Slytherin’s Problem: Hogwarts and the Cardinal Virtues

Hogwarts CrestIf you went to Hogwarts, which House would you be in? Where did Pottermore sort you? Identifying with Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin is one of the most important questions to members of the Harry Potter fandom. The internet loves personality quizzes, and in the early days of internet fandom, the web was full of people trying to write the most “authentic” Sorting Hat quiz. Some used Myers-Briggs personality inventories to sort you. Of course, no one could really agree on whether “iNtuitive Thinkers” made better Slytherins or Ravenclaws, or that all “Sensing Feelers” were either Gryffindors or Hufflepuffs (and don’t get me started on the awful chart that went around). But I’m here to propose a better way of understanding what makes each House tick, and why Slytherin really might have a bad reputation. It’s about the four cardinal virtues.

Plato knows what's up.

Plato knows what’s up.

Virtues originate in Classical Antiquity, from philosophers in the Greco-Roman world. Virtues are good habits of behavior that help turn you into a good person. Aristotle talks about many virtues, but his teacher Plato focuses on the four cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. The philosophers used virtue as a way to talk about what makes a good society. Often particular virtues were “assigned” to people in a particular class of society. J. K. Rowling was a Classics major in college, so it makes sense that Rowling might have used virtues as a model for crafting her own fictional society.

Of the four virtues, fortitude, or courage, is the willingness to face hardship, uncertainty, or death. It’s the virtue that prepares you to persevere through training for a marathon or stand up for what you believe. Plato assigned it to the warriors of society, so they would have the strength to defend the city. If you have too much fortitude, you become reckless; too little, and you’re a coward. Courage is often symbolized by a lion. It’s easy to see that this is clearly the virtue most prized by Gryffindor.

Justice is all about fairness and “right relationships” between people. It’s about making sure people have what they need and what they deserve. Plato believed justice belonged outside of any particular class, but was used by everyone so that all people could live and work together in the right way. Hufflepuff is the just house. It prizes fairness and treats everyone “just the same”. Hufflepuffs believe all wizards are equal, regardless of heritage or ability, simply by being human beings.

Yeah...not quite.

Yeah… not that kind of temperance.

Temperance is usually associated with moderation and restraint. The anti-alcohol Temperance Movement gave the virtue an unfair connotation of radical revulsion to anything fun and pleasurable. But temperance is about self control, mind-over-matter, in order to free one from physical desires and emotional passions so you can chase intellectual pursuits. Augustine writes that “temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved”. Ravenclaw, the house most associated with a thirst for knowledge, is the best fit for temperance. Its symbol is an eagle and its dorms are in a high tower. Both are signs that point to rising above the immediate, physical world.

This leaves us with prudence. Prudence, also called wisdom, is the ability to figure out the best course of action at a given time. It’s about making good, practical judgments and having enough foresight to make a good prediction about what might happen. Plato gives prudence to the rulers of society. But other than an ambition to rule the world, how does Slytherin really fit the bill? Slytherins are resourceful, practical people. They think before they act, making sure they really know what they are doing before they commit to it. Slytherins are the ones with the street smarts. Prudence isn’t about knowledge; it’s about knowing what to do with it. Slytherin’s mascot is the snake, traditionally associated with wisdom. If prudence is supposed to be a virtue, why is Slytherin so associated with evil?

salazar slytherin

The fact that he looks creepy as hell is merely a coincidence.

This may be due to a colossal failure of prudence on the part of Slytherin’s founder, Salazar Slytherin. In ancient wizarding lore, Salazar is the source of the pureblood supremacy school of thought. He originally believed that Hogwarts should only admit students from wizarding families; he thought Muggleborn students would be untrustworthy. In some ways, Slytherin had the foresight to see that wizard-Muggle relations would only become more and more disastrous over the centuries. These culminated in the International Statute of Secrecy in the late seventeenth century. Salazar eventually became so consumed with his beliefs that he left the school. He even imprisoned the biggest snake-like creature he could find in the school, as a giant fuck you to Godric Gryffindor. He was so obsessed with his ideas and getting revenge that he chose just about the least prudential course of action.

