At the close of the Oscar-winning film, “Patton,” scenarist Francis Ford Coppola (he did not direct the film) quotes the words of General George Patton, Jr:
“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
This column is like that whispered warning, a cautionary note hoping to reach the ears of President Rodrigo Duterte, as he marks this December, the sixth month of his presidency and war on drugs.
I use as my framing device the classic hubris-nemesis dynamic from Greek mythology, which historians and writers have used for generations to comprehend the story of men and nations.
In the hubris-nemesis dynamic of Greek mythology and culture, hubris must be present to attract nemesis, the goddess of retribution.
Hubris is the pretension to be godlike, and thereby fail to observe the divine equilibrium among gods, man, and nature.
In short, hubris is the capital sin of pride, and thus the antithesis of two ethics that the Greeks valued highly: aidos (humble reverence for law) and sophrosyne (self-restraint, a sense of proper limits).
Hubris encompasses words and phrases like the following —overweening pride; self-glorification; arrogance, overconfidence in one’s ability and right to do whatever one wants, to the point of disdaining the cardinal virtues of life; ignoring other people’s feelings; overstepping boundaries; and impiously defying all who stand in the way.
The term Nemesis denotes the ancient Greek goddess of retribution and the retributions attributed to her. The term nemesis is used to refer to the dynamics of retribution in general.
In Greek literature, hubris often afflicted rulers and conquerors who, though endowed with great leadership abilities, abused their power and authority and challenged the divine balance of nature to gratify their own vanity and ambition.
Acts of hubris aroused envy among the gods on Mt. Olympus and angered them to restore justice and equilibrium. Nemesis, the goddess of divine vengeance and retribution, might then descend to destroy the vainglorious pretender, to cut man down to size and restore equilibrium.
Divine retribution is a major theme in the Hellenic worldview, providing the unifying theme of the tragedies of Sophocles and many other literary works.
In Ancient Athens, hubris was defined as the use of violence to shame the victim. Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because of anything that happened to the committer or might happen to the committer, but merely for that committer’s own gratification.
The accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, hence, the pairing of hubris and nemesis in Greek mythology.
The logic of myth
According to the behavior patterns embedded in the logic of myth, people should beware the dynamics linking hubris and Nemesis.
Hubris vainly and arrogantly defies proper conduct and balance in human affairs; nemesis harshly restores them.
In so doing, both have a tendency to get out of control and to victimize.
In modern parlance, the ancient terms are rarely used. But the dynamic reverberates in Christian thinking, and remains contemporary in Biblical sayings like “Pride goeth before a fall” ( Book of Proverbs, 10:16).
Modern examples of the ancient dynamic often revolve around an “arrogance of power” theme, as in pairing the United States and the Vietnam war, Nixon and Watergate, or the Shah of Iran and the Islamic revolution. Also, the ancient terms have been used by writers in explaining why “bidding firms infected by hubris simply pay too much for their targets” in corporate bidding wars and takeovers, and to warn about signs of hubris rising in the applied natural and social sciences in the United States (Spengler, 1972), or to criticize intellectuals who play Nemesis-like roles against traditional authorities while ignoring that this may open a way for demagogues to gain power.
In a study for the Rand Corporation, the social scientist David Ronfeldt developed in 1994 his theory of the “hubris-nemesis complex” — a special and potentially dangerous mindset that combines hubris and nemesis. (A summary of the study can be downloaded online).
Ronfeldt applied the concept to leaders like Fidel Castro and Muamar Khadafi. In such leaders, he said the complex means more than exhibiting hubris and nemesis as separate qualities. The interaction between, and integration of, the two forces appear to result in something more complex, more pathological, than the description of either force may imply at first glance. To be as powerful as their hubris requires, they must be the nemesis of an external power; indeed, it is part of their hubris to be such a nemesis. At the same time, to fulfill the nemesis role against such a power, they must personally possess absolute power at home and expand their power and presence abroad—they must be capable of hubris.
In the classic dynamic, the two forces stand apart, opposing and contradicting each other. In his theory of a complex, the two forces no longer stand apart; they get fused in a single mind.
Duterte and the dynamic
My point here is to raise a warning that our President is treading and straining dangerously the hubris-nemesis dynamic.
In his five months in the presidency, President Duterte has demonstrated a remarkable ability to lead and rally our people in a way not seen since President Marcos. He has achieved instant international attention for combining loudly and defiantly populism and nationalism in his leadership. He has proven himself as an ardent reformer in both domestic and foreign affairs. At the same time, he has alarmed the Filipino nation and foreign nations with his obsessive focus on the war on drugs, and on killing and more killing.
He has practically defined his vision of our country of 100 million in terms of the drug war, and he has shown a startling readiness to sacrifice major economic, social and diplomatic concerns for the vainglory of his drug war. When he has been criticized, especially by foreign leaders, he has lashed back viciously, often to the point of readily sacrificing friendships, relations and gains born of decades of building and nurturing.
The rising alarm about what is happening can be seen in both the national and international media. Two recent reports in the New York Times, one in text and the other photographic, are searing and heartbreaking to behold. Filipino columnists, in recent columns have dramatically raised the level of their criticism and alarm.
These voices may seem like just ripples today, but they are ever rising now and multiplying to a degree that must be faced and faced down effectively.
The cheers and adulation of the people lift the leader’s spirit; but glory is fleeting. And it is overweening pride that finally rouses Nemesis to action.