Choosing “Between What is Right and What is Easy” The Anatomy of Power and the Search for the Self in J K Rowling’s Work
by Ursula Mueller
Abstract: A lecture given at Accio 2005.
“There is no good and evil,
there is only power and those to weak to seek it.”
(Prof. Quirrell / Lord Voldemort, PS, chapter 17)
“It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are,
far more than our abilities.”
(Prof. Albus Dumbledore, CoS, chapter 18)
I. The bottom line
“What is at the heart of the HP series? What is driving JK Rowling to tell this epic story, besides the plain fun and intellectual excitement in outlining such a highly complex plot?” These questions crossed my mind certainly more than once during the past years. Underneath this extremely entertaining storyline lies a coming-of-age novel with a truly existential and moral groundwork. Even if Rowling in her first excitement might not have consciously deliberated the ethical aspects of her work, it must very soon have been obvious to her, that she is dealing with the existential questions of mankind. What constitutes us as humans? How can we transcend our Ego and find our true Self? What constitutes evil? And at the heart of the matter: what is power and how should we deal with it?
In my point of view, Rowling’s epic tale is a socio-political fable, where the magical world mirrors the human world, albeit in a very accentuated way. It is the magical power which makes a difference in the wizarding world and which constitutes the only distinction between wizards and Muggles. Magical power means ultimate power and that is why – as I see it – the anatomy of power and its ethical and moral implications are crucial to the whole series and Rowling’s underlying philosophical discourse.
II. The Anatomy of Power
“I put for a general inclination of all mankind,
a perpetual and restless desire of power after power,
that ceaseth only on death.”
(Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan4)
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined three main aspects of power2: (1) as a source of change, (2) as a capacity for performing, and (3) as a state in virtue of which things are unchangeable by themselves. Power as a source of change (1) would be any kind of effort a person might exercise to put some object in motion. Power as a capacity for performing (2) would be a person’s ability to walk or talk. Power as a state in virtue of which things are unchangeable by themselves (3) would be the tendency of a thing to resist change from a state of motion or rest, and to change only when some outer force is applied to it.
The Oxford Dictionary of English6 lists the following definitions of the word power: (1) the ability or capacity to do something; (2a) the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events; (2b) political or social authority or control, especially that exercised by government; (3) physical strength and force exerted by something or someone; (4) energy that is produced by mechanical, electrical or other means.
Moreover, power is synonymous to such terms as strength and might, but even to the ability to control the work of other persons by superhuman or supernatural means. Central to the phenomenology of power is it’s “relational” as well as it’s “spatial” character: power is no independent phenomenon. It can only be described as a feature of an entity within space and time or as an interdependent relationship between an entity and its environment.
Power is always taking place along a gradient in space and time. Only a gradient can provoke motion, which is a predisposition for power. If there were no motion within potential energy and effort, there would be no inherent force and no property of energizing the entity. Motion as such is distinguished from both potential energy (latent power) and effort. These three terms are further distinguished both from inherent force (in the sense of ability to accomplish something) and that aspect of power, which is called a property of energizing or of bringing phenomena into play. Our natural laws are not imaginable without the concept of power and motion.
We humans have at least partially – by virtue of our fairly well-developed nervous system – succeeded to use power for our common affairs. Rowling’s wizarding friends, however, are the ultimate masters of this discipline. Just think of Arthur Weasley tuning the Ford Anglia, the family’s car, into a spacious-invisible-flying machine (CoS, chapter 3). Humans and wizards do use power in a very similar way, with one important difference: humans need machines and other tools to cope with their lives, whereas wizards just need a wand and their inherent ability to induce power ex nihilo, not to forget a good spell now and then. Too bad that Rowling does not further elaborate in her work where this magical skill actually comes from. It would seem you just have it or you don’t.
This might also explain, why the wizarding world is not at all a happier and more blissful place than our human world: wizards might change time and space by just a little flip with their wand and a more or less complex spell, but even in the wizarding world, there are magic-free zones, particularly anything with regard to our Self. In Rowling’s universe, wizards are just like humans, besides their special relationship to power. They think, they feel, they act and they fail as any corresponding person in the Muggle world. Thus, mastering power in the wizarding world does not mean that it is any easier for wizards to master their Self.
