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Voldemort and Nominalism

May 17, 2008

In Looking for God in Harry Potter, John Granger, following the Harry Potter books, describes Voldemort, the arch villain, as a shallow materialist. Voldemort makes for himself so called ‘Horcruxes,’ material objects in which he pours fragments of his split soul in an attempt to ‘live forever’ and ‘flee death.’ (To read more about what Horcruxes are, read here.)

John Granger writes that Voldemort

pursues immortality apart from God and the Cross by pouring his soul into physical objects apart from his body. In this, Voldemort is simultaneously a materialist and a dualist—an no longer human, as Dumbledore says, because he fails to understand the power of a human being who is whole, an integer of body and soul, and pure, which is to say, “not rent or split.”[1]

For me it seems that Voldemort, who undoubtly was highly intelligent, was — philosophically speaking — a nominalist. Nominalism is a metaphysical standpoint that denies the existence of universals and essences. (Like ‘green,’ ‘dog,’ ‘human’ and — ultimately — ‘good’ and ‘evil.’) Nominalism (from latin nomen, ‘name’) originated amongst others in the thought of William of Ockham, a Fransiscan friar who was preoccupied by the theology of scottish scolastic John Duns Scotus. In the late medieval period, Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas represented two complementary theological traditions.

Aquinas focused on the category of being, and thus on the nature or essence of God. Duns Scotus, on the other hand, focused on the category of doing (my words), an thus on the works and acts of God. As I have allready pointed out, these two traditions — let’s call them ‘intellectualism’ and ‘voluntarism’ — are complementary. But as time went by, Aquinas’s intellectualism disappeared into the background in the consciousness of the people, while Duns Scotus’s voluntarism got ‘all the attention.’

Enter William of Ockham. He was a voluntarist. But he also didn’t believe that universals had any real existence. He lacked the balance of Aquinas and Duns Scotus. And thus Nominalism crept into the mainstream philosophy. Ockham claimed that only particular things and actions existed, but that their universality — their ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ so to speak — didn’t have any real, ontological existence. Thus whatever we make of a thing, it is. (To point out the absurdity of his philosophical tradition, consider that Ockham — who didn’t believe that there are common, real essences — “was famous for speculating that God might have become incarnate as a stone, a block of wood, or even a donkey.” (Source))

Because God have free will He can do whatever he wants, even make rape a virtue and altruism a vice. This nominalistic idea — even if this wasn’t Ockham’s intention — developed into reductionism and materialism, and also [materialist] atheism and the Nietzschean idea of the Übermensch. In other words, it resulted in Voldemort.

If things (and acts) are only what we make of them, then they have no real value. And nothing is fixed — not even good and evil. As Voldemort himself said it, through prof. Quirrell: “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” What Rowling shows us with the character of Voldemort, and of the prejudices of the wizarding world, is that ideas have consequences. This might sound like a cliché, but that doesn’t make it untrue. In order to fight off the Voldemort’s of our world, we must start with our ideas and concepts. For they reap thoughts. And thoughts reap acts. And acts reap habits. And habits reap destinies.

Sources and notes:

[1] Granger, John (2006) Looking for God in Harry Potter. Updated second edition. Tyndale/Saltriver

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