Pop Culture and Souls
I started reading a philosophy book a couple weeks ago. Now, some will roll their eyes and shake their head when they read that sentence, but I must tell you that I’m enjoying it and learning at the same time. It isn’t necessarily an easy read, but the references are allowing me to enter into a thought process based upon delight and childlike wonder. Plato said that philosophy begins in wonder. And kids wonder about everything. Often they understand a lot more than adults give them credit for.
The book? Oh, yes – Harry Potter and Philosophy – a series of essays edited by William Irwin and Gregory Bassham. In it they explore the complex issues and challenging questions raised by J. K. Rowling offering her readers nourishment they don’t fully grasp through her stories, but absorb as they read them over and over again. I’ve loved sitting down with the Harry Potter series once again and reading them with a new set of eyes and the curiosity of a child.
So, you ask, what does this have to do with Souls? In her books, Rowling asks if people have souls. If they do, how are the related to their bodies? Can they be divided, how many times? Can shape-shifters like Animagi and boggarts teach us about personal identity and the self? Does power inevitably corrupt?
In Harry’s world, people have souls that generally survive bodily death. Sounds a bit like Unity doesn’t it? Here is Hermione Granger’s explanation of souls:
“My point is that whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched.”
J. K. Rowling appears to adopt much of the sentimental view of souls, associating them with what makes us most human – our capacity to love, and our moral conscience. She makes this a critical aspect of her story as she delves into the creation of Horcruxes (“Secrets of the Darkest Art”) – splitting the soul which can only be done by a “supreme act of evil”, making it damaged or unstable but leaving skills and brain intact, and taking away Voldemort’s humanity. The only way to repair this torn soul is through feeling genuine remorse.
What Rowling accomplishes in describing her version of the soul is in giving us a vivid picture of what we really care about, or what we hope humanity cares about.
Her stories help our children grapple with concepts like whether death is something to be feared, or “mastered” as Harry Potter was ultimately able to do, how behaving badly can shatter your humanity even to the point of splitting your soul, the ethics of trying to change someone else rather than look to yourself, and even the concept that something can be real even if it exists only inside a person’s head.
Thanks for reading this all the way through. I’m off now to read more about mind-body distinctions. You see, Sirius Black can change himself into a dog. Sometimes he chases his tail. Is he a man in a dog’s body, or does he lose his sense of self because he has transformed?