HUBRIS

Copyright by Barnabas D. Johnson

In ancient Greece, "hubris" denoted wanton arrogance, especially of the mighty at the expense of the humble. It was bad enough when three rich young men beat up a helpless old beggar. It was hubris if they laughed while doing so. And it was far worse hubris if they wore masks ... and urinated on their unfortunate victim before departing. 

But there are more subtle kinds of hubris, with potentially calamitous global consequences. Here I want to explore what, for lack of a better phrase, I shall call "theological hubris" wanton religious arrogance ... misplaced literalism and fundamentalism in all its forms, whose victim is ... a contingent future that might, some day, be unable to identify and curb human theological hubris. While we can yet identify it, let us explore this ugly tendency towards crass stupidity-on-stilts.

Its worst manifestation is when "organized religion" works hand-in-grubby-hand with the Party of Power, each benefiting from Byzantine mentalities that place emperors, kings, bishops, dictators, and Aparats of every corrupt stripe, above the Rule of Law.

Introduction

I feel privileged to be able to think and write when the dew is fresh upon internet-mediated thought and communication. Because this dew is fresh, I want to remain open to improved tools of thought and communication that are currently evolving or, indeed, have yet to be devised, while also honoring those "tried and true" tools — including value-generating fundamentals — which (who can seriously doubt it?) have carried humanity forward, and can carry us yet further.

Among those values is courageous circumspection, including "institutionalized backward glances" that compose what cyberneticians call "negative feedback" and what common sense tells us is closely linked to intelligent self-correction — how our personal recollections or others' reliable accounts of past "miss-takes" (roads that should not have been taken) instruct us as we choose today's road(s) towards tomorrow, or (more precisely) towards alternative tomorrows worth keeping global options open for.

In simple logic, certainty about the value of uncertainty might seem paradoxical, but based on tried-and-true experience, a valued component of complex logic we ought to feel comfortable with the realization that our emerging global "good society" must be courageously circumspect about locking future generations out of finding their own answers to questions that we cannot pose as well as they might be able to ... and as they have a right to try to do. That is the essence of both conservatism and liberalism, each properly understood, each properly balanced. Hubris comes from lack of balance.

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I submit that the most precious values we pass on to our children are those which "institutionalize" unfinishedness, further exploration, cultural open-endedness bounded only by those restraints that (a) uphold isonomia, equal justice, and (b) foreclose future generations from foreclosing their own future generations from finding answers to questions which, on principle, past generations cannot pose as well as future generations must be accorded the right to try to do. We institutionalize these values by incorporating them into traditions, those "unarticulable major premises" [1] which "go without saying" and are therefore often excluded from constitutional texts even though they constitute the very foundations of Open Society civilization. See Ordered Liberty.

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Foreclosing choices for our children and grandchildren requires consideration of what appears to be our emergent "third-nature" capacity to place ourselves in the shoes of a distant future. Such foreclosing becomes the worst sort of hubris unless it is carefully circumscribed, focused on "responsible" explorations. This website seeks to illuminate standards by which present-day limitations on the future are circumscribed.

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The metaphor of "roads taken" is of limited value. Our choices and actions involve not only "taking" roads but also "making" them. In finding the path we often become the path. These, too, are metaphors of limited aptness. And, in any event, many past "mistakes" were good, in the sense that we have learned because of them; their salutary consequences were unforeseen at the time, and perhaps unforeseeable, yet can now be seen ... if we are fortunate. We live and learn, as individuals and as societies, if "fortunately" committed to courageous yet responsible self-renewal.

Such fortune must be sought, institutionalized, constitutionalized.

Those who engage in courageous circumspection realize that this progression of living and learning, like our world itself, is its own best "metaphor" which, however, is arguably less a metaphor than, well, a sacrament: the "visible" clothing of an "invisible" reality. This reality is whatever it is, including (history teaches) what we make of it, and its outer manifestation is feedback-rich participatory intelligence and participatory governance — including the institutions, traditions, and mutual undertakings of an "Open Society" which, together, constitute what we ongoingly "re-create" as a constitutional democracy. Such a "creature" is not a thing but an activity, a verb. It is what Benjamin Franklin was alluding to when he said of the new United States that we have "a Republic, if [we] can keep it."

A well-functioning Open Society is the outer manifestation of an "Inner Society" embracing deeply personal truths and values which, when shared by a "critical mass" of adult participants, is neither "church" nor "state" yet embodies both in their proper spheres. This balance involves ever-renegotiating those contrasting, sometimes conflicting, values of Liberty bounded by Law — equal justice undergirding equal opportunities, obligations, and rights. And all are sustained by an emerging "fact" which is also a "value": that we humans are blessed with the capacity to think things through, and ought to try harder to do this with excellence. When we don't, that blessing becomes a terrible curse: knowing better, yet doing worse. Constitutional democracy is what emerges when we try to do better, together. The Hitlers and Stalins of history did vast harm, yet from their mistakes we also learn. But oh, the costs of this education! I discuss aspects of the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Lustration in Transitional-Law Context.

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Progress requires responsible yet courageous circumspection. Allow yourself to doubt. This is not fashionable in some circles, where "faith" apparently trumps evidence-based knowledge, including know-how leading to better questions. The unexamined life is not worth living. This is true, not because Socrates said it (although he did) but because our world has learned through painful experience that those who strut with unexamined certainty tend to leave messes that often take generations, even centuries, to clean up.

Above all, I honor those who deeply appreciate that, despite inevitable frustrations and failures, we should "think things through" ... as individuals, as societies, as era-spanning cultures ... and, albeit with due circumspection, should put our faith in reason, in the scientific method, and — this is my main focus — in cybernetics: feedback cultivation and harvesting, ever testing, never too certain, always open to discovery and hence doubt. Being too certain is the greatest impediment to worthwhile progress. It reflects a dangerous hubris about the nature of language, and hence of intelligence, thereby blinding us to our most capacious genius: seeing beyond words, which is the first step towards improving language and hence thought and communication.

These Jurlandia writings are a work in progress — focused on building a future that might (but might not) make our most precious tools obsolete. The Jurlandia website seeks to encourage others to go far beyond, with excellence that I can only adore in ignorance of what it might become. Yet of this am certain: Our frustrations with "thinking things through" reflect an unhealthy impatience with that very complexity of life which is our glory. See The Enterprise of Integrative Jurisprudence.)

This essay is in rough draft and under construction.

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[1] I first heard the phrase "unarticulable major premises" when used by Professor Lon L. Fuller at Harvard Law School in 1968-70, during his course in Jurisprudence and, later, Sociology of Law. He sometimes used "unarticulable" instead of "unarticulated"; and this use seemed interchangeable. Of course, he devoted much of his life to trying to give articulation to these fundamental premises, but he also taught deep respect for their ultimately-unarticulable character. I remain immensely inspired by his work, and have based much of my own teaching on it. My essay, Rule of Law, is based on his book, The Morality of Law (1964, rev. ed. 1969). My 2005 lecture at Harvard's Ukrainian Research Center, focused on transitional justice, was largely based on Fuller's famous Problem of the Grudge Informer. See Lustration. (Go Back)

Another perspective on hubris appears here

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