"Hybris and Humility”
Berry Street Essay, 1975
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
June 25, 1975
I will first try to entertain you with the familiar Greek legend of Arachne. I do so in order to woo you to the idea that liberal clergymen should return somewhat to the rock whence they were hewn—classical Greek.
Doubtless the men whom we honor in this year of our history had more than a nodding acquaintance with the ancient language of Hellas, and counted their time spent learning irregular Greek verbs an enterprise of some merit.
In the good old days when tongues wagged excitedly about who should be Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard College, Greek helped our forebears to understand the New Testament and to thread their way through the labyrinth of heresy and counter-heresy in the first four centuries of Christian theology.
Here then is Arachne. She was a famous spinster from Lydia in Asia Minor; her work was more than handcraft, it was art. With nimble fingers she depicted scenes from heaven and earth alike. Athene, daughter of Zeus, and herself patroness of crafts, was attracted to the splendid work of Arachne. That was fatal mistake no. 1 on Arachne’s part. Never attract the attention of the immortals; the glance of their curiosity bodes no good at all for human beings.
Athene was goddess of war as well as of craft and wisdom. She was fond of battle. So she challenged Arachne to a weaving contest and the two of them plied their looms and their embroidery needles. To an unbiased eye Arachne produced the finer tapestry. It was alive with love and laughter. Athene’s was bold, but formal and static. This was Arachne’s mistake no. 2. The gods must always be allowed to win in open contest with mere mortals.
In a rage, one would suppose of jealousy, or of thwarted egoism, Athene tore Arachne’s work to pieces; but, since the goddess of wisdom must never be swayed by the mean emotions of humanity, she claimed that Arachne’s work was both sacrilegious and pornographic. It portrayed the amours of the gods. This no woman should ever see, nor depict, nor even imagine in her libidinous heart.
For overstepping the line between man and god Arachne was put to shame and with threads spun into a stout rope she hanged herself in despair. The immortals, whether Athene was included is not clear, took pity on her dangling body and promptly turned her into a spider. There she spins as long as earth endures and there are insects to be caught, dewdrops to be held and autumnal airs to sway her gossamer web. Should the web break, she builds a fresh one before the hour is up, condemned perpetually to spin. Her very genius became her peculiar punishment.
"Omoi, omoi, o phew, popoi,” chants the Greek chorus—
"See Arachne helpless, gyrating on her thread,
Even Zephyr passes her with scarce a glance
As he moves to the drooping beards of barley.”
The chorus speaks for human pity, but in the body of the drama the prime characters are unmoved. Arachne overstepped the limits, committed hybris, and got her just desserts.
This "hybris” is quite a word! It started off its literary career as a concrete term for any willful injury committed; it branched off into sexual assault, either rape or the castration of eunuchs; it took a turn around the hippodrome and stood for the restiveness of overfed horses; it turned inwards and referred to immoderate passion, especially lewdness; it became legal and was the official term for assault and battery. During the zenith of Greek civilization it stood for the over-cultivation of any human skill or contrivance; it stood for the arrogance of crass men and nations who were too big for their boots and boundaries; it stood also for the impiety of mortals who tried to ape the immortals.
As you will hear, the consequence of hybris was that the high and mighty were always brought low. It is not surprising therefore that the word itself suffered a similar fate. By the time of the New Testament it had slipped back to its origins. When Jesus was maltreated prior to his execution it was hybris that he suffered—plain, physical assault.
Let me handle hybris at its prime.
Solon in the 6th century B.C. declared that it was satiety that gave birth to hybris in men of unstable mind. Maybe he knew horses well: The overfed horse prances to show off its oats. The man whose belly is overstuffed with desires prances in all manner of promiscuities. Plato in the 4th century asserted that when desire devoid of reason rules in us it draws us to pleasure until hybris holds us in its power.
In between there was Herodotus who borrowed from the poets, especially Aeschylus, the historical theme of the famous triad: Koros, Hybris, Até—satiety, arrogance, destruction.
