Humility is an apt starting point in talking about education of any kind—moral or otherwise. Without humility, a student is unteachable, thinking themselves better than another or self-sufficient. The arc of Hermione’s story exemplifies both the challenges a lack of humility poses to real intellectual and moral growth and the possibilities of further moral development that can stem from embracing this important habit of heart and mind. In that way, humility truly is what Edmund Burke calls it: the “firm foundation of all virtues,” making way for the full flowering of a person’s spirit and soul. It’s important, however, to distinguish between humiliation and humility. Humility is not to think terribly of oneself, but to think rightly. It is to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. As Mother Theresa once explained, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Humiliation, on the other hand, is debasement without respect. Hermione first tasted this humiliation in The Chamber of Secrets, standing out as a Muggle-born among the mostly pure-blood wizards that make up the Hogwarts student body. Draco exploits this vulnerability, angrily dismissing her defense of the Gryffindor Quidditch team with, “[n]o one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.”
Understandably, as the story progresses, Hermione responds poorly to these slights, by flaunting her strengths (her book learning and firm grasp on class material). Errors come in pairs, as C. S. Lewis has noted, and Hermione swings wildly from the degradation she experienced to an outsized pride, manifested at the expense of Ron. As he struggles in class to cast the prescribed spell, Hermione presumes to lecture him: “You're saying it wrong. . . . It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.” Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn’t take kindly to this condescension and later says, within Hermione’s earshot, that “it's no wonder no one can stand her. . . . She's a nightmare, honestly.” While this is admittedly not the best start for their relationship, the education enabled by Hermione’s overcorrection and Ron’s candid admission plays out well for all involved and eventually forms the beginning bonds of a strong and life-giving friendship.
We know the details—Hermione, hurt, isolates herself in the girl’s bathroom. When a troll gets loose in the castle, Ron and Harry take off to find her and, after many missteps, rescue her from the troll’s rampage. Through this experience, Hermione modulates her view of herself and others. Friedrich Nietzsche may have thought humility a vice, a trait unworthy of the “overman” because it keeps one beholden to others, but the Harry Potter series, through scenes like this one, demonstrates humanity’s interdependence and the importance of recognizing and honoring our interconnections. The value of humility is highlighted by Hermione’s acknowledgment of the debt she owes to Harry and Ron: "I'm not as good as you,” Harry tells her. To which Hermione responds: “Me! . . . Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery.” Hermione has learned well the essential lessons of humility, which Flannery O’Connor has captured in this insight: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility. . . .”
And upon the humility Hermione develops in book 1 is built much good work. Her advocacy for the house elves, who have historically been poorly treated and ill-thought-of, stems from her own self-acceptance and humble service. Rather than rejecting her precarious social position as a mud-blood on the margins, Hermione embraces it and finds solidarity with others who find themselves similarly maligned. Out of that solidarity, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) is born, a gesture reminiscent of the kindly acts of Hagrid toward magical creatures, especially those that were unwanted or thought dangerous. Humility, these stories teach us, breeds compassion and empathy, essential components of a strong community.
Two things are important to keep in mind here: First, humility does not come upon a person unbidden; it is a discipline, instilled and strengthened through one’s choices. In the excruciating spot that Hermione found herself in, smarting from Malfoy’s earlier insult and confronted by her own prideful treatment of Ron and the barrier it put between them, she had to test her true self against these extremes—and to recognize that the reality of who she is lay somewhere in between. She is neither the lowly outcast Draco marks her as nor the all-important bigshot she has presented herself as in class. She is intelligent and clever, book-smart and logical, yet she needs others to keep her weaknesses in check and to complement her strengths.
Second, humility, compassion, and empathy—to make a positive difference—must be made manifest in one’s actions and interactions with others. Doing so, especially when the stakes are high and there’s a price to pay, requires courage, a virtue that animates much of the plot of the series. Most of the major characters are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate courage. These opportunities come when something or someone they value is in jeopardy and they must act to protect them. Some characters, like Peter Pettigrew, choose cowardice to preserve themselves rather than defy their fear and risk themselves for something or someone more important. Sirius Black acknowledges that Peter was in a difficult spot—caught between Lord Voldemort and a hard place: betray the Potters or die. But the fear Pettigrew felt was no excuse for his infidelity. To borrow a line from Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear but the “triumph over it.” Sirius puts the lie to Peter’s sniveling excuses: “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? . . . Only innocent lives, Peter!” Peter stubbornly clings to his fear to vindicate himself: “You don’t understand! . . . He would have killed me, Sirius!” Black is having none of it; the right choice in such a situation is as chilling as it is clear: “THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”
That sounds incredible for anyone to have done such a thing, to have faced the Dark Lord with the prospect of certain death. But Professor McGonagall does what Pettigrew fails to. She revolts against the Death Eaters who have taken over Hogwarts, with the final straw being Amycus Carrow’s willingness to allow children to take the brunt of Voldemort’s fury in his invasion of the castle. In a phrase reminiscent of Pettigrew, Carrow asks, “Couple of kids more or less, what’s the difference?” McGonagall, like Sirius, realizes what’s at stake: “Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice, . . . a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”
At least one Hogwarts student takes to heart the lesson in courage McGonagall and the other faculty teach, Neville Longbottom. Neville, to put it mildly, is an unlikely foe for Voldemort but one who nonetheless dares to oppose him. Rowling vividly captures Neville’s panic as Voldemort uses him as an example—pinning him down with the sorting hat and setting it on fire. Once Harry breaks him free, Neville moves quickly, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the books, takes out the children’s greatest enemy: “The slash of the silver blade could not be heard over the roar of the oncoming crowd, or the sounds of the clashing giants, or of the stampeding centaurs, and yet it seemed to draw every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake’s head, which spun high into the air, gleaming in the light flooding from the Entrance Hall, and Voldemort’s mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake’s body thudded to the ground at his feet.”