Hubris



At the heart of the 3-credit course in Classical Studies that I took when I was in college at the Ateneo de Manila University were Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey.

Many students avoided taking Classical Studies because the Jesuit professor had a reputation of being super strict, apart from requiring his students to read in advance what would be discussed in class on a particular day.

I took the class because I was a philosophy major. I wanted to find out for myself what the impact was of Greek literature on philosophy.

I learned many English phrases from the class like Achilles Heel, Trojan Horse, Oedipus Complex, to mention a few. However, what sticks in my mind is hubris, a Greek word that usually means a character flaw that describes an arrogant and a powerful person who crosses normal human limits and, in the process, is punished by the gods. For the Greeks, hubris connotes a powerful person who thinks that he is equal to the gods and acts accordingly resulting in his own tragedy.

Examples of hubris are often found in many major characters in Greek literature.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus was a classic example of a person suffering from hubris. Because of his pride, he defied the prophecy and the warning of the gods. The gods warned Oedipus that he would kill his own father, and indeed he did. The gods warned him that he would marry his own mother, and indeed he did. Once Oedipus realized that the prophecy was fulfilled, he blinded himself and went into exile until he died. His reversal of fortune was caused by his hubris.

In the Odyssey, hubris was displayed by Odysseus when he boastfully revealed to a cyclops (Polyphemus) his name after he blinded the latter. As a result, Poseidon, the cyclops’s father and god of the sea, avenged his son by punishing Odysseus.

In the Iliad, Achilles, a powerful warrior, demonstrated hubris by shamelessly desecrating the body of Hector after he had killed him. Achilles took pleasure from his soldiers stabbing Hector’s lifeless body. Achilles himself died from a poisoned arrow shot by Paris, Hector’s brother.

Literature reflects human life, and there’s always something for the readers to learn from the actions of certain characters. Explains Literary Devices, “In literature, portrayal of hubristic characters serves to achieve a moralistic end. Such characters are eventually punished thus giving a moral lesson to the audience and the readers so that they are motivated to improve their characters by removing the flaws that can cause a tragedy in their lives. Witnessing a tragic hero suffering due to his hubristic actions, the audience or the readers may fear that the same fate may befall them if they indulge in similar kinds of actions.”

More than a character flaw in any Greek tragedy, David Owen and Jonathan Davison, writing for Brain, a journal of neurology, offered a different take on hubris, describing it as a “syndrome.” They wrote, “Hubris syndrome was formulated as a pattern of behavior in a person who: (i) sees the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power; (ii) has a tendency to take action primarily to enhance personal image; (iii) shows disproportionate concern for image and presentation; (iv) exhibits messianic zeal and exaltation in speech; (v) conflates self with nation or organization; (vi) uses the royal ‘we’ in conversation; (vii) shows excessive self-confidence; (viii) manifestly has contempt for others; (ix) shows accountability only to a higher court (history or God); (x) displays unshakeable belief that they will be vindicated in that court; (xi) loses contact with reality; (xii) resorts to restlessness, recklessness and impulsive actions; (xiii) allows moral rectitude to obviate consideration of practicality, cost or outcome; and (xiv) displays incompetence with disregard for nuts and bolts of policy making.”

From the above characterizations of what a “hubrist” is, one can infer that “hubrists” are easily recognized by how they talk and act. They talk arrogantly, always full of themselves, cocky, full of bravado, and pretend to be all-knowing. Always hungry for power, they act without any concern for others and their personal satisfaction is what matters, nothing else. They are a danger to society because they have lost contact with reality, and their decisions are oftentimes reckless, always with devastating consequences.

There is no shortage of “hubrists” in American politics today. Ever since he lost the presidential election, Donald Trump has shown noticeable signs of hubris. He refuses to accept that he lost in the election despite overwhelming evidence that he did.

He continues to use his power by firing people who do not agree with him and by blocking official intelligence briefing to his successor.

He continues to live in a separate reality by ignoring the gravity of the worst pandemic of the century. He just does not care.

He continues to remain adamant in his efforts to block the certification of the election results by claiming baselessly that the election was stolen from him.

He continues to pressure the administrator of the General Services Administrator to block the formal transition by not providing the needed funds and spaces to the Biden administration.

Trump will say anything and do anything to prove that he is right. He will never admit making mistakes.

That’s how he shows how tough he is even if it means people will die. That’s hubris, pure and simple.