J.K. Rowling is touring the United States this week, meeting with thousands of school-aged children, signing their copies of the Harry Potter books, and doing interviews. MTV reports that she spoke on the surprising contrast of the characters of Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, and Severus Snape, the Potions Master who finally becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher before replacing Dumbledore as Headmaster. Here’s the excerpt from the MTV article:
“Although [Dumbledore] seems to be so benign for six books, he’s quite a Machiavellian figure, really. He’s been pulling a lot of strings. Harry has been his puppet,” she explained. “When Snape says to Dumbledore [toward the end of ‘Hallows’], ‘We’ve been protecting [Harry] so he could die at the right moment’ — I don’t think in book one you would have ever envisioned a moment where your sympathy would be with Snape rather than Dumbledore.”
Albus Dumbledore as a Machiavellian figure is one of the most surprising, if not shocking, parts of the final book in the series, The Deathly Hallows. In that book we learn more about Dumbledore than we could ever imagine, including learning that he is not Gandolf, or Merlin, or even Obi Wan Kenobi. He is a far more complex character that we could have imagined – but since we had only seen him through the eyes of a young Harry, it took new eyes to see him as his true self.
In the course of the final book, Harry learns what Dumbledore had intended for him all along and how he brilliantly (?) prepared Harry to make the decisions he would eventually make for himself (?) in the closing chapters of Deathly Hallows. Harry has to come to terms with facing a temptation that his own mentor, Dumbledore, was not able to resist – would he pursue the altruistic goal or would he pursue power? Would he follow in his mentor’s footsteps and rationalize the pursuit of power as the way to achieve his altruistic goal? Or would he resist the temptation to pursue personal power and instead follow the way of the cross of sacrifice and giving up power?
That is at the heart of the entire series, now that we’ve come to the end and can look back. Harry’s journey can be now contrasted with the journey of his mentor, Albus Dumbledore.
According to Wikil, “Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527) was an Italian diplomat, political philosopher, musician, poet, and playwright. He is a figure of the Italian Renaissance and a central figure of its political component, most widely known for his treatises on realist political theory (The Prince) on the one hand and republicanism (Discourses on Livy) on the other.”
To be “Machiavellian” by today’s standards is basically to be a person who seeks to be publicly above reproach but privately may be required to do things that could be seen as morally questionable – or even evil – in order to achieve “the greater good.”
In Machiavelli’s best known work “The Prince” (and isn’t that an interesting name if you know your Harry Potter) Wiki describes the outcome of that work like this: “The primary contribution of “The Prince” to the history of political thought is its fundamental break between realism and idealism. While Machiavelli emphasized the need for morality, the sole motivation of the prince ought to be the use of good and evil solely as instrumental means rather than ends in themselves. A wise prince is one who properly exercises this proper balance. Pragmatism is a guiding thread through which Machiavelli bases his philosophy. The Prince should be read strictly as a guidebook on getting to and preserving power.”
We learn that Dumbledore struggled with this conflict, to his very end. The person who appeared to be the most “Machiavellian” – Severus Snape – turned out to be far more the idealist than Dumbledore himself. While no doubt an unsavory character, Snape consistently saves Harry’s life because of his love for Lily Evans, Harry’s mother, and his loyalty to Albus Dumbledore. Snape is shocked to learn that Dumbledore plans all along for Harry to sacrifice his life to save the wizarding world from Voldemort and that Dumbledore’s tutelage of his young student is in preparation for that anticipated event. Full stop.
What are we to take away from this? When one is working in altruistic or even idealist endeavors, there will come that moment when it is discovered that not everyone is on the same road. Many start out on the same road – Dumbledore certainly did – and then got sidetracked by the seduction of power (those deathly hallows). Even the best of leaders can have this happen. Power corrupts. Machiavelli seemed to think that power could be harnessed for “good” but that is an ideal in itself for it does not take into consideration the affect power has on the human soul. The best way to set aside such concerns is to downplay the existence of the human soul or better yet, to change the parameters of what is “good” and what is “evil.” If words are just metaphor and that metaphor can be changed, then this can apply to even works like “good” and “evil” or perhaps to words like “sin” and “holy.” In other words, your “truth” may not be the same as my “truth.” The pursuit becomes the goal – and that slides into the quest and retention of power – the antithesis of the Gospel.
It is not hard to become Machiavellian, not hard at all – and the sooner we all know that, the better. The quest for the “greater good” can easily be lost as the quest to attain – perhaps even more so to retain – power takes over. No one is immune, not even Albus Dumbledore.
But we should also remember that those who quickly ascribe Machiavellian actions to others could only be certain by knowing those same principles in themselves. What was it Ronald Reagan said about the Soviets during the arms control negotiations? Trust but verify. Here’s what Reagan said in his farewell address to the nation in 1989:
“What it all boils down to is this. I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.”
Of course, he’s talking about the Soviet Union, but it’s not a bad piece of advice, especially when dealing with difficult and tension-filled times – or as Reagan said, “to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust.”
Trust, but verify. Ask questions, get answers. Trust, but verify. When we stop trusting, we stop caring – so why question? Questioning means we care, we seek to trust.
Even Dumbledore answered Harry’s questions – and he told him the truth.