One of the notable features of ancient Greek tragedy was the concept of tragic hero. Aristotle in his work Poetics deliberated on it extensively. Several characteristics were listed which a protagonist in a tragic drama could be viewed before being regarded as a tragic hero.
First, the person should be of noble birth or have superior knowledge or capabilities or occupy a high position. However, in a play, the person’s superior status should not be made overtly manifest so that the audience may not fail to have pity for the hero or fail to feel some measure of fear of the outcome as pity and fear are critical components of tragedy. It is when fear and pity are generated that catharsis can be meaningful.
Second, the person should have a tragic flaw in character, notably excessive pride, described as hubris; it could also be error of judgement. Third, there must be a reversal of fortune, such as a fall from fame. This was termed peripetia in Greek writing.
A fourth characteristic is that the hero must face misfortune, often not wholly caused by self as he or she is expected to have been doomed from the beginning. The character is expected to face serious or complicated decisions. Unfortunately, the fall often attracts punishment which exceeds the crime or reason for the fall. This is a fifth characteristic. However, the hero must be intelligent enough to know that the fall is due to error of judgment on his or her part, described as anagnorisis. Aristotle notes that someone cannot be adjudged a hero until he has understood the root of his downfall.
A sixth characteristic which Aristotle highlighted is consistency. The acts of the hero must be consistent with the person’s character and what people perceive him or her to be.
Aristotle’s analysis becomes complicated or complicates the ‘plot’ in the concept of tragic hero when he states that the fall of the hero should not be ascribed to a personal flaw in character but to an error of judgment, some sort of miscalculation. However, one wonders how pity would be evoked by the quantum required if the place of a flaw in character such as pride is not the primary reason for a fall. Moreover, the error of judgment is itself a personal flaw, although it falls in line with the idea of the hero being human.
One issue that did not appear to attract the attention of Aristotle and other writers of his time and even contemporary writers on the concept of tragedy is the role of the audience. That should be so because the audience comes after the play has been written. Modern playwriting requires that a script be produced first before it is published; this opens the door to the possible recognition of the actions and reactions of the audience. This is as important in modern drama as in modern politics because the actions and reactions of the audience or followers could completely change outcomes. Probably if the rabid followers of Donald Trump had been allowed to ‘stand by him’ as usual, he would not have tempered his position on immigration in a humanistic fashion. And there is no doubt that the leader of ISIS is emboldened by the massive reaction of young persons across the globe who join the fighting force.
It is therefore important to expand the template of tragedy by recognizing the role of the audience or followers in drama and politics in analyzing the modern-day concept of the tragic hero. This might help in understanding and explaining the proliferation of persons in the 20th and 21st centuries who exhibited or are exhibiting the ancient characteristics of tragic hero respectively.
Vladimir Putin, four-term President of ‘Soviet’ Russia is all over the world’s stage. His name features in the discussions on Syria, which he has systematically destroyed not with a little help from the misleader of that ancient kingdom; the Crimea which he has annexed; Ukraine, which he still eyes; Olympics, which his lieutenants engage in state-sponsored doping; in Turkey, that he is evidently desperate to keep out of the NATO family; in North Korea where he does not want Donald Trump to steal the show exclusively; the just-concluded football fiesta that his team performed beyond even his imagination; and the cozying relationship with China to cut Donald Trump to size. Incredibly, he has gone further afield, like a cob learning to hunt, to disobey its mother and try its skills in the tiger’s den – the United State of America – where he apparently okayed the meddling with the 2016 general elections that has kept Donald Trump worried, unsure of the legitimacy of his election. Putin the Great must rule the world, and where else than to subdue the USA by controlling the election process to ensure that a ‘friendly’ person emerges as the next President? He made that confession recently. The Putin saga is not just interesting, it is fascinating. But does he fit into the mould described as “tragic hero?”
First, Vladimir Putin may not have a royal background, but he has found himself in a position that confers on him the status of nobility. Very importantly he has “superior knowledge,” evidently crafted by himself, to wit, the need for a world where Russia retains the status of “Soviet Union.” He had declared in 2005 that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. And it is apparently his divine duty to restore it, even if it is a part thereof as he has done in Crimea, South Ossetia, and Chechnya.
