When Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the Greeks witnessing the event on the stage as depicted by Sophocles knew that there would be retribution. The act of marrying his mother is, as we would say, “unnatural.” In the Greek view it was a violation of what they called “Moira.” Since Oedipus was a great king, his actions resulted in cosmic imbalance (that’s right, cosmic imbalance). Things had to be set right. So while the folks sitting in the theater were horrified by what Oedipus did, they were even more concerned about how he would be punished — because he most assuredly would be punished. It was essential that the cosmic balance be restored and the only way that could possibly happen was if Oedipus were punished. It mattered not that he didn’t know his father was the man he killed on the road and the woman he subsequently married was his mother. It didn’t even matter that he fathered children by her. What mattered was that he committed a terrible wrong and it had to be set right.
Fundamentally the same notion of restoring cosmic harmony can be found in a number of Eastern religions in the notion of “karma.” It can be found in such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Ching Hai, among others. It is a common thread running through both Eastern and Western thought for many hundreds of years. We still hear today the trite notion the “what goes around comes around.” As it happens, this is a faint echo of the deep-seated notion that wrongs will inevitably be punished.
For the Greeks, of course, the wrong resulted from hubris, excessive pride — not pride, per se, but excessive pride. A certain amount of pride was expected of a Greek: after all, he was a Greek and not a barbarian! But excessive pride was the essence of tragedy for the Greeks and it could be exhibited by an entire city and the results would be the same: the wrong must be set right to restore cosmic balance. Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens which was lost by Athens, a tragedy according to the historian brought about as a result of excessive arrogance and pride on the part of the Athenian leaders resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Oedipus, of course, exhibited hubris because he ignored oracular warnings and arrogantly proceeded as though he were in control of his own destiny. No one is in control of his destiny, according to the ancients, not even the most powerful of men and women. Not even the gods: Moira was beyond even them.
We, of course, know better (!) We are certain that we are free and control our own destiny. And despite our lip service to karma, we don’t really take seriously the notion that wrongs will be punished — not by the courts, not by the gods, or even by powers beyond the gods, as the Greeks saw it. We know better.
Or do we? We might take a page from these ancient books of wisdom and think about hubris. There can be no question that as a nation we are arrogant and suffer from excessive (unwarranted) pride. We insist that we know how others should live their lives. And if they choose not to live the way we think they should, we feel justified in sending drones deep into their world, or fighter planes with powerful weapons designed to “take out” the enemy (and numberless innocent people cataloged as “collateral damage”). Further, in the name of “jobs” we continue to assault the earth and insist that she bend to our will and yield up all her treasure. Time will tell whether jobs are more important than stewardship of the earth, or whether we are right and everyone else is wrong — or whether the ancients were right all along and at some point cosmic balance must be restored.
No word best condenses the essential nature and principle of American global policy than “Hubris” today, haunting secretly the private terrain of Public discourse and Culture with the imagined and self-righteous importance of a Power invincible and unaccountable to everything otherwise known as Democratic Society.
Proof of as much can be found in the Revelation recently better exposed on the extra-legal surveillance of American communications of every conceivable sort WITHOUT judicial review or sanction, the likes of which have pitted the Chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee against the Director of Intelligence, both accusing the other of breaches of security.
The Senate wins-out in this Contest, and the CIA stands profoundly accused by the Facts of constitutional violations of both Separation of Powers AND breaches of staid Constitutional protections of American Civil Liberties. One should expect certain Scapegoats to emerge in coming days from the CIA (the old: rogue-agent alibi) to answer the convincing evidence the Senate has against this Agencies illegalities. Yet, some dismal expectation remains that the Powerful shall yet protect their kind, the whole affair slipped under the rug, and the Law of the Land suffer ever further depredations thereby.
But this is but the slightest example of pending conflagration involving the Constitutional Legitimacy of American Government and the Peoples’ potential and intelligent outrage, not even the most obvious or even pressing; though among the most central examples of failed leadership on the Intelligence Committee of the Senate (Grand Dame: Diane Feinstein).
Here is a woman caught between her avaricious impulse for Power, her constituent Ideology, and the extortion which such a position must make of Senate Committee Chairs (coming from the IC). The insult to her Position here, and the Integrity of her Office MUST have Public consequence; and we should expect a sacrificial offering from the CIA of its own, ‘rogue’ agents in this affair.
Worst-case-scenario? Nothing of consequence happens, and the rest of US become the better convinced that there are NO checks-and-balances anymore, but a unified, moral corruption of civil government, absolute. This is Dante’s doorway to Hell.
Moira vs Hubris.
Here is Phaeton. Here is Icarus. Here is Oedipus. All reaching for that which is Essentially without their grasp, but should have been understood as their Ideal, or their best Aspiration, in name only.
Men make much of their Ideals, and pretend all the while to be worthy examples of these same, unachievable, notions:
Fervent monotheist believe themselves to be near-equivalents of an Omniscient, holy deity..moral arbiters of mankind. Scientists pretend to weave stories of the Origins of the Universe, planetary evolution and molecular motion, making-out a new Priesthood of certified Teachers quite above Speculation but riddled with the same, still pretending the certitude of bronze-age priests. Scientistsms is the new Monotheism. The one as false as the other.
Hubris, of course, is NOT for the average man; but for the drivers and principle actors of Society and Civilization. It’s the kind of thing, alone (almost) that is guaranteed to warrant the attention of gods (“those whom the god would destroy, they first drive mad” (hubris)).
There is only one alternative: the Hero. And we have NONE of them these days, as yet.
The most obscure end among gods and men, at least partially determined by Fate or Norns or Karma, the cultures over.
Inscrutable, irrational, necessary and indomitable. Nothing better fits a description of Cosmic Law, were there any such thing.
One point means something in this Law, accessible to the Ideology of ANY civilization, a kind of Universal Wisdom that prevents a cross-road into any Destiny of ill-fate: Know your Limit.
Intellectually, morally, if a sentient species cannot perform this achieved perspective, culturally…it is DOOMED, necessarily and as a Natural Event.
i fear that the cosmic balance will need to restore order, and we will realize just how small we are…
thanks for the post, hugh.