Aristotle, Oedipus, and Greek Tragedy

There has been a longstanding debate, dating back to Aristotle, regarding the purpose or telos of tragedy, and whether or not the key “tragic” element is the result of a unique or particular character flaw caused by the protagonist. In other words, is Oedipus merely a flawed human being who has brought about the destruction of himself, his family, and his city of Thebes? Is King Lear’s madness, and the subsequent downfall of his kingdom, the result of his own tragic undoing? It is a popular scavenger hunt for modern academics to search through the psyche of King Lear or Oedipus to find some fatal flaw -some poor decision they made as in the case of King Lear and his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The purpose of this mode of scholarship is to uncover a convenient and easily digestible moral lesson from the tragedy.

Truly, a case can be made that Sophocles and Shakespeare offer tragedies to educate the polis, though perhaps not by mere moral allegory. Or at least this is not an Aristotelian reading of tragedy, according to 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). A tragedy is an imitation of one whole action, not a person. What is key to a story like Oedipus Tyrannus, is the changing of opposing and unpredictable events, such as when the old Corinthian messenger appears at Thebes to ease Oedipus’s mind, but his story actually does the opposite and sends Oedipus’s life into a tailspin. The action has already been complete. Oedipus merely realizes the tragedy of his life. This scene is composed of reversal, discovery, and suffering. In this way, tragedy imitates “fear and pity” (1452b). Everything Oedipus believes is reversed, and the oracle is proved right.

Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert (1842)

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 un-tragic. 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? He uses this language elsewhere in the Politics as well as the Rhetoric. For Aristotle, there is a certain “mark” or “telos” in all things: nature, politics, art, and so on. The aim of human life is excellence or virtue understood as happiness by contemplation, the aim of the city is happiness and harmony in parallel to human happiness, the aim of poetics is catharsis.

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, and this is the good. Therefore, the tragic action befalls an ignorant person who comes to realize the highest purpose of his life is no longer possible: his happiness in life is made impossible. He has “missed the mark.” 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, nor susceptible to modern psychoanalysis (for Aristotle had no notion of anger or spiritedness –thumos– as being a kind 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. This is the teaching of Oedipus: that people in the audience are elevated (katharsis) when reminded that they, noble and pious people, can see a tragic fate, despite all their best efforts to appease the gods and do what is right. Amor fati is the teaching par excellence.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Cavalcade (1933) Review

Cavalcade (1933) Director: Frank Lloyd


Cavalcade is a curious choice for Best Picture (one of many odd decisions made by the Academy). Despite its mediocre acting and bland plot (the film is mostly a bore), its redeeming qualities lie in its powerful montage sequences toward the end in which the chaos of the British Empire, between its wars and moral ambivalence, are contrasted with the mores of a family who have lost their children in the great tragedies of the 20th century.

Cavalcade, the winner of three Academy Awards in 1933 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Direction, is a biopic that tells the story of a British family through their various trials and tribulations. The plot is epic in scale. It follows the Marryot family beginning on New Years Day in 1899-1900, through the Boer Wars, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic where two of the main characters drown on their honeymoon, and it concludes with the outbreak of World War I where their last remaining son dies. The film is, at root, a tragic exploration into the decline of the British Empire. The youthful idealism behind the Boer Wars quickly turns to jaded pessimism as World War I kills all of the young men and leads to the moral relativism of the 1920s and a second ‘great’ war.

The regulatory Hay’s Office, the American censorship bureau at the time, was concerned that the use of “damn” and “hell” would set a precedent in films that would grow increasingly more profane, but the film was ultimately not edited. It was released as a Fox Movietone film.

Click here to return to my survey of the Best Picture Winners.

An Inquiry into Herodotus’s Project

Unlike the “archaeology” undertaken by Thucydides, Herodotus gives a survey of cultures and customs across the known world by scribing a book whose purpose is to “show forth” the “causes” of the Persian War so that humans will not forget the deeds of great men. I believe it was Strauss who once remarked in a letter that Herodotus’s Inquiries are magnificent because the text presents both the problem and the antidote to logoi. He exoterically reaffirms the poets, by echoing the many varying tales of the war against Persia, while at the same time denying any embellishments that he cannot independently verify -an early nod to the modern process of historical/anthropological inquiry.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed exhibited 1830 by William Etty 1787-1849
Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed by William Etty in 1830

As is customary for the Greek mind, Herodotus praises competition -the best of men are to be held in high regard. Men like Themistocles, Phidippides, Cyrus, and Leonidas. Indeed, like Thucydides who came after him, Herodotus naturally draws his great work in sharp contrast to the earlier Homeric epics. To Herodotus and Thucydides, both independent investigators, maintaining skepticism toward the excessive poet untruth is what distinguishes their inquiry from Homeric lavish.

