Reversal and Recognition: Oedipus is Just the Best!

Aristotle, Poetics 1452a (Full text in the Scaife Viewer)

“Reversal [peripeteia] is change to the opposite of what happened before as has been said and this is also, as we argue, according to either probability or necessity. This is what happens in Oedipus when the person who comes to relieve Oedipus and rid him of his fear about his mother  is actually the one who does the opposite by revealing who he really is. This also happens in the Lynceus where while one person is dragged away to die and Danaus is following in order to kill him, it turns out that Danaus dies and the other is preserved.

Recognition [anagnôrisis] is a change from ignorance to knowledge, just as the name implies, in the direction of friendship or enmity when the matters are also pertaining to success or failure. The best recognition of all is the one which occurs at the same time as a reversal, as in Oedipus.”

Ἔστι δὲ περιπέτεια μὲν ἡ εἰς τὸ ἐναντίον τῶν πραττομένων μεταβολὴ καθάπερ εἴρηται, καὶ τοῦτο δὲ ὥσπερ λέγομεν κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς ἢ ἀναγκαῖον, οἷον ἐν τῷ Οἰδίποδι ἐλθὼν ὡς εὐφρανῶν τὸν Οἰδίπουν καὶ ἀπαλλάξων τοῦ πρὸς τὴν μητέρα φόβου, δηλώσας ὃς ἦν, τοὐναντίον ἐποίησεν· καὶ ἐν τῷ Λυγκεῖ ὁ μὲν ἀγόμενος ὡς ἀποθανούμενος, ὁ δὲ Δαναὸς ἀκολουθῶν ὡς ἀποκτενῶν, τὸν μὲν συνέβη ἐκ τῶν πεπραγμένων ἀποθανεῖν, τὸν δὲ σωθῆναι. ἀναγνώρισις δέ, ὥσπερ καὶ τοὔνομα σημαίνει, ἐξ ἀγνοίας εἰς γνῶσιν μεταβολή, ἢ εἰς φιλίαν ἢ ἔχθραν, τῶν πρὸς εὐτυχίαν ἢ δυστυχίαν ὡρισμένων· καλλίστη δὲ ἀναγνώρισις, ὅταν ἅμα περιπετείᾳ γένηται, οἷον ἔχει ἡ ἐν τῷ Οἰδίποδι

1455a

“The best kind of recognition of all comes from the plot events themselves when the surprise comes out of probable events. This is the case in Sophokles’ Oedipus or in Iphigenia. For only these kinds of recognitions can happen without manufactured signs and necklaces. The second best kinds are from logical reasoning.”

πασῶν δὲ βελτίστη ἀναγνώρισις ἡ ἐξ αὐτῶν τῶν πραγμάτων, τῆς ἐκπλήξεως γιγνομένης δι᾿ εἰκότων, οἷον ἐν τῷ Σοφοκλέους Οἰδίποδι καὶ τῇ Ἰφιγενείᾳ· εἰκὸς γὰρ βούλεσθαι ἐπιθεῖναι γράμματα. αἱ γὰρ τοιαῦται μόναι ἄνευ τῶν πεποιημένων σημείων καὶ περιδεραίων. δεύτεραι δὲ αἱ ἐκ συλλογισμοῦ.

1462b

“[Tragedy] is vivid in both reading and the performance of the plays. And the outcome of its practice of imitation comes in shorter time: a greater density of experience is more pleasurable than if it is paced out over time. Imagine if someone wrote Sophokles’ Oedipus in the same number of epic verses as the Iliad?”

εἶτα καὶ τὸ ἐναργὲς ἔχει καὶ ἐν τῇ ἀναγνώσει καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἔργων· ἔτι τῷ ἐν ἐλάττονι μήκει τὸ τέλος τῆς μιμήσεως εἶναι (τὸ γὰρ ἀθροώτερον ἥδιον ἢ πολλῷ κεκραμένον τῷ χρόνῳ, λέγω δ᾿ οἷον εἴ τις τὸν Οἰδίπουν θείη τὸν Σοφοκλέους ἐν ἔπεσιν ὅσοις ἡ Ἰλιάς)·

 

Joseph Blanc, Le meurtre de Laïus par Oedipe, 1867, Paris

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Why Start In Medias Res? (Hint: Liars Do This…)

Homer, Odyssey 9.14–15

“What shall I say first and then last—
When the Ouranian gods have given me many pains?”

τί πρῶτόν τοι ἔπειτα, τί δ’ ὑστάτιον καταλέξω;
κήδε’ ἐπεί μοι πολλὰ δόσαν θεοὶ Οὐρανίωνες.

