On John Alvis’s “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered”

In John Alvis’s essay entitled “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered” he wrestles with the extent to which Coriolanus represents the “Magnanimous Man” as discussed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Alvis notes that “Caius Martius Coriolanus has proved the most belittled of Shakespeare’s tragic creations,” and he wonders why would Shakespeare would construct a tragedy around this “truculent, austere, and half-repellent Roman warrior.” Coriolanus is an odd choice for a tragic hero since he lacks the nuance of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Lear. However, he does share kinship with the “classical ideal of the superlatively honorable man” as developed by Aristotle in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics, or the great-souled man, in all of his grandeur as well as his many limitations.

Alvis dismisses criticisms of Coriolanus by both Shaw and Bradley. He then runs through some of the stronger arguments for those who defend Coriolanus as Shakespeare’s example of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, like Rodney Poisson whose essay essentially argues that “the shoddy and second rate… inherit the earth precisely because the magnanimous man cannot be shifty or ruthless, and that noble anger is helpless against the calculation of the base.” In other words, Poisson argues that Coriolanus does indeed represent Aristotle’s archetype, but that he is prevented from full expression of his being by the Plebians. Whereas R.W. Battenhouse suggests that Coriolanus actually develops Christian predilections intended to demonstrate the limitations of the pagan ethic, perhaps best exemplified in the Christian paragon of womanly virtue in the character of Virgilia.

After sufficiently examining these two positions, Alvis takes a closer look at Aristotle’s original claims regarding magnanimity:

“Aristotle says the great-souled man can be distinguished from the pusillanimous by the greatness of his claims… He is undeniably greater than anyone else in his city, yet we have seen that he is also something less than the great-souled man of Aristotle in as much as his claims exceed his just deserts. A more decisive difference between the character exhibited by Coriolanus and that of the magnanimous man comes to sight when we appreciate Shakespeare’s portrayal of Coriolanus’ dependency upon the opinions of others.”

Since Coriolanus does not meet all of Aristotle’s criteria for magnanimity, Alvis lays out his chief argument as follows: “Coriolanus’s tragedy resides precisely in his failure to encompass the elusive ideal of the Ethics. As I see it, the play does enforce the relevance of the Aristotelian measure, though not, as Battenhouse says, in order to criticize it nor, as Poisson believes, in order to show Coriolanus in admirable conformity with it. Rather, I think Shakespeare intends us to understand his protagonist as a tragically defective imitation of Aristotle’s magnanimous man. His actions quite frequently recall those ascribed to the Aristotelian model, but his character and fate suggest an imperfect, and typically Roman, misunderstanding of what it means to be great-souled.”

Coriolanus is merely an “imitation” as evidenced when he is contrasted with Achilles. Both heroes believe they are self-sufficient and they do not depend on others for praise (at least on the surface). However, Achilles becomes ennobled by his tragic realization of Patroclus’s death as well as Priam’s appeal to his superiority. Achilles’s short life ends as he finally detaches himself from others. However, Coriolanus does not experience any such transformation –he ends right where he began, reminiscing about his solo victory over the city of Corioles before his life is ended in a traitorous conspiracy. Does he ever receive the fame he desires? Alvis answers, “He knows no other end for his virtue than the rewards of renown.” Rather than providing an example of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, instead Coriolanus shows the tension between great-souledness and the sheer use of power when exercised to enforce admiration.

Alvis, John “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered.” Interpretation Journal, September 1978, Vol. 7, No. 3.

John Alvis was a renowned scholar and professor at the University of Dallas. He tragically died in 2019.

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