A Comic’s Lament: Tragedy is So Easy

From Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 6.222c-e

“Since, friend Timocrates, you are always asking about the things said among the learned dinnermates, because you think that I am making up crazy things, let me remind you of what Antiphanes says in his play Poetry, in this way:

Tragedy is the luckiest art form
of all. First, the stories
Are already known by the audience
Before anyone even speaks—the poet only needs
To remind: “Oedipus I say…”
And they know the rest: father Laios,
mother Iocasta, some daughters, some sons,
what he will suffer, and what he has. And, again,
If someone says “Alkmaeon”, he’s just as good
as mentioned all his kids and that
he went crazy and killed his mother, and that
Adrastus will get angry and return.
Then when they can’t say anything else
And they have fallen down in exhaustion
they raise up their crane like little finger
and they have a happy audience!
But it isn’t like that for us, we a have to make up
everything, new names and….
then the events that happened
previously, currently, and at the end,
As well as an introduction!
If some Chremes or Pheidon
Misses even one of these things
They boo and hiss him off the stage.
But you can get away with this with Peleus and Teucer.”

᾿Επειδὴ ἀπαιτεῖς συνεχῶς ἀπαντῶν, ἑταῖρε Τιμόκρατες, τὰ παρὰ τοῖς δειπνοσοφισταῖς λεγόμενα, καινά τινα νομίζων ἡμᾶς εὑρίσκειν, ὑπομνήσομέν σε τὰ παρὰ ᾿Αντιφάνει λεγόμενα ἐν Ποιήσει (II 90 K) τόνδε τὸν τρόπον·

μακάριόν ἐστιν ἡ τραγῳδία
ποίημα κατὰ πάντ’, εἴ γε πρῶτον οἱ λόγοι
ὑπὸ τῶν θεατῶν εἰσιν ἐγνωρισμένοι,
πρὶν καί τιν’ εἰπεῖν· ὥσθ’ ὑπομνῆσαι μόνον
δεῖ τὸν ποιητήν. Οἰδίπουν γὰρ φῶ ……
τὰ δ’ ἄλλα πάντ’ ἴσασιν· ὁ πατὴρ Λάιος,
μήτηρ ᾿Ιοκάστη, θυγατέρες, παῖδες τίνες,
τί πείσεθ’ οὗτος, τί πεποίηκεν. ἂν πάλιν
εἴπῃ τις ᾿Αλκμέωνα, καὶ τὰ παιδία
πάντ’ εὐθὺς εἴρηχ’, ὅτι μανεὶς ἀπέκτονε
τὴν μητέρ’, ἀγανακτῶν δ’ ῎Αδραστος εὐθέως
ἥξει πάλιν τ’ ἄπεισι …………..
ἔπειθ’ ὅταν μηθὲν δύνωντ’ εἰπεῖν ἔτι,
κομιδῇ δ’ ἀπειρήκωσιν ἐν τοῖς δράμασιν,
αἴρουσιν ὥσπερ δάκτυλον τὴν μηχανήν,
καὶ τοῖς θεωμένοισιν ἀποχρώντως ἔχει.
ἡμῖν δὲ ταῦτ’ οὐκ ἔστιν, ἀλλὰ πάντα δεῖ
εὑρεῖν, ὀνόματα καινά, …………
………… κἄπειτα τὰ διῳκημένα
πρότερον, τὰ νῦν παρόντα, τὴν καταστροφήν,
τὴν εἰσβολήν. ἂν ἕν τι τούτων παραλίπῃ
Χρέμης τις ἢ Φείδων τις, ἐκσυρίττεται·
Πηλεῖ δὲ ταῦτ’ ἔξεστι καὶ Τεύκρῳ ποιεῖν.

On Poets and Fishmongers

Xenarchus’ Porphyra fr. 7 (preserved in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, 6. 224-225)

“Poets are ridiculous. They never invent
anything new—each one of them simply
remixes the same things again and again.
But there is no race more creative or profane
than the fishsellers!
Since it is no longer permitted to them to dampen
Their fish, a practice forbidden by the law,
When some man completely hateful to the gods
Saw that his fish were drying, well,
He started a brawl among them quite intentionally
There were punches; he acted as if he were hit hard,
Fell to the ground pretending to pass out lying
Among his fish. Someone shouted “water, water”!
And a different guy grabbed a pitcher and poured it out—
A little on the man, but the rest on the fish!
You would have claimed they’d just been caught!”

