In Defence of Hybris

By Jonathan Krude

London Salon Participant

This piece advocates restoring the reputation of a virtue which has presented us with the most monumental feats of mankind but remains woefully unappreciated in the role it should play in guiding our intellectual future. This is unsurprising, since it has always been a uniquely troublesome stance, aggressive and dismissive beyond the reasonable, driving us out of our natural place within the order of things and into an abyss of doubt and insanity. And yet, I argue that those of us who are in pursuit of beauty and truth will have to pay this price.

Hybris, as I wish to discuss it here, is wholly distinct from any satisfied pretension or lazy superiority. Hybris is that fire which drives Alexander on his quest to conquer the Universe; it is the Faustian struggle with the Demon for understanding this world. It is the will to strife for more than that which our situation allows for, and the readiness to throw all weight into the balance for a cause that is truly great and beautiful. The hybristic stance is directed at a world seen as fundamentally problematic. It rejects the Conditio Humana as insufficient, and cannot bear being thrown into this foreign and inhospitable world which threatens to make our life entirely irrelevant. The driving force of Hybris is anguish about the smallness and ugliness of our life. But in Hybris, this Weltschmerz does not end in despair and defeatism. Instead, we react to reality with defiance: Suffering the deeply problematic human condition, we need to press on towards something further, re-shaping the architecture of our prison into an instrument of beauty and truth. In any theist worldview, such rebellion is likely to result in a resistance against the divine order. This is the mythology of the hybristic mind.

Prometheus defies Zeus and becomes the patron saint of philosophy, Tantalus examines the Olympians on their claim to omniscience and Sisyphus dares to detain Death himself. Of course, the gods react to their impertinence and make them suffer accordingly. It is a grave misunderstanding to imagine any of them as happy – these thinkers had found something that they thought good and meaningful, and failed to secure it. With Hybris failing, there is nothing but despair.

In this sense of the term, Hybris has been at the core of the most radical leaps of humanity. It is the stance that allows us to contemplate the salvation which is at present beyond our reach, and gather the desperate strength to grasp it. This makes the history of hybristic causes a history of monumental failures. Gilgamesh tries to break the yoke of mortality and dies without a friend. Alexander sets out to conquer all the realms of men and weeps when learning about the unconquered Universe. And the Soviet leaders attempt to create the ideal society and lose against a postmodernist West. But even in failing, they all convulse the limits of our existence, hammering against the walls of what is possible for us. And sometimes, we do succeed: Humans have conquered the heavens from their angelic masters, and even the Moon herself has not been save from our grasp. And step by step, failure by failure, we have expanded our instruments to complete the Faustian enterprise of attaining philosophical insight into the world.

Under our conception, the eros of philosophy itself is deeply hybristic. Born from sceptical doubt, the original thrust of the Socratic undertaking is destructive. The philosopher reveals ours to be a fundamentally problematic world, threatening to make our life meaningless and void. She undermines the comfortable ideas and narratives according to which we construct our individual life and society. And she demonstrates all the battles and strives in our life to be minor and irrelevant. These insults are based on an epistemic diagnosis of the human condition. They are founded in the menace of scepticism: How can we hope to live a worthy life and to achieve anything of any relevance, if we do not have the knowledge to distinguish good from evil? What hinges on all our goals, if we only form them by brute dogmatism, unable to grasp the truth? If we cannot distinguish it from falsity, our decisions become completely void. Hegel claims that it is not in the nature of philosophy to be wholesome, and indeed it appears to be far from it. Drinking the hemlock, the founding father of philosophy ultimately joined Sisyphus in his happiness. But the philosopher does not give in to the temptation of despair and of falling into a lethargic and ultimate scepticism. Instead, and in a veritable hybristic leap, she takes it upon herself to overcome our torturous situation. Without knowledge, our only hope is the love of, nay strife for wisdom. Thus, the philosopher enlists for the madness of attempting an entire re-situation the human condition, winning us the chance to grasp our life and the world.

Insofar as we are thinkers, we are part of this land reclamation for the Kantian Island of Truth. And insofar as we are human beings, our life depends on its success. There are, of course, many wonderful reasons to philosophise, and there is nothing wrong with mere curiosity and the enjoyment of abstract thought. But philosophy, as an institution, continues an unparalleled tradition of hybristic rebellion against the epistemic status quo, of intellectual aristeia and genuine progress. It is the spearhead of humanity, constituting our only hope to find a way out of the absurd. Thus, philosophy has to be thought as a progressive enterprise. Retreating into the mere construction of equilibria from our intuitive prejudices is just as defeatist as outright scepticism, since it has given up all ambition of moving towards the truth. But if our situation is indeed absurd, and our ignorance a fundamental menace, our choice is that between Hybris and Despair. Obviously, this decision is far from arbitrary; as long as there is a minute chance of success in striving on, it is irrational to give up hope.

