Richard Smith: Should hubris be a disease?

Richard SmithShould hubris be a disease, asks my friend Faith. After a second I conclude, “Of course. It’s perhaps the most dangerous disease of all in that it destroys not just individuals, but potentially our whole species.”

I think of hubris simply as men acting as gods (even though I don’t believe in gods). But Wikipedia defines hubris as “extreme pride or arrogance” and then continues: “Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.”

The Greeks first described hubris, and Greek mythology is full of examples. Perhaps the best example is King Midas who asked to be able to turn everything to gold and then turned his daughter to gold. Ovid’s Metamorphoses describe many who succumbed to hubris. Phaeton, son of  Helios, insisted on driving the chariot of the sun even though warned against it by his father. He would have burnt the world to a frazzle if not destroyed himself by a thunderbolt from Zeus.

Marsyas was a satyr who played the pan pipes beautifully and challenged the god Apollo to a musical contest. Whoever won would choose a punishment for the other. Apollo, of course, won, and Marsyas’s punishment was to be flayed alive, very slowly and carefully. In Titian’s famous painting of the scene, Marsyas is strung up by his goatish feet, and Apollo is flaying him. A pet dog drinks the blood. King Midas is there and supposedly has Titian’s features.

But we don’t have to go to Ancient Greece to find hubris. Chris Huhne is a fine example. For those outside Britain, he’s a prominent politician, a cabinet minister, and near leader of his party who 10 years ago was driving a car that was photographed speeding. His wife, as I write, is still on trial, but she took the points. As in Greek tragedy the story made it into the newspapers when Huhne left his wife for a bisexual woman and the scorned wife told all. Huhne denied everything until he was finally in court last week and pleaded guilty. It was hubris to get his wife to take the points, to say nothing for 10 years, and to deny everything until the final moment.

Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Conrad Black, Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Michael Jackson, Adolf Hitler, and Silvio Berlusconi have all displayed hubris, and David Owen, a former British foreign minister, has written a book called The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power.

I learn from Wikipedia to my surprise that “In ancient Greek, hubris referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. The term had a strong sexual connotation, and the shame reflected on the perpetrator as well.” Inevitably this makes me think of Jimmy Saville, the British television presenter who was discovered after his death to have sexually abused hundreds of children and women over five decades.

You will notice that every person I’ve named is male. Might hubris be a disease like haemophilia, affecting only men except in the rarest circumstances? I turn back to my Ovid. Arethusa, Echo, Semele, and Myrrha are all women undone by love (perhaps a disease more harmful to women than men), but Arachne is a woman who succumbed to hubris: she challenged the god Minerva to a spinning competition, lost, and was turned into a spider.

Hubris is, of course, a disease closely associated to power, which may be one reason it is commoner among men. I’ve Tweeted asking for examples of female hubris, and within seconds I have Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Palin, and Margaret Thatcher (twice). None are wholly convincing. Is Margaret Thatcher an example? She was incapable of stepping down as leader and had to be discarded by her party. Those are symptoms of hubris, but they don’t seem to me to amount to the full disease. Iris Robinson, the wife of Northern Ireland’s first minister who had an affair with a 19 year old boy, is the only woman I can think of, but she too was perhaps more undone by love than power.

But is it a disease? The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is due out in May and will include hundreds of diagnoses, but hubris will not be one of them. I discover, however, that the David Owen whom I have mentioned already has published an article in Brain arguing that hubris is an acquired personality disorder.

I’ve been around diseases long enough to know that defining them is an arbitrary business driven by fashion not science, so whether we call hubris a disease is for me a pragmatic question. Could we prevent, screen for, or treat hubris—ameliorate its effects, in other words? I doubt it, so let’s not call it a disease.

But there is a defined response to hubris—nemesis, the punishment of the gods, something like being chained to a rock and having your liver pecked out every day by an eagle, only for it to grow again overnight, the punishment of Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, the ultimate hubristic crime. Huhne must now be experiencing something similar.

What terrifies me most about hubris is that it is not just a disease of individuals.  I fear that medicine is suffering from hubris, going beyond what is human to keep us alive. Nemesis is aircraft hangers full of the demented. But worse the whole human race may have succumbed to hubris and so suffer nemesis. We have tried to be gods and rule nature, and nature is striking back. The Greeks saw it all coming.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.