Fish Vase
Google “Ancient Greek Fish Vase”

οἱ μὲν ποιηταὶ (φησὶ) λῆρός εἰσιν· οὐδὲ ἓν
καινὸν γὰρ εὑρίσκουσιν, ἀλλὰ μεταφέρει
ἕκαστος αὐτῶν ταὔτ’ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω.
τῶν δ’ ἰχθυοπωλῶν φιλοσοφώτερον γένος
οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδὲν οὐδὲ μᾶλλον ἀνόσιον.
ἐπεὶ γὰρ αὐτοῖς οὐκέτ’ ἔστ’ ἐξουσία
ῥαίνειν, ἀπείρηται δὲ τοῦτο τῷ νόμῳ,
εἷς τις θεοῖσιν ἐχθρὸς ἄνθρωπος πάνυ
ξηραινομένους ὡς εἶδε τοὺς ἰχθῦς, μάχην
ἐποίησ’ ἐν αὐτοῖς ἐξεπίτηδες εὖ πάνυ.
ἦσαν δὲ πληγαί, καιρίαν δ’ εἰληφέναι
δόξας καταπίπτει καὶ λιποψυχεῖν δοκῶν
ἔκειτο μετὰ τῶν ἰχθύων. βοᾷ δέ τις
‘ὕδωρ <ὕδωρ.>’ ὃ δ’ εὐθὺς ἐξάρας πρόχουν
τῶν ὁμοτέχνων τις τοῦ μὲν ἀκαρῆ παντελῶς
κατέχει, κατὰ δὲ τῶν ἰχθύων ἁπαξάπαν.
εἴποις γ’ ἂν αὐτοὺς ἀρτίως ἡλωκέναι.

No, Virginia…There is No Tragic Flaw

Aristotle, Poetics 1452e34-1453a9

“Since it is right that the structure of the best tragedy not be simple but be complex instead and evoking both fearful and pitiful emotions—for that is the particular power of this kind of artistic representation—as an initial principle, it is clear that decent men should not be  be shown undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is repugnant rather than pitiful or fearful. And it is also not right for depraved people to enjoy a change from bad fortune to good fortune, because that is the least tragic notion of all and has none of the necessary qualities. Such a plot does not create empathy and fails to produce pity or fear.

[Tragedy] should also not show an especially bad person falling from good fortune to bad—for this might engender empathy but without pity or fear since the first is felt for someone who is unworthy of bad fortune and the second is for someone who is similar [to us] (pity is for someone unworthy of suffering; fear is for someone like us suffering). The response to [a wicked person] falling is not pitiful or fearful. What remains [for tragedy] is the person in between. A person like this is not impeccable in terms of justice nor for his wickedness and evil, but he falls into misfortune because of some kind of mistake. This kind of person is from those well-known families, like Oedipus or Thyestes.”

γον, ἐφεξῆς ἂν εἴη λεκτέον τοῖς νῦν εἰρημένοις. ἐπειδὴ οὖν δεῖ τὴν σύνθεσιν εἶναι τῆς καλλίστης τραγῳδίας μὴ ἁπλῆν ἀλλὰ πεπλεγμένην καὶ ταύτην φοβερῶν καὶ ἐλεεινῶν εἶναι μιμητικήν (τοῦτο γὰρ ἴδιον τῆς τοιαύτης μιμήσεώς ἐστιν), πρῶτον μὲν δῆλον ὅτι οὔτε τοὺς ἐπιεικεῖς ἄνδρας δεῖ μεταβάλλοντας φαίνεσθαι ἐξ εὐτυχίας εἰς δυστυχίαν, οὐ γὰρ φοβερὸν οὐδὲ ἐλεεινὸν τοῦτο ἀλλὰ μιαρόν ἐστιν· οὔτε τοὺς μοχθηροὺς ἐξ ἀτυχίας εἰς εὐτυχίαν, ἀτραγῳδότατον γὰρ τοῦτ’ ἐστὶ πάντων, οὐδὲν γὰρ ἔχει ὧν δεῖ, οὔτε γὰρ φιλάνθρωπον οὔτε ἐλεεινὸν οὔτε φοβερόν ἐστιν· οὐδ’ αὖ τὸν σφόδρα πονηρὸν συμβαῖνον. ὁ μεταξὺ ἄρα τούτων λοιπός. ἔστι δὲ τοιοῦτος ὁ μήτε ἀρετῇ διαφέρων καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ μήτε διὰ κακίαν καὶ μοχθηρίαν μεταβάλλων εἰς τὴν δυστυχίαν ἀλλὰ δι’ ἁμαρτίαν τινά, τῶν ἐν μεγάλῃ δόξῃ ὄντων καὶ εὐτυχίᾳ, οἷον Οἰδίπους καὶ Θυέστης καὶ οἱ ἐκ τῶν τοιούτων γενῶν ἐπιφανεῖς ἄνδρες.