We fast forward a few millenia and today’s Slytherin House still struggles with prudence. It’s developed a dark reputation, most recently because Slytherin students failed to see that it’s imprudent to join up with Tom Riddle. Students from all the other houses do a pretty good job of figuring out how to develop their courage, justice, and temperance. Neville Longbottom first learns to stand up to his friends and later leads Dumbledore’s Army against Snape and the Carrow siblings. When Harry falls off his broom due to Dementor activity and Cedric Diggory catches the snitch instead, Cedric immediately offers to replay the game. Before his death, Cedric happily agrees to share the Triwizard Tournament victory with Harry. Luna Lovegood doesn’t let teasing bother her, and remains utterly composed both in battle and while kidnapped.

Where are the prudent Slytherins? Salazar’s legacy is that Slytherins still struggle with this virtue. Horace Slughorn explains Horcruxes to Tom Riddle, against his own better judgment. Severus Snape chooses to associate with Death Eaters over his friendship with Lily Evans. Years later, as a Death Eater, Snape unintentionally betrays Lily and her family to Voldemort, resulting in her death. Draco Malfoy joins the Death Eaters and refuses help with fixing the Vanishing Cabinets from Snape. When Dumbledore offers him a way out, Malfoy hesitates too long in making a decision. His (now repaired) Vanishing Cabinets allow Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Snape is forced to step in and kill Dumbledore. So many of the major plot developments hinge on a Slytherin failing to be prudent.

So when do we get a virtuous Slytherin? When they start acting like a courageous Gryffindor. Regulus Black leaves the Death Eaters, steals a Horcrux, and does so with the full knowledge that he will die in the process. That isn’t prudence, that’s fortitude. Harry is finally able to convince Slughorn to reveal his true memory of Voldemort by exhorting him to be brave. Narcissa Malfoy lies about Harry’s death to Voldemort’s face in order to find her son in the castle. This isn’t a pragmatic or prudent decision; she could have easily told the truth, had the big showdown between Harry and Voldemort in the forest, and found Draco afterwards. It’s a nearly reckless decision to lie to the most accomplished mind reader in the wizarding world, and she would have been killed on the spot if Voldemort or anyone else had figured it out.  

Rowling clearly believes the fortitude is the greatest of the four cardinal virtues. Maybe she believes prudence is boring; good decisions don’t usually make for compelling storytelling. However, Rowling didn’t have to sacrifice Slytherin’s virtue to write about good and evil. The Death Eaters could have recruited from all four houses, capitalizing on the strengths of each. Harry could have used an especially prudent Slytherin friend to stand up to him when he was feeling reckless or blinded by his own emotions. As any Ancient Greek philosopher would tell you, a truly good person strives to live all four of the cardinal virtues. Giving fair representation to all four virtues would have actually supported Rowling’s message that the world isn’t divided up into “good people and Death Eaters.”

And those Slytherins are just as good as Death Eaters, am I right, Sirius?

(x) Maybe if you keep saying it, you’ll start to believe it too, Sirius.

As is, Rowling turns Slytherin House into a near straw-man of villainy. Any time a Slytherin is allowed to be redeemed, it’s through courage. Because of this, any time a Slytherin shows the stirrings of prudential judgment, it is written off as self-serving. The most basic human compulsion is to preserve one’s life, so the most fundamental way a person can learn to be prudent is to make decisions that support one’s continued existence. So the early stirrings of prudence are condemned by the narrative. If Slytherin was somehow able to figure out how to best develop its understanding of prudence, fewer dark witches and wizards would find a home in the house. Instead, Slytherin would be known for its strong, resourceful, creative leaders.

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8 thoughts on “Slytherin’s Problem: Hogwarts and the Cardinal Virtues

  1. Thank you! As a self-sorted Slytherin for years, I find this post very true! I always thought it was a bit of a stretch for Slytherin to produce only ‘bad’ witches and wizards for hundreds of years, with thousands of students being enrolled at Hogwarts during those years. When in fact, the cunning, resourcefulness and unlimited ambition that comes naturally to such people can benefit more than one person if guided properly.

  2. Ok. So this has just revolutionised my understanding of the four houses of Hogwarts — rewriting what I have always seen as a ‘misunderstood’ Slytherin, into a genuinely *flawed* Slytherin. I now have a burning desire to discover what it would look like if it was written correctly from the start!

