Aristotle’s Conception of a Tragic Hero
According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a distinguished person occupying a high position or having a high status in life and in very prosperous circumstances falling into misfortune on account of a “hamartia” or some defect of character. Morally speaking, a tragic hero, in Aristotle’s view, should be a good or fine man, though not perfect. There is nothing, says Aristotle, to arouse the feelings of pity or fear in seeing a bad character pass from prosperity to misfortune. At the same time, the ruin of a man who represents near-perfection in the moral sense is repugnant and horrible. Thus the tragic hero, for Aristotle, is a man not especially outstanding in goodness nor yet guilty of depravity and wickedness. The tragic hero is neither a moral paragon nor a scoundrel. Aristotle also demands that the tragic hero should be true to type, and consistent or true to himself. So far as the disaster or catastrophe in a tragedy is concerned, Aristotle would attribute it to an error rather than a deliberate crime.
Oedipus, as Judged by Aristotle’s Criteria
The main requirements of Aristotle in regard to the tragic hero are thus: (1) high social standing, (2) moral excellence or goodness, and (3) some fault of character, or some error committed by the hero in ignorance of the circumstances. Oedipus answers to all these requirements, though so far as the last-mentioned requirement is concerned, the matter has to be considered carefully. Oedipus is a man of royal birth; he is brought up by a King and a Queen and he himself afterwards becomes a King and marries a Queen. He is thus a man of social eminence. He is also a man possessing excellent qualities of character, though he is by no means perfect. We cannot say in categorical terms that his misfortune is due to any defect in his character, though his defects do produce the impression that such a man must pay for his defects. At the same time, it would not be correct to say that he is a puppet in the hands of fate. Within certain limits he is a free agent, though it must also be recognised that, no matter what other precautions he had taken besides those which he does actually take, the prophecy of the oracle would yet have been fulfilled.
Oedipus’s Excellent Qualities as a King and as a Man
Oedipus is a good King, a great well-wisher of his people, a man of integrity, an honest and great administrator, and an outstanding intellect. He is also a pious man who believes in oracles, respects the bonds of family, and hates impurity. His belief in the prophecies of the gods is the very basis of the whole body; it is because he receives a message from the Delphic oracle that he undertakes an investigation into the murder of the late King Laius. Oedipus is highly respected by his people. The suppliant people approach him almost as a god and he is honoured as a saviour. The Priest recalls the valuable service that he rendered to the city of Thebes by conquering the Sphinx, and looks forward to his rescuing the people from the afflictions that have now descended upon the city. Oedipus responds to the appeal of the Priest wholeheartedly; in fact he has already despatched Creon to consult the Delphic oracle, and soon he summons the prophet, Teiresias, to seek his guidance. When Creon reveals the cause of the city’s suffering and the remedy communicated to him by the oracle, Oedipus declares his resolve to track down the criminal and he utters a terrible curse upon him. In the light of all this, we can say that Oedipus is almost an ideal King. He also shows himself as a devoted husband and as a loving father. He shows due consideration for the opinions and feelings of Jocasta and he lavishes all his affection on his daughters. His relations with the Chorus are also very cordial and he shows all due courtesy to them, sometimes even acting upon the advice tendered by them. In short, both as a man and as a King Oedipus is worthy of high respect.
The Faults of Oedipus
However, Oedipus has his faults. He is hot-tempered, hasty in his judgment, excessively proud of his intelligence, and arbitrary in his decisions. He quickly loses his temper with Teiresias when he finds the prophet reluctant to reveal the things that he knows. He jumps to the conclusion that Teiresias has been bribed by Creon and that the two of them have hatched a conspiracy against him. No doubt, he first addresses Teiresias reverently, but his attitude changes suddenly and completely when he smells a danger to the Kingship. This attitude of distrust towards the prophet is in sharp contrast to Oedipus’s genuine piety. Oedipus the ruler belongs, in spite of his piety, to the world of politics and human standards rather than to the divine order of the world. His piety fails also later on when, under the influence of Jocasta, he becomes somewhat sceptical regarding the oracles.
On the Way to Tyranny
The scene with Creon clearly shows Oedipus’s arbitrariness and his dictatorial tendency. His attitude towards a tried and trusted kinsman is one of thoughtless and blind suspicion showing a hasty influence and a rash vindictiveness. It would seem that his position and authority are leading him to become a tyrant. In spite of all his love for the people, he wants full and absolute power, while in the case of Creon he comes close to committing a judicial murder.
