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Hubris (/hjuːbrɪs/) (ancient Greek ὕβρις) is a term used in modern English to indicate overweening pride, haughtiness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution or Nemesis. 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 Athensmarker. 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. Ate|Atë, 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; sex crimes ranging from 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 Greecemarker. These two examples occurred when first, Midias punched Demosthenes in the face in the theater (Against Midias), and second when (in Against Conon) a defendant allegedly assaulted a man and crowed over the victim. Yet another example of hubris appears in Aechines "Against Timarchus," where the defendant, Timarchus, is accused of breaking the law of hubris by submitting himself to prostitution and adult male intercourse. Aeschines brought this suit against Timarchus to bar him from the rights of political office and his case succeeded.

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. Achilles killed Hector in revenge. Not only did he kill him, but he stripped Hector's corpse and dragged it around behind his chariot, threading leather thongs through Hector's ankles. Although the Greek forces were appalled by his treatment of this other hero's corpse, he was unrelenting. Priam, king of Troy, had to come and kneel at Achilles's feet and offer him Hector's weight in gold before he could convince him to give up the body. Once the body was gone, Achilles had time to ponder the fact that it was prophesied his own death would come soon after Hector's.. 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 down the nemesis of Poseidon upon Odysseus; Poseidon already bore Odysseus a grudge for not giving him a sacrifice when Poseidon prevented the Greeks from being discovered inside the Trojan Horse. Specifically, Odysseus' 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. Herodotus made it clear in a passage ,

Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because anything happened to you or might happen to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries—that's 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 (τιμή, timē) and shame (αἰδώς, aidōs). The concept of τιμή 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. It is also referred to as "pride that blinds", as it often causes someone accused of hubris to act in foolish ways that belie common sense. Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein manifests hubris in his attempt to become a great scientist by creating life, but eventually regrets this previous desire.

See also



Notes

Cord Longenberger
  1. Aeschines "Against Timarchus" from Thomas K. Hubbard's Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents
  2. History of Herodotus, VII, 10, translated by George Rawlinson (1910) History of Herodotus.


References

  • Cairns, Douglas L. "Hybris, Dishonour, and Thinking Big." Journal of Hellenic Studies 116 (1996) 1-32.
  • 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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