[From friend of the blog Mark Satta]
One of the great things about good literature is the ease with which it brings to life the characters in the mind of the reader. This “bringing to life” gives the reader an ability to play around with the facets of the character’s personality in a way that I think a philosophical text rarely allows for. Elements of this benefit can be found both in the recent Cormac McCarthy episode and the recent Voltaire episode. This particular joy of literature may also be one of the reasons behind the wild success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
One of the great literary triumphs of the series is Rowling’s creation of a villain who has a perspective so bereft of what most of us value that he’s repulsively unfamiliar yet whose back-story illuminates a number of peccadilloes that we can so readily relate to that the repulsion is magnified by seeing a reflection of the worst parts of ourselves in a nature we naturally despise.
In essence, what Rowling does in her creation of Lord Voldemort is bring to life the tyrant described in Plato’s Republic. Plato provides a brilliant psychological account of the most unhappy state for a person to be in—the state of the tyrant. The tyrant, who is ruled by his self-love, is incapable of truly loving anyone else and is incapable of maintaining any true friendships. He uses everyone, to use Kantian language, as a mere means. Friendship and love shine throughout the Harry Potter series as the signs of a good and valuable life, and it is Voldemort’s complete lack of these traits in juxtaposition to Harry’s healthy possession of them that makes Voldemort someone to be pitied perhaps even more than hated.
Plato realizes that part of the unhappy condition of the tyrant is that he must constantly fear for his life. Because the tyrant has wronged and enslaved those around him, he has many enemies. The fear of death is Voldemort’s supreme motivation, and ultimately this leads him to destroy, in a literal sense, the unity of his own soul in order to escape death. Of course, as in the case of all tyrants, the sacrifice of one’s own soul is not enough to forestall death forever. In the final film based on the book series we get the proper image of the tyrant’s demise with Voldemort’s death. He does not go out in a blaze–rather, the thin, dry outer shell of his soul-less being merely disintegrates. A powerful argument against allowing one’s soul to become tyrannical.