Aristotle’s Concept of Hamartia

Hamartia is a concept used by Aristotle to describe tragedy. Hamartia leads to the fall of a noble man caused by some excess or mistake in behavior, not because of a willful violation of the gods’ laws. Hamartia is related to hubris, which was also more an action than attitude. Hamartia is an injury committed in ignorance (when the person affected or the results are not what the agent supposed they were). In tragedy, hamartia is often described as a hero’s fatal flaw. It is a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes ignorant, mistaken, or accidental wrongdoing, as well as deliberate iniquity, error, or sin.

This form of drawing emotion from the audience is a staple of the Greek tragedies. In Greek tragedy, stories that contain a character with a hamartia often follow a similar blueprint. The hamartia, as stated, is seen as an error in judgment or unwitting mistake is applied to the actions of the hero. For example, the hero might attempt to achieve a certain objective X; by making an error in judgment, however, the hero instead achieves the opposite of X, with disastrous consequences.

However, hamartia cannot be sharply defined or have an exact meaning assigned to it. Consequently, a number of alternate interpretations have been associated with it, such as in the Biblehamartia is the Greek word used to denote “sin.” Bible translators may reach this conclusion, according to T. C. W. Stinton, because another common interpretation of hamartia can be seen as a “moral deficit” or a “moral error”. R. D. Dawe disagrees with Stinton’s view when he points out in some cases hamartia can even mean to not sin. It can be seen in this opposing context if the main character does not carry out an action because it is a sin. This failure to act, in turn, must lead to a poor change in fortune for the main character in order for it to truly be a hamartia.

In a medical context, a hamartia denotes a focal malformation consisting of disorganized arrangement of tissue types that are normally present in the anatomical area.

History of Hamartia

Aristotle first introduced hamartia in his book Poetics. However through the years the word has changed meanings. Many scholars have argued that the meaning of the word that was given in Aristotle’s book is not really the correct meaning, and that there is a deeper meaning behind the word. In the article “Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle,” the scholar J.M. Bremer first explained the general argument of the poetics and, in particular, the immediate context of the term. He then traces the semasiological history of the hamart-group of the words from Homer (who also tried to determine the meaning behind the word) and Aristotle, concluding that of the three possible meanings of hamartia (missing, error, offense), the Stagirite uses the second in our passage of Poetics. It is, then a “tragic error”, i.e. a wrong action committed in ignorance of its nature, effect, etc., which is the starting point of a causally connected train of events ending in disaster. Today the word and its meaning is still up in the air; even so the word is still being used in discussion of many plays today, such as Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.

Major examples of Hamartia in Literature

Hamartia is often referred to as tragic flaw and has many examples throughout literature, especially in Greek tragedy. Isabel Hyde discusses the type of hamartia Aristotle meant to define in the Modern Language Review, “Thus it may be said by some writers to be the ‘tragic flaw’ of Oedipus that he was hasty in temper; of Samson that he was sensually uxorious; of Macbeth that he was excessively ambitious; of Othello that he was proud and jealous-and so on… but these things do not constitute the ‘hamartia of those characters in Aristotle’s sense”. This explains that Aristotle did not describe hamartia as an error of character, but as a moral mistake or ignorant error. Even J.L. Moles comments on the idea that hamartia is considered an error and states, “the modern view (at least until recently) that it means ‘error’, ‘mistake of fact’, that is, an act done in ignorance of some salient circumstances”.

Hyde goes on to question the meaning of true hamartia and discovers that it is in fact error in the article, “The Tragic Flaw: Is It a Tragic Error?” She claims that the true hamartia that occurs in Oedipus is considered “his ignorance of his true parentage” that led him to become “unwittingly the slayer of his own father”. This example can be applied when reading literature in regards to the true definition of hamartia and helps place the character’s actions into the categories of character flaws and simple mistakes all humans commit.