Schol. T ad Hom. Od. 9.14 ex 1-12

“This is how he increases attention by creating expectation, which is a device one might use in a proem. For it is necessary that he acquire the goodwill of his audience for himself and attention for his speech so that they might welcome him as he speaks and they might internalize the things he says of the deeds and they might learn in what way Odysseus handled [everything] in general as he both praises himself but also demonstrates the number and strangeness of his experiences—this clarifies his purpose, from where he was present, and what he wants. This is why he begins the material of the longer narrative with “bringing me from Troy….”

τί πρῶτόν τοι ἔπειτα] ὅσα αὔξει τὴν προσοχὴν, προσδοκίαν ἐμποιῶν, ὅπερ ἐστὶ τεχνικὸν ὡς ἐν προοιμίῳ· δεῖ γὰρ παρὰ τῶν ἀκουόντων ἑαυτῷ μὲν εὔνοιαν ἐπισπᾶσθαι, τῷ δὲ λόγῳ προσοχὴν, ἵνα τὸν μὲν λέγοντα ἀποδέξωνται, τῶν δὲ πραγμάτων ἐπιθυμήσωσι τὰ λεγόμενα καὶ μάθωσιν ὅπερ δι’ ὅλου κατώρθωκεν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἑαυτὸν μὲν ἐπαινέσας, τὸ δὲ πλῆθος καὶ τὴν καινότητα τῶν πραγμάτων ἐνδειξά-μενος δηλοῖ τὴν προαίρεσιν καὶ πόθεν παραγίνεται καὶ τί βούλεται, εἶθ’ οὕτως καὶ τὰ μείζονος διηγήσεως ἄρξηται “᾿Ιλιόθεν με φέρων” (39.). T.

Horace, Ars Poetica 148-149

“He always rushes to the action and steals
His audience to the story as if it is already known…”

semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res
non secus ac notas auditorem rapit

Dio Chrysostom, Oration 11.25-26

“For once he tried to describe the war which happened between the Achaians and Greeks, he did not begin from the beginning, but from wherever he chanced. This is what nearly all liars do, as they embellish and re-weave their tales, never wishing to speak in the order of events.

For, they are less than clear in this way; otherwise, they would be shown false by the tale itself. This can be seen happening now in the courts of law and other places where men lie with skill. But people who wish to show what has happened, as each thing occurred, report in this way: first thing first, second thing second and everything else in order.

This is one explanation for why Homer does not begin his poem naturally; another is that he wished to obscure the beginning and the end the most and to obtain the opposite belief about these things. This is why he does not dare to narrate the beginning and the end clearly, nor does he promise to say anything about them. If he does mention them at all it is in passing and brief and it his clear he is mixing it all up. For he does not dare nor was he able to address these things readily.

This is what happens with liars especially, when someone is saying many different things about a matter and going on about them, because they want to hide some part of it the most, they don’t speak in an organized way or appeal to their audience by ordering things in the same place but where they are most deceptive. This is because they are ashamed to lie and hesitate to proceed, especially when it is about something serious. For this reason, liars do not speak in a loud voice when they come to this moment. Some people stutter and speak unclearly; others act as if they don’t know the truth but heard this from others.

Whoever speaks something true does it fearing nothing. Nor then has Homer spoken about the abduction of Helen or even about the sack of the city simply or in a free manner. Instead, as I was saying, even though he was so very bold, he stumbled and swooned because he knew he was speaking the opposite to the truth and was lying about the very substance of his affair.”