"Koros” literally refers to repletion in food which tends to produce in men a comfortable, soporific feeling. But repletion of desire doesn’t quite match that comfortable picture. An erotic desire satisfied seems often to have an edge of dissatisfaction. Try again, perhaps the emotional orgasm will be better next time. The Greeks thought that seduction was itself seductive; it led an unstable person on to further pleasures that were always tainted with imperfection. This kernel of unsatisfied desire led to an obsessive search for satisfaction and this in turn produced hybris—arrogance, excess, lopsidedness.
"Hybris,” however, feels good to those who are ruled by it since it always seems to promise self-aggrandisement. But its victims are lured by the very accomplishments of their own nature into excesses that speedily destroy them.
This is "Até”—mischief, folly, infatuation. Men were blinded by the gods, continued under their own momentum until they fell into the ditch. Too much love is blind; too much lust for power and aggrandizement is blind. Até leads people on until Nemesis takes over. She is the dark godchild of Night—Night of Blindness, the almost inevitable retribution in the syndrome of arrogance.
Herodotus recounted the history of the Persian wars as a paradigm of hybris. First the Koros. The greatest empire the world had known was at its peak under Darius. His realm embraced Persia, Afghanistan, northern India, Turkestan, Mesopotamia, northern Arabia, Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, The eastern Aegean, Thrace, and Macedonia. But a pesky gadfly from Scythia was stinging the Persian hide and the Bosphorous, marched through Bulgaria to the Danube, crossed this by a bridge of boats and pushed far northward. Orienta had penetrated Europa! Such rape invited trouble. Scythians because of their superior horsemanship, cut off supplies, harried stragglers, and never came to a pitched battle. Persians lost that foray; but Koros, unsatisfied fullness, led them on to Europe once more.
Xerxes succeeded Darius and with him Koros turned to Hybris. Herodotus reckoned that the Emperor assembled an army of 2 ½ million men. This was just too much. A general of such an army finds that the millions are in command instead of him. They are a horde. When they drink whole rivers run dry. A city that tries to feed them as they pass ruins itself. Herodotus was saying: Big is Ugly.
But what was worse was the way the Persians defied all natural categories. Their campfires turned night into day; the dust of their passage turned noon into dusk. They had the temerity to construct solid land across the Hellespont! Herodotus describes the transgression in minute detail: two rows of triremes, each vessel facing the current and moored with a heavy anchor; cables of flax binding every ship to the next and all by capstan to the shores; forests massacred for logs to place over the boats, brushwood on top of that, and finally loads of earth trodden down to make a road; bulwarks on each side to prevent animals and men from being pushed over. It took seven days and nights for the entire host to pass over. Hybris!
Meanwhile the accompanying Persian fleet came up against the isthmus of land topped by Mt. Athos; to go round would expose the oarsmen to the storms of the open Aegean. So by forced labour they cut a canal a mile and a quarter through the rock and so went on to Salamis. Hybris! They had committed too many untoward excesses, so Até took over. The army’s victory at Thermopylae was a hollow one, the occupation of Athens was fruitless since the city was totally abandoned; while at Salamis the navy was routed, due as much to chaos in Persian command as to the tactics of the inferior Greeks. In humiliation Xerxes marched back to Sardis leaving half his forces behind to be picked off at leisure by jubilant Greeks. Nemesis!
This course of historical necessity from excess pride to national humiliation was interpreted by Greek philosophers as a moral indictment against insolence. Nemesis was the culmination of pride. But not entirely. In the mythology, Nemesis was followed by a shadowy group called "Litai.” These were personifications of prayers and incantations, like sacred syllables given flesh. They are at the root of our word "Litany” and are portrayed as women dressed plainly and uniformly in undistinguished garb. They walk slowly behind Nemesis undoing the retribution imposed by her. It is as if they are smoothing out the debris left behind by arrogance so that life might begin again.
Can litany really bring sanity to megalomania, can anything so insubstantial as mumbled prayer before dawn prevail against destruction? I wonder about that a good deal, and suspect that I am deluding myself with mythic fantasy.
