“Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… even the gods.”
– Annabeth Chase, Sea of Monsters
Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan
As much as I have and will absolutely continue to rag on Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, I will admit, as with many stories that are clearly meant for kids, there are some wonderful, nutshell-sized summations of important lessons to learn. Case in point: the lesson of pride, and how deadly it is.
When Annabeth says this, she is talking about what she has learned to be her own fatal flaw, in the tradition of all the Greek heroes having one, but also the flaw of the primary antagonist of the series, Luke. She elaborates on how the Greek gods, and the Western Civilization which has thrived under their influence, have done a lot of good in the world, including many of the very best things that humanity has ever done in its entire history. But even knowing that, sometimes it’s easy to see only the bad, the flaws, mistakes, and sins. It’s easy to think as Luke thinks, that if they could just tear it all down and start from scratch, then they could build up something better, something perfect. According to our definition of “perfect,” of course.
And therein lies the danger, in thinking that somehow we could do better than anyone else alive, better than everyone who has lived and died, if only everything in the way – which includes everything – could be removed, erased, deleted, undone, torn down. Clear the way, clear the ground, like a forest fire, no matter who or what burns for it. To do that is to act as if we were gods, the ones whose business it is to judge and to meddle, to tear down and build up by our own will alone. And, of course, being incapable of making mistakes. As if anyone could ever reshape the entire world and not make a mistake somewhere.
In that sense, I find that we are surrounded by hordes of would-be gods. We are drowning in them, being buried and suffocated by them.
These are the fools who understand little of history, even less of human nature, who are ignorant but think themselves wiser and smarter than everyone who has come before. They see nothing but wrongs in the world around them, and that most admirable desire to improve things is corrupted in blind, destructive zealotry. They seek to solve problems by tearing it all down instead of building something up. Their righteousness, as they see it, is found in plunging headlong into the fray of a fight to overturn everything they know and put in its place a utopia, the likes of which they don’t realize can never be built by mortal hands alone. And all who dare to stand in the way, who dare to try and caution them against impulsive destruction, who don’t get in line with them and march in perfect lockstep… well, they’ll just have to march straight over the entire lot of us, won’t they?
When I say that, I am aware that I, too, have my issues. I have deadly pride, but I think even worse for me is my deadly wrath. Something deep within me wants to make an answer for the suffering of countless people because of the power struggles of the powerful. I very much want to break, shatter, and burn those evil, wicked men who have visited terror on their fellow man. I wish, deep in my heart, that I had the power to repay them all in kind. But even deeper in my soul, I fear what would result. I fear the monster I, myself, would become, the innocents I would hurt in my own self-righteous rampage, and the greater harm that I would do.
I have learned and lately dwelt on this particular truth: I am no better than anyone else. I may not have any reprehensible crimes to my credit, but I have been a fool before. I have been caught up in my baser instincts and overwhelming, savage wrath of the people around me, the mentality of the mob. I have been charmed by gilded tongues that dripped venom into my veins, and caught up in the capricious moods of the crowd. I have been jealous and short-sighted, prideful and self-centered. I am guilty of many sins, and good things that I have tried to do have gone wrong. I may not be worse than any other man, but neither am I any better.
I am the equal of any man, neither above nor below, not worse and not better.
I can’t do better than everyone else. I can only do my best.
We can only do our best, and we need each other to help us account for the mistakes we will make.
That’s how my nation was founded, by imperfect men who found a balance together, and made something better than it was before, and, even more, capable of improving itself, to address the flaws they knew would be found. And they did it with words and ideas, building something up instead of tearing it all down.
Now that is an example worth emulating.