What can Harry Potter teach us? This seems to be a very puerile question. But I confess that Harry Potter has been one of the most fascinating and philosophically stimulating books that I have ever read. The series is not just about adventure, friendship, love, and defeating evil. Those are indeed important attributes that make the series so fascinating and immersive. But I particularly enjoy the gentle yet deep philosophy behind some of the plots, people, and events within the book. This series of posts is an attempt to convey some of those nuances that I continue to learn and be inspired from.
Let’s start by looking at one of my favorite plots. This is from Book 1: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone (or sorcerer’s stone if you are in America). This is the plot where Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised. Harry stumbles across the mirror during one of his later night jaunts across the castle. The mirror shows him his family. Harry, having never seen his family is enraptured by the images. He comes back, again and again, to be with those images he sees in the mirror. His friend Ron Weasley though, sees himself as a head boy, holding the Quidditch cup. The mirror shows different things based on the one that uses it. This naturally confuses the two boys, but they do not delve into this, being captivated by the images.
On one such occasion, Dumbledore, the kind, intelligent and wise headmaster of the school, secretly waits in the shadows for Harry to come into the classroom where the mirror is held. Surprisingly he doesn’t chide Harry for being out of bed. He seeks to explore and understand the mirror with Harry. And what ensues is a fascinating description of the Mirror of Erised. The conversation between the headmaster and Harry is as follows:
“Can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?” Harry shook his head.
“Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. J.K.Rowling.
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want… whatever we want…”
“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly.
“It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
In many philosophical systems, the world is seen as a mirror. We see in the world what we are within ourselves. In particular, our emotive state plays an important role in how we perceive the world. If we are filled with anger, hate, and jealousy, we impose this onto the world. On the other hand, if we are tranquil, content, and happy, we see these attributes in the world. The world reflects our innermost state. In that sense, the world is often said to be a mirror.
The Mirror of Erised shows us our innermost, deepest yearnings. It reflects back that which we covet the most. But only a fully content person, will be able to use the mirror as just a mirror. That is to say, if a person seeks nothing from the world, he will be able to interact with the world, just the way it is – devoid of any emotive superimposition on it. Then, the world (or the mirror) would show the person truly as he or she is. If not, the world shows you a false version of reality and drives you insane thanks to your own inner desires. It is akin to what Buddha said: “Desire is the root of all suffering”.
This simply means that if we can understand and resolve our innermost conflicts and yearnings, the world will appear to us as we truly are. It becomes an expression of ourselves. And this is the important message that the Mirror of Erised is teaching Harry, and indeed each one of us.
Trivia: What is Erised read backward?