Hubris is a theme that preoccupied the minds of the ancient Greeks. Man’s fate was unpredictable in a world governed by capricious deities, therefore one ought to temper one’s aspirations and avoid displeasing them in any way. Calamities could befall whole cities because of hubris in one man, as Sophocles dramatized in Oedipus Rex. In his play Agamemnon, Aeschylus articulates this pervasive fear in Greek culture. Agamemnon, a hero of the Trojan War, understands that he is, after all, subordinate to the gods like any other man. He warns Clytemnestra not to overstep appropriate bounds in her praise of him.
Strew not this purple that shall make each step
An arrogance; such pomp beseems the gods,
Not me. A mortal man to set his foot
On these rich dyes? I hold such pride in fear,
And bid thee honor me as a man, not god.
Clytemnestra prevails upon her husband to walk upon the expensive carpet she has laid out for him. As Agamemnon prepares to place his bare foot upon the rich fabric he offers a prayer, “And stepping thus upon the sea’s rich dye, / I pray, let none among the gods look down / With jealous eye on me.”
Modern man does not share the Greek preoccupation with hubris.
Recently the pastor of my parish began his homily asking the following question: “Whose world is it anyway?” We had just heard the parable of the wicked tenants about a landowner who put tenants in charge of his vineyard, expecting them to provide him with the produce of the land at the appointed time. Instead, the tenants attack the landowner’s emissaries and kill his son. Far from fearing the power of the landowner, the wicked tenants considered themselves his equal and presumed his gift to be their own possession. The parable is, at one level, a cautionary tale about hubris.
My pastor’s query reminded me of something I had seen in the news a couple weeks earlier. It was video footage of a Russian submersible extending a mechanical arm to plant a rust-proof titanium Russian flag on the Arctic seabed. A man named Sergei Balyasnikov, spokesman for Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Institute, was ebullient after the mission acclaiming, “This may sound grandiloquent but for me this is like placing a flag on the moon, this is really a massive scientific achievement.” Grandiloquent? Yes. It’s also indicative of just how low morale is in the Kremlin these days. But, most of all, it is hubristic. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, echoing the Romans’ Mare Nostrum, now speaks of “our shelf” when he refers to this “massive scientific achievement.”
By international law, there are five countries with territories within the Arctic Circle: Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland), and the United States. Russia is now claiming a larger piece of the pie because they believe the Lomonosov Ridge, an 1800 kilometer mountain range under the Arctic’s chilly waters connects Siberia to the North Pole. Moscow sees this as a legitimate extension of Russian territory. Others consider it a land grab. For example, the Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said, “This isn’t the fifteenth century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’.” American State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey was more piquant. “I’m not sure of whether they’ve put a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bed sheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn’t have any legal standing or effect on this claim,” Casey bristled. This is of interest now because it is believed vast amounts of oil and natural gas lie underneath the Arctic Ocean. Additionally, due to melting ice around the North Pole it is believed a new shipping route will open in the near future that could give the Kremlin a stranglehold on international trade. Russia’s hubris is not only sub-aquatic. On terra firma, the Kremlin has established a military base at the North Pole and conducts unannounced military exercises there.
We’ve seen this before. The Romans and Athenians opted for empire and fashioned worlds to their liking. Before them the Persians did the same. The Islamic world consisted of a cave at the beginning. In less than two centuries Islam had wrapped its sickle-shaped arm around the southern shore of the Mediterranean and sought to gather Europe into its rapidly burgeoning world. Spain, Portugal, France, and England planted flags prodigiously around the New World making claims on behalf of their kings. China, which for centuries considered itself a world unto itself, has recently decided its world should include the South China Sea and everything under it. Ukraine determined its world should be decidedly smaller but freer, excluding Russia altogether. The Nazis envisioned a world that can only be described as a Dantean Hell on Earth. What is now merely Russia was once the core of the Soviet Bloc, a bleak Communist world hid behind an Iron Curtain.
Karl Marx is at the vanguard of modernity’s world making hubris. He proclaimed that while philosophers were once content to contemplate the world, they now must set about changing it. Progressivism is the philosophy of world making. But something crucial has been lost in the shift from contemplating the world as it is given to fashioning a world to our own specifications. The political ramifications are obvious. Yet the moral and spiritual repercussions are more lamentable.
The Dangers of World-Making Hubris
All attempts at world making share one characteristic: an impoverished understanding of world. The Greeks had a more profound concept of world, expressed by the word Kosmos. Broadly speaking Kosmos was understood to be an ordered structure of being created by an intelligent mind. Man’s virtue consisted in bringing his soul and his political community into alignment with Kosmos. Hubris disrupted this alignment and led to chaos. Thus, at the opening of Oedipus Rex, the whole city of Thebes is suffering from pestilence and famine because of the hubris of the king who had offended the gods.