Is their quarrel with Homer one that is characterized by inspiring courage and greatness among the living, or rather is it to “show forth” an accurate procession of past events -great deeds that occurred without hyperbole? Or perhaps these two are not necessarily in conflict with one another -can the writer present a record of past events without the help of the poets? The inquiry into human greatness begins with the desire to seek and find greatness, and once it is found, greatness must be remembered. Greatness stands emboldened against the ever impending threat of tyranny, a tyranny that is either exemplified by the will of the tyrant that comes from the East (the Lydian Empire that upset its own customs when Caundales seals his own fate and Gyges becomes king, only for his empire to decay under the lavish leadership of Croesus, and it is then conquered by the Persians under Cyrus followed by his mad son, Cambyses, who completes the tyranny over the east by conquering Egypt, and Darius the tactician, and Xerxes, whose failures in Greece spawned the decline of the Persian War) or the Democratic Athenian tyranny of laws and endless progress. In the Aristotelian sense, the end of tyranny is “self-protection”, meaning guard or protection.

The Homeric epics wrestle with two chief concerns. The first is a poem about the city, Ilium, and its destruction. The Iliad states its subject at the outset, the wrath of Achilles and how his rage tragically sealed his fate. The warrior is necessary for the city in motion, his power is immense, and his life is gloriously remembered, but it can be tragic based on whether or not the war is won. He is swift and lacks tact. Alternatively, we are given the example of a man, Odysseus, a tactician who Homer credits with winning the war due to his cunning plan to exploit the Trojans deference for piety. Herodotus, on the other hand, examines neither of the noble types per say, but rather he surveys the varying geographies, laws, customs, and politics that form the competing ideologies of the East and the West. In paving the way for the modern ‘historical science’ Herodotus, hailing from Halicarnassus, attempts to maintain impartiality -the locus of his inquiry is neither Greek nor barbarian, and it is not a defense, or apologeia. It is rather a “showing forth” of causes for a great war so as to demonstrate human greatness. In using the Persian War, Herodotus takes the particular (the Persian War) to wonder about the universals. History in the Herodotean sense is not a mere timeline or record of events, but rather an active inquiry into human greatness. it is presented in the Greek spirit of competition as if to boldly challenge anyone to supersede his text.

Herodotus’s project subordinates the poetic for alethea, the unveiling of the true account. Like Gyges, Herodotus looks upon beautiful and noble things that are not his own, thereby transgressing the most sacred custom of antiquity. He is a traveler, a wanderer like Odysseus who sees many things that are not his own, and in looking upon things unfamiliar to a man lies the root of empire -a dangerous decline into tyranny is imminent. Recall the fate of Gyges that is played out generations later with the arrogance of Croesus in Lydia. The story of Gyges is the first full story mentioned by Herodotus, it is also repeated by Glaucon the early books of the Republic (Politeia) however it is crucially edited and misremembered by Glaucon, revealing much about his psychology but that is an inquiry for another time. Herodotus’s inquiry is perhaps more dangerous than Gyges’s transgression because Herodotus does not have political ambitions. He is not bound by nomos, or laws and customs, but rather he is in pursuit of truth and this inquiry is dangerous to the city because the city depends on untruth, knowledge of things beautiful and noble that belong to oneself. If a man travels from city to city he sees laws and customs that are entirely foreign, perhaps even values of good and evil that are incompatible with his own. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, he sees natural ‘laws’ that are the same everywhere, i.e. fire burns the same everywhere, food grows well in fertile climates, and so on, but not everyone devours devours their dead as in the case of Darius comparing the customs of the Indians and the Greeks.

However it is not my contention that Herodotus’s work permits danger to the city. By echoing the logos of the Athenians he both exoterically praises their greatness and Pindar’s claim that custom is king, while also esoterically wrestling with universal questions.

