The Aristotelian tragic hero: Vision, voice, and the solitary self

Sheila M McGarry, Purdue University


As opposed to his philosophic predecessor Plato, who feared the effect poetry could have on moral education, Aristotle appreciated the difference between the Homeric epic hero who grappled with mythic monsters and the tragic hero who struggled with the epistemological, ethical, and existential truth about himself. The present study investigates the tragic hero, defined in Aristotle's Poetics as "an intermediate kind of personage, not pre-eminently virtuous and just" whose misfortune is attributed, not to vice or depravity, but an error of judgment. The hero is fittingly described as good in spite of an infirmity of character. The aspects of the hero's character are also seen as inseparable from the tragic action, which processes through the phases of decision, illumination, and catharsis. The definition of the hero leads to an examination of the Nicomachean Ethics in order to discover exactly what Aristotle means by virtue, justice, intermediate morality, goodness of character, and an error of judgment. This examination determines that, in erring against the intellectual virtue of judgment by failing to discriminate the equitable, the tragic hero at the same time errs against moral virtue since equity is a form of justice. Because he departs from the moral mean in the direction of excess, but does not go the extreme of vice, he maintains his goodness. He is, however, guilty of incontinence with qualification. The final part of this project establishes Sophocles' King Oedipus as a tragic hero on the Aristotelian model. The tragic action of Oedipus the King clearly follows the pattern of decision, illumination, and catharsis. Oedipus' error of judgment leads to incontinence with qualification in respect to anger. When he leaves Thebes at the end of the tragic action of Oedipus the King, Oedipus sees with a deep inner vision, speaks with the voice of practical wisdom, and rightfully claims a solitary self. Plato to the contrary, Aristotle's point that poetry does not work at cross-purposes to philosophy is well taken. Tragic poetry complements philosophy by showing its inner face.




Schrag, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Classical literature|Classical Studies

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