Hubris* - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

By Abel Merawi

HubrisAugust 19, 2019 ( -- There is a parable narrated in the Easter world’s lifestyle called Zen, with a deep yet so simple lesson. Once upon a time, there used to live an unhappy man, who set out on a quest to find the true meaning of life. He went through mountains and valleys, talked to all the sages known to the world for their great wisdom. Yet it was all in vain for he deemed their knowledge unworthy compared to what he assumed he already knew. After years of tiresome journey, he finally went to an old Zen monk, who lived in a monastery in the forest. Upon hearing the desire of this miserable person, the monk offered him tea. The man held the cup while the monk poured tea into the cup. He kept on pouring into the cup even after it was full and overflowing. The man screamed, ‘stop!’ thinking that the monk was crazy and regretting coming to the monastery in the first place. The monk smiled and told him, ‘You must first empty your cup! You will not learn anything new, while you fill and take pride with what you think you already know.’ The morale is simple: One cannot learn something new, if the mind keeps tightly holding onto the old ones.

We live in an age where everyone assumes an air of being better, more dignified than the rest. We praise ourselves and put ourselves on a pedestal. We have ‘filled our cup’ to the full and left no space for new things to enter. I am forced to ask, ‘How can we develop if we assume to already possess complete wisdom? How can we listen to anyone while thinking no one is better? How can we listen to our parents and teachers when filled with extreme pride? How can leaders govern while despising the people as ignorant, and vice versa?’ I think you know the answer to these questions. This does not mean that we should abandon all we have learnt hitherto; it is only that we need to set aside our pride and be open to learn something new.

Looking at the ‘great’ individuals throughout history that moved the world, or upon reading the ancient literary works of the Greeks, like Homer, and of the West, like Shakespeare, we find one fatal mistake in the great characters or heroes they create: Hubris. Having excessive pride that makes us blind to the world and to ourselves is what the Greeks called Hubris. We find King Oedipus in the Greek mythology that had ruined his own life, only because he refused the advice of everyone by taking too much pride in himself. We find Othello who destroyed himself because of hubris. We can add ‘Alexander the Great’ who lost his great kingdom for he assumed that he is invincible and no one can defeat him. It is for hubris that we become our own greatest enemy. We shut ourselves from the world and live in an imaginary world where we are the king and all the rest is beneath us; only existing to serve our interest.

I now humbly ask all of you to examine yourselves and see if it resembles your character. Check if it reminds you of anyone you know as having this trait. Children, think of how much you could have learnt from your parents only if you had the patience to listen to them. Try to see how much you can learn from your teachers if you had the proper respect to listen to their teachings. You could discover so many wonderful things about the world if you just treat your classmates and friends with dignity. Hubris makes one group feel superior to all the others. If only every ethnic group took the time to learn the cultural values of the others, all the hostility would have vanished. Excessive pride can only lead to ignorance. We are surrounded with ‘strangers’ that have their own fascinating understanding of the world; we could possess this abundant knowledge by overcoming our excessive pride and being humble.

In the scholars, who take pride in their great understanding, we find the same hubris. We find such excessive pride in our leaders. These people vouch that they come to elevate the problems of the people. Yet, they are blind and deaf to the people they serve. No one has the time to hear the problem from the people who face it every day. They speak with authority and claim that they already know the challenges our society faces, and they tell us that they will solve it for us. In ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed,’ Paulo Freire argues how utterly mistaken leaders are when they tend to be the saviors of the people. He explains that the task of the leader is to organize the people, so they really know the problems they face, and through discussion create a solution with the people. And hence, this statement: a government of the people, by the people, for the people.  

I find it truly amusing when I happen to interact with people who assume to know everything. I think you know the individuals I am talking about; I mean those who try to ‘show off’ by trying to show that they know more about everything. I am talking about those who try to dominate every conversation in their attempt to impress everyone with their wisdom. A friend of mine calls them, ‘101 people’. In colleges, students take 101 courses as introductions to the deeper subjects, such as psychology 101. Such courses do not give you mastery over the subjects; instead they open up a path for further exploration. It is also common to find ‘101 people’ who try to show they already know something, when all they know is the surface.

I think this can serve as a lesson for the thousands of political commentators we encounter on social media every day. They make you feel irritated, but you should pity them. They need sympathy since they end up talking, never listening and never learning from others.

Robin S. Sharma in his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, writes, “There is nothing noble about being superior to some other person. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.” We should not be filled with bravado as the English did with Titanic Ship, so as not to sink in the end. So in order to be superior to our ‘former self’ we must rid of hubris and open our eyes to the world and embrace the endless wonders the world is ready to offer us.

* Excessive pride or self-confidence. (In Greek tragedy) excessive pride or presumption towards the gods, leading to nemesis or downfall. Oxford Dictionary


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Living the Truth as a Human Being

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them



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