At this point, please allow me a short philosophical excursion into the definitions of Self and Ego, as I will use them further on in my paper. There is one important distinction between Self and Ego: The Self resides in the human body as an independent, autonomous matter. Its feature is not dependent on its environment – neither to the body it inhabits, nor to the outer World. The Ego, in contrary, can be described as the conscious part of our being, which reflects itself in the outer World (the part of the psyche, which is concerned with the outer World). The Ego is variable, it can grow and diminish, with regard to the action and reaction of its environment (big admiration creates a big Ego), whereas the Self is unchangeable and does not depend on outer effects.
As the psychologist Carl-Gustav Jung stated in Two Essays about Analytical Psychology5: “The self is the God within us. The beginnings of our entire mental life seem to emerge from it, the highest and ultimate aims seem to gravitate into it” (II / 2nd part, chapter 4, p. 261). Further on, Jung concluded: “The Self is our life’s goal, for it is the completest expression of that fateful combination we call individuality” (p. 263). In other words, the Ego emerges from the Self – the Self does not emerge from the Ego.
Alfred Adler, a former apprentice of Sigmund Freud like Carl-Gustav Jung and founder of the School of Individual Psychology, adds another important dimension to this discourse: Adler believed that all human beings are self-determined by the meaning we give to our experiences1. Humans do always have control over their lives and make choices that shape them. According to Adler, there is only one true meaning to human life: which is to care for and love our fellow humans. Only an altruistic feeling for mankind leads to genuine mental health and happiness.
Finally, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre proposes the Transcendence of the Ego in his philosophical essay of the same denominator: “the ego is neither formally nor materially in consciousness: it is outside, “in the world.”” (12, p. 39)
How does all this tie into the Potter saga? Rowling elaborates the philosophical distinction between Self and Ego explicitly in the characters of Dumbledore (the incarnation of Self) and Voldemort (the ultimate Ego), whereas Harry is struggling between these two forces. As much as Dumbledore (the Self) is rising above human judgement, as much is Voldemort delving into all-encompassing egomania. Voldemort is ultimately dependent on either mind-blowing admiration or complete anguish (the Cruciatus Curse). With this regard, magical/ ultimate power makes only sense to someone, who’s Ego wants to profit from either total admiration or total fear. Not so for Dumbledore: he could just go one with his live without magic, if it weren’t for the sake of the well-being of others, to prevent greater harm from happening. From this follows that the Transcendence of the Ego as well as the Search for the Self are both central narratives to Harry’s own coming-of-age tale at Hogwarts (end of philosophical excursion).
If wizards are basically the same as humans, with the only difference that they command over limitless power, what are they going to do with it? Rowling uses, deliberately or not, this special ability of mastering boundless power to elaborate on the existential questions of mankind. Any decision made in the wizarding world has – because of its use of boundless power – much more severe and immediate consequences than in the human world.
When reading the series, we look into a mirror to see our own world, but we see a world where everything is carried to extremes. Being a wizard does not come easy. It requires that you recognize your responsibilities and that you work even harder on finding your Self. The process of finding your Self and harmonizing it with your outer abilities (be it such an extreme ability as to possess limitless power) is one of J K Rowling’s central philosophical questions. As Professor Dumbledore said: “It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (CoS, chapter 18).
III. The Moral Aspects of Power in Rowling’s Work
With regard to the above analysis, power would be a neutral force, it is by definition neither good nor evil. Hence, where do the moral aspects of power come into the picture? What are the forces of Evil and Good?
According to the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), power is defined as “the possibility of imposing one’s will on other persons” 13 (chapter 1, &16). Power can be imposed on others either by provoking fear (threat to physical punishment), by the promise of reward, by the exercise of persuasion (or even manipulation) or by a moral or cultural codex (i.e. religions, organizations, institutions).
Power can be achieved by the means of personality, property or organization: (1) Personality means charisma, a quality of mind, moral certainty or personal trait. Hence, the central issue in political justice for both the Greek and the Judeo-Christian traditions was based on the cultivation of virtue within leaders. In both the Classical and Christian traditions, the major emphasis was placed on duties, that human life had a purpose was a given. (2) Property encompasses the monetary wealth of a person, which gives him or her a special status within our capitalist market economy. (3) Organization is the most important source of power in our modern society, where people freely submit themselves to a certain set of societal rules.
