poetry, prose, and other strings of words · 1993 - 2003
The Heroic Pride
December 11, 1995
The hero has forever stood as an archetype of who we should be and who we wish to be. However, the hero has paradoxically inherent flaws which we do not wish to strive towards. This paradox is resolved when we realize that, in literature, these flaws are not used as examples of what we should be but rather as examples of what not to be. Indeed, these flaws or the struggle to avoid them are often the main theme of a pedagogical work. Among these flaws are avarice, ambition, foolhardiness, stubbornness, and hubris. Throughout the ages, hubris, or pride, has been the one constant defining factor of the hero.
Hubris seems most closely to mean an abundance of pride. There is more to it though, for not only is hubris pride, but it is a greatness in pride and arrogance. It also has a connotation of being a debilitating pride, as it leads the possessor to be more rash than times would call for, throwing caution to the wind in the name of might and intelligence, and has been known to cause a certain amount of haughtiness that wins the hero little respect with his enemies.
Hubris is one of the obvious themes of Homer's works and was very popular in ancient Greece and Rome. The Greco-Roman hero is strong of arm and mighty in the deeds of war. His wit and intelligence are highly valued and, as one progresses into the Roman era, he is expected to be very competent in the managing of his and his people's affairs. These characteristics of the power of the muscle and the power of the mind are, unlike today, expected to be balanced; for instance, "Odysseus represents a more complicated, thoughtful warrior who will be honored later by cultures that value mental as well as physical prowess" (Davis 24). Odysseus, as we can see in nearly every episode of Homer's Odyssey, possesses a vast store of knowledge and cunning that earns him the title of the "wily strategist" and the "man of many wiles." Additionally, these heroes are expected to be brave, courageous warriors and perform their duties in an honorable fashion. However well Odysseus and Aeneas, heroes of which we have studied, perform these duties, they both meet many disasters as a result of their over-bearing pride.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, "Every talent must unfold itself in fighting: that is the command of Hellenic popular pedagogy" (37). What he was talking about was the great tendency of the Greco-Roman hero to constantly place himself in the line of danger in order to uphold his fame and bravery. We see this being a result of pride when Odysseus decides that he cannot simply flee Polyph�mus, rather, he must also have the last word; he therefore taunts the Cyclops as he and his crew put to sea and as the giant wails in agony and anger on the shore. This taunting only serves to further enrage the already blinded son of Poseidon, and, despite his crew's warning, Odysseus continues to upbraid Polyph�mus. Why would Odysseus do this? The only explanation is that he, in his arrogance, wished to have the absolute upper hand of this situation. If either Odysseus or Aeneas were said to have downfalls, the tragic flaw that caused such must have been pride. Like in the encounter with the Cyclops, it was pride that got Odysseus into trouble on many occasion and kept him from reaching his home; the Aeneas of Vergil's magnum opus was also tempted and halted by pride in the city of Dido and on his journey to the Italian peninsula, though we do not see it arise as greatly in him. The essence of the Greek culture commands the individual it to seek more and more fame in order to secure lasting fortune and glory; this is the downfall of the Greek hero. Nietzsche also said, "And if… the Greek was incapable of enduring fame and happiness, one should say more precisely that he was unable to endure fame without any further contest, or the happiness at the end of the contest" (38).
As we move into the Middle Ages, we see very little difference in the stereotype of the hero that is obviously not related to the differences in culture. We have now shifted realms from the Greek world were they new very little and acknowledged it, thereby searching for more truth and meaning, to a feudal realm of Germanic "barbarians," were all of the knowledge in the world is possessed in a few works of importance and things are very static. This is the setting we find for Beowulf, and, towards the end of that Age, Sir Gawain.
