FRONT PORCH – Hubris: Wavering between reality and fantasy

“Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires. The eyes wink at the hand; yet let that be which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”

- Macbeth, cloaking his ambition to be king

Years ago in a high school English literature class reading and studying Macbeth, many of the students were surprised that the eponymous leading character constantly refused to heed the warnings of his impending doom as he vaingloriously pursued his bloody ambitions.

There in the fog of the Scottish highlands, bolstered too by the overweening ambition of his wife, Lord Macbeth remains in the fog of isolation and delusion throughout the Shakespearean masterpiece, shifting, like the apparitions in the play, between reality and fantasy.


DENZEL Washington in the most recent film adaptation of Macbeth.

His hubris becomes so metastasized that he appears to “want to conquer fate itself” amidst his cul-de-sac of false security. He rationalises or misinterprets many warnings, including, infamously, those of the three witches, who resemble the three fates of classical mythology.

“Why can’t he see what is about to befall him?!” It is a perennial question, often asked by even a high school student, as to why those with great power are unwilling or incapable of seeing how their stratagems and decisions may lead to disaster for themselves and their institutions or countries.

In various tragedies and comedies, Shakespeare regaled and impressed on his Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, both princes and paupers, the conceits and pitfalls of great power, especially that of hubris and its companions of overweening ambition cum pride and excess.

Centuries before Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks seemed mesmerised, near fixated, on the human traits of hubris and excess. From philosopher to playwright to poet, in Homer, Herodotus, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Pindar, Xenophon, Aristotle and others, the Greeks offered a similar path and warning: “Nothing to excess”.


Though the Icarus and Daedalus myth is often most recited, the Fate of Phaethon, the son of Apollo or Helios, the Sun God, is another powerful story of hubris, of a boy incapable of controlling the horses and power of the sun chariot, resulting in ecological destruction and his demise by thunderbolt from the hand of Zeus, leading to the boy’s death.

For the Greeks, hubris referred not solely to the misuse of political power. It referred also to excesses and unwieldy arrogance in various areas of one’s life.

Though Pope Gregory the Great, after whom the Anglican parish in Nassau is named, codified the Seven Deadly Sins, they have a much older provenance in Western and human history. For many, these were dispositions of human nature, becoming “sinful” when abused.

Pope Gregory reduced the list of sins to the classical seven: pride, avarice (greed), wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. The states are considered “insidious” because we may be unaware or unsure of the interior state out of which we are motivated and acting.

Pride and envy are mostly about status, while three of the others concern the insatiable desire for and consumption of food (gluttony), sex (lust) and power and riches (avarice). Wrath is the sin of anger and rage. Sloth is sluggishness, the avoidance of spiritual or physical work.

The dispositions may also be seen as potentially tragic flaws, especially in those with great power, struggling to temper themselves, including a certain emptiness seeking base satisfactions which never satiate.

Power reveals character, for good and ill, including the range of deadly sins. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was notoriously insecure, including of his physicality and sexual abilities. He craved adulation, acknowledgement and affirmation.

Not being born of noble birth he endlessly sought glory, which he could never fully satisfy. His is a prime historic example of hubris wedded to grave insecurities and excess leading to his downfall. He was a brilliant military strategist who was as equally, tragically, flawed.


As noted by the History Channel: “The number of complexes he suffered from, including class inferiority, money insecurity, intellectual envy, sexual anxiety, social awkwardness and, not surprisingly, a persistent hypersensitivity to criticism. Taken in whole, these traits drove his stark ambition, undermined his grandiose endeavours – and ultimately crippled his historic legacy.

“When Czar Alexander began to defy him, Napoleon felt so threatened that he gathered the greatest army the world had ever seen in an attempt to make him stand down.

“It did not, and the consequence was the ill-fated invasion of Russia. His ministers and marshals begged him to make peace on the best terms available, but he felt he could not.”

During the famous retreat from Moscow, a number of generals attempted to overthrow Napoleon. Though they failed, he came to realise “that his whole edifice of imperial glory had feet of clay.”

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, with his messianic, expansionist and fascistic worldview may similarly see his desire for imperial glory turn to clay.

It is a glory that Putin has sought for decades as he became even more imperious, intoxicated by power and wealth, and even more isolated with his particular and truncated read and interpretation of Russian imperial history, as brutal and violent as the imperialism of other world powers.

No one knows how the war in Ukraine will end. But the hubris and excess of Putin has been revealed in startling and sharper relief during the most recent invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24th.

There may be a tell that Putin realises that he underestimated the global and Western response and that the war has not gone according to the plans in his mind: he keeps threatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons because his proverbial back may be against the wall.


The vaunted army with which the saber-rattling and bullying Putin threatened his neighbours appears not to have been as modern, as organised, as strong and as capable as his generals may have told him.

In his extremely isolated world, how many facts and how much truth is he told by his advisers? Put more bluntly, how much have they been lying to him about the strengths of the Russian military?

Clearly, the US and the West are also waging a propaganda war against Putin. Still, how paranoid and isolated is the Russian leader? What is the state of his health? Is he getting advice beyond his closed and tight inner circle?

Earlier this week, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, noted at a meeting of 40 countries at an airbase at Ramstein, Germany, “Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here.” Austin is not given to hyperbole.

The meeting of what is known as the Ukraine Contact Group was called to organise military support for Ukraine, which continues to be ramped up. The group will now meet monthly.

When US President Joe Biden stated in Poland in late March that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”, his aides rushed out to say that he had misspoken. Many believe that Biden may have simply telegraphed out loud his genuine intention.

For all of the propaganda and bluster coming from the Kremlin, how rattled is Putin? No one should underestimate his determination in the war or his staying power. The dehumanization of Ukrainians by state media in Russia suggests that the Kremlin may be willing to unleash chemical and other weapons.

Still, the determination of NATO and the West must not be underestimated at this juncture. The United States appears to be giving Ukraine considerable military and other intelligence. And high-grade lethal weapons will continue from numerous sources, including weaponry that has not been publicly declared.

If Putin thought that his war would go more quickly or that the West would be intimidated, he has been proven colossally wrong, even pushing Sweden and Finland toward NATO membership.

And the economic sanctions on Russia, including, over time, less European dependence on Russian oil and natural gas, will continue to drain the country’s state accounts and economy.

The British grandee, Lord David Owen, a physician, who served in a Labour government as Foreign Minister and was a founder of the Social Democratic Party, has researched and written extensively on the role of hubris at the highest levels of politics, especially in the United States and Britain.

He has written of the Hubris Syndrome, which he suggests has physiological components. He describes the symptoms of those with the syndrome:

• They seek self-glorification;

• Act to enhance personal standing;

• Are excessively conscious of their own image;

• Display messianic tendencies;

• Believe “I am the organisation”;

• Use the royal “we”;

• Have excessive confidence in their own judgement and are contemptuous of others’ opinions;

• Display exaggerated self-belief;

• Feel they’re accountable only to history;

• Believe unshakably that they will be vindicated;

• Are out of touch, isolated;

• Are restless, reckless, impulsive;

• Are impractical – overlooking detail and possible unwanted outcomes; and

• Implement incompetently – fail to attend to details through excessive self-confidence.”

Lord Owen posits how just a number of these symptoms are dangerous in a leader in a democracy, and even worse in an autocracy. How many of these traits are evidenced in Putin?

We will see in the months and years ahead, whether Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin survives and, if so, how well he survives, as he shifts between reality and fantasy.

But it is also possible, like other hubristic strongmen in history, that the emperor may be the instrument of his own ignominious demise. We are witnessing one of those pivotal moments in history, which might still become an even more dangerous and widened conflict.


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