Interpreting Sophocles’ Philoctetes through Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy. How Do We Educate People to Be Wise?

Author: Beck, Martha C.
This book applies many of the categories in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Poetics and Rhetoric to the three main characters in Sophocles’ play, Philoctetes: Neoptolemus, Odysseus and Philoctetes. All three characters act at extremes in relation to the virtues of courage, anger, truthfulness and shame. Their relationships to each other are also flawed in various ways, and each character commits injustices as they abuse the power they have over each other. They all have good reasons for their actions but still make the wrong decisions. Their happiness is determined by their actions and choices not by their opinions. Aristotle’s list of the prominent character-traits in young people, middle-aged people and the old in the Rhetoric are applied in this book to Neoptolemus, the youth, Odysseus, the middle-aged ruler, and Philoctetes, an old man. Aristotle’s criteria for tragedy in the Poetics are applied to Sophocles’ play as a whole. Both Aristotle and Sophocles believe there exists universal standards for a well-lived life and universal patterns in the ways people fail to live well. Both Aristotle and Sophocles believe that the purpose of tragedy is to educate audience members, with the ultimate goal of this kind of education being practical wisdom (phronesis).


“This text is written by someone with a broad understanding of ancient Greek thought. Not only does Martha Beck provide a scholarly account of ancient Greek philosophy, but also her research in Greek tragedy reveals her versatility in other disciplines, such as art and theater. While this book is recommended for all levels, it is especially suited for undergraduate students and those interested in seeing the connection between classical texts and contemporary ethical and political issues. As for experts in the field, Beck provides a contemporary twist to classical accounts of Aristotelian ethics and Greek tragedy. Thus, this text should appeal to a wide audience, and its content helps broaden the connections between philosophy and art.” - Prof. Elizabeth A. Hoppe, Lewis University

“Unlike the vast majority of studies of the Poetics, this book takes a truly systematic approach to Aristotle’s poetic theory drawing principles and insights from Aristotle’s Poetics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and De Anima. It is especially important in showing the intimate relationship between Aristotle’s ethical works and the Poetics. In addition, the study has the virtue of applying Aristotle’s concepts to the particulars of one Greek tragedy; the result is a serious and deep moral and psychological analysis of the thought and action of the three main characters of Sophocles’ play: Odysseus, Neoptolemus, and Philoctetes. Beck quotes thoroughly and liberally from Aristotle and Sophocles. She sees the purpose of drama as morally educative: lessons not only for the Greeks but also for the liberally educated citizens of the 21st Century. . . . This is a valuable and insightful book not only in itself, but in its method of analysis, which promises continuous rewards if that method were applied to other Greek Tragedies. The unity of Aristotle’s thought and the complex relations of the motivations of Sophocles’ characters are demonstrated throughout. ” - Prof. Clinton D. Corcoran, High Point University

Table of Contents

Preface: Dr. Clinton D. Corcoran
Foreword: Dr. Elizabeth A. Hoppe
Introduction: Aristotle, Greek Tragedy, and Sophocles’ Philoctetes
1. Just and Unjust Rulers and the Different Types of Constitution
2. Ethics
3. Politics
4. Applying Aristotle to Sophocles’ Philoctetes: The Personal Virtues
5. Conclusion
General Index Index of Passages