To Home Page
To Course Notes Menu

The Sophoclean Hero and Aristotle
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

This page offers a selection of passages from the works of Aristotle that can be seen to have a particular bearing on the portrayal of the Sophoclean hero.

Aristotle, Poetics 13.1452b30-53a17:

Since, then, the plot of the finest tragedy is to be not simple but complex [i.e., is to involve some form of reversal of fortune] and is to involve an imitation [mimesis] of things that arouse fear and pity (for this is the proper effect of such a mimesis) [FN 1], it is clear, first of all, that good men must not be shown undergoing a reversal of fortune from good to bad — for that would arouse neither fear nor pity but revulsion — nor wicked men one from bad to good — for that is the most untragic of all, for it has none of the elements necessary for tragedy, since it neither displays a humane sympathy for the human condition nor anything worthy of pity and fear. Nor must a thoroughly villainous man fall from good fortune to bad: such a plot would display a humane element [i.e. is satisfying from a moral point of view] but nothing worthy of pity or fear, for the one we feel for one who suffers misfortune without deserving it, the other for one who is similar to us —pity for the undeserving, fear for the one like us — so that neither pity or fear will be the result [of the last mentioned type of plot]. There remains the sort of person who lies between those mentioned already — one who is not outstanding for aretê and justice, and yet does not suffer a reverse of fortune through wickedness and villainy but through a certain form of error [hamartia] [FN 2], and one of those of great renown and good fortune, like Oedipus and Thyestes and illustrious men of families of that sort. So, then, it is necessary that the properly constructed plot be single rather than double (as some claim), and that it involve a reversal of fortune, not to good from bad but the opposite, from good to bad, not through villainy but through a great hamartia on the part of one who is as described above or better, rather than worse, than the man described above.

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1366b1-3, 17:

The parts of aretê [virtue/excellence] are the following: justice, bravery/manliness, sophrosynê [moderation/prudence], magnificence, megalopsychia [greatness of soul], liberality, good sense, wisdom. ... Megalopsychia is aretê productive of great acts of kindness.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1123a34ff. (passim):

Megalopsychia ["greatness of soul"] would appear, even from its very name, to be concerned with great things. ... The megalopsychos ["man of great soul"] would seem to be that man who, being worthy of great things, deems himself to be so: for a man who behaves this way when he is not worthy is a fool, and no one who lives in accordance with aretê is either foolish or senseless. ... One who is worthy of only small things and deems himself so is sophron [prudent/reasonable], not megalopsychos. For the key to megalopsychia lies in greatness, just as beauty lies in greatness of body: smallish men are comely and well-proportioned but not beautiful. [FN 3] One who deems himself worthy of great things when he is not is vain and frivolous, but not everyone who deems himself worthy of greater things than he actually deserves is vain. One who deems himself worthy of less than he actually deserves is mikropsychos ["small-souled"], whether he is worthy of great things or moderate things, or if being worthy of small things he deems himself worthy of smaller still. ... By virtue of his greatness, the megalopsychos is extreme, but by virtue of his acting as is fitting he is moderate. The others [i.e. the vain man and the mikropsychos] either exceed the mean or fall short of it. [FN 4]

Since the megalopsychos deems himself worthy of great things when he actually is — and, in particular, of the greatest things — he will be concerned with one thing in particular. ... [That matter is timê (honor) which Aristotle goes on to define as the highest prize of noble achievements and the greatest of external goods.] Concerning honor and dishonor, then, the megalopsychos will behave as is fitting. ...

He is not one to take risks in matters of little import, nor does he seek out risks, since there are few things he holds in esteem, but he will take risks in matters of great import and, when he does, will not spare his own life, since life at any price is not, in his opinion, worthwhile. And he is the sort to do others favors, but is ashamed at receiving favors from others, inasmuch as the former is the act of a superior, the latter of an inferior. ... It is characteristic of the megalopsychos to need no one, or scarcely anyone, but to be zealous in the service of others, and to display his greatness of spirit toward those of rank and of high good fortune but to be moderate toward those of moderate status. He must, of necessity, be open in his hatreds and in his loves alike (for to hide one's feelings is characteristic of one who is afraid, as is holding the truth in less esteem than one's reputation) and speak and act openly, since, being wont to despise others, he is one who employs great freedom of speech. ... And he is not able to live on anyone else's terms (except in the case of a friend) for that is slavish. ... Nor is he wont to admire others, for nothing is great or impressive to him. Nor is he one to remember a wrong done him, for it is not characteristic of the megalopsychos to hold such things in his memory but to overlook them. ... And he is not at all the sort to lament or plead for help in the face of misfortunes that are either unavoidable or minor in nature. ...

And the movements of the megalopsychos seem likely to be slow, and his voice deep, and his speech controlled and measured. For one who holds few things worthy of serious concern is not rushed or eager, and one who considers nothing great or impressive is not high-strung.

The one who falls short of megalopsychia is mikropsychos, the one who is excessive is vain. ... For the mikropsychos, although worthy of good things, deprives himself of the things he deserves and seems to suffer a kind of affliction as the result of not deeming himself worthy of good things and not knowing himself — otherwise he would strive for the things he deserves, since they are good. ...

Mikropsychia is more opposed to megalopsychia than is vanity, for it is more common and it is worse.


[FN 1] Plato had objected to tragedy (and to what we would call "popular entertainment" in general) on three main grounds: ontological/epistemological (it is a mere fiction, an imitation of reality without substance); sociological (it encourages people to indulge in "unmanly" emotions and thus makes them bad citizens); moral (it shows people performing horrible deeds and calls into question the justice of the gods). Aristotle counters by taking a "phenomenological" approach: tragedy involves a mere imitation [mimesis], but has a positive psychological effect in that brings about a "purification" [catharsis], within the safely confined realms of a tragic fiction, of emotions that in life might be harmful. Where Plato sees only "womanish" emotionalism and decadence, Aristotle finds a humane and quite healthy awareness of — and sympathy for — the human condition. [Return to text]

[FN 2] Hamartia is derived from the verb hamartanô — "to miss the mark" (as in archery), "to fail in one's purpose", "to make a mistake". Greek usage, Aristotle's own use of the word elsewhere, and the specific examples that Aristotle cites (Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother; Thyestes, who unwittingly eats his own children) make it clear that Aristotle is referring to an intellectual error or to an act performed in ignorance, not to a moral flaw. The moral element is not excluded, as the description of the tragic hero in this very sentence makes clear (note as well, e.g., that Thyestes was famous for his own acts of villainy), but is not the defining element in a tragic mimesis. As Aristotle distinctly says, the sight of a villain getting his or her just deserts might be satisfying but it is not tragic. [Return to text]

[FN 3] Here Aristotle reveals a typically Greek concern for aretê [excellence/superiority]: a small-souled person, like one with a small body, can be admirable but cannot be truly great or superior, in that a small soul, like a small body, must fall short of its full potential. [Return to text]

[FN 4] In this section of the Ethics, where Aristotle is describing the various virtues and their corresponding faults, he is very concerned with what has come to be known as the Golden Mean. Each virtue is regarded as being a mean between two faults: e.g., bravery is the mean between cowardice and heedless violence, generosity the mean between stinginess and profligacy, etc. Hence Aristotle's concern to present megalopsychia — a trait that the Greeks had admired since Homer's day — as a type of mean, despite its apparently excessive qualities. See, in general, A.W.H. Adkins, Merit and Responsibility (Oxford, 1960). [Return to text]

Top of Page : Course Notes Page : Home Page

These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Tuesday, 28-Sep-2010 18:13:59 CST
Please send queries and comments to