Machiavelli’s Prince and J.K. Rowling’s Snape
By Andrew Cooper
As an undergrad university student I have mountains of reading to do each week full of mundane and abstract thought that I sometimes doubt has much relevance for today. However, skimming through a book discussing moral and political philosophy, I stumbled across an uncanny parallel to our favourite story which made my monotonous reading fresh and exciting. This editorial will look first at J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of morality in Harry Potter and then compare it to Niccolò Machiavelli’s discussion on moral philosophy in The Prince to shine some fresh light on the possible direction of Book Seven and in turn to propose the future role of Snape in the finale.
J.K Rowling has often been praised by literary critics for her skill in conveying moral and ethical ideologies to young readers in secular society through her imaginative and original narrative style. However, if this is so, I have yet to see a convincing theory of the outcome of this series that seriously engages with her moral agenda. Many theories have been put forward suggesting an outright Harry victory, possibly simplifying the good verses evil conflict. Others suggested the idea that both Voldemort and Harry will die in a final battle to allow good to triumph which picks up on the moral tension, but is usually argued from the ambiguity of the prophecy rather than from a moral perspective. I have found arguments discussing whether Snape is good or evil to be fairly simplistic, again failing to penetrate the moral complexities of the Harry Potter series. This essay will argue that the moral positioning of Snape represents a dynamic interplay of both morality and immorality and in doing so proposes a thoroughly unique and unexpected focus of the climax of Harry Potter.
In broad terms, the Harry Potter series appears to be a contrast of two approaches to morality and virtue. Rowling presents the wise and good Dumbledore and his Order against the evil and power-seeking Voldemort and his cronies, the Death Eaters. She cleverly juxtaposes these two forces to help the reader to see the attractive yet difficult nature of goodness, wisdom and virtue and the repulsiveness of the evil and the immoral. We are taught to shun evil, but to seek virtue because it is in itself worthwhile. Perhaps this is summed up in Rowling’s focus on choice as the action which defines our virtue and character, as she tells us through her wise voice of truth, Dumbledore, to “Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.” 1 Rowling cleverly positions the reader to value Diggory’s virtue and to make the right and good decisions, despite the associated struggle.
However, Rowling fleshes out this dichotomy of moral perspectives in Harry Potter to show that good and bad is not as black and white as many children’s stories may suggest. Harry is faced with many grey areas and is forced to decide how to act, and although he rarely chooses the easy option, the good and right choices are never obvious or simple. This is highlighted in Harry’s constant choice to take seriously the threats of Dark Magic, such as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where he strives to find out about the Stone and the character of Snape even after being told to stop by McGonagall.2 Harry’s ambivalence for rules and his curious and searching character are a testimony to this as he choses to actively contest evil, rather than taking the easy option of indifference. This is more particularly seen in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as Harry refuses to work with Rufus Scrimgeour to give credibility to the Ministry.3 The easy option would be to join forces with the Ministry’s authority, especially since Dumbledore has died, but Harry upholds Dumbledore’s more difficult moral order. This portrays Rowling’s view on goodness and virtue: that they cannot be defined to a simple set of moral actions, but require a difficult and painstaking approach to choice that is seeking the good and just. This is a far more realistic and helpful moral discussion, especially to her secular readers faced with a life of hard choices as they seek to live with little moral direction.
A work that discusses a very different moral framework from that which we see in Harry Potter is Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. This book discusses another interesting yet slightly more didactic approach to choice and ethics. Machiavelli, a sixteenth century philosopher, wrote this classic in order to challenge previously held ideas of morality and wisdom. He was a learned student of classic Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle who held a Dumbledore-like perspective of good and virtue, claiming that people are just and social beings and are to be and act virtuously for the greater good of society. Machiavelli had a less optimistic view of humanity, framing his theories in a “guide book” format to show the reader prescriptively how to act, while using examples grounded in classic study. Rowling’s exploration of morality in Harry Potter appears to be similar to Machiavelli in challenging classical philosophy, going against the shallow moral outlook of much of children’s and teenage literature.
