August 31, 2005

Tragic Flaws

Two summers ago, I read all of Greek tragedy for my comprehensive exams. Aside from making me incredibly depressed for a month, I realised something quite interesting: just about everything Aristotle says about tragic heroes is wrong. Aristotle had postulated the principle of the tragic flaw in tragedy. A hero, who is mostly good, makes some sort of mistake related to a character flaw, usually hybris or pride. However, from what I read, I realised that tragic heroes are almost never brought down by their flaws or by hybris. In fact, in most cases, the protagonist is actually destroyed by his or her virtues. In puzzling over this, I realised that Aristotle is, in fact, not trying to explain exactly what is happening in tragedy but what should be happening. He is answering a very specific challenge to the very existence of tragedy presented by Plato in the Republic Book III. Plato had argued that tragedy corrupted the audience. Aristotle's development of the tragic flaw is a response to this challenge.

I will begin with an example. Even Oedipus Rex, the tragedy on which Aristotle focuses, does not seem to conform to Aristotle's model. Oedipus's downfall is the result of one of his own virtues, his keen intellect and wish to investigate. Oedipus had become king of Thebes by answering the riddle of the Sphinx. His success in becoming king of Thebes and his downfall in discovering his own origins are the result of the same character trait. Aristotle identifies this trait with hybris (as does the character Tiresias in the play itself), however, there is nothing clearly proud in Oedipus's desire to discover the origin of the plague in Thebes. Oedipus is referred to literally dozens of times in the play as wishing to "see" in various forms of the verb. This curiosity and intellect is not a vice. Yet it is this curiosity and intellect that destroys him, not hubris, and when he realises this, he takes out his own eyes so as never to see again.

Oedipus Rex was the example of a tragic flaw Aristotle himself used and even this example is not very clear. It is better to look at the Poetics as a response to a challenge to tragedy by Plato. Plato charges that tragedy corrupts people by showing good people being crushed. This is especially true in tragedy where they are often crushed because they are good. This teaches the audience that they should not bother being good. If they are good, it will not benefit them, and may in fact destroy them. An example of this would be Antigone, in which Antigone's love for her family and for the gods leads to her death and the death of her betrothed. This is an intractable problem for tragedy. If one wants to evoke fear and pity, one must a) show bad people whom we should not pity being crushed, or b) show good people who should not be crushed being crushed. Either of these corrupts the audience. a) corrupts them by causing them to identify with bad characters, and b) corrupts them by teaching them goodness is of no benefit.

Aristotle's solution, then, is the "tragic flaw". In the tragic flaw a character is mostly good, but has a specific flaw that destroys him or her. This provides an escape from Plato's criticism. The hero is still greater than most of the audience members. Therefore, the audience can and should feel pity for the hero on his or her downfall. However, the hero has a flaw that causes the hero to fail. Therefore, the audience feels an appropriate moral fear that badness leads to bad results. In this way, Aristotle has threaded the dilemma raised by Plato. The audience may feel both pity and fear, and neither of them will be corrupting. On the contrary, the emotions will help people sympathise with heroes better than themselves while fearing the negative consequences of wickedness.

As such, Aristotle's analysis in the Poetics is not an accurate description of what had happened in tragedy up to that point. Rather, it is a vision of how tragedy ought to function, a vision that has been largely successful through the influence of the Poetics. He is responding specifically to a charge by Plato in the Republic, that tragedy necessarily evokes either inappropriate pity or fear. Instead, Aristotle argues that tragedy can be morally edifying as well as pleasurable.


Air of Winter said...

On this subject, you may find interesting Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. My reaction to many of the works described differs from his, but it interested me nevertheless.

I found Antigone an unpleasant work, showing good people who shouldn't be crushed being crushed. Booker would have it otherwise. I'd have to write at length about his thesis to avoid caricaturing it; it's a 700+ page book.

That some works are nihilistic and have a tendency to corrupt the audience I won't dispute, but I'll note that I think that someone who does good because he fears the consequences of evil is following the prudential, not the moral, impulse.

hotsirenita said...

I have to disagree about Oedipus. It was not his intellect and curiosity that led him to his fall, but fate. What happened was already prophesized, so one could argue that it could simply not be avoided. Remember that his parents did give him up in order to avoid the terrible fate, and he himself set off away from his home in fear of the prophecy given to him by the Delphic oracle.
In the end, Jocasta committed suicide and Oedipus blinded himself, because of the revelation of what had really happened (which could perhaps be labelled as υβρις?).

dr burrell said...

