Psychologist Murray Stein writes in Solar Conscience, Lunar Conscience (1993 pp 64-65) of
hubris, "the cardinal sin of the Greeks," that it is an "overstepping a boundary that has been
laid down by the gods." The ethical imprecation against hubris complements the classical
Greek, i.e., the Olympian respect for firm and ideal boundaries. Hubris is criminal because
hubristic acts challenge the dubious authority of the Olympian order.
In the Greek tragedies, hubris itself is as ambiguous a crime as identity and boundedness are
tremulous and questionable values. The hubris of intelligence is associated to Oedipus's
catastrophe, perhaps, but it is finally the gods themselves who wreak havoc on the order they
supposedly have established; so much so that Sophocles allows that Oedipus is
apotheosized for his insistence upon his own righteousness.
One has to search pretty hard to find an unambiguously hubristic act among the Greeks.
Aeschylus' Agamemnon arrives home from the Trojan War and his wife, who is plotting his
murder, forces him to walk upon a "red carpet" as he descends from his chariot and enters
his palace. Agamemnon's hubris is thus utterly external to his will, but Clytemnestra thinks
that it is this act, rather than any actual moral turpitude, that will bring the gods down
against him and legitimize her revenge. As a matter of common ethics, hubris here is not a
serious malfeasance but a mechanically adjudicated infraction. The Olympian system to
which Clytemnestra appeals and which also allows Oedipus's political enemies at Thebes to
vilify and banish him, indeed takes excess, of which hubris is a principle instance, as the
heinous violation of divinely ordained prerogatives; but the ethics of hubris has about the
relation to the deeper operations of the Greek spirit as the "work ethic" (the insane demand
that laborers commit themselves to their own exploitation) does to the authentic toils of
The concept of hubris, like that of timê, is a symptom of a conflicted and ambivalent social
order. The imprecation against hubris is, like the Covering Cherub in Jewish Theology, the
means by which the social order protects itself against the yearning for truth that would at
every point uncover the lawlessness at the heart of the law, and more than that, the explosive
fact of Being itself, unique and universal, that is the reality at the core of the individual spirit.