This passage (and a few others) have been misread since the rise of Christianity to mean that the tragic protagonist “suffers a fall because of a tragic flaw”. This is essentially bogus for lexicographical and contextual reasons. In early Greek, hamartia means to make a mistake: it comes from an archery metaphor and is related to the verb hamartanô, which means “to miss the mark”. This is a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.

from Beekes 2010

hamartano

The Christian use of hamartia is “sin”, which, as we all know from our Sunday School, is innate and a sign of our essential badness. Wanting to have sex with people is a sin; driving badly and hitting someone from inattention is an accident. In my understanding of tragedy, hamartia means the latter. Yes, one might be distractable and an essentially bad driver and we may see this as in some way a flaw, but this is a cultural perspective that mixes determinism and responsibility in a strange way.

Contextually, Aristotle makes the specific point that the tragic hero should not be essentially wicked. If one is essentially wicked, the audience cannot make the key identification necessary to feel pity or fear. Now, one could argue that in a Christian context where everyone is flawed because of sin, the doctrine might still be said to apply. But this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.

[The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this]

C6668-05a
MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 68v

Great Authors Err Too!

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.24-26

“Let the reader not be persuaded as a matter of course that everything the best authors said is perfect. For they slip at times, they give in to their burdens, and they delight in the pleasure of their own abilities. They do not always pay attention; and they often grow tired. Demosthenes seems to doze to Cicero; Homer naps for Horace. Truly, they are great, but they are still mortals and it happens that those who believe that whatever appears in these authors should be laws for speaking often imitate their lesser parts, since this is easier—and they believe they are enough like them if they emulate the faults of great authors.

Still, one must pass judgment on these men with modesty and care to avoid what often happens when people condemn what they do not understand. If it is necessary to err in either part, I would prefer readers to enjoy everything in these authors rather than dismiss much.”

Neque id statim legenti persuasum sit, omnia quae summi auctores dixerint utique esse perfecta. Nam et labuntur aliquando et oneri cedunt et indulgent ingeniorum suorum voluptati, nec semper intendunt animum, nonnumquam fatigantur, cum Ciceroni dormitare interim Demosthenes, Horatio vero etiam Homerus ipse videatur.  Summi enim sunt, homines tamen, acciditque iis qui quidquid apud illos reppererunt dicendi legem putant ut deteriora imitentur (id enim est facilius), ac se abunde similes putent si vitia magnorum consequantur. Modesto tamen et circumspecto iudicio de tantis viris pronuntiandum est, ne, quod plerisque accidit, damnent quae non intellegunt. Ac si necesse est in alteram errare partem, omnia eorum legentibus placere quam multa displicere maluerim.

Image result for Ancient Roman Literature

Reversal and Recognition: Oedipus is Just the Best!

Aristotle, Poetics 1452a (Full text in the Scaife Viewer)

“Reversal [peripeteia] is change to the opposite of what happened before as has been said and this is also, as we argue, according to either probability or necessity. This is what happens in Oedipus when the person who comes to relieve Oedipus and rid him of his fear about his mother  is actually the one who does the opposite by revealing who he really is. This also happens in the Lynceus where while one person is dragged away to die and Danaus is following in order to kill him, it turns out that Danaus dies and the other is preserved.

Recognition [anagnôrisis] is a change from ignorance to knowledge, just as the name implies, in the direction of friendship or enmity when the matters are also pertaining to success or failure. The best recognition of all is the one which occurs at the same time as a reversal, as in Oedipus.”

