Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.02.13

George F. Held, Aristotle's Teleological Theory of Tragedy and Epic. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1995. Pp. 162. DM 48. ISBN 3-8253-0300-4.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Belfiore, University of Minnesota.

In a helpful Preface (pp. ix-x), Held tells the reader exactly what to expect. In this book, "the first of two interconnected volumes," he "propose[s] and defend[s] an interpretation of Aristotle's theory of tragedy," and "defend[s] the validity and practicality of this theory of tragedy and epic through analyses of several of the major epics and tragedies of Western Literature." Five of the seven essays have been previously published (only chapters 3 and 6 are new), and are reproduced here with only a few substantive changes. Since "some of these essays ... made no mention of Aristotle's theory of tragedy when previously published," H. also adds another section to "clarify the role which each of these essays plays in that argument." Two questions, then, arise in connection with this book: (1) Does the book as a whole accomplish its stated goal of presenting a coherent argument about Aristotle's theory of tragedy, and (2) Are the essays of value when considered as self-sufficient works? While the answer to (2) is "yes," the first question can only be given a negative response. Many of the chapters do indeed present valuable insights into philosophy and literature, but this book is a collection of essays rather than a cohesive whole.

The first two chapters present H.'s interpretation of Aristotle's theory of tragedy. Chapter 1, "Spoudaios and Teleology in the Poetics," is the least successful of the two. H. argues against the view held by Lesky that "the Greeks ... never developed a theory of the tragic which ... might touch on man's spiritual attitude towards the world as a whole," and that of Kommerell, summarized by H: "Aristotle ... has no general aesthetic concept or quality in mind to which he would relate all particular examples of tragedy." We enter a time-warp when we read that these views have "gone unchallenged in the scholarly literature" (p. 1), for this essay, first published in 1984, takes no account of the very considerable secondary literature on the Poetics and on Greek tragedy that has appeared in the last twelve years. H. challenges the views he attacks by first discussing Aristotle's definition of comedy, and then arguing that the words spoudaios and phaulos are teleological terms. He concludes: "Tragedy is an imitation of an action which is significantly well directed toward man's [sic] proper end, happiness; comedy is an imitation of an action of the opposite sort" (p. 2). That is, "the tragic effect of a catastrophe is in direct proportion not only to the pathos suffered, but also to the spoude manifested by the sufferers" (p. 22). According to H.'s interpretation, then, Klutaimestra, Phaidra and Medea would not be good tragic figures, a conclusion in agreement with Aristotle's statement (Poetics 13) that tragedy should not represent bad people. However, when H. gives the death of Sokrates as a paradigmatic example of a tragic event (p. 22), he ignores Aristotle's explicit statement (Po. 13) that tragedy should not represent the misfortune of the epieikes, that is, as H. admits in the next chapter (p. 32, n. 4) the person who is excessively good. (H. comments, pp. 32-34, on Aristotle's exclusion of the epieikes in Po. 13, but he does not attempt to reconcile this exclusion with the theory he presents in Chapter 1.) Moreover, H. weakens and undercuts with a series of qualifications his own thesis that "the tragic effect of a catastrophe is in direct proportion ... to the spoude manifested by the sufferers." He states that the spoudaia praxis of the definition of tragedy "should be in accordance with at least some of the virtues, moral and intellectual ... and should be to some significant extent well directed at ... happiness" (p.19), and he writes that "the tragic action is well directed at happiness only to some extent and in certain respects" (p. 20). Moreover, he admits that the "traditional interpretation," that spoudaios means "serious," "fits the genre as a whole much better than does my own interpretation" (p. 21), and that it is possible that the term spoudaios is ambiguous, having "both the teleological connotations which I attribute to it and a more general sense, approximating to the English 'serious'" (p. 23). While caution and modesty in dealing with Aristotle's difficult text are admirable, all of these qualifications make it hard to see what H.'s thesis actually amounts to.

Chapter 2, "The Meaning of Ethos in the Poetics" (originally published 1985) is much more successful, one of the best essays in the book. H. gives convincing arguments for the view that ethos in the Poetics has a broad sense, including intellectual as well as moral qualities. He cites and analyzes relevant passages from the Rhetoric, the Nicomachean Ethics, and the Poetics itself, and notes along the way (pp. 31-35) that ethos and dianoia are not completely separable. Unfortunately, H. mars an otherwise fine chapter by adding (pp. 39-46) a new long and not very helpful polemic against Schütrumpf's reply to H.'s 1985 article, using such terms as "absurdities" (p. 40) and "ludicrous" (p. 43). H. would have done much better to add new material on some other recent literature, for example, Mary Blundell's article, which supports H.'s own position.1 A more minor quibble: H. reads all' ethika at Rhet. 1417a21 (p. 36), departing from Kassel's authoritative text, which reads alla ethika. Since the text makes a difference to the interpretation here, H. should have provided some commentary.

