Thursday, March 20, 2008

Muggles and Natural Slavery

In the Corner over at National Review Online, John Derbyshire writes a throwaway line that happens to capture much that I hate about the Harry Potter series of books:

That profound imaginative connection with the great void is one of the things that separates science fiction writers and fans from the unimaginative plodding mass of humanity — the Muggles.

Now Derbyshire would probably say I am reading too much into this one sentence, but our fundamental ideas are often most truly revealed in minor asides rather than grand disquisitions. The division of humanity into an elite minority of Wizards who "get it" and a mass majority of clods who "don't get it" is central to the Harry Potter universe; it is also the biggest reason I find the series repulsive and dangerous.

One of the benefits of reading Aristotle is that you learn what a truly "natural" view of the world is; and by natural, I mean a view of the world that comes to us purely from experience of the world unleavened by revelation (and in particular, the revelation of Christ.) Aristotle was a profound and insightful philosopher but one who had not heard the Christian Gospel - for the good reason that he was born before the birth of Christ. Aristotle gives us a picture of what the world most reasonably looks like without Christ.

One of the things that seemed obvious to Aristotle, as I have written about here and here, was that the world is divided into natural slaves and natural masters. There is the "unimaginative plodding mass" of humanity fit only to be slaves, and the minority of human beings born with uncommon talent who deserve, by right, to be masters. Aristotle is quite innocent and unembarrassed when he writes about natural slavery. In that sense, Aristotle is far more "natural" than the back-to-nature philosophers of today, who prefer to view nature through a sentimental mist rather than how it truly is. Why do we think there is something wrong with natural slavery? Not because secular philosophers, independently of exposure to the Christian Gospel, reflected on nature and read nature in a radically different manner than Aristotle. No philosopher outside the Western tradition or, in that tradition, prior to the revelation of Jesus Christ, drew the conclusion that slavery was itself against the natural law. No, slavery came to be seen to be wrong only in light of the "transvaluation of values" that happened in Jesus Christ, Who revealed that the poor, unimaginative and untalented man, the man "poor in spirit", is precisely the one most loved by God and most likely to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus Christ subverted the order of values we naturally read from nature; He did not deny that the mass of humanity is unimaginative and plodding, but he raised mass man out of his obscurity as someone particularly beloved of God. It is the humble, unimaginative yet faithful old lady who patiently cleans the altar every Sunday who is really onto the secret of the Universe, rather than the brilliant science fiction writer or swashbuckling doer of great deeds.

As we move into our post-Christian future and the Gospel of Jesus Christ no longer informs our imaginations in a fundamental way, the old natural way of looking at the universe reasserts itself and reforms our imaginations. We go back to seeing the division between slaves and masters as natural and good, although we don't use the words "slaves" and "masters." Instead we use words like "Muggles" and "Wizards." Of course we object that Muggles are not slaves because they are not subject to Wizards or abused by them (at least by the good Wizards), as in the chattel slavery of the Old South. This is a reflection of our superficial understanding of slavery and the natural form of slavery as understood by Aristotle. The key distinction between the natural master and the natural slave is that the natural master lives in a world that takes very little notice of the natural slave. Aristotle doesn't have much to say about slaves other than what their place is in the well-run state. Life isn't about the insignificant lives of the multitude of slaves but the significant lives of masters; just as the Harry Potter world is about the significant lives of Wizards and only incidentally about the insignificant lives of the many more numerous Muggles. Muggles, like natural slaves, should be occasionally seen but never heard. Of course good Wizards do not abuse Muggles, as Aristotle would find it the height of vulgarity for a gentleman to abuse slaves. The good Wizard, like Aristotle's gentleman, has better things to do than waste his time on Muggles.

And Muggles certainly do serve Wizards in the manner of natural slaves. They run the humdrum, boring, mundane world that serves as a foundation on which the select, exciting world of Hogwarts is superimposed. They run the trains and sweep out the subway stations that Wizards use to travel to their secret world. Just as slaves raised the children of citizens in ancient Greece, so Muggles raise Wizards until they are of age, when they are summarily called by the Hogwarts authorities, who brook no dissent from Muggles anymore than an ancient Athenian would from a slave. Hermione Granger's parents are the ideal type of natural slaves. They raise their daughter on their own resources, then in complacent docility turn her over to a boarding school of which they are required to remain ignorant. They aren't even allowed to know how she gets to the boarding school. Like good natural slaves, they are just grateful that their daughter has been allowed to enter the elite world of the masters even if it means an unbridgeable gulf between them. The Dursleys, on the other hand, are the archetype of bad natural slaves. They fit the stereotype of the natural slave defined by Aristotle; they are ignorant, vulgar, and dominated by their lower appetites. Most unbecoming for natural slaves, they do not know their place with respect to masters. After raising Harry Potter from an infant, Vernon Dursley has the gall to think that he has a right to a say in Potter's future. Hagrid, the "gentle" gardener from Hogwarts, explodes in anger at his impertinence and puts him in his place with a firm dose of magic. Afterwards Hagrid expresses the regret of the natural master, ruing not the fact that he violently attacked a Muggle (and a small boy at that), but that he allowed himself to be so upset by, of all things, a Muggle.

The Potter books are propaganda for a post-Christian imagination. If you wish to raise Christian children, then raise them with Christian imaginations, the best explanation of which can be found in Chesterton's Orthodoxy (see, in particular the chapter The Ethics of Elfland.)


edtye said...


Great Potter critique. I don't think I have heard this angle from you before.
- Ed

David said...


Thanks. The Muggles/Wizard split always bothered me, but it wasn't until I read Aristotle's Politics recently that I could put my finfer on it.


David said...

"finfer" is an alternate spelling of "finger" for those who are confused.