In ancient Greek tragedies, hubris represented a kind of pride that caused mortals to defiantly believe they could match or exceed the Gods.

In the Odyssey, the epic poem about the story of Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War, the hero’s hubristic displays incur the wrath of the Gods, making the journey more eventful than needed. His expectation of receiving hospitality in the cave of the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus, dismissing the warnings of his men, resulted in Polyphemus digesting several of Odysseus’ crew. After plotting an escape that included blinding the Cyclops, Odysseus could not resist taunting his wounded opponent and revealing his name as he sailed away. Unfortunately for Odysseus and his crew, Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, God of the sea and earthquakes (and horses), who did not take the abuse to his child lightly and guaranteed obstacles and setbacks on their way.

It did not matter whether the defiance was merely insolent, delusional or a worthy challenge from a competent opponent, one that could even outperform the divinity, such as Arachne, who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. The brutality with which this defiance was met was tremendous. Hubris was a sin that carried severe punishment.

Historical examples of hubris are plenty and beautifully illustrated in literature and art. In our lives we can often perceive it, almost instinctively, and yet it still finds us unprepared. Personality factors, a history of achievement and success and a culture of ambition can easily set the conditions for hubris.

There is the danger of allowing the success or failure of a project to determine whether it was genius or hubris. The boundaries with confidence, assertiveness, boldness and disruption are thin and, in the eyes of many, only delineated when the end result is available. However, hubris is foolish: it is defiant for defiance’s sake. Hubris is deaf: it stops you from considering other views that could be valid, even if they end up being dismissed. Hubris is contagious, it can spread to those around you with little warning. Hubris is presumptuous and entitled, it takes for granted your brilliance, your competence, the admiration of your friends, colleagues and staff or the love of your family.

To deal with hubris it helps to systematically consider what price you pay in the aspects of life you consider meaningful, like health, family, relationships, finances, reputation or career. Such a system would listen critically to encouragement, but also cautionary messages. It would insert the reminder that you could be wrong, or that even being right you could still fail. It would certify that you do the work and decide with a clear mind. The costs must be accepted, in failure as in success.

We are the current actors in the long play of humanity. The play did not start with our sentient minds nor will finish when we bow out. We should heed to the tales of our ancestors, where wisdom is frequently found. Not doing so would be hubris. [C]

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Tim Burrill
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