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Chicago professor lectures on ‘confrontation of evil’

Eileen Duffy | Thursday, November 4, 2004

Professor Jean Elspeth of the University of Chicago enlightened “Harry Potter” fans and religious scholars alike Wednesday afternoon in her lecture entitled “St. Augustine, Harry Potter, and the Confrontation with Evil.”

Elspeth began the talk, which was sponsored by the Schmidt Foundation and the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, with an assessment of evil today.

“Evil is in the air these days in our political life,” she said, recalling President Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as the “empire of evil;” President Clinton calling the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing “doers of evil;” and President Georgia W. Bush terming the Iraq, Iran and North Korea regimes the “axis of evil.”

Evil has been a notion recognized throughout history, Elspeth noted. She related a story from her childhood: a Russian family was forced to immigrate to her tiny hometown in Colorado, narrowly escaping Stalin’s destruction of small farms throughout Russia.

“When talking about her experiences, [The mother] would weep softly and rock back and forth,” Elspeth explained. “Evil was what she had faced.”

Elspeth then turned to St. Augustine, who, she said, has made “the most monumental of all efforts in Western thought to grapple with the question of evil.” As a child, Augustine was caught up in a world of physical hedonism, said Elspeth; in error, he recognized evil as an external force which he could blame for his wrongdoing. This erroneous thought was known as dualism.

Eventually, Augustine realized that it was his own impiety that had led to sin, Elspeth said, coming to reject the notion of evil as a force and beginning to understand it as a falling away from the good.

“‘Evil’ is the name we give to an assent to temptation that might become servitude over time,” said Elspeth. She noted that doers of evil do not understand what it is like to live in the world of the good, and often search for something to attach themselves to.

“Evil lies in limited, hollowed-out, empty men and women who do horrific things,” Elspeth said. “Good relies on unrehearsed deed-doing of men and women who occasionally achieve extraordinary things.”

Elspeth then began her discussion of the “Harry Potter” series, attributing much of her explanation to her grandson, Bobby, with whom she had read the five books this summer. She noted that despite the overwhelming presence of evil throughout the stories, there is good that is always able to fight back.

From volume one of the series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Elspeth noted three main points. First, she pointed out that Voldemort is a powerful wizard who has gone to the dark side, much like the fallen angel Satan. Second, she noted Voldemort’s important idea that there is no good and evil, there is only power.” Third and finally, she highlighted the point that Harry escaped Voldemort’s death curse because of the love and sacrifice of his mother – evil could do nothing in the presence of such good.

In volume two, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” Elspeth pointed out the ability of evil, represented by Voldemort, to feed off of an evil subject (the younger version of himself, Tom Riddle) as well as a good one (Ginny Weasley, younger sister of Harry’s friend Ron). Harry is saved by Dumbledore’s phoenix Fawkes, whose tears of compassion heal Harry’s wounds and blind an evil snake.

Volume three, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” introduces readers to “Dementors,” evil guards of the Azkaban prison whose “kiss” sucks out a person’s soul.

“Like evil,” Elspeth said, “the Dementors take away, but cannot give anything.”

Elspeth compared the feeling that the characters experience around the Dementors is like one who has succumbed to evil – such as Ron Weasley experiences in volume three when he says “‘I felt weird, like I would never be cheerful again,'” Elspeth said.

Finally, Elspeth noted the ability of humor and wit to drive the demons away. She explained that Christians have often spoken of good humor as one of God’s gifts to humanity.

Elspeth mainly chronicled Voldemort’s desire to gain material form in volume four, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Voldemort uses a servant called Wormtail to help him remain alive, feeding mainly on snake venom.

“Does this not suggest,” Elspeth asked, “that if no one fed evil, it would not continue? [Voldemort] is kept alive through the willing actions of others.”

Visiting Professor Umbridge was Elspeth’s focal point in her discussion of volume five, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Umbridge often belittled and embarrassed her students. “This notion of a kind of mockery at the suffering of others is recognized as a characteristic of evil,” said Elspeth.

In conclusion, Elspeth admitted that the books could be troubling for some children. “Harry Potter offers children a serious picture of a moral universe, in which very bad things sometimes happen,” she said. “But none of us is without a way of fighting back against it.”