The word hubris, in all likelihood is one of the most powerful words in the English language. It is also a word that is intriguing, introspective and influential on many counts and to many degrees. Hubris or ‘cockiness’ is derived from ancient Greek. The Greeks deemed hubris to be a fatal character flaw that was often responsible for bringing an acclaimed hero down to his knees. In more contemporaneous times, Lord David Owen a former politician and also a neurologist coined the phrase “The Hubris Syndrome”. In a small paperback published in the late 2000s, Lord Owen articulated the primary features and symptoms of the Hubris syndrome. A usual concomitant of power, the syndrome is more likely to manifest itself the longer the person exercises power and the greater the power they exercise. Surprisingly, the Hubris syndrome abates when power is either extinguished or is separated from the person wielding it.
An unforgettable and mythological example of an act of hubris is the story of how the Corinthian hero of Greek Mythology, Bellerophon attempted to fly to the peak of Mount Olympus on the back of the winged horse Pegasus. A feat that would anoint him a Godhead. But Zeus put paid to Bellerophon’s unhinged ambition by dispatching a gadfly to sting Pegasus, thereby causing the magnificent horse to violently buck and throw Bellerophon off his back. Bellerophon fell into a bush of thorns and had his eyes gouged out. A permanently blind Bellerophon spent the rest of his miserable life gallivanting the Fields of Alerion.
I would wholeheartedly recommend readers to spend exactly 27 minutes and 46 seconds in listening to an engrossing, enlivening and enthralling podcast dwelling on the Hubris Syndrome hosted by bestselling author and former table tennis player, Matthew Syed. Juxtaposing appreciable humour with dollops of wisdom, Syed in the podcast titled “Big Head” warns his listeners against falling into the trap of the Hubris Syndrome. Many a great personality has been an unwilling victim to this pernicious and perfidious enemy. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and a whole horde of power hungry despots have fallen prey to Hubris. But Hubris is not the province of the tyrants and oppressors alone.
Syed elucidates in a brilliantly candid manner his own experience with Hubris. A ‘ping-pong’ player at the top of his game, and England’s number one for almost a decade, Syed experienced Hubris in its full might when he infamously and inexplicably ‘choked’ at the Sydney Olympics. Expected to go the distance, the champion paddler did not even make it past the preliminary round. This event, although firmly putting him terra firma also imparted an invaluable lesson of life. Maybe this experience was for the greater good of a predominant segment of the population. Syed not only went on to become a best selling author of acclaim and renown, but also became known as an author distilling the spirt of science and melding it with the esoteric world of philosophy and psychology. In his book “Bounce”, he focuses on what it takes to attain the pinnacle in the world of sport or in any profession that is the chosen prerogative of any individual.
F.Scott Fitzgerald (one of my all-time favourite authors) exquisitely illustrates the impact, intimidation and illusion of Hubris in his immortal epic, “The Great Gatsby”. Jay Gatsby has to be the most enigmatic, paradoxical and layered character in the annals of literature. Isolated even when surrounded by a perpetual throng of human beings; racked by an intrinsic poverty while wallowing in an ostentatious display of opulence, and craving for peace, as things fall to pieces all around him, Jay Gatsby is both cause and consequence. F. Scott Fitzgerald not just created history with his epochal novel but also brought into every living room the angst and depredation associated with a constant struggle to make it big in an unforgiving world. While Fitzgerald might have written The Great Gatsby as a cock-a-snook to the much vaunted clamour of “The American Dream”, the character of Jay Gatsby itself transcends eras. Whether boom or bust, Gatsby’s relevance would never diminish. Gatsby is also a homage to Hubris. In his quest to conquer every obstacle in a fervent and frenzied dash to be united with the love of his life, Jay Gatsby fails to spot the repeated signals of arrogance and complacency. Lapses which proceed to birth irredeemably tragic consequences at the end.
In Syed’s podcast, Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University, Alessandra Tanesini provides an interesting and riveting example of Hubris as defined by Aristotle. The famous philosopher once stated that “each virtue had at least two vices. One of excess and one of deficiency. If you think of humility as a virtue, then arrogance would be the vice of deficit. Self-deprecation would be the vice of excess”. But the icing on the cake for me in the podcast is Syed’s own realisation of having succumbed to the temptation of excessive pride. Beaming with a sense of accomplishment, Syed boards the train at Manchester Station after successfully hosting a podcast titled, “Flintoff, Savage and the Ping-Pong Guy”. Flintoff being Andrew Flintoff one of England cricket’s best allrounders, and Robbie Savage, the feisty Welsh footballer and Pundit. Finally, “Ping-Pong guy” referring to Matthew Syed himself. After being stopped and congratulated by random passengers, Syed is jolted out of his blissful reverie when the guard manifests in front of him abruptly and requests him to change carriage. The Air Conditioner in the carriage in which Syed finds himself in is deficient. Completely overtaken and overcome by a bout of excessive pride, Syed derisively wonders as to what business the guard has to instruct him to move carriages. Doesn’t he know who Matthew Syed is? Is he not aware of the most famous podcaster of incredible acclaim and popularity? Syed also consequently realises his folly and dwells upon the virtues and value of possessing an attribute of humility.
“Big Head” is undoubtedly one of the most soothing and invaluable podcasts I have ever listened to. I urge you to do the same.