Richard Armitage and the Quest for Arete: Hubris or Sophrosyne?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Richard Armitage lately…I know, shocking revelation right?!  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about him in the context of several ideas that were first articulated to me in the spring of 1988, though they were active long before that in my life.  I was completing my sophomore year in college and was being inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society chapter at my university.  I don’t remember a lot of the events – I do remember that I was  proud to be one of the youngest students being inducted (thanks to high school classes in Latin and English which had been accepted for university credit.)  I’m a lifelong academic nerd – what can I say?   I wouldn’t be able to identify the keynote  speaker if my life depended on it, with the exception of recalling that she was a she, but I have never forgotten the gist of her message.  She talked to us about the ancient Greek concepts of Areté  (ἀρετή) and Hubris (ὕβρις).   Her premise was that the quest for areté, defined as excellence, or being the best that you can be, was central not only to the Greeks, but was still at play in the contemporary world.  We should all strive to do the best we can at whatever task is in front of us…excellence is often it’s own reward, she argued.  The problem is, she went on, that the downside to those who achieve areté is a potential for hubris, excessive pride or arrogance.  In English idiom, hubris is perhaps best captured in the warning, “pride goeth before a fall.”   Although I seriously doubt my 19 year old brain put it together at the time, she was clearly congratulating us for our achievement, encouraging us to continue striving for areté, but at the same time,  cautioning us against the dangers of hubris.

This balancing act between the quest for areté and the avoidance of hubris was a defining ideal for the ancient Greeks on a day to day basis.  Numerous Greek authors mention a concept known as the Golden Mean, but I think my favorite discussion of this idea appears in the Niomachaean Ethics by Aristotle where he talks about the need to achieve balance in all things.  Aristotle argues that either too much or too little of anything is bad.  For instance, too little bravery leads to  cowardice, too much bravery to recklessness.  The best place to be is at a balance between the extremes.  To the Greeks, this balance was summed up in the word σωφροσύνη (sophrosyne – so-fro-soo-nee in English).

Greek myth is littered with cautionary tales of humans whose hubris was so great that it offended the gods.  I told you the story of Niobe’s hubris last week, but she was certainly not alone in myth.   Characters like Actaeon, Pasiphae, Daedalus and Icarus and Phaethon also suffered for their hubris.   On a daily basis though,  hubris was a human failing that affected not the gods, but other humans.  I doubt that I am alone in occasionally wishing comeuppance on some particularly arrogant person who crosses my path.  As it happens, the Greeks had a goddess for that!  The job of the goddess Nemesis was to deliver divine retribution, literally, “to deliver what was due” to humans.  Those who practiced sophrosyne had nothing to fear from Nemesis, but there was no escaping her if one was hubristic.

Nemesis, Roman marble from Egypt, 2nd century AD (Louvre)  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Nemesis, Roman marble from Egypt, 2nd century AD (Louvre)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is clear to me that Richard Armitage is constantly striving for areté.  From the remarks that he has made himself, to the comments made by his past and current colleagues, his commitment to achieving excellence in his craft is notable.  It is something that has drawn and held the attention of many a fan over the years.  Hubris?   I don’t think Richard Armitage has much to fear from Nemesis on this score.  He seems to embrace the concept of sophrosyne –temperance, moderation – in his approach to the accolades that have come his way….if anything, he may lean to the modesty side a bit too  much sometimes.



I mean seriously, who could accuse this guy of hubris?!

23 comments on “Richard Armitage and the Quest for Arete: Hubris or Sophrosyne?

  1. Servetus says:

    Reblogged this on Me + Richard Armitage and commented:
    Fantastic! [comments over there, please!]

  2. micra1 says:

    Totally agree… perfect comment pic and great post 🙂 And I’d like to remember what Martin Freeman said about him during the Tokyo Press Conference in 2012 and this particular phrase: *He’s about the least arrogant person you can wish to meet.*

    • obscura says:

      Thanks for commenting! Thanks for that quote – it pretty much sums it up! Just so refreshing in the entertainment industry isn’t it? That he is so consistently baffled by his attraction is a huge part of the attraction itself for me 🙂

      • micra1 says:

        Absolutely, the same for me! I wish him all the luck in the show business but remaining the same wonderful decent human being he is.

  3. Wonderful post. And as you know, I love this photo. 😀 It really speaks to the essence of Richard, I think, that he’s as excited (or at least looks that way) to pose with stuffed Kermit as with other celebrities. ❤ ❤ ❤

  4. Leigh says:

    Perfect discussion, and as you say, “I mean seriously, who could accuse this guy of hubris?!”

