Hubris and Humility

Jim Gustafson

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The Greek word hubris captures a sad but important concept. As much as we would like to cruise along believing that everything and everybody is kind, reality does not allow the fantasy for long. The character flaw that is hubris is the result of a person's need to feel superior. Aristotle described hubris as that which makes, “men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater. " Overtime, it has come to reflect the mindset and behavior of those who think they are immune from the principles of law, ethics and human kindness.

As is so often the case, there is a balance to be maintained. There is a place for temperance. A healthy degree of pride in oneself is a sign of self-esteem. Being proud of your accomplishments is not only appropriate but important. As Mohamed Ali once said, “it ain't braggin’ if it's true. " Keeping a list of our finest accomplishments, our best and proudest moments, can be a great resource when we're feeling less than positive about our self.

Hubris goes far beyond a healthy pride to arrogance. In Greek tragedy, hubris resulted in one mistakenly placing his or her self on the same level as the gods. The gods did not welcome the intrusion and the inevitable disaster befalls the hero. “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. " (Proverbs xvi: 18) Haughty people, the know-it-alls, insist on having their own way all the time. Ultimately, those who have tolerated their behavior join the gods in giving them a good thumping. Then, they are left alone to ponder and choose. Their choice is to stay the course and seek new victims or find a way to turn from hubris to humility.

Humility usually begins with a contrite apology followed by sincere submission to the authority of another. It requires seeking and accepting help from someone else. Reaching out to take the hand of one who can pull the fallen back up to reality. It is a challenging transformation, but one that can bring great joy to everyone.


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