Hubris: Definition, Meaning and Explanation

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      In ancient Greek, Hubris 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. Violations, of the law against hubris, included what might today be termed assault and battery; sexual crimes; or the theft of public or sacred property. In Greek literature, hubris usually 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. Greek mythology depicts it as a great crime and demands a severe punishment. Generally, the Greek idea of Hubris is that a character in an authoritative position becomes so proud of his exceptional qualities that he forms a delusion that he is equal to gods and eventually he tries to defy the gods and his fate. Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because of anything that happened to a person or might happen to a person, but merely for that person’s own gratification. Aristotle defines Hubris in his book Rhetoric as:

“Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim...simply for the pleasure of it. Retaliation is not hubris, but revenge. ... Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.”

      Aristotle thus believed that people indulge in crimes like sexual misconduct and maltreating others only to fulfill their basic desire to make themselves feel superior to others. Hamartia and hubris are often very closer devices in tragedy. Hubris is a typical example of hamartia in tragedies, which is an excessive pride and ego in a hero’s character which ultimately brings his tragic downfall in a tragedy. Hubris is the pride or over-weaning self-confidence, which leads a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or to violate an important moral law. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. The misfortunes are always out of proportion to his faults. The deserved punishment for an evil deed has no pathos in it. The undeserved suffering of a virtuous person is revolting. The sufferings of a person which are out of proportion for committing an error of judgment arouses pity and fear in the audience. Those who witness the tragedy will guard themselves against such errors in real life. In Greek tragedies, the ‘hubristic’ actions of a hero, in a powerful position, cause his shame and humiliation. Oedipus in the famous Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex is a perfect example of hamartia i.e. his downfall is caused by unintentional wrongdoings. His hubris makes him try to defy the prophecy of gods but he ends up doing what he feared the most. The Oracle of Delphi told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this, he left Corinth and headed towards Thebes. On his way, he killed an old man in a feud and later married the queen of Thebes as he was made king of the city after he saved the city from a deadly Sphinx. He committed all these sins in complete ignorance but he deserved punishment because of his attempting to rebel against his fate. His reversal of fortune is caused by his actions, which are in a sense blasphemous.

      In Paradise Lost, Milton portrays Satan as a character that suffers from Hubris. He loses his glorious position through his excessive pride. It was his Hubris that made him try to take control over Heaven. Although he failed miserably, his pride lasts — “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” The reason of his desire to rebel against his creator originates from his reluctance to accept the authority of God and His Son because he believed that angels are “self-begot, self-raised” and hence bringing his downfall in being thrown out of Paradise.

      An instance of Hubris can be spotted in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Faustus’s arrogance and extreme pride in his scholarship and his irresistible desire to become superior to all other men of his age force him to sell his soul to Lucifer by signing a contract with his blood. He learns the art of black magic and defies Christianity. Finally, he has to pay for his arrogance and pride. The devils take away his soul to Hell and he suffers eternal damnation. Similarly as also mentioned above, Victor the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein exhibits Hubris in his endeavor to become an unmatched scientist. He creates a monster named Frankenstein which ultimately becomes the cause of his disaster.

      In literature, the portrayal of hubristic characters serves to achieve a moralistic end. Such characters are eventually punished thus giving a moral lesson to the audience and the readers so that they are motivated to improve their characters by removing the flaws that can cause a tragedy in their lives. Wit missing; a tragic hero suffering due to his hubristic actions, the audience or the readers may fear that the same.

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