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Philosophy and Literature 29.2 (2005) 269-285

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Oedipus The King:

Temperament, Character, and Virtue

University of Otago


Recent discussions of ethics and literature suggest that there is a relationship between reading (or, better, immersing oneself in) literature (in particular, fiction) and the virtues. Nussbaum goes so far as to claim not only that good literature is conducive to moral sense and sensibility but also that "the well-lived life is a work of literary art."1 The character development in most substantial fictional work that aims to engage us through its realism and truth to the human condition suggests that there is such a thing as a quasi-stable character and that an agent's character plays a significant role in the way not only that the person acts but also in the kinds of thing that happen to him or her. For a certain kind of virtue theorist, the internal harmony of character required for a person to do the right thing in a diverse range of situations involves cultivating exactly those skills required to live well. This thesis amounts to a claim that there is a close, indeed conceptual, relationship between right living and good living and that the type of character which results from cultivating the virtues is a character conducive to getting the best out of the situations that life throws in our way, whereas the vicious character reveals itself by causing strife, harm, and even tragedy.

Gilbert Harman, criticizing virtue ethics on the basis of some key experiments in social psychology which have led to the idea of a "fundamental attribution error," argues that people do not have enduring character traits of the type required to sustain such a position.2 His critique has itself been attacked on the basis that what the experiments show is not the absence of character traits but their ability [End Page 269] to be influenced by the demands of a situation.3 Our objection is against the conception of virtues being attacked and also his sweeping conclusion about human nature and it has two strands. First we argue that phronesis, as the hallmark of a virtuous character, is a mix of skills, abilities, and attitudes honed in such a way as to allow the person to act fittingly in different life situations. Second, character runs true to type in an individual and even runs in families.

We find support for both claims in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. This is, of course, a myth but one that has spoken to human beings across the ages and it recognizes both that different individuals show certain regularities in their modes of relationship and their conduct and that these tendencies are often familial, contributing significantly to the events marking family stories and traditions. Phronesis or practical wisdom is the skill to negotiate the challenges that life produces when fate deals one a hand of this (genetic and genealogical) kind. In the process of making the case we will support the claim that fiction "can significantly contribute to moral understanding by revealing what certain situations amount to" and therefore that it "can bring home to us the force of, for example, moral dilemmas" and indeed moral concepts, and we will use the Oedipus story to reflect on the lessons emerging from one version of virtue ethics.4

We approach the Oedipus myth through Sophocles' tragedy in which an oracle about patricide and incest plays itself out in the lives of certain characters. The relevance for virtue ethics arises from the ways in which characters in the play react to their predicament and try to cope with the situations they must face. In moral life, individuals need to find strategies to deal with challenges they face both as individuals and as persons-in-relationships-with-others. The reactions portrayed in Oedipus make vivid not only the idea of character traits but also the role of virtue in moderating what we might do in situations that interact with our characters in potentially disastrous ways.


Harman's challenge begins...


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pp. 269-285
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