Yet we are all aware that when Freud rummaged through his own mental stacks and came up with King Oedipus, it started him on the road to his theory of infantile unconscious sexuality. Jung unfolded the mandalas of the East, the rigmarole of mediaeval alchemists and Jewish Kabala, the mysteries of Christian iconography, and by means of them taught us to deepen our superficial consciousness. More recently, Erich Fromm resuscitates Narcissus to psychoanalyze the malignancies of Stalin and Hitler.
It seems as thought myth can be a mental catalyst making the brain effervesce in new directions. Two English writers have been inspired by the triad of hybris.
The first was Gilbert Murray who earlier in this century translated the poetry and plays of Greece into an English that rescued them from the classroom of linguistics and put them back into the living theatre where they belong. The Greek language is relatively free from exaggeration and violent emphasis—that would indeed be the literature of hybris. It does indulge in elaborate metaphors, but the phraseology of the metaphor is restrained. It is from the Greeks that we have learned "leitotes”—understatement used for effect. St. Paul, for instance used it: "I am a Jew of Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city”—the double negative boasts without appearing to do so.
By such means Greeks avoided hybris in writing. Let me quote Gilbert Murray. "The Greek is not bored by the sight of normal, healthy muscles in a healthy, well-shaped body; he is delighted. If you distort the muscles for emotional effect, he would say with disappointment: ‘But that is ugly!’ or ‘But a man’s muscles do not go like that!’ He will have noted that tears are salt and rather warm; but if you say like a modern poet that your heroine’s tears are ‘more hot than fire, more salt than the salt sea,’ he will probably think your statement is unpersuasive and chilling….When the great thing comes, the Greek will have the great word and the great thought ready. It is the habitual exaggerator who will perhaps be bankrupt.”
From this it is evident that what stands in opposition to hybris is normality, and apparently the Greeks made a cult of it. In the Olympic Games it was, at least in theory, the common citizen who was contender. The winner was awarded a crown of wild olives, the honor of that distinction being sufficient recompense for prowess. The real prize was in having run well, hurled the javelin with grace as well as power, steered his horses with least apparent effort in the chariot races. His personality, far from being inflated with success, was both modest in victory and magnanimous to his fellow competitors. At least, that was what philosophers prescribed. Popularity dictated otherwise. True, in the stadium itself the laurel was the only trophy, but back in their own cities, victors were awarded substantial gifts of cash, some were promoted to the rank of general, others had poets compose official odes in their honour. Even so, no chance was missed by the moralists to point out the dangers of athletic hybris.
Pausanias, in the 2nd century of our era, records how Milo of Crotona was destroyed by his own prowess. Among other feats of strength it was said that he would tie a cord round his forehead and snap it by holding his breath and forcing blood into his temples. That’s hybris! Naturally Até would get him. He chanced on a withered tree into which some wedges had been driven to cleave the trunk. He tried to show his strength by opening the fissures with his fingers. Unfortunately for him, the wedges slipped, trapped his hands so that he couldn’t move, and he became prey to wolves. But then, Milo was only a pugilist and they are given to training the muscles of first, arms and neck to the detriment of the rest of their body. Much better to compete in the more prestigious pentathlon in which five contests in one produced an all-round athlete.
The opposite of hybris was not just normality in itself, but excellence in normality, and this required the exercise of the four cardinal virtues. Courage converts the raw emotions of human life into reasonable and measured action. Moderation is doing nothing to excess—"sophrosyne” in Greek—having a sound mind fed by clear senses and able to form good judgment based on experience and reflection. Justice, within the person or within the state, is the ability to balance conflicting forces and to blend diverse segments into a harmonious whole. Wisdom is the crown of the cardinals, the ability to bring practical wisdom into every enterprise of life, to become master of a craft, trained in technique and able to use it to express oneself creatively with economy of style and sharpness of effect. A man who is sophos in several human activities is a truly wise and magnanimous person.
These four cardinal virtues are variants of a single axiom: that human life should be steered by experience and sound judgment. This urbane attitude is the reverse of hybris whose driving force is unrefined emotion and whose aim is self-display.
