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Hubris In Oedipus The King Essay

Hubris represents the extreme pride and arrogance of a character that often leads to his or her downfall. This foolish pride or confidence describes both the attitude and the oftenviolent behavior of many characters in classical mythology. Despite the individual nature of this trait, hubris often creates lasting consequences for any group in which the offender takes part, as a result of the wrongful action.

In many cases, hubris represents the overconfidence of these individuals in their accomplishments and capabilities, especially when mortal characters go so far as to compare themselves with the gods, which indicates a loss of touch with reality. As Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric, “Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim… simply for the pleasure of it. Retaliation is not hubris, but revenge… Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.

In this way, hubristic individuals often try to exceed human limits and violate ethical codes by engaging in immoral actions, such as rape or the abuse of subordinates, to demonstrate their superiority. Throughout ancient mythology, human heroes in power tend to embody the characteristic of hubris, which consistently proves to be an example of hamartia, or a fatal flaw that brings the character to his or her downfall. Initially, hubris was characterized by violent, unethical actions, but over time, the trait came to be defined more through thoughts and attitudes than the actions themselves.

The use of hubris in mythology primarily teaches the audience a moral lesson. Each time, hubristic characters are punished, typically but not exclusively by the gods, which attempts to motivate the audience to improve their character and outgrow their flaws to avoid such tragic endings. Given the strength of the belief in Greek and Roman gods at the time, the audience sincerely feared that a similar fate would fall upon them if they continued to engage in the same hubristic ways.

After all, these extreme displays of self-confidence were seen as direct insults to the gods, who believed that all mortals should willingly accept their inferior positions and follow the commands of the gods, without expressing a hint of defiance. As a result, classical myths warned the ancient citizens about the potential punishments for those with too much pride. In the first century BCE, Ovid, a Roman poet, authored a lengthy series of myths describing the transformations of mortals and gods alike.

In particular, the legend of Icarus creates a clear metaphor to explain the line that is drawn in classical mythology between confidence and hubris. In the myth, Daedalus, the most talented mortal inventor of the time, longs to return home from his exile in Crete (Metamorphoses 303). Given that King Minos would halt any entrance by land or water, he concludes that the air is the only possibility and goes on to build metal wings based on the wings of real birds (Metamorphoses 303).

When he has completed the wings, he attaches them to his back and to that of his son with the message, “Now, Icarus, listen carefully! Keep to the middle way If you fly too low, the water will clog your wings; if you fly too high, they’ll be scorched by fire” (Metamorphoses 304). As other humans down below liken the pair to gods, Icarus grows too confident in his skills and stops following his father as he flies higher and higher towards the sun (Metamorphoses 304-305).

As he soars up, the wax attaching the wings dissolves, and Icarus falls to his death, creating the metaphor that flying “too close to the sun” will be one’s downfall (Metamorphoses 305). This story represents how many excessively self-confident characters create their own demise, and the same could hold true for the audience if they let their pride win out. In particular, Icarus’s actions demonstrate this enormous pride, based on his choice to disobey his father and fly towards the sun, as opposed to the overconfidence that is seen in the attitudes of other characters.

A similar lesson manifests in the story of Narcissus, despite a more gradual punishment. The story begins with the birth of Narcissus, an adorable baby from the start, whose sheer beauty entices his mother, Liriope, who was raped by the river-god Cephisus, to inquire about the future of her son from a famed seer in Boeotia (Metamorphoses 109). The prophet tells her that he will live a long live, “so long as he never knows himself” (Metamorphoses 109), and once again, the prophet proves to be correct.

Narcissus grows up to be one of the most beautiful men and is constantly followed by admirers, “but the heart was so hard and proud in that soft and slender body, that none of the lusty men or languishing girls could approach him” (Metamorphoses 109). Eventually, one of these scorned admirers, frustrated by the rude over-confidence of Narcissus, exclaims, “I pray Narcissus may fall in love and never obtain his desire! ” (Metamorphoses 112). Soon after, Narcissus comes upon a pool of water and, seeing his reflection, immediately falls in love with the beautiful image in the water (Metamorphoses 112-113).

As predicted, staring at himself and constantly admiring his own beauty, a clear sign of pride and selfimportance, proves to be his demise, as he cannot tear himself away to eat, and goes on to die of hunger, staring at his own reflection (Metamorphoses 113, 115-116). Similar to the story of Icarus, in which the son’s overconfidence leads to a decision that will end his life, so too does Narcissus’s overconfidence leave him staring at his own reflection and unable to survive. These stories clearly demonstrate for the audience how hubris can lead to death, even without the interference or anger of the gods.

