Hamartia

In Poetics (335 BC), a treatise of dramatic theory, Aristotle explains hamartia or the protagonist’s error and tragic flaw. This flaw leads to a chain of actions culminating in disaster and can include an error of ignorance, as well as of judgement or character, or a wrongdoing.

For Aristotle, hamartia is largely a morally neutral term, meaning in Greek ‘to miss the mark‘, or ‘to fall short of an objective‘. Interestingly, the same word hamartia or ἁμαρτία, is also used in Christian new testament theology to denote ‘sin’.

Audiences today would not understand the word sin to carry morally neutral weight, quite the opposite. However, a nuanced reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, can help us understand better the nature of hamartia.

The purpose of tragedy for Aristotle was to lead the audience to emotional ‘catharsis’ or purging, a purification, or cleansing of excessive passions. Aristotle writes, for a story to be “of adequate magnitude”, it must involve characters of high rank, prestige, or good fortune. Here hamartia is the quality of a tragic hero is relatable:

…the character between these two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty (hamartia)

Tragedy thus presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer. If our protagonist is not caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.

By creating empathy with the protagonist, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players. As the plot arrives at a tragic reversal or change or fortune for this hero, the ‘recognition’ of the tragic flaw evokes in the audience both a pity and a fear which culminates in ‘catharsis‘ or purging of emotion.

Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime, and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew. Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.

Hamartia, and Aristotle’s exploration of tragic narrative help us understand the inevitability of our own suffering through mistakes of judgement or character for we too are good people, yet frail. The fabric of story operates within a just universe, and our actions lead to a chain of cascading consequences leading to disaster. The gospels go on to outline how into this just universe, arrives a truly innocent ‘other’ who suffers in our place, and who doing so purges or cleanses us as we empathise and suffer with him and are reborn anew, granted a second chance to live a more integrated life.

Poetics

Around 335 BC Aristotle wrote, Poetics (Περὶ ποιητικῆς) the earliest known work of the theory of drama. So comprehensive is it, that it is still used by literary theorists, writers, educators and directors of theatre of film. Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters [2002, Michael Tierno] is a modern application and case in point.

Interestingly, the whole work was lost to the Western world for a long time until the Middle Ages when part of the original was discovered, through an Arabic translation of the scholar Averroes.

In the work, Aristotle defines “poetry”, a term which in Greek literally means “making” and includes treatises about drama, comedy, tragedy, satire, lyric and epic poetry.

He outlines various rules for the construction of drama, which still form the bedrock of story telling and narrative theory. These include [among others]:

  • Character [ethos] is the moral or ethical character in tragic play and supports the plot. Their personal motivations somehow connect parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear.
  • The tragic accident or crisis, is what happens to the hero because of a mistake he or she makes (hamartia). That is because the audience is more likely to be “moved” by a character driven accident than by a random occurrance. A hero may have made the mistake knowingly (in Medea) or unknowingly (Oedipus).
  • Discovery must occur within the plot and the poet should incorporate complication and dénouement or resolution within the story.  The poet must express thought through the characters’ words and actions, while paying close attention to diction and how a character’s spoken words express a specific idea.

 

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  •  Catharsis, or tragic pleasure, is the experience of fear and pity produced in the spectator. According to Aristotle, tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to release the audience and purge away their excess.  Aristotle also talks about “pleasure” one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that are aroused through the play.
  • Aristotle defined levels of narration and audience knowledge of what is happening in the plot. His tripartite division of characters, means some are  in a superior position (βελτίονας) to the audience, and know more than the audience. Most narrators know the full story and so are superior to the audience. Other characters are in an inferior position to the audience (χείρονας) for example a character could be lost yet we audience members know that around the corner lies the murderer waiting for them. Finally, some characters are at the same level (τοιούτους) as the audience, and as they discover truths, so does the audience.

Interestingly, Aristotle points out that the origins of tragedy stem from the dithyramb or Dionysic rites and the origins of comedy, stem from phallic processions. These pagan rituals continued throughout the classic period until they were discontinued under Christian Emperors such as Constantine. Unfortunately, drama and theatre itself along with the works of classical authors such as Aristotle were consequently lost throughout the dark or medieval ages.

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However, Aristotle’s theory of Poetics, underpins the logic and structure of all epic narratives, including the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures.

To Aristotle, tragedy is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place. Within the order, the characters act knowingly and unknowingly act, facing crises often by their own mistake [harmartia].  Interestingly harmartia is the same Greek word used by biblical writers for sin . Artistotle’s tragic characters experience catharsis, or the purging of emotions, through the denouement or resolution of their wound [harmatia]. This occurs through satisfying of the logic of the universe within which it is set. This satisfaction creates pleasure within the audience through the purging of emotions.

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