Characterizing behaviour as hubris or not is sometimes difficult in real life, but is more clear-cut in the movies – and was definitely unambiguous in ancient Greek society.

Every Trumpian tweet prompts an examination of the man and his psyche. Narcissism, extreme self-regard and hubris are all terms that armchair psychoanalysts have applied to him. But as the months (and years) roll on through a largely unpredictable presidency, most people in this group have given up trying to come up with diagnoses. Having broken onto the political big stage through the back door of reality TV, Trump is only too aware of the need to keep the performance as theatrical as possible. And so he throws himself into it with relish – attacking his opponents, inflating his own accomplishments and throwing out red meat tweets for his base at 4 am.

But even when we look at the behaviour of other more consistent leaders – historic, modern and across a number of domains – it’s often challenging to figure out what part of it qualifies as pure hubris. Demanding and aggressive leadership tendencies are often associated with this trait. But it’s possible for similar behaviour to stem from passion and conviction, attributes that are viewed as desirable in strong leaders.

In his historical play, Shakespeare attempted to highlight this problem of perception through Mark Anthony’s eloquent speech following Julius Caesar’s assassination. In one particularly stirring part, Mark Anthony describes Caesar’s empathetic side, something that self-absorbed leaders rarely display.

When that the poor have cried,
Caesar hath wept:

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

And Brutus is an honourable man.

In the next part, Mark Anthony shoots down the idea that Caesar was power hungry and excessively ambitious.

You all did see that on the Lupercal

I thrice presented him a kingly crown,

Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

And, sure, he is an honourable man.

What Mark Anthony was trying to point out is that hubris and ambition are inextricably linked with public life. And although history would be the ultimate judge of whether Caesar sometimes overstepped in going after his goals, he was not entirely an indifferent and authoritarian ruler as portrayed by his opponents.

This is a problem of characterization that we have with contemporary leaders as well. By all accounts, Steve Jobs was not an easy person to work with. His many personal and leadership flaws have helped launch a number of books and articles. But he was able to fully articulate his vision for beautiful and life-altering technological products to employees and customers alike. Can his difficult behaviour be termed hubris if it enabled a revolution that everyone wanted to be part of?

Unlike real life, the movies are usually pretty clear-eyed in their treatment of this trait and those who exhibit it. Whether it’s Colonel Jessup in ‘A Few Good Men’, Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’’ or Tony Montana in ‘Scarface’, all of these movies show how unbridled pride and ambition lead to ruin or incarceration, or both. And as viewers, we are not necessarily sorry about the outcome.

The ancient Greeks were also unambiguous in their handling of hubris. In Greek mythology, hubris is represented as a fatal flaw that inevitably leads to a downfall. Nowhere is this representation more literal than in the case of Icarus who, in a burst of bravado, flies towards the sun, outfitted with wings of wax made by his father. The sun melts his wings and Icarus plunges to the ground and to a sure death.

Oedipus is another Greek hero who attempts to defy a couple of disturbing prophecies and is punished for his arrogance. When informed by the Oracle of Delphi that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus, understandably, sets out to see if he can prove the high priestess wrong. But it proves to be a futile attempt as his dark destiny closes in around him.

Hubris in these cautionary tales serves as a moralistic device, a way to communicate the folly of forgetting one’s place in the world and aiming for god-like status.

The ancient Greeks truly believed in and relied on this system to restore balance when human behaviour got out of line. As one academic paper that examines this ancient value system and its modern-day implications, puts it:

…hubris was no common evil: It led people to presume that they were above ordinary laws, if not laws unto themselves—to presume they deserved to exceed the fate and fortune ordained by the gods. Acts of hubris aroused envy among the gods on Mt. Olympus and angered them to restore justice and equilibrium. Nemesis, the goddess of divine vengeance and retribution, might then descend to destroy the vainglorious pretender, to cut man down to size and restore equilibrium.

(Ronfelt, David. Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex: A concept for leadership analysis)

It definitely seems like a simple and elegant system. Whether it can curb the tweeting profligacy of a sitting president is unclear, however.


Sangita Srinivasa is a writer and the editor of Viewpoint.