Machiavelli’s ideas are quite confrontational, claiming that to achieve glory is the main objective for a “prince” (ruler) rather than justice and peace. He claims that one cannot be good and just when others are evil and deceitful as it will lead to downfall, a common perspective of evil characters in Harry Potter (“Decent people are so easy to manipulate” – Moody).4 He deduces that it is not rational to be moral in every situation, but that to gain glory one must act both justly and cruelly to meet their end. Machiavelli claims that to achieve glory, a prince must be far more complex than good or evil, but a “fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.” 5 By this he means that the prince’s wisdom must allow him to be noble and virtuous so as to be good and respected, but must also know when and how to be shrewd and forceful. Machiavelli’s prince is to know when to act and when to be passive; when to be forceful and when to show virtue. The prince must be accountable to no one other than himself, and choose company wisely. He must be unreadable and impenetrable, guarded in advice and true to his word. He must be strong yet cunning, bold yet secretive. Machiavelli shows that to excel and triumph, a prince must not simply be good, or evil for that matter, but suggests a far more intricate approach employing amoral and adaptive methods. This perspective brings to mind the most enigmatic character of the series: Severus Snape.
Many of these characteristics fit surprisingly well with Snape. He mixes with both virtuous and amoral company and shows strong signs of both. He works for Dumbledore but shows hatred and venom to his students. He is in the Order of the Phoenix yet is scathing and independent. He shows a compromise between the good and evil, the virtuous and shrewd, using the wisdom and strength of a lion and the cleverness and underhandedness of a fox. Other Harry Potter characters, namely Dumbledore and Voldemort, are extreme representations of the dichotomy of good and evil, whereas Snape shows the dynamic interplay between these two inclinations, giving the reader a more intriguing and mysterious character (hence the vast amount of discussion surrounding Snape).
But there is more to link Snape to Machiavelli’s prince, aside from the descriptions I have just laid out. In his book, Machiavelli refers to a historical emperor named Severus, and this story seems to have many similarities to Snape’s story – perhaps it even served as an inspiration for Rowling’s Half-Blood Prince. Machiavelli draws on a classic narrative to illustrate his approach to morality and ethics using the story of the third century emperor of Rome, Severus.6 To summarise, Severus, a military figure, convinces the Roman army to march on Rome in revenge of the death of a prominent senator. Out of fear, the senate then elects Severus as emperor. However, the empire of Rome was widespread, and another man, Niger, was claiming to be emperor in Asia, while another, Albinius, claimed to be the emperor in the west. Severus sets out to conquer them both, and, perceiving it as unwise to attack both, he attacks and defeats Albinius showing allegiance to Niger, claiming no ambition of the Empire. However, he then attacks the unsuspecting Niger and is victorious, becoming the one Emperor and ruler of Rome for the remainder of his life. Machiavelli applauds Severus, saying that he “had the qualities of a ferocious lion and a very cunning fox” and sums up his life as “remarkable and outstanding.” 7
The similarities between the emperor Severus and the character of Snape are uncanny and make me wonder if the undergraduate Rowling was intrigued by The Prince in her Philosophy studies. The idea of Snape as Emperor Severus rising to power as his own entity in the climax after killing “Albinius” Dumbledore and fooling the unsuspecting Voldemort is fascinating. The link to this story has been made before 8 but it has not previously been suggested to assist in our understanding of the conclusion to the Harry Potter series and support for the Snape-is-his-own-player theory. It may well be insightful to draw connections between the Half-Blood Prince and Machiavelli’s prince, as well as between Snape’s Unbreakable Vow and Machiavelli’s emphasis on the importance of gaining respect through keeping one’s word.