One of the key characteristics of a tragic hero is that the person must be intelligent enough to discern his mistake (s). The tactical withdrawal of heavy war machinery from Southern Ukraine, which was likely meant for full annexation of entire Ukraine is a pointer. He also tactically withdrew some forces and equipment from Syria. And, slashing public sector salary including his own, is another.
The crash in the Russian economy may indeed mark the beginning of the fall of V. Putin. Meanwhile, his ‘adoring’ nation has been politely protesting the increase in retirement age by his government. Europe and US are not letting him have a good night’s sleep either. However, the fall in the economy highlights another characteristic, which is that he is partly to blame for current developments. What can the Putins of this world do to stop the slide of crude oil price in the world market for instance? And can one completely wave away the fear of the advance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?
Error of judgment is key to the outcome of Putin of tomorrow. Based on his belief in greater Russia, he annexed Crimea and pushed forward for more space. He could never have divined the reaction of the West and the USA on what should be regarded as the “internal affairs” of Ukraine. Again, the separatists in Ukraine are expected to share the blame, aside from the need to keep NATO at bay.
Trying to influence the outcome of the French election is another error of judgement, when that of the USA continues to dog his heels. And repeated use of poison on persons in opposition despite world outrage is de facto error of judgement especially because the poisons used are generally identified with Russia.
A very important aspect of the possible fall of V. Putin is the role of the audience or ‘chorus.’ Europe and USA are up in arms against Russia; the economy is sliding, and the sanctions are biting. Yet the Russian people continue to give Putin a resounding yes in polls. Agreed, the tools of state are being used to protect democracy, yet Russians, if they did not like the empire-building orientation of their leader should have been able to reflect it in poll numbers even if they are afraid of identifying with the opposition. And he recently won re-election for a fourth term!
Nor are outsiders exempt from the loud chorus. Forbes Magazine continues to rate V. Putin as the “most powerful” man in the world. He went down to number two position in 2018, which may account for his frenzy at the world stage. Chinese President is now number one.
Fareed Zakaria had a documentary on Putin, declaring unequivocally that he is the world’s most powerful man. For a man who probably has megalomania as a character flaw, what could be more satisfying than sitting on top of the world?
At the end of the day, historians may likely ask questions regarding the role of the chorus on the fall of Vladimir Putin. Opposition and truth-telling inspire leaders far more than flattery and stories of greatness. American democracy may indeed be the classic Aristotelian rule by the rabble; it, however, keeps the President on his toes twenty-four hours a day. Putin would have been a great leader if he had access to painful truths regarding his mistakes. If for instance, Forbes rated him in line with the “comfort index” in his country and the “deference index” by other parts of the world, it is probable that he would listen and do better. The Forbes computation will be discussed in another episode.
How many countries for instance, can Putin be highly rated as he is in his country? We are aware that Barak Obama was frequently rated even higher in other countries than his own. How many countries join Russia when it acts on the international scene? Meanwhile the USA, France, and Britain continue to build international coalitions on global activities. How powerful is a man who merely whimpered when his protégée was humiliated on 23rd April 2018 by President Trump when he bombed Syrian chemical weapons sites under the watchful eyes of Russian soldiers? Can Putin try such in South Korea? Forbes computation of power index requires a review.
The world will watch and wait for the outcome of the Putin saga. We need to recall that Solon, in admonishing the king of Lydia about greatness, advised him to wait till his end. It is likely that after a second-second term, Putin will step aside (as Nigerian military leader General Ibrahim Babangida once said) by taking the interim office of Prime Minister and then re-contest and of course win again for another two terms. But it will not go on forever.
Putin may yet end well, as for instance moving Russia’s economy such that it overtakes that of China. He may place Russia at the level which will make other world leaders rally around him to carry out global actions. He may even give up Crimea and Southern Ukraine and stop his expansionist policies. Unfortunately, if he were doomed from birth, the hand of determinism will not let him soft-pedal, not to talk of back-pedal. He will march on till he suffers the fate lined for him by the gods, which human beings as pawns on their chess boards as the Greeks held, are wont. If he truly and finally falls out of power and favour rather than gracefully end his tenure, thinkers and analysts will need to use him as a case study of a modern-day tragic hero.