Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Doug from Traverse City (MI) asked about the meaning and use of hubris. It comes from a classical Greek term, and currently it means pride and excessive self-confidence.

It was more than swollen ego in the old days. It was anger wrapped in insolence, and when it resulted in insulting, degrading treatment of another person, it was actually a crime. In Greek law, according to Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, hubris included all the more serious injuries done to another, and it was a grievous assault. It could lead to public indictment.

When anger and contempt lead to lesser injuries upon another, Liddell and Scott say that it was known as aikia, and the remedy was more likely to be private action. Variations on the word hubris historically included wantonness, lewdness, and restiveness on the part of overfed horses. I hate it when that happens.

Aristotle discussed hubris in his Rhetoric [1378b]:

“There are three kinds of slighting -- contempt, spite, and insolence. (1) Contempt is one kind of slighting: you feel contempt for what you consider unimportant, and it is just such things that you slight. (2) Spite is another kind; it is a thwarting another man's wishes, not to get something yourself but to prevent his getting it. The slight arises just from the fact that you do not aim at something for yourself: clearly you do not think that he can do you harm, for then you would be afraid of him instead of slighting him, nor yet that he can do you any good worth mentioning, for then you would be anxious to make friends with him. (3) Insolence is also a form of slighting, since it consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to yourself, or because anything has happened to yourself, but simply for the pleasure involved. (Retaliation is not "insolence," but vengeance.) The cause of the pleasure thus enjoyed by the insolent man is that he thinks himself greatly superior to others when ill-treating them.”

Number 3 gives the essence of hubris: shaming and humiliating another. Stick the knife in and twist it, baby.

St. Paul turned the whole concept on its head when he said that Christians should welcome shame and humiliation as a test of faith. In 2 Corinthians 12:10, he writes,

“Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The original Greek hubris was translated in this KJV passage as insults.

SIDEBAR: The Use of Greek Hubris as a Concept Applied to Contemporary History Events

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