The sin of pride before the gods. In modern-day English a mixture of overbearing self-assurance and smugness.

An essential element of Greek Tragedy. Wander around 3rd Century BC Athens telling people that you're better than/smarter than/more beautiful than the inhabitants of Mount Olympus, and sooner or later they'll wise up and kick you in the arse.

In a dramatically ironic way, of course.

Hubris was the cardinal sin known to the Ancient Greeks, whose religion was structured in such a radically different fashion to our monotheism as to elevate it above all the sins we rank higher. Hubris means something like "arrogance" in its most extreme form - the arrogance of imagining one to be better than the gods themselves. The Bible tells us that "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall", but it is ridiculous for any adherent of Judaism, Christianity or Islam to imagine themselves somehow superior to God - by His very definition, this is impossible. Not so for the Ancient Greeks.

Monotheism, in theory at least, has a message of peace and stability - but also of no tolerance for alternative views of what it means to live a good life. On the other hand, people who worship a multiplicity of gods have all manner of examples of divine behaviour - here a warrior, there a lover; and over there a god of wisdom. In myth, the Ancient Greek pantheon of gods strive against one another, they plot and they fight; and in so doing they lay down all sorts of examples for those dwelling below Olympus. Not for the Greeks the categorical tables of law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, nor the strict instructions of Jesus. Ancient Greek gods were pictured in human form, and thought to be made of the same stuff as man - and so, man was ever-tempted to challenge them.

Ancient Greeks were reared on stories like those of Homer, whose pages bristle with heroes pursuing what we refer to with banality as "self-actualization". Heroes were great men, somehow closer to the gods, who could engage with divinity throughout their life by sheer force of character. In so doing they could accomplish their ends - express their unique personality upon the world, doing good for their friends and inflicting evil on their enemies. They founded great cities, led great armies, and slayed great villains; they had a state of blessed goodness throughout their entire lives, which the Greeks called eudaimonia. They were a link between the gods and men, but their example - preserved through myth - tempted mere men to attempt to replicate them.

A society based on the appreciation of heroic and exceptional qualities brought with it tremendous risks. Any people who value individuality and action, who elevate honour and shame to a cardinal place in their value system, need a way of controlling the forces they have unleashed; for men, and young men especially, are prone to wild ambition and dreams of reordering the world to their advantage. Monotheism is a mechanism by which such ambitions can be curbed, for against them can be cited the order that God created and His satisfaction in its continuance; but the Olympian gods provided no such barrier to potential mayhem. Instead, the barrier - deployed functionally to silence agents of change by those in favour of the status quo, but also learned about through bitter and bloody experience - was fear of the sin of hubris.

Hubris was an arrogance that one was better than the gods, that one could constantly take liberty with one's fellow man, or take huge risks and expect to come up smiling. We might call it being cheeky; we would more accurately say it was toying with fate, expecting good fortune to always smile on you whatever you do. Some people have a charmed life, to be sure - in so doing they approximate the heroes and are just as rare; for most people, and for most political systems, steady and sensible conduct is the only sensible order of the day. Hubristic acts - the invasion of a country, the murder of a colleague for some personal gain - set in motion a train of events which is impossible to predict and likely to result in a never-ending cycle of retribution and counter-retribution, like the blood feuds of old.

The wages of hubris are inevitably ruination and death. As the Bible says, pride goeth before destruction. Fortune never smiles on an individual forever, and the injuries done to one's fellow man which were assumed to be a natural part of hubris would inevitably provoke the world against you. This makes it not only the pre-eminent personal sin but also the main political one - just cast an eye over the vista of history, with its grand schemes for the transformation of the world and man which have ended only in the ravaging of that world and the death of many men.

By attempting to overcome the world through personality, the hubristic individual unleashes his own violent energy to create and destroy, almost as if he were the Biblical God; these capacities are among man's highest but also his most dangerous. Anarchy is no more enjoyable than tyranny, and the blood feuds of old with their constant cycle of retribution only stopped with the establishment of law - the law fences man in, restrains his passions and directs his energy and creativity in ways that are less destructive. The Greeks, in their glittering democracies or oligarchies, knew how fragile stability and internal peace could be and that a society of prima donnas would threaten it - they took every effort to exclude the fiery rabble-rouser, or the popular general, or the revolutionary politician as a threat to their stability.

Despite their fear of hubris, the Greeks never denied a man the legitimate extent of his ambition, as was accorded by his talents. Such a worldview carried a risk of equating success with goodness - with the obvious connotation that might makes right - which was to some extent avoided by the appreciation of other virtues and fear of other sins. Nevertheless, the idea of hubris is one of the first ways that humanity dealt with the problem of each other's unpredictability and ambition, a natural development to accompany a people rising out of anarchy into a structured way of living. To respect your fellow man, to pay heed to the legitimate demands of the world that has been built by your ancestors and that requires certain things from you to continue as it is, and to be never overtaken by an arrogance so great that you forget you are but one person among billions and a world that will still be here after you die - these all sound like precepts we should listen to today.

But sometimes, it still takes a hero.

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