Book Review: The Values of Harry Potter (Ari Armstrong)

There have only been a few works on the morality of the Potter books, and it remains an underdeveloped area of lit criticism of the books. Most of the moral discussions have been limited to single essays within published symposiums. The Values of Harry Potter is only one of two full-length books devoted to morality of the Potter novels. The other is Edmund Kern’s The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices, which is not so much a reading of the morality of the books themselves so much as a (failed) attempt to present the moral choices of the books within the framework of Greek stoicism. With Armstrong’s The Values of Harry Potter, I had hoped that we would at last find the book that needs to be written – a book that attempts to approach the moral choices of the novels from within (not imposing a “moral system” on them from the outside), but I had no such luck, I’m afraid.

Armstrong’s book is an attempt – equally weak to Kern’s – to use the categories of moral philosophy set out by Aristotle and Ayn Rand. That this approach has created tensions, nay, contradictions within the text for Armstrong is obvious. It seems the entire book is an attempt to show that “Rowling’s theme of the heroic valuer ultimately clashes with her secondary theme of Christian self-sacrifice,” (12). This shouldn’t be of much surprise to us, of course; Armstrong starts with a particular philosophy of morality and tries to paste it over the top of the books. This creates the conflict between sacrifice and heroism – as they conflict also within the schemas set out by Aristotle and particularly Rand.

It is of vital importance to see that Armstrong’s starting point colors all that he sees in the books. Aristotle argued that to love a friend is to love one’s self, and Rand is renown for glorifying selfishness and hyper-individualism at the expense of others (particularly in her economic and politic writing this strain of Machiavellian-esque philosophy is developed). Both philosophies attempt to integrate selflessness and love into their system of loving the self. This, of course, found expression in Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophies in the ultimate expression of the “love of sameness” – homosexuality. Rand posited that the person and his individualized pursuits – whether it be of money or pleasure or anything – is the highest good; thus, she argued for extreme selfishness when it came to getting and keeping a tight hold on what was “yours.” Her extremist libertarian position codified this selfishness into modern economic and political theory, oddly becoming the very stereotype of Capitalism which Marx so enthusiastically denounced. But the point is the same – both of Armstrong’s moral philosophers present the love of the self as the highest love. This is in direct contrast to that of Scripture and the Potter novels, both of which focus on the community and on not love of self, but love of difference.

Now, Armstrong is surely correct to suggest that Harry and his friends fight for values they believe in. His critique of the “misguided reliance on authority” by the villains is also a helpful advance in our understanding of their characters. Even the theme of independence on the part of the heroes is well developed. The fact remains, however, that Armstrong oversteps the limits of his position.

For example. He argues that independence is the mark of the the heroes and dependence on authority is the mark of the villains. Yet his case that Voldemort himself is marked by a blind adherence to authority is a misreading of Voldemort’s character. Similarly, while the heroes exhibit the marks of independence, it is actually moreso the case that the heroes exist in community. Harry fights for his own values, it is true, but where did he acquire such values? He was formed into those virtues by way of community – his friendships with Hagrid and Dumbledore most particularly. Harry loves not himself, but the Other foremostly, and his love and loyalty then shape his values. Armstrong presents independence and dependence as abstractly and objectively positive and negative, but he does not consider the fact that independence and dependence must be used, and both can be used in good and bad ways. The moral good of the heroes actions do not come from some neutral independence that is morally praise-worthy in itself, but in what they choose to act independently of. Harry and his friends rarely choose to act independently for the sheer defiance of it; instead, they are forced to redress wrongs and defy immoral conventions and assumptions. And even when they must act independently of the Wizarding world, they always do so in community with others, never as isolated individuals, and often times do so under instructions from Dumbledore. This shows that they are not opposed to submitting themselves to authority.

