Saturday, March 28, 2009


My newspaper has made for strange reading this morning. Marina Hyde takes on one of the easiest targets, celebrity self-importance with its attraction to charlatan mystics and messianic political missions ("Hi, I'm Richard Gere, ... and I'm speaking for the entire world ..."). The cumulative impact of this catalogue of narcissistic lunacy is deeply tedious.

Then, David Owen, of all people, talks of political leaders' "hubris syndrome", which he sees as an illness manifesting itself through,
  • A narcissistic propensity to see one's world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory
  • A disproportionate concern with image and presentation
  • A messianic manner
  • Excessive confidence in own judgment and contempt for advice
  • Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on omnipotence
  • A belief that one is accountable solely to history or god
  • Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation
  • Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness
To be fair, Owen admits to a tendency to it himself before listing his main British Prime Ministerial candidates - Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The theory is in a paper co-written with Jonathan Davidson of Duke University, North Carolina, who gets little of the glory.

Of course this is saying nothing new. It was a phenomenon known to the Ancients and here is Bakunin writing in 1867:
Is there not something in all that to make a man lose his head and his heart as well, and become mad with pride? It is thus that power and the habit of command become for even the most intelligent and virtuous men, a source of aberration, both intellectual and moral.
Finally, as if to prove the point in the most chilling way possible, up pops the grisly personification of the cloning of Rupert Murdoch with Benito Mussolini, Silvio Berlusconi, with a new unified right wing party, called, with deadly irony, "Freedom People".

So where does this leave us Enlightenment types with our dreams of a rational world? How do we hold to our ideals when faced by such an awesome display of dubious mental health? Do we despair? It is so tempting, but there is much else besides, a popular instinct for justice and morality*, a relapse into reason all the more powerful for its low visibility. There is an egalitarian antidote. Another world is possible; at the moment, I just worry about whether it is probable.

*Via TG


DorsetDipper said...

some people accuse bankers like myself of hubris, but they're just ignorant and jealous.

The Plump said...

Hmm ... In the current crisis I don't think the word 'hubris' was the one on most people's lips :-)

Brigada Flores Magon said...

Try rapacious avarice, Stirnerite egotism and solipsistic political views.......

Anonymous said...

What is rational in the assumption that your opponents enjoy dubious mental health?

mikeovswinton, ponderin' said...

Reading through Dave's list of hubristic indicators, isn't it perhaps the case that his former mentor Roy Jenkins had quite a lot of them? Not in the sort of rather gauche and upfront way that, say, Tony Blair had them, but in a sort of understated Hampstead Garden Suburb manner. Discuss over a fine claret. (Or retsina Pete?)