Hubris (pronounced HEW-bris) means “excessive pride” or “overconfidence. It’s when somebody gets so confident that they start to believe they’re invincible. As a result, they make foolish decisions that ultimately bring about their defeat.
The word comes from Greek literature, where it refers to a defiant or arrogant attitude toward the gods. The gods, of course, will not stand for this sort of behavior and always punish those who are guilty of hubris, usually with death. Our concept of “playing God” is borrowed from Greek notions of hubris.
II. Examples and Explanation of Hubris
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic story about the hubris of playing God. In the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein decides to create sentient life in his laboratory, a task that would put him on a par with the other great creator of life – God. Frankenstein’s creation, however, proves impossible to control and becomes a curse on its creator.
Hubris occurs in real life as well as in literature. Hitler, for example, was notoriously overconfident in his approach to waging war, and his hubris arguably cost him the war – and his life. For most of World War II, Hitler wisely kept peace with the Soviet Union in the east, even as he waged a brutal campaign against the Allies in the west. Everything was going so well that Hitler got overconfident and decided to attack the Soviets, opening up a second front in the war where millions of German soldiers would die. This rash decision significantly weakened the Nazi army, ultimately leading to an Allied victory.
The Titanic is often thought of as another real-world example of hubris. Advertisements for the ship described it as “practically unsinkable,” and this may have led to overconfidence on the part of its captain. Many people believe that the ship was steered heedlessly, and that the crew were not careful enough about the icebergs floating near them. In addition, the ship was designed without enough lifeboat space, so many of its passengers were doomed to drown when it sank.
III. The Importance of Hubris
Hubris is a great storytelling device because it connects with what we experience in the real world: when you get overconfident, you make bad decisions. “Pride goeth before a fall.” We all know of people who thought they were unstoppable and made terrible decisions as a result, so stories of hubris seem very believable. In addition, they play on our dislike for arrogance – most cultures find arrogance to be a dishonorable quality, and stories about hubris help express that cultural attitude. Along the way, they teach people an important lesson about humility.
IV. Examples of Hubris in Literature
The Fall of Icarus is a Greek myth that has been the basis for countless paintings, novels, plays, and other works of art. In the story, the inventor Daedalus creates wings in his workshop and gives them to his son, Icarus. The wings come with a warning: don’t fly too close to the sun, or the wax will melt and the wings will come apart. Unfortunately, Icarus is full of hubristic ambition, and he wants to fly as high as he can. Due to this hubris, Daedalus’s warning comes true: the wings melt in the sun’s heat, and Icarus plummets into the sea.
Frankenstein isn’t the only hubristic scientist in classic literature. There’s also Dr. Faustus, the arrogant scholar in Christopher Marlowe’s famous play. Faustus believes he can control a demon, and is so hubristic that he is willing to make a pact with the devil – selling his soul in exchange for demonic power. However, Faustus proves unequal to the demonic powers, and he is ultimately dragged off to hell with no hope of redemption.
V. Examples of Hubris in Popular Culture
In Pacific Rim, Raleigh Becket starts out as a man full of hubris. He’s a talented Jaeger pilot who has defeated plenty of kaiju (giant monsters) during his career, and he is so full of confidence that he begins to feel he is unstoppable. During a fight with one particularly dangerous kaiju, Raleigh gets cocky and lets the creature take him by surprise. In this case, it’s Raleigh’s brother Yancy who pays the price for Raleigh’s hubris. Because Raleigh survives the encounter, he has a chance to learn and grow, ultimately becoming stronger for the experience.
Luke Skywalker demonstrates hubris in his decision to leave Dagobah and face Darth Vader alone. Yoda warns him that he is not ready for this confrontation yet, but Luke is confident in his abilities and flies off to track down the Sith Lord. Of course, Luke’s confidence turns out to be overblown as Vader defeats him, takes his hand, and very nearly kills him. However, this is also a modern story, so we can expect a happy ending for the hero. In Luke’s case, he gets a new robotic hand and ultimately becomes a wiser and stronger man as a result of his defeat by Vader.
VI. Related Terms (with examples)
A tragedy is a sad or pitiable story in which the hero is killed or brought down due to internal moral or psychological flaws. Hubris is an extremely common feature of tragedies, as many tragic heroes are defeated by their own pride or over-ambition. (See, for example, the story of Icarus in the next section.)