Right, confession time – when I was younger I thought ‘hubris’ was a good thing. I was a bit vague on what that was, but I was under the impression that it was positive. It was only in the fairly recent past that I realised it’s not (see also: ‘acrimonious’ – for ages I thought all those people going through ‘acrimonious’ divorces were having lovely, civilised break-ups. WRONG).
Anyway, as I’m sure you’re much cleverer than me dear reader, you probably already know that hubris describes the quality of extreme pride or over confidence. It’s often applied to people who are so full of their own self-importance that they’ve lost touch with reality. (There are so many world leaders, both past and present, I could use as examples here. Instead I’ll just leave it to you to fill in the blank.)
The word ‘hubris’ comes to us from Greek. It meant something different originally – it referred to someone getting pleasure from carrying out a crime or similar action that humiliated their victim. Due to a linguistic mix-up, some Greek poets, possibly Aeschylus or Hesiod, changed its meaning to refer to pride so great it offended the gods (apologies for being a bit vague here, but it’s quite a long boring explanation which you won’t care about – trust me).
Here are some famous examples of hubris in literature.
Icarus – Daedalus, Icarus’ dad, designed and built the Cretan labyrinth for King Minos, who then imprisoned them in it (which seems a bit out of order, Minos). They escaped using wings made of wax that Daedalus invented. Despite being able to build a FREAKING LABYRINTH, Daed apparently didn’t think to tell his son that wax melts in the heat, only not to go too high. Icarus didn’t take any notice of his pa (because, hubris) and flew too close to the sun. And you know the rest.
Oedipus – he tried to defy a prophecy from the gods that said he’d kill his dad and boff his mum. Even though it seems a bit mean, this apparently counts as hubris (the prophecy defying, not the patricide and incest – the gods actively encouraged that). He was punished for this by accidentally doing both those things anyway. Ouch.
Lucifer – the whole ‘I’m-better-than-you-dad’ thing didn’t end well for Lucifer (assuming being king of hell counts as a punishment which depends on your point of view, and which TV shows you’ve watched – I’m looking at you ‘Lucifer Morningstar’).
Dr Strange – portrayed by Benedict Cucumberpatch in the Marvel movie, Steven Strange thinks he’s the best neurosurgeon in the world. His arrogance leads him to have an accident which ruins his hands and means he can’t operate any more. To be fair, he then *SPOILER ALERT* goes on to become an all-powerful wizard who can manipulate time and space, so it’s not all bad.
Victor Frankenstein – god knows we’ve all wanted to build a man at one point or another, but this hubristic idea never ends well, as Vic can attest to after his monster murders most of his friends and family. This also applies to Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He may have been a sweet transvestite, but ‘making a man, with blond hair and a tan’ also proved to be his downfall.
Oh, I almost forgot – the word ‘hubris’ itself might have come from the name of a minor Greek goddess called Hybris, who was the deity of insolence, violence and outrageous behaviour. I bet she’d be a riot at a party.