Thursday, November 4, 2004

St. Augustine, Harry Potter, and the Confrontation with Evil

This fall, on November 3, 2004, Prof. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, delivered a talk entitled “St. Augustine, Harry Potter and the Confrontation with Evil.” She began by speaking about St. Augustine’s notion of evil as the absence of good. Evil, according to Augustine, is not an active principle; rather, it is parasitic, feeding off of good. Only goodness can have depth, whereas evil is shallow, flattening out the world and making it ever more one-dimensional. Evil-doing is not glamorous but hollow, and it prevents a person from achieving his potential, making him like a shell of himself.

Elshtain then compared this Augustinian notion of evil and that presented in J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books. Elshtain explained that she was introduced to these books through her young grandson, and despite the controversy they have created in many Christian communities, she believes that they are eminently suitable for children. The Harry Potter books, Elsthain contended, present a serious picture of a moral universe where bad things really do happen, but one is never left without the tools to fight evil. This is important in a children’s story, because if stories present an overly sanitized world, then there is no contrast by which to understand good and evil and the struggle between the two that children will confront in real life.

Elshtain’s talk was well-attended by the Schmitt fellows and many in the Notre Dame community, and we were honored by the presence of several members of the board of the Schmitt Foundation.

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