“Or perhaps in Slytherin you’ll make your real friends, those cunning folks use any means to achieve their ends.” — The Sorting Hat, PS/SS
Why not “good ends” or “positive ends” or any other adjective before “ends”?
There’s an obvious reason. I mean, really obvious.
Because JKR meant “their”. As in “the ends of the cunning folks in Slytherin”. Or more specifically, “the ends of each Slytherin individually”.
This implies selfishness. When I say “selfishness”, most Slytherins either nod in cocky agreement or start composing an angry reply, but hear me out.
Here’s the definition:
Selfishness (n): Unwillingness to relinquish one’s needs for the needs of others; a concern for one’s own welfare and a disregard of others; egoism; harming someone else in order to help oneself.
Most people tend to think of selfishness as something they must overcome, but Slytherins embrace selfishness as a basic tenement of humanity, as necessary for survival. This is not to say that Slytherins cannot help others; however, they tend to help others knowing that they will receive something in return, whether it’s notoriety or a favor or just the lift that having done something nice for someone else gives them. The point is, Slytherins know what their time is worth — what their life is worth — and it certainly isn’t free.
With that in mind, let’s look at “…use any means to achieve their ends” in terms of each Hogwarts House. The different Houses tend to orient themselves in terms of what the self pursues. Gryffindors tend to champion a cause, an ideal. Hufflepuffs tend to put their time and energy into other people, friendships and relationships. Ravenclaws tend to concern themselves with ideas, learning, newness. And Slytherins are all about ambition, about protecting and promoting the self above all else.
So it goes like this:
- Gryffindor: “…use any means to achieve the end which best suits the cause they endorse.”
- Hufflepuff: “…use any means to achieve the end which is best for everyone.”
- Ravenclaw: “…use any means to achieve the end in which they learn to most.”
- Slytherin: “…use any means to achieve the end which they desire for themselves.”
There are huge differences in the priorities of each House at Hogwarts, as you can very clearly see here, and Slytherin has the most controversial priorities by far.
Here’s why. In order for society to function smoothly, not everyone can afford to be selfish, which is why Slytherins tend to have the reputation of ambitious disregard for the rules or for societal norms. Their selfishness forces them to live outside (above, under, etc.) the laws that normally restrain others from acts of selfishness. Since societies are built on the idea of altruism and selfishness is the exact opposite of altruism, Slytherins are pushed to the fringes of society: positions of great power, artistic (read: creative) pursuits, or criminal activities. All three of these examples are very small minorities of society as a whole.
So it’s no wonder Slytherins tend to be a majority of minorities; they are led to this outcome by their selfishness. And what’s more, they like their fringe status. Slytherins thrive through selfishness in the same way that Gryffindors thrive when they can champion an ideal, Ravenclaws thrive on knowledge, and Hufflepuffs thrive through hard work and patience. Is that a bad thing? It’s up to you.