Monday, April 26, 2010

On Hubris

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One thing I love about hyperlinks is the way it leads you from one nugget to another.

I was just looking up Cellini’s sculpture on the internet and ended up discovering the meaning of a word I had often overlooked – “Hubris”.

The hyperlink-chase went something like this:

While reading about the Renaissance in medeival Italy, I came across a brief comment about the beauty & grace of Cellini’s sculpture  - “Perseus & Medusa”. Wondering what it looked like, I turned to Google and reached the first stop – Wikipedia.

Wiki had a powerful, frontal view of the famous sculpture, as well as a colorful description of the life and times of Benvenuto Cellini (goldsmith, ruffian, musician, murderer, sculptor, decorated soldier…). One of Cellini’s earliest acclaimed creations was a medallion, “Leda & the Swan”.

So, what about Leda? Well, according to Greek mythology, Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduced Leda on the night of her wedding (to another man). Leda bears a daughter named Helen. According to another version, Helen was Helen is the daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris.

Pride of Hubris? What on earth is that?

Hubris refers to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because anything happened to you or might happen to you, but merely for your own gratification.

Now, this makes you wonder about Indian mythology and the epics…isn’t hubris the very core, the central theme of the Mahabharata war? The life of Duryodhana, Karna, Draupadi, Bhima, Arjuna...the ever-widening cycles of shaming, humiliation and excessive revenge that is carried forward from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, until an entire dynasty is wiped out...
One of the most vivid examples of hubris in ancient Greek literature is demonstrated by Achilles and his treatment of Hector's corpse in Homer's Iliad. Achilles killed Hector in revenge. Not only did he kill him, but he stripped Hector's corpse and dragged it around behind his chariot, threading leather thongs through Hector's ankles. Although the Greek forces were appalled by his treatment of this other hero's corpse, he was unrelenting. Priam, king of Troy, had to come and kneel at Achilles's feet and offer him Hector's weight in gold before he could convince him to give up the body. Once the body was gone, Achilles had time to ponder the fact that it was prophesied his own death would come soon after Hector's. (Wikipedia)

When does revenge become excessive? How can the vicious cycle of retribution be broken?

This brings us to the Theory of Justice propounded by John Lock and the notions of Natural Law vs. Conventional Law...ideas that form the core of not just the judicial system but the way in which societies and governments are organised today.
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