It appears, however, as if the intellectual world is not now unified behind this hybristic cause. Instead, the beautiful philosophical machinery has widely come to a halt, having retreated from the frontline and abandoned the strife for the genuinely good life. The reasons for this are certainly manifold, but we appear now to be caught between a few dogmatists and many defeatists, both of whom will tell us very similar intuitive and coherent fairy tales about the world and skirmish about their borderlands, the latter as a pastime and the small group of the former with genuine commitment. Dogmatists, dashing ahead beyond their evidence, are an important and healthy part of our intellectual discourse. But what of the others? What of those who understand that they know none of the things that they argue about, but who continue to work within the systems they can’t justify? What they lack is simply the Hybris to fight back against our fundamental ignorance. They are not passionate enough or too afraid, and thus the academic debate plays so much less than its part in our fight against our ignorance. This is why we are demanded to form our own space, creating a debate between those who are willing and able to genuinely pursue the good and the beautiful against all odds.

In making this choice, and moving on from it, we accept a wager. We simply do not know whether the answers can ever be found, and whether we can ever be successful with our strife. However, we are required to live our life in the expectation of success, building everything towards this possibility. Were we to fail, all is lost, so we lose nothing by not accounting for this possibility. As a consequence, we should expect the most extraordinary ability and success from ourselves: Under the premise that we are able to revolutionize the human condition after millennia of unsuccessful attempts, it is just reasonable to accept that we can also overcome any particular minor difficulty. Such links can, of course, be defeated by further evidence, but they make the conceptual confusion between Hybris and more ordinary pretensions comprehensible: The hybristic thinker must not be afraid of common problems and will make his plans under the assumption of her own brilliance and success – albeit not from narcissist instincts, but by striving for the highest goals. Telling his boatman not to lose courage amidst a thunderstorm, reminding him that he carries Caesar and his fortune, the Roman is not just arrogant. He systematically adapts his self-conception to his enormous ambition.

It is clear that the hybristic stance has direct consequences for our approach towards the world, giving us an outline of the truly philosophical life. Most centrally, it demands a clear and ruthless judgment of our epistemic situation, of what we do and do not know about the world. If we do not have access to something, being simply unable to decide on it non-arbitrarily, this does not yet allow us to fantasise ourselves into any position we like. Instead, it is unknown territory, part of that which will have to be taken by epistemic force. If we do not know something, this does not imply that we cannot find out – such modally strengthened scepticism is mere dogma. If, on the other hand, we do take position on something, there remains no conceptual space between our own beliefs and the truth: We have made it our position only because we take it to be fully apodictic, beyond the reach of doubt. We cannot then retreat behind ourselves, but must use the conquered territory for our further endeavours. These are the clear consequences of the progressive scepticism as which we have described philosophy. They resonate in the conditions of genuine intellectual dialogue: Only one common undertaking remains, the development of methods to carve out deeper insights from the world. System-building and its critique are a waste of time unless we first conquer the grounds on which systems can be built, so the clamour of the philosophical glass-beads-games shall grow more silent. Instead, we face one common problem; against the Conditio Humana, there must be Burgfrieden in the République des Lettres. Instead of disagreement, there has to be a shared confusion, and the discussion is antithetic only where an interlocutor has dashed ahead too swiftly, taking for granted what he cannot prove.

Genuine Hybris forces the individual to eradicate all personal weakness and form his abilities towards their perfection. In the struggle for the highest good, convenience and phlegm lose their attraction, since every weakness may be the fatal blow to his hopes. Genuine despair drives him towards the extreme of that which is humanly possible. Moreover, if there is reason to reject the more pessimist views on human nature, the psychologistic apologies for weakness of will and lack of focus cease to make these appear acceptable. In taking up a hybristic stance, we act under the assumption of the possibility of success.  Thus, those claims according to which the human will is feeble and soft must be taken to be probably false, ceteris paribus. As hybristic minds, self-mastery and development becomes hence decisive, rebelling against any bounds of the humanly possible already in our own personality.

A Hybris shared between us will give a novel integrity to our dialogue. Petty vanity and thin façades mud down the progress of our intellectual discourse, wasting our time with false idols and confusing our thoughts with clever sophistry. Evidently, by replacing our minor skirmishes with a common strife for the highest good we leave ourselves with little reason to harm each other. Even beyond that, a genuinely hybristic stance makes the unnerving façade and the little impostures that harm the project so much widely unnecessary: If our real intellectual substance will ultimately prove to be strong enough to change the face of the world, criticism of it will tend to be much more valuable to the haunted seeker than the mistakenly high opinion of others. Further, we must expect our honest abilities to be worthy of praise, since this is the natural consequence of the wager. We will therefore have no reason to fear the eyes of others and to hide our brilliance, in particular after having started to educate ourselves as far as possible. Hybris thus becomes the founding principle for the truly progressive and collaborative community of disciplined thinkers. This is what we should aim for in composing any new intellectual community.

Striving for genuine insight, we should not be afraid to bring ourselves into ridicule and to challenge the world with our radical demands and bold statements. What we now lack in experience and education we can redeem by our dauntlessness and endless fire. This will make us troublesome, to stale authorities and void imposters alike. We will seem naïve and noisy, unable to fit in and arrogant about our thoughts. But our Hybris is not pretentiousness. Hybris is the virtue that makes an honest and consequent life possible in a problematic world.