The other English writer to draw attention to hybris is Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History. He turned the triad of Herdotus against the Greeks themselves. He pointed out that Persia’s hybris provided the stimulus of challenge prodding Athens to greatness. In the wars the poor land of Attica was twice devastated, Athens was occupied, her temples destroyed; the whole population of Attica became refugees in the Peloponnese. When they returned, far from trying to restore the ruined city to what it had been, they started afresh and raised a new Athens with the glorious Parthenon as its crown. But their very success brought on hybris; from being liberator of Hellas, Athens turned into a tyrant city and changed a confederacy of free states into an empire of force which fomented the Peloponnesian War against Sparta—a disaster from which the Hellenic civilization never quite retrieved itself.
It was as though Greece failed to apply to herself her own wisdom. That wisdom was prudential. Do nothing to draw to yourself the attention of the Fates. Strike a golden mean between two extremes, for any extreme is an absurdity. But Greece did go to extremes. She was immoderate in self-praise, considered that the Hellenic genius for art, philosophy, and government was unsurpassed, that because of them Greece would become tutor to the whole world, that even a Greek in servitude was more excellent than a Roman in freedom, that Greece was the only sophisticated country; the rest of the world was barbarian. But in spite of her flouted sophrosyne she suffered the clout of retribution, not through arrogance of might and impiety shown by Persia, but through the cultural conceit that anything Greek was excellent. Any right-minded Greek could command an army, run a Marathon, compose an ode, administer a law, run a city. This may have been partially true of Periclean Athens when the city was small and all who mattered could be gathered into a single amphitheatre to be harangued by a moralist, commanded by a general, swayed by an orator, or enchanted by a poet. But when Pan-Hellenic decisions were to be made for a hundred cities and a million people, the Greek preference for individualistic merit produced chaos within the country and was powerless first against the Macedonians who had learned discipline and organization from the Persians, and finally against the overwhelming tide of well-drilled Roman Legions.
Deluded by their own genius, their Nemesis in the end was not greatly different from that of Xerxes and his millions. Perhaps this was because in trying to avoid hybris the Greeks did not go far enough in the opposite direction. They stopped short at sophrosyne—urbane moderation—and hardly knew about the further reaches of counter-hybris; namely meekness, lowliness of mind, humility. For this we have to turn to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is linguistically interesting that in classical Greek authors there is no obvious word for humility. It was coined by Hellenized Jews and is used only in the Septuagint and the New Testament. The classical authors went only as far as sophrosyne—sound, healthy-mindedness. The New Testament parallel is "tapeinophrosyne” which means "low-mindedness,” if you press it far enough it means "of mean and abject mind.” You have reached bottom, and that is the logical antithesis of hybris.
Greeks came only to the shadowy fringe of humility in the image of the Litai, those personifications of prayer, those faceless women slowly undoing the inevitable work of Nemesis. But it is as if they did not understand the meaning of their own mythology, but required a St. Paul to reveal it to them in the middle of the Areopagus.
Ye men of Athens, I perceive that you allow shades and incantations to build superstition in your hearts. What you worship in ignorance I set forth to you clearly. Your Litai are really Christ’s servants of mercy and humility; their change, which was only a murmur in the night, I put into words. At times it is a beatitude: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5). At times it is a Holy Virgin’s Magnificat: "God has tenderly looked upon his serving woman, humble as she is, the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout, he has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high” (Luke 1). At times it is the Savior’s apologia: "Being of divine nature he did not contrive to grab equality with God, but emptied himself, became like a slave. He humbled himself, took on full human shape and died like an abject slave upon the cross. Yet God raised him to the heights” (Philippians 2).
Sometimes your Litai sing a song of Immanence:
I come in little things,
Saith the Lord.
My starry wings
I do forsake,
Love’s highway of humility to take;
Meekly I fit my stature to your need.
In beggar’s part
About your gates I shall not cease to plead
As man, to speak with mean—
Till by such art
I shall achieve My Immemorial Plan,
Pass the low lintel of the human heart.
The theme of lowliness, of innocence and simplicity has been recurrent in Christian litany and poetry, for although the Incarnation is a tremendous miracle, the fact that Christ came down to the lowest level of the human condition has endeared him to the millions who themselves are in that low estate. Being simple and without guile, being passive in the face of contumely and suffering helps multitudes, themselves buffeted by circumstance, to identify with him.
