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Greek-based tragedies always include a protagonist with a fatal flaw. In fact, it's probably high school literature teachers' single favorite question: what was [name of character]'s fatal flaw?

MacBeth loved his wife too terribly well.
Achilles had a heel.
Antigone had hubris.

But it's never quite that simple, especially not on a literature exam, which historically includes the terse instruction: elaborate.

Aristotle had a solid definition of what comprised a tragic hero. In summation:

* Hero must suffer more than he deserves.

* Hero must be doomed from the start, but bear no responsibility for possessing his flaw.

* Hero must be noble in nature, but imperfect so that the audience can see themselves in him.

* Hero must have discovered his fate by his own actions, not by things happening to him.

* Hero must see and understand his doom, as well as the fact that his fate was discovered by his own actions.

* Hero's story should arouse fear and empathy.

* Hero must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, often resulting in his death.

* Ideally, the hero should be a king or leader of men, so that his people experience his fall with him.

* The hero must be intelligent so he may learn from his mistakes.

Mrs. Morini---senior AP English teacher and bane of my existence; in fact, one might have called her my greatest antagonist---spoke at length and depth about fatal flaws beginning with the Wife of Bath and concluding quite cruelly with poor Nora of A Doll's House.

Helmer is playing the piano and Nora is dancing the tarantella.

Helmer. (playing). Slow down, slow down!

Nora. Can't!

Helmer. Not so violent, Nora!

Nora. It has to be this way.


Helmer. My dearest Nora, you're dancing as if it were a matter of life and death!

Nora. It is! It is!

And for Nora? It was. Krogstad had already dropped the letter that would ruin Nora, and those she loved. Her fatal flaw---her tragedy---was in motion.

Ever since, I have wondered, "What is my fatal flaw? And how quickly can I find and defuse it?" (Yes, you should find it terribly telling that the fictional characters I best identify with are tragic heroes.)

I love too terribly well, at times. I not only have two heels, but have been known to act quite like a heel. I have ample hubris.

Of all my many sins---my hamartia---it never occured to me that my perceived greatest---my fatal flaw?---was my willingness to speak out. In fact, I had never even considered that when examining my navel for the fatal flaw.

I suppose I should be glad I'm the sort of person who is more likely to get a purple heart than a feather, but, well, some days it's a struggle.

Yesterday was one such day.

A friend was describing an issue she was having with someone she knew. She had never stated any boundaries to this person, but this person was, nevertheless, trampling rudely over general boundaries, and taking advantage of my friend's kindness and aversity to dealing openly with conflict.

I suggested that she find her boundaries and begin sticking to them, and if necessary, communicate them to the other person.

My friend sighed in exasperation, "We're not all like you...we can't all seek out conflict and deal with it so easily."

Seek conflict?

Deal with it easily?

Whatever in the world have I done to create this impression?

I carefully tried to explain, "I don't seek conflict, however, I won't bite my tongue bloody or suffer out loud passive-aggressively behind backs if there is something that should be said and can be said. I use diplomacy, and there are times I do bite my tongue bloody. But at some point, I realize, generally, that something needs to be said to someone to solve this, and it's likely that someone isn't going to be happy with me, but all I can do is what I think is best, right, just."

And that's when it hit me: I know why I chose forgiveness over justice.

Once a harm has been done---especially a grievous one---there is no real justice. There can---and often should---be consequence, but there is no true reparation.

You can't unring a bell.

Therefore, considering this, in the end, there is only forgiveness. Even near-perfect justice---something eye for an eye like---can feel hollow because underneath is the everlasting change from the harm.

We can't always choose justice. We can't always choose what justice is served, or whether it is even attempted. Sometimes, we can't even choose to seek justice. Sometimes, seeking justice can cause greater harm than the original harm.

But forgiveness is a choice. If we can forgive, we can accept the imperfect justice---or lack thereof---and hatred just might recede, maybe a little, and possibly further harm can be avoided.

I hope my friend can forgive me for always suggesting speaking up. I hope she can speak to her friend, and resolve the conflict. I hope she can forgive her friend, and vice versa.

Most of all, I hope we can all seek and find not just mercy, but also forgiveness.

Doing kindness is the quarry of good men, but it doesn't mean never speaking up. It doesn't mean never treading in slightly dangerous waters. It doesn't mean never hurting a feeling in the short-term to save a bigger feeling in the long-term. Mercy sometimes means facing a conflict. Justice sometimes means punishment, but no relief. Forgiveness means being able to go on, anyway, or better yet, because.