In the case of Narcissus, however, hubris is shown more significantly through the attitude of Narcissus; while his inability to pull away from his own reflection also represents his hubristic actions, his thoughts and words more clearly embody his arrogance. The story of Niobe shows a contrast to this pattern, although her tale is similarly a clear example of overconfidence. Niobe, the queen of Thebes, has much to be proud of, including her husband Amphion and their incredible regal power (Metamorphoses 217).

However, she is most proud of the fact that she has fourteen children, and she is so self-confident that she compares herself to Leto, the mother of Apollo and Diana, who only has two children (Metamorphoses 217, 219). Through this comparison, she likens herself to the gods and expresses her belief that she is, or should be, divine, which angers and insults the gods (Metamorphoses 219-220). As a result, the two children of Leto methodically kill each of Niobe’s fourteen children to punish her; even after they have killed all of her sons, she exclaims, “In my grief I have more than you in your joy.

Although you have murdered all of my sons, I can still outshine you! ” (Metamorphoses 222-223). It is not until they have killed all but one of her daughters that she screams out, begging Apollo and Diana to save just one daughter, and finally expressing desperation and dependence ( Metamorphoses 224). Her husband commits suicide, and Niobe is turned to stone, an eternal reminder to refrain from likening oneself to the gods (Metamorphoses 224-225). The meaning of hubris, coming from the Greek word hybris, meaning “violence, insolence, outrage” or “presumption toward the gods,” remains true, and particularly emphasizes the latter aspect.

As in the story of Narcissus, Niobe’s hubristic character falls more in line with the later definition of hubris, in which excessive pride is couple with a lack of humility, both of which shine through in the character and attitude of Niobe throughout all of her words and interactions with others. The common trait of hubris is also evident throughout Greek tragedy, including in the famous story of Oedipus the King. Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King in the 5th century BCE, in contrast with the work of the Roman Ovid. The character of King Oedipus demonstrates his attitude of overconfidence from the e of the prophet eginning, as he speaks to the children outside his palace and introduces himself as, “I, Oedipus whom all men call the Great” (Oedipus the King 73).

As a result of this hubris, he tries to defy the prophecies given by the gods, but he goes on to follow the prophecy as it was laid out and do exactly what he was most afraid of doing (Oedipus the King 83). The Oracle of Delphi gives him the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, but his overconfidence convinces him that he can overcome this: instead of taking the advice of the prophet Teiresias, he attacks Teiresias in anger over the prophecy (Oedipus the King 80-81, 86).

He embarks on an adventure towards Thebes from Corinth, and on his way, he kills an old man and marries the queen of Thebes (Oedipus the King 105), completely unaware that in doing so, he is fulfilling the prophecy. Throughout the story, his pride shines through both his actions and his attitude, as he attempts to prove that he knows more and is more powerful than the prophet, stating, “it has no strength for you because you are blind in mind and ears as well as in your eyes…

You life is one long night so that you cannot hurt me or any other who sees the light” (Oedipus the King 89). His overconfidence blinds him to the sins that he commits and stops him from following the helpful advice of the prophet; this arrogance leads him to assume that all of the accusations made against him cannot possibly be true (Oedipus the King 96). As such, both his attitude, including the way in which he takes these accusations as threats to his power, and his violent and hasty actions demonstrate how his fate is determined by hubris.

This story links the original definition of hubris, one based on actions, with the latter definition, which is more focused on attitude, as the hubris of Oedipus directly causes his own demise. The constant theme of hubris, or excessively high self-esteem that extends beyond one’s capabilities in reality, is present throughout classical mythology, including both Greek and Roman stories. The conflicts that are created as a result are evidenced both through the original definition of hubris and the more recently developed definition.

First, the original meaning relates to aggressive or violent behavior, as shown in the stories f both the Greek Icarus and the Roman King Oedipus; second, the later meaning couples pride with humility, as shown through the myths of the Greek Narcissus and Niobe, in addition to the Roman King Oedipus. Over time, these two definitions develop separately and come to work hand in hand to describe the full extent of hubris in ancient mythology. Regardless of whether the actions lead directly to the downfall, or the gods lend a hand in punishing overconfidence, the hamartia of hubris presents a consistent warning to the audience of the fatal effects of overconfidence.

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