Lift up the stone and there thou shalt find me;
cleave the wood and I am there.
Sxyrhynchus Papyrus, 3rd Century
I sing of a maiden
That is makèles.
King of all Kinges
To her sone she ches.
He came al so stille
There his moder was
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the grass.
He cam al so stille
To his moderès bour
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the flour.
He cam al so stille
There his moder lay
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the spray.
Moder and maiden
Was never non but she,
Well may swich a lady
Goddès moder be.
Anon., early 15th Century
O Saviour, pour upon me thy spirit of meekness and love,
Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life,
Guide thou my hand which trembles exceedingly upon the rock of the ages.
William Blake, Late 18th Century
As gentle as dew the Saviour came
And lay on the petals of Mary’s breast;
When darkness fell at the crux of noon
With tears the Virgin’s petals were wet.
Anon., mid-20th Century
The prose of his life tells an equal tale of lowliness. He was the son of a village craftsman. He was provincial in a land of imperialism and urban zealots. He spent his childhood and formative years anonymously in undistinguished domesticity. He was roused to Israel’s plight by a locust eater. For a couple of years or so he became an itinerant rabbi, and really trod the highway of humility. He was trapped in a rabble, summarily tried, and executed with common criminals. Men knew not where his bones were laid.
Poor was his station, laborious his life, bitter his ending: through poverty, through labour, through crucifixion, his majesty of nature more shines.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, from a sermon, 1879
Some have stressed that divine humility the more to dramatize the miracle of his apotheosis; but those who have felt inwardly the human drama or his lowliness have tried to match him in gentleness and mercy toward their fellow human beings. Disregarding their own comfort and self-esteem, they have taken the highway of humility in response to the Saviour who said: Follow me! and have brought affection and humble service to the oppressed and unloved of the world. In prison, slum, sweatshop, leper colony, hospital, battlefield, disaster area, they have shared themselves with people who had nothing but misery to share. This is the virtue of humility in contrast to hybris.
It was held to be a divine analogue. The Creator of All turned nothingness into firmament, chaos into order, darkness into light; so man can be self-creator by allowing himself to be a nothingness upon which the divine will can work his recurrent miracles. The Son of God, though Best-Beloved, nevertheless negated his deity, withstood the temptations of power, status and charisma in order to become servant of all; he could then shoulder the burdens and sins of men; so the true disciple makes himself of no account and allows the mercy of Christ to flow through him so that its healing grace may touch the lives of the poor and outcast. "Lord,” St. Francis prayed, "make me an instrument of thy peace.” The saint exercises his own will only in subsidiary matters; for the substance of Christian living he makes himself into a tool to be handled by the Holy Spirit, or into a lute touched by divine fingers.
Humility is also philosophically respectable when expounded, for example, by Schweitzer. There is cosmic humility: "Look to the stars and understand how small our earth is in the universe.” There is terrestrial humility: "Look upon earth and how minute man is upon it.” There is social humility: "Look upon the barred windows of a lunatic asylum and remember how man’s mind and spirit are liable to destruction.” By such humility we can relate ourselves very closely to the stars, to the earth and all its creatures, and especially to those who bear the mark of pain.
When humility makes a person instrument of the divine will, there is no stark ego standing out to be admired or hurt, no emphasis or claim to be noticed. Self merges with other selves and invites peace. This is in complete contrast with hybris whose emphasis is upon individual uniqueness and whose aim is to make ego-rich personalities.
Hybristic people are outstanding among their contemporaries and tend to become "peak” persons, they aspire to a god’s-eye view of the world. When they look around them from that vantage point they see similar peaks and naturally conclude that life’s purpose is to produce human Everests and Matterhorns. Such is the hero philosophy in history; great men determine great events. Such is the superman theory that genetics, race, and the sharp configurations of time throw up giants of men capable of making mammoth decisions to meet crucial situations. The bigger the man, the more does he involve millions in his hybris and nemesis.
Far below the proud peaks people are shoulder to shoulder in horizontal community. Their philosophy is that all lives are from a common pool, being is fluid and organic. The human man lives in every other being and knows the virtues and weaknesses of each. He is not an outstanding personality; he is understanding.
