Koros to Hubris to Ate to Nemesis

Column by Bob Wallace.

Exclusive to STR

“The fear of humiliation appears to be one of the most powerful motivators in individual and collective human behavior.” ~ Donald Klein
There is no light on human nature more pitiless and perceptive and accurate than mythology. Through hundreds if not thousands of years all the dross was burned away, leaving some very acute observations about human nature.
Unfortunately mythology is not taught in schools or the churches or by parents. Too bad, since there is wisdom in the stories, wisdom that doesn’t exist at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, places that produce “the Best and Brightest” now busy destroying the United States.
The ancient Greeks outlined this sequence: Koros to Hubris to Ate to Nemesis. They argued about what exactly each word meant. Scholars still argue today.
I’ve heard Koros described as a kind of greed -- and had those ancient Greeks been Christian, they would have called it one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I’ve also heard Koros described as what happens to people of unsound character when they gain great wealth and power (meaning, more than anything else, political power, which ultimately is the power to “legally” kill people).
Examples (which are another name for stories) work best. I consider George Bush, who started two unnecessary wars, to have an unsound character. An ex-alcoholic who was never treated for it (which makes him a dry drunk), who is apparently brain-damaged by that alcoholism, with rumors of past heavy cocaine use, who never had a legitimate private-sector job in his life, who was (is?) on psychiatric medication, who believes he is a Christian who is “saved”…and he became President.
To use just our last three Presidents (Obama, Bush and Clinton) as examples, they are portraits of what Friedrich Hayek meant when he wrote his famous article, “Why the Worst Get on Top.” It’s also why the Founding Fathers were opposed to the leftist delusion of “democracy” – again, the worst get on top.
A man or woman, a weakling of unstable character, who gains great wealth and political power, then next suffers from Hubris -- another name for the towering, grandiose Pride that afflicted Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Hubris is arrogance, moral blindness, wanton violence, which creates in the afflicted the ability to cruelly and brutally humiliate people without any qualms – the way Herod and Caligula did. They always rationalize as a necessary thing how even the innocent suffer terribly, which is why there exists the ironic observation (which both Jesus and Aesop noticed) that all tyrants call themselves benefactors.
The Greeks, with their usual intelligence and perspicacity, banned representations of brutal public humiliation from their theater as obscene – and the original definition of obscene meant something that should not be shown in public.
Not so surprisingly, the root words of “obscene” and “humiliation” both mean “dirt” – to treat someone as dirt. Humiliation also means “to mortify,” which means to “make dead,” not necessarily physically dead, but worse, dead in psyche, as in the walking dead – zombie or vampire, which is how those whose souls have been murdered by vicious humiliations describe themselves.
I am reminded of the sociologist C. Wright Mills when he wrote about what he called “crackpot realists” -- fools who are convinced they know what they are doing but don’t, and instead destroy in their attempts to save. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (and currently Van Jones) are fine specimens of that.
Seeing wrong as right is Ate -- madness. When a politician starts unnecessary wars in which they become even richer (again, the greed of Koros), in which tens of thousands of innocent people are killed and many more impoverished, and the instigators claim they had the “time of their lives” (as both Bush and Clinton said), that is Ate.
Bush was far more arrogant than Clinton or Obama (he was, after all, referred to as Smirk). The more arrogance one shows, the more it is covering up feelings of humiliation. As the psychiatrist James Gilligan so perceptively wrote, “The most dangerous men in the world are the ones who are afraid they are wimps.”
It has been noticed for many years by many people that bullies cover up their cowardice with braggadocio – arrogance on top hiding their feelings of humiliation. When such people gain political power millions can die because of their attempts to replace shame with pride (Hitler had one testicle, Stalin had badly pocked skin, fused toes on one foot and a withered arm, and LBJ escalated in Vietnam because he was afraid his critics would consider him “chicken” if he didn’t).