There are additional difficulties with the entire structure of the book. Armstrong terms Harry a “heroic valuer,” but within the domain of morality, values in themselves are of little help to anyone. The term “value” denotes an abstract commodity, considered abstractly and in isolation from its overall narrative; give the term “valuer” comes from Rand, this is unsurprising. The trouble with this view is that anyone can value anything at any time. Values are vaporous; I can value the latest Switchfoot album today and “de-value” it tomorrow. By framing Harry as one who “values,” we have still gotten no closer to understanding the morality of the Potter books, because values are fluid. Anyone can value, and so we can see that Harry values some things and the Death Eaters value others. This cannot settle who is morally right, of course. In order to grip anything close to the morality of the Potter books, we must see Harry’s moral development as an integration into the Cardinal Virtues; this presses the conflict between Harry and the Death Eaters into the domain of virtues and vices, which are not simple “values” we like, but character formations concerning what is ultimately good and ultimately bad. A virtue is not easily abandoned; it takes narrative growth over the course of a life to shape a virtue (or a vice) whereas a “value” can be picked up and discarded as easily as a Big Mac. The conflict in the Potter books, then, is never so much a conflict between those who value (the heroes) and those who do not value at all (the villains), but between those who have been initiated and formed over years into the pattern of the Virtues, and those who have continually chosen to be initiated and formed into the pattern of the Vices.

Considering something like “independence” as an abstract moral quality in itself, isolated from the person and their forming narrative, is also a primary flaw in Armstrong’s critique of the Christian themes in the series. It should be observed, foremostly, that he claims that while there are Christian themes in the books, they are “secondary themes.” He never defends this at all; rather, it is simply an assertion that flows out of the overall philosophical scheme with which he comes to the novels. The clash between selfishness as a moral good and self-sacrifice which he sees painted across every page of the books is really not much more than the echo of his own system reflected back upon him. This tension in his system causes him no end of trouble in trying to reconcile selfishness and selflessness in the books, and in doing so he also misunderstands Christianity and the Scriptures’ teachings on these points. In the process he misreads the story of Lily’s sacrifice as a retelling of Christ’s sacrifice for sinners. Armstrong claims that Lily was protecting her highest value, Harry, rather than trying to sacrifice herself in some sort of atonement retelling. This is a substantial misunderstanding not merely of the story, but of Christians’ point in noting Lily’s example, and of the teachings of the Scriptures on the subject. Lily is not Christ and no one has claimed her to be so; her actions, however, are very much in accord with the Christian idea of sacrifice. Christian selflessness is in direct contrast with the Aristotelian view of friendship, which argues that you love a friend because they have your values. For Christians, it works the other way around – we love others by placing their love before our own, we come to love what they love, we do not love them for what they love about us. Lily is clearly of the Christian stripe, because her love toward Harry is not that he has the same interests as hers, but that her governing love is him. She has totally emptied herself of selfishness to the point of stepping between Harry and the Dark Lord in order to protect him, because she valued Harry’s life above her own. Does she love and value him? Of course, but for reasons that flow in the opposite direction of Armstrong’s argument from Aristotle. It is the same with his other examples. It should also be noted that Armstrong doesn’t even broach the subject of Harry’s self-sacrificial giving at the end of Deathly Hallows. As it is so blatant, and is the central act of all seven books, and so clearly destroys his argument that the Christian themes are “secondary” that it would have been pointless to discuss.

Finally, let it be said that, as problematic as the book is, it is not without its value. (Did I really just make that pun? Sorry.) Armstrong has helped in pointing out elements of the actions of the heroes and villains that have, I think, furthered Potter scholarship. His chapter on free will and choice is an excellent summary of those themes as they are displayed for us in the principle characters. There is content worth reading here.

  2 comments for “Book Review: The Values of Harry Potter (Ari Armstrong)

  1. GC
    October 21, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Armstrong’s interpretation of Rowling is as bad as your intepretation of Rand.

  2. October 21, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Care to elaborate? I was certainly fair to Armstrong’s presentation of Rand, if nothing else. I felt I was covering rather typical ground in the broad strokes of Rand’s work.

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