Ἐπιχειρήσας γὰρ τὸν πόλεμον εἰπεῖν τὸν γενόμενον τοῖς Ἀχαιοῖς πρὸς τοὺς Τρῶας, οὐκ εὐθὺς ἤρξατο ἀπὸ τῆς ἀρχῆς, ἀλλ᾿ ὅθεν ἔτυχεν· ὃ ποιοῦσι πάντες οἱ ψευδόμενοι σχεδόν, ἐμπλέκοντες καὶ περιπλέκοντες καὶ οὐθὲν βουλόμενοι λέγειν ἐφεξῆς· ἧττον γὰρ κατάδηλοί εἰσιν· εἰ δὲ μή, ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ τοῦ πράγματος ἐξελέγχονται. τοῦτο δὲ ἰδεῖν ἔστι καὶ ἐν τοῖς δικαστηρίοις καὶ ἐν ἄλλοις γιγνόμενον οἳ μετὰ τέχνης ψεύδονται. οἱ δὲ βουλόμενοι τὰ γενόμενα ἐπιδεῖξαι, ὡς ξυνέβη ἕκαστον, οὕτως ἀπαγγέλλουσι, τὸ πρῶτον πρῶτον καὶ τὸ δεύτερον δεύτερον καὶ τἄλλα ἐφεξῆς ὁμοίως. ἓν μὲν τοῦτο αἴτιον τοῦ μὴ κατὰ φύσιν ἄρξασθαι τῆς ποιήσεως· ἕτερον δέ, ὅτι τὴν ἀρχὴν αὐτῆς καὶ τὸ τέλος μάλιστα ἐπεβούλευσεν ἀφανίσαι καὶ ποιῆσαι τὴν ἐναντίαν δόξαν ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν. ὅθεν οὔτε τὴν ἀρχὴν οὔτε τὸ τέλος ἐτόλμησεν εἰπεῖν ἐκ τοῦ εὐθέος, οὐδὲ ὑπέσχετο ὑπὲρ τούτων οὐδὲν ἐρεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ εἴ που καὶ μέμνηται, παρέργως καὶ βραχέως, καὶ δῆλός ἐστιν ἐπιταράττων· οὐ γὰρ ἐθάρρει πρὸς αὐτὰ οὐδὲ ἐδύνατο ἐρεῖν ἑτοίμως. συμβαίνει δὲ καὶ τοῦτο τοῖς ψευδομένοις ὡς τὸ πολύ γε, ἄλλα μέν τινα λέγειν τοῦ πράγματος καὶ διατρίβειν ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῖς, ὃ δ᾿ ἂν1 μάλιστα κρύψαι θέλωσιν, οὐ προτιθέμενοι λέγουσιν οὐδὲ προσέχοντι τῷ ἀκροατῇ, οὐδ᾿ ἐν τῇ αὑτοῦ2 χώρᾳ τιθέντες, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς ἂν λάθοι μάλιστα, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο καὶ ὅτι αἰσχύνεσθαι ποιεῖ τὸ ψεῦδος καὶ ἀποκνεῖν προσιέναι πρὸς αὑτό, ἄλλως τε ὅταν ᾖ περὶ τῶν μεγίστων. ὅθεν οὐδὲ τῇ φωνῇ μέγα λέγουσιν οἱ ψευδόμενοι ὅταν ἐπὶ τοῦτο ἔλθωσιν· οἱ δέ τινες αὐτῶν βατταρίζουσι καὶ ἀσαφῶς λέγουσιν· οἱ δὲ οὐχ ὡς αὐτοί τι εἰδότες, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς ἑτέρων ἀκούσαντες. ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ἀληθὲς λέγῃ τι, θαρρῶν καὶ οὐδὲν ὑποστελλόμενος λέγει. οὔτε οὖν τὰ περὶ τὴν ἁρπαγὴν τῆς Ἑλένης Ὅμηρος εἴρηκεν ἐκ τοῦ εὐθέος οὐδὲ παρρησίαν ἄγων ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῖς οὔτε περὶ τῆς ἁλώσεως τῆς πόλεως. καίτοι γάρ, ὡς ἔφην, ἀνδρειότατος ὢν ὑποκατεκλίνετο καὶ ἡττᾶτο ὅτι ᾔδει τἀναντία λέγων τοῖς οὖσι καὶ τὸ κεφάλαιον αὐτὸ τοῦ πράγματος ψευδόμενος.

Image result for Medieval manuscript in medias res
Miniature of Sinon from the Vergilius Romanus. He was a liar too.

“Enough About Plato”: Dionysius on Prose Style

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Letter to Gnaeus Pompeius 2

“And you yourself, bestie Geminus, were clear in holding the same opinion about the man in your letter in which you write verbatim: “in other types of composition it is easy to fall somewhere between praise and blame—but in ornament, what does not succeed, fails completely. For this reason, it seems right to me not to interrogate these men for their few failures but for the greater number of their successes.”

And later after this you say these things an addition: “Even though I am able to mount a defense for all of these passages or most of them, I do not dare to speak against you. But I do take this one point hard—that  it is not possible to succeed impressively in every way unless you take these kind of risks and enter those situations in which it is necessary to stumble”.

We don’t diverge from one another—for you agree that it is necessary that one who has great aims sometimes stumbles while I say that Plato in reaching for sublime, magnificent, and surprising phrases did not succeed all the time, but that his mistakes occupy only a small portion of his total attempts. I also add that this is one way in which Plato is less than Demosthenes—for his heightened style at times slips into emptiness and unpleasantry; for Demosthenes this happens never or rarely at all. That’s enough about Plato.”

