Archives For Meanings

achilles

If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

dictionary 1Most “word people” like dictionaries. Some writers go so far as to love dictionaries, but I don’t wish to quibble about where one rests on the affection spectrum in terms of these repositories of words.

This guy, though, has to be pegged on the extreme (idolatry) end of the meter. Ammon Shea wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages after having done just that. The Oxford English Dictionary, you may know, comprises 25 volumes, and Shea warns that reading it at such a rapid pace took a toll on his eyesight. It’s not surprising, that he admits he is not your typical reader.

One could say that I collect word books, since by last count I have about a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries. . . . I do not collect these words because I want to impress friends and colleagues with my erudition. . . .

My friends know that I read dictionaries for fun, and have come to accept this proclivity with relative good grace, but they are not terribly interested in or impressed by my word collection.

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier advised his fellow poets to read the dictionary. No better way to enrich one’s language, he claimed, although he also read cook books, almanacs and the like. In fact, his biographer offered this fascinating observation.

He found pleasure in the most indifferent novels, as he did in books of the highest philosophical conceptions, and in works of pure science. He was devoured with the desire to learn, and said: “No conception is so poor, no twaddle so detestable that it cannot teach us something by which we may profit.”

C.S. Lewis indicated that so-called “definitions” offered outside the ordinances of the dictionary must be approached warily. “When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust” (Studies in Words). He offers a very sensible reason for such precautions.

It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote. The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism.

Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so (Studies in Words).

Dictionaries are, of course, their own genre. Lectionaries, collections of words and meanings, are different than any other type of written composition. For example, glossaries may draw together specialized vocabulary—say for medical or theological purposes—but by their very nature they are not intended to blaze any new literary pathways.

There is, invariably, an exception to this rule. Some “dictionaries” are creative exercises. They are works of fiction, and some are entertaining indeed.

The most famous of these satirical works is Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book). The volume is not expressly irreverent, although people of faith will encounter some offensive examples in its pages. However, a number of the entries are brilliant.

Kilt

  1. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

Rank

  1. Relative elevation in the scale of human worth.

He held at court a rank so high

That other noblemen asked why.

“Because,” ’twas answered, “others lack

His skill to scratch the royal back.”

Emancipation

  1. A bondman’s change from the tyranny of another to the despotism of himself.

He was a slave: at word he went and came;

     His iron collar cut him to the bone.

Then Liberty erased his owner’s name,

     Tightened the rivets and inscribed his own.

Goose

  1. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird’s intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an “author,” there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl’s thought and feeling. The difference in geese, as discovered by this ingenious method, is considerable: many are found to have only trivial and insignificant powers, but some are seen to be very great geese indeed.

Another Frenchman, Gustave Flaubert, composed his Dictionary of Received Ideas, which found humor in peculiarities of common understandings.

Absinthe

Extra-violent poison: one glass and you’re dead. Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouin.

Archimedes

On hearing his name, shout “Eureka!” Or else: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.” There is also Archimedes’ screw, but you are not expected to know what it is.

Omega

Second letter of the Greek alphabet. [Note: this would only apply to biblically literate societies.]

The earliest such example of a satirical dictionary was that by the Persian writer Nezam od-Din Ubeydollah Zâkâni. I have not located a copy of his 14th century lexicon, but it apparently includes entries that are still understandable in our modern world.

Thought

What uselessly makes people ill.

Orator

A donkey.

Word lovers can easily get caught up in conversations like this. In fact, I’m certain more than one Mere Inkling reader has contemplated compiling their own creative dictionary! It’s not an insurmountable project, since it’s accomplished one word at a time.

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For those desiring to create their own dictionary “entries” such as the one that graces the top of this blog, there a free meme generator you can use online. Available here, it’s a fun little tool. It’s also suitable for creating a little self-deprecating humor.

dictionary 2

Posing Like a Corpse

December 17, 2013 — 8 Comments

savasanaThere are some things you should never tell an elderly person to do. And, I recently came across a faux pas that certainly belongs in that number.

It may just be me, but I think one should never, ever tell a senior citizen to pose like a corpse.

Nevertheless, in a recent article in a periodical expressly written for “mature” Americans,* readers were advised to assume the “corpse pose.” My discomfort with that directive was not allayed by the description that followed.

Lie flat on your back, pillow under your head, eyes closed. Allow your feet to play to the sides. Rest your arms alongside your body, palms facing up. Then relax, surrender to the floor, and breathe deeply.

Up until being told to “breathe,” one might rightly be confused with precisely how we are emulating a corpse.

While I make no claim to understand what it means to “surrender to the floor,” I can understand how body posture has become a valued part of yoga. After all, even without the counsel of a yogi, I learned at an early age the sheer joy and peace of lying on my back with eyes closed.

I don’t wish to impugn the benefits of yoga; I wish that I were able to master my physical body half as well as many of them do. However, I would like to suggest to the yoga community that they re-label their corpse pose.

Admittedly, advocates for maintaining this verbiage can state it is clearly not intended to refer to a literal cadaver. In arguing this they are simply being human. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “Studies in Words”—“Like all philosophers, Aristotle gives words the definitions which will be most useful for his own purpose.” This approach is not, of course, the domain of philosophers alone.

The fact is that there are perfectly good words that could be substituted which do not reference a lifeless body. “Reclined,” “Reposed,” or even “Resting” or “Sleeping” come readily to mind.

Of course, I may be missing something here. Perhaps the allusion to a corpse is intentional? Perhaps the image of dissipation of energy and effort is expressly intended to be similar to a comatose state? Perhaps that is what becoming one with the floor is hinting at? Flesh to floor . . . ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

In this case, it might be clearer if we were provided with a definition of what the title of the pose actually means. I suppose that practitioners may learn this as part of their lessons, but to those on the “outside,” the label seems slightly off-putting.

As Lewis wrote in the aforementioned essay:

The fact that [writers] define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism. Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so.

Thus, if “corpse” here doesn’t mean what we normally understand it to, we might benefit from a brief definition or explanation of the users’ intent.

This matter—the proper use of the precise word that will be clearly understood—is a concern for all communicators. Writers need to remain vigilant that their own vocabulary or metaphors do not confuse.

One last caveat for those who practice yoga. If you seek to master the corpse pose, be cautious in just how well you perfect it. Please stop short of emulating death so well that your resting body is discovered and a crime scene established.

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savasana 2* AARP the Magazine is published by the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired People. Apparently, the sound “AARP” is considered more dignified than the original title. It remains a requirement, however, that members have survived at least a half century before applying for membership.