Peter Pettigrew: Cowardice and Cupiditas in Harry Potter

In the Harry Potter series, an excessive love of self, otherwise known as cupiditas, has consistently been shown to be the root of vice. In Sorcerer’s Stone, readers are shown that Voldemort’s excessive self-love, and his lack of selfless love, or caritas, is what fundamentally distinguishes him from Harry. Voldemort’s evil is motivated by pride, defined by Dante as “excessive love of self perverted to hatred for one’s neighbor.” His love of self is what led to his moral depravity, to his desire to be above others and to be all-powerful. However, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling presents yet another consequence of having an excessive love of self, through the character of Peter Pettigrew. Pettigrew embodies cowardice, also motivated by self-love. Pettigrew’s character shows that self-love leads not only to moral depravity, but also to moral weakness; moral weakness is almost indistinguishable from moral depravity, if not worse. Pettigrew’s moral weakness, his cowardice, led to his decision to betray Lily and James Potter, an act that is, in this book, portrayed as something even worse than murder. The most depraved vices are very much a parallel to Dante’s order of vices in his Inferno, with the treacherous in the ninth circle, and the betrayers of one’s kin in the very bottom pit.

The character of Peter Pettigrew serves the very definition of cowardice in the Potter books. Pettigrew fails to act courageous in the face of danger, preferring simply to save himself. He is cowardly in that, not only does he choose to do wrong, but he chooses not to do good; he chooses not to act rightly, even when offered the chance, because doing so might mean putting himself in danger. Peter’s actions are motivated towards nothing but self-preservation. When Sirius and Remus confront him as to why he betrayed Lily and James Potter, Pettigrew defends himself by saying, “You don’t understand! He would have killed me, Sirius!”* As a boy in school, Pettigrew tagged along James Potter and Sirius Black because in those days, they were among the most popular and influential in the entire school. James and Sirius were intelligent and well-liked, and Pettigrew chose to befriend them simply so that he could share the limelight as well, so that he could have a bit of their popularity. Although he was initially a part of the Order of the Phoenix, when Voldemort began gaining power, Pettigrew’s loyalty changed. “He – he was taking over everywhere! Wh – What was there to be gained by refusing him?” Pettigrew tells Sirius and Remus in the Shrieking Shack. Pettigrew wanted some of Voldemort’s power, and he felt that by remaining with the Order, his chances of preserving his own life were slim. He chose to side with Voldemort simply because he believed that Voldemort was more powerful, and that by joining him, he might have more to gain. Pettigrew’s allegiance depends on what he stands to gain from that allegiance.

Part of what makes Pettigrew a cowardly character is that he never seems to stand for anything on his own; his beliefs change with the person he is serving. Although Pettigrew and Neville Longbottom have consistently been compared, Pettigrew never leaves the servant role, while Neville ultimately becomes a leader and a hero. Pettigrew is presumably not capable of the sort of leadership role that Neville assumes, because he never develops anything other than self-love. Pettigrew does not seem to make the distinction between fighting for what is good or for what is evil; his choice simply depends on which side offers the most personal gain. Conversely, Neville continues to fight against Voldemort during his seventh year at Hogwarts, even when the chances of defeating him appear remote. In Goblet of Fire, Pettigrew chooses to return to the Dark Lord not out of loyalty, but rather, out of fear. He fears the Dark Lord, and he fears that the Order might kill him as well, because he sold the Potters to Voldemort. Pettigrew possesses a selfish fear, a different sort of fear that virtuous characters, such as Harry, has often felt. Harry’s fear is not for his own survival; it is for the triumph of evil over good. In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry fears the Stone falling into the wrong hands and Voldemort coming back to power. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry fears the death of Ginny Weasley, and the closing of Hogwarts because the Chamber has been opened. Harry’s fear is never for himself, while for Pettigrew, fear for himself is his only fear.

Pettigrew’s fear for himself, his singular desire for self-preservation, regardless of the cost, is what makes his betrayal of Lily and James Potter even more despicable.  He sold Lily and James to Voldemort not because he wanted to Voldemort to gain power, not because he wanted the Potters dead, but because he wanted to be in the good graces of Voldemort; he wanted a strong alliance with Voldemort because Voldemort looked like the winning side. Pettigrew really has no real conviction except when it comes to his own survival. His selfishness is the cause of his moral weakness, his willingness not only to commit a betrayal, but to continue to let evil acts happen. Moral weakness, in the Potter books, is equal to, if not worse than, the same moral depravity that Voldemort possesses. Pettigrew’s moral weakness, his excessive love of self, prevents him from ever acting rightly. Pettigrew is beyond repentance and redemption, because to repent for one’s transgressions is to separate one from oneself, to admit one’s wrongdoing. Repentance is an act of selflessness, and Pettigrew is incapable of that. One who commits evil is still capable of repentance and redemption; Snape exemplifies this, when he chose to become a spy for Dumbledore and help him protect Harry, after Voldemort murdered Lily. Snape, unlike Voldemort and Pettigrew, possesses a selfless love for Lily Potter. However, because Pettigrew lacks any sort of moral conviction, because his love is only for himself, he can never attain the same redemption as Snape.

In many ways, Peter Pettigrew can indeed be viewed as a Judas character, and his betrayal of the Potters is viewed by Harry as even worse than Voldemort’s actual murder. In the Inferno, Dante places those who betrayed their kin at the very bottom, the very pit – these include Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. Like Judas Iscariot, Pettigrew chose to betray his friends, the Potters, in exchange for personal gain, for personal glory. Both Judas and Pettigrew put themselves before others, at the expense of others. Both betrayed a special relationship; Judas with Jesus Christ, and Pettigrew with the Potters, and that kind of betrayal is viewed by portrayed in this book as the ultimate sin.

*All direct quotes are taken from the Scholastic edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling.

4 Replies to “Peter Pettigrew: Cowardice and Cupiditas in Harry Potter”

  1. Peter reminds me of the description Socrates gave in Phaedo (I’m not sure how it is spelled), where he compares those that are more into their own bodies or selves, therefore they fear death and wold rather have the bodily pleasures instead of the love of wisdom. Whereas the true Philosophers embrace death in the sense that death is merely a separation of the soul and care less of the body. In this sense, Peter shows here that apparently, the body is more important than the love of wisdom, and fear of death (or fear of anything capable of harming Peter only) is an excruciating feeling.

    1. I definitely agree! Pettigrew, Voldemort, and most of the other Death Eaters have this in common–they don’t really value the consequences of their actions, nor do they consider the morality (or, immorality) of their actions, because their actions (joining up with Voldemort) results in the earthly goods they seek, i.e. power, fame, etc. And the Socrates dialogue applies to Voldemort and Harry as well–Voldemort cares only for the physical, fears the unknown (which to him is death) and does not care for that which he cannot understand (e.g., love) while Harry has the courage to meet his own death out of his love for others.

    1. Haha, indeed! It’s fun to say, too. 🙂 It’s the Latin term for love of self, and it’s opposite is a term called caritas, meaning love of others, or selfless love. The two terms can also be another way to contrast the characters of Harry and Voldemort.

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