What is the meaning of life? It’s an age-old question theorized in a place one may not expect: within the pages of Harry Potter. A perspective on love and death are major themes in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The popular book series urges us to accept our mortality so we can fully experience human virtues, particularly the virtue of love.
Every individual has a choice to accept or deny their mortality. This choice is exhibited through the actions of the main protagonists, Harry and Voldemort. The two had a very similar upbringings, both were brought up as orphans cut off from the wizarding world; both were poorly treated by their guardians and made out to be outcast by societal standards; both went to Hogwarts hoping to find a new and real place to call home; both find happiness at Hogwarts; both are intelligent and gifted wizards.
They were so similar that Harry feared he would become too much like Voldemort, who is portrayed as the evil villain within the world of wizardry.
The two had such similar upbringings yet are vastly different moral characters. They are ultimately in perfect moral contrast.
But let’s look at the conception of choice. More specifically how choices and actions define our moral character. Not social roles, wealth, ancestry — those don’t add anything to our moral character. They don’t make us more morally worthy. No, a choice is how we demonstrate who we really are. Choice and action are how we express our moral worth.
Take the choices made by Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort. During his youth, he makes decisions that ultimately leads him to become a dark wizard that the wizarding world comes to fear. Tom chooses to vent his anger and frustration at the world with vexation. He points this anger towards others.
Like Harry, Dumbledore plays the role of mentor to Tom. He tries to lead him in the right direction. Having him go to Hogwarts — pushing him towards a life of virtue instead of violence and hate. At first, Tom seemed to be going down the right path. He was a successful student, winning awards, and leadership positions — on the road to becoming a successful wizard. Yet, he finds himself down the path of dark magic, destroying anyone in his way to power. Why?
What ultimately marks the tipping point, the difference that draws one to a virtuous life and the other to wickedness?
The contrast between Harry and Voldemort boils down to the different response both have in the face of the inevitable destiny for all of us: death. The choice to accept or deny death.
See, Voldemort doesn’t trust anyone, he doesn’t love anyone, his only real desire seems to be finding immortality. Once we understand his refusal to accept is inevitable death, we can then follow his path towards evil.
He’s obsessed with death. He sees death as a human weakness — something to be overcome by a mighty wizard. Something that nobody has been able to overcome — even powerful wizards. We see his obsession when he wants the Sorcerer’s stone for bringing him back to life and learning about the splitting of his soul in the Horcruxes.
Voldemort sees magic as a mere means to avoid death.
We learn that to succeed at becoming immortal, the splitting of the soul in the Horcruxes, you must commit a cruel act: murder. This symbolizes that to become immortal, you must lose your humanity, by doing the most inhumane thing: killing your fellow human.
The tragedy is in what Voldemort’s choice ultimately does to him. He sacrifices his humanity. In that sacrifice is his ability to love. For what? A chance at eternal existence. Empty everlasting life. Only to be feared, and never to be loved.
See, the entire serious is demonstrating the importance of accepting our ultimate death. Embrace it. Its part of life and leads to the ability to find the joys of life. Once we embrace our inevitable death — accept the finite time we have — we can then begin to experience life, recognize the importance of our choices and actions.
Without recognizing death, you can’t comprehend the meaning of life. Considering the most fundamental truth of our human condition is we are alive, and death is inevitable. This is a fundamental truth. This basic truth sets up the foundational understanding of morality. How our actions and choices relate to our knowledge of the finite time we live here.
Once we understand this truth, we can begin to understand the importance of our choices and their relation to life’s meaning. We recognize that we don’t have eternity, this gives meaning and urgency to our choices. We begin to realize that our decisions have consequences for ourselves and others — and the ability to understand how those choices affect those we love.
You see, we recognize that Voldemort does not love. He cares for himself and only himself. His denial of mortality leads him to deny any reason for love. Our mortality gives us a reason to love.
Love acts as a spark that provides that connection between two individuals. The understanding of our impending demise motivates us to seek out relationships with other individuals to share in the time we have here in the universe. Us mortal beings see relationships as essential to forming those life experiences while we still can.
Voldemort lacks the motivation to pursue those relationships and understand love because he doesn’t understand the concept of death itself.
History and Symbolism
Aristotle helps make this connection with his idea of friendship. Where a perfect friend is like a second self for Aristotle. For him, friendship is only possible between two virtuous people. Where you understand your own good, and you see that goodness in others — like a reflection. That’s how you experience goodness and virtue: with your fellow human being.
As Aristotle said: “in order to love, one must accept who one is” by rejecting death you are denying the reality of the existence of life and love. Voldemort looks at love and understands that by accepting the love he’s accepting death — a fundamental truth he’s unwilling to accept.
You see, with friendship — a good loving friendship — that reflection of virtue can help provide moral guidance and improvement.
We see this symbolized in the bible when Jesus experiences the death of his friend Lazarus, as a regular mortal being Jesus weeps his death. He experiences grief, sadness, the feeling of a lost loved one like you or I would — like a mere mortal.
But Jesus then raises his friend from the dead. You might be thinking doesn’t this contradict, in that Jesus himself is denying death. Well, I’m using a story example for its symbolism here. That symbolism is that love is more powerful than death. Love is the crucial point. You see, what do we need more than anything in life? To be loved. Without it, we feel empty.
We even see this in ancient mythology. The Gods, the immortal beings, were often childish and petty. They were often jealous of humans. You see humans have the conscious ability to know their own morality — comprehend that mortality — something immortal gods could never understand. With this knowledge came an understanding of love and kindness. Something the ancient Gods failed to follow because they could not understand death.
But what about Harry? I’ve been talking all about Voldemort. But what about the contrast with our boy Harry — the boy who lived.
Harry accepts that he must kill Voldemort even though he knows it might mean his own death.
Severus Snape memories show Harry that he must die to destroy Voldemort because a piece of Voldemort lives within him. He accepts his death. Why? Because the love he felt of his friends; the love Snape had for Harry’s mother in his memories; his love of Dumbledore; the love of Hogwarts. They all shared in their understanding of their mortality. They connected upon this foundational endpoint they share: death.
This understanding of death incentivized Harry and his friends to spread friendship, kindness, and love for one another. Enjoy the party while it lasts.
When Voldemort initially learned about magic and the wizarding world, he saw it as a means for avoiding death. By denying his own mortality, he renounced his humanity which blocked him from appreciating the feeling and power of love — something that only exists among those who share an acceptance of mortality
Harry had the presence of love from a young age which led him to accept the virtue. His parents sacrificed themselves to save Harry from the murderous hands of Voldemort, who never had such a pure act of love in his life. Voldemort eventually rejected love as a weakness which mortals ascribe to.
Voldemorts desire for eternal life and power ultimately led to his defeat at the hands of Harry. It is clear that Harry accepts death as an inescapable aspect of life. He understands that his life is only virtuous if he accepts mortality, something he is able to do because he felt the love from his parents and friends. Because he loved his friends back, he was willing to embrace death to save his friends and defeat Voldemort.
It boils down to this: Harry Potter demonstrates that to understand the meaning of life, we must accept and praise our inevitable death. Its Harry’s acceptance of this universal truth that allows him to embrace love and recognize the sacrifice needed to defeat Voldemort. When we are able to fully grasp that our time on earth is limited by the fate of mortality, we can share our mutual experiences of love with those around us.