Kosmos is also the word used in the Bible to indicate a world created and directed by God. It was this conception of world, as something already beautifully made and suggestive of moral order, that allowed Augustine to observe in The City of God that the world “by the perfect order of its changes and motions, and by the great beauty of all things visible, proclaims a kind of silent testimony of its own both that it has been created, and also that it could not have been made other than by a God ineffable and invisible in greatness, and ineffable and invisible in beauty” (XI.4). We are stewards in God’s world, no matter where we put our flags.
World making is a form of hubris Augustine called libido dominandi, or lust for domination. Augustine was echoing the Roman historian Sallust who wrote that in the early days of the Roman Republic “the life of man was passed without covetousness, everyone was satisfied with his own.” But when the Romans began to consider that the Persians, Spartans, and Athenians had subjugated peoples to themselves they began “to deem the lust of dominion a reason for war, and to imagine the greatest glory to be in the most extensive empire.” By rejecting the idea of Kosmos, man also rejected the possibility of a divine order expressed through creation. Augustine believed libido dominandi is at the root of every disordered relationship, even among angels. The progressive ideology that views creation as raw material to be exploited for our own personal comfort is anathema to Kosmos. Such views are all too common in modernity’s moribund conceptions of world. Such assumptions eliminate the possibility that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins so beautifully phrased it.
Our modern technocratic era has no use for cosmology. Our push-button, voice-activated, climate-controlled, pain-free world of comfort and convenience is ours alone. The proposition is seductive. But if the recent earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and fires show us anything, they show us such propositions are delusional.
We can make enough nuclear bombs to destroy the world a hundred times over but we cannot stop a leaf from changing color in autumn or a rose blooming in spring. We cannot stop snow from falling or the earth from turning any more than we can create new stars. No one can plant a flag on a cloud and claim dominion over the sun. “There is more in heaven and earth” than we dream of in our philosophy. Beauty will have its way.
Perhaps more than anything else the contingency of life itself troubles us. We know “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2). As much as we try to distract ourselves from this fact, it presses upon us as a fundamental circumstance of life. History shows that some have responded to mortality with fear, others with virtue. Some have exchanged the harmonious and surprising beauty of a Kosmos for the atonal and homogenous system of a mere world. The Soviet Union is an obvious example. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn captured the notion well in his novel In the First Circle when Innokenty’s uncle Avenir sums up the hubris of the Communist government in Russia:
“They’re the most barbarous class!” his uncle said angrily. “Peasants commune with the soil, with nature, and learn their morality from it. Intellectuals are engaged in the noble work of thinking. But these people spend all their lives within dead walls making dead things with dead machines. How can they ever learn anything?”
Those who do not have leisure to contemplate the Scriptures can at least contemplate the testimony of the stars, the cycles of the earth. The “noble work of thinking” begins with acknowledgment of the given-ness of the world. It recognizes an order and a beauty in things man did not create and which open him to the possibility of a divine order within which we exist. Only a people acquainted with Kosmos can understand what Jesus means when he says “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The puny, lifeless worlds of “the barbarous class” are full of dead machines producing dead souls. Heaven is a lie in such lifeless worlds.
Troubled by mortality and suspicious of a Kosmos, we have exchanged it for a duller and ostensibly more predictable world of our own making. Yet no one sleeps any better at night. Augustine wrote in The City of God “this is because there are many things, such as fire, cold, wild beasts, and so forth, which are not compatible with, and which injure, the needy and frail mortality of our flesh” (XI.22). Rejecting God and the Kosmos leaves an enormous vacancy that must be filled. Yet every attempt to fill it cannot suffice since there is no human invention that can supplant the mind of the Maker. No stream can replace its own spring. Libido dominandi seduces us into believing we can do without God and control our own destiny. Augustine observed, “These persons do not notice how splendid such things are in their own places and natures, and with what beautiful order they are disposed, and how much they contribute, in a proportion to their own share of beauty, to the universe as a whole, as to a commonwealth.” Instead, they are left alone in a blank oblivion of fear and hopelessness. So, they plant flags, distribute opioids like candy, and entertain themselves into a stupor. They drug themselves to fall asleep at night and distract themselves with social media throughout the day. The world’s self-appointed demiurges of destruction threaten each other with annihilation. Yet, “the tide rises, the tide falls,” as Longfellow wrote.
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). How blessed one is to know this. It is the antidote to hubris, and the surety of our destiny.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Consummation of Empire” painted by Thomas Cole.