At the beginning of Chapter 3, H. provides a brief summary of the rest of the book, attempting to show how it is relevant to his thesis. He argues "(1) that Homer by means of the episodes with the Phaiacians and Cyclopes in the Odyssey advocates a mean between competitiveness and cooperativeness; (2) that the 'seeds' of a teleological ethical outlook similar to that of Plato and Aristotle can be found in the Gilgamesh Epic: this outlook is reflected in the structure of the poem itself; (3) that the structure of the Iliad resembles that of the Gilgamesh Epic and therefore the seeds of a teleological ethical outlook similar to that of Plato and Aristotle can be found in it as well; (4) that Sophocles' Antigone corroborates my thesis that characters are tragic in proportion not only to the pathos which they suffer but also to the spoude (zeal for good ends) which they manifest in the actions which precede and lead to their catastrophes" (p. 48). This attempt to weave the essays into a coherent whole, however, has very much the appearance of a later addition. The essays themselves have not been revised to support it, and they do not do so in any immediately obvious way when reprinted here in their original form.

Chapter 3, Competitiveness and Cooperativeness among the Phaiacians and the Cyclopes" (not previously published) argues that, in these episodes, Homer addresses the problem of the correct relationship between competitiveness and cooperativeness, advocating the avoidance of extremes and the pursuit of a mean (p. 52). H. has some excellent remarks on the contrast between the two societies, and he argues convincingly that the Phaiakians are examples of good hosts. On the other hand, H. never connects this essay with his thesis by making it clear exactly how Homer advocates a mean, or how Homer's views are related to those of Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, this chapter, like the previous one, is marred by excessive polemic. H. devotes more than twenty pages to an attack on the view of Reece2 that the hospitality of the Phaiakians is "ambiguous" (p. 65). This reviewer again wishes that H. had devoted less attention to ad hominem arguments, and that he had taken into account a broader range of secondary literature, on xenia in the ancient world.3

In Chapter 4, "Parallels between the Gilgamesh Epic and Plato's Symposium" (first published 1983), H. argues that the Gilgamesh Epic, like the works of Plato and Aristotle, teaches that "man can develop himself, fulfill his nature, and obtain true happiness ... only though the pursuit of virtue and knowledge and not of mere pleasure" (p. 90). According to H., the life of Gilgamesh falls into three periods that correspond to the three categories of Plato's and Aristotle's ethical thought: hedonistic, practical, philosophical. In particular, "the tripartite structure of the epic corresponds explicitly to the three-step process of development described by Diotima in the Symposium" (p. 100). Whether or not this is a valid interpretation of the Gilgamesh Epic, this essay does much to support H.'s thesis about Aristotle and Greek tragedy. Aristotle is not mentioned beyond the first paragraph, and no allusion is ever made to Greek tragedy. H. claims that this chapter is part of an attempt "to defend the relevance of his [sc. Aristotle's] values and his teleological outlook to ... earlier literature" (p. 48). If he does this simply by arguing that the author of Gilgamesh, like Plato and Aristotle, holds that virtue and knowledge are superior to pleasure, the claim is so general as to be of little interest. Yet it is hard to see what more specific claims H. might be making, for he has not provided sufficiently detailed analyses of the "teleological ethical outlook" of any of the three authors. It is also unclear what H. means when he refers to the "seeds" of a "teleological view of man's nature" that "can be found in the Gilgamesh Epic" (p. 102). The statement that Gilgamesh is a "distant ancestor of the Homeric poems" (p. 90) might seem to imply that he has in mind actual historical influence, yet he gives no evidence for this position. If he means something else by "seeds," he has not adequately explained what it is. Finally, H. would have done well to revise this article (originally published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies) to make it more accessible to classicists, who may not be familiar with the Gilgamesh Epic. As it is, he does not even give a bare outline of the plot.