Ἔστι δὲ περιπέτεια μὲν ἡ εἰς τὸ ἐναντίον τῶν πραττομένων μεταβολὴ καθάπερ εἴρηται, καὶ τοῦτο δὲ ὥσπερ λέγομεν κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς ἢ ἀναγκαῖον, οἷον ἐν τῷ Οἰδίποδι ἐλθὼν ὡς εὐφρανῶν τὸν Οἰδίπουν καὶ ἀπαλλάξων τοῦ πρὸς τὴν μητέρα φόβου, δηλώσας ὃς ἦν, τοὐναντίον ἐποίησεν· καὶ ἐν τῷ Λυγκεῖ ὁ μὲν ἀγόμενος ὡς ἀποθανούμενος, ὁ δὲ Δαναὸς ἀκολουθῶν ὡς ἀποκτενῶν, τὸν μὲν συνέβη ἐκ τῶν πεπραγμένων ἀποθανεῖν, τὸν δὲ σωθῆναι. ἀναγνώρισις δέ, ὥσπερ καὶ τοὔνομα σημαίνει, ἐξ ἀγνοίας εἰς γνῶσιν μεταβολή, ἢ εἰς φιλίαν ἢ ἔχθραν, τῶν πρὸς εὐτυχίαν ἢ δυστυχίαν ὡρισμένων· καλλίστη δὲ ἀναγνώρισις, ὅταν ἅμα περιπετείᾳ γένηται, οἷον ἔχει ἡ ἐν τῷ Οἰδίποδι

1455a

“The best kind of recognition of all comes from the plot events themselves when the surprise comes out of probable events. This is the case in Sophokles’ Oedipus or in Iphigenia. For only these kinds of recognitions can happen without manufactured signs and necklaces. The second best kinds are from logical reasoning.”

πασῶν δὲ βελτίστη ἀναγνώρισις ἡ ἐξ αὐτῶν τῶν πραγμάτων, τῆς ἐκπλήξεως γιγνομένης δι᾿ εἰκότων, οἷον ἐν τῷ Σοφοκλέους Οἰδίποδι καὶ τῇ Ἰφιγενείᾳ· εἰκὸς γὰρ βούλεσθαι ἐπιθεῖναι γράμματα. αἱ γὰρ τοιαῦται μόναι ἄνευ τῶν πεποιημένων σημείων καὶ περιδεραίων. δεύτεραι δὲ αἱ ἐκ συλλογισμοῦ.

1462b

“[Tragedy] is vivid in both reading and the performance of the plays. And the outcome of its practice of imitation comes in shorter time: a greater density of experience is more pleasurable than if it is paced out over time. Imagine if someone wrote Sophokles’ Oedipus in the same number of epic verses as the Iliad?”

εἶτα καὶ τὸ ἐναργὲς ἔχει καὶ ἐν τῇ ἀναγνώσει καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἔργων· ἔτι τῷ ἐν ἐλάττονι μήκει τὸ τέλος τῆς μιμήσεως εἶναι (τὸ γὰρ ἀθροώτερον ἥδιον ἢ πολλῷ κεκραμένον τῷ χρόνῳ, λέγω δ᾿ οἷον εἴ τις τὸν Οἰδίπουν θείη τὸν Σοφοκλέους ἐν ἔπεσιν ὅσοις ἡ Ἰλιάς)·

 

Joseph Blanc, Le meurtre de Laïus par Oedipe, 1867, Paris

Image may contain: text

Impossible Plausible Events are Better than Implausible Possible Ones

Aristotle, Poetics 1460a26

“Narratives ought to prefer likely events, even if impossible, to improbable possible ones. Stories should not be made from illogical parts: in the best case, they should contain nothing illogical, unless it comes from outside the plot itself as when Oedipus is not aware how Laios died, instead of in the play itself, as when they report the events at Delphi in the Elektra or when the silent man comes from Tegea to Mysia in the Mysians. To say that otherwise the plot would be wrecked is ridiculous—it isn’t right to set up these sorts of events from the beginning.

If a poet does this, and there is a more logical option available, it is strange. Even those illogical events in the Odyssey when Odysseus is put ashore [asleep by the Phaeacians] would have been manifestly intolerable if a lesser poet had created it. In the poem now, Homer softens and erases the strangeness with his other good traits.”