καὶ σύ γε αὐτός, ὦ βέλτιστε Γεμῖνε, ὁμοίαν ἐμοὶ γνώμην περὶ τἀνδρὸς ἔχων φαίνῃ δι᾿ αὐτῆς γέ τοι τῆς ἐπιστολῆς, ἐν οἷς κατὰ λέξιν οὕτω γράφεις· ῾ἐν μὲν γὰρ τοῖς ἑτέροις σχήμασι ῥᾴδιον πεσεῖν μέσον τι ἐπαίνου καὶ μέμψεως· ἐν δὲ τῇ κατασκευῇ τὸ μὴ ἐπιτευχθὲν πάντῃ ἀποτυγχάνεται. διό μοι δοκεῖ τούτους τοὺς ἄνδρας οὐκ ἐκ τῶν ἐπικινδυνοτέρων οὐδὲ ἐλασσόνων, ἀλλ᾿ ἐκ τῶν πλείστων καὶ εὐτυχηθέντων ἐξετάζειν᾿. καὶ μετ᾿ ὀλίγα πάλιν ἐπιλέγεις ταυτί· ῾ἐγὼ δὲ καίπερ ἔχων ἀπολογήσασθαι ὑπὲρ ἁπάντων ἢ τῶν γε πλείστων οὐ τολμῶ σοι ἐναντία λέγειν· ἓν δὲ τοῦτο διισχυρίζομαι, ὅτι οὐκ ἔστι μεγάλως ἐπιτυχεῖν ἐν οὐδενὶ τρόπῳ μὴ τοιαῦτα τολμῶντα καὶ παραβαλλόμενον, ἐν οἷς καὶ σφάλλεσθαι ἐστὶν ἀναγκαῖον.᾿ οὐδὲν διαφερόμεθα πρὸς ἀλλήλους· σύ τε γὰρ ὁμολογεῖς ἀναγκαῖον εἶναι τὸν ἐπιβαλλόμενον μεγάλοις καὶ σφάλλεσθαί ποτε, ἐγώ τέ φημι τῆς ὑψηλῆς καὶ μεγαλοπρεποῦς καὶ παρακεκινδυνευμένης φράσεως ἐφιέμενον Πλάτωνα μὴ περὶ πάντα τὰ μέρη κατορθοῦν, πολλοστὴν μέντοι μοῖραν ἔχειν τῶν κατορθουμένων τὰ διαμαρτανόμενα ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ. καὶ καθ᾿ ἓν τοῦτο Πλάτωνά φημι λείπεσθαι Δημοσθένους, ὅτι παρ᾿ ᾧ μὲν ἐκπίπτει ποτὲ τὸ ὕψος τῆς λέξεως [τῶν λόγων] εἰς τὸ κενὸν καὶ ἀηδές, παρ᾿ ᾧ δὲ οὐδέποτε ἢ σπανίως γε κομιδῇ. καὶ περὶ μὲν Πλάτωνος τοσαῦτα.

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A Comic’s Lament: Tragedy is So Easy

From Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 6.222c-e

“Since, friend Timocrates, you are always asking about the things said among the learned dinnermates, because you think that I am making up crazy things, let me remind you of what Antiphanes says in his play Poetry, in this way:

Tragedy is the luckiest art form
of all. First, the stories
Are already known by the audience
Before anyone even speaks—the poet only needs
To remind: “Oedipus I say…”
And they know the rest: father Laios,
mother Iocasta, some daughters, some sons,
what he will suffer, and what he has. And, again,
If someone says “Alkmaeon”, he’s just as good
as mentioned all his kids and that
he went crazy and killed his mother, and that
Adrastus will get angry and return.
Then when they can’t say anything else
And they have fallen down in exhaustion
they raise up their crane like little finger
and they have a happy audience!
But it isn’t like that for us, we a have to make up
everything, new names and….
then the events that happened
previously, currently, and at the end,
As well as an introduction!
If some Chremes or Pheidon
Misses even one of these things
They boo and hiss him off the stage.
But you can get away with this with Peleus and Teucer.”

᾿Επειδὴ ἀπαιτεῖς συνεχῶς ἀπαντῶν, ἑταῖρε Τιμόκρατες, τὰ παρὰ τοῖς δειπνοσοφισταῖς λεγόμενα, καινά τινα νομίζων ἡμᾶς εὑρίσκειν, ὑπομνήσομέν σε τὰ παρὰ ᾿Αντιφάνει λεγόμενα ἐν Ποιήσει (II 90 K) τόνδε τὸν τρόπον·

