Harry Potter and Aristotle’s Cultivation of Virtue

 By Kate Daley-Bailey

In this time of celebrity worship when too many American students think how you look is more important than what you do, students must be taught that happiness comes from “living well” not necesscarily living “well-off.”  In such a world, how do we teach children to make good decisions, to become moral citizens? I have chosen to write on the Harry Potter series because these books lure readers into their pages with promises of adventure and fantasy, all the while covertly educating us on how to live well. Disguised as pure entertainment, these children books instruct both children and adults on how to make good choices in difficult situations. In the introduction of Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle ran Hogwarts, the editors, D. Baggett and S. Klein (2004) state:

Rowling’s novels are obviously not written as philosophical treatises, yet they are rife with philosophical significance. They are not only interesting and well-told stories, but thoroughly engaging emotionally, imaginatively, and intellectually.


This is not the first time fantasy has acted as a vehicle for conscious or unconscious moral instruction. One need only think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tiny hobbit’s duty to face unbearable odds and evil in order to save Middle Earth or the inspiring words of Gandalf the Grey to see elements of moral education or mentoring in many faerie stories. Another similarity between Tolkien and Rowling is their emphasis on the slightly flawed hero who must learn to make the right but difficult choice. The emphasis on making the right choices in order to “live well”, whether in narrative or real life, comes to the West through one of the most celebrated Greek philosophers, Aristotle.


Aristotle lived more than 2,000 years ago and although the world has drastically changed, mankind’s ultimate desire remains the same, man wants to be happy. Now, what does that mean exactly? According to Louis P. Pojman (2000), eudaimonia, Aristotle’s word for happiness can also be translated as “living well” and, in Aristotle’s mind, happiness was the highest good. Now, we might think of happiness as a mere feeling… a fleeting feeling we experience when our basic needs are met but Aristotle requires that we look deeper. To Aristotle, happiness is an activity…happiness is human flourishing. According to Mortimer J. Adler, in his work, Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy (1978) various goods are needed, bodily, external, and goods of the soul in order for a human to begin to flourish. Beyond this, Aristotle lists one more type of goods that we need, as Alder explicates “good habits of choice.”

How do we “live well”… how can we flourish? Individual flourishing occurs when the individual has consistently developed a balance between reason and desire, when the individual acts in moderation… when the individual has attained the mean, a middle road of sorts, between excess and deficiency. Adler highlights Aristotle’s example regarding food and drink to explain this relationship. Food and drink are “real goods” but “only in moderate amounts”. Happiness or “living well” can only be achieved by cultivating virtues of character, for it is in the happy medium that an individual properly functions. Aristotle, according to Adler, defines moral virtue as “the habit of making right choices”. Adler continues to elucidate this concept by explaining that the virtuous individual, the flourishing individual, is one who “makes the right choices regularly, time and time again, although not necessarily every single time”.

So, how do we cultivate these virtues of character? Well, how do we get better at doing anything? We practice. We must train ourselves to make good moral choices through an endless pattern of action and correction. According to S. Klein (2004), this is not about trying to attain the static state of “being good” but rather constantly “becoming good.” Action is an essential element in becoming anything.  In the first Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), Albus Dumblore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, cautions Harry about the dangers of fantasy. Dumbledore warns Harry of wasting his life sitting before the mirror of Erised, a magical mirror which shows the viewer the deepest desire in the viewer’s heart:

It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts… However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.

Note that the mirror’s name is merely the word desire spelled backwards. Could this be a warning for both Harry and the novel’s readers, namely that dwelling on our desires is a fruitless effort if one does not act in the world? The mirror shows the viewer their deepest desire but not the activity it takes to obtain that desire. The mirror reflects the desired “being good” but it is dangerous because it neglects the “becoming good” aspect. The mirror is deceptive in its very nature for it shows only the distant, illusive, static “good” without providing any instruction on how to obtain that “good”, hence the necessity for Dumblebore’s intervention and explanation. For Aristotle, the virtues require constant cultivation of the virtues from a young age… in a word, education.

It is not incidental that Rowling sets her novels at a school, nor is it coincidence that Harry is constantly facing difficult choices. Harry, and vicariously, the reader, are put in positions of peril, guided but not coached by mentors and friends, and asked to make extremely difficult choices. Harry, although far from perfect, consistently makes the right choices. In the Harry Potter novels, just as in Aristotle’s philosophy, you are how you choose.  Or as David Baggett puts it in his chapter: Magic, Muggles, and Moral Imagination, “Harry is what he consistently does.”  As referenced by L. Pojman (2000), in his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes:

It is by our actions in the face of danger and by our training ourselves to fear or to courage that we become either cowardly or courageous… So the difference between one and another training in habits in our childhood is not a light matter, but important, or rather, all important.

Our choices determine who we are or rather who we become. Harry begins the series as “the boy who lived”, he is famous and revered in the wizarding world, but not by any choice or action of his own. However, Harry ends the series by having to make the most self-less and painful choice of his whole 17 years. The Harry Potter series is about Harry becoming a hero through his choices.

