In classical literature, and by classical I mean Greek not Jane Austen, there is a clear link between sympathy, pity, fear and the catharsis, or resolution, of those fears. The fact that this heart-tugging works is undeniable.

For Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, the mechanism how it works was mapped out (even if the “why” question is not suitably explained): first the audience must be made to sympathize with a character. Then, as the story develops, they start to fear what is about to happen through omniscience (i.e. being show what is going on behind the scenes and that the main character does not know). Finally it all comes crashing down around the hero and the audience can experience some liberation from their feelings of compassion and fear (catharsis, a term which Aristotle from medicine and which means “refining”) – that is, the viewer of tragedy can sharpen, refine, their own moral sense by living vicariously through the difficulties of the character. The Greeks saw the arts as having a didactic component in the teaching of morals and virtues. Heck they even saw that in sport as well. Keep this in mind.

There is one further technical detail that is important before we move on to the news: hamartia. Usually this is translated as the “fatal flaw”, although it is not as strong as that, more like a bad mistake or an error. In other words it is not an innate flaw – that is a Christian idea, not present to the ancient Greeks.

To make a good Greek tragedy the hero must have a moment upon which hinges the whole play. That moment cannot be some form of innate failure because those old Greeks did not go for the anti-hero type, in fact despised them. But it cannot also be completely random bad luck, because that would remove any chance of fear, the slow building of tension which makes for a good play.

To work really well, as in Oedipus, the fatal flaw must be coupled with the hero’s central virtue! Now how about that for a twist? The hero does what in his eyes and in his limited knowledge (this is critical) seems like a good deed, a good idea, and later, as events unfold, turns out to be a really really bad move.

The audience is given information about how bad of a move it is, and watches, like a slow motion car crash…

So that’s the mechanism. We know it works.

I have been watching the NBC Winter Olympics and it is quite revealing. There is a constant attempt to create sympathy in American television – almost all shows, and certainly all reality shows attempt to create a form of tragedy, giving its viewers a little frisson of catharsis. Not much, mind you. Not enough to go change their ways. Just a little thrill.

There is something about Americans who are attracted to tragedy like a moth to light.

Primetime TV is as carefully orchestrated as a Greek play. With advertising placed at suitable dramatic pauses. The viewer’s sympathy is aroused artificially through the not-so-subtle use of cutback footage which highlights the athlete’s likability – usually through some sort of tragedy (there it is again!)

There is this pathological need to create sympathy for the competitor, so that during the event the fear (of failure) can be more deeply expressed. And while I could see this being mildly useful for an event I knew nothing about, we see this stuff even during sports which people are very familiar with, American football or baseball for example.

It seems that Americans find it very difficult to simply observe excellence and enjoy mastery. It needs to be tragic, dramatic!

So we see the pushing of Bode Miller to cry and talk about his recently deceased brother. I shake my head with some disgust, and turn off the TV. Can’t we just watch people doing great feats of athletic ability without turning it into a soap opera? Must we highlight, and if we cannot find it, then fabricate hamartia?

And, of course, because of America’s puritanism, the hamartia is better if it can be shown to be an in-born quality. But let us not talk about virtues. It is quite a feat to get me to care about so-and-so but without feeling that this will refine my own sense of rightness, of virtue. I want my heroes to have an inborn flaw, or at least a parentally imposed one, and I want to see them go up very high and then crash very loudly. This is what happens.

the problem with flaws without virtues is that it makes all of us coarser. The issue with too much sympathy for the anti-hero is that it renders the very concept of virtue unusable.

Solutions? How about highlighting virtues without worrying too much about flaws? How about, you know, actually being a little embarrassed about flaws? How about basing our social lives around the development of virtue?

Of course, the question can be asked “Whose virtue?” And even while this could, and should, be hotly debated, I believe such a debate would allow us to be refined, rather than being made coarser.

About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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