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.
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?!