Strength is still of much importance to these heroes, as is loyalty and correct action and speech. To a lesser extent, these last two were manifest in the Greek hero, but their flowering occurs in the Anglo-Saxon system of thanes, ring-lords, and courtly manners. Here we see Beowulf guarding his speech lest he should offend the members of Hrothgar's royal household and Gawain being ever so careful as to be courteous in all speech and manner. In the epic of Beowulf, pride is an issue of supernal importance. We see repeated warning about the excesses of pride in the adumbrations and the constant struggle to maintain the line between honesty and boastfullness. Beowulf is warned by Healfdene's son Hrothgar that
Pride overpowering gathers and grows! The warder slumbers, the guard of his spirit; Too sound is that sleep, too sluggish the weight Of worldly affairs, too pressing the Foe, The Archer who looses the arrows of sin. (Kennedy 1155)
Here we see the image of the old king warning the young warrior of the downfalls of heroes. We also see the repeated motif of the humility of the Christian. This motif is carried over into the work of the Pearl Poet several centuries later when Sir Gawain is led through a series of temptations and tests. These center upon a few key issues: virtue, chastity, and pride. As with Beowulf, Gawain is very loyal to his ring-lord, who is King Arthur. It is in his service that the knight enters into the agreement with Bercilak de Hautdesert that results in his adventure. In addressing the King and asking his permission to fight the green giant, Gawain shows the reader a great, Christ-like humility. However, as the story progresses, the reader finds that Gawain's manners and dress exhibit more and more pride and arrogance. As he retards the lady of the households' advances, he continues to uphold his humility by saying that he is not worthy, but his will is slowly breaking down. Finally, in the end, he wears the girdle and avoids the fate assigned to him. This is the final descent of the downfall of Gawain. Now, he has been brought back down to human levels and has a new appreciation for what pride means. This is the felix culpa of Gawain. Like the heroes before him, Gawain has survived the tests of pride and returned to himself.
The introduction of Renaissance ideas brings about a great change in the nature of the hero. In the earlier times, the hero came out successfully in the end, despite his fall. This, however, is not the case in Milton's Paradise Lost and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. As new scientific discoveries were being made and Martin Luther was preaching the doctrine of individual salvation, the focus of all the culture turned towards the individual and the individual's choice. This choice is in relation to the Will of God, which, when crossed, usually ends up with bad results for the perpetrator. In terms of pride, the heroic focus of Paradise Lost is placed upon Satan. This is where we see the powerful archangel playing adversary to God as a result of his over-abundance of pride, his hubris. Doctor Faustus's story is a story of the pride of mankind and the abuse of free will.
In the story of Satan, one can see a mighty, heroic figure whose pride has led him to believe that he should be able to skip through the great chain of being and to the next level, the level of God. Satan is heroic because of "his intelligence, rhetorical skill, and courage" (Davis 1979). Nevertheless, his reasoning powers are suspect in their twisted state and he uses these attributes to seduce Eve into her willful insubordination. It is Satan's internal, infernal pride that forces his decision to never recant, to always fight against the power of God. He therefore deigns to twist and twist, till the meaning of humanity and good is obscured. For pride did he fall, and for pride to he Tempt to Eve. Faustus's pride, on the other hand, is a result of his tasting of the fruit of knowledge. Faustus, in his infinite wisdom, studies all of the great things of the day, and finds himself dissatisfied. He therefore decides that the contemporary convictions regarding astrology and other such magics are beneath him, beneath Faustus who is so great and learned. The story of the fall of the good Doctor is a story of the hubris of an individual who cannot let go. He cannot let go of what he has found and, like Milton's Satan, cannot let go of the pride which helped bring him to his downfall. He believes that he has been created as the superlative scholar, and thus sets no bounds on himself. Indeed, this is what he seeks, limitless. This, however, is his undoing: by seeking limitlessness with the help of Mephistophilis, Faustus voluntarily sets his own bounds. His vaingloriousness causes him to overlook his own standards in this attempt to reach farther than any other man.
What can be seen then is that, despite the changes wrought by different cultures and times, the greatest flaw of the hero is his amour-propre and hubris. The hero is forever tempted by pride to turn from his path. In the Greco-Roman and Middle Ages, this temptation is overcome as the hero, perhaps with a few detours, achieves the end he had in mind. Such is not the case with the Renaissance, with its increased focus on the will of the individual; here, we see the hero whose will is overcome by arrogance and succumbs to its tender embraces, and thus ending up in both literal and mental hells. The hero is the examplar of what we should be and the example of what not to be. Today, pride is as much a factor in human life as ever, if not more. For instance, not long ago, we saw much of the nation's government shut down as a result of one man's ego being hurt. Perhaps we too, as a modern nation and culture, should take a new look at the heroes of these past ages, experience a re-verdi of the old traditions and return to the time when pride was anathema.
Davis, Paul, et al. Western Literature In A World Context. New York City: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Kennedy, Charles W., trans. "Beowulf". Western Literature In A World Context. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. New York City: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 1123-1185.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Homer's Contest". The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York City: Penguin Books, 1954. 32-9.