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Will our time mark the end of hubris?

In an age in which arrogance is accepted as standard behavior rather than rejected as excessive, hubris has vanished. Originally a Greek term for a fatal character flaw, usually of overweening pride, hubris was a sin against the gods, and usually led to tragic actions, a downfall due to over-reaching, and often to death. 

 The classic example was Oedipus Rex. Shakespeare’s tragedies each feature a tragic hero or two with hubris. In these, hubris seemed reserved for those on a high level — Princes and Princesses of Arrogance — but their tragic falls were emotionally relieving for audiences, evidence of the universe righting itself. 

We need a new Shakespeare to limn our age’s grand figures, but he or she will have a tough time in writing. For while today’s Princes and Princesses of Arrogance have outrageous character flaws, they don’t lead to comeuppances. Our big shots are brought down, if ever, mostly by accident, such as the turn of events that put O. J. Simpson in jail for a non-crime, though not for killing his wife. And he has recently been paroled, and I predict we’ll see photos of him on a golf course. 

In short: Pride no longer automatically goeth before a fall. 

The reason is that we no longer share a morality instructing us that engaging in wretched excess and blatantly disregarding the rules is wrong, and that such activities will eventually bring down on us some form of collective vengeance. 

Most Americans once did believe in those ideas, and it was not long ago. They were part and parcel of a society ruled by law, and by its members’ wish to avoid collective reprisal for breaking laws. That’s a healthy fear, the fear of collective reprisal in the form of severe punishment. We still have plenty of severe punishments. They take the form of our prisons, which are awful and vicious places. Another form is in being condemned to perpetual poverty. 

But we sense that our collective vengeance is mainly visited on those who can’t afford million-dollar lawyers to get them out of jams. 

Punishment of the supremely arrogant? Not so much. We may be able to fine the Mylan Company a half-billion dollars — not for jacking up the prices of Epi-pens, which endangered the 500,000 people who must carry them or risk sudden death — but for Medicare rebilling fraud. 

Many people feel the Mylan settlement is way too small, just a fraction of its $11 billion in sales in 2016. But no one in public life advocates throwing Mylan’s top executives in jail for their crimes. You can also bet that those Mylan executives will not suddenly be fined personally enough to force them out of the top 1 percent. 

We seem to have been shorn of the ability to take revenge on the Princes and Princesses of Arrogance for their transgressions, and in consequence, their fear of over-reaching and of retribution has evaporated. They know that they can get away with whatever they please.

So when they are accused, they do not display embarrassment. They double down. They laugh off what used to be mortifying. They tell us to go to hell. 

Oh, now and then a Prince or Princess of Arrogance may be forced to resign or to temporarily withdraw from the public eye because of a scandal they can’t control, but such resignations are often strategic and not evidence of remorse over bad behavior. 

After all, there’s always rehab. Using it, a disgraced public official, a CEO, a Hollywood star, or a pro ballplayer can usually rebound very well, and in short order, from what in the old days would have been permanent ignominy. Think Harvey Weinstein’s done for? America is the country of second chances. 

Another case in point: the rise, fall, and resurrection of David Petraeus. Well noted for arrogance, on which he was given a pass because of his intelligence, charm and charisma, as a top general Petraeus avoided blame for what happened on his watch, American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Even the revelation of his affair with “journalist” Paula Broadwell did not trip him up; rather; it was his having given Broadwell classified information for her biography of him. He lost his plum job as CIA chief. He was convicted of a felony. 

But he did not fall far or for long. He was given probation for his offense. His military pensions were confirmed by the Pentagon (because the offense had taken place after his military service), and he found high-paying work at Harvard, USC and Exeter in England, and for the KKR conglomerate. His personal wealth soared. By the next election cycle, this Prince of Arrogance will likely be on a short list for vice-presidential candidates.

 

Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.