Historia for Herodotus is an inquiry into a specific moment, the Persian Wars, in order to “show forth” human greatness in opposition to tyranny, a universal question. In order to do this Herodotus presents the misleading and often contradictory stories told among and between groups. Skepticism toward the poets and rumor-mills of ideology is rife throughout his book. The closing story of the text appropriately parallels the first story told of Gyges in Lydia. The final story praises the wisdom of Cyrus in his rejection of relocating to more favorable climates for any easier life, for otherwise he falls prey to leading his empire into disarray, looking upon foreign property, securing the fate of the Persians. He instead builds an empire wherein each city practices their customs independently and is adopted under the universal subjection of Persia, the Acheamenids. However, Cyrus faces the problem of tyranny early on in rejecting the life of ease standing in opposition to his advisors who want to move to softer soiled regions where they might eat and drink better. But Cyrus decides against this for soft men and soft soil are handmaidens.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Darius and the New Persian Regime

In Book III of Herodotus’s Inquiries, we encounter a problem among the Persians. The untimely death of the insane king Cambyses has led to a power vacuum filled by the corrupt Magi. When the Persians finally instill a revolt against the Magi, a conspiracy of seven men decides to storm the palace and regain power. However, the problem remains for the future of Persia: what form of government should be established? How will it be decided? What is the most just regime?

The first to declare the best means forward, Otanes, encourages the men to place the government in the hands of all Persians, a democracy. He says this in reaction to a monarchical form of government wherein the regime is neither “pleasant nor good,” and as justification he reminds the men of the terrible monarchs, Cambyses and the Magus, to demonstrate that a Monarchy is unnatural and short lived. Additionally, in presenting his case, Otanes asks: how could a monarchy be coherent and harmonious when the ruler is accountable to no one? Otanes seeks for accountability and a more pleasant regime. He makes the claim that even the “best of men” will go insane by the immense amount of power placed in him, which spawns envy and arrogance, in which all evil lies, and human nature is incapable of overcoming these in the position of a tyrant. However, the rule of the majority has the most “beautiful” name of all -Equality. All actions are drawn by lot and are held accountable by the many, everything is held to an audit. Nothing is left unseen. The masses can become like Gyges and see the truth. Therefore, Otanes proposes elevating the masses of men to a ruling position, because “in the many is the whole”. As is the nature of democracy, or a rule of the people, Otanes is concerned primarily with numbers. Like the shape of a square, he longs for a mathematical equality that can be apportioned to the “whole” so as to present a safe option that does not risk corruption.

Next, Megabyzos, defends an oligarchic regime. He agrees with Otanes’s criticism of a monarchy, however he states that nothing can be more worthless than an effectual mob, which is the natural tendency of democracy. In escaping the arrogance of a tyrant, the Persians must not seek salvation in the undisciplined and uneducated common people (here, Megabyzos employs the word demos meaning common people or demes, districts located outside the center of the polis, the Acropolis. Otanes had previously employed the use of plethos, meaning a majority or koinon meaning the authority of the public or the common people). Megabyzos accuses the masses of men of behaving like an undiscerning torrent -this is a good option for the enemies of the Persians but not for the best of men among the Persians. He ends his apologia stating that the present company will be included among the future oligarchs, in the rule of the few.

Finally, Darius comes forth in defense of a Monarchy. In his central argument, he asks the men to consider the best possible regime for each -democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Undoubtedly the perfect man, the best of all men, is the ideal ruler who rules justly, like a philosopher king. In the rule of the few, an oligarchy on the other hand, private men’s quarrels turn to public hostilities as power is grappled for and this naturally results in a monarchy. On the other hand, in a democracy, when the people rule, they will always do so incompetently, so that the people must form compacts or friendships with one another to keep the regime alive until the people elevate one man who they much admire, capable of keeping the regime from collapsing into anarchy. Therefore, democracy necessarily results in a monarchy as does an oligarchy. Both a democracy and an oligarchy must be forcibly instated by means of a revolution, however an oligarchy is the most naturally occurring regime. Darius concludes by providing justification for the regime in that freedom for the Persians came from one man, and they should therefore preserve this inheritance by preserving their own traditional cultural values.

As in the opening sequence of Plato’s Republic wherein Socrates encounters Polemarchus and returns to the house of Cephalus, we are presented with competing visions of a city in speech. The irony of the context in which the men discuss these three regimes, as in the case of the Republic, is that they embody the various regimes. Three of the best men present defenses, putting on trial the three forms of government, however ultimately the new monarchical regime is chosen by casting of lots, Otanes is outvoted. The result is a monarchy that comes under the rule of Darius in Persia, following the rumors of divine circumstances in which lightning breaks the moment his horse whinnies outside the city, as well as subtle lies by Darius and his comrades who rig the situation (as he had alluded to earlier in Book III, foreshadowing his Machiavellian tendencies). Persia, the best polis of the barbarians, has therefore also formed the best politeia.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.