Friday, October 29, 2010

Aristotle as Dumbledore?

I have a huge stack of books around here, begging for my attention, but I couldn't pass by this title on the library shelf the other day: "Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts."
I have been reading a lot about Aristotle in English 5361, Theories of Invention in Writing, and simultaneously reading the Harry Potter series, so I naturally was curious about what David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein had to say in combining the two. I've just been skimming at this point, but I did spend some time looking over the indexed parts related to Aristotle, which seem primarily related to his moral philosophy. Aristotle judged people on actions, the authors argue, not words (hear that sophists?!), especially when good deeds are done because they are good and right, not because they bring some sort of reward. Another interesting point the authors made was that all of the important decisions we encounter in life take place in an emotional context. Aristotle would say, the authors contend, that a reasonable person gives emotions the "appropriate" weight, and to be virtuous, via the Doctrine of the Means, a response should not be too excessive or deficient in terms of emotions. Relating that to rhetoric, I think of the balance Aristotle creates in his artistic proofs of Ethos, Logos and Pathos. In Aristotle's view, the perfect rhetorical argument provides an ideal balance of those proofs, addressing authority of the viewpoint, a logical expression of the information and emotional touchstones. I hadn't really thought about this before, because emotional rhetorical appeals seem to be the default for many, if not most, people, but what happens to rhetoric without emotions? Is such expression even possible? Building or degrading authority or character -- the ethos -- seems to inherently provoke an emotional response from the audience, such as "that's not fair" or, "yeah, that person is a bum," even if that's not a core part of what's delivered. An argument without logic would provoke an emotional response of, "someone is trying to trick me." I can imagine many arguments without logic. In fact, those seem to come up quite often. And I can imagine many arguments that strip away the ethos, purposively, to get to the "root" of the issue, as in, it doesn't matter who is saying this, it just matters that it is being said. But emotions, and pathos, seem practically unavoidable. Another interesting point made by this book is that evil can be intelligent, such as Lord Voldemort, but it can't be wise. Dumbledore is quoted as saying that Voldemort's knowledge of magic is "perhaps more extensive than any wizard alive," but Aristotle argues that a person must be knowledgeable and do noble deeds for the sake of being good to truly be wise (and virtuous). Many of the, ahem, highly flawed characters in the books I have read so far -- Gilderoy Lockhart comes to mind -- wield rhetoric in self-serving, sophistic ways. So is Dumbledore, then, really a veiled representation of Aristotle? Hmmm ...

6 comments:

Debbie Davy said...

Dear Brett,
This is an intriguing post, but I must admit that at first blush the thought of using Harry Potter, Dubmledore, and Aristotle in the same sentence gage me pause (I personally don’t think much of the series other than it is full of plagiarisms). However, putting aside my pathos and focusing on the logos of comparing Dumbledore to Aristotle makes for an interesting discussion. So can we compare Dumbledore to Aristotle? Prehaps we can, if we consider whether or not Dumbledore is trying to achieve absolute truth.

To achieve absolute truth, that is to triumph over evil, Dumbledore uses the students as tools in the war with Voldemort. And this war is really good vs. bad. In this example, good is absolute truth and bad is the sophist equivalent. However, we must consider that it is not just Dumbledore the good who is trying to triumph over evil, it is the larger Wizard society as a whole.

And certainly Harry Potter is a rhetorical pawn in the good vs. evil war. What we see in the Harry Potter books are the three precepts of rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos. Certainly, the pathos is extreme and the ethos is minimal, at least initially. The logos is best expressed as through this syllogism: Voldemort is evil, Voldemort killed my parents, therefore Voldemort is bad.

The ethos of the character Harry Potter, unlike in traditional Aristotelian argument where it is fixed at the start, increases over time. Good vs. evil is an ongoing battle, and as Harry Potter grows from child to man his ethos (and abilities) increase as the years go by.

Therefore, because the ethos changes and the pathos changes in respect to child being in harms way to a young man who must overcome evil, I’m not sure we can completely make the comparison to Aristotle. Your analysis does work, however, if we consider the good vs. evil debate as frozen in time and not as a beginning to end event.

Rich said...

Is there something related to invention in Aristotle and Harry Potter that plays a role in your assignments for the course?

Interesting ideas about writing without logic but just for the appeals of emotion, say, and response. That sounds like more of an aesthetic approach to viewing something--perhaps a Harry Potter effect. Perhaps because logic is becoming something so ingrained in the power structures of information that it's not needed by end users--it's done for them, and there are few if any opportunities to compose new approaches that use logic. Or, perhaps the rhetoric is so entrenched that those doing the rhetoricizing have made logic so ingrained that we can not determine or render tacit the underpinnings. Is this a problem in society today, or should we go with it, instructionally? Focus less on logic in composition, for instance, and more on visual rhetoric or emotional appeal? Is good writing today more about connective properties and less about deductive or even inductive reasoning?

Deb said...

Loved your post, Brett! And Dr. Rice raises some interesting questions based on your comments. I think that pathos, to some degree, is a part of all types of rhetoric. And although I do not think that we need to dismiss logic in teaching composition, I think that a renewed emphasis on pathos might be a breath of fresh air in many composition classes. I may be mistaken in my assumption here, but I think that students may have had more intrinsic motivation years ago. Today, students attend college for different reasons--with different goals. My students aren't here to be enlightened, to earn a well-rounded education. So to get them to even attempt to write well, they have to write about something important to them, something they care about, something that engages their pathos. I think the definition of good writing today can be expanded; it still needs to demonstrated strong reasoning (whether inductive or deductive), but this reasoning can be strengthen through emotional appeal.

Elaine said...

This sounds like an interesting book and I think it is interesting to see that rhetorical theory developed in the 300 B.C. period is still being used to analyze modern literature. In regards to Dr. Rice's question of what makes up good writing I have to agree with Deb. Very few of use are naturally talented writers, but it is easier to learn the art of writing if you have a subject that you are interested in. This means that writing needs to be more than just mastering the grammar and linguistic aspects. The student needs to be able to demonstrate an ability to reason.

Mel said...

Dumbledore is neither Aristotelian nor Machiavellian in the true sense of either philosopher. He cannot be both, though he exhibits characterists of both at different stages of his life.

Orange Park Web Services said...

Is this a problem in society today, or should we go with it, instructionally?