Hamartia

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This article is about classical Greek term. For medical term, see Hamartia (medical term).
Aristotle poetics
6 Parts of Aristotle's Greek Tragedy
Aristotle's Tragic Plot Structure

Hamartia: (Ancient Greek: ἁμαρτία) Error of Judgement or Tragic Flaw.[1] The term hamartia derives from the Greek hamartanein which means “to miss the mark” or “to err”.[2] It is most often associated with Greek Tragedy, although it is also used in Christian Theology[3]


Hamartia in Aristotle’s Poetics[edit]

Hamartia is first described in the subject of literary criticism by Aristotle in his Poetics. The term hamartia appears once in Poetics, but scholars throughout the ages have continued to discuss the meaning and usage of the term.[4] The source of the concept of hamartia is at the juncture between Character and the character's actions or behaviors as outlined by Aristotle. Below is a quote from Poetics defining Character:

"Character in a play is that which reveals the moral purpose of the agents, i.e. the sort of thing they seek or avoid"[5]

Here Aristotle distinguishes between Plot (Fable), and Character and Thought: "...the subject represented also is an action; and the action involves agents, who must necessarily have their distinctive qualities both of character and thought, since it is from these that we ascribe certain qualities to their actions. There are in the natural order of things, therefore, two causes, Character and Thought, of their actions, and consequently of their success or failure in their lives. Now the action (that which was done) is represented in the play by the Fable or Plot. The Fable, in our present sense of the term, is simply this, the combination of the incidents, or things done in the story; whereas Character is what makes us ascribe certain moral qualities to the agents..." [6]

Hamartia is the inner quality of a protagonist that initiates a "movement of spirit"[7] within him/her to commit actions which drive the Plot towards a tragic end, inspiring in the audience a build of pity and fear leading to a cathartic release.

Hamartia in Christian Theology[edit]

Hamartia is also used in Christian Theology. The literal Greek meaning "to miss the mark" is applied as a Fall from the Godly, or sin.[8] In his writings, Paul the Apostle describes three usages for the term ″hamartia″. The term is employed in one sense to mean acts of sin themselves. It is also used in reference to man's sinful condition, or original sin. The third application concerns the weakness of the flesh, and the free will to either resist or commit sinful acts.[9]

Tragic Error or Tragic Flaw[edit]

Scholars continue to debate nuance of the definition of hamartia. The debate centers around two interpretations, tragic error and tragic flaw. Gravitation along the spectrum towards one meaning or the other depends partly upon the prevailing aesthetic during the time of the debate. [10][11][12][13] Aristotle's description of the term, translated by S.H. Butcher as an error of judgment, allows room for interpretations that include a mistake of fact, a tendency towards certain mistakes because of moral weakness, or a combination of the two in varying degrees.[14] Whether the character can inspire pity and fear provides goalposts for the degree of tragic flaw present in the tragic error.[15]

“The best tragedy is so composed as to arouse pity and terror. Firstly it is clear that morally good men must not be shown passing from good fortune to bad; this does not arouse pity or fear but is repulsive. Nor must a morally vicious man be shown passing from bad fortune to good, for this does not satisfy our human feeling, nor does it arouse pity or fear. Nor again must the very crooked man be shown falling from good fortune into bad; this arrangement would satisfy human feeling but would not arouse pity or fear. For pity is concerned with unmerited misfortune, fear with a character like ourselves. There remains the intermediate kind of character: not pre-eminent in moral excellence, nor falling into misfortune through vice and depravity, but through some error of judgment,” [16]

Major Examples of hamartia in Literature[edit]

Play Author Character Flaw Error Tragic Result
Antigone Sophocles Antigone excessive loyalty defies Creon to bury her brother her execution
Doctor Faustus Christopher Marlowe Doctor Faustus hubris makes a deal with the devil eternity in hell
Iliad Homer Achilles rage defies Agamemnon dishonor and death of comrades
Hamlet Shakespeare Hamlet indecisiveness delays justice many deaths and madness
Long Day's Journey Into Night Eugene O'Neill James Tyrone fiscal stinginess hires incompetent doctor Mary's addction to morphine
Macbeth Shakespeare Macbeth excessive ambition murders King Duncan dishonor and death
Phaedra Racine Phaedra passionate love reveals secret to nurse dishonor and suicide

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ ″Hamartia″. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
  2. ^ "Hamartia." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
  3. ^ Cooper, Eugene J. ″Sarx and Sin in Pauline Theology″ Laval théologique et philosophique. 29.3 (1973) 243-255. Web. Érudit. 1 Nov 2014.
  4. ^ Hyde, Isabel. ″The Tragic Flaw: Is It a Tragic Error?″ The Modern Language Review 58.3 (1963): 321-325. Web. JSTOR St. Louis: St. Louis U Library. 1 Nov 2014.
  5. ^ Aristotle. "Poetics". Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Oxford: Clarendon P, 2 May 2009. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
  6. ^ Aristotle. "Poetics". Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Oxford: Clarendon P, 2 May 2009. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
  7. ^ Fergusson, Francis. Introduction. Aristotle's Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. pp. 1–44. New York: Hill and Wang – Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961. Print.
  8. ^ Cooper, Eugene ″Sarx and Sin in Pauline Theology″ Laval théologique et philosophique. 29.3 (1973) 243-255. Web. Érudit. 1 Nov 2014.
  9. ^ Cooper, Eugene ″Sarx and Sin in Pauline Theology″ Laval théologique et philosophique. 29.3 (1973) 243-255. Web. Érudit. 1 Nov 2014.
  10. ^ Bremer, Jan Maarten. Hamartia: Tragic Error in the ″Poetics″ of Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1969. Print.
  11. ^ Dawe, R.D. ″Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia″. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 2 (1968): 89-123. JSTOR. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.
  12. ^ Stinton, T.C.W. ″Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy.″ The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 25.2 (Dec. 1975). 221-254. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. Web. JSTOR. 1 Nov 2014.
  13. ^ Hyde, Isabel. ″The Tragic Flaw: is it a Tragic Error?″ The Modern Language Review 58.3 (1963): 321-325. JSTOR. St. Louis: St. Louis University Library. 1 Nov 2014
  14. ^ Armstrong, David and Peterson, Charles W. ″Rhetorical Balance in Aristotle's Definition of the Tragic Agent Poetics 13.″The Classical Quarterly, New Series 30.1 (1980) 62-71. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. Web. JSTOR. 1 Nov 2014
  15. ^ Stinton, T.C.W. ″Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy.″ The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 25.2 (Dec. 1975). 221-254. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. Web. JSTOR. 1 Nov 2014.
  16. ^ Butcher, S.H. The Poetics of Aristotle, (1902), pp. 45-47

References[edit]

  • Bremer, J.M. "Hamartia." Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy. Amsterdam, Adolf M. Hakkert, 1969.
  • Dawe, R D. "Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72 (1968): 89-123. JSTOR. St. Louis University Library, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Hyde, Isabel. "The Tragic Flaw: is It a Tragic Error?" The Modern Language Review 58.3 (1963): 321-325. JSTOR. St. Louis University Library, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Moles, J L. "Aristotle and Dido's 'Hamartia'" Greece & Rome, Second Series 31.1 (1984): 48-54. JSTOR. St. Louis University Library, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Stinton, T. C. W. "Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy" The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Dec., 1975): 221 - 254. JSTOR. St. Louis University, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Golden, Leon, "Hamartia, Ate, and Oedipus", Classical World, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Sep., 1978), pp. 3-12.
  • Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus, University of California Press, 1971, p. 212.