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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Karma? Maybe Nemesis Destroys Hubris

I hear so many people use the word karma as if they actually believe in the causal law shared among many religious traditions of India. Karma has the ethical dimension of the process of rebirth. That theory of salvation concludes that future births and life situations will be conditioned by actions performed during one’s present life, which itself has been conditioned by the accumulated effects of actions performed in previous lives.

In America, where, according to the American Religious Identification Survey (2008), 76% of the adult population identified themselves as Christians, I find it ironic that people believe in karma, a law of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. As far as I know, Christianity does not provide karma as the major motivation to live a moral life. Do Christians who commonly invoke the word karma as just, "godly" revenge even understand what they are saying?

But since so many folks still insist "karma is a bitch that will eventually even the score," I just accept their right to mix religious philosophies. I wonder if they have ever heard of the good old Greek terms hubris and nemesis? Perhaps, it would make us all happy to believe that excessive pride and vanity will be penalized by a higher power.

It's Greek To Me

Hubris is defined as "overbearing pride or presumption." As a literary term, hubris stems from Greek tragedy, and the word refers to an excess of ambition and pride, ultimately causing the transgressor's ruin. Hubris usually refers to infractions by mortals against other mortals.

An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in Greek society. In the Greek tragedies, Nemesis, also known as the goddess Rhamnous, appears chiefly as the inescapable avenger of crime and the punisher of those who succumb to hubris (arrogance before the gods). She is the spirit of divine retribution.

The word nemesis originally meant the distributor of fortune, neither good nor bad, simply in due proportion to each according to what was deserved; then, nemesis came to suggest the resentment caused by any disturbance of this right proportion, or the sense of justice which could not allow it to pass unpunished.

Originally, in ancient Greek society, hubris had strong connotations toward sexual misconduct and general violence toward others. The category of acts constituting hubris for the ancient Greeks apparently broadened from the original reference to molestation of a corpse or humiliation of a defeated foe to molestation, or outrageous treatment, in general.

Aristotle believed that individuals engaged in these types of behaviors to humiliate victims, with the underlying desire being to make themselves feel superior.

“Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim…simply for the pleasure of it. Retaliation is not hubris, but revenge. … Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.”

(Paraphrase of Aristotle from Rhetoric)


 Hubris Remains

“Hubris calls for nemesis, and in one form or another it's going to get it, 
not as a punishment from outside but as the completion of a pattern already started.”

 --Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By

The proverb "pride goeth (goes) before a fall" (from the biblical Book of Proverbs, 16:18) is thought to sum up the modern use of hubris. It is also referred to as "pride that blinds," as it often causes one accused of hubris to act in foolish ways that contradict common sense. In other words, the modern definition may be thought of as, "that pride that goes just before the fall."

Today, hubris is often associated with a lack of humility, though not always with the lack of knowledge. It often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

Those accused of hubris often come from higher social backgrounds, such as politicians or wealthy celebrities, than the accuser, who accuses them of having marginal experience with the realities of the topics they attempt to address.

Hubris and Politics

What are the implications of hubris as they relate to politicians with status and celebrity? It seems that hubris thrives in a Congress set in the age of "me." Too many of those we trust to be honest and unselfish statesmen have become unsighted, arrogant officeholders.

Recent research consistent with prior work (Anderson et al., 2006) found evidence suggesting that when the group’s needs dominate; individual group members do indeed perceive their status accurately and do not status self-enhance.

But, so many of our elected officials have lost allegiance to their group, the United States Congress, and, thus, do not serve the citizens of our nation. The hubris of so many politicians destroys group activity. The need to possess status is noble, yet maintaining status in proper balance requires compromise and sincere cooperation with all group members.

Functionalist theories of status argue that status hierarchies provide many benefits for face-to-face groups, including a clear order of influence among group members. However, research affirms that for status hierarchies to provide these benefits, individual group members must be willing to perceive their status accurately -- otherwise the system breaks down.

In such a breakdown, too many group members fight for control over group processes and decisions. Individual pride dominates every action. As in our Congress, the good of the "group" becomes secondary to the allegiance to the political party while party leaders become bloated with self-regard.

On the other hand, for individuals to refrain from engaging status self-enhancement, they must forego the opportunity to boost their self-esteem. On a broader level, group members must address a tension between the group’s need to maintain order and the individuals’ need to maintain a positive sense of self.

(Daniel R. Ames, Samuel D. Gosling, Cameron Anderson. "Punishing Hubris: The Perils of
Overestimating One’s Status in a Group." September 23, 200)

To so many today, image is more important than substance. Yet often acquiring and maintaining a certain image triggers inner hubris and suddenly ambition becomes self absorbed. Then, the intentions of promising heroes succumb to the downfall of pride and appearance. The ego overpowers the superego, the conscience of moral standards and rules, and devotion to the public good is soon forgotten.

Isn't it ironic that those who insist on developing a good reputation, a character that keeps their self-glorification in check, are often openly ridiculed for having quiet, meek profiles? Instead of appreciating those who are steadfast in their taciturn devotion to others, we choose to follow "the voice" that sounds like authority or "the look" that pleasantly fits the dominant fashion.

So, those of you who think people should be punished for their pride might want to think about ancient Greece and call upon nemesis to kick a little ass. That is, if you believe every story should have a moral. The goddess would have a field day in Washington, D.C., a place where prideful ambition has reached ungodly proportions. 

“And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.” 

--Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"

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