While attending a conference a few months back, I became engaged in a fascinating conversation about Harry Potter with Dr. John Hare (of Yale Divinity School). Though we both enthused about aspects of the saga, one point on which we were a bit at odds was whether or not there is a Manichean strain in the novels that one should be concerned about—he taking the affirmative and I the negative* (and I want to note that he was not lapsing into the “magic in HP is bad” tirade). After pressing me on these matters that are a bit outside of my element (seeing as I’m not theologically trained, so please jump in to correct anything Travis, Revgeorge, Danielle, others…), I promised that I would re-read the novels with this concern in mind. I did so, and I’m still not persuaded that there is any Manichaeism at work.
*[Note added: Just to clarify, he was not necessarily holding this interpretation, but noting that some might do so. I thank him very much for triggering me to revisit the texts in a new way.]
Here is a concise encyclopedia description of Manichaeism (but check out the long Wikipedia entry for fuller discussion and references):
“To account for the existence of evil in a world created by God, Mani posited a primal struggle in which the forces of Satan separated from God; humanity, composed of matter, that which belongs to Satan, but infused with a modicum of godly light, was a product of this struggle, and was a paradigm of the eternal war between the forces of light and those of darkness. . . . Light and dark were seen to be commingled in our present age as good and evil, but in the last days each would return to its proper, separate realm, as they were in the beginning. The Christian notion of the Fall and of personal sin was repugnant to the Manichees; they felt that the soul suffered not from a weak and corrupt will but from contact with matter. Evil was a physical, not a moral, thing; a person’s misfortunes were miseries, not sins” (emphasis mine).
The possible concern raised by Dr. Hare focused on the existence of evil objects and their ability to infuse evil in those around them (e.g., certain books, horcruxes), which he seemed to think could reflect [or be interpreted as reflecting] the materiality of evil as a force in the world. I can see why one might think so; after all, certain kinds of books are kept away from students in the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts library and the locket horcrux negatively affected those who wore it.
Choice and Knowledge
However, I think there is another, non-Manichean way of understanding these objects. First, the horcruxes. The effects of the locket horcrux on its wearers—especially Ron in Ch. 19 of Deathly Hallows—can be accounted for by the fact that horcruxes are extensions of parts of Voldemort’s soul. As such, a shred of Voldemort (who chose to be evil) calls out to tempt an already jealous and insecure Ron. Ron ultimately chooses to resist the temptation, and in so doing he symbolically destroys the locket horcrux and conquers his “inner demons.” Evil is thus moral, not physical.
Second, the books. Though a large black and silver book in the Restricted Section let out a “piercing, bloodcurdling shriek” when Harry removed it from a shelf (in Ch. 12 of Sorcerer’s Stone), these forbidding volumes are symbolic of the evil knowledge contained within them rather than being literal oozers of evil waiting to take possession of unwary readers. We encounter in several places warnings about “knowledge that should not be sought.” This is why Hogwarts has a course on Defense Against the Dark Arts, but not one on the Dark Arts. We can see this most sharply in Slughorn’s memory (in Dumbledore’s pensieve) of Tom Riddle’s wheedling information about horcruxes out of him (in Ch. 23 of Half-Blood Prince). Not only does Slughorn say to Riddle “with your uncanny ability to know things you shouldn’t . . . ,” he also gets his back up when Riddle presses him on how one encases one’s split soul in an object after murdering someone: “There is a spell, do not ask me, I don’t know! . . . Do I look as though I have tried it—do I look like a killer?” How clever to represent evil in such vividly imaginative ways. But we need to distinguish carefully representation or symbolism from literal belief. It seems pretty clear to me—and it has been argued forcefully on this site in a number of places—that Rowling emphasizes the role of choice in becoming who we are.
Managing Mischief and Verging on Censorship?
The implication here is that one would only seek such Dark Knowledge if one was bent on evil purposes, and so there is some knowledge that no one ought to have access to. Knowledge-seeking Hermione does not like the sound of that! After all, isn’t knowledge a value to be sought? (Or is it wisdom rather than knowledge that we are to seek, and what precisely is the difference? Dr. Frankenstein learned his answers the hard way.) Aristotle notes in Nicomachean Ethics that there are some actions and feelings that “automatically include baseness,” such as “spite, shamelessness, and adultery, theft, murder” (Bk. II, ch. 6); and he even goes so far in his Metaphysics to say “there are also some things it is better not to see than to see” (Bk. XII, ch. 9). Perhaps certain feelings, actions, or even knowledge can be so evil as to be severely managed or even banned. (Perhaps knowledge of creating atomic weapons or of how to torture an innocent person, for example?)
And a large issue that Rowling grapples with in relation to this non-Manichean vision of good and evil is, given the fact that some will choose evil and seek out the knowledge-that-ought-not-be-sought, the very best of the very good will need to know enough about evil—despite the extreme risks—to combat the bad guys and steer others clear of bad stuff. Few are up to the task. We have good-hearted Harry who can conquer Voldemort. We have noble Sherlock Holmes who strives to out-maneuver sinister Moriarty. There are others in the pages of heroic literature, and hopefully some in real life.
So do you think there is some knowledge we should never seek? And what should we do about it?
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