Definition of Hubris
Hubris is an extreme expression of pride or self-confidence in a character. In Greek mythology and drama, hubris was an affront to the gods, as no mortal should believe himself to be more powerful than the gods, nor defy them. Therefore, Greek gods often punished characters who displayed hubris.
The word hubris comes from the Greek word ὕβρις (hybris), which meant “wanton violence, insolence, outrage” or “presumption toward the gods.” The original definition of hubris had more to do with the actions of the character displaying aggression than his or her attitude. However, over time that definition of hubris has changed to encompass excessive pride coupled with a lack of humility.
Common Examples of Hubris
There is a common saying, abbreviated from the Book of Proverbs, that says, “Pride goeth before the fall.” The original King James version is, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” This is a good definition of hubris, as generally the hubristic tendencies in a person or character, i.e., the lack of humility in that person, leads to their own downfall. We can see that in many famous real people such as the following:
- Tiger Woods: After admitting to extramarital affairs, Tiger Woods lost many millions of dollars in commercial sponsorships and has not had the kind of success in his golfing career that he experienced beforehand. As he has said, he thought that normal rules did not apply to him, and that his excellence in his sport entitled him to whatever he wanted with no consequences. He has since felt those consequences.
- Richard Nixon: Already in power as the President of the United States, Richard Nixon must have thought that his possession as Commander in Chief made him invincible to defeat. He was implicated in the Watergate scandal, and ultimately resigned.
- Mel Gibson: Known for his roles in Mad Max and Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s fame began to get him into trouble as discriminatory statements against gay people and Jewish people came to light. His career has struggled after being convicted of battery against his former girlfriend.
Though hubris is generally considered a trait displayed in an individual, there have also been examples of hubris that predicate financial collapses, such as the attitude that some banks and financial institutions were “too big to fail.” In 2008, that was proved estimably wrong with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. We seen many similar cases of extreme arrogance leading to ruin, such as the dot-com boom and bust of the late 1990s, and the crises that countries in the Euro zone have gone through trying to stay part of a currency that their economies can’t support.
A key aspect of all of these cases is a disconnection from reality, and, like Tiger Woods admitted, thinking that normal rules don’t apply. This almost always leads to disaster.
Significance of Hubris in Literature
Ever since the legend of Icarus, there have been characters who have—out of excessive self-confidence—flown “too close to the sun,” and been destroyed because of it. Icarus, of course, really did fly too close to the sun and melted the wax wings his father had created for him. This is a good metaphor for hubris. Authors have created countless characters throughout literature who let their exaggerated sense of themselves lead to their own demise. One of the chief purposes of this type of narrative is showing the reading public what could happen if we, too, were to let our pride get best of ourselves. Thus, examples of hubris in literature often have a moral undertone, or a lesson to be learned from the mistakes that a character makes because of this arrogance.
Examples of Hubris in Literature
Sirrah, what mak’st thou here? Dost thou presume
To approach my doors, thou brazen-faced rogue,
My murderer and the filcher of my crown?
Come, answer this, didst thou detect in me
Some touch of cowardice or witlessness,
That made thee undertake this enterprise?
I seemed forsooth too simple to perceive
The serpent stealing on me in the dark,
Or else too weak to scotch it when I saw.
This _thou_ art witless seeking to possess
Without a following or friends the crown,
A prize that followers and wealth must win.
(Oedipus the King by Sophocles)
Oedipus is one of the first examples of hubris in a protagonist. He believes that his power is so great, no one else can presume to accuse him of anything. Though there is a prophet named Tiresias in the play who is literally blind, Oedipus is blinder than anyone to the reality of the situation. It’s only because Oedipus foolishly chooses to ignore Tiresias’s counsel that Oedipus is later ruined.
MACBETH: The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
Macbeth possesses a shocking amount of hubris, and, in William Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, Macbeth acts on this hubris until it destroys him and all those around him. Macbeth knows that his desires are “black and deep,” and he will stop at nothing to serve his ambitions.
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Jay Gatsby is an interesting example of hubris, because he possesses a modicum of humility that the other characters on this list do not. However, Gatsby has fancied himself to be above the class he was born into, and this presumption ultimately leads to his downfall.
Even in his first year in exile he had begun to plan for his return. The first thing he would do would be to rebuild his compound on a more magnificent scale. He would build a bigger barn than he had had before and he would build huts for two new wives. Then he would show his wealth by initiating his sons into the ozo society. Only the really great men in the clan were able to do this. Okonkwo saw clearly the high esteem in which he would be held, and he saw himself taking the highest title in the land.
(Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)
Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart centers around a man named Okonkwo, who is extremely arrogant and proud of himself. In this hubris example, Okonkwo has already been exiled for what he has previously done, yet not even that will stop him from imagining how he will rise to power once more. Okonkwo is thus the personification of delusion.
Test Your Knowledge of Hubris
1. Which of the following is the best contemporary hubris definition?
A. A disagreement between gods.
B. A process of learning something for oneself.
C. An excessive display of pride.
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2. Why might an author choose to portray a character with hubris?
A. To impress the reading audience with how great and accomplished the character is.
B. To provide a moral lesson about how not to act.
C. To show how the audience can get ahead in life.
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3. Which of the following quotes from Macbeth demonstrates his hubris?
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other—
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.
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