Peak people, if I may take the metaphor literally, are of granite, or schist, or of altered limestone, their edges are crystalline. Sure they stand out; but the more they do so, the more are they exposed to the forces of weathering and erosion. This is, of course, the familiar theme of Taoism. How strong the mountain peak is! Like all things, however, it must return to the root, and the agents of that return are air and water. Air has scarcely any resistance, even a baby can push his fingers through it, yet hour by hour it brings the mountains low. Water is a soft and weak element, yet few things surpass it in attacking objects that are hard and strong. The sage is as lowly as water, as insubstantial as air, yet he moves mountains of ignorance.
Lowly, organic people have, so to speak, neither brittle edges nor cleavage planes; they are cellular and covered by permeable membranes. Life hits no boundary when it encounters them, does not bounce off and leave a dent in their polish; it flows through and nourishes. Moreover the shape of the organic person is not etched boldly on time; its form is plastic, its outline variable; its libido can flow out and withdraw again like a snail’s antenna. It is symbiotic. This is what original Taoists claim—the normal, basic state of man is "wu-wei”—non-meddlesome action—one flows among other persons as naturally as moisture in peat moss. In human relations "wu-wei” is expressed by sincerity, kindness and humility, and its exercise produces contentment among people.
Some Christian humility has been of the Taoist variety. It has been a feature of children, as simple as their speech, as innocent as their glance. Jesus set a child in the midst of his contentious disciples as a demonstration of "sancta simplicitas.” Such persons move through life as if "once born” and totally at home in the world; they have a close rapport with all things, a naïve empathy with people and an easy access to God.
Robert Herrick in the 17th century expressed this well in his "Thanksgiving to God for his house.”
Lord, Thou has given me a cell
Wherein to dwell:
A little house, whose humble room
Is weather proof:
Under the spars of which I lie
Both soft and dry…
Low is my porch, as is my fate
Both void of state:
And yet the threshold of my door
Is worn by the poor…
Like as my parlour, so my hall
And kitchen’s small:
A little buttery, and therein
A little bin,
Which keeps my little loaf of bread
Some brittle sticks of thorn or briar
Make me a fire,
Close by whose living coal I sit
And glow like it…
All these, and better, Thou dost send
Me, to this end, —
That I should render for my part,
A thankful heart:
Which, fired with incense, I resign
As wholly Thine…
Much Christian humility, however, has been of a different hue. It has been a deliberate effort by would-be martyrs to imitate the life of Christ by a simulation of his sufferings. Perhaps Paul was responsible for this; he viewed life as a tremendous struggle either against a roaring, devouring Satan, or against giant principalities and powers in the high heavens. Constant vigilance was required to wage this battle; the saint had to beat himself into humility, abase himself into obedience, negate himself into abject-mindedness. There is an inverse hybris about such spectacular humility such that the Greek verdict on it would have been: Too much, it is the ugliness of excess and will surely attract the attentions of Até. It did. In the sandy wastes of asceticism came hordes of psychic devils to torment the saints with lust and delusion.
Even the gentler, innocent form of humility would have seemed unpersuasive to Greeks. Low-mindedness would have been equated with the literal meaning of "tapeinophrosyne”—base-mindedness, slave mentality unbefitting a free man. A person should lift himself up from his low estate, his entelechy being to seek the median, the norm of competence and wholeness.
Though the motifs of both pagan and Christian mythology differ from each other, they each in their own way challenge our modern technological societies. To this I now turn.
Imagine a reincarnate Herodotus compiling a history of our times. He would have initial difficulty in deciding who was Persian and who Greek since violent aggression and arrogance have marked most modern powers. But he would have no difficulty at all in prating about hybris writ large in our societies.
