words have been popping up in my thoughts a lot lately, and
it has nothing to do with the Olympic games. It’s kind of
like those tunes that get stuck in your head, repeatedly recycling
through some musical memory, seemingly out of conscious control.
Except, my problem is that instead of music, I have these
Greek words repeating through my thoughts. I have noticed
that these terms don’t just pop up at random. A pattern seems
to be emerging. The Greek seems to be triggered by certain
events and individuals.
Hubris. A noun that can be pronounced either HYOO-bris or
HOO-bris according to The Columbia Guide to Standard American
English. The guide defines this term of Greek origin as
“an excessive pride or arrogant overconfidence that often
ends in retribution.” Other etymological sources include words
and phrases like “wanton violence,” “ insolence,” and “disregard
of the rights of others.”
Hubris was a moral concept that played a central role in Greek
mythology, theater and in Homer’s Iliad with its skulking
Achilles. Some arrogant human says or does something that
offends the gods and sets a stage for payback. Sometimes the
humans mistakenly placed themselves at the level of the gods.
Sometimes they just dissed the gods or claimed to be acting
on their behalf without proper license. Other times they commit
acts against their fellow humans of such an onerous nature
that severe divine intervention was warranted. Retribution
was such a big-time operation for the Greeks that they had
a separate god who specialized in its delivery. This leads
me to another word of Greek origin that has been popping up
in my head a lot lately.
Nemesis. She is the Greek goddess of retribution and righteous
anger who delivered painful reminders of human mortality to
those guilty of hubris. In our current English usage she has
lost her proper noun status and linguistically settled down
to become the concept of righteous retribution.
The Greeks also saw the idea of hubris as important in the
analysis of historic events. Over 2,800 years ago, the historian
Thucydides noted that hubris figured in the prolonged and
costly war waged by Athens against Syracuse, a settlement
on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. The Athenians apparently
felt that the distant people of Syracuse were backward bumpkins
who could be easily quashed with their superior war technology.
It would be a short war and quick victory, many claimed. They
were wrong. The fighting went on for years, casualties mounted,
and the conflict ultimately contributed to both the Greek
Empire’s loss of its foreign land claims and democracy at
home. Nemesis exacted some major payback.
It seems that every time I hear George W. and his gang give
their latest take on the invasion and occupation of Iraq,
“hubris” starts to flash through my neural nets.
When the Bush gang claimed that they were justified in a pre-emptive
strike in Iraq due to the presence of weapons of mass destruction
that posed a direct threat to this country there was hubris
involved. The smirky arrogance with which this was proclaimed
as akin to divine right was astounding and reeked of hubris.
The continuing claim that these weapons were still to be found
inflated this hubris still further. Instead of channeling
divine insight and omniscience, George W. now blames the CIA
for offering him bad data. The hubris level of the administration
rises as they assume they can fool enough of the citizenry
to believe this before the November election.
Hubris also abounded in its “wanton violence” mode as George
W. launched the war on Iraq. Like the Athenian attack on Syracuse,
the Bush War was not over quickly, despite the Mission Accomplished
banner hoisted aloft. It has simmered with growing resistance
and casualties. The arrogant self-view as liberator has given
way to the nemesis of occupier. A conflict without foreseeable
end continues to consume lives, families, billions of taxpayer
dollars and international respect in a foreign land whose
people increasingly see the United States as an evil occupier.
In a recently published book, Imperial Hubris, the
anonymous author (a career CIA analyst whose bosses told him
he could not reveal his identity) sees another level of hubris
pervasive in this administration: According to him, this hubris
is the sense that, “the Islamic world fails to understand
the benign intent of U.S. foreign policy . . . that America
does not need to reevaluate its policies, let alone change
them; it merely needs to better explain the wholesomeness
of its views and the purity of its purposes to the uncomprehending
The hubris of George W. has not been limited to Iraq. It has
also been displayed in his actions regarding global warming,
international nuclear treaties, HIV and his move to develop
new and useable nuclear weapons. This hubris reaches into
the stratosphere of the absurd when he vigorously condemns
those developing weapons of mass destruction, while he pushes
for more U.S. WMD production.
Domestically, George W. has wielded his excessive pride to
support a severe challenge to the definition of basic freedoms
in this country. Ironically, his bundles of Patriot Act legislation
have been promoted to protect our freedoms by taking them
away. This domestic hubris expanded its “wanton disregard
for the rights of others” further as he claimed the authority
to imprison U.S. citizens without allowing them access to
counsel or courts.
So with all this hubris coming down from the Bush administration
shouldn’t we expect some serious domestic nemesis to follow?
Will these Greek terms ever recede and stop flashing in my
I think a nemesis is coming in the form of the aggregate effects
of a simple act each of us over the age of 18 can still engage
in: vote. Make sure you and all your friends are registered
to vote, and mark Nov. 2 on your calendar as Righteous Retribution
Day. A Greek goddess may be smiling somewhere.