Addiction as tragedy

Addiction fits Aristotle’s theory of the tragic flaw.

Keith wrote, of deaths caused by drunk driving:

But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage.

Dead right on the outrage. But did the Greeks really see tragedy this way?

maskSFIK the Ancient Greeks did not use the remarkable and unique art form they had developed, the “goat-songs” that they performed in competitive religious festivals, as a metaphor for life. It was the reverse: life and myth gave them stories to be recapitulated and reshaped in the performance of tragedies, and these in turn gave them insights into the human condition. Alexander modelled himself on Homer’s Achilles, but he was an outlier in everything.

The goat-songs and epic recitations came first, the theorising later. The Athenians especially invested enormous communal effort. One critic complained they were spending more on the theatre festival than on the fleet. The social infrastructure was much closer to the competitive clubs that create the Rio carnival and the Andalusian Semana Santa than to the patron-and-impresario model of Burbage, Schikaneder and Diaghilev.

We only have a tiny fraction of Ancient Greek tragic output: 34 plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Each of these wrote about a hundred, and they had competitors in Athens and other cities, like the Agathon mentioned by Aristotle. What we find is a set of rigid conventions of form – the chorus, prologue, masks, number of speakers – but a considerable range of content, drawn from the rich compost-heap of Greek myth, legend and history, good yarns going back to the Bronze Age. It’s very likely that this surviving corpus is less diverse than the original population. And it’s quite varied enough to discomfit any simple theory.


The Greeks certainly had a lively concept of fate, personified in the Moirai. Bad stuff happens to innocent victims. The only tragedy I can think of (but I Am Not A Classicist) that fits this pattern completely is The Trojan Women by the experimental Euripides: the wives of the aristocracy of just-fallen Troy are brought the news of one death after another among their menfolk. This works, but it’s a tour-de-force against expectations. The heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone is trapped by no fault of her own into a dilemma with no good outcome. But Sophocles insists on her power of choice; Tiresias tells her “Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own.”

Hubris and nemesis

Hubris was a much narrower concept to the Greeks than we usually think. It’s not generic arrogance, still less sacrilege, but an act of gratuitous violence dishonouring the object. We would think first of rape. A paradigm case in Greek literature is Agamemnon’s kidnapping of Briseis from Achilles’ tent in the Iliad, just to show he’s alpha dog. In tragedy, it fits King Pentheus’ insults to Dionysos in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Pride cometh before a fall, delivered by Nemesis. Pentheus is torn apart by Dionysos’ ecstatic female devotees.

There are however major, indeed reference, tragedies where neither of these theories fits. The Oresteia? The possible acts of hubris take place long before the action, whether Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia en route to the Trojan War, or a generation earlier, with Thyestes’ adultery with the wife of his brother Atreus and Atreus’ terrible revenge. Clytemnaestra and Orestes have strong motives for what they do, but they are agents of their own fate not passive victims, and the murders they commit are acts of vengeance not hubris. The hero of Oedipus Rex dooms himself by impulsive curiosity: he’s proud, but not abnormally so, and his investigation of his birth is not properly hubris. Again, he is clearly responsible for his decisions. (I’ve said this before: the Greek Oedipus story is not about sex at all, and Freud’s version is projection.)

Tragic flaw

Aristotle may have been thinking of Oedipus Rex when he developed his rival theory of the tragic flaw or error, hamartia. The full passage (Poetics, XIII, Butcher translation, my emphasis) bears quotation:

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous – a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

This is clearly a much better theory. Aristotle was clearly a knowledgeable theatre-goer. His scheme fits many non-Grecian tragic heroes too: Macbeth (ambition), Othello (jealousy), Calderon’s Gutierre (excessive sense of honour), Hamlet (indecision), Lear (unwillingness to let go), everybody in Andromaque (love). But it doesn’t work for the Oresteia. Orestes is a flawless beau ideal, and in the end, after travails and wanderings, gets away with his duty-driven matricide. The trilogy ends joyously, with the torchlit procession up to the temple of the tamed Furies in the Acropolis. There is something wrong with a theory of tragedy that doesn’t fit the greatest tragedy of them all.

But it does surely fit addiction. This is a hamartia that can strike fine men and women, even children. I suppose some never meet the trigger of their addiction, which stays latent and harmless. Some come to terms with it, and live out worthwhile lives as addicts. Some overcome it. But for many, it gradually unscrews their lives, and those of people around them, into disaster. IMHO, that fairly deserves the term tragedy.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

2 thoughts on “Addiction as tragedy”

  1. The surviving corpus is full of plays presented as tragedies that don't fit the "theory": Helen, Alcestis, Iphigenia in Tauris, all by Euripides, and I would argue Aeschylus' Persians, not to mention various lost plays. Aristotle was writing in the 4th century when the "big three" were all safely dead (and they were the big three, even in their own lifetimes: Plutarch tells a story of the Syracusans releasing Athenian prisoners of war who could recite passages from Euripides which had not yet reached Sicily.). I suspect Aristotle was making up a formal definition of the genre which would never have occurred to its principal exponents during its heyday. They wrote plays, mostly but not entirely on mythical themes, mostly but not entirely dealing with the demise of the great. They were extraordinarily prolific, and would never have had time to worry about such minutiae.

    1. Thanks for the confirmation.

      Theatre especially, as a social and quite resource-heavy art form, fits the Romantic genius-in-attic fantasy even less than most. I see the playwrights as the carnavalescos of Rio, hired by samba schools to design their next year's entry in the competition. They produce the ideas, sure, but have to negotiate them into the performance with rich donors, musicians, and other active members. Even the foot-soldiers in the alas have a say, as they pay for their costumes, and can walk away if they don't like them. There is another curious parallel: the rules of the competition impose a rigid formal structure on a school's parade, which is filled with a great variety of content.

      If you are working with an alpha dog impresario like Diaghilev, you do what he says. But he may just be ready to take a revolutionary punt, and you get the Rite of Spring or Magic Flute. Shakespeare: "I've written a tragedy where nothing happens before the end! You see, the hero's problem is that he can't make up his mind!" Burbage. "Hmm. Not sure this will work. But let's take a look."

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