If it seemed excessive for Xerxes to deploy 2 ½ million fighting men, he would have to coin a phrase "hyper-hybris” to describe 6 million captive dead, 10 million war dead, and untold millions of casualties in the Second World War, and he would probably be left speechless over the atomic assault on Japan. If a causeway of boats across the Hellespont was a grotesque anomaly, what of D-Day landings with floating harbours, amphibious devices which bring ships on land and land vehicles into the ocean, what of fleets of ships in the air and U-boats under water? The categories of the elements get thoroughly confounded. If a mile-and-a-quarter ship canal through the isthmus of Mr. Athos ran counter to the proprieties, what of Erie, Suez, Kiel, and Panama—or even the Greek Corinth canal? And what of proposals to reverse the flow of great rivers such as the MacKenzie in Canada which pours its swift and proud waters into the Arctic? It has been proposed that such "waste” should be diverted south down the Rocky Mountain Trench to irrigate the thirsty and populous United States in the Southwest. Even Canada, let alone Herodotus, finds that hybristic. If Icarus melted the adhesive wax of his flying contraption by soaring too near the sun and consequently finished up drowned in the sea that bears his name, what of astro- and cosmonaut stepping on the moon and counting it a giant step? Nemesis cannot be in the Games, what thunderbolt will be hurled at the franchise grabbers of our sports who fatten the contracts of their gladiators? Our age is surely heading for the biggest cosmic retribution ever yet seen—a counterblow to human arrogance which no litanies can soften.
We feel quite safe from Herodotus because he is dead, and from the gods because we hold the hybris triad to be a silly superstition—child of a prescientific age with no relevance at all for us "technologians.” So much does Até blind us before she destroys!
Christianity confronts the megalomania of western man by reiterating the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount and the prohibition against rich people who will never enter the Kingdom. But the world scarcely listens to such incantation. Christendom has blunted its own moral teaching by founding an empire as proud and opulent as those of Darius, Alexander, and Caesar. It occupied the integuments, organs, and skeleton of the defunct Roman Empire and almost exclusively dominated the culture of Europe for a millennium. It was not her meekness which inherited the earth, but her expansionist arrogance, though, of course, her hybris was hidden behind a banner which proclaimed: In Christ We Conquer. We do it for the greater glory of God.
In any event, the grace of humility has in our day been changed from a virtue to a perversion. It is seen as a condition of life hedged in by constraints and inhibitions, a masochistic enjoyment of pain and poverty self-inflicted, a repression of self, a malignancy leading to the wish for death. Or, it is seen as a sociological trick by which a restive populace can be kept quiescent and will form an uncomplaining base feeding the feudal hierarchies that batten on it. Or, it is a moral trick. The poor and humble will always be with us, they evoke the charity of the higher orders so that mercy may abound and the righteous have a better chance to gain eternal merit. Or, humility is seen as a political degradation of serfs in bondage to aristocrat and kulak, or the slavery of the proletariat in fief to capital and industry. Humility is a religious cover from exploitation: "It is the sigh of the hard-pressed creature, the heart of a heartless world as it is the soul of soulless circumstance. It is the opium of the people.” —Karl Marx
We have cast off the mantle of humility and have moved instead in the direction of self-liberation, self-fulfillment, self-actualization. We have emerged from the catacomb of anonymity to assert the rights of self-expression and individuality. Hence the Christian mould is broken, the Christian era ended and, brittle, we stumble into a post-Christian civilization.
It seems, then, that both the pagan caution against hybris and the Christian grace of humility are unacceptable to the 20th-century mind. So we are in grave danger. A new apocalypse is bringing the people of the earth face to face with the limits at a time when the litanies of lowliness are hollow and unable to prevent doomsday.
But wait a bit—already. Perhaps there is a new paganism abroad, new nymphs and shepherds naively nursing the ravaged earth back to pastoral peace. They are returning to the simple life, to natural foods, to the solace and challenge of wilderness. Whether the few modern Arcadians will remain a cult quite outside the mainstream, or whether they will become a folk-force reversing man’s spendthrift arrogance, is too early to say. I suspect the former.
Wait a bit—also. Christian humility is not totally outmoded. Groups are resigning themselves to the sandaled servant of God—Jesus children. Others are raising consciousness with meditation gurus from Hinduism and Buddhism, they are letting go the inflation of ego and finding resignation among the foothills of the Himalaya. Some are smitten to go on pilgrimage and to engage on some Assisi crusade with flowers and guitars, tassel and tambourine as their symbols of Peace, Wisdom, Bliss! I suspect that that too will be an evanescent cult.
