Unpacking the wisdom of Albus Dumbledore

Contains spoilers, please avoid until you've completed the books.

‘You think it – wise – to trust Hagrid with something as important as this?’ ‘I would trust Hagrid with my life,’ said Dumbledore. ‘I’m not saying his heart isn’t in the right place,’ said Professor McGonagall
the boy who lived, The Philosopher's Stone
  Hagrid with motocycle googles cradles baby Harry Potter beneath a street lamp
Hagrid rescues Harry from the arms of his murdered mother

As Obama said “you must trust others so that they may trust you”. Hagrid was expelled from Hogwarts for causing the death of fellow student Myrtle Warren, witch slaughter. Dumbledore gives him a second chance and trust knits them together.

Despicable Deatheater Severus Snape is brought into Dumbledore’s plan through trust and is crucial. Trust - expecting the best of people can bring the best from people.

‘The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.
The mirror of ERISED, The Philosopher's Stone

JK Rowling has talked about the mirror of ERISED in many interviews. In Portugal she was recommended ‘The writer's yearbook’, by a fellow teacher, who, it is suggested, had a novel they’d failed to get published.

So there’s dreams which are unfruitful and should be perhaps made hobbies which allow other possibilities to develop in parallel, rather than life devouring pursuits. And then there’s unrequited love.

I well remember sitting in English classes during readings from Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo mooning over his crush, thinking ‘oh come on man, surely there’s something better for you to do’, he was enraptured with the mirror of ERISED.

Harry sits on the floor gazes up into the magic mirror ERISED and his parents, James and Lily Potter smile back
It does not do to dwell on dreams & forget to live

How to discipline like Dumbledore

Harry’s whole body went numb. Dumbledore was looking unusually grave. He stared down his very crooked nose at them and Harry suddenly found himself wishing he and Ron were still being beaten up by the Whomping Willow. There was a long silence. Then Dumbledore said, ‘Please explain why you did this.’
The Whomping Willow, the Chamber of Secrets

OK maybe this is an easy one. But two boys have done something severely wrong, and presented a terrible example to the whole school, they could incite copy cat behaviour. The situation is grave, Dumbledore is grave, the poor Whomping Willow is in slings, nevertheless no jumping to conclusions.

Dumbledore first asks them for an explanation for what they’ve done, so he can fairly assess what consequences are warranted. Always the detective’s magnifying glass before the judge’s wig.

The Whomping Willow grasps the Weasley's Blue Ford Anglia car in it's branches with Hogwarts in the background

What defines you

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’
Dobby’s reward, Chamber of secrets
When you are eighty years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices.
Jeff 'Amazon' Bezos, commencement speech, Princeton University

The choices you make determine how you spend your time, and that determines who you are. I forsook opportunities to apply to government jobs with big pensions and comfortable wages because I saw the stimulation and enjoyment of guiding Harry Potter fans to be greater than a routine and the exciting leisure opportunities of a good salary. I also keep this up for review!

Dumbledore on loss

‘You think the dead we have loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him.
Owl post again, The Prisoner of Azkaban

The qualities of those we love, have rubbed off and been integrated into our psyches, spilling out in our behaviours.

"What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."
- Pericles, leader of Athens during its Golden Age.

Sometimes those lives form, for a moment, our resurrection - our attitudes, our worldview, our behaviours.

Dumbledore's resilience

Rita Skeeta, the Daily Prophet's gossip journalist, asks Dumbledore:

'I hope you saw my piece over the summer about the International Confederation of Wizards’ Conference?’ ‘Enchantingly nasty,’ said Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling. ‘I particularly enjoyed your description of me as an obsolete dingbat.’
The weighing of wands, The Goblet of fire

Dumbledore takes nastiness with good humour, and he’ll praise creativity and flair wherever it is found. He is a big hearted, resilient, liberal, praising merit even when it's fruits might stir up scorn against him.

