Hubris meets Nemesis

Students of history often study the ancient Greek gods. In a kind of hybrid philosophy/theology, the ancients organized abstract constructs by assigning them to personalities often understood by modern interpreters as gods. The religion was a set of ideas organized around mythical personalities that were illustrations of those concepts. Studying Greek gods is another way of understanding the concepts of their philosophy. Many of the Greek gods were adopted by the Romans and have expressions in the pantheon of Roman gods. And many have survived the test of time and are used as illustrations and representations of contemporary concepts even though most modern philosophers don’t embrace the concept of multiple gods. One example is Lady Justice. Statues of justice adorn courthouses and law school buildings and the figure is familiar to many. She id depicted as a female figure, often blindfolded, holding a set of scales aloft and usually holding a sword in the other hand. Those who see the statues and other elections understand that this is a symbol. There isn’t a real woman who make the decisions in cases, but rather the concept of justice giving equal sway to all involved and being impartial. The blindfold signifies impartiality, the scales fairness and the sword punishment. The word justice comes from her name in the Roman pantheon which is Lustitia or Justitia.

Lustitia is the Roman derivation of the Greek goddess Themis. Classical depictions of Themis show her without the bliindfold. In the stories and oracles of Greek mythology, Themis is the personification of fairness and natural law. Her name means “divine law” as opposed to human ordinance. The Greeks understood that human justice systems fall short of the absolutes of justice. Sometimes things don’t turn out to be fair for all parties engaged in human disputes, but there is a sense that there is a justice beyond the remedies of human courts. Themis embodies this ultimate justice.

In Greek mythology, another goddess, Nemesis, is charged with carrying out the judgments of Themis. Nemesis is also depicted with a scale and a sword, although in some ancient sculptures and engravings the sword is much bigger and the scales somewhat smaller. In the ancient stories she is charged with bringing retribution against those who succumb to hubris. In Greek philosophy, hubris is the name for humans challenging gods. It has come to describe cases of foolish pride, dangerous overconfidence and arrogance. Those humans who think too highly of themselves and their abilities are brought down by the sword of Nemesis.

The concepts are interesting in a modern context in part because they remind us that there are a lot of large ideas which did not begin in our generation. People thought about philosophical concepts long long ago and our ideas have been shaped by an enormous inheritance of ideas and concepts. Simply by using language, we become connected to ideas that are more ancient and much bigger than ourselves. The study of Greek and Roman gods is a way of gaining an introduction to philosophy and understanding the history of certain concepts.

I have no way of knowing how much of the history of philosophy or the gods of the Romans and Greeks has been studied by the writers of contemporary news stories. It is more likely that they simply use the common vocabulary that has been shaped by ancient concepts than that they are actual students of ancient subjects. Still it is interesting to me to read stories that use the word nemesis in reference to the coronavirus outbreak and the panicked response of leaders and everyday citizens. A New York Times article addressed the current situation as the President’s nemesis.

Further examination reveals that contemporary use of the word nemesis has a slightly different meaning than the ancient use of that word. In our contemporary usage, nemesis is often an adversarial force that can be overcome with extreme effort like Voldemort or the Wicked Witch of the West. In the ancient understanding, Nemesis isn’t an evil force. A goddess is not a villain. And in the oracles of Greece, goddesses won in the end, not the other way around.

It is hard to know exactly what is meant in the articles, then. Do they say that the coronavirus will eventually be overcome, or that it is a natural response to an excise of hubris?

In Greek mythology those who defy natural laws will meet and be defeated by nemesis. In that sense, it seems that perhaps the crisis of a world pandemic is a nemesis for certain ideas and overconfidences of contemporary American politics. This very real force of nature has clearly exposed the difference between airy promises and stark realities. The president can say that coronavirus test kits are available to all who need it but the reality is that kits are in critically low supply. Behind that reality is the administrations actions in slashing the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a part of even broader cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services. Nemesis comes into play when the empty promise meets harsh reality.

An administration that has been based on concepts such as experts are unnecessary, hunches are a substitute for knowledge, that competence is overrated, that criticism is hoax and that conceit is a virtue now is being tested, and found to come up short in the face of a virus that cannot be stopped by building a wall or instituting travel bans. The base of support for this administration has often declared that having an epic narcissist in the White House isn’t a risk. The stark reality of a worldwide pandemic is illustrating that they are wrong. Hubris meets Nemesis. The reality of a federal government that has been ineffective and profoundly inefficient in addressing a national crisis has political consequences. More seriously it has consequences in terms of human suffering.

With panic settling over the nation and people stripping the shelves in the markets bare because they don’t know what else to do, calm reassurance is not coming from the nation’s leadership. People don’t trust their government to do the right thing. It is a classical scenario straight out of a Greek oracle. As such it is helpful to remind ourselves that Nemesis is not evil. The natural order exists for the good of all people. The correction is necessary but it is not for the sake of imposing pain, but rather checking the unrestrained hubris of those who think they are above the natural law. We are all in this together and thinking that some deserve privilege is a thought that will be corrected.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!