In his Poetics 13.5 (1453a 8-23) Aristotle says that tragedy presents a great man brought low by a megale hamartia (his examples are Oedipus and Thyestes). The phrase is taken to mean very different things by different people: either (i) a moral failing or character-flaw (German Schuld; Harsh) or (ii) an intellectual error in judgement or even a mistake about the identity of a person (Van Braam, Breme) or (iii) some kind of combination of the two (Stinton). Which of these views is closest to describing the central problem of Greek tragedy? Comment on the possible relationship of the term hamartia (rarely used by the tragedians themselves) with ate (see Dawe and Golden). Is ate itself just a fancy term for "the Devil made me do it"? If so, why do those who plead ate accept their punishment like Agamemnon in the Iliad? (See J. Stallmache, Ate [Meisenheim am Glan 1968] and R. E. Doyle, Ate: Its Use and Meaning [New York 1984].) Consider the Latin term culpa as applied e.g. by Vergil to Dido (Aeneid 4.19; Moles).
Compare the paradoxical words of Prometheus in Aesch. Prom Bound 266, "willingly, willingly did I do wrong", Antigone's claim that she knew what she was doing, Socrates' statement, "no-one does wrong willingly" (Plato Prot. 345d, cf. Simonides apud Gorg. 509e, etc.) And that of St. Paul, "the good I see I do not..." (Romans 7.15). Medea says video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (Ovid Met. 7.21, cf. Eur. Hipp. 380-1 with the comments of E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational [Berkeley and Los Angeles 1951] 186-7). Does Dawe's equation of hamartia and ate with its implication that the Gods are to blame undermine the equation of hamartia and culpa or does the concept of "overdetermination" account for this? See G. Calogero, "Gorgias and the Socratic Principle of nemo sua sponte peccat," Journal of Hellenic Studies 77 (1957) 12-7.
Error plays a role in comedy as well as in tragedy: there is a character named Agnoia ("misapprehension") in Menander's The Girl with the Haircut (Periceiromene) ; see H. W. Prescott, "The Comedy of Errors," Classical Philology 24 (1929) 32-41, R. Pack, "Errors as Subjects of Comic Mirth," Classical Philology 33 (1938) 405-10, and E. Segal, "The Menaechmi: Roman Comedy of Errors," Yale Classical Studies 21 (1969) 77-93.
*P. van Braam, "Aristotle's Use of Hamartia," Classical Quarterly (1912) 266.
O. Hey, "Hamartia," Philologus 83 (1927) 1-17, 137-63.
S. E. Bassett, "The Hamartia of Achilles," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 65 (1934) 47-69.
- M. K. Flickinger, The "Hamartia" of Sophocles'Antigone = Iowa Studies in Classical Philology 2 (Scottsdale, PA 1935) 11-18.
- R. A. Pack, "A Passage of Alexander of Aphrodisias Relating to the Theory of Tragedy," American Journal of Philology 58 (1937) 418-36.
- R. A. Pack, "Fate, Chance and Tragic Error," American Journal of Philology 60 (1939) 350-6.
- R. A. Pack, "On Guilt and Error in Senecan Tragedy," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 71 (1940) 360-71.
- *P. W. Harsh, "Hamartia Again," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 76 (1945) 47-58.
- I. M. Glanville, "Tragic Error," Classical Quarterly 43 (1949) 47-57.
- H. B. Jaffee, "How Tragic is the Tragic Flaw?," Classical Bulletin 26 (1950) 13ff.
- C. H. Whitman, Sophocles: A Study of Tragic Heroism (Cambridge, Mass. 1951) chapter 2 on Scholarship and Hamartia".
- K. von Fritz, "Tragische Schuld und poetische Gerechtigkeit in der griechischen Tragödie," in Antike und moderne Tragödie 2nd ed. (Berlin 1962) 194-237.
- G. E. Else, Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument (Cambridge, Mass. 1957) 376-99.
- M. Ostwald, "Aristotle on Hamartia and Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus," Festschrift Ernst Kapp (Hamburg 1958) 93-108.
- H. Funk, Die sogennante tragische Schuld (Cologne 1962).
- R. D. Dyer, "Hamartia in the Poetics and Aristotle's Model of Failure," Arion 4 (1965) 658-64
- *A. H. W. Adkins, "Aristotle and the Best Kind of Tragedy," Classical Quarterly 16 (1966) 78-103.
- D. W. Lucas, Aristotle: Poetics (Oxford 1968) 299-307.
- *R. D. Dawe, "Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72 (1968) 89-123.
- *J. M. Bremer, Hamartia: Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy (Amsterdam 1969).
- M. J. Anderson, "Kreon's Hamartia," Greece and Rome 17 (1970) 119-217.
- *T. C. W. Stinton, "Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy," Classical Quarterly 25 (1975) 221-54 = Collected Papers (Oxford 1990) 143-85.
