Archives For Plato


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.

csl & chesterton

Sadly, politics are by definition nearly always polarizing. In the linguistic battleground of political warfare, we seem to more and more frequently encounter a “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s ominous.

I recently read the following words which describe, quite well I think, the positions of the two main rivals in virtually all political campaigns. (And, in this sentence, I’m referring to the military definition of “campaign.”)

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Some things never change. This cutting critique appeared nearly a century ago (in the 19 April 1924 issue of the Illustrated London News). It was penned by G.K. Chesterton, a British writer who was admired by many of his contemporaries, from a number of different perspectives. George Bernard Shaw, a Socialist, considered the conservative journalist a “man of colossal genius.”

Chesterton was one of the Christian writers whose faith made a significant impression on the unbelieving C.S. Lewis. Before encountering Jesus, the atheist Lewis resented the “intrusions” of Christian references into the writings of authors he otherwise enjoyed. He describes this conundrum delightfully in Surprised by Joy.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.

Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. . . .

The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson—Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.

And C.S. Lewis, to his eternal joy, did just that. He inquired more deeply into the faith held by the writers he so respected. This included, of course, Chesterton. Echoes of Chesterton’s masterful expressions of Christian faith recur in the work of Lewis. For example, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis writes:

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. . . . Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” . . . We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct.

Similarly, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis describes how best to savor the historical work of writers from different eras. Although the reference to Chesterton here is given in passing, I will reproduce the larger passage in light of its insight into how best to benefit from what we read.

The things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.

I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. . . .

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.

There is in G.K. Chesterton’s Avowals and Denials a wholly admirable essay called “On Man: Heir of All the Ages.” An heir is one who inherits and “any man who is cut off from the past . . . is a man most unjustly disinherited.” . . .

You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism.

G.K. Chesterton is well worth reading, and most fans of Lewis will appreciate his prodigious work. The best thing about Chesterton, is that since he entered the presence of his Lord in 1936, nearly everything he wrote is in the public domain. His essays, poetry, apologetic works—and even the tales of his fictional detective Father Brown—are readily accessible online.

For a friendly introduction to the relationship between Lewis and Chesterton, I recommend “Chesterton and Lewis, Side by Side.” In an issue devoted entirely to comparing the two pillars of Twentieth Century Christian apologetics, the St. Austin Review, we read:

In 1946, ten years after Chesterton died, Lewis wrote a short article defending Chesterton against the two charges with which he is still attacked—or dismissed—by most academicians: one, that he was popular, and two, that he was dated. Of course, Lewis is attacked for the same two reasons.

The entire article is available here. Those interested in one of the areas where Chesterton’s writing overlapped with that of Lewis and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, will also enjoy “G.K. Chesterton: Fairy Tale Philosopher,” which is available here.