Perhaps my hamartia is so close that if it were a snake it would have bitten me by now, but I guess as is typical within ourselves, I can't see the forest for the trees. (If you'll excuse the unlyrical little mixing of cliches, metaphors, and goodness, I've lost track of what else...). And perhaps, even though it may often feel like it, my outspokeness is not actually my hamartia. However, while I hope I miss the tragic hero fate, I do hope that I succeed within some of the characteristics, chiefly, "The hero must be intelligent so he may learn from his mistakes."

I'll add two more, "And courageous enough to admit to them and take responsibility for them. Then wise enough to ask forgiveness or offer forgiveness."

And now...other thoughts on why and how we choose within justice and forgiveness:

Kaliroz wrote A thousand candles.

Jen wrote the choosing

Gwen wrote I'm Going to Let it Shine

LawyerMama wrote If Justice Is Blind, She's Also Deaf & Dumb

Andrea wrote Crime and Punishment

Feel free to comment or email your link to me if you'd like to participate. Take your time. :)

You can find the links to part one at The Justice and Forgiveness Roundtable.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert


Girlplustwo said…
Nicely done, Julie. My hubris thanks your hubris.
kaliroz said…
My hamartia salutes your hamartia. They are twins, I do believe.

And I like your last two heroic additions. I think, in fact, they're necessary.
Lawyer Mama said…
I love this post. I loved part I too & I think I'd like to participate, if I'm not too late to play. I'll email you later with my link.
Julie Pippert said…
Jen, thanks! And you're welcome. :)


Roz, we just need a joke about karmas and dogmas. ;)

I do believe you are spot on with teh rest.


Lawyer Mama, I'm so glad---both that you (a) liked the post, (b) liked Part I, and (c) want to participate. You have time.

I have the feeling---after the crazy chaos of today, the definite craziness of tomorrow, and the coma that will probably ensue on Friday---that this post will be up for a while. :)
Gwen said…
What I find most interesting about Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero is that the fatal flaw is outside the control of the hero. This goes against everything I believe about choice, as my some time to be posted blog about this, shows, a blog post that has also wandered far from the topic of justice and forgiveness and may never be reigned back in.

One thing about justice: I agree that it can't unring the bell, as you said. But I wonder if that's even the point of it: justice seems to me about righting the scales universally and about imposing societal order, not about healing the mysterious interiors of the individual human heart.
Julie Pippert said…
Oh Gwen, you have engaged me. You rock. :)

(Check this out sometime:

First point: Fatal flaw outside control of hero

The fatal flaw per my understanding of Aristotle's words is not outside the hero's control as in "he can't help what he does" but more as in "no man is perfect, each contains a flaw." This plays on the concept of nature and nurture. We come, to some degree, with certain talents, which are balanced by certain weaknesses.

Rumi's musings on creation hit on this as well, when in Masnavi---Book 3: 13, the prophet says, "Verily God has created some qualities in you which you cannot alter; But he has created other accidental qualities, Which, being objectionable, may be made good."

I think this makes sense: we come in possession of some inalienable aspects, but also some weaknesses that can be made good---in other words, we have a choice. We bear no responsibility for the possession of these aspects of ourselves, but we do bear choice and responsibility for that which we do.

In fact, the point of the tragic hero---especially as pertains to his relate-ability by the audience---is to ultimately recognize his errors, and himself as the author of both these errors and his own destruction. He's tragic because of this. He'd simply be pathetic if he went down crying unjust to the heavens.

I thought this was interesting when considering points for my post, "According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must fall through his or her own error, or hamartia. This term is also interpreted as "tragic flaw" and usually applied to overweening pride, or hubris, which causes fatal error.

Recent scholarship has suggested that the interpretation of hamartia as a fatal flaw is itself flawed, and that the word more properly means any disproportion in the character's makeup that leads to downfall; thus an excess of a valuable or virtuous quality can in some circumstances be seen as hamartia."

That might say better a little of what I meant when I explained how surprised I was to find something I had considered a virtue in myself viewed as a flaw from another perspective.

Second point: meandering

Dude, I so do not think I answered Jen's question. What I posted is simply what happened. Therefore, take it from me, put up what came out. And we'll think it's grand. :)

Third point: justice as salve

WHOOMP there it is!

I choose forgiveness because I do not think that any amount of justice can right a wrong. It simply imposes a consequence to preserve order and serve law. While justice is important to a society, it is frequently outside of our control, and you are right: doesn't provide the balm. That's my exact point.
S said…
I agree with gwen. And she's put her finger right on something that's been bothering me.

If you believe in destiny, how can you really speak about justice or forgiveness? Things are gonna happen because they're gonna happen, and that's that.