Thomas Hobbes, to the contrary, denied these classical Aristotelian-Christian values as the basis for our social, business and political life. Like Machiavelli, he sought to put political life on a rational (and more realistic) foundation: “So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”4 Humans are per se power-hungry, destructive beings, restrained only by fear or desire for pleasure.
All the major world views are dealing in one way or the other with the concept of Good and Evil: As to Buddhism, our present world is an illusion, and the aim of human life is to escape it. This is quite similar to the Greek philosophers, where Plato was concerned that actual justice and virtue should work their way out into the world, even though reality lays somewhere else. Within Hinduism, the evil that afflicts living beings in their present life is explained in terms of wrong-doings committed in a previous life, which affects one’s Karma in a future existence (part of the hinduistic Karma concept). Muslims say that the world is in a state of wickedness because the message of Allah has not yet spread to all people. Last but not least Marx, who stated that the world is moving in a way towards the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the problems on the way, not least the need for violent revolution, believed that these were merely the growing pains which will be justified by the final result.
From a Judeo-Christian point of view (which might in fact best match Rowling’s own concept of good and evil), humans are held in a state of balance or equilibrium between the forces of good and evil, whereas good means acting out of affection and service to others and evil means acting out of pure egoism. Goodness, in other words, is an act of altruism and humiliation, born out of love and affection to others. Furthermore, the line between good and evil is never simply between Us and Them. The line runs through each one of us. Of course, the Death Eaters in general and Lord Voldemort in particular are prime examples for egoistic, evil behavior. They use power for the sake of personal advancement and only for that.
As J.K. Rowling stated in a Time Magazine interview10: “Is evil attractive? Yes, I think that’s very true. (…) We’d all acknowledge that the bully in the playground is attractive. Because if you can be his friend, you are safe. (…) Weaker people, I feel, want the reflected glory. I’m trying to explore that.”
However, evil has no power per se. It is out of our own and others vulnerability that we give evil its force. A person can do evil onto others, but only because of the access that our own ego provides. The power of evil to work on us is directly proportionate to the degree we allow our own ego to collaborate. Consequently, evil can do no harm to good.
Within the equilibrium of good and evil, humans exercise their freedom of choice or free will. The two forces of Good and Evil are maintained equally within every human being, so that the person is left free to throw his or her own weight either way. Any human being is free to think, will and do evil, or free to think, will and do good. Of course, since Aristotle we know that there is weakness of will. When we intend to do something good, we might do something bad instead. It is not enough that we once and for all search for our true Self for the sake of a good and caring life. Through our entire life, we have to realize the falsities of life around us and to overcome the temptations of evil. What might help us on this way, is the concept of love and the crucial role of truth. In Harry Potter’s path of life from childhood into adulthood, J.K. Rowling traces this eternal conquest for a good life. When placed under the Sorting Hat, Harry makes the most important decision in his life: he chooses – if unknowingly – Good before Evil, his true Self before his Ego. Harry takes an oath to the forces of Good. He is very aware that evil forces might lurk behind the corner and even inside of him, but he chooses not to let them steer his life. Lord Voldemort, to the contrary, “took wrong choices from a very early age” (Rowling in BBC Newsround interview7).
Of course, Harry fails, more than once. Even Harry now and then has to give into the weakness of will. He has certain problems to control himself. Alas, he gets to know his strength and even his weaknesses. Maybe it’s his awareness of all kinds of trapdoors and his strong will to do good, which always lead him back on trail.
IV. Power & Politics in the wizarding world
Weakness of will, our own and others dominant ego, greed, search for personal advancement, indifference, fear, vulnerability, the abuse of power – all this constitutes that evil will prevail amongst mankind. As long as mankind does not overcome those weaknesses, we will have to deal with totalitarian structures, dread and oppression. Of course, Rowling’s wizarding world is not immune against these very human features either. … Which brings up the next important question in my paper: how is power related to politics in the wizarding world? In Rowling’s own words: “This world of wizards and witches, they’re already ostracized, and then within themselves, they’ve formed a loathsome pecking order.” (Entertainment Weekly interview9). In order to bring structure in the otherwise anarchic world of wizardry, the Ministry of Magic came into being, where a heap of magic bureaucrats is squeamishly watching an incalculable number of wizarding rules and regulations. Alas, where there are rules, there are people who will break them.