Now we come to Nemesis. Nemesis is the goddess of fate and retribution. You can use many other names: revenge, vengeance and retaliation, payback…perhaps even justice. (As an aside, the Greeks called justice Dike, and it exists because of the criminal acts created by Hubris.)
I find it significant that Nemesis means “fate.” That means cause-and-effect, although I believe it is more accurate to define it as a cybernetic system, specifically a positive feedback system: humiliation leads to revenge, then those who are the objects of revenge seek revenge in turn, and so in, an escalating spiral of death and destruction.
Humiliation doesn’t always have to lead to revenge, if the object of humiliation can maintain his or her innocence, as in such stories as “Cinderella” and the first Harry Potter novel (in both cases they are stories that illustrate the saying, “Living well is the best revenge”).
But when it comes to groups of people – ethnic groups, religions, nations – immunity to feelings of humiliation can never be maintained and revenge will always happen. Mobs cannot think, only feel; they never follow principles, only leaders, and they always fall for propaganda that portrays them as innocent victims and their attackers as evil, subhuman monsters bent on death and destruction.
Osama bin Laden said the Islamic countries in the Middle East had been humiliated by the U.S. for 80 years, and that the revenge of 9-11 was “a copy” of what the U.S. had done. Then the U.S. sought revenge for the humiliation of 9-11, and now those the American government is killing in Iraq and Afghanistan are getting their revenge by killing our soldiers in return. Those who are blinded by political fanaticism cannot see this (because they perceive all political problems as Good versus Evil), and as long as they are deluded, they never will be able to see the truth of things.
In a nutshell, when you brutally humiliate people and make them suffer cruelly, and don’t even know you’re doing it, and instead of relieving their suffering you see it as something good and necessary, you’re going to be pretty damned surprised when the people you are oppressing and exploiting and killing rise up and kill you back. You’ll be outraged and consider it ingratitude; they’ll consider it justice.
When unsound people (meaning about 98% of all politicians) get political power, they always seek to expand it. This is why the State throughout history has always expanded its power, always at the expense of people and society.
There have been quite a few people throughout history (Marcus Aurelius for one) who have been able to handle political power. Unfortunately, Clinton, Bush and now Obama don’t belong to that admirable group. Those who consciously seek political power are avaricious, self-deluded weaklings and can never handle it properly. As Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I prefer the sayings, “Power intoxicates and immunity corrupts,” and “Power is the horse that evil rides.”
As Dostoevsky put it in The House of the Dead, "Tyranny...finally develops into a disease. The habit can...coarsen the very best man to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate...the return to human dignity, to repentance, to regeneration, becomes almost impossible."
The opposite of Hubris is humility, or what the Greeks called Sophrosyne. It can be described as “Nothing in excess” and “Know thyself,” meaning having a clear understanding of your character, your strengths and limitations. It means treating people with respect, not brutalizing and humiliating them, and when it comes to relations with other countries, to, as our Founding Fathers advised, trade with them but otherwise leave them alone.
Unfortunately, if you flunk history (which so far has always happened), you have to go through the whole mess again. The U.S., which has the whole of history before it, is ignoring all its successful lessons and is instead repeating all its failures.

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Bob Wallace's picture
Columns on STR: 89


Glen Allport's picture

Nice column, Bob. I enjoyed both the information about mythology and its terminology and the psychological analysis -- this last, with most authors, is often teeth-grittingly off the mark IMO, but I think you do a good job here; Alice Miller's work supports much of your analysis strongly. I'm less sure about some of the individual motivations you put forth -- I suspect that E. Howard Hunt was right about LBJ participating in the JFK plot and think it likely that escalating the war after Kennedy was out of the way was always meant to be LBJ's major contribution. Just my guess, of course.

In any case, again: I appreciate your effort to educate with this column. One rather embarrasing bit of proof that it's necessary is that I had no idea what your title referred to, until I read the column itself -- Koros and Ate were not in my mental dictionary at all.