'air of winter' draws an interesting distinction between prudential reasoning and genuinely moral reasoning; this would make a good topic for a future essay at The Lyceum. My own view is that it is a false distinction: moral reasoning is simply prudential.

The moral impulse is simply that impulse which teaches us to 'pursue the good and avoid evil'. When we shy away from evil for fear of the consequences, that is truly moral. When we pursue the good in order to obtain the reward, that too is truly moral. Yet in both cases we are simply acting prudently.

I agree, however, that there appears to be something sub-par about prudence - it connotes a kind of calculatedness that seems at odds with genuine goodness. The truly good person would easily and naturally do the good and avoid evil, without pausing in deliberation or perplexity, and without reasoning discursively to the prudent conclusion. But they would still be acting prudently!

Air of Winter said...

Dr burrell seems to me to have conflated the moral act and the moral motive. I observe the prudential motive and the moral motive to differ, rather as I find hunger and thirst to differ; sometimes I experience only one, and sometimes both together, as the motive for an act. It is not my observation that the choice which is to my benefit is always the moral choice.

Ash Sere said...

In this particular case, it's not prudence at all, or even an act of morality, but rather conditioning in the Pavlovian sense.

There is nothing voluntary in it, at least not in the minds of Aristotle's envisaged audiences.

shulamite said...

There is room for interpretation on what Aristotle considers a tragic flaw, and one need not take it in the same way you do. It's curious that you don't mention aristotle's account of a tragic hero as "better than us"- better than the average person. This is necessary since the greatness of tragedy is proportionate to the fall, and the fall is propotionate to how great the character is. There is a great distance between saying this and saying, as you do, that the character is "mostly good", which does not mean "better than us".

Aris. was only trying to refute book III of the Republic? Perhaps this is so, but why are you trying to understand them apart from what aristotle actually says about them? How can you understand what is being said about tragic heroes apart from catharsis (the final cause of the tragic hero); learning (the other final cause); fear and pity (the matter of catharsis) purgation (the form)? Your account is distant and detached from what aristotle actually says about tragic heroes and tragedy.

The tragic flaw need not be a vice, and in fact cannot be, even on aris. account. It need not even be the same sort of thing for every character. And for what it's worth, intellectual curiosity is not a virtue, any more than sexual appetite is, and for the same reason. curiosity is an appetite to know- and all appetites are virtous not in themseves, but in right application (which doesn't, by the way, guarantee right results in absolutely every case. The universe is not wholly under our control, which accounts for the sense in which "a tragic flaw" can also be the cruel choice of fate or fortune.)

Daniel said...

Thank you for the responses, everyone.

I'm interested in the debate between Air of Winter and Dr. Burrell. I wrote a post a few weeks ago called Two Kinds of Selfishness that deals with two uses of the term "selfish" that correspond roughly to how "prudent" is being used. I'd like to hear more about what the "prudential" motive is. Is it another source of motivation above, say, thirst?

Thank you for your well constructed reply, Shulamite. I left out most of those things due to length restrictions (I try to keep all these essays under a thousand words), but they are worth noting.

One point I do need to disagree with you on, though, is whether or not intellectual curiosity should be compared to sexual appetite. Having a moderate and appropriate amount of an appetite is only relevant to the moral virtues or aretai ethikai. The mean is irrelevant to the intellectual virtues or aretai dianoetikai.

shulamite said...

I said "right application", not "moderation". Intellectual curiosity can be applied to the wrong things, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong circumstances, etc. Even when applied rightly, it can be "wrong" per accidens, if it leads unwittingly to something we wish he had never seen (I can imagine a man saying "I should have never looked into that")

To your main point, though: I was responding to your claim that "nearly everything Aristotle says about the tragic hero is wrong". For this to be true, you would have to speak to "nearly everything" that aristotle said about tragic heroes. Now I understand that you might be using hyperbole there, but it didn't seem so at first. I was taking issue with your own claim, not for your being too brief. One can certainly give a brief description of a tagic hero and then agree or disagree with nearly all of it.

I'd say "a character of high nobility, who suffers a catastrophe in some way self- inflicted, for the sake of evoking a catharsis of fear and pity in the audience."

For myself, I had to actually see "the Bakkai" on stage in order to understand what "catharsis" was- it's not like anything in Shakespeare- it's a definite sense of terror and purgation. Wagner comes close.

Air of Winter said...