- S. Osterud, "Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy," Symbolae Osloenses 51 (1976) 65-80.
- L. Golden, "Hamartia, Ate and Oedipus," Classical World 72 (1978) 3-12.
- L. Said, La faute tragique (Paris 1978).
- J. A. Arieti, "History, Hamartia and Herodotus," 1-26 in D. V. Stump ed., Hamartia: The Concept of Error in the Western Tradition = Festschrift J. M. Crossett (New York 1983).
- C. Lindsay, "Aphrodite and the Equivocal Argument: Hamartia in Hippolytus," 51-7 in ibid.
- P. A. Cavallero, "La hamartia en el teatro de Sofocles," Agros 8 (1984) 5-32.
- J. L. Moles, "Aristotle and Dido's Hamartia," Greece and Rome 31 (1984) 48-54.
A number of heroes and heroines, particularly in Sophocles, are led to commit acts of hamartia because they are the victims of deception or apate. Apate involves active distortion, e.g. through suppression or ambiguity concerning motive as distinct from objective falsehood concerning facts (lying, pseudos such as Phaedra's letter in Eur. Hipp.); in this respect, deception is closely linked to IRONY. Consider these scenes: e.g. Aesch. Pers 352ff, Cho. [Orestes says that he himself is dead], Oedipus the King 123-5 and 783-5 and Trachiniae 248-90, 569-77 and 610-3, Electra 680-763, Ajax 644-92 (Does Ajax deliberately lie to his friends or has he unintentionally misled them?) And Philoctetes 343-90, Eur. Medea 964-75, Vergil, Aeneid 2.57-75. Note the artful word-order in Lichas' speech and the creative invention in the paedagogus' speech in the Electra.
Consider the theological aspects of deception. Note that gods are capable of deception in Homer (Iliad 2.1-15, 14.153-352) and Aeschylus (fr. 350 Nauck2 = Plato Republic 383 A) but not in Herodotus (1.90-1) or in Sophocles, with the possible exception of Athena in the Ajax. Pindar and Plato react to Xenophanes' charge that the gods commit adultery, like and deceive one another by emending the relevant myths. Deception seems to escape censure in the Bible (Laban and his daughters; the blessing of Jacob).
Deception is present in comedy, as when Xanthias claims to be a god (Ar. Frogs) or the Spartan woman claims to be pregnant (Ar. Lysistrata), but it becomes crucial to the plot only in New Comedy, e.g. the claim that the house is haunted in Plaut. The Haunted House. (See R. Z. Burrows, "Deception as a Comic Device in the Odyssey," Classical World 59 (October 1965) 33-6.
- T. G. Rosenmeyer, "Gorgias, Aeschylus and Apate," American Journal of Philology 76 (1955) 225-60.
- A. F. Garvie, "Deceit, Violence and Persuasion in the Philoctetes," in Studi classici in onore di Quintino Cataudella I (Catania 1972) 213-26.
- J. H. Kells, Sophocles: Electra (Cambridge 1973) ad loc.
- H. Musurillo, "The Problem of Lying and Deceit and the Two Voices of Euripides' Hippolytus 925-31," Transactions of the American Philological Association 104 (1974) 231-8.
- J. Moore, "The Dissembling Speech of Ajax," Yale Classical Studies 25 (1977) 47-66.
- S. Goodhart, "Leistas Ephaske: Oedipus and Laius' Many Murderers," Diacritics 8 (1978) 55-71.
- R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An Interpretation (Cambridge 1980) 332-3.
- D. A. Hester, "Deianira's 'Deception' Speech," Antichthon 14 (1980) 1-8.
- D. A. Hester, "Some Deceptive Oracles: Sophocles Electra 32-7," Antichthon 15 (1981) 15-25.
- W. J. Verdenius, "Gorgias' Doctrine of Deception," in G. B. Herferd ed., The Sophists and Their Legacy = Hermes Einzelschriften 44 (Wiesbaden 1981) 116-29.
- P. E. Easterling, Sophocles: Trachiniae (Cambridge 1982) ad loc.
- M. Davies, "Lichas' Lying Tale," Classical Quarterly 34 (1984) 480-3.
- P. T. Stevens, "Ajax in the Trugrede," Classical Quarterly 36 (1986) 327-36.
- C. M. Emlyn-Jones, "True and Lying Tales in the Odyssey," Greece and Rome 33 (1986) 1-10.
- M. R. Halleran, "Lichas' Lies and Sophoclean Innovation," Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 27 (1986) 239-48.
- K. V. Hartigan, "Salvation via Deceit: A New Look at Iphigeneia in Tauris," Eranos 84 (1986) 119-25.
- D. Lateiner, "Deceptions and Delusions in Herodotus," Classical Antiquity 9 (1990) 230-46.