ON THE NOTION OF WRONG DECISION IN THE GREEK TRAGEDY: THE EPISTEMIC RÔLE OF UNCERTAINTY, RISK AND IGNORANCE
(Rodrigo Peñaloza, Dec. 2014)

The Greek tragedies were usually performed during the Great Dionysian Festivals, also known as τὰ Διονύσια, in honor of the god Dionysos Eleuthereus. A tragedy had five parts: prologue, parodos (πάροδος, the entrance of the chorus), episodes and stasimon (ἐπεισόδια, στάσιμoν, performed alternately for a number of times), and exodus (ἔξοδος). The verses in each part fit specific metric standards.

What was a tragedy? Aristotle’s definition (Poetics, II-6), which I here translate, is still the best:

Tragedy is a serious and complete imitation of action, having magnitude , with an embelished writing, with separate form in each one of the parts, performative, not for the sake of narration, yielding, by means of compassion and fear, the purification of those passions.

The idea of mistake or wrong decision is very important. Nowadays we call a wrong decision just what it trivially means to us: a wrong decision. However, the Greeks had different terms for different meanings of it. The general term was hamartía (ἁμαρτία). It meant the likely bad consequences of a rational decision based on knowledge of all the elements of causation. In Statistical terms, it is “risk”. Hamartía was not morally wrong, it was just a bad consequence of a thoroughly thought decision. In Poetics, II-13 [1453a], Aristotle says:

It is indeed necessary that the change be not from infelicity into felicity, but, contrarywise, from felicity into infelicity, not through perversity but through a great hamartía.

He was here talking in general terms, though the epithet “great” is clear evidence that he had in mind a specific kind of bad consequence from a bad decision, the one which characterizes the Greek tragedy, about which I will talk now.

The second term was atýchema (ἄτύχημα). It referred to an involuntary mistake driven by unknown external factors, that is, by ignorance or ágnoia (ἄγνοια). In modern technical statistical terms, atýchema is the wrong decision taken under an environment of Knightian uncertainty or nonprobabilizable uncertainty. In modern epistemological terms, atýchema referred to wrong decisions whose elements of causation the decision-taker was unaware of and about whose unawareness he was also unaware. As every Statistician and Economist will realize, under atýchema it is not possible to take decisions with the help of the standard Calculus of Probability. Indeed, the decision-taker “thinks” he “knows” the underlying sample space, but he actually not only does not, he also does not know that he does not know. Atýchema was then a bad judgement, rational in its own limited scope, but irrational from the broader perspective of the Kosmos. Tragedy then occurs when the individual willingness of the protagonist (the main character of the tragedy) not only contradicts the greater order of the Kosmos, he is in actuality totally unaware of such contradiction. It is easy to understand its meaning from a philological point of view as well. It is formed by the particle of negation, -a ( -ἀ), prefixed to the noun týche (τύχη), which means “destiny”. Therefore, atýchema is a consequence we had not considered as a likely consequence at the moment of decision, that is, as something we never thought of as a possible destiny and whose not thinking we had not thought about.

The last term was adíkema (άδίκημα) and referred to a bad consequence brought about by a morally wrong decision. It was the consequence of a decision based on moral vices and against justice.

To the economist in general and to the game theorist in particular, the idea of atýchema as the very epistemological trigger of tragedy brings about the fact that the correlated idea of ignorance (not in its vulgar sense, but as a truly technical term) was something that the Greeks had already anticipated well before modern Economic Theory.

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Latin version of this article: “De malo iudicio in tragoedia graeca: quae sint personae gerendae ab alia et ignorantia”.

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