Thoughts on the Hubris of Man

Essay, 2011

6 Seiten, Note: A

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Man´s Hubris

The `delusions of grandeur´ condense man´s common misconceptions or mistakes, therefore a critique of this delusion must be at the beginning and the end of every moral critique per se (Foucault 1973:60). In Greek tragedy the protagonist´s arrogance to ignore the laws of the gods and their orders, defying the existing order and therefore trying to be outside the providence leads inevitably to the fall of the actor. The term hubris is drawn from the general action signifying the disastrous attitude, which gradually advances towards destruction. While in a tragedy there is a main figure and the action normally seems apparent to the audience, in reality a distinction between leading role, protagonist, antagonist etc. cannot be made. The arrogant inclinations and its catastrophic course typically are not shown as overtly nor can they be easily recognizedsince everybody is a part of `the play´. Nobody is an innocent bystander. But the tragic action may be symptomatic even for the average man. It can be argued that man is subject to this phenomenon in general and hence the structure of hubris is most likely a universal.

Foucault calling the phenomenon `delusion of grandeur´ describes it as the insanity, where the insane does not identify himself with another person, but with himself. A self-induced belief allows him to credit skills and characteristics he does not have to himself. Foucault picturesthe insane as a Narcissus, who even in deep misery still is able to perceive himself as a god (1973:59f). This insanity appeared in myriad ways just as the world produces different people, inclinations andtheir necessary illusions. In principle, according to Foucault, it reflects the imaginary relationship of man towards himself. So it is typical that man ascribes more power to himself than he has. Man´s hubris then is an essence of the human experience. Every man is a protagonist of his own life and believes in holding a significant amount of power, although to different extent.

The (Little) God

When Goethe´s Mephistopheles calls man “the little god of the world”,[1] he taunts man´s hubris openly (Goethe Faust 281). Man believes to hold the capacity to reason and consequently being able to differentiate between good and evil, which both in many ways are often attributes assigned to divinity. While in Faust, he actually does have the capability, for many scholars the whole concept behind such a distinction is already subject to disposition i.e. even the separation or opposition itself. Thus also,in thedramaitsusageisproblematized.

„Der kleine Gott der Welt bleibt stets von gleichem Schlag,

Und ist so wunderlich als wie am ersten Tag.

Ein wenig besser würd er leben,

Hättest du ihm nicht den Schein des Himmelslichts gegeben;

Er nennt´s Vernunft und braucht´s allein,

Nur tierischer als jedes Tier zu sein.“

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang:Faust, V. 281-86

Starting with line 283 Mephistopheles openly states that mankind would be better off without the heavenly light, which man called reason, but only uses to be more like an animal than any animal. Hence human beingsholding reason, here rather to be understood as rationality, it is implied that human kind uses the holy gift of reason mostly to be very cruel. Goethe raises two important interconnected issues regarding man´s hubris. First his acumen to understand and second the question what defines man by setting him in contrast to animals.

Similar analogies can be found in Montaigne´s writings (1993). He criticizes the whole belief in reason and the connected possibility for man to decide what is good and what is evil. For Montaigne reason is understood as the ability to draw connection and his potential to understand. He indicates that many connections are not valid. As a condition every man, according to Montaigne, thinks he can grasp reality (cf. Plato ideas), but truth and falsehood are indistinguishable as he cannot understand the whole, being simply a part. Again he is part of the tragedy and not the gazing audience. In his hubris he overestimates his role. As made by god, man even sees himself as the center of the universe and also implying that everything made for him and his usage. Regarding this very attitude Schopenhauer complains about `pathetic subjectivity´ in which man tends to refer everything to him and consequently loses an opportunityto be objective (2004:181f).


[1] “Der kleine Gott der Welt”.

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Thoughts on the Hubris of Man
Istanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi
381 KB
Power, Individualism, Good and Evil, reason, Nietzsche, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Condition of Life
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Didem Aydurmus (Autor), 2011, Thoughts on the Hubris of Man, München, GRIN Verlag,


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