March 4, 2013
I learned a new word yesterday. I love it when that happens.
The word is hamartia, and although it's often used to describe a hero's key weakness, Isabel Hyde refers to Humphrey House's work (among others), and says that modern (as of the 1960s) scholars interpret the use of hamartia as being, an error which is derived from ignorance of some material fact or circumstance, rather than the earlier consideration of it as the "tragic flaw" of an ethical nature.
Thus, Oedipus's hamartia wouldn't have been his hasty temper, which caused him to slay his father, but the unfamiliarity of his lineage which allowed him to sleep with his mother. This erroneous step, taken in ignorance, was the hamartia. Whether you talk of Oedipus or Hamlet or Macbeth, the heroes in the classical plays intended for good, not evil, to come of their actions. Tragedy came through their actions, not their intent. Hamartia is that error made through good intent but in ignorance which turns a situation to tragedy.
As I was reading through this, my mind echoed the exact same sentiments that Sydney Dekker wrote in The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error. Sydney's argument was that no pilot goes to work with the intent to crash a plane. Accident investigators who rule an accident investigation as "pilot error" are doing a disservice to their reports. The real reason behind the pilot's hamartia is too often left obscured.
This is not limited to ancient heroes and modern pilots. Have you ever erased the contents of a directory on accident, because you thought you were somewhere else? Rebooted the wrong machine? Thought your backups were running until you tried to restore from them?
We all commit these hamartias. We'll never be able to eliminate errors of ignorance, but we can reduce them through verifying our assumptions before we carry out actions or rely on untested resources. My advice in this would boil down to "think about what you do before you do it". I'm as guilty as anyone, but I'm always striving to get better. Hopefully you are, too.