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Aristotle and Oedipus: Analysis of Ancient Greek Literature

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Aristotle is one of the most famous of ancient Greek writers. He noted that a tragic hero must, by definition, carry with him a fundamental flaw in his character that leads to his downfall. This sample, provided by the essay writing services at Ultius explores the ways in which the character of Oedipus exemplifies the Aristotelian archetype of a hero. 

Aristotle and Sophocles: Analysis of Ancient Greek Literature

Aristotle has noted that a tragic hero bears an inherent flaw which leads to his destruction, and contemporary readers continue to accept Aristotle’s assessment. It is Aristotle’s definition that has led many critics and scholars to regard Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King as one of the greatest examples of tragedy and heroism. While some readers contend that Oedipus’s fall was a result of his temper and pride, others suggest that his actions are irrelevant because it was his destiny. Nevertheless, in spite of his flaws, he desires to protect his kingdom’s welfare. Ultimately, Oedipus exemplifies the Aristotelian hero because he is a good, yet prideful, man with a noble intelligence that falls of his own free will. 

Heroes and flaws--Oedipus

Greek literature demonstrates that noble heroes have flaws that lead to their destruction; however, Aristotle suggests that it is the play’s construct that makes it a tragedy. Adade-Yeboah et al. (2012) concur and assert that

“Among the classical dramatists, it is Sophocles who was much concerned with drama as an art form” (p. 10).

As an art form, Oedipus the King is the ideal tragedy because its plot is multifaceted. Tragically, the kingdom suspects Oedipus is the cause of their troubles, yet they wish to keep it a secret. Unknowingly, as an intelligent seeker of knowledge, Oedipus threatens the very people who seek to protect him. Oedipus’s temperamental personality leads some to question his morals, but he demonstrates a considerate and kind attitude because he wishes to protect his kingdom. Aristotle suggests that a hero is a noble man. Oedipus reveals that his

“heart is heavy with the city’s pain” (line 63-64).

Essentially, Oedipus feels sorrow for his community, so he demonstrates an empathetic leader. Moreover, it is his devotion for his kingdom that encourages him to use any means to protect it. Subsequently, Oedipus asks,

“What has defiled us? And how are we to purge it?” (line 99).

At this point, Oedipus has no idea that he is the man who brought misery onto Thebes. Nevertheless, his loyalty to his kingdom is that of a hero’s.

Oedipus' quest for vengeance

Unluckily, in his quest to avenge a kinsman, Oedipus naively condemns himself. He continues to demand the truth of what happened that fateful day, and, in this way, he recapitulates his own fate as he tells Creon

“If you believe that one can harm a kinsman / Without retaliation, you are wrong” (lines 551-2).

While some may argue that it is a sign of his stubborn nature, Oedipus is simply acting as a king or leader should. Moreover, a heroic man will stop at nothing to keep his community safe from harm. Even though Oedipus does not realize he is the cause of his kingdom’s downtrodden state, his commitment is the act of a hero. Consequently, Oedipus’s innocent pride accelerates his downfall. At the same time, his pride is not an inherent character trait. Instead, Oedipus acts with pride. It is:

“The single-mindedness with which Oedipus sets about the search leads him into the darkness and desolation” (Adade-Yeboah et al., 2012, p. 13).

In other words, the only apprehension Oedipus has is towards his kingdom. Thus, his pride in his kingdom and his ability to protect its people establishes a hero and a good man. 

Not pride, but destiny 

Pride is a central theme in Greek Drama. While it is particularly notable in Euripides' Antigone, it also plays a large part in Oedipus the King. Incidentally, it was not only Oedipus’s pride that caused his downfall. Instead, his father, King Laius’s pride solidified their fate as he cast his son away. While the idea of incest with one’s parent is a disturbing thought, it seems that King Laius’s concern for his own death was the deciding matter. Specifically, Oedipus was an innocent child who was left to die by the hands of the king. Therefore, it was a son’s and a father’s pride that drove Sophocles’ plot. However,

“Aristotle makes it quite clear that the plot must not show a bad man under any circumstances, no matter what the course of his fortunes” (Reeves, 1952, p. 174).

With that in mind, King Laius was the “bad man” in this scenario. The reader would not have any pity for a man who killed his child regardless of the circumstances. In addition, Oedipus was unaware of his father’s actions, so he cannot be held to blame. That is where the pity lies and the reason behind Oedipus’s hero characterization. 

Blind to pride

Oedipus’s pride is his fatal flaw that leads him to make mistakes. At the same time, his father once felt the pride of protecting Thebes. Inadvertently, he passed that on to Oedipus. Because Thebes considered Oedipus as their savior, Oedipus relished his new role. While his pride was the result of blind ignorance, his actions were ultimately heroic. In addition to blind ignorance, Oedipus is blind to his pride. He calls upon Teiresias, a blind prophet, to reveal the king’s killer. Oedipus assures Teiresias that he can do him no harm as he says

“You live in darkness; you can do no harm To me or any man who has his eyes” (line 376).

Oedipus believes that his sight protects him. Initially, it seems that Oedipus believes harm can only come from a physical nature. It is the fundamental sentiment of pride to which he is blind. However, Teiresias understands that his words will harm their king. However, Oedipus stubbornly insists that he hear the truth.

