January 2011

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Unforgiveable Curses

Copyright © 2010 by Bill Meacham
From Philosophy for Real Life
Originally published at http://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=74

In the fantasy world of Harry Potter there are three unforgiveable curses, which a witch or wizard may not perform, on pain of lifelong banishment to a terrible prison:

It's not hard to understand why they are illegal: because they cause great harm to the victim, and the state (in this case the quasi-state of all those subject to the Ministry of Magic) has an interest in protecting its citizenry. That's one of the functions of a well-run state.

But if they were not illegal (and if we actually had such magic powers), would we be tempted to use them? Most of us, no doubt, would not; we would find them abhorrent. But why?

Plato addresses this question in the Gorgias, in which he makes a remarkable assertion: It is better to suffer harm than to do it, better to be wronged than to wrong another, His reasoning is that if you suffer harm if someone steals your property, say, or beats you up or even enslaves you then your body suffers but not necessarily your soul. But if you harm someone else, then your own soul is harmed by that very action; it becomes warped and out of balance.

The notion of “soul” might seem quaint to many of us today, as there is little scientific evidence for an eternal and immutable substance that is somehow our very essence but incorporeal, dissociated from the body, and immortal, not subject to death as the body is. We need not go that far, however, to understand what Plato was talking about. The Greek word translated as “soul” is psyche, a word we still use today to mean a person's interiority, a person's mind or mental state. Psychological factors, we say, influence our thought, behavior and character. Plato recognizes this when he tells us what is good for the soul: harmony, order, justice, temperance and discipline.(1) The soul for Plato was composed of various tendencies: appetite, passion and reason. When the soul is well-ordered when the appetites and passions are subject to control by reason then the soul functions well and the person is happy and fulfilled. But when the appetites or the passions rule, then the soul is disordered and the person is unhappy.

Consider Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter's evil nemesis. It is obvious that his passions are in command. He is obsessed with power and his desire to avoid death. He has no friends, only fearful sycophants. He has no peace, as he is constantly consumed with his quest for world domination, haunted by his need for control. His primary mental state seems to be hatred. He finds love detestable. Can you imagine being like that? How awful it would feel! If you had to choose between being like that and being Voldemort's victim, unpleasant as that would be, which would you choose?

The question is not just theoretical. You don't need magic to practice torture, slavery and murder, and there are plenty of people who do so today. And you don't need to be an evil monster to practice less severe forms of the same, to hurt somebody with an unkind word, to dominate them with arrogance, to kill their spirit with denigration and contempt.

Plato wasn't the only one with this insight. The Buddhists say that harboring anger at someone is like drinking poison and hoping that the person you are angry at will die. It is self-defeating and stupid. It is not something a thoughtful and wise person would do. Like Plato, the Buddhists recognize that it is worse to do harm than to be harmed, that kindness is more likely to lead to fulfillment and happiness than malevolence.

That doesn't prove it's true, of course, but it does suggest that it would be worthwhile to try living that way, just to see what happens.

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(1) Plato, Gorgias, 504a – 504e, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961), pp. 286-287.