The Tragic Hero: Decision & the ‘Collective Effect’


When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” Stanley Kubrick

A central tenet of Greek Tragedy is the controversial idea that there are no innocent bystanders. That the community is simultaneously a strength but also a weakness. There are foundations of law, justice and tradition, but the actions of men can at times jeopardize not only themselves but those around them. 

Though we witness the actions and hear the words of individuals, the ancient Greeks understood that these ‘actors’ are in part stand-ins (proxies) for the community at large. Their decisions – for right or wrong – will effect us all. The moment of decision, that leads to a course of action is the moment when the protagonist (or another) moves into jeopardy. A moment when uncertain consequences begin to spin outward, problematizing and pulling individual choices outside the traditional recognized norms (nomos) of the polis (for us here the ‘community’). 

The heroes efforts to alter, twist, bend and or control fate/destiny or override the ‘unwritten laws’ of the gods is one that is not often well received by either the Chorus of a tragedy – or it’s audience. For in the day-to-day world of the traditional polis there is a harmony or ‘interweaving’ between state and ritual to the point that they are recognized by classical historians as one in the same. Any alterations in this unity would immediately be recognized by all in attendance.  

The tension and force that is created by the singular hero of a play can warp the very fabric of the polis and move us all into this shared ‘danger-zone’. A dissonant landscape that is activated when human illusion and divine decree come into conflict.  

No man (or hero) can step beyond, into or outside this space and hope to remain unchanged. Nor can those around them who now find their community jeopardized (or at least under divine scrutiny) seek the same assurance. It is this this movement of the individual, this ‘heresy’ (choice) that ultimately generates the often referenced Aristotelean end product of ‘catharsis’ evidenced in the collective.

The ‘heroic decision’ is not one to be taken lightly – they are not without import and even though they may be underwritten by a sacred Oath, there is no guarantee that they will bring harmony or peace to human affairs. In every case as the thoughts form the words of these characters and publicize their decisions, we are made to witness the ‘hamartia’ (error) that so often plagues our tragic heroes. They present to us the uncurbed pride of human will and the folly of a hubris that lies in wait to destroy a man – or a community – who opposes a divine decree. 

All is not lost however, the hero may endure as might the community should the proper steps be taken. But rest assured things will not be the same. Death, destruction, and madness are often the end products of this disturbed world-order struggling to regain its equilibrium in an environment of fear and pity. 

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