Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Baggett & Klein

Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts
edited by David Baggett & Shawn E. Klein
Recommended Age: 14+

Put on your thinking caps! It's time to go to Hogwarts (extension program for Muggles) and study philosophy. Now, don't give me that look. It's not as bad as it sounds--certainly not the way it's presented here. The authors of the sixteen essays in this cleverly edited book have used the magic of Hogwarts (and a lot of humor) to present a subject that makes many of us want to run away in fright (or pass out in boredom) actually interesting and understandable.

Now there have been lots of books about the issues raised by the Harry Potter books. Some of them are harsh in their condemnation of J. K. Rowling's entertaining series. Others, like The Gospel According to Harry Potter, The Science of Harry Potter, and The Wisdom of Harry Potter find value in the young wizard's adventures. For they are not only entertaining, but can also be useful & instructive, inspirational & thought-provoking. And now, from a series of books on "Popular Culture and Philosophy" (which has also examined the philosophical underpinnings of Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Matrix, Buffy, The Lord of the Rings, baseball, The Sopranos, and Woody Allen) comes this book which also, I might add, represents the first time an author ever sent me a complimentary copy of his work for me to review. Thanks, Shawn!, I mean, Professor Klein!

OK, you've had an opportunity to read one chapter from this book in MuggleNet Editorials. And it's already clear that not everyone will entirely agree with either the analysis of Harry Potter or with the philosophical conclusions that go with it. But it's important to recognize at the outset that philosophy is an ongoing exercise in clarifying thoughts. There is always room for further development, and the idea is to stimulate you to think & talk about a variety of philosophical issues. So you may learn not only to appreciate the cleverness of J. K. Rowling's world, but to think more clearly about your own world. Perhaps in this way, Harry Potter can help you achieve the ultimate goal of all philosophy--to learn how to live a good life.

Appropriately, this "special term" at Hogwarts is divided into four houses, each containing four essays on interrelated topics. Gryffindor House examines character issues, using characters from the books as examples. First Tom Morris holds up Harry himself as an example of the virtue of courage. Then Diana Mertz Hsieh engages the Dursleys in the debate over whether a little bit of "self-deception" is healthy, or even necessary. Harald Thorsrud scrutinizes the nature of friendship, contrasting the relationships surrounding Voldemort, Draco Malfoy, and Hagrid. And finally, Mimi R. Gladstein celebrates the wizarding world's effortless depiction of sexual equality, exemplified in Hermione Granger.

Next, Hufflepuff House, home of the honest & ethically pure, hosts a symposium on ethics and morality in the Harry Potter universe. In an essay entitled "Heaven, Hell, and Harry Potter," Jerry L. Walls gets down to the basics of what distinguishes good from evil (and also what makes certain curses unforgivable). Ben Lipscomb and Chris Stewart continue with a study of how the ethics of using magical powers, in Harry Potter's world, could stand as a parable for the ethics of using technology in our world. Shawn Klein's chapter on "The Mirror of Erised" explores the real-life perils of "dreaming, and forgetting to live," and Steven W. Patterson finishes up with a look at S.P.E.W. and the question of whether indifference to discrimination is evil in itself.

Slytherin offers a walk on the dark side, with four essays about the nature of evil. Steven Patterson asks us to consider whether ambition (the classic trait of Slytherin House) is a vice or a virtue. David and Catherine Deavel use the threefold example of Boggarts, Dementors, and Voldemort to delve into the definition of evil as "a privation, or a deformity parasitic on something good," that must mask itself by deceit, and that can only exist as a result of free choice. Jennifer Hart Weed turns to the ancient philosopher Boethius to explain how evil brings its own punishment on the evildoer. And David Baggett makes a spirited defense of the Harry Potter books themselves, against the charge that they are morally corrupt and corrupting.

Ravenclaw, the intellectual house, turns from moral-ethical considerations to the heady realm of metaphysics--thinking about the nature of existence itself. Gareth B. Matthews opens with the topic of how fantasy worlds (like Oz, Narnia, and Harry Potter's wizarding world) can stimulate thought about the meaning of being. Michael Silberstein's essay on "Space, Time, and Magic" should already be familiar to you. Then comes Jason T. Eberl's analysis of what constitutes personal identity, entitled, "Why Voldemort Won't Just Die Already." And at last, Gregory Bassham deals with the tricky relationship between foreknowledge and the freedom of the will, which is challenged in various ways by superstition (fate or luck), science (everything is predetermined), religion (eternal predestination), and the paranormal (prophecy and divination). And I just want to correct Prof. Bassham on one thing--the rest of you skip down to the next paragraph, if you like--but Luther's Bondage of the Will was not about eternal predestination, but about the effects of original sin on the human will.

See? We can't all agree with every analysis in this book, and I'm sure some people who think the Harry Potter books are a bad influence on children & worthless tripe will be especially hard to convince. But I do personally (and not just because it was free) recommend this book as a challenging & winning account of ways to think and things to think about, and how the Harry Potter story can open up worlds worth exploring--worlds that come stocked with virtues and morals, real-life issues and broad vistas for imagining and contemplating. And I would recommend that you read every word of it, from the Acknowledgements to the "About the Authors" blurbs. It's philosphy made fun!

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