Action over fate in Oedipus the King

Although Oedipus appears to be a stubborn and temperamental leader, it is his actions that confirm his destiny rather than his character flaws. As Whalley’s (1997) translation of Aristotle’s Poetics suggests, Oedipus

“comes upon disaster not through wickedness or depravity but because of some mistake” (p. 132).

Oedipus’s initial mistake was acting in anger and unknowingly killing his father while on his travels. At the same time, it was also his destiny, so in this way, readers cannot consider his reckless action blameworthy. Because while readers will pity and fear Oedipus’s circumstances, we do not necessarily know what happened on that road to Thebes. 

Sophocles and fate

As an illustration, readers are privy to the other characters’ recollections, but we are not witnesses to the beginning of Oedipus’s downfall. Aristotle notes an outstanding poet would capture tragedy by its

“structures and incidents of the play” (Poetics 14).

Therefore, Sophocles wisely allows the reader to understand the consequences of fate. Essentially, the structure of the play relies on what happened in the past, yet the reader only knows of the protagonist’s present. Once readers and Oedipus realize that his actions on that deserted road confirmed his destiny, we witness his downfall. Because Oedipus initially made an effort to save his family, his downfall is tragic. He took action to leave his home to save his family, but, in doing so, he found his real family. Therefore, Oedipus falls of his own consent. Oedipus promises his kingdom that he will punish the man who is responsible for their turmoil, and as he begins to suspect he killed his father, he realizes that he may have to exile himself. Teiresias finally tells Oedipus,

“You are yourself the murderer you seek” (362).

Because of his hubris, Oedipus does not want to consider that he is a murderer. However, he does not realize that he murdered his father as the oracle predicted. Instead, he seeks justice, even though he continues to doubt his innocence. 

Sophocles' depiction of the unreliability of prophecy

As he asks his wife, and mother, to confirm her late husband’s death, Jocasta assures him that prophets are unreliable, so, in this way, Jocasta is another tragic figure.  Jocasta begs Oedipus to:

“Have no regard for them. The god will bring to light himself whatever thing he chooses” (lines 724-5).

While Jocasta tries to save her new husband, she does not realize that the god has succeeded. Conversely, Morrissey (2003) suggests Jocasta is not a tragic figure because she does not admit to Oedipus that:

“she helped dispose of the infant, and hence is no husband of his mother and father to his siblings” (p. 41).

She decided with her own free will that she would allow her husband to kill their child. Therefore, she contributed to her son’s fall. Nevertheless, it is Oedipus’s circumstances that are the most tragic. While it seems he was destined for a miserable life, he tried to avoid it. Even though the evidence is circumstantial, Oedipus believes he should be punished for his father’s death. As an example, Fosso (2012) reminds the reader that the story of the king’s death is elusive and he explains that:

“the traveler was a “herald” because Jocasta had herself specifically recalled one in Laius’s entourage” (p. 32).

Perhaps it is true that Oedipus did not kill his father; however, he did end up marrying his mother. In this way, Oedipus does not want to ignore any theoretical guilt that he may have, and he does what a hero would do and preserves his promise to his kingdom, and he falls of his own free will. Aristotle asserted that tragic heroes often received punishments that were in excess of their crimes. Appropriately, as a tragic hero, Oedipus literally blinds himself because he was unable to metaphorically see before. 


In conclusion, Oedipus’s actions prove him to be an accurate description of an Aristotelian hero. Much like tragic heroes that would follow in literature like Cervantes' Don Quixote, Oedipus has also cursed by irony. Although he was a prideful man, he demonstrated courage as he ordered his own exile. Most importantly, Oedipus continued to probe the king’s death because he realized that he played a role in it. We expect our heroes to hold accountability for their actions, and as a noble gesture, Oedipus realized that he could not escape his destiny. Therefore, he understood that Thebes would flourish without him, so he did not hesitate to leave. 


Adade-Yeboah, A., Ahenkora, K., & Amankwah, A. S. (2012). The tragic hero of the classical period. English Language & Literature Studies, 2(3), 10-17. doi: 10.5539/ells.v2n3p10

Aristotle. (1997). Aristotle's poetics (G. G. Whalley, Trans.; J. Baxter, Ed.). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. Retrieved from http://www.mqup.ca/

Fosso, K. (2012). Oedipus Crux: Reasonable Doubt in Oedipus the King. College Literature, 39(3), 26-60. doi: http://www.wcupa.edu/%5Facademics/sch%5Fcas.lit/

Morrissey, C. S. (2003). Oedipus the Cliché: Aristotle on Tragic Form and Content. Anthropoetics: The Journal of Generative Anthropology, 9(1). Retrieved June 28, 2013, from http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=openurl&genre=article&issn=10837264&date=2003&volume=9&issue=1&spage= http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0901/oedipus.htm

Reeves, C. H. (1952). The Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero. The American Journal of Philology, 73(2), 172-188. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/291812

Sophocles, Hall, E., Kitto, H. D., Sophocles, & Sophocles. (1994). Oedipus the King. In Antigone; Oedipus the King; Electra (pp. 49-99). Oxford: Oxford University Press.



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