Why is Slytherin House Bad?

Is Slytherin house bad? Should they be bad? Why?


Intro

There are four houses in "Harry Potter": Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Each is associated with certain psychological traits and attributes. Gryffindor is associated with bravery, Ravenclaw is associated with intelligence, Hufflepuff takes everyone but is most closely associated with friendliness and loyalty, and Slytherin is associated with ambition.

Slytherin is not presented as all bad in "Harry Potter", but they are presented as almost all bad. This is not particularly popular because many people are in Slytherin. But, there are good reasons for this. (Also, it's important to point out that no one is a pure fit for a house. Some of the characters in "Harry Potter" even seem to be a bit of a contradiction.)

My Profile

I did one test where it gave you the percentages of which house you would fit in. I was rated 43% Ravenclaw, 26% Gryffindor, 19% Slytherin, and 12% Hufflepuff.

(It also came with a psychological profile that was pretty accurate for me other than the part about not putting myself in harm's way on purpose. Here's what it said: "You believe above all in the importance of wisdom, which is why you undoubtedly belong in Ravenclaw, but your sense of adventure means you may also have an affinity for Gryffindor house. You are a thrill-seeker - you love to travel and there's nothing more exciting to you than new experiences - and believe that adventure is essential in the pursuit of knowledge. You are brave, but would never intentionally put yourself in danger, placing you firmly in Ravenclaw. Your slight compatibility with Slytherin house suggests a determination to succeed, though not at the expense of traits from your more dominant houses.")

Ambition

There are many ways to state why Slytherin is bad. In their ambition they are willing to sacrifice others to their ambition. That's a good way to put it. Ambition is good, but sacrificing others in service to that ambition is bad because it's a violation of their individual rights as a sacred human being.

Even sacrifice doesn't have to be bad, as long as it is a sacrifice that is yours to make, as long as you're making sacrifices of yourself for your ambition.

Most people never go this far in considering ethics and morality. They consider good people good because they don't do bad things, or don't do many, and they sometimes do good things, or at least intend to, and if they do bad things they feel bad about them.

Ambition without any limits upon it, without constraint by principles, leads to many other bad things. Notice that principles are internal constraints placed on the individual by themselves, not external constraints placed on them by others.

Deceit

Deceit is one of the most common things explored around this subject. We lie for many reasons. Often to protect ourselves, sometimes to gain an advantage, sometimes just to avoid an unpleasant moment. We can try to comfort ourselves by calling these white lies, or tact. We can say that the truth is unnecessarily harsh, you could call that a black truth. You can deceive by telling a lie, or just withholding the truth. These are even necessary social skills in society. And yet, it's a slippery slope. We all know that lies lead to more lies in a vicious cycle that grows like a weed, wrapping its vines around the tree of life and draining it of energy. I'll circle back to Malfoy and Snape on this subject.

Moral Disengagement

If you view people simply as means to an end, as a stepping stone to your ambition, then they become things rather than people. Things don't have rights. A "he" or a "she" has rights, an "it" is just a tool or an obstacle. These two things, seeing people as means and seeing them as less than human, are the two most powerful ways to short circuit ethics. Albert Bandura calls this moral disengagement.

Cruelty

If you're morally disengaged from other people then you can't empathize with them, and there is no reason to sympathize with them. Cruelty to people becomes... natural.

Fear and Paranoia

You have a tendency to think that other people think like you do. Overall, this is fairly true. If you're an ambitious, deceitful, morally disengaged, and cruel person, you can imagine that you would be afraid of other people. That's only logical. You are competing with ruthless animals to achieve whatever rare thing it is that you want. Fear, even paranoia, is what keeps you alive in that situation.

Arrogance

To continue to pursue your ambitions in such a world you have to have at least some belief that you can possibly attain them. In such a cruel world you have to overcome many obstacles. To overcome such things you have to be special. A superior kind of special, and you have to think this whether you can live up to it or not. (Notice that all ambitious people have to bet on themselves and therefore could be considered a bit arrogant, because the trial must come before the result. If you successfully cross the adaptive valley then you're not arrogant, if you don't make it then you were arrogant. It's not a great judgment system.)

Resentment, Rage, and Revenge

What happens if you fail? What if you can't reach your ambition? Well, either you are pathetic, and that's a recipe for despair and depression. Or, the world was against you and they are to blame. Resentment grows if you don't get something you feel you deserve. Resentment, rage, and revenge all go together. It's a bad mix. (The founder of American behaviorism, John Watson, could find three basic emotions that were acted out in babies: fear, rage, and love. All of them are designed to help you stay alive in different contexts.)

Hate

If there is an obstacle in your way, and it's a real problem, and you really need the thing that you're trying to get. Well, that all adds up to hate fast.

