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Guest Blog: There are no positive aspects to ‘Hubris’. 2015

“… while some positive qualities may be attributed to related concepts and .. good self-esteem and …proportionate pride in one’s achievements is welcome, hubris has no positive connotations and is unacceptable under all circumstances!

Nick Bouras, Professor (emeritus) of Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. Prof. Bouras is Coordinator of the Daedalus Trust and Chair of its Research and Development Group.

George Ikkos, Director “Psychiatry in Dialogue with Neuroscience Medicine and Society” Programme Royal Society of Medicine (Psychiatry)

Another in an occasional series of contributions from members of our Advisory Board and other friends of the Daedalus Trust. Published online 1 June 2015

It is stated increasingly that, in addition to negatives, there are some positive aspects to hubris. In contrast, we will argue that we should adopt the ancient Greeks’ meaning of hubris whereby there are no positive features, only negative.

Hubris was a key concept for the ancient Greeks. It could be found mainly in political action, but also in physical, military and financial affairs when citizens acted in arrogant, insulting or violent ways against others. It referred to behaviour that implied belief in one’s ability or intent to exceed human nature and challenge the gods. Both state laws and especially divine law imposed limits to human action and forbade such behaviour. Where such limits were flaunted, the offender would be expected to suffer ‘nemesis’, ie. the rage and furious retribution of the gods. Hubris is usually perceived as a characteristic of an individual rather than a group. Nevertheless, the group the offender belongs to may suffer consequences from the prohibited and offending act too.
Hubris in Classical Greek thinking often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting this is in a position of power. Today, according to the Daedalus Trust, hubris is defined as ‘exaggerated pride, overwhelming self-confidence and contempt for others’. The ‘hubris syndrome’ – overconfidence in one’s own judgement and contempt for others – is considered to be an acquired personality change triggered by access to, and the exercise of, power over a period of time. If we adopt the ancient Greek meaning of hubris as it is reflected in this contemporary definition, there cannot be any positive features but only negative.

Hubris should be distinguished from related concepts such as ambition, confidence, pride, arrogance, egotism and narcissism. Some of these, such as ambition and confidence (and in the case of youth, a measure of arrogance) undoubtedly have legitimate positive connotations. Indeed, in Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued effectively that ‘pride’ is a virtue, along with others such as ‘courage’, ‘liberality’ (generosity), etc. Reasonable pride, which is consistent with one’s sense of dignity and actual achievements (and which we might choose to call today ‘good self-esteem’), should be distinguished from egotism, which overestimates one’s contribution and legitimate claims and causes offence to fellow human beings but is still a lesser provocation than hubris.

Narcissism is a more complex term, sometimes used interchangeably with arrogance or egotism. Certainly we all have a need to be recognised, respected and cherished for who we are. And yes, ambition and competitiveness may be conceived as powerful spurs to endeavour, achievement and social contribution and therefore potentially beneficial. However it is difficult to see how narcissism, which refers to a compulsion to be admired as a reaction to a felt lack of genuine esteem, could be the same. Even so, narcissism also never reaches the level of offence and provocation that hubris does.

In conclusion, while some positive qualities may be attributed to related concepts; and while a sense of dignity, good self-esteem and – coupled with creativity, family and social contribution – proportionate pride in one’s achievements is to be welcomed; hubris has no positive connotations and is unacceptable under all circumstances!

A fascinating paper explores further the “full measure… of the dangers that hubris poses for democratic societies. …hubris not only offends against the equality and moral dignity of others, but threatens the political domain more broadly by eliding plurality and undermining the conditions necessary for deliberation, good counsel, and shared political judgment.”

Access it here: “Hubris breeds the tyrant”: the anti politics of Hubris from Thebes to Abu Graib

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We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't accept comments that are unsubstantiated, unnecessarily abusive or may expose the Trust in any way. All contributions are moderated before being published.
  1. Ricardo Blaug says:

    Nick Bouras and George Ikkos are surely correct in their assertion that hubris has no positive connotations, but we should consider why it is necessary, perhaps even controversial, to make such a claim. Daedalus’s work shows that hubris is a psychological/organisational disorder that is absent in good leadership even though some of its elements – such as vision and risk taking – also appear in the clinical indicators for the full blown pathology, here as delusion and recklessness. Just as ‘normal’ personalities have elements of psychopathology in moderation, management studies continually identifies the elements of hubris that are required of the effective and charismatic leader. It is now a short step to congratulating corporate executives on their ‘evident’ absence of hubris, despite their rather roguish use of some of its elements.

    We get close to applauding hubris when we forget that it is a cause of tremendous individual suffering and organisational ineffectiveness. We get closer still when we marvel at the Wolf of Wall Street and the panache of the Enron executives and we still face the almost complete dominance of our organisational domains by primitive hierarchies and hubristic practices. That, surely, is why we need Daedalus: to prevent hubris and do leadership better. For all our talk of new forms of management, it remains, for the most part, a dog eat dog world. What’s strange is that we still see the biggest dogs as having a certain rugged charm.

    What we think now has been partly delivered to our heads by history. Bouras, Ikkos and Button take us back to the time the concept was coined. For the ancient Athenians, we could only be fully human when able to participate in collective decision-making (zoon politicon) and hubris was a critical concept used by autonomous citizens to identify a real and present danger. Specifically, the constant threat was that the hubristic leader would close down deliberative space, stunt the development of citizens and constitute a force against democracy. History thus reveals that hubris is not just a little too much of what is necessary in a leader. It is a damning accusation, by democrats, that governing elites need to be watched with the greatest care. This was Machiavelli and Rousseau’s critique of corruption by power: we need good leaders that further democracy and vigilant citizens to control them.

    It cannot be that Daedalus exists to distinguish good hubris from bad. Hubris is a ‘disorder of position,’ one in which certain psychological tendencies somehow ‘fit’ the hierarchic structure in such a way as to cause significant damage. Hubris is anti-democratic and no leader should be that.

    • Daedalus admin says:

      Thank you Dr Blaug: I’ve passed your comments on to Prof Bouras to see if he would like to respond. I’m sure your comment will be live very soon!