The Ministry of Magic itself is a power structure, which promotes status thinking, greed and personal advancement. It is an inexhaustible source of manipulation, corruption, deceit, intrigue and power struggle. Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, is the ultimate politician: he is married to power, which means, he is primarily not working for the good of the people, but for the standing of his own power and that of the Ministry- maintenance of power as an end in itself. Fudge might even ignore reality or cover it up, until it slaps into his face. This does not mean that he is a fundamentally bad character, but his egocentric actions within the Ministry of Magic let evil forces flourish, which we do see throughout book five in particular. As long as there are power structures like the Ministry of Magic, there will be people who will take advantage of them, from outside as well as from within.
Always at the side of Cornelius Fudge (they often appear together, as you may have realized), there is another perfect power maniac: Lucius Malfoy. He is definitely one of the most dangerous members of the wizarding community, a fanatic ideologist (racist) with a thoroughly bad character and an immeasurable amount of money at his disposal – a terrible combination. Too bad, politicians like Cornelius Fudge and power structures like the Ministry of Magic are often in bad need of generous people like Lucius Malfoy.
In the same way as we see Harry slowly but surely develop his ethical consciousness, we see how the power structure of the Ministry of Magic more and more corrupts Percy Weasley. Of course, Percy is fascinated by the fantastic opportunities, which the Ministry can offer him, and he is smitten by the attention he receives by its prime representatives. But out of his deep affection for the Ministry, he develops a deathly loyalty to the institution, which even brings him up against his own family.
Here we have another important attribute of power: Within physics, power is a neutral, relational force, which manifests itself in the interaction between an entity and its environment. Power is always bound to a gradient in space and/or time and a certain kind of physical activity (motion within potential energy; see even discourse above). But within our human, socio-political sphere, power tends to get a life of its own, proportionate to the degree we allow our own ego to collaborate. Suddenly, power as a force becomes more important than the World itself. It deeply corrupts the hearts and minds of the people – (wizards as well as humans) – just as it effected the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and, for a time at least, Percy Weasley.
However, there is always J.K. Rowling’s subversive optimism lurking beneath the surface. We can always make a choice “between what is right and what is easy” (Prof. Albus Dumbledore, GoF, chapter XXXVII). We can choose to live a righteous, good and caring life in the service to others, or we can choose to take the easy road to ego-flattering status and personal advancement, the fast power fix. It’s just up to us.
1. Adler, Alfred. Praxis und Theorie der Individualpsychologie. Munchen: JF Bergmann, 1920.
2. Aristoteles. Physik. Vorlesung uber die Natur. Meiner: Hamburg (transl.), 1987.
3. Forudastan, Ferdos, et al. Im Rausch der Macht – die susse Droge Politik. TV documentary. WDR – Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 2005.
4. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Part I – chapter XI: Of the Difference of Manners, 1660. URL: http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-contents.html
5. Jung, Carl Gustav. Gesammelte Werke, Band VII – Zwei Schriften uber Analytische Psychologie. Olten: Walter, 1971.
6. Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd Ed. Oxford: University Press, 2003.
7. Rowling, J K . Interview. BBC Newsround. July 2000. URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/tv_film/newsid_1634000/1634400.stm
8. Rowling, J K . Interview. CBC Newsworld. July 21, 2000. URL: http://www.cbc.ca/programs/sites/hottype_rowlingcomplete.html
9. Rowling, J K . Interview. Entertaiment Weekly. September 7, 2000. URL: http://www.ew.com/ew/report/0,6115,85523_5|6999||0_0_,00.html URL: http://www.ew.com/ew/report/0,6115,85524~5~0~,00.html
10. Rowling, J K . Interview. Time Magazine. October 30, 2000. URL: http://www.time.com/time/pacific/magazine/20001030/potter.html
11. Rowling, J K . Interview. The Times. June 20, 2003. URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-719679,00.html URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7-719174,00.html
12. Sartre, Jean Paul. Philosophische Schriften I. Die Transzendenz des Ego. Reinbek / Hamburg: Rowohlt (transl.), 1994
13. Weber, Max. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Tubingen: JCB Mohr, 1922. URL: http://www.textlog.de/weber_wirtschaft.html