What is this error of judgement. The term Aristotle uses here, hamartia, often translated “tragic flaw,” (A.C.Bradely) has been the subject of much debate. Aristotle, as writer of the Poetics, has had many a lusty infant, begot by some other critic, left howling upon his doorstep; and of all these (which include the bastards Unity-of-Time and Unity-of-Place) not one is more trouble to those who got to take it up than the foundling ‘Tragic Flaw’. Humphrey House, in his lectures (Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. Colin Hardie (London, 1956), delivered in 1952-3, commented upon this tiresome phrase: “The phrase ‘tragic flaw’ should be treated with suspicion. I do not know when it was first used, or by whom. It is not an Aristotelian metaphor at all, and though it might be adopted as an accepted technical translation of ‘hamartia’ in the strict and properly limited sense, the fact is that it has not been adopted, and it is far more commonly used for a characteristic moral failing in an otherwise predominantly good man. Thus, it may be said by some writers to be the ‘tragic flaw’ of Oedipus that he was hasty in temper; of Samson that he was sensually uxorious; of Macbeth that he was ambitious; of Othello that he was proud and jealous – and so on … but these things do not constitute the ‘hamartia’ of those characters in Aristotle’s sense.”

Mr. House goes on to urge that ‘all serious modern Aristotelian scholarship agrees … that ‘hamartia’ means an error which is derived from ignorance of some material fact or circumstance, and he refers to Bywater and Rostangni in support of his view. But although ‘all serious modern scholarship’ may have agreed to this point in 1952-3, in 1960 the good news has not yet reached the recesses of the land and many young students of literature are still apparently instructed in the theory of the ‘tragic flaw; a theory which appears at first sight to be a most convenient device for analyzing tragedy but which leads the unfortunate user of it into a quicksand of absurdities in which he rapidly sinks, dragging the tragedies down with him.

In his edition of Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (Oxford, 1909), Ingram Bywater refers to such a misreading, though without using the term ‘tragic flaw’: “Hamartia in the Aristotelian sense of the term is a mistake or error of judgement (error in Lat.), and the deed done in consequence of it is an erratum. In the Ethics an erratum is said to originate not in vice or depravity but in ignorance of some material fact or circumstance … this ignorance, we are told in another passage, takes the deed out of the class of voluntary acts, and enables one to forgive or even pity the doer.”

The meaning of the Greek word is closer to “mistake” than to “flaw,” “a wrong step blindly taken”, “the missing of mark”, and it is best interpreted in the context of what Aristotle has to say about plot and “the law or probability or necessity.” In the ideal tragedy, claims Aristotle, the protagonist will mistakenly bring about his own downfall-not because he is sinful or morally weak, but because he does not know enough. The role of the hamartia in tragedy comes not from its moral status but from the inevitability of its consequences. Both Butcher and Bywater agree that hamartia is not a moral failing. This error of judgment may arise form:

1. ignorance (Oedipus),
2. hasty – careless view (Othello)
3. decision taken voluntarily but not deliberately (Lear, Hamlet).

The error of judgement is derived form ignorance of some material fact or circumstance. Hamartia is accompanied by moral imperfections (Oedipus, Macbeth). Hence the peripeteia is really one or more self-destructive actions taken in blindness, leading to results diametrically opposed to those that were intended (often termed tragic irony), and the anagnorisis is the gaining of the essential knowledge that was previously lacking. Butcher is of the view that, “Oedipus the king – includes all three meanings of hamartia, which in English cannot be termed by a single term…. Othello is the modern example, Oedipus in the ancient, are the two most conspicuous examples of ruin wrought by characters, noble, indeed, but not without defects, acting in the dark and, as it seemed, for the best.”

Hamartia is Modern plays: Hamartia is practically removed from the hero and he becomes a victim of circumstance – a mere puppet. The villain in Greek plays was destiny, now its circumstances. The hero was powerful, he struggled but at the end of the day, death is inevitable. Modern heroes, dies several deaths – passive – not the doer of the action but receiver. The concept of heroic figures in tragedy has now become practically out of date. It was appropriate to the ages when men of noble birth and eminent positions were viewed as the representative figures of society. Today, common men are representative of society and life.

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