I must apologize for this article. Sometime ago, I mentioned that wanted to write several articles on the theme of philosophy and creativity. My first article was at least six months ago now, and I have not written anything since. I was working on a graduate degree, and such things happen -or don’t happen. Nonetheless, I still believe that philosophy has a great way of inspiring, improving, and in general making some great fiction. Previously, I commented on Battlestar Galactica and the political philosophy of the 17th century. Today, I write on the Harry Potter villain Voldemort and the German philosopher Neitzche.
I hope that most people reading this have taken some time to read some of the Harry Potter series. Everyone who writes, including myself, wants to be only half as good as J.K. Rowling. Her characters are complex, believable, and all have their own struggles. Furthermore, much of the characters, like Dumbledore, have a set of values and philosophy that guides them. Some like Harry are learners and seekers of what it means to be good or evil. Others, like Snape, have a set of values quite opposed to those of house Gryffindor.
Arguably the most vivid personification of philosophy and values is the villain Voldemort. There is something quite telling about him. It is not that he just evil, but he is evil unapologetically. Throughout the books, it is pretty clear that Voldemort does not view himself as evil, but this is not due to madness or lack of self-reflection. Voldemort does not even believe that there are categories of good and evil. At the end of the first movie (though I do not think this exact quotation is found in the book) Voldemort says, “There is no ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ There is only power and those too weak to take it.” This is a succinct summary of how Voldemort sees the world of morality.
I don’t know if Voldemort would’ve wasted his time on reading a book by a muggle, but he would’ve enjoyed the writings of Neitzche -particularly The Genealogy of Morals and the aptly entitled Beyond Good and Evil. In both of these works, Neitzche worked out a notion of morality. Most ancient philosophy and religion aimed at a transcendent and objective “good” that lies outside of humanity. We might call this the forms of Plato, the political telos of Aristotle, or “God” in Christianity or any other religion. Neitzche did not agree that any of these served as foundation of a “good.” God, after all, is dead and we have killed him.
Nietzche asks us to consider where morality actually came from -its genealogy. He tells us a parable of hawks and sheep. The sheep are mostly helpless, vulnerable, and herd together out of the need to survive. The hawks are powerful. They fly, hunt, and eat all by instinct and impulse. Frequently, the hawks fly down and overtake a sheep to eat it. The sheep see their fellows being eaten. They declare the hawks “evil” and their own weaknesses and passivity as “good.” Neitzche calls this “herd morality.” The hawks do not call themselves evil, but they do not call themselves good. They might not call themselves anything at all. They are simply powerful, and they don’t seem to mind.
It is not hard to see how this appeals to a power hungry wizard like Voldemort. The more magic he acquires, the greater of a hawk he will become. Morality is something for muggles and weak wizards, not the powerful sons of Slytherin. Ultimately, the books reveal that Voldemort was wrong in his assessment of morality. Also, in fairness to Neitzche, there is plenty of debate about whether he would have approved of a “might makes right” approach to the world. In any case, Voldemort and Neitzche are a powerful example of how philosophy can enrich a villain and enrich a story.
Now happy writing.