Dumbledore and prejudice

Dumbledore, you know what that woman is?’ ‘I consider her to be a very able Headmistress – and an excellent dancer,’ said Dumbledore quietly.
The Dream, The Goblet of Fire

Cornelius Fudge is asserting that Madame Buxine, headmistress of the Beauxbatons, is a savage giant. Dumbledore disagrees, but ‘quietly’, is interesting.

“It was true in the Potter books and it is true in life that talking will not change wilfully closed minds.” - JK Rowling

Given the death and destruction Giants have wrought in the past it’s unlikely you could argue someone to a more liberal position, you can merely present an alternative.

Standing up for your values

‘You are blinded,’ said Dumbledore, his voice rising now, the aura of power around him palpable, his eyes blazing once more, ‘by the love of the office you hold, Cornelius!’’
The Parting of the ways, The Goblet of Fire

Fudge isn’t willing to stand up and potentially lose his post, he’s only willing to suck up.

Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. … Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.
Barrack Obama

You must standup for your values and be willing to lose for those values, in leadership the values you strive for create the conditions of living you want for yourself and others. Minister of Magic Fudge is a fraction of Dumbledore because he doesn't.

You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognise that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!
The Parting of the ways, The Goblet of Fire

Dumbledore's father, a criminal, died in Azkaban and he himself has a deeply checkered past, he likes giving people second chances perhaps because he needed one himself. In Harry’s time he is warm and forgiving, as Snape says ‘he has to beleive the best in people’.

Abandoning his youthly desire for Muggle subjugation he rose to establish a liberal wizarding era, as recognised by making him Supreme Mugwump, head of the wizard's court the Wizengamot.

All the sayings ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, constraining people on their background, stifling people’s opportunities prevents contributions which could improve the welfare of all. Dumbledore's own life, son of a criminal, head of the Wizengamot, dissproves the value of past-blinkered judgements.

Dumbledore would likely also see Pure Blood supremacy, the idea people are born perfect or trash, as much the same as his destructive teenage beleifs and so be deaf to them. Sinning immunised Dumbledore to prejudice.

Dealing with psychopaths

Harry queries Hagrid on what they’ll do now Voldemort is reborn:

We’ll fight. Migh’ be able ter stop him before he gets a good hold. That’s Dumbledore’s plan, anyway.
The beginning, The Goblet of Fire

Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix aren’t going to wait around denying like Fudge, hoping things will resolve, or that the threat is over-egged. Evil has risen and they’ll go toe to toe and start punching.

In the light of Lord Voldemort’s return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.

‘Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.

The beginning, The Goblet of Fire

Desiring to be a tyrant, the present world order is Voldemort's enemy. Defeating this enemy is easier if he can turn wizard on wizard. Which is what he does. Creating suspicion, doubt.

What is an open heart? One in which confidences can be shared easily, there is no mistrust harboured, no reserve.

Cho Chang kisses Hufflepuff Tri Wizard champion Cedric Diggory
 
Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.
The beginning, The Goblet of fire
A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, ... It was a perfect act.
Mahatma Gandhi

Dumbledore forms a martyr of Cedric Diggory, an innocent unjust death, to rally opposition to Voldemort. Cedric’s death illuminates Voldemort’s nature, you can be wholly blameless and he won’t hesitate to murder you. If his victim represents the best of us, we must rise and fight vigorously for no merit will save us.

On Humanity

Sirius Black in a mortal battle with Bellatrix Lestrange
 
‘There is no shame in what you are feeling, Harry,’ said Dumbledore’s voice. ‘On the contrary … the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength.’
The lost Prophecy, Order of the Phoenix

Remorse, guilt, Harry is suffering for the death of his much loved Godfather, Sirius Black. That he loves shows he is still human not a psychopath like Voldemort, incapable of love. The fact Harry can love, and be enraged by grief caused by love, and filled with determination by love, makes him strong, it gives him courage.