προαιρεῖσθαί τε δεῖ ἀδύνατα εἰκότα μᾶλλον ἢ δυνατὰ ἀπίθανα· τούς τε λόγους μὴ συνίστασθαι ἐκ μερῶν ἀλόγων, ἀλλὰ μάλιστα μὲν μηδὲν ἔχειν ἄλογον, εἰ δὲ μή, ἔξω τοῦ μυθεύματος, ὥσπερ Οἰδίπους τὸ μὴ εἰδέναι πῶς ὁ Λάιος ἀπέθανεν, ἀλλὰ μὴ ἐν τῷ δράματι, ὥσπερ ἐν ᾿Ηλέκτρᾳ οἱ τὰ Πύθια ἀπαγγέλλοντες ἢ ἐν Μυσοῖς ὁ ἄφωνος ἐκ Τεγέας εἰς τὴν Μυσίαν ἥκων. ὥστε τὸ λέγειν ὅτι ἀνῄρητο ἂν ὁ μῦθος γελοῖον· ἐξ ἀρχῆς γὰρ οὐ δεῖ συνίστασθαι τοιούτους. †ἂν δὲ θῇ καὶ φαίνηται εὐλογωτέρως ἐνδέχεσθαι καὶ ἄτοπον† ἐπεὶ καὶ τὰ ἐν ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ ἄλογα τὰ περὶ τὴν ἔκθεσιν ὡς οὐκ ἂν ἦν ἀνεκτὰ δῆλον  ἂν γένοιτο, εἰ αὐτὰ φαῦλος ποιητὴς ποιήσειε· νῦν δὲ τοῖς ἄλλοις ἀγαθοῖς ὁ ποιητὴς ἀφανίζει ἡδύνων τὸ ἄτοπον.

On the left-hand side, demons torture the souls of the dead in Hell. On the right-hand side, the Egyptian Pharaoh and his soldiers drown in the Red Sea.
 Harley MS 2838, f. 44r (from this site)

Great Authors Err Too

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.24-26

“Let the reader not be persuaded as a matter of course that everything the best authors said is perfect. For they slip at times, they give in to their burdens, and they delight in the pleasure of their own abilities. They do not always pay attention; and they often grow tired. Demosthenes seems to doze to Cicero; Homer naps for Horace. Truly, they are great, but they are still mortals and it happens that those who believe that whatever appears in these authors should be laws for speaking often imitate their lesser parts, since this is easier—and they believe they are enough like them if they emulate the faults of great authors.

Still, one must pass judgment on these men with modesty and care to avoid what often happens when people condemn what they do not understand. If it is necessary to err in either part, I would prefer readers to enjoy everything in these authors rather than dismiss much.”

Neque id statim legenti persuasum sit, omnia quae summi auctores dixerint utique esse perfecta. Nam et labuntur aliquando et oneri cedunt et indulgent ingeniorum suorum voluptati, nec semper intendunt animum, nonnumquam fatigantur, cum Ciceroni dormitare interim Demosthenes, Horatio vero etiam Homerus ipse videatur.  Summi enim sunt, homines tamen, acciditque iis qui quidquid apud illos reppererunt dicendi legem putant ut deteriora imitentur (id enim est facilius), ac se abunde similes putent si vitia magnorum consequantur. Modesto tamen et circumspecto iudicio de tantis viris pronuntiandum est, ne, quod plerisque accidit, damnent quae non intellegunt. Ac si necesse est in alteram errare partem, omnia eorum legentibus placere quam multa displicere maluerim.

Image result for Ancient Roman Literature

Great Authors Err Too

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.24-26

“Let the reader not be persuaded as a matter of course that everything the best authors said is perfect. For they slip at times, they give in to their burdens, and they delight in the pleasure of their own abilities. They do not always pay attention; and they often grow tired. Demosthenes seems to doze to Cicero; Homer naps for Horace. Truly, they are great, but they are still mortals and it happens that those who believe that whatever appears in these authors should be laws for speaking often imitate their lesser parts, since this is easier—and they believe they are enough like them if they emulate the faults of great authors.

Still, one must pass judgment on these men with modesty and care to avoid what often happens when people condemn what they do not understand. If it is necessary to err in either part, I would prefer readers to enjoy everything in these authors rather than dismiss much.”

