The Ukrainians’ response to the Russian invasion reminds us continually of the virtues of self-sacrifice, compassion and courage. But the invasion also reveals hubris in human nature – most tragically, in dictator Vladimir Putin.

Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel is surrounded by members of Congress and senators after speaking in 1990. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, wearing glasses at top right, and Minority Leader Bob Dole, right, follow Havel from the House chamber. Havel’s address, which stressed the need for humble self-awareness, received 17 standing ovations. Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press

Putin’s example prompted me to revisit hubris as our most stubborn human problem. Delving into its meaning deepens our awareness of hubris’ many manifestations. They range from relatively mild instances of excessive pride to evil acts that cause unspeakable suffering.

In discussing hubris, philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) wrote: “A demonic structure drives man to confuse natural self-affirmation with destructive self-elevation.”

We need to pay attention to the confusion that the German American professor identifies (he taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago). Self-esteem is a desirable, wholesome aspect of human nature. But it is qualitatively different from elevating oneself above others and using that power to bully them.

People having great power who lose sight of the distinction between self-esteem and hubris can cause incalculable harm. Perhaps many of us would offer examples of such blindness. But all of us are susceptible to that confusion. Tillich reminds us of the fall of every great culture in history. Moreover, he notes that even humility can slide into hubris.

Novelist and social critic David Foster Wallace, in his acclaimed Kenyon College commencement address, indicated that hubris was the “default setting” he slipped into when, impatient and tired, he found himself stuck in an interminable supermarket check-out line.

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Suddenly, he said, it was all about me: “my hungriness, my fatigue, my desire” to get back home and put my feet up. I am the center of the universe and my immediate needs and feelings “are what should determine the world’s priorities.” The good news, Wallace said, is that we can catch ourselves being this way before we act.

Most days, he said, if we’re aware enough to give ourselves a choice, we “can choose to look differently” at the people around us, open our hearts to them and in so doing can find ourselves “on fire with the same force that made the stars.”

Hubris, often called the “spiritual sin,” is the subject of the world’s great music, art and literature: the Greek tragedies, in which “the mortals” deny their limitations and defy the gods; Shakespeare’s plays; Milton’s poetry; Icarus and other myths; Genesis (e.g, The Tower of Babel); Beowulf; certain folk tales, etc.

Fortunately, people engage in many practices that address hubris. These include: self-reflection; openness to criticism; honesty about one’s prejudices; modesty; faith community practices and traditions (e.g., confession and absolution); noticing what finite things we attribute infinite value to; sacrificial acts of kindness; thankfulness; the familiar (12-step group) Serenity Prayer for grace, courage and wisdom.

The most recent Eastern European president (before Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky) to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress was Vaclav Havel, then the Czech Republic’s new president, in 1990. He challenged us “to learn how to put morality ahead” of politics, technology and economics; to let go of the “vanity” that we are the “pinnacle of creation,” and to care for the Earth entrusted to us.

A central theme of his address was this column’s as well: our need for humble self-awareness.

Havel asserted, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility … to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success.” It is a moral responsibility, he said, “to the order of being where, and only where, all our actions … will be properly judged.”

The speech evoked 17 standing ovations from Congress.


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