Hamartia and Sophrosyne

Missing the Mark

Missing the Mark

by cheri block sabraw

The Greek word sophrosyne was summarized in brief by the Oracle at Delphi in several succinct aphorisms:  Nothing in Excess and Know Thyself. In other words, with moderation of all that pulls us away from the deep contemplation of our existence (like materialism, gluttony, and humanism), we will arrive at a deeper truth about our purpose.

The Greek word, hamartia, which means missing the mark, an error, comes from the sport of archery.

High school English teachers, when teaching a classic Greek tragedy such as Oedipus or Antigone, often focus their lessons on the over-used tragic flaw of the hero, who is brought down often by his hubris (arrogance).

Aristotle, in his Poetics, wrote about a different term, one used more broadly when characterizing a tragic Greek hero: that term is the above sophrosyne

Nothing in Excess:

Heroes do not need to take an additional woman to bed, nor do they need to suck the marrow from another lamb shank off the spit. After a small segment of goat cheese, not three wedges, the hero should retire back to his boat, where he can argue with the Gods about his lineage. The Greek Hero need not boast about his name and connections (as Odysseus does after escaping the Cyclops, Polyphemus) or he might be blown back out the sea, so to speak, for ten more years.

Know Thyself:

Heroes may take an entire epic or play to know themselves. Only through their mistakes, their hamartia, will the introspective Hero grow into something greater than a brawny conqueror or a flashy God child. And how does one come to know himself in an archery tournament in which everyone, from plebeians to patricians, is shooting at targets without precious aim?

In short, high school teachers might consider broadening the lesson by including the terms sophrosyne and hamartia to the discussion.

Better yet:

Have the students determine their own hamartia in their short lives. Perhaps, they can then evaluate how to proceed with their sophrosyne.

The Oracle at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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6 Responses to Hamartia and Sophrosyne

  1. andreaskluth says:

    That makes me ponder my book’s main character, Hannibal of Carthage:
    His hamartia was to choose the wrong strategy in attacking Rome. In the process he came to know himself.

    On a less lofty note, it also reminds me of the motto of my rugby team at college, known largely for its weekly “beer practice” on Friday nights in a forest clearing:

    Nihil in moderato.

    When you’re 20, that’s wisdom.

  2. Cheri says:

    How educated of you rugby boys, way back then. A motto with some style.
    How did you do against against your foes? Win?
    Lose?

  3. andreaskluth says:

    I wish I could remember. Mainly, I think, we drank beer with them and were immoderate.

  4. khephra says:

    Nice write-up. 🙂

  5. khephra says:

    Yes, you might say that. 🙂

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