Voldemort, Grindelwald, and Slytherin

All of these things are illustrated very well by the trifecta of evil in the "Harry Potter" universe: Voldemort, Grindelwald, and Slytherin. Ambitious, deceitful, morally disengaged, cruel, fearful and paranoid, arrogant, resentful, raging, vengeful, and full of hate. These words are perfect descriptors of these three personalities. You'll notice that it's the combination of fanatical hate with effectiveness that is the scariest thing, and the most evil. (I wrote an article on just these three: "What Makes Voldemort, Grindelwald, and Slytherin Bad?" http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2019/01/what-makes-voldemort-grindelwald-and.html)

But, why associate these traits so closely with just one house? Surely, these are issues that every human being must deal with. And, to a large extent, that's what "Harry Potter" is about. It's about the fact that there is both good and evil within Harry Potter, Dumbledore, Sirius, Snape, and everyone.

Hyperreality

Fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, is about creating an entire world. Many people think it's an escape, and it can be used that way, but that's not why it exists. Fiction is used to explore the world and chart behavioral and value patterns for our lives. To confront the unknown, to learn how to approach the world and how to change ourselves. (Many fictional worlds are created with just this purpose in mind, and not only in literature. "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek" were both created to explore social issues. But, you can't do that in a straight forward manner for several reasons. One, people can't handle it emotionally unless there is some distance between their lives and this simulated reality. Two, governments and other censors often limit what you can say in a direct manner.)

To explore these things fiction must go beyond reality. Realistic fiction is often just as fanciful as science fiction and fantasy, they just try to hide it. To go beyond reality we have to step into hyperreality. We have to make things more real than they are in our world. That's the point of a simulation, to take you beyond what you can really do. To find the edge, to find the limits. To find what works and what doesn't.

Fiction is able to clarify these things, and to embody them at the same time. To bring embodied clarity is the purpose of narrative and story. This is what myth has always been. The purpose of myth is to provide a path and behavioral model to align our consciousness with the world so that the self may be transformed into its greatest potentiality. Science fiction and fantasy are our neo-myths, our new myths.

To make this happen, to reveal these things and bring forth this clarity, all things cannot be exactly as they would really be. A lot of it comes down to focus. The "Harry Potter" series cannot go through the details of the lives of every student. You have to pick and choose, and this selection process highly distorts what we are seeing and perceiving in this fictional world. It's a lot of what creates the hyperreality, the author is picking your focus for you.

In this case, J. K. Rowling wanted to focus on the potential for ambition to lead to the other things that I have outlined here. To do this she used archetypes, psychological patterns that are built into all of us. The individuals in "Harry Potter" are archetypes, and the houses are archetypes. Some of the archetypes she uses are cautionary tales, but I think they can also be more than that.

Redemption

All humans have these tendencies to some extent. We all have to contend with them. There is some "Slytherin" within us all. The world lives on a knife edge, and survives or falls according to the decisions of individuals.

The answer is not to shun these things, it is to confront them. You cannot be good if you lack the capacity for evil. Weakness is not a virtue. Inability is not goodness. The good is when you have the capacity for evil, but you turn from it. When looked at in this light you realize that Slytherin house has great potential for virtue, they've just let it slip through their fingers.

Let's look at some of the famous Slytherins that turned against Voldemort. All of them were Death Eaters, Voldemort's para-military force.

Regulus Black

Regulus is only mentioned in the "Harry Potter" series. He's the brother of Sirius Black, who is Harry Potter's godfather. The entire Black family, other than Sirius, was big into the pure-blood craze that Voldemort was driving in his bid for power. Regulus was swept up in this. But... but, he realized the error of his ways.

Not only did he realize the error of his ways, he also decided to fight back. Not only did he decide to fight back, he was able to find out Voldemort's secret plan for immortality. Voldemort hid parts of his soul in objects. These horcruxes meant that Voldemort couldn't fully be killed.

Regulus was able to find one of these horcruxes and got it out of its hiding spot. The horcrux was well protected and he died in the process. His house elf kept it for safe keeping until Harry Potter was able to acquire it many years later.

This is all quite amazing, because Regulus is obviously a great hero. But, this is glossed over in the stories because stories require selective attention. I would love to have the story of Regulus fleshed out. Rowling could write an entire novel on just his story, it would be great.

Regulus is fully redeemed for being a Death Eater. Why? How? Well, that's what we would need that novel for, but we can see some basic patterns. He realized the error of his ways, he was able to face this. Confronting your errors is no small step. Maybe it's the hardest step. It's much easier to not focus on it. Self-deception doesn't require effort, it just requires that you don't put in the effort necessary to find what's wrong. This ability of Regulus to confront his own limitations, his own deceptions, to transform himself within, and then to work to transform the world without and to make restoration and restitution for his errors is the essence of redemption. (See "Self-Deception Explained" by Jordan Peterson to dive more into that.)