  5. guylty says:

    This is absolutely brilliant, Obscura! From how you describe the interrelationship of those three terms, Armitage seems a perfect example. Or rather model, thanks to his lack of hubris. I was so far unfamiliar with this ancient Greek concept/construct but it seems a valuable lesson to me. Wondering whether Armitage knew this, or whether he has just common sense. Cos in a way that’s what this is.
    Thanks for a great lesson. This is the best way to learn about philosophical, existential ideas!

    • obscura says:

      I think Aristotle is simply articulating what he saw as part of normal human behavior in its full range. I couldn’t prove it, but Aristotle is so pervasive in the western intellectual tradition, that this notion has become ingrained in the cultural mores, especially since the Renaissance revival of classical philosophy (go Renaissance week!) so that even if we didn’t know the terminology, we recognize the concepts as modes of behavior. I’ve become really interested in cross cultural philosophical trends since I’ve been teaching world history (over and over and over), and this moderation concept is present in so many of them – Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism all talk about moderating extreme behaviors. It is really fascinating proof that regardless of what separates us as societies, there are huge threads connecting us together as humans.

      • guylty says:

        Yeah, I was just going to say that – I call these concepts that appear in all major religions or philosophies “humanist behaviour”. Just in the sense that they are prevalent in all humans, no matter what creed or ethnic background or class. It just makes sense, when living in society, to behave that way. Only that those who stand out from general society (like celebrities) often think they get away with non-humanist behaviour. Ultimately, I think they damage themselves, not others. Just in the same way that those who treat others well, will always be happier than the other way ’round…

        • obscura says:

          I suspect that the reason that so many philosophers talk about these things is that far too many humans fail to behave properly 🙂

  6. I had to look up Sophrosyne. It’s not that you lost me, but I think I clearly don’t have the head to delve quite this deeply in my own Richarding. But, since you’ve opened Pandora’s Box..;)…I re-examined the word Hubris. I have not had opportunity use this word personally, but it is also clear to me now that I have seen it’s meaning incorrectly for some time. And after Wikipedia, it seems to mean something a bit different to what you described as well. It is not a nice word. The connotation appears to be more about a false pride and is more associated with “sexual arrogance”. Although this would apply to many of the characters Richard has played, this doesn’t seem to me to apply to him personally. This is not a defense, just an observation. Maybe more true of just Arete alone, as he often indicates that he strives for excellence – which is a good quality on anyone. And one of which, for me, I believe he achieves.

    Again, maybe this is all above my head. This is a nice and well-said examination though. Forced me to research a bit, which is always a good thing.

    • obscura says:

      Welcome, and thanks for commenting! Sorry, I should have linked a definition in…it is just a “fancy” Greek term for moderation or temperance in one’s behavior. I think part of the complexity in the definition of hubris is the fact that the word has been used and re-used by several different cultures. The ancient Greeks had one idea, but it has expanded to mean other things over time. It is definitely not a quality to aspire to though! 🙂 I would certainly agree that RA has been successful in achieving arete without falling into the hubris trap – rare enough in his chosen profession!

      Not above your head at all – we all move in this same system – only the names are different 😉

  7. Beverly says:

    Fascinating post. And I agree. That balance between striving for excellence and avoiding arrogance is difficult.

  8. katie70 says:

    I think that RA not arrogant or full of himself. That makes him a great person. I would say humble.

  9. phylly3 says:

    You have articulated for me just exactly what is so attractive to me about Richard Armitage. Thank you so much!!

    • obscura says:

      No problem! I think these are concepts that are so integrated into most of our lives that we don’t even realize that they are there, working behind the scenes, shaping our responses. It’s such a great quality to see in a person…no wonder we all love him 🙂

  10. […] the golden touch.  It also served as yet another illustration of the Greeks’ assertion that sophrosyne was the way to go.   Midas would have been fine with a moderate gift of gold from Dionysus, but […]

  11. […] I can’t remember a time in most of my adult life when things were truly in balance — thinking back, it feels like maybe 1996 was the last time. It’s been especially bad the last few years but it was an exacerbated state of a fairly constant experience of stress that derived from excess (usually too much work, or my inability not to overidentify with my work). I read an interesting post this week on someone whose passion just burnt her out. I could identify. It’s hard for me to do anything casually. I’m either fully with you, or completely absent. And then one excess (too much work) leads to other, even more dangerous ones. The Greeks were right about sophrosyne. […]

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