These words seemed to rouse Uncle Vernon. It was clear that as far as he was concerned, any man who could look at Harry and say ‘excellent’ was a man with whom he could never see eye to eye. ‘I don’t mean to be rude –’ he began, in a tone that threatened rudeness in every syllable. ‘– yet, sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often,’ Dumbledore finished the sentence gravely. ‘Best to say nothing at all, my dear man. Ah, and this must be Petunia.’
Will and Won’t, Half blood Prince

Dumbledore has insight into Uncle Vernon, he can foresee that ‘I don’t mean to be rude’, leads to rudeness. My mother used to say ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it’. Dumbledore says it more kindly and charitably. ‘Accidental’ rudeness suggests really Vernon would like to be kind, whilst ‘best to say’, shows Dumbledore wants what’s best for him. That human warmth continues with ‘my dear man’, anybody who is held dear is cared for.

Dumbledore masterfully steers Vernon away from a distressing scene - Dumbledore pulling rank. Dumbledore takes command with wry kindness.

Dumbledore meeting death

 
‘Dumbledore wandless, Dumbledore alone! Well done, Draco, well done!’ ‘Good evening, Amycus,’ said Dumbledore calmly, as though welcoming the man to a tea party. ‘And you’ve brought Alecto too … charming …’ The woman gave an angry little titter. ‘Think your little jokes’ll help you on your deathbed, then?’ she jeered. ‘Jokes? No, no, these are manners,’ replied Dumbledore.
The Lightning Struck Tower, Half Blood Prince

For Dumbledore there is always space to be pleasant, to welcome people as humans, to role model the civil behaviour you’d like from others, even from your enemies upon your death bed.

The tower scene from Steven Glove's screenplay


Albus Dumbledore:Draco. Years ago, I knew a boy, who made all the wrong choices. Please, let me help you.
Draco Malfoy:I don't want your help! Don't you see?! I have to do this! I have to kill you... or he's gonna kill me!

Even when faced with someone intent on murdering him, Dumbeldore's first instinct is to offer a second chance. How has Dumbledore achieved such generosity of spirit?

Albus Dumbledore is talking about himself. His youthful ambition of obtaining the powerful Deathly Hallows so Wizards could rule the simple and blood thirsty Muggles for 'the Greater Good', led to the death of his sister; he made all the wrong choices. Dumbledore has walked in Draco's shoes, making the worst of decisions; by offering him a second chance he does unto others as was done unto himself. Good dialog Steven!

Rising beyond a shameful past

Albus had arrived at Hogwarts under the burden of unwanted notoriety. Scarcely a year previously, his father, Percival, had been convicted of a savage and well-publicised attack upon three young Muggles. Albus never attempted to deny that his father (who was to die in Azkaban) had committed this crime; on the contrary, when I plucked up courage to ask him, he assured me that he knew his father to be guilty. Beyond that, Dumbledore refused to speak of the sad business, though many attempted to make him do so.
In Memoriam, The Deathly Hallows

Be honest but let the past remain in the past, don’t let it define you, or steer people’s view of you, and consequently how they react to you, and so determine the opportunities which form around you.

Kendra Dumbledore and, a short way below her dates of birth and death, and her daughter Ariana. There was also a quotation: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Godric’s Hollow, The Deathly Hallows

A quotation from the bible, placed by Dumbledore upon his mother and sister’s grave.

In Dumbledore’s greed to be master of Death and possessor of all of the Deathly Hallows, the cloak, the stone, and the powerful Elder wand, his sister Ariana dies. He chose lust for power and status signalling possessions over caring for his troubled sister.

Dumbledore learns his lesson and decides he is unfit for power, unfit to be minister of magic, and places his treasure in friendship and caring and trust of those around him. Indeed he cares for Harry’s well being so much he jeopardizes his plan to defeat Voldemort’s efforts to establish a tyranny.

Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.
King’s Cross, The Deathly Hallows

Those who are uncared for are pitiful. The homeless on the street, with their sometimes gruff manners, are so uncared for that they suffer in the heat and rain and cold. Pity can do no good for the dead, but concern for uncared for living will be appreciated.

