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Hubris

Hubris

[hyoo-bris, hoo-]

Hubris, sometimes spelled hybris (ancient Greek ὕβρις), is a term used in modern English to indicate overweening pride, self-confidence, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution. In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions which, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim, and frequently the perpetrator as well. It was most evident in the public and private actions of the powerful and rich. The word was also used to describe actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws, especially in Greek tragedy, resulting in the protagonist's downfall.

Hubris, though not specifically defined, was a legal term and was considered a crime in classical Athens. It was also considered the greatest sin of the ancient Greek world. That was so because it was not only proof of excessive pride, but also resulted in violent acts by or to those involved. The category of acts constituting hubris for the ancient Greeks apparently broadened from the original specific reference to mutilation of a corpse, or a humiliation of a defeated foe, or irreverent "outrageous treatment" in general.

The meaning was eventually further generalized in its modern English usage to apply to any outrageous act or exhibition of pride or disregard for basic moral laws. Such an act may be referred to as an "act of hubris", or the person committing the act may be said to be hubristic. Atē, ancient Greek for "ruin, folly, delusion," is the action performed by the hero, usually because of his/her hubris, or great pride, that leads to his/her death or downfall.

Ancient Greece

Violations of the law against hubris included what might today be termed assault and battery; sexual crimes ranging from forcible rape of women or children to consensual but improper activities or the theft of public or sacred property. Two well-known cases are found in the speeches of Demosthenes, a prominent statesman and orator in ancient Greece. These two examples occurred when first, Meidias punched Demosthenes in the face in the theater (Against Meidias), and second when (in Against Konon) a defendant allegedly assaulted a man and crowed over the victim.

Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of hubris in ancient Greek literature is demonstrated by Achilles and his treatment of Hector's corpse in Homer's Iliad. Similarly, Creon commits hubris in refusing to bury Polynices in Sophocles' Antigone. Another example is in the tragedy Agamemnon, by Aeschylus. Agamemnon initially rejects the hubris of walking on the fine purple tapestry, an act which is suggested by Clytemnestra, in hopes of bringing his ruin. This act may be seen as a desecration of a divinely woven tapestry, as a general flouting of the strictures imposed by the gods, or simply as an act of extreme pride and lack of humility before the gods, tempting them to retribution. One other example is that of Oedipus. In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, while on the road to Thebes, Oedipus meets King Laius of Thebes who is unknown to him as his biological father. Oedipus kills King Laius in a dispute over which of them has the right of way, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that Oedipus is destined to murder his own father. Ikarus, flying too close to the sun despite warning, has been interpreted by ancient authors as hubris, leading to swift retribution. In Odyssey, the behaviour of Penelope's suitors is called hubris by Homer, possibly still in a broader meaning than was later applied. The blinding and mocking of Polyphemos called the nemesis of Poseidon upon Odysseus who already bore Odysseus a grudge for not giving him a sacrifice when Poseidon prevented the Greeks from being discovered inside of the Trojan Horse. Specifically, telling Polyphemos his true name after having already escaped was an act of hubris.

Hubris against the gods is often attributed as a character flaw of the heroes in Greek tragedy, and the cause of the "nemesis", or destruction, which befalls these characters. However, this represents only a small proportion of occurrences of hubris in Greek literature, and for the most part hubris refers to infractions by mortals against other mortals. Therefore, it is now generally agreed that the Greeks did not generally think of hubris as a religious matter, still less that it was normally punished by the gods.

Aristotle defined hubris as follows: to cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater.

Crucial to this definition are the ancient Greek concepts of honor (timē) and shame. The concept of timē included not only the exaltation of the one receiving honor, but also the shaming of the one overcome by the act of hubris. This concept of honor is akin to a zero-sum game. Rush Rehm simplifies this definition to the contemporary concept of "insolence, contempt, and excessive violence".

Modern times

In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance; it is often associated with a lack of humility, not always with the lack of knowledge. An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in the Greek world. The proverb "pride goes before a fall" is thought to sum up the modern definition of hubris. In reference to someone being in hubrity: hubrity is a fulfillment of being hubristic or a continual behavior of being prideful. Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein exudes hubris in order to become a great scientist, but is eventually regretting this previous desire. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus exudes hubris, all the way until his final minutes of life.

Popular culture

  • Odysseus' ten year journey home was the result of hubris: after blinding the Cyclops, he mockingly declared his name to the monster as he escaped. This allowed the Cyclops to call upon his father Poseidon for help and curse him.
  • In the beginning scenes of the Futurama episode "A Head in the Polls", characters Bender and Fry are seen watching the recurring show-within-a-show The Scary Door, a parody of The Twilight Zone. This episode specifically parodies the episode "Time Enough at Last". In this comedic version of the classic, after breaking his only pair of glasses, a man realizes aloud "Wait, my eyes aren't that bad, I can still read the large print versions!" at which point his eyeballs fall out of their sockets. The man starts to panic, but still the optimist, the man states "Well, luckily I know how to read braille." Then his hands too fall off. Finally, silencing momentary screaming, his tongue and head follow suit. Bender watching, says to Fry that the man was "cursed by his own hubris".
  • In a memorable scene in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, John Forbes Nash loses to his arch rival Hansen in a game of Go. Nash then states that him losing is impossible, that his playing was flawless. Hansen smugly replies, "The hubris of the defeated..."
  • In the film 300 the narrator says “The God King (Xerxes) has betrayed a fatal flaw: hubris. Easy to taunt, easy to trick ... the mad king throws the best he has at us. Xerxes has taken the bait.” Xerxes sends his best soldiers to attack the Spartans, falling into a Spartan trap.
  • During the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis had attained a seemingly insurmountable lead in the Snowboard Cross event final until she attempted a celebratory method grab as she neared completion of the course. The unnecessary move caused her to fall, allowing Tanja Frieden of Switzerland to pass her and win the gold medal. The media has cited this incident as an example of modern-day athletic hubris.

See also

Notes

References

  • Cairns, Douglas L. "Hybris, Dishonour, and Thinking Big." Journal of Hellenic Studies 116 (1996) 1-32.
  • Fisher, Nick (1992). Hybris: a study in the values of honour and shame in Ancient Greece. Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips. A book-length discussion of the meaning and implications of hybristic behavior in ancient Greece.
  • MacDowell, Douglas. "Hybris in Athens." Greece and Rome 23 (1976) 14-31.
  • Owen, David (2007) The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power Politico's, Methuen Publishing Ltd.

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