I propose that Snape will juggle morality and immorality, employing the devices of the lion and the fox to rise to power. This amoral approach captures the moral framework that many contemporary young readers face today. He has first defeated Dumbledore, and could continue to please and gain power, eventually moving to overthrow Voldemort, a man he has little to thank for. Rowling makes many references to Voldemort’s skill as a Legilimens 9 but also to Snape’s Occlumency 10 skills which may aid in this ultimate deceitful act. Snape himself implies this possibility;
The Dark Lord, for instance, almost always knows when somebody is lying to him. Only those skilled at Occlumency are able to shut down those feelings and memories that contradict the lie, and so can utter falsehoods in his presence without detection.11
However, this startling proposal needs to be considered in the moral framework that has already been discussed; it seems contrary to Rowling’s views on morality and power that Snape would triumph as opposed to truth and right (i.e. Harry). While Snape may well rise up over both Voldemort and Dumbledore, it is clear that he will not triumph over the whole wizarding world.
What weapons would Harry use to fight against such a formidable force? Not merely goodness and virtue, but by making the right decisions, acting self-sacrificially for what is right. He will have to make extremely difficult choices, perhaps making decisions between who will die rather than by purely saving people. Snape is constantly reinforcing that control over emotions and a steel-like appearance is essential, and it will take Harry’s outward emotion, his inability to control his natural feelings, and his loving passion which J.K. Rowling advocates in this book to defeat the ice cold enemy. From Harry’s character, upbringing and exposure to Dumbledore, his actions and choices have become intrinsically good, faithful and loving. This will be essential in his defeat of evil, though it may result in several deaths, perhaps even his own. In his unique loving character, Harry has the ability to think outside himself in order to be self-sacrificial and to succeed. This strength of character is not found in the villainous, power-seeking characters who are too self absorbed to be able to combat such a weapon.
It is puzzling how Rowling knew what to write in the final chapter before she wrote the first book unless she knew the exact framework of her narrative and how it would come together. Perhaps Snape and his involvement in the story is central to this. Every book has involved suspicion and deception by a major character and it is possible that Rowling will employ this device once more across the entire narrative and tie the story together with the character of Snape. He was present and controversial in the first book, and has continued to act suspiciously and prominently right up to the sixth book in which he played a central role. Even if the series unfolds in a manner contrary to my proposal in this essay, Rowling cleverly portrays how the difference between good and evil is extremely complex. If Snape is indeed good, he cleverly shows how one can fight for good while not being a good person. There are many other characters in this story who also demonstrate this complexity, such as Rufus Scrimgeour and Mundungus Fletcher.
All this being said, what we do know from our understanding of Rowling’s moral framework established in Harry Potter is that the ending will not be a simple good defeats evil narrative. The tension and greyness of these moral descriptors will not allow it. Rowling shows that ethics and the good-evil polarity are not that simple, but that struggling for the good and making the difficult and courageous choices like Harry endeavours to do is real and necessary in today’s society. This is the only way that Harry can be victorious in this series. As a result of this, we may find Harry facing a far more fearsome opponent than the black, monotonous and predictable Voldemort; but the lion and the fox, the virtuous and rapacious Half-Blood Prince. Keep in mind Rowling’s references to Snape, and ponder with me the contents of the mysterious yet complete final chapter.
“Everyone should keep their eye on Snape. I’ll just say that, because there’s more to him than meets the eye…” 12
“You shouldn’t think [Snape is] too nice. Let me just say that. It is worth keeping an eye on old Severus, definitely!” 13
1. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 628.
2. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 195.
3. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 604-5.
4. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 587.
5. Machiavelli, The Prince, 56-57.
6. Ibid., 63.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Lexicon, “Severus Snape,” Name Meanings.
9. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 18, for example.
10. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 469.
12. Rowling, Interview by Christopher Lydon, part 13.
13. Ibid., Interview by Stephen Fry.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
-. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. -. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. -. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. -. Interview by Christopher Lydon, The Connection, WUBR Radio, October 12, 1999. Transcript, Quick Quotes Quill, http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/1999/1099-connectiontransc2.htm. -. Interview by Stephen Fry, MSN Webcast at the Royal Albert Hall, June 26, 2003. Transcript, Quick Quotes Quill, http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/2003/0626-alberthall-fry.htm.
The Harry Potter Lexicon. “Severus Snape: Name Meanings.” 2000-2006. Member of the Floo Network. http://hp-lexicon.org/wizards/snape.html#name (accessed 11 September 2006).