Aristotle, Oedipus, and Greek Tragedy

There is a rigorous debate among scholars that has perpetuated for hundreds of years, dating back to Aristotle, about whether or not the purpose, or telos, of a tragedy is to determine a particular character flaw of the central protagonist. That is, to inquire about whether or not Oedipus is, indeed, a flawed human being who has, somehow, brought about his own destruction. Or, to take another example akin to Oedipus, recall King Lear’s infamous decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Like Oedipus, King Lear becomes blinded by his own fate and since its first performance, academics have looked high and low to find a flaw in Lear’s character. It is popular among novice scholars to find blame among either Lear or Oedipus for their grave downfalls.

Truly, a case can be made that Sophocles and Shakespeare presented these tragedies to educate the polis with a lesson in upright and moral behavior. However, it is certainly not an Aristotelian reading of the plays, and perhaps they arise like many later misreadings of Aristotle’s Poetics.

In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that all art is mimesis (imitation) and that all forms of tragedy are imitations of “actions and life” and not of “people” (1453-1454b). It is an imitation of one whole action, not a person. As an example, we recollect the Iliad and the Odyssey. What is key to a story like Oedipus Tyrannus, is the changing of opposite events, such as when the old Corinthian messenger appears at Thebes to ease Oedipus’s mind, his story actually does the opposite and sends Oedipus’s life into a tailspin. This scene is composed of reversal, discovery, and suffering. In this way, tragedy imitates “fear and pity” (1452b). Everything Oedipus believed is reversed, he discovers his the horrible acts of killing his own father and marrying his own mother, and as a result he experiences great suffering.

Tragedies, according to Aristotle, ought not to show men going from good to bad fortune as this is “repellent” and is not pitiable, and also not the converse for this is untragic. Therefore, Aristotle famously claims that a tragedy must beautifully show men “not surpassing in virtue and justice” so that they do not fall on account of some character flaw,  for they are imperfect by nature, but rather “on account of some missing of the mark” (1453b10). What does he mean by missing the mark?

In order to clarify, Aristotle uses Oedipus as an example to show how the spectator experiences katharsis – perhaps a purging of pent up primal desires, or also a kind of cleansing. This word, now written as catharsis, is meant to convey what he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is that all virtues of character are directed at an action that is beautiful, in itself. Therefore, the tragic deed is somehow both an action that is not entirely involuntary, and also a forgivable act of ignorance. The tragic hero must be relatable in his complexity, and the tragic elements cannot merely be the result of petty character flaws. In a word, the downfall of Oedipus is not a fault of his own determined some kind of modern psychoanalysis (for Aristotle had no notion of anger, or thumos, as being some ind of character flaw as defined in the Nicomachean Ethics) but rather the destruction of Oedipus and his family is terrifying, just as the suffering in his life is pitiable.

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