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  4. Oh my goodness THANK YOU. I have been mulling this over for years. Correlating the houses to the virtues seems so obvious, so natural, that I’ve always been surprised that Rowling didn’t actually do it. Justice/ Hufflepuff and Fortitude/ Gryffindor fit perfectly. Ravenclaw, with its tendencies towards eccentricity, isn’t as good a fit for Temperance, but I like your allusion to the eagle – temperance can gives you the big picture.

    But Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude are only virtues if they are in service to the good. There are plenty of wicked people who would seem very temperate – they don’t smoke, they don’t overeat, they don’t get drunk – but they’re not virtuous because their temperance is serving evil, not good.

    That’s why Prudence in some ways is THE most important virtue, the mold and mother of the other virtues. It’s the keystone virtue. Prudent people know the good and then do it, and their prudence directs the other virtues. For example, prudence keeps fortitude on task and from degenerating into orneriness, helps justice figure out the best way of carrying out justice. Prudence is what directs Hawkeye to a nearby roof to call out patterns and strays and directs Hulk to smash. Prudence means discerning the good and then doing it. If you’re not working towards the good, that’s mere cunning and that’s not a virtue. And if you lack prudence, all the other virtues kind of go feral.

    So yes, Hogwarts (and wizarding society) need Slytherin to pick up the role of House of True Prudence. Slughorn knows the ways of worldy advancement, but what good is this all in service of? Concentrating on a few select students, and working his connections to serve his pride, is not prudence. He shows true prudence when he puts his skills to use in attaining the good (cooking up an antidote for Ron; evading and fighting the Death Eaters.)

    Similarly, Regulus Black and Severus Snape show what Slytherin should be when they start being prudent: they identify the good and then put their other virtues to work in pursuing the good. Their courage wouldn’t mean squat if their prudence wasn’t steering them in the right direction and helping them come up with good plans for deploying their prudence.

    (Snape… well, he has his failings, but he’s also consistently shown to be a prudent man, in everything from keeping antidotes on hand in class to attaining a high O.W.L. pass rate to having Slytherin House rack up enough points to win the House Cup several years running to being able to mislead Voldemort.)

    I think you could also argue that Narcissa’s prudence really paid off – when Harry was brought back to the castle, he was able to protect the other fighters and confirm that Nagini was slain before the final confrontation with Voldemort. Narcissa’s actions were prudent – she came up with a clever plan in the service of a good (checking on her son) – her fortitude was in support of her prudence.

    If Salazar Slytherin had been prudent (and not left Hogwards in a hissy fit), perhaps having a healthy Slytherin House of Prudence would have prevented the nedd for the International Statute of Secrecy. There might be more of a sense of responsibility that came with being pure-blooded (as opposed to a sense of entitlement.) And there wouldn’t be a vacuum of virtue waiting to be filled by the envy and greed of a Tom Riddle.

  5. Hiya. I was contemplating the relationship between the cardinal virtues and the houses, and was planning to write something about it. First I wanted to know if my idea was original, so I searched the internet and found this.

    I really enjoyed your write up, however, I would argue that Prudence is so closely affiliated with intellect, that to deny its association with Ravenclaw requires some serious stretches of logic.

    So… that leaves Temperance for Slytherin, and how does that fit? It almost feels like the least Slytherin attribute! I think it is used in an almost ironic sense here: Slytherin houses individuals with the greatest potential for success, if only their ambitions could be tempered by their morality and self-control. That is why Slytherin is the house of Temperance.

    • The main problem with associating Ravenclaw with Prudence/Wisdom just because the song says so is the fact that “wisdom” refers to APPLYING knowledge TOO THE OUTSIDE WORLD; Slytherin does exactly that.

      Now I too got confused on the second time reading Ravenclaw with temperance. However, I took a closer look at Ravenclaw’s features and realized something: Temperance refers to moderating your pleasure intake so that you abstain from unhealthy pleasures and live the healthy ones. This obviously means challenging mainstream pressure to be dumb and follow the false dichotomy of either fear or absolute pleasure. In other words, if you are temperant, then you have yourself preparing for an intellectual argument against someone or some people who don’t know squat about moderation.

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