Hubris the Humorless

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In ancient Greece, Alcibiades was telling Pericles how Athens should be governed. Annoyed by the young man’s tone, Pericles said, “Son, when I was your age, I talked just the way you are talking.”

Alcibiades looked Pericles in the face and replied, “How I should like to have known you when you were at your best.”

Ah, the arrogance of youth. To put the story in context, Pericles is often referred to as “the first citizen of Athens” for his many achievements: his promotion of art and literature, his championing of democracy, and his sponsorship of an ambitious building project that included most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon. Alcibiades, on the other hand, was also a statesman and orator.

The respective lengths of the Wikipedia entries for these two suggests history is still duking it out as to who was greater, but Pericles has the clear edge in the impact of his achievements. Alcibiades, defeated at the Battle of Notium, ultimately exiled himself. Contributing to his downfall were the great, unchecked expectations he allowed to be circulated about himself before being thrashed by the Spartans.

In the dictionary, Alcibiades could be the personification of “hubris.” Hubris means extreme haughtiness, exaggerated pride or arrogance. Hubris has lost touch with reality. That’s why powerful people so often overestimate their competence or capabilities.

Recent headlines illustrate hubris to the extreme: the disgraced governor of Illinois flailing to defend his actions in 2010…the CEo of BP complaining days after the Gulf oil-rig explosion and resulting massive oil spill that he wanted his life back. Hubris lives on–an odd affliction that makes its observers sicker than the self-centered souls it afflicts.

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