The Tragedy of Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno

One cannot but be amazed at how Attention has focused herself on this one man, Joseph Vincent Paterno.  To be sure, his is an enthralling subplot, a sort of handmaiden to the horrors that have of late manifested themselves in State College, PA.  Yet, in the first week after the news broke, it seemed as though for every story written about the crimes themselves, there were three more written about this the winningest coach in the history of Division I football.  At first I was troubled about why this should be so.  After all, should not our energies be focused on the victims?  Should we not be more concerned with finding out the full truth and reach of these most scelerous crimes.  Our collective preoccupation with this man, and his downfall, became a source of fascination to me.  At last it occurred to me that for those of us not immediately involved, these events have constituted a sort of drama.  Indeed we have watched this drama, this tragedy, unfold before us in real time.  Each day brings a new scene and we are riveted.

Drama and Tragedy.  I choose these terms, I hope, with precision.  For I believe that this is how we are processing what we see.   To put it simply, the story of Joe Paterno is nothing less than a Greek tragedy, and he is its hero.

I bid you consider the tortured mythology of ancient Thebes.  In that mythology there are many stories, many characters, and it stretches for generations.  But within the Theban mythology there is also a tale of narrow scope.  The story of one man, one tragedy.  A proud and mighty man brought low by his own hand.  Is this not also true of the drama unfolding at Penn State?  I do not suggest that Joe Paterno is a perfect analog to Oidpous, but that they are of a kind.

We will return to Oidipous later.  But for the moment, I beg your consideration: what is tragedy?  If you would indulge me, pause for a moment, and consider with yourself how you would define this word.  Like as not, you have arrived at something along the lines of “a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster.”1  And certainly it has come to mean this.  When people talk of what has happened at the hands of ὁ οὐκ ὀνομαcτόc2 as being a tragedy, this is surely what they mean, and by this definition, they are just as surely correct.  But the word tragedy – τραγῳδία in its original Greek – had a much more specific meaning, one which Aristotle went to great lengths to define.

Before proceeding further, I feel it is important to clarify how I view the actions of Joe Paterno at the time of this writing relative to the shower incident.  He had, δοκεῖ μοι, three ways in which to handle the information brought to him by his assistant coach.  He could have done that which we all wish he had done; gone straight to the police.  He could have done his due diligence and nothing more, which is what it appears he did.  He also could have actively tried to cover this up.  Based on what has been made public at this time, I do not believe that he actively tried to conceal this, to hide it, to bury it.3  If I should turn out to be wrong about that, the following analysis will largely fail in its inherent accuracy, though I think it will still go a ways toward explain the amount of attention he received in the first week after the story broke.

Aristotle in his πἐρὶ ποιητικῆc4 – the Poetics – gives what he believe is the purpose of tragedy, six major components and what sort of central character is most pleasing to an audience.  The purpose, put simply (& perhaps too simply) is, through the representation of pity (ἔλεοc/eleos) and fear (φόβοc/phobos), to affect a purification – his word is κάθαρcιc (catharsis) – from these troubles (1449b).5


The most important of the six components,6 according to Aristotle, is the plot (1450a).  It is the sine qua non of any tragedy.  And the most important elements of a tragic plot are the sudden reversal of circumstance or fortune (περιπέτεια/peripeteia) and the recognition of something previously unknown (ἀναγνώριcιc/anagnōrisis).  An example of peripeteia would be Oidipous going from king of Thebes to disgraced exile.  An anagnōrisis would be his discovering that he killed his father and married his mother.  Again, this is a simplification, and it omits much, but it is sufficient for this discussion.

Turning now to character, there is a certain type of hero which Aristotle believes is most favorable to an audience, one which best arouses eleos and phobos.  He is neither a supremely good and moral man (ἐπιεικήc/epieikēs) passing from good fortune (εὐτυχία/eutychia) to misfortune (δυcτυχία/dystychia), yet neither is he an excessively base and immoral one (cφόδρα πονηρόc/sphodra ponēros) passing from dystychia to eutychia.  For the one is “neither fearful nor piteous, but is repulsive…[the other] might be pleasing to our sense of justice, but is not piteous or fearful.”  Rather, what is wanted is one who “suffers undeservedly and yet is like us, for we pity the undeserving sufferer and fear for one like ourselves (1452b-1453a).”

What he means by “undeserving” is that the character does not suffer his reversal of fortune because of some innate evil or moral depravity (κακία, μοχθηρία/kakia, mochthēria), but by some horrible failure of judgment (ἁμαρτία/hamartia).  Furthermore, this generally befalls one who is “held in great repute, is in good fortune and is preeminent amongst his fellow man (1453a).”  Again, Aristotle has more to say, but these are the key and salient points.

