hamartia – ἁμαρτία

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The term hamartia derives from the Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartánein, which means “to miss the mark” or “to err”. It is most often associated with Greek tragedy, although it is also used in Christian theology. The term is often said to depict the flaws or defects of a character and portraying these as the reason of a potential downfall. However, other critics point to the term’s derivation and say that it refers only to a tragic but random accident or mistake, with devastating consequences but with no judgment implied as to the character.

Definition

Hamartia as it pertains to dramatic literature was first used by Aristotle in his Poetics. In tragedy, hamartia is commonly understood to refer to the protagonist’s error or tragic flaw that leads to a chain of actions which culminate in a reversal of events from felicity to disaster.

What qualifies as the error or flaw varies, and can include an error resulting from ignorance, an error of judgment, an inherent flaw in the character, or a wrongdoing. The spectrum of meanings has invited debate among critics and scholars and different interpretations among dramatists.

In a tragedy, a protagonist’s flaw in their personality is called hamartia, which leads to a heroic decline toward a tragic end. The term covers deeds that are unworthy of a hero. A classic instance of hamartia is where a hero wishes to attain a worthy goal but yields to a moral error while working toward it, bringing about catastrophic results. Such downward movement for a heroic character is considered a reversal of fortune, or peripeteia.

In Aristotle’s Poetics

Hamartia is first described in the subject of literary criticism by Aristotle in his Poetics. The source of hamartia is at the juncture between character and the character’s actions or behaviors as described by Aristotle.

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

In his introduction to the S. H. Butcher translation of Poetics, Francis Fergusson describes hamartia as the inner quality that initiates, as in Dante’s words, a “movement of spirit” within the protagonist to commit actions which drive the plot towards its tragic end, inspiring in the audience a build of pity and fear that leads to a purgation of those emotions, or catharsis.

Jules Brody, however, argues that “it is the height of irony that the idea of the tragic flaw should have had its origin in the Aristotelian notion of hamartia. Whatever this problematic word may be taken to mean, it has nothing to do with such ideas as fault, vice, guilt, moral deficiency, or the like. Hamartia is a morally neutral non-normative term, derived from the verb hamartano, meaning ‘to miss the mark’, ‘to fall short of an objective’. And by extension: to reach one destination rather than the intended one; to make a mistake, not in the sense of a moral failure, but in the non-judgmental sense of taking one thing for another, taking something for its opposite. Hamartia may betoken an error of discernment due to ignorance, to the lack of an essential piece of information. Finally, hamartia may be viewed simply as an act which, for whatever reason, ends in failure rather than success.”

In a Greek tragedy, for a story to be “of adequate magnitude” it involves characters of high rank, prestige, or good fortune. If the protagonist is too worthy of esteem, or too wicked, his/her change of fortune will not evoke the ideal proportion of pity and fear necessary for catharsis. Here Aristotle describes hamartia as the quality of a tragic hero that generates that optimal balance.

    …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.

In Christian theology

Hamartia is also used in Christian theology because of its use in the Septuagint and New Testament. The Hebrew (chatá) and its Greek equivalent (àµaρtίa/hamartia) both mean “missing the mark” or “off the mark”.

There are four basic usages for hamartia:

  1. Hamartia is sometimes used to mean acts of sin “by omission or commission in thought and feeling or in speech and actions” as in Romans 5:12, “all have sinned”.
  2. Hamartia is sometimes applied to the fall of man from original righteousness that resulted in humanity’s innate propensity for sin, that is original sin. For example, as in Romans 3:9, everyone is “under the power of sin”.
  3. A third application concerns the “weakness of the flesh” and the free will to resist sinful acts. “The original inclination to sin in mankind comes from the weakness of the flesh.”
  4. Hamartia is sometimes “personified”. For example, Romans 6:20 speaks of being enslaved to hamartia (sin).