As one can surmise from the tumultuous situations he is forced into over the following years at sea, Odysseus endured great hardships all due to his hubris. His crew was decimated and he was forced to live without his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, for far longer than he ever expected. However, like Gilgamesh, Odysseus is ultimately not ruined by his hubris. Instead, Homer decides to end his tale by finally allowing him to arrive home with “More [gifts] than he ever would have taken out of Troy / Had he come home safely with his share of the loot” (13. 42-143), suggesting good fortune in the end for Odysseus.
Although he indeed finds trouble at home as his wife has many suitors competing to win her hand in marriage and hoping to kill Telemachus, Odysseus is able to slay the suitors and reunite with his family. Odysseus’ life seems to return to the state of normalcy that it would have been if he suffered no tragedy at sea. Sophocles’ Ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King, the first in a trilogy of plays, is an example of an ancient text in which the protagonist truly seems to be completely defeated and damned to eternal suffering by his hubris.
In fact, Oedipus is considered by many scholars to be a “prototypic example [of hubris in literature that] suggests that configurations of hubris have been on our phylogenetic radar as archetypal forms of warnings” (Trumbull 341). This is to say that this text is the epitome of a cultural warning against the danger of hubris. At the time that Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King, the people of Athens were growing less attached to religion and venturing more towards hubristic feelings of human superiority. Sophocles hoped to enlighten his fellow Athenians to the danger of this trend.
Sophocles was a deeply religious man, an innovator who addressed the complex moral, social, and political issues of his time. In the midst of an intellectual revolution, he watched as his fellow Athenians were perilously drawn to the teachings of philosophers. These sophists challenged the prevailing belief that the gods governed fate, and in turn, they cultivated the hubristic idea that man could determine his destiny. (Trumbull 343) Oedipus is a man who believes he can shape his own fate, which is an example of human superiority over the gods.
He hears the prophecy that he is to kill his father and marry his own mother, yet convinces himself that he can circumvent this divine decree, swearing “I will never come near my parents” (Sophocles 162). Of course, the prophecy is fulfilled. Oedipus is so self-confident, however, that he spends nearly the entirety of the play refusing to believe the truth, even while the pieces of information come together and it becomes increasingly clear that the gods had their way with his fate.
When Oedipus finally realizes what he has done, it is far too late to prevent tragedy from unfolding for him and his mother-wife, Jocasta. Oedipus’ hubris surely causes much suffering and despair, but the end to his story suggests, once again, that hubris is not a truly damning character flaw. In the climax of Oedipus the King, Jocasta hangs herself in shame at marrying her own son and Oedipus follows by gouging out his own eyeballs, rendering him sightless once he finally saw the truth. He is so despaired that he claims “If there is any ill worse than ill, that is the lot of Oedipus” (179).
He is then banished from his kingdom of Thebes, “now hated by the gods” (185). Alone, sightless, and devoid of the respect and honor he once had, it seems apparent that Oedipus’ life has been permanently ruined all due to his hubris. Considering that Sophocles was making one of the most impactful warnings against hubris in literature, he probably hoped that this was the exact message his audience would receive. However, one would be incorrect to simply assume that hubris robbed Oedipus of any peace he could ever achieve.
In the second play of the trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus begins in the sordid state he was left in at the end of Oedipus the King but “by the end, we see him protected and honored by Athens, triumphant over his enemies, and apparently rewarded by the gods with everlasting well-being after death” (Ahrensdorf 167). Oedipus clearly experiences quite the transformation, from ignoble outcast to revered figure blessed by the gods he once disrespected. Quite a different message can be taken from the ending of this play as compared to the previous one.
Hubris may have caused immense pain and loss, but it was not the end of Oedipus’ happiness, no matter how dire circumstances may have seemed for years of his life. Instead, Oedipus was able to find honor and peace in death. Once again, this ancient text indicates that hubris is a tragic flaw that people can rise above in the end. The book of Genesis in the Bible presents hubris in a rather unique manner compared to some other ancient works. The texts discussed so far have depicted individual characters as victims of their hubris. In a way, the characters came across as anomalous due to the fact that other characters in he texts did not seem to display any obvious, excessive pride or self-confidence that resulted in punishment.
Within the context of each tale, Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Oedipus seemed to be the only characters who truly could not control themselves and were therefore punished. In Genesis, however, hubris is the original sin of mankind itself. In the Garden of Eden, God warns Adam and Eve to not eat “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil … for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Holy Bible, Gen. 2. 17). Initially, the first humans adhere to their Creator’s command, accepting their status as humans below God.
However, they are soon tempted by a serpent to eat from the forbidden tree, so that humans “will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3. 5). Although they know God forbids them from obtaining this knowledge, Adam and Eve cannot control themselves and eat a fruit from the tree. In doing this, they are disrespecting God and striving to achieve godlike qualities. In his essay “From The Bible As Literature To Literature As Theology,” philosopher William Franke writes “Refusal to accept the human condition and its limits—or in other words the human desire to supplant God—is portrayed as the universal root of sin” (34).
This definition of the root of sin corresponds with the idea of hubris that the scholars Grene, North, and Ronfeldt helped to develop. Adam and Eve had such excessive senses of pride that they could not simply accept how God created them; they couldn’t help but to disobey God and attempt to obtain what they felt they deserved as humans. Unfortunately for humanity, the hubris of Adam and Eve resulted in permanent punishment for every human to follow. In the Christian ideology, “all humans suffer the effects of Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God’s law insofar as all inherit a diminished realization of human potential” (Stillwaggon 61).
In other words, original sin is inherited by all humans and thus affects us all equally, preventing us from understanding the true potential of humanity. While Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Oedipus may have seemed like unique examples of characters victimized by their hubris, Genesis goes so far as to say all humans are born with the sin of hubris. Franke elaborates that “The disease of a will in this way tending to transgress the boundaries set for it by its Creator constitutes an original sinfulness—or rather a disposition to sin” (34), although this does not mean humans cannot resist the disposition.
Baptism is accepted in the Christian faiths as the only definite manner of ridding oneself of original sin, as “one’s sins are buried, the ‘old Adam’ is crucified with Christ, and those baptized are raised to new life in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Welsh 387). If one is baptized, adheres to the Ten Commandments, and lives as Jesus encouraged his disciples to live, one may find peace and salvation in Heaven. Although hubris is a sin all humans are inherently imbued with, it does not damn them all to Hell with no chance of redemption.
According to Genesis, humans may have been banished from the idyllic Garden of Eden and cursed with punishment, but that does not mean peace and happiness are lost forever. Ultimately, warning humans against hubris was a significant topic throughout much of ancient literature, especially in texts that are still studied in schools today. The despair that iconic characters like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Oedipus, Adam, and Eve experienced exemplified the dangers of excessive pride, self-confidence, and vying for godlike qualities such as seeking omniscience or attempting to control one’s predetermined fate.
However, these characters’ downfalls (and the downfall of humanity as a whole in the case of Adam and Eve) were not ineradicable, as people may have come to believe about the effects of hubris in literature. What could this unexpectedly hopeful trend in ancient literature mean in terms of the authors’ true message, if they were also trying to convey that hubris has awful consequences? Perhaps it is simply an indication of humanity’s hope that mistakes like hubristic actions do not define us. We may all have character flaws, but it’s how we present ourselves that really counts.