μακάριόν ἐστιν ἡ τραγῳδία
ποίημα κατὰ πάντ’, εἴ γε πρῶτον οἱ λόγοι
ὑπὸ τῶν θεατῶν εἰσιν ἐγνωρισμένοι,
πρὶν καί τιν’ εἰπεῖν· ὥσθ’ ὑπομνῆσαι μόνον
δεῖ τὸν ποιητήν. Οἰδίπουν γὰρ φῶ ……
τὰ δ’ ἄλλα πάντ’ ἴσασιν· ὁ πατὴρ Λάιος,
μήτηρ ᾿Ιοκάστη, θυγατέρες, παῖδες τίνες,
τί πείσεθ’ οὗτος, τί πεποίηκεν. ἂν πάλιν
εἴπῃ τις ᾿Αλκμέωνα, καὶ τὰ παιδία
πάντ’ εὐθὺς εἴρηχ’, ὅτι μανεὶς ἀπέκτονε
τὴν μητέρ’, ἀγανακτῶν δ’ ῎Αδραστος εὐθέως
ἥξει πάλιν τ’ ἄπεισι …………..
ἔπειθ’ ὅταν μηθὲν δύνωντ’ εἰπεῖν ἔτι,
κομιδῇ δ’ ἀπειρήκωσιν ἐν τοῖς δράμασιν,
αἴρουσιν ὥσπερ δάκτυλον τὴν μηχανήν,
καὶ τοῖς θεωμένοισιν ἀποχρώντως ἔχει.
ἡμῖν δὲ ταῦτ’ οὐκ ἔστιν, ἀλλὰ πάντα δεῖ
εὑρεῖν, ὀνόματα καινά, …………
………… κἄπειτα τὰ διῳκημένα
πρότερον, τὰ νῦν παρόντα, τὴν καταστροφήν,
τὴν εἰσβολήν. ἂν ἕν τι τούτων παραλίπῃ
Χρέμης τις ἢ Φείδων τις, ἐκσυρίττεται·
Πηλεῖ δὲ ταῦτ’ ἔξεστι καὶ Τεύκρῳ ποιεῖν.

On Poets and Fishmongers

Xenarchus’ Porphyra fr. 7 (preserved in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, 6. 224-225)

“Poets are ridiculous. They never invent
anything new—each one of them simply
remixes the same things again and again.
But there is no race more creative or profane
than the fishsellers!
Since it is no longer permitted to them to dampen
Their fish, a practice forbidden by the law,
When some man completely hateful to the gods
Saw that his fish were drying, well,
He started a brawl among them quite intentionally
There were punches; he acted as if he were hit hard,
Fell to the ground pretending to pass out lying
Among his fish. Someone shouted “water, water”!
And a different guy grabbed a pitcher and poured it out—
A little on the man, but the rest on the fish!
You would have claimed they’d just been caught!”

Fish Vase
Google “Ancient Greek Fish Vase”

οἱ μὲν ποιηταὶ (φησὶ) λῆρός εἰσιν· οὐδὲ ἓν
καινὸν γὰρ εὑρίσκουσιν, ἀλλὰ μεταφέρει
ἕκαστος αὐτῶν ταὔτ’ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω.
τῶν δ’ ἰχθυοπωλῶν φιλοσοφώτερον γένος
οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδὲν οὐδὲ μᾶλλον ἀνόσιον.
ἐπεὶ γὰρ αὐτοῖς οὐκέτ’ ἔστ’ ἐξουσία
ῥαίνειν, ἀπείρηται δὲ τοῦτο τῷ νόμῳ,
εἷς τις θεοῖσιν ἐχθρὸς ἄνθρωπος πάνυ
ξηραινομένους ὡς εἶδε τοὺς ἰχθῦς, μάχην
ἐποίησ’ ἐν αὐτοῖς ἐξεπίτηδες εὖ πάνυ.
ἦσαν δὲ πληγαί, καιρίαν δ’ εἰληφέναι
δόξας καταπίπτει καὶ λιποψυχεῖν δοκῶν
ἔκειτο μετὰ τῶν ἰχθύων. βοᾷ δέ τις
‘ὕδωρ <ὕδωρ.>’ ὃ δ’ εὐθὺς ἐξάρας πρόχουν
τῶν ὁμοτέχνων τις τοῦ μὲν ἀκαρῆ παντελῶς
κατέχει, κατὰ δὲ τῶν ἰχθύων ἁπαξάπαν.
εἴποις γ’ ἂν αὐτοὺς ἀρτίως ἡλωκέναι.

No, Virginia…There is No Tragic Flaw

Aristotle, Poetics 1452e34-1453a9

“Since it is right that the structure of the best tragedy not be simple but be complex instead and evoking both fearful and pitiful emotions—for that is the particular power of this kind of artistic representation—as an initial principle, it is clear that decent men should not be  be shown undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is repugnant rather than pitiful or fearful. And it is also not right for depraved people to enjoy a change from bad fortune to good fortune, because that is the least tragic notion of all and has none of the necessary qualities. Such a plot does not create empathy and fails to produce pity or fear.

