Pride causes powerful to fall

What causes the powerful to come to ruin? In a word, pride

Fresno Bee, May 19, 2017

At a graduation speech this week at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, President Trump warned, “the more righteous your fight, the more