One of the clearest messages in the Harry Potter series revolves around the ethical and responsible use of magic. Some, like Voldemort and his followers, see magic as a tool to be used for their own gain, while Harry and his friends are taught that any exercise of power—magical or otherwise—must always be done ethically, for the greater good. Unsurprisingly, many historical figures felt the same way about magic, which was deemed too powerful and potentially destructive to be used lightly. Some, like Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), Paracelsus (1493-1541), and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) believed that the magus should be, above all, pious and ethical. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) felt much the same; he wrote a popular tract—The New Atlantis (1626)—in which he described a utopian society ruled by benevolent philosophers and proto-scientists who investigated and exploited the secrets of nature as Paracelsus, Agrippa, and Bruno once advocated.
In spite of these utopian and optimistic visions, however, there remained widespread suspicion about the motives of some magical practitioners. Many feared that philosophers and magicians communed with demons, either for access to forbidden knowledge or merely to trick gullible patrons into financing their work. The story of Faustus, who sells his soul to the Devil for unlimited magical power, is an excellent example of these suspicions, reflecting popular fears about the motives of so-called magicians. In some respects, these fears have never left us, making some members of the public suspicious of scientists today as they were of Faustus.
Some of these fears were held most strongly by philosophers and theologians, who foresaw both tremendous potential for magic as well as the disastrous consequences of its misuse. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the fierce debates that linked together magic, natural philosophy, and witchcraft. Witches were thought to manipulate nature as other magicians did, but for evil ends, and were viewed by many as representing both the power and peril of magic. For some, like Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680), the investigation of witches was a serious philosophical pursuit that promised to reveal much about the workings of nature as well as query the ethics of its manipulation.
“All things that we use on earth, let us use them for good and not for evil.” —Paracelsus, De Religione Perpetua, 1533
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” —Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling
“… we ought to labour in nothing more in this life, then that we degenerate not from Excellency of the mind, by which we come nearest to God and put on the Divine Nature: least at any time our mind waxing dull by vain idleness, should decline to the frailty of our earthly body and vices of the flesh: so we should loose it, as it were cast down by the dark cloud of perverse lusts. Wherefore we ought so to order our mind, that it by itself being mindfull of its own dignity and excellency, should always both Think, do and operate something worthy of itself; But the knowledge of the Divine science, doth only and very powerfully perform this for us. When we by the remembrance of its majesty being always busied in Divine studies do every moment contemplate Divine things, and by a sage and diligent inquisition, and by all the degrees of the creatures ascending even to the Archetype himself, do draw from him the infallible vertue of all things …. But the understanding of Divine things, purgeth the mind from errors, and rendreth it Divine, giveth infallible power to our works, and driveth far the doubts and obstacles of all evil spirits, and together subjects them to our command.” —Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, 1533.