Daniel says: "I wrote a post a few weeks ago called Two Kinds of Selfishness that deals with two uses of the term "selfish" that correspond roughly to how "prudent" is being used. I'd like to hear more about what the "prudential" motive is. Is it another source of motivation above, say, thirst?"

I believe it is. In your Psychological Determinism article you mention orectic and rational psychological determinism, and note that they fail to correctly describe your introspective experience. They don't describe mine either, for reasons similar to those you discuss.

I may find simple desire at odds with my own best interests, with the general good, or with both. If desire is at odds with my own best interests, then when I think "I ought not to do this" we're referring to the practical or prudential 'ought'; if it's at odds with the general good, then it's the moral 'ought'. The two normative impulses or motives -- I'm not entirely sure what we should call them -- can also clash with each other. Most of the time, I find that pragmatic behavior is also moral behavior; however, there are occasions when my self-interest and the general good are at odds.

Christians and some other theists may have difficulty defending the thesis that occasionally they act entirely from the moral motive, without any consideration of self-interest, because if asked whether they believe that the good act will redound to their ultimate benefit, they must answer yes: God will reward them. -- I am not saying, and do not believe, that theists who believe that God will reward their good acts usually have the reward foremost in their mind when they engage in active good works. But it's probably easier for me to defend the idea that there is a moral motive distinguished from the pragmatic. I'm an atheist, and when asked if I think a moral act will benefit me in any way, sometimes I answer no. On occasion doing the right thing does me no discernible good, and may do harm.

At this point, someone will say that in such cases, when I do the right thing, I am still acting out of self-interest, because I did it to feel good about myself. And it is true that sometimes such a benefit accrues. However, there occasions when the misery produced by the moral act outweighs any feeling of self-satisfaction it generates: I would have been happier if I hadn't done it. I think anyone who often finds it imperative to take a moral stand in a conflict is likely to have experienced such a situation: there are times when there's no doubt that one would be happier walking away.

Or, to put it another way: "Does it serve my ends?" asks whether performing an act will ultimately make me happier than not performing it. But the moral faculty is more likely to say, "Who blazes cares if it will make you happy? The question is: is it right?"

I don't, therefore, think the prudential and the moral motive are the same. It does not follow from this that I think that the prudential motive is contrary to morality. It can be, if the particular end one wishes to serve is a bad end, but of itself it's a moral cipher.

I could work hard because, having agreed to take a job, it's obligatory for me to perform it as well as I can; that's the strictly moral motive. I could work hard because finishing projects in good order gives me satisfaction, and because it will get me a promotion and more money; that's the prudential motive. I could work hard because I want not only to best a rival but to humiliate him; that's an immoral motive. I might work hard while entertaining any two of these motives, or even all three. It's not the presence of the prudential motive, but of an immoral motive, that can taint my conduct and my character. If I am not ignoring some sort of moral claim in the pursuit of my end, the satisfaction I take in achieving it is innocent. In that sense, I don't see 'unselfishness' as a virtue: the absence of the prudential motive is of no particular benefit.

Peter van Driel said...

On the subject of the tragic flaw, do you think that the shakespearian tragedies support this model? i.e. Romeo and Juliet? MacBeth? or Othello?

Good interpretations and observations!

Could the same tragic flaw be applied to cartoon characters (the bad guys), i.e. the deceptacons in transformers? (their tragic flaw is greed and stupidity) Or how about funny cartoons like Tom and Jerry. Tom's tragic flaw is just being too big and he can't go all the places Jerry can go (Plus a bit of stupidity in comparison with clever Jerry).

daughter of the arts said...

I agree somewhat with what Shulamite said. The tragic flaw need not be a vice. I have not read either Plato's or Aristotle's comments on the subject, but might it be the case that the tragic flaw consists in taking one personality characteristic TOO FAR, as opposed to simply having that characteristic?

Anonymous said...

maybe people would be able to take this most more seriously if you didn't spell realized with an "s"

Jake said...

"Anonymous", its an internet blogs about the whims of a Ph.d student. Lay off.

Maybe I'd be able to take you more seriously if you tried capitalizing the words you use to begin your sentences. And if "most more" of your tenses agreed. You might want to watch your grammar a little more closely when leaving comments about other peoples spelling.

Just a thought

Alex said...

What a great post! I was just searching around for "tragic flaw" in thinking about Madame Bovary, because I had exactly your thought: what inevitably leads to Emma's downfall isn't a flaw, but a virtue. (Well, sortof.) It's her idealism that kills her: her unshakable belief in a pure, neverending, profound love.

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