The Greeks Had A Word For It

Joel B. Levine MD

Joel B. Levine MD
4 min readJun 5, 2021


At the heart of every joy, there is the risk for sadness. We sit on a fulcrum edging one way or another, moving by whim or circumstance, toying with balance. Tipping points are measured in small things but when the fall is from a great height, trivial takes on meaning.

Until yesterday, I sat watching my country, my society, balance its way to a better place, a broader definition. From the outset, despite the short focal length of the 1619 Project, I saw an old play revived. It was Clay vs Calhoun, Douglas vs Clay, Compromises in the law, uncompromising in intention. It is always hard to change.

What is essential to our history, however, is how we forged our way through opposing opinions. Three times we almost came to blows. With Jackson, over Nullification, which was a way States could not obey a Federal law, with the Missouri Compromise, drawing a line as with a lash across the mid of the country, and ,finally, how to divide the spoils of the Mexican War.

Brilliance is not always in the service of virtue but balance was the aim, not full resolution. When Steven Douglas finally maneuvered Clay’s Compromise into reality, it was thought that the question of Slavery was resolved, not once but for all time. Yet ,not a decade later, the worm in the wood had eaten enough away that the Union no longer held.

The lesson is not in the nature of the problem but the consequence of the effort at solution. We would not be the first to burn the house down believing that the fire can be controlled. But I would not have guessed that a physician ,who gives a very different spin to “do no harm”, would light one at the Yale School of Medicine.

At a Child’s Mental Health conference, an invited speaker, in full view, gave voice to her fantasy to kill White people. Shoot them and revel in their demise, “a spring in her step”, was, I recall, the way she referenced the doing of it. Real dysfunction always must justify itself and she, then , did in earnest. White people just make her sick and she was just bold enough to say it and nothing would fix that. The news article was accompanied by her picture and the editors of the newspaper chose one of the most beguiling. No wild hair here, no spittle on the lips. Just, reasonableness in the flesh.

Did they cart her away, some may ask. Nope, but they decided to let only those with a Yale ID gain access to the video. Sometimes that is the price you pay for being heroic enough to say what needs to be said. Read the entirety of her comments and you can hear “Go Girl”, if you get close enough to a window facing New Haven.

The thing about all hatreds, generically, is that they each develop logic of their own. To murder on the basis of race or religion demands a quality of justification that is not only rational and very defensible. What else could a decent person have done when enough just became enough. Someone had to be first and only the bold can capture the flag.

I went back to look again at the picture and my first thought was, “Good thing, they never made Hitler look handsome.” This was star quality stuff, a head shot, in another sense of the word. Almost glamorous but, on reflection, what other image would you pick for a pioneer.

Here is a piece of history that is dripping with being prescient. In 1850, as I noted above, the great Compromise, first from Clay then Douglas, became law. Immediately, a group in South Carolina emerged, called the Fire Brands, who, like our good doctor, really had had enough. They could bear no more and, most memorably, were led by a man named Robert Rhett. Thus, the wonderful trivia of Rhett in Gone with the Wind. Like the good doctor, our Fire Brand was the spark and, in short order, was joined by William Yancy, the “Orator of Secession”. By 1860, they were deep in the wood and the crack was a loud as thunder. As she said, she was going to say some really hard truths.

The Greeks had a word, “hamartia”, which wound its linguistic way to be the biblical term for original sin. Yet, “hamartia” began as an archery term meaning to miss the mark. The analogy has relevance for striving for a just society is a wonderful aim. But the consequence of how you miss the mark can become a world of its own. Small things make a difference and Jule Feiffer, aptly, called them “little murders” for a reason. Go Girl.



Joel B. Levine MD

Professor of Medicine , essayist, practitioner, basic research and education ; reflections on medicine and modern society