On Hubris



  1. Introduction
  2. Hýbris in ancient Greek
  3. Hubris in ancient Greek
  4. Is magic ‘hubristic’?

1 Introduction

‘Hubris’ is one of those loanwords from ancient Greek which have become adopted into common parlance while at the same time being understood as a specifically ‘Greek concept’, somewhat in the same way perhaps as appeals to ‘karma’ are now broadly shared, but belief in it is attributed specifically to Hindus.

In both cases, however, as with the popular distinction between four types of love in Greek (off-site link; archive), what is widely understood to be characteristically Greek or Indian is in fact a characteristically Anglo-American interpretation of foreign concepts. Consequently, when we use these “foreign” ideas, which have in fact long since been domesticated, to draw some contrast between the “West” and a different culture (past or present), we are actually just taking two “Western” (i.e., Anglo-American) concepts and externalizing one of them.

This is the case with hubris insofar as (a) its common English meaning – as a “personality quality of extreme or excessive pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance”, per Wikipedia – is not represented by the word ὕβρις (hýbris) in ancient Greek, and (b) while the idea can be expressed in ancient Greek with different words (such as τόλμα tólma), there is nothing peculiarly Greek about it. The way that English distinguishes hubris from pride and arrogance is, on the contrary, peculiarly English.

2 Hýbris in ancient Greek

So, what does hubris actually mean in ancient Greek? In this section, I will look at the Greek word, hýbris (also transliterated as húbris), and its meaning; the next will consider how ancient Greek expressed the equivalent of the modern English ‘hubris’.

The first thing to note about the Greek word is that it did not denote a personality quality at all, but a kind of action, namely ‘violence’ or ‘violation’, including sexual violence and, in legal parlance at least, insults and damage to someone’s good name. In a looser sense, it could also include moral ‘outrage’ without a victim, or which debased only the hýbristos, the ‘outrageous person’, themselves. Insofar as hýbris did refer to an attitude, it was ‘insolence’ or ‘contempt’ – not pride. This range of meanings is well covered by the Liddell-Scott-Jones dictionary (off-site link).

This raises the question of why hubris ever acquired the sense of ‘excessive pride’, and ‘pride against the gods’ in particular, in modern languages. According to the common conception today, hubris is the pivot on which Greek tragedy turns: human conceit struck down by divine retribution. This idea is so prevalent that Wikipedia lists hubris as one of the “core terms” of Aristotle’s Poetica, the most famous ancient analysis of tragedy, although the word never occurs in this work. But it is not an accident that the proverb which best summarizes this understanding of tragedy, namely that “pride comes before a fall”, is Biblical (Proverbs 16:18), not pagan. Aristotle in fact advocates that, in the best tragedies, misfortune befalls someone who is “neither exception for virtue and justice, nor for in vice and depravity”, but has committed “some error”, indeed a “great error” (Poetics 1453a). What arouses our sympathies is that such a grave error or fault (hamartía) does not necessarily reflect a prideful character, but could be committed by someone of ordinary moral stature. (On the term hamartía, see further in the next section.)

Still, the word hýbris or ‘violation’ does figure prominently in the tragedies, and sometimes is directed against the divine. Now, since the gods often bring about the punishment or misfortune, in what sense is such violation not what tragedy hinges on? […]

3 Hubris in ancient Greek

[… tragedy: hamartía in Aristotle; through suffering learn, Aeschylus]

4 Is magic ‘hubristic’?