[Tragedy] should also not show an especially bad person falling from good fortune to bad—for this might engender empathy but without pity or fear since the first is felt for someone who is unworthy of bad fortune and the second is for someone who is similar [to us] (pity is for someone unworthy of suffering; fear is for someone like us suffering). The response to [a wicked person] falling is not pitiful or fearful. What remains [for tragedy] is the person in between. A person like this is not impeccable in terms of justice nor for his wickedness and evil, but he falls into misfortune because of some kind of mistake. This kind of person is from those well-known families, like Oedipus or Thyestes.”

γον, ἐφεξῆς ἂν εἴη λεκτέον τοῖς νῦν εἰρημένοις. ἐπειδὴ οὖν δεῖ τὴν σύνθεσιν εἶναι τῆς καλλίστης τραγῳδίας μὴ ἁπλῆν ἀλλὰ πεπλεγμένην καὶ ταύτην φοβερῶν καὶ ἐλεεινῶν εἶναι μιμητικήν (τοῦτο γὰρ ἴδιον τῆς τοιαύτης μιμήσεώς ἐστιν), πρῶτον μὲν δῆλον ὅτι οὔτε τοὺς ἐπιεικεῖς ἄνδρας δεῖ μεταβάλλοντας φαίνεσθαι ἐξ εὐτυχίας εἰς δυστυχίαν, οὐ γὰρ φοβερὸν οὐδὲ ἐλεεινὸν τοῦτο ἀλλὰ μιαρόν ἐστιν· οὔτε τοὺς μοχθηροὺς ἐξ ἀτυχίας εἰς εὐτυχίαν, ἀτραγῳδότατον γὰρ τοῦτ’ ἐστὶ πάντων, οὐδὲν γὰρ ἔχει ὧν δεῖ, οὔτε γὰρ φιλάνθρωπον οὔτε ἐλεεινὸν οὔτε φοβερόν ἐστιν· οὐδ’ αὖ τὸν σφόδρα πονηρὸν συμβαῖνον. ὁ μεταξὺ ἄρα τούτων λοιπός. ἔστι δὲ τοιοῦτος ὁ μήτε ἀρετῇ διαφέρων καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ μήτε διὰ κακίαν καὶ μοχθηρίαν μεταβάλλων εἰς τὴν δυστυχίαν ἀλλὰ δι’ ἁμαρτίαν τινά, τῶν ἐν μεγάλῃ δόξῃ ὄντων καὶ εὐτυχίᾳ, οἷον Οἰδίπους καὶ Θυέστης καὶ οἱ ἐκ τῶν τοιούτων γενῶν ἐπιφανεῖς ἄνδρες.

This passage (and a few others) have been misread since the rise of Christianity to mean that the tragic protagonist “suffers a fall because of a tragic flaw”. This is essentially bogus for lexicographical and contextual reasons. In early Greek, hamartia means to make a mistake: it comes from an archery metaphor and is related to the verb hamartanô, which means “to miss the mark”. This is a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.

from Beekes 2010

hamartano

The Christian use of hamartia is “sin”, which, as we all know from our Sunday School, is innate and a sign of our essential badness. Wanting to have sex with people is a sin; driving badly and hitting someone from inattention is an accident. In my understanding of tragedy, hamartia means the latter. Yes, one might be distractable and an essentially bad driver and we may see this as in some way a flaw, but this is a cultural perspective that mixes determinism and responsibility in a strange way.

Contextually, Aristotle makes the specific point that the tragic hero should not be essentially wicked. If one is essentially wicked, the audience cannot make the key identification necessary to feel pity or fear. Now, one could argue that in a Christian context where everyone is flawed because of sin, the doctrine might still be said to apply. But this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.

[The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this]

C6668-05a
MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 68v

Great Authors Err Too!

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.24-26

“Let the reader not be persuaded as a matter of course that everything the best authors said is perfect. For they slip at times, they give in to their burdens, and they delight in the pleasure of their own abilities. They do not always pay attention; and they often grow tired. Demosthenes seems to doze to Cicero; Homer naps for Horace. Truly, they are great, but they are still mortals and it happens that those who believe that whatever appears in these authors should be laws for speaking often imitate their lesser parts, since this is easier—and they believe they are enough like them if they emulate the faults of great authors.

Still, one must pass judgment on these men with modesty and care to avoid what often happens when people condemn what they do not understand. If it is necessary to err in either part, I would prefer readers to enjoy everything in these authors rather than dismiss much.”

