Monday, March 27, 2006

In Which I Wonder if Rowling Alludes to Socrates

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rowling introduces the character of Luna Lovegood. Luna is loony but proves to be a good friend to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Her father publishes a newspaper called The Quibbler, which ends up playing an important role in the story: It is the vehicle by which an important truth is made known. However, it is maligned throughout the novel for its reputation for printing pointless conspiracy theories and other nonsense; in short, for quibbling instead of employing words for more serious matters, like the oh-so-serious Daily Prophet. (OED's first definition of "quibble" is "to pun, to play on words.")

In Aristophanes' play Frogs, we find the following description of Socrates:

So it is refined not by Socrates
to sit and chatter
casting aside the pursuits of the Muses
and neglecting what's most important
in the art of tragedy.
But to spend time idly
in pompous words
and frivolous word-scraping
is the act of a man going crazy.

(trans. Dillon)

Here we have the perfect description of a quibbler. (Klein, in his commentary on the Meno, actually refers to Socrates in the Aristophanes passage as a quibbler.) Aristophanes -- who was at least not bosom buddies with Socrates -- describes Socrates as engaging in idle chatter. But if we take Plato's word, Socrates was not interested in chatter but in seeking the truth. Of course, it is easy to see how Socrates, who was always talking (discussing), could be mistaken for a word-scraper, or, in general, how one who seeks (even dispenses) the truth by conversing with others could be mistaken for a quibbler.

(I hope I need not remind my readers that Rowling has a degree in classics.)

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