Now then, what of Joe Paterno?  There is no question that he was held in the highest repute both within the world of college football and beyond.  No doubt that he was preeminent not only in his profession, but amongst our citizenry generally.  Yet neither was he epieikēs.  He had his critics, had been called arrogant and stubborn.  And yet his downfall, while entirely his own doing, was not come from some kakia or mochthēria.  We know who the morally depraved man is in this story, and we do not name him here.  Whatever Paterno’s failings in this matter, they pale next to the putrescence of the crimes themselves.

In Joe Paterno’s success, we see one like ourselves.  The sort of man we aspire to be.  Born of a humble beginning, he raises himself to greatness.  He builds a program of great renown, not just for its athletic prowess but for the rate at which it graduates its athletes.  He molds young boys into men, and in so doing inspires lifelong loyalty.  Indeed, we see now, in the riots following his ouster, that he inspires loyalty amongst those whom he personally has no direct relation.  Yet in his later years he grew jealous of the power he had accumulated, felt a sense of entitlement.  A remarkable man, but a very human one.

Oidipous & the Sphinx

So too Oidipous.  Raised by a shepherd, he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, returned his city to prosperity and was beloved by his people.  At the close of the play, the chorus says “κράτιcτοc ἦν ἀνήρ, οὗ τίc οὐ ζήλῳ πολιτῶν ἦν τύχαιc ἐπιβλέπων – as a man he was the strongest,7 and who was there amongst men who could look upon his fortunes without envy? (Soph.OT.1526).”  Yet he too was jealous of his power, and suspicious.8

The downfall of Joe Paterno then, δοκεῖ μοι, follows quite closely Aristotle’s description of the highest order of tragedy.  Somewhere in this sordid tale he experienced his own anagnōrisis.  Whether it was the day that an assistant coach told him he had witnessed something awful in the shower, or whether sometime before, Paterno at some point had to face the awful recognition that his trusted lieutenant was a child predator, a monster worse even than the ancient Sphinx.

Between the anagnōrisis and the peripeteia lies the hamartia, the fatal flaw, that critical error in judgment.  Whether out of ignorance like Oidipous or arrogance like Agamemnon, he surely failed.  Failed himself, his institution, our poor children.  And from this failure flows his peripeteia.

Certainly the peripeteia is evident.  The reversal of his fortunes has been profound.  No doubt there will be a closing act to his story.  Like the Oidipous at Colonos, where the hero as on old man wanders the countryside, blind with only his daughters to guide him, Paterno too seems destined to end his life in some sort of exile.  Like Oidipous, his good deeds will not be forgotten,  yet will he be a source of a shame to his city, his institution.

These, then, are the reasons I believe we have focused so much attention on Joe Paterno these several days.  Whether sitting in the Theatre of Dionysios 2500 years ago, or sitting in front of our televisions today, we know good tragedy when we see it, and we know it instinctively.  It is a sorry tale that rouses in us pity and fear.  And in this downfall, there is some small measure of catharsis for us.  With his exile, the process of purification can begin.  All these generations later, we still read the tale of Oidipous and the stories are just as powerful today as they ever were.  It may yet be that generations from now they will still be singing the tragedy of Joe Paterno.

  1. []
  2. He who is not to be named; abominable []
  3. I’ve toyed with the idea that Paterno had no more freedom of choice here than did Oidipous.  In theory, he could have acted differently.  Yet I wonder if, on some level, he was bound by his personal custom – his ethos if you will – and by an antiquated worldview to do as he did.   But that is a discussion for another day. []
  4. A reasonably good translation can be found here.  Unfortunately, the translator uses his own numbering system (which is just cruel), but the analysis on tragedy begins at his section 6. []
  5. I have cited chapter numbers according to the traditional numbering of the Greek text, in the interest of intellectual honesty, though they are not given in the above referenced English translation. []
  6. For brevity’s sake, I will not bother with an enumeration of these components, but will only deal with those that are relevant to this discussion.  However, a discussion of all of these can be found beginning with section 6 of the above linked translation. []
  7. A somewhat tangential, but lovely little anecdote.  The word κράτιcτοc (kratistos) can mean either “strongest” or “best.”  When Alexander the Great was on his deathbed, he was asked to whom he would leave his empire.  He answered “τῷ κρατίcτῷ.”  To the strongest?  Or to the best? []
  8. Cf. e.g. Soph.OT.532-678 []