Neque id statim legenti persuasum sit, omnia quae summi auctores dixerint utique esse perfecta. Nam et labuntur aliquando et oneri cedunt et indulgent ingeniorum suorum voluptati, nec semper intendunt animum, nonnumquam fatigantur, cum Ciceroni dormitare interim Demosthenes, Horatio vero etiam Homerus ipse videatur.  Summi enim sunt, homines tamen, acciditque iis qui quidquid apud illos reppererunt dicendi legem putant ut deteriora imitentur (id enim est facilius), ac se abunde similes putent si vitia magnorum consequantur. Modesto tamen et circumspecto iudicio de tantis viris pronuntiandum est, ne, quod plerisque accidit, damnent quae non intellegunt. Ac si necesse est in alteram errare partem, omnia eorum legentibus placere quam multa displicere maluerim.

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Reversal and Recognition: Oedipus is Just the Best!

Aristotle, Poetics 1452a (Full text in the Scaife Viewer)

“Reversal [peripeteia] is change to the opposite of what happened before as has been said and this is also, as we argue, according to either probability or necessity. This is what happens in Oedipus when the person who comes to relieve Oedipus and rid him of his fear about his mother  is actually the one who does the opposite by revealing who he really is. This also happens in the Lynceus where while one person is dragged away to die and Danaus is following in order to kill him, it turns out that Danaus dies and the other is preserved.

Recognition [anagnôrisis] is a change from ignorance to knowledge, just as the name implies, in the direction of friendship or enmity when the matters are also pertaining to success or failure. The best recognition of all is the one which occurs at the same time as a reversal, as in Oedipus.”

Ἔστι δὲ περιπέτεια μὲν ἡ εἰς τὸ ἐναντίον τῶν πραττομένων μεταβολὴ καθάπερ εἴρηται, καὶ τοῦτο δὲ ὥσπερ λέγομεν κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς ἢ ἀναγκαῖον, οἷον ἐν τῷ Οἰδίποδι ἐλθὼν ὡς εὐφρανῶν τὸν Οἰδίπουν καὶ ἀπαλλάξων τοῦ πρὸς τὴν μητέρα φόβου, δηλώσας ὃς ἦν, τοὐναντίον ἐποίησεν· καὶ ἐν τῷ Λυγκεῖ ὁ μὲν ἀγόμενος ὡς ἀποθανούμενος, ὁ δὲ Δαναὸς ἀκολουθῶν ὡς ἀποκτενῶν, τὸν μὲν συνέβη ἐκ τῶν πεπραγμένων ἀποθανεῖν, τὸν δὲ σωθῆναι. ἀναγνώρισις δέ, ὥσπερ καὶ τοὔνομα σημαίνει, ἐξ ἀγνοίας εἰς γνῶσιν μεταβολή, ἢ εἰς φιλίαν ἢ ἔχθραν, τῶν πρὸς εὐτυχίαν ἢ δυστυχίαν ὡρισμένων· καλλίστη δὲ ἀναγνώρισις, ὅταν ἅμα περιπετείᾳ γένηται, οἷον ἔχει ἡ ἐν τῷ Οἰδίποδι

1455a

“The best kind of recognition of all comes from the plot events themselves when the surprise comes out of probable events. This is the case in Sophokles’ Oedipus or in Iphigenia. For only these kinds of recognitions can happen without manufactured signs and necklaces. The second best kinds are from logical reasoning.”

πασῶν δὲ βελτίστη ἀναγνώρισις ἡ ἐξ αὐτῶν τῶν πραγμάτων, τῆς ἐκπλήξεως γιγνομένης δι᾿ εἰκότων, οἷον ἐν τῷ Σοφοκλέους Οἰδίποδι καὶ τῇ Ἰφιγενείᾳ· εἰκὸς γὰρ βούλεσθαι ἐπιθεῖναι γράμματα. αἱ γὰρ τοιαῦται μόναι ἄνευ τῶν πεποιημένων σημείων καὶ περιδεραίων. δεύτεραι δὲ αἱ ἐκ συλλογισμοῦ.

1462b

“[Tragedy] is vivid in both reading and the performance of the plays. And the outcome of its practice of imitation comes in shorter time: a greater density of experience is more pleasurable than if it is paced out over time. Imagine if someone wrote Sophokles’ Oedipus in the same number of epic verses as the Iliad?”