Snape lived without love and his attitudes and manners became repellant. The good humour of people may be steadily eroded by a lack of care, ‘why should I care for your pleasant passage when you do not care for me?’.

How to treat your lessers and morally empty authority

Harry on the new, civil liberty quashing, Minister of magic:

‘He’s not very happy with me.’ ‘No,’ sighed Dumbledore. ‘He is not very happy with me, either. We must try not to sink beneath our anguish, Harry, but battle on.’ Harry grinned.
A sluggish memory, The Half Blood Prince

Anguish - deep mental suffering.

The subtext here is:
If those in authority have no values and are displeased, then that’s no hardship, perhaps you’re doing something right.

Wiry diamond hard Aurora Rufus Scrimgeour strides from a drawing room with cane, top hat and tails
Rufus Scrimgeour wartime Minister of Magic

This contrasts with Dumbledore’s warmth and understanding towards his lessers:

I warned Sirius when we adopted twelve Grimmauld Place as our Headquarters that Kreacher must be treated with kindness and respect. I also told him that Kreacher could be dangerous to us.

I do not think Sirius took me very seriously, or that he ever saw Kreacher as a being with feelings as acute as a human’s

‘Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards, Harry,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Yes, he is to be pitied. His existence has been as miserable as your friend Dobby’s.

The Lost Prophecy, Order of the Phoenix

We form people’s behaviours, towards us and people like us, by how we treat them. Or as Sirius Black says:

[Hermione’s] got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron. If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.
Padfoot returns, Goblet of fire

So what is a lesser? Or an inferior? I would say it is someone with less ability to create their situation, so someone more a victim of circumstance than you presently are. Self agency is a large part of happiness. As slaves House Elves have none.

On my tours bright young kids sometimes point out the irony that Sirius Black will ultimately die for not following his own advice. Is this a plot hole?

Like the lesson of the mirror of ERISED, I think the sentiment of caring for those who struggle is prized by Rowling. Indeed she has said that she used to evaulate men by how they treat waiters and waitresses.

Willing to talk with thine enemies

And finally Dumbledore is open minded, he brought Snape in from the dark...

In the final book, Deathly Hallows, when many hidden things come to the surface, there is a scene on a windy hilltop. Dumbledore has been summoned by a Death Eater, Severus Snape. At that point, Snape is a subscriber to the inhuman philosophy of Voldemort. He is probably a killer, certainly a betrayer of two of the people Dumbledore loved most, and the man who had sent Voldemort after an innocent child in the knowledge that Voldemort would kill him.

Again, to my knowledge (my memory isn't infallible, so forgive me if you did), nobody has ever asked me: why did Dumbledore go when Snape asked him to go, and why didn't he kill him on sight when he got there?

I think readers assume that Dumbledore is wise enough, knowledgeable enough and compassionate enough to sense that Snape, though he has led a despicable adult life, has something human left inside him, something that can be redeemed.

Snape weeps in front of the mirror of ERISED as his beloved Lily Potter looks out of the mirror

Nevertheless, wise and prescient as Dumbledore is, he is not a Seer. At the moment when he answers Snape's call, he cannot know that Snape isn’t going to try and kill him. He can’t know that Snape will have the moral or physical courage to change course, let alone help defeat Voldemort. Yet still, Dumbledore goes to the hilltop

Dumbledore is the moral heart of the book. His warmth, care, concern and trust bettered the lives of everyone he touched. Even when dealing with seeming villains like Vernon Dursley, or Deatheaters sent to assassinate him he had grace. Modestly he calls his pleasant concern for others “manners”, but Harry Potter is stuffed with institutional bigotry and stigma, it’s wizard culture; Dumbledore is the world’s beacon of civility. So...

What Would Dumbledore Do?

Art Credits
The Whomping Willow poster created by Green Dargon Inn Dumbledore's falling from the tower from Pottermore Sirius Black battling Belatrix Lestrange by b-portrayed Cho Chang kissing Cedric Diggory by r. räubertochter Snape weeping before ERISED by ines92