Like much of the English-speaking

Like much of the English-speaking world, I went to see Harry Potter this weekend. Although I resisted Harry-mania for well over two years, I ended up getting hooked this spring when my girlfriend at the time read the first book to me in the car during a trip down to Charleston & Savannah and back. I then shredded through the rest of the series. (And I’m not embarrassed to admit it!) Anyway, the movie was a rather rote interpretation, and was so compressed that much of the considerable feeling (for neglect, friendship, ambition, etc.) in the book was almost entirely squeezed out. I’d have loved to have seen what Terry Gilliam, say, would have done with it.

How about some philosophical commentary? In the climactic scene, where Harry confronts “he-who-must-not-be-named,” the Evil One announces, Nietzsche fashion: “There is no good and evil. There is only power and those too fearful to grab it.” (Or something to that effect.) This is a popular theme in fantasy movies. Think Star Wars. The idea is that the acme of evil is the refusal to recognize that there really is such a thing as evil. Evil people think big ticket moral categories are just a way of keeping us down, from becoming all that we can really be. Enlightenment is abandoning our spiritually enslaving scruples and just going for it. But, Harry argues, that’s just what evil is!

Now, what Harry and Luke have to show us is that there is compensation for abiding by the big ticket moral categories, and this is where these stories become very strained. Harry just happens to be extremely powerful. He didn’t do anything to earn it, he’s just got it. So, it’s not so bad being good if you’re Harry, because you’ve got all this power you never asked for, and every time you use it, you’re a big hero. Yet most of us aren’t aren’t set up so well to attain mass adoration.

But I’m being cynical. There is a hint in Harry that adherence to the marquee moral categories makes it possible to attain things that really do matter. Harry himself was saved from evil because his very skin was infused with his mother’s overwhelming love. Perhaps acceding to our intuitions about good and evil is what makes it possible to love and be loved, and if that’s the case, then that’s probably compensation enough. Yet, I bet when kids fantasize about being Harry, they fantasize about his power and not his capacity for love.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center