εἶτα καὶ τὸ ἐναργὲς ἔχει καὶ ἐν τῇ ἀναγνώσει καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἔργων· ἔτι τῷ ἐν ἐλάττονι μήκει τὸ τέλος τῆς μιμήσεως εἶναι (τὸ γὰρ ἀθροώτερον ἥδιον ἢ πολλῷ κεκραμένον τῷ χρόνῳ, λέγω δ᾿ οἷον εἴ τις τὸν Οἰδίπουν θείη τὸν Σοφοκλέους ἐν ἔπεσιν ὅσοις ἡ Ἰλιάς)·

 

Joseph Blanc, Le meurtre de Laïus par Oedipe, 1867, Paris

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Impossible Plausible Events are Better than Implausible Possible Ones

Aristotle, Poetics 1460a26

“Narratives ought to prefer likely events, even if impossible, to improbable possible ones. Stories should not be made from illogical parts: in the best case, they should contain nothing illogical, unless it comes from outside the plot itself as when Oedipus is not aware how Laios died, instead of in the play itself, as when they report the events at Delphi in the Elektra or when the silent man comes from Tegea to Mysia in the Mysians. To say that otherwise the plot would be wrecked is ridiculous—it isn’t right to set up these sorts of events from the beginning.

If a poet does this, and there is a more logical option available, it is strange. Even those illogical events in the Odyssey when Odysseus is put ashore [asleep by the Phaeacians] would have been manifestly intolerable if a lesser poet had created it. In the poem now, Homer softens and erases the strangeness with his other good traits.”

προαιρεῖσθαί τε δεῖ ἀδύνατα εἰκότα μᾶλλον ἢ δυνατὰ ἀπίθανα· τούς τε λόγους μὴ συνίστασθαι ἐκ μερῶν ἀλόγων, ἀλλὰ μάλιστα μὲν μηδὲν ἔχειν ἄλογον, εἰ δὲ μή, ἔξω τοῦ μυθεύματος, ὥσπερ Οἰδίπους τὸ μὴ εἰδέναι πῶς ὁ Λάιος ἀπέθανεν, ἀλλὰ μὴ ἐν τῷ δράματι, ὥσπερ ἐν ᾿Ηλέκτρᾳ οἱ τὰ Πύθια ἀπαγγέλλοντες ἢ ἐν Μυσοῖς ὁ ἄφωνος ἐκ Τεγέας εἰς τὴν Μυσίαν ἥκων. ὥστε τὸ λέγειν ὅτι ἀνῄρητο ἂν ὁ μῦθος γελοῖον· ἐξ ἀρχῆς γὰρ οὐ δεῖ συνίστασθαι τοιούτους. †ἂν δὲ θῇ καὶ φαίνηται εὐλογωτέρως ἐνδέχεσθαι καὶ ἄτοπον† ἐπεὶ καὶ τὰ ἐν ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ ἄλογα τὰ περὶ τὴν ἔκθεσιν ὡς οὐκ ἂν ἦν ἀνεκτὰ δῆλον  ἂν γένοιτο, εἰ αὐτὰ φαῦλος ποιητὴς ποιήσειε· νῦν δὲ τοῖς ἄλλοις ἀγαθοῖς ὁ ποιητὴς ἀφανίζει ἡδύνων τὸ ἄτοπον.

On the left-hand side, demons torture the souls of the dead in Hell. On the right-hand side, the Egyptian Pharaoh and his soldiers drown in the Red Sea.
 Harley MS 2838, f. 44r (from this site)

Great Authors Err Too

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.24-26

“Let the reader not be persuaded as a matter of course that everything the best authors said is perfect. For they slip at times, they give in to their burdens, and they delight in the pleasure of their own abilities. They do not always pay attention; and they often grow tired. Demosthenes seems to doze to Cicero; Homer naps for Horace. Truly, they are great, but they are still mortals and it happens that those who believe that whatever appears in these authors should be laws for speaking often imitate their lesser parts, since this is easier—and they believe they are enough like them if they emulate the faults of great authors.

Still, one must pass judgment on these men with modesty and care to avoid what often happens when people condemn what they do not understand. If it is necessary to err in either part, I would prefer readers to enjoy everything in these authors rather than dismiss much.”

Neque id statim legenti persuasum sit, omnia quae summi auctores dixerint utique esse perfecta. Nam et labuntur aliquando et oneri cedunt et indulgent ingeniorum suorum voluptati, nec semper intendunt animum, nonnumquam fatigantur, cum Ciceroni dormitare interim Demosthenes, Horatio vero etiam Homerus ipse videatur.  Summi enim sunt, homines tamen, acciditque iis qui quidquid apud illos reppererunt dicendi legem putant ut deteriora imitentur (id enim est facilius), ac se abunde similes putent si vitia magnorum consequantur. Modesto tamen et circumspecto iudicio de tantis viris pronuntiandum est, ne, quod plerisque accidit, damnent quae non intellegunt. Ac si necesse est in alteram errare partem, omnia eorum legentibus placere quam multa displicere maluerim.

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