Chapter 5, "Phoinix, Agamemnon and Achilleus: Parables and Paradeigmata" (originally published 1987) is one of the best essays in the book, providing many fine insights into the structure of the Iliad. H. offers some excellent arguments in support of the position of Colin Macleod that Akhilleus changes and develops in the course of the poem. Especially illuminating is his analysis of the relationship between Akhilleus and Phoinix. Phoinix, he argues, plays the role of both father and teacher, and in Iliad 9 Phoinix pleads with the younger man to both honor the educational ideal he has taught him, and to care for him as for a father. Also of interest are the specific parallels H. notes among a number of speeches in the poem. Some minor defects mar this fine essay: it ends with another long polemic, this time against James Redfield; in discussing scenes of supplication in the Iliad H. fails to cite the important recent secondary literature on this topic.4 This article is more directly relevant to H.'s overall project, and he explicitly points out the connections, by mentioning Aristotle in the first paragraph and in a long paragraph near the end (pp. 123-24) in which he notes parallels among Plato, Gilgamesh, Aristotle and Akhilleus. As was the case in Chapter 2, however, H. undermines his own thesis about these connections. The parallels between Gilgamesh and Akhilleus are "by no means precise," for "Achilleus, unlike Gilgamesh, does not make continuous and uninterrupted progress toward virtue and knowledge in the course of the story: his aristeia in fact includes some cruel and barbarous actions." Nor does Akhilleus perfectly exemplify the Aristotelian spoudaios: "he does not obtain greater happiness at the end of the story; but he does make progress overall toward those ancillary ends and thus for Aristotle is more capable of happiness at the end of the story than he was at its beginning," These qualifications cast doubt on the existence of the parallels H. finds between the Iliad and the Gilgamesh, and on his conclusion that "the plot of the Iliad as a whole" is "distinctly spoudaia in the Aristotelian sense" (124).

Chapter 6, "The Snow Simile at Iliad 3.222," is one of the two chapters that has not been previously published. H. provides a helpful overview of the literature on this passage, and makes some intriguing comparisons between Odysseus and the bard of oral poetry. I would, however, question H.'s specific connection of Odysseus' avoidance of eye contract in this passage with the blindness of the bard: surely Odysseus' pose suggests the aidos of an ambassador among his enemies rather than blindness. Nor am I convinced by H.'s comparison of Odysseus and Sokrates, based as it is on external characteristics alone. Nevertheless, as a self-sufficient essay, this certainly deserves publication. As a chapter in a book, however, this material is at most only marginally relevant to H.'s thesis. H. concludes that Homer's "description of Odysseus implies respect and admiration for ... intellectual qualities" that "Plato and Aristotle elevated to first place in their ethics" (p. 141). While intellectual abilities are certainly admired by the figures in the Homeric poems -- who praise speakers of words as well as doers of deeds -- H. does not show that the specific qualities valued are similar in any significant way. Nor does he demonstrate what specific connection this essay has with his thesis about Aristotle's views on Greek tragedy.

Chapter 7, "Antigone's Dual Motivation for the Double Burial" (first published 1983) argues that the two burials "have the effect of clarifying and distinguishing Antigone's two primary motives for burying Polynices" (p. 142), that is, religious duty and personal love for her brother. This essay stands well on its own, providing helpful insights into Sophokles' play. In addition, the subject of this chapter, ethical motivations in Greek tragedy, is directly relevant to H.'s thesis. A few minor revisions would have sufficed to bring out the latent connections. In arguing that Antigone is right, H. could have gone on to show how this idea supports his thesis that the best subject of tragedy is spoudaios. Again, while H. connects Sophocles' play directly with Aristotle by comparing Antigone's "unwritten laws" to the "natural laws" of Aristotle's Rhetoric, he does not discuss this parallel in connection with his thesis about Aristotle and Greek tragedy.

While the chapters that make up this book are worth reading as self-sufficient essays, they do not, as whole, form a coherent argument. H.'s occasional attempts to make them appear to do so look like desperate contrivances to produce a book without going to the trouble of writing one. He has not provided many necessary revisions of previously published material, updated his bibliography, or written any new chapters on Greek tragedy. The book ends abruptly with Chapter 7, with no conclusion to help the reader make connections. There is no index. Not only does this work not succeed as a book, the good essays in this collection suffer from their appearance in this new format. H. would have been well advised not to reprint the previously published articles, and to publish the new material as separate articles.


  • [1] M. Blundell, "Ethos and Dianoia Reconsidered," in A. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle's Poetics (Princeton, 1992), 155-75.
  • [2] S. Reece, The Stranger's Welcome, Ann Arbor, 1993.
  • [3] For example, G. Herman, Ritualised Friendship and the Greek City. Cambridge, 1987; D. Lateiner, "The Suitors' Take: Manners and Power in Ithaka," Colby Quarterly 29 (1993):173-97.
  • [4] For example, V. Pedrick, 'Supplication in the Iliad and the Odyssey,' TAPA 112 (1982): 125-40; A. Thornton. Homer's Iliad: Its Composition and the Motif of Supplication. Hypomnemata 81 (Göttingen, 1984).