But all are symptoms of life’s attempted renewal at the found of pristine innocence in the hope that a similar renewal will take place in the ravaged and polluted earth. These children of Time are attempting to grasp the horns of a dilemma; the new Arcadians trying to force down to the ground the horn of hybris; the new Franciscans to caress and assimilate the horn of humility. I fear the Ancient Bull will not be thrown by their tactics.
Another logical resource was taught by the Sophists of Attica. It was called "escaping between the horns.” You took the left-hand horn and applied its hidden premises to the right, and vice versa. This so confused the poor Bull that it became as docile as a lamb and allowed you to vault over the dilemma. I will now attempt this rare athletic feat.
The horn of Christian humility is really a theophany: God revealed in the babe, the suffering servant, the sacrificial lamb. Graft that theophany onto pagan naturalism and what do you get? The idea that the process and reality of hybris to nemesis are demonstrations of deity. The pagan litany goes like this: Every excess is eventually smoothed away, every excrescence is worn down to normal. Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill brought low, the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain. This is really geological phraseology out of which we make theological metaphor, and bids us worship the earth’s form and process. Idolatry! shriek the People of the Book; only God may be worshipped; the earth is but His footstool. We will shift focus: Take off your sandals, the place where you stand is holy ground. The earth is God.
Aw C’mon! says the Old School, you can’t be serious. What? Worship a created, finite, eventually-to-be-dispersed planet when the whole fibre of your spirituality craves eternity, infinity, and a Prime Mover not Itself moved! How can you suggest such a thing?
Well, I can. Einstein has taught that no place in the universe is more privileged than anywhere else, none has a monopoly of being the centre of the correct locus for a perspective of truth; so, the earth is as much centre and symbol of universal power and process as anywhere else. When I revere the earth, I am revering at the same time all else, finite and infinite. I shall henceforth treat it with the fear and sanctity once reserved only for that which is beyond all earthly reckoning. Eucharist partakes of the body and blood of the earth with reverent hands and lips. The new sinaitic prohibition is: Thou shalt not desecrate the divine substance, the beloved earth, lest thou and thy god together perish in some disastrous nemesis.
The other horn, the hybris tread, is not only a personification of earth’s geology but also a paradigm of human desire. Hybris, Até, Nemesis, Litai are descriptive moments in depth psychology. Apply that thought to the horn of humility and what do you get? The suffering servant, the rejected Messiah, the indwelling Christ is not a historical model but a personification of the human self in transit from cradle to grave. While it is true that there is a tendency to introject images of actual models into our psyches producing saviour-worship, Super Ego or Ego Ideal, such introjections are to be superseded by reality principles giving the self competence and confidence. No need to whip the self into abject submission on the pattern of the Lamb of God; no need to put on Christ as a camouflage for unchristian desires; no need for the introjection of any divine model into our selves, there might only be transplant rejection. A competent self open to the experience of time, to uncomplicated relationships with people, and to the tuition of well-tested ideas will avoid unbridled ambition and titanic retribution.
The Greeks had a word for this—that cardinal virtue, "sophrosyne,” usually translated into English as "moderation,” "temperance,” "prudence,” as if English were deliberately trying to make it a dull, insipid, ho-hum virtue with as much verve as an antimacassar. It doesn’t refer to any hempen propriety, but to a lively appreciation of the world that is nevertheless held in check for the sake of mental economy. It means whole-mindedness, healthy, proportional to the self’s development.
We can leap over the old dilemma between overweening pride and humble renunciation by cultivating a whole mind. If we fall flat on our faces, that’s alright! The earth is our sustainer and our maker, no harm in worshipping her muslim-fashion. If, like some gymnast in the Olympic Games we land flexed on our feet and snap smartly to the alert position before earning the applause, that’s alright tool. We are pieces of earth and can stand proud of our origins. It is not arrogant to achieve and to be poised at the end. Either way, the formidable Beast is overcome—the Bull of pride and the Blood of sacrifice. In the thin airs of Hades, Greeks will cheer us; they too did their best to outwit Minotaur.