His “Hubris” or Pride
An outstanding feature of Oedipus’s character is an inherent feeling of pride in his own wisdom. This feeling of pride seems to have been considerably nourished and inflated by his success in solving the riddle of the Sphinx. It is his boast that no seer, not even Teiresias, found the solution to that riddle. Oedipus’s feeling of pride is the subject of indirect comment in one of the choral odes. Because of this hubris, or arrogance, Oedipus certainly alienates some of our sympathy. Self-confidence is a good quality, but when it takes the form of pride, haughtiness, arrogance or insolence, it becomes disgusting and obnoxious. His attitude of intolerance towards both Teiresias and Creon and his highly offensive and insulting words for both of them create in us the impression that he is paving the way for his own downfall. Of course, Oedipus has already committed the crimes which make him a sinner in the eyes of the gods, in his own eyes, and in the eyes of other people; he killed his father and married his mother long before his defects come to our notice. But the tragedy lies not so much in the committing of those crimes as in his discovery that he is guilty of them. If the crimes had remained unknown there would hardly have been any tragedy. Tragedy comes with the fact of discovery both for Jocasta and himself.
His Pride not the Direct Cause of His Sins
It would be a flaw in logic to say that Oedipus suffers because of his sin of pride. That he is guilty of this sin cannot be denied. But his pride is not the direct cause of his crimes or his tragedy. Having come to know from the oracle what was in store for him, he tried his utmost to avoid the fulfilment of the prophecies. It was completely in a state of ignorance that he killed his father and married his mother. His tragedy is a tragedy of error, not of any wilful action. And yet it is possible to argue that, if he had been a little more careful, things would have taken a different shape. He might have avoided the quarrel on the road if he had not been so proud or hot-tempered; and he might have refused to marry a woman old enough to be his mother if he had not been blinded by the pride of his intelligence in solving the riddle of the Sphinx. But, then, the prophecies of the oracle would have been fulfilled in some other way, because nothing could have prevented their fulfilment. Pride, therefore, has little to do with Oedipus’s killing his father and marrying his mother.
His Pride, the Motivating Force Behind the Discovery
But does pride have anything to do with the discovery of his crimes because, after all, the tragedy lies mainly in this discovery? We can be almost certain that, if Oedipus had not relentlessly pursued his investigations, he might have been spared the shock of discovery. Something in him drives him forward on the road to discovery. After Teiresias has first refused to tell him anything and then uttered some frightening prophecies, Oedipus is discouraged by Jocasta to continue his investigations. But he pays no heed to her philosophy of living at random. She makes another effort to stop his investigations when she has herself realised the truth, but again she fails. The Theban shepherd too tries to dampen Oedipus’s determination to know the truth, but in vain. It is this insistence on the truth that leads to the discovery in which lies the tragedy. We may, if we like, interpret this insistence on the truth as a form of pride, the pride of intellect, or the pride of knowing everything. The link of cause and effect is unmistakable between Oedipus’s pride of intellect and Oedipus’s discovery of his sins. But there is no strong link between his pride and the actual committing of his sins because the sins would have been committed in any case, if the oracle was to be fulfilled. The oracle did say that Oedipus, would be guilty of those sins, but no oracle said that Oedipus must discover the truth. What causes the tragedy is Oedipus’s own loyalty to the truth. To this love of the truth we may, as already suggested above, give the name of the pride of intellect what follows the discovery, the self-blinding and self-punishment, is another matter; what follows is deeply tragic also, but that is an offshoot of the discovery which is the major tragedy.
The Indomitable Spirit of the Tragic Hero
Oedipus is thus an authentic tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense because, among other things, his tragedy is as much due to his own initiatives in discovering the truth as to external circumstances. To the modern mind, a high social position is not necessary for the tragic hero. The modem reader does not recognise the validity of oracles, too. But, apart from these considerations, Oedipus is an authentic tragic hero even from the modern reader’s point of view. In Oedipus we see the helplessness of man in the face of the circumstances and we see at the same time man’s essential greatness. The manner in which Oedipus blinds himself after realizing his guilt, and the manner in which he endures his punishment raise him high in our esteem. He is introduced to us as a man of heroic proportions in the prologue, and he departs at the close of the play as a man of a heroic stature. The spirit of Oedipus remains unconquered even in his defeat, and that is the essential fact about a tragic hero.