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Greek Hubris: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This lesson will explore the ancient Greek concept of hubris as used in Greek mythology, literature, and legal matters. We'll contrast Greek hubris to the modern definition to give you a better idea of the difference between the two.

Modern vs. Ancient Definitions

Have you ever heard someone described as having hubris? Today, hubris means arrogance well beyond a person's abilities. For instance, if Michael Jordan talked about his importance to the team, he might come off as just a little arrogant, but if most team captains spoke like that they would be suffering from hubris (and a little self-delusion to boot).

The Greeks weren't as concerned about a person's self-image as much as how his words and actions embarrassed or shamed others. For them it was okay to think of yourself as the greatest orator or the best living general, but to publicly humiliate another orator or general for gratification was demonstrating hubris.

By the same thinking, a person with a low self-opinion who wanted to humiliate themselves was also considered to have hubris. For a person to put himself into a demeaning situation was just as wrong to the Greeks as humiliating another person.

Achilles

The best example of hubris is Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War. In the Iliad, a book about the war, Achilles asks the leader of the Greeks for his fair share of the booty. When he doesn't get it, he sits in his tent and pouts. It's only when the Trojan hero Hector kills his cousin, Patroclus, that Achilles stops sulking and puts his armor back on. Achilles takes revenge on Hector by killing him and then dragging the dead warrior behind him as he rides his chariot around Troy three times.

So how was this an act of hubris on Achilles' part? Refusing to fight wasn't the problem, nor was taking revenge on Hector. In humiliating the dead hero, though, even out of grief, Achilles committed hubris.

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