I think one has to presuppose a certain amount of free will in order to engage in conversations about justice, mercy, and forgiveness.
thailandchani said…
SM, that is a good point. We do come here, at least by my belief, with a degree of destiny. That's not to say all things are immutable. It's just that we "contract" to learn certain things. We will learn those things and that is not in the realm of choice.

I already posting this on Jen's site but at the risk of being repetitive, I believe the primary choice we have is how we react to circumstances. We don't always get to choose our circumstances, regardless of western thought on the topic.


Gwen said…
Umm, I had to come back to say, that all evidence to the contrary, I DO know the difference between reign and rein. Is premature publishing my fatal flaw?

I want to say more in re: the Greek fatal flaw, but I also want to get my own stupidly long and digressive post out there .....

(I need an editor, desperately).

Also, I agree with Chani, re: how we choose to do with what we have, which also agrees with Julie. Group hug!

And if Slouching Mom just opened the Free Will can, we may be at this forever! :)
Her Bad Mother said…
Well, for Plato (as for many modern philosophers centuries later), heroism - tragic or otherwise - is always fatally flawed, because it is always too thymotic (spirited) or erotic (driven by passion). The truly just individual can never be heroic, because the truly just individual is guided by reason and moderation. (Even Aristotle, who broke with his teacher in many respects, couldn't shake the attachment to moderation. Heroism could only live in poetry, and even then, always carried some danger.)

But moderation is just so dull, is it not? So, UNpoetic. That's we embrace our flaws, our vices, our hamartia - they're what make us interesting.
Sparky Duck said…
so true, you cant unring a bell. Yet people insist on ringing it again and again and again.
Aliki2006 said…
Oh, good discussion--very good. In the Symposium section of Wiesenthal's book a respondent writes that forgiveness builds up moral capital for the rest of the world; like a bank account we can draw from and feel strength and compassion at our lowest moments. I like that way of thinking about it; we may not all be individually able to forgive at all times, but if others still are able to, we can benefit from their compassion.
Gwen said…
Okay, I'm done.
Girlplustwo said…
I think Gwen gets to decide what we do next.
Girlplustwo said…
oooh, oooh. and Lawyer Mama, bring it, sister.
Julie Pippert said…
SM, good point.


Chani, I agree.


Gwen, if it is any consolation my brain autocorrected and did not even notice. But then, I make dreadful errors and typos all the time (horrifyingly, all things considered) so I learned a while back to pretty much go lax on this (except a few things...effect and affect still snag me painfully, among a few others). Got your link up. Will try to comment!

Also...ohhhh man, that is some can to open. Free will. Hmmmmmm


HBM, truly just sounds like a euphemism for perfect therefore fictional or theoretical, LOL. So I agree...stick with "lots of character." LOL


Sparky duck, so true.


Aliki, oh wow...there you are with that book. Okay MUST go get it and read it. That is fascinating. I have to go get the special topics in calamity physics (FINALLY in!) book so will get the Wiesenthal book then too. I need to go back and double check the title at your blog.


Jen HA HA I had already decided to go with Gwen's suggestion so absolutely...she's on deck!
Bones said…
I'm back!

I wish modern movies were more like Greek-based tragedies. And in thinking about justice and forgiveness, I keep going back to a film that Spike Lee made a few years ago called 25th hour. It summed up ecclesiastical reality of sin perfectly: sin can be forgiven, but the consequences are still real. Check it out.

Maybe now that I've re-emerged from my funk I can do some writing about justice and forgiveness.
Catherine said…
I do love this roundtable on justice and forgiveness...I keep wanting to join in...

I like what you did by brining in literature and the fatal flaw. I well remember looking for fatal flaws in all the literary characters I met...and most of the real life characters I met as well. :)

Thanks for the helpful comments you left me on baby-proofing, btw. So helpful!!
Mad said…
Too little time to get involed. Sorry. I'll stand by the comment I made at Jen's and will add money and geography to the list I outlined over there.
K said…
OK, I'm buying in Julie. Forgiveness, acceptance, because of this line
"Forgiveness means being able to go on, anyway, or better yet, because."

We all shine on.

Your post made me think of the Serenity prayer.
Unknown said…
Okay... I'm going to have to plead, um, something excusable, for passing on this round of the discussion. I'm too pooped to pontificate this week! ;) I am going around and doing some reading. Maybe I'll get a chance to catch up and comment/post next week.

I will put in a couple of cents worth after reading a couple of the posts/comments...

I believe in paradoxes. I think Free Will can coexist with Personality, Experience, Socio-Economic position, Gender, and other determining factors. (I don't know why I'm capitalizing everything.) So, that's it for now. I believe in paradoxes. How exciting was that?

P.S. I was like, you know, totally flashbacking to my high school and college lit. classes, like, for sure. Hubris, totally!

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