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The Use of Greek Hubris as a Concept Applied to Contemporary History Events

Jaime Gonzalez,
Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur l'Antiquite, Groupe
"Texts scientifiques et techniques anciens",
Universite de Caen, France

It is not uncommon for writers and thinkers today to use classical concepts or ideas in order to characterize or analyze contemporary politic or historic issues. Authors have established often, all during the 20th century, parallels between Greek history (or historiography), and the events and transformations of the modern world. Such use is common, both in scientific, specialized papers, as well newspapers and media addressed to a general public, who are not supposed to have any special education in history and the Classics.

Such is the use of hubris by modern intellectuals and authors. We will briefly explore the use of hubris by intellectuals in four different cultural areas: the United States, Great Britain, France and Spain. In this countries’ media, Greek hubris is often quoted as a concept to describe political and international affairs patterns of conduct. It is especially used applied to two contemporary issues: the US government international policy in the Iraq conflict (before, during, and after the 2003 war); and the Middle East crisis between Israel and Palestine.

However, Greek hubris, as a concept playing a role in the history of civilizations, goes back to Herodotus. Curiously enough, Herodotus’ thinking has been considered irrational and primitive by a great number of classical scholars; it belongs to the myhtos Greek cultural era (using J.-P. Vernant’s well-known terminology). Greek historian Thucydides, whose work has also been used frequently during the last century as a model to echo modern history episodes, also introduces the term hubris in his accounting of the Peloponnesian War.

In our paper, we will try to raise three initial points of discussion:

1. How appropriate is to use a Greek, pre-logos, historic concept applied to our modern historical events (as Herodotus’ conception of history is based on ideas completely opposed to modern scientific history)?

2. Why did authors and thinkers keep going back to Greek hubris to describe not only individual politics, but also those of states and governments? Is it that, as Thucydides pointed out in his “always-actual” history, we can truly appreciate “the constant character of human behavior” in the political sphere?

3. In our 21st century world, one in which losing our cultural and historic connection to the past is becoming a major universal issue, is it admissible or helpful to undertake comparisons between such different historic periods, as those of classical Greece and our contemporary society? Can historic concepts be applied to different eras?