kind of outwardly directed love or empathy since childhood.
With the trio, we see again and again the importance of decency, love and bravery. Hermione is so clever, the Ravenclaws in the D.A. can’t understand why she is not in Ravenclaw; the answer is, of course, that clever as she is, she is best characterized by her outstanding heart, bravery and empathy for others — virtually all others (except maybe Fleur). When we first meet Ron, he is a poor boy, from a large family with wildly more talented and noticeable brothers. Even though he longs to be seen as better than any of them, he has largely subsumed his own desires and wishes to do whatever Harry has needed him to do and in the service of what is ultimately decent.
Both Hermione and Ron have mastered their leading impulses (of intellect and appetite, respectively) in the service of love. To me, it is no wonder the two of them are perfect for each other. And it is no wonder that the trio has been able to function so perfectly as a team for as long as they have, and at an age where many friendships founder on the stormy seas of adolescent change. They’ve gone through almost every type of stress on a friendship that can happen, and weathered them all. To me, this makes them the greatest three person friendship in all of literature.