David and Catherine Deavel (2004), in their work A Skewed Reflection: The Nature of Evil, point out the Harry Potter series advocates judging people on their choices and not their abilities. In the following passage, Harry explains to Dumbledore that the sorting hat, a magical hat which sorts students into the various Hogwarts houses according to their abilities and desires, had considered putting Harry into the same house, Slytherin, as the evil and power-hungry wizard Voldemort. According to Harry, he pleaded to be put in any house but Slytherin. Dumbledore points out that, although Harry’s upbringing and his skills resemble Voldemort’s, that does not mean that Harry is destined to be like Voldemort… for a person’s choices, not their abilities or heritage, shows truly who that person is:

‘It [the Sorting Hat] only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’

‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities.’

Tom Riddle, the real name of Lord Voldemort, had a very similar start in life to Harry. Both Harry and Tom were raised as orphans in not so pleasant circumstances, both accidently discovered their skills in magic, both have the rare ability to speak parcel tongue, the ability to speak to snakes, both were courted by Dumbledore, attended Hogwarts, and both became powerful wizards. However, as Dumbledore points out, a person’s choices make them who they are. We have control over our choices, even if we are choosing between two evils.

If we judge people, as some do, by their family history and bloodline, by their natural skills and abilities, or by anything else that they were born into, we are judging them on something they have no control over. Tom Riddle, who becomes Voldemort, uses his skills in magic to harm and his intellect to trick and manipulate. He chooses power and he sacrifices anyone and anything to get it. At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), the fourth book in the series, Dumbledore warns all Hogwarts students of Voldemort’s return to power and advises them, when the time comes, to make the right, not the easy choice, by remembering a boy who was murdered by Voldemort:

Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory. 

Rowling, through the words of Dumbledore, is reminding all readers that there will come a time when they must choose between making the easy choice and the right choice and both their identity and the fate of this world depend upon which decisions they make.

Although Harry is the protagonist and unarguably the hero of the series, Dumbledore is the mentor that guides Harry through advice and by example. Dumbledore even exposes Harry to danger once he feels Harry is ready, much to the chagrin of Hermoine, one of Harry’s closest friends. Harry tries to explain this to Hermoine at the end of the first novel:

He’s a funny man, Dumbledore. I think he sort of wanted to give me a chance… Its almost like he thought I had the right to face Voldemort if I could..

Harry is quickly cut off by Hermoine, not known for holding her tongue when she disagrees with someone. Here and throughout the series, Dumbledore is preparing Harry for the most difficult battle in Harry’s life.

Dumbledore knows he would be doing Harry a great disservice if he always protected Harry… for the time would come when Dumbledore was no longer physically there to help Harry and Harry would be left alone to make his own decisions. Dumbledore even tells Harry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) of his reason for not shielding Harry:

If I thought I could help you by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.

Rowling’s readers, too, must face the harsh realities of this world and will be left alone to make their own decisions, once they have closed the binding of these books. Rowling can only hope she has taught them well. Rowling, who was once a teacher, uses her narrative to guide and mentor her readers and through the character of Dumbledore and the book series itself, exposes her readers to these different decisions. Her readers can “fight the good fight” vicariously through the characters she portrays. For although we do not live in the wizarding world… our world is much like it. Some wizards judge others by their bloodline or their wealth rather than their actions.

Dumbledore emphatically condemns the minister of magic, Cornelious Fudge, for his reluctance to see past a person’s heritage in the 4th Novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000):

‘You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!’

So Rowling, like C. S. Lewis and Tolkien before her, uses fantasy (consciously or not) to educate readers in ethics, showing them how to “live well.” Rather than writing a treatise of morality, she wrote a story and teaches through symbol, metaphor, and troupe.

In the last century, many scholars have revisited the meaning of myth and fantasy. The imagination to some is the most important tool we have for understanding the world. As highlighted in From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy, Thomas Howard (1969), writes in his book Chance Or the Dance:

Imagination is, in a word, the faculty by which we organize the content of our experience into some form, and thus apprehend it as significant. Put another way, it is what makes us refuse to accept experience as mere random clutter, and makes us try without ceasing to shape that experience so that we can manage it.

The imagination allows us to make meaning of our lives and fantasy allows readers to live vicariously through the characters in the novel… it allows the reader to encounter an alternate reality in which the reader becomes cocooned. Critics of fantasy writing often describe it as merely escapism. This is but a half-truth. The readers are enveloped in an alternative world but the lessons they learn are meant to carry back over into the so called “real world”. While Voldemort and his deatheaters are not truly attempting to take over our world, violence and terror are a very real part of our existence. Parents may be reluctant to speak to their children about how to live in a world with terrorists, genocide, and discrimination and rightly so. However, the reality of this world is a harsh one and it is a reality that our children will inherit, whether we wish it to be so or not. Just as Frodo comments to Gandalf in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, we may not have a choice regarding the times we live in but we do have a choice of how we will respond to this world:

‘Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

How we respond to this world, the choices we make, that is who we are… who we become. Just like in the Harry Potter novels, as with Aristotle, you are how you choose. How will we choose? Who will we be? Will we live well?

Filed Under: Culture & ArtFeaturedKate Daley-BaileyLiterature


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