What is Hubris?

Licia Morrow

Hubris, or hybris, Greek for “insolence,” is a real person or fictional character's tragic flaw of overbearing pride or arrogance. Generally, terrible consequences result when, because of this problem, someone violates a moral code, neglects a warning from an authority figure or attempts to overstep normal human limits. It sometimes leads to defeat, death or both, as often is the case in a tragedy, but often an individual learns from his mistakes and emerges triumphant in the end. Authors have included it in their stories since ancient times, and it is frequently present in contemporary writing.

Hubris refers to an individual's overbearing pride or arrogance.
Hubris refers to an individual's overbearing pride or arrogance.

General Meaning Through Time

Originally, in ancient Greek society, hubris had strong connotations toward sexual misconduct and general violence toward others. People such as Aristotle believed that individuals engaged in these types of behaviors to humiliate victims, with the underlying desire being to make themselves feel superior. This concept is still quite popular in modern psychology, which generally accepts that abusers are the opposite of prideful, that they feel so small that they abuse to prove to themselves that they have some kind of authority or ability. Today, however, those who use the term generally mean that a person truly believes he is better than anyone else and is acting accordingly from a sense of entitlement, so even though victims of arrogance can be humiliated today just as they could in ancient times, the motivations behind the actions are different.

Shakespeare's Macbeth offers a literary example of hubris.
Shakespeare's Macbeth offers a literary example of hubris.


The wordhubris is mostly closely associated with the phrase “tragic flaw,” which many people see as synonymous with the word "hamartia." The error of hamartia does not necessarily need to be the result of an inherent flaw in the character, however. Hamartia is the action that brings about the downfall, while a tragic flaw, like hubris, is a personality trait or a part of the character’s moral makeup.

Both good and bad emotions can become the source of a character's error in judgement.
Both good and bad emotions can become the source of a character's error in judgement.


When a person uses this trait in a story, it is usually for one of three reasons. He might want to give this flaw to a character to make him seem more relatable, because readers or people in an audience generally accept that no one is perfect. The author also might use it to create some conflict on purpose, thereby creating some interest — others usually cannot challenge or overcome a protagonist if he has no weakness, so including it opens the door for physical, mental or emotional battles, leading to longer and more complex plots. Some writers incorporate it to teach a moral lesson: Thinking too much of oneself can lead to defeat, so it is better to be cautious, taking advice and getting help if it's necessary.

Terrible consequences usually occur when a hubristic person attempts to go beyond their limits.
Terrible consequences usually occur when a hubristic person attempts to go beyond their limits.

Appearance With Other Traits

Hubris is just one flaw that can appear in a character and ultimately lead to his defeat. Courage or jealousy, for example, equally can be the source of the protagonist’s error in judgment or downfall. Many writers give their protagonists more than one of these poor traits at once, weaving them together to make the plot better.

Links to Religion

To the Greeks, hubris wasn't really linked to religion or faith, except that people believed the gods would punish those who demonstrated it. They typically saw it more as a moral issue and tried to enact and enforce laws that supported behaviors that were considered more acceptable. Even so, they connected the concept to humility, because they thought that modesty and submission was a reasonable way to reduce conflicts and abuse.

The idea of rejecting excessive arrogance and living in a meek, compassionate and loving way is a centerpiece for many different religions people practice today, including Christianity. In fact, one of the best summaries or warnings against hubris is found in the Bible in Proverbs 16:18, which states "Pride goes before a fall." The story of the fall of the Devil, Lucifer, perhaps exemplifies this best, but many other tales from scripture also get the idea across. One of the most well-known describes how King David, taking advantage of his political power, sent the husband of Bathsheba to die in battle and committed adultery with her, which led to God demanding the life of King David and Bathsheba's infant son.

Connection to Organizational Hierarchy and Politics

Some people believe that groups can display this negative characteristic just as one person can. In this context, they occasionally apply the term to organizations such as businesses, as well as to governments. Most of the time, the problem of arrogance in these cases connects to widespread corruption, which individuals usually see as especially troublesome, because it points to a disconnect between the rulers in power and those they lead. As an example, in different reports, multiple journalists and general writers use the word to describe the push of American President George W. Bush toward the 2003 – 11 war in Iraq.

Literary Examples

A classic example of having too much pride is Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama of the same name. Macbeth allows his arrogance and ambition to lead him to kill Duncan in order to take the throne of Scotland. His action, a violation of moral and divine law, leads to his own destruction.

In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, King Creon ignores the warnings of the prophet Tiresias that he will die if he continues to condemn his niece, Antigone. Convinced that his law trumps the laws of the gods, he does not change his behavior. Antigone dies as a result, as does the king's wife and son.

The idea of being too arrogant and subsequently suffering disastrous consequences continues with characters in literature and pop culture today. Paul Theroux’s character, Allie Fox, from the 1982 novel and 1986 movie The Mosquito Coast, suffers from hubris based on his idealism and disdain for American culture and religion. His determination to create an ideal community in the jungles of Honduras eventually leads him to become unbalanced and destroys him. While the courage, determination and idealism that Allie possesses can be seen as positive character traits, they ultimately lead to his downfall.

The folktales of Hans Christian Andersen often dealt with the downfall of characters who displayed too much hubris.
The folktales of Hans Christian Andersen often dealt with the downfall of characters who displayed too much hubris.

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Discussion Comments


Another good example of Hubris in Greek tragedy is in The Bacchae where Pentheus is too stubborn and proud to accept Dionysus as a god and Cadmus only worships Dionysus because it adds pride to the family name.


I always thought that Icarus was a good example of how hubris can burn you. Icarus flew too close to the sun and got literally burned in the process.

By the way did you know that hubris was actually considered a major crime in the ancient Greek world. Thankfully, we don't lock people up for "overbearing pride" these days...our prisons would be bursting at the seams!


My favorite example of hubris in literature comes from Shakespeare's rival Marlowe, in "Doctor Faustus." Faustus' overbearing pride causes him to make a deal with the devil in return for knowledge and power. Although he recognizes the consequences of his decision, Faustus can't resist the temptations the devil offers, which results in his fall. Milton's "Paradise Lost" is another good example that connects the devil and the fall of man with hubris.

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