Notice that Regulus was a fool for becoming a Death Eater. Then, he almost became the savior. He wasn't the savior because he failed in the attempt, but he really came pretty darn close. All he had to do was survive, find a way to destroy the horcrux, and then repeat the process on the rest of the horcruxes. The psychologist Carl Jung said, "The Fool is the precursor to the Savior."

Horace Slughorn

Professor Slughorn was the one who told Voldemort about horcruxes when he was at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, when Voldemort was still called Tom Riddle. To be fair, Tom already knew quite a bit.

Slughorn felt intensely guilty about helping Voldemort achieve his ambition of immortality, and it led him to retire and leave Hogwarts. Slughorn felt so guilty that he used magic to change his own memory of the conversation.

When Voldemort was rising to power the second time the Death Eaters aggressively tried to recruit Slughorn, but Slughorn ran. Dumbledore also tried to recruit him to come back to Hogwarts, but he ran from that as well.

Slowly, Slughorn was convinced to give the true memory of his conversation with Tom about horcruxes to Harry. And, then went on to help defend Hogwarts leading to and including the final battle when Hogwarts was invaded.

Slughorn went through quite a process here. His guilt revealed to him that he had betrayed virtue, but instead of confronting this he ran and hid from it, both in the world and in his own mind. This does not redeem him. Only when Slughorn is able to confront his own fears about himself is he able to start the process of redemption. He grows into the position well, and I quite like Slughorn. He really shows what a struggle that internal battle can be. And that it's each individual that decides the fate of their own soul.

The Malfoy Family

The entire Malfoy family is scary. The most important person, and therefore the person we follow most closely in the series, is Draco Malfoy. He comes from an old, influential, and wealthy family. He needs to be better than other people just to live up to expectations. His competition with Harry grows throughout the series. (At one point Harry and Draco get into an informal duel and Harry hits Draco with a sectumsempra curse, which causes deep wounds all over the body.)

Draco wanted Harry on his side, because Harry was famous. When Harry spurned him Draco was resentful, to go with his arrogance. Over time we see the other traits that we've discussed here really bloom in Draco. We see this possibility in Harry as well, but he makes the choices that just barely keep him from going too far astray.

Draco is recruited to be a Death Eater and try to use deceit to infiltrate the school, assassinate the Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and repair a cabinet that will allow other Death Eaters to invade and take over the school. The plan doesn't go perfectly, but is successful. This whole process really shows how fear slowly grips Draco more and more, fear of Voldemort.

There are some subtleties, but in the final battle the Malfoys are really just trying to leave. This isn't really a turning on Voldemort. None of them really transform in any meaningful way. No change has been made on the inside. They just don't want to be on the losing side, and they don't want to be subservient to someone that might kill them at any moment. There is nothing redeeming in any of that.

Severus Snape

Snape is a wild story. A loyal Death Eater until Voldemort was going to kill the woman he had been in love with since his childhood, who was the wife of Harry's father. Snape had essentially made a pair bond imprinting with Lilly. This was stronger than the identity that tied him to Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

He became a spy and informant for Dumbledore. But, it didn't work. Voldemort found the Potter's, killed Lilly and James, and tried to kill Harry. Snape was heartbroken, Dumbledore used that heartbreak to cement Snape's loyalty to his cause in fighting Voldemort when he inevitably returned. Snape was a double agent for most of his life.

Because Voldemort couldn't simply be killed Snape had to take his cover to the extreme (it also didn't help that Voldemort was paranoid). He killed Dumbledore, under Dumbledore's order, to get in Voldemort's most trusted circle. He took over Hogwarts and oversaw the torture of children in the name of Voldemort. All so that he could be in the right position when he was needed, like getting the Sword of Gryffindor and giving it to Harry because it is one of the only things that can destroy horcruxes. (Notice how disturbing the torture of children is. That's because children not only represent the vulnerable future, they literally are the vulnerable future.)

Snape became disillusioned because Voldemort destroyed Snape's highest value. I'm not sure that's exactly seeing the light and voluntarily confronting your own demons. Then, Snape does a lot of bad stuff and you have to question if there wasn't a better way. All of this leaves Snape as a grey character, a dark grey character.

What would have truly redeemed him? I'm still pondering that one myself.

Conclusion

Well, that's a lot of information. I hope that some of it has been illuminating. Some of the important things to notice are that the archetype that Slytherin house represents is a set of tendencies that exist within all of us. The vicious cycle that creates the downfall, and the process that leads to redemption, are within all of us. The difference lies in the decisions we make, our view of, and approach to, the world. Ambition can be a force for the greatest good, or the greatest evil. The choice is yours.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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