Hubris

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Origin

French arrogant, < Latin arrogāntem assuming, overbearing, insolent, present participle of arrogāre

Definitions


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Description

Hubris (play /ˈhjuːbrɪs/), also hybris, means extreme haughtiness, pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

Ancient Greek origin

In ancient Greece, hubris (ancient Greek ὕβρις) referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. The term had a strong sexual connotation, and the shame reflected on 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 crime of the ancient Greek world. 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. It often resulted in fatal retribution or Nemesis. 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.

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, in particular anal sex with a free man or with an unconsenting or under-aged boy; 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, 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 Aeschines Against Timarchus, where the defendant, Timarchus, is accused of breaking the law of hubris by submitting himself to prostitution and anal intercourse. Aeschines brought this suit against Timarchus to bar him from the rights of political office and his case succeeded.

One example of hubris occurs in Sophocles's Antigone when Creon refuses to bury Polynices. Another example is in the tragedy Agamemnon, by Aeschylus. Agamemnon initially rejects the hubris of walking on the fine purple tapestry, an act 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 Rex, 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. Icarus, 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,

Seest thou how God with his lightning smites always the bigger animals, and will not suffer them to wax insolent, while those of a lesser bulk chafe him not? How likewise his bolts fall ever on the highest houses and the tallest trees? So plainly does He love to bring down everything that exalts itself. Thus ofttimes a mighty host is discomfited by a few men, when God in his jealousy sends fear or storm from heaven, and they perish in a way unworthy of them. For God allows no one to have high thoughts but Himself.

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 usage

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. More recently, in his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, historian Ian Kershaw uses both 'hubris' and 'nemesis' as titles. The first volume, 'Hubris', describes Hitler's early life and rise to power. The second, 'Nemesis', gives details of Hitler's role in the Second World War, and concludes with his fall and suicide in 1945.

Examples of hubris are often found in fiction, most famously in Paradise Lost, John Milton's depiction of the biblical Lucifer. 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. Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus portrays the titular character as a scholar whose arrogance and pride compel him to sign a deal with the devil, and retain his haughtiness until his death and damnation, despite the fact that he could have easily repented had he chosen so.[1]