Neque id statim legenti persuasum sit, omnia quae summi auctores dixerint utique esse perfecta. Nam et labuntur aliquando et oneri cedunt et indulgent ingeniorum suorum voluptati, nec semper intendunt animum, nonnumquam fatigantur, cum Ciceroni dormitare interim Demosthenes, Horatio vero etiam Homerus ipse videatur.  Summi enim sunt, homines tamen, acciditque iis qui quidquid apud illos reppererunt dicendi legem putant ut deteriora imitentur (id enim est facilius), ac se abunde similes putent si vitia magnorum consequantur. Modesto tamen et circumspecto iudicio de tantis viris pronuntiandum est, ne, quod plerisque accidit, damnent quae non intellegunt. Ac si necesse est in alteram errare partem, omnia eorum legentibus placere quam multa displicere maluerim.

Image result for Ancient Roman Literature

Domitian, Ovid, Lucan and Friends: Quintilian With Some World-Class Shade

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1

“Atacinus Varro acquired his name as a translator of other’s work—he certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, but in truth he has little to commend for improving an ability in speaking. Ennius, we should adore as we would groves sacred with age whose ancient trees have less beauty than they have religious awe. Others are closer to this time and are more useful for our subject. Ovid is certainly indulgent in his epic verse and too in love with his own genius, but still should be praised for some things. Cornelius Severus, moreover, even if he was a better metrician than a poet, still would have claimed second place for himself if he had finished his Sicilian War to the standard of his first book.

An early death kept Serranus from reaching his potential, yet his youthful works demonstrate special ability and a desire for correct form that is especially admirable in one so young. We recently lost a lot in Valerius Flaccus. Saleius  Bassus had a forceful poetic ability—it did not improve with age. Rabirius and Pedo are worth a read, if you have extra time. Lucan is forceful, intense, and famous for his quotability, but, if I may say what I really think, a model more for orators than poets.

I am listing these authors because care for the lands of the earth has distracted Germanicus Augustus [Domitian] from the pursuits he began—it seemed insufficient to the gods that he be the greatest of poets. But, still, what could appear more sublime, more learned, and more outstanding by every account than the works of this young man who put the empire aside? Who could sing of wars better than the one who wages them in this way? Whom would the deities of these arts heed more closely? To whom would Minerva more easily unveil her own arts? Future generations will explain these things more fully, for now this praise is constrained by the glare of his other virtues.”

Atacinus Varro in iis per quae nomen est adsecutus interpres operis alieni, non spernendus quidem, verum ad augendam facultatem dicendi parum locuples. Ennium sicut sacros vetustate lucos adoremus, in quibus grandia et antiqua robora iam non tantam habent speciem quantam religionem. Propiores alii atque ad hoc de quo loquimur magis utiles. Lascivus quidem in herois quoque Ovidius et nimium amator ingenii sui, laudandus tamen partibus. Cornelius autem Severus, etiam si sit versificator quam poeta melior, si tamen (ut est dictum) ad exemplar primi libri bellum Siculum perscripsisset, vindicaret sibi iure secundum locum. Serranum consummari mors inmatura non passa est, puerilia tamen eius opera et maximam indolem ostendunt et admirabilem praecipue in aetate illa recti generis voluntatem. Multum in Valerio Flacco nuper amisimus. Vehemens et poeticum ingenium Salei Bassi fuit, nec ipsum senectute maturuit. Rabirius ac Pedo non indigni cognitione, si vacet. Lucanus ardens et concitatus et sententiis clarissimus et, ut dicam quod sentio, magis oratoribus quam poetis imitandus. Hos nominamus quia Germanicum Augustum ab institutis studiis deflexit cura terrarum, parumque dis visum est esse eum maximum poetarum. Quid tamen his ipsis eius operibus in quae donato imperio iuvenis secesserat sublimius, doctius, omnibus denique numeris praestantius? Quis enim caneret bella melius quam qui sic gerit? Quem praesidentes studiis deae propius audirent? Cui magis suas artis aperiret familiare numen Minerva?  Dicent haec plenius futura saecula, nunc enim ceterarum fulgore virtutum laus ista praestringitur. Nos tamen sacra litterarum colentis feres, Caesar, si non tacitum hoc praeterimus et Vergiliano certe versu testamur

 

Image result for Ancient Roman Domitian

No, Virginia…There is No Tragic Flaw

Aristotle, Poetics 1452e34-1453a9

“Since it is right that the structure of the best tragedy not be simple but be complex instead and evoking both fearful and pitiful emotions—for that is the particular power of this kind of artistic representation—as an initial principle, it is clear that decent men should not be  be shown undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is repugnant rather than pitiful or fearful. And it is also not right for depraved people to enjoy a change from bad fortune to good fortune, because that is the least tragic notion of all and has none of the necessary qualities. Such a plot does not create empathy and fails to produce pity or fear.

