The Proud Duck
Friday, February 04, 2005
At some point in the last few days, I read the reference to "hubris" that put me over the top and made me absolutely sick of the word.
One thing I've noticed is that the users of the word tend overwhelmingly to be politically liberal, with the cultural assumptions that this has come to involve now that politics has become so much of a comprehensive identity for so many people.
"Hubris," of course, is the theme in ancient Greek drama that the gods punish excessive pride and self-confidence, or comparison of mortals to the gods.
That's fine, as far as it goes. The Judeo-Christian First Commandment basically says as much: "I'm God; you're not." Should be obvious, but it isn't.
At the same time, it sometimes seems as if any bold enterprise is immediately criticized for its "hubris." To that extent, and to the extent that human progress depends on people stepping beyond the bounds of what is thought to be possible, the concept of "hubris" is a dead weight holding us back.
Aristotle, in the Nicomachaean Ethics, distinguished between pride, which he stated was good, and vainglory or arrogance, which wasn't. The difference is that pride is an accurate self-assessment of one's own good qualities, while to be arrogant is to have a higher regard for onesself than is justified. The problem is that it's hard for imperfect humans to take an accurate measure of anything -- much less of one's own self. To avoid arrogance, and also to account for the inevitable errors in self-measurement, a person must consciously assign a lower regard to himself than he believes is justified. But in doing so, he risks undervaluing himself, and concluding that he is capable of less than he truly is, and thus failing to fill his potential.
Sometimes the only way to find your limits is to bang your head into them. That may mean overreaching, or setting your sights too high. The ancients (and modern liberals) might call this hubris. I say, hubris away, and if and when Nemesis shows up, kick his ephebophile Greek teeth right down his throat.
This is totally separate from taking a proper measure of the potential costs and benefits of an action. It's one thing to be overconfident of your chances of success; it's another to ignore the potential consequences of failure, which you can never discount. There's no weakness in saying "I'm confident I can do this; however, if it turns out I can't, I will cause a lot more harm than the good I'd do by succeeding."
The bottom line is that it's not overconfidence itself that is dangerous; that seems to me to be a concept that could only have been invented by losers who want to hold others back. The dangerous thing is not being clear-eyed in calculating the costs and benefits of a course of action, and ignoring the potential downside.