[Tragedy] should also not show an especially bad person falling from good fortune to bad—for this might engender empathy but without pity or fear since the first is felt for someone who is unworthy of bad fortune and the second is for someone who is similar [to us] (pity is for someone unworthy of suffering; fear is for someone like us suffering). The response to [a wicked person] falling is not pitiful or fearful. What remains [for tragedy] is the person in between. A person like this is not impeccable in terms of justice nor for his wickedness and evil, but he falls into misfortune because of some kind of mistake. This kind of person is from those well-known families, like Oedipus or Thyestes.”

γον, ἐφεξῆς ἂν εἴη λεκτέον τοῖς νῦν εἰρημένοις. ἐπειδὴ οὖν δεῖ τὴν σύνθεσιν εἶναι τῆς καλλίστης τραγῳδίας μὴ ἁπλῆν ἀλλὰ πεπλεγμένην καὶ ταύτην φοβερῶν καὶ ἐλεεινῶν εἶναι μιμητικήν (τοῦτο γὰρ ἴδιον τῆς τοιαύτης μιμήσεώς ἐστιν), πρῶτον μὲν δῆλον ὅτι οὔτε τοὺς ἐπιεικεῖς ἄνδρας δεῖ μεταβάλλοντας φαίνεσθαι ἐξ εὐτυχίας εἰς δυστυχίαν, οὐ γὰρ φοβερὸν οὐδὲ ἐλεεινὸν τοῦτο ἀλλὰ μιαρόν ἐστιν· οὔτε τοὺς μοχθηροὺς ἐξ ἀτυχίας εἰς εὐτυχίαν, ἀτραγῳδότατον γὰρ τοῦτ’ ἐστὶ πάντων, οὐδὲν γὰρ ἔχει ὧν δεῖ, οὔτε γὰρ φιλάνθρωπον οὔτε ἐλεεινὸν οὔτε φοβερόν ἐστιν· οὐδ’ αὖ τὸν σφόδρα πονηρὸν συμβαῖνον. ὁ μεταξὺ ἄρα τούτων λοιπός. ἔστι δὲ τοιοῦτος ὁ μήτε ἀρετῇ διαφέρων καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ μήτε διὰ κακίαν καὶ μοχθηρίαν μεταβάλλων εἰς τὴν δυστυχίαν ἀλλὰ δι’ ἁμαρτίαν τινά, τῶν ἐν μεγάλῃ δόξῃ ὄντων καὶ εὐτυχίᾳ, οἷον Οἰδίπους καὶ Θυέστης καὶ οἱ ἐκ τῶν τοιούτων γενῶν ἐπιφανεῖς ἄνδρες.

This passage (and a few others) have been misread since the rise of Christianity to mean that the tragic protagonist “suffers a fall because of a tragic flaw”. This is essentially bogus for lexicographical and contextual reasons. In early Greek, hamartia means to make a mistake: it comes from an archery metaphor and is related to the verb hamartanô, which means “to miss the mark”. This is a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.

from Beekes 2010

hamartano

The Christian use of hamartia is “sin”, which, as we all know from our Sunday School, is innate and a sign of our essential badness. Wanting to have sex with people is a sin; driving badly and hitting someone from inattention is an accident. In my understanding of tragedy, hamartia means the latter. Yes, one might be distractable and an essentially bad driver and we may see this as in some way a flaw, but this is a cultural perspective that mixes determinism and responsibility in a strange way.

Contextually, Aristotle makes the specific point that the tragic hero should not be essentially wicked. If one is essentially wicked, the audience cannot make the key identification necessary to feel pity or fear. Now, one could argue that in a Christian context where everyone is flawed because of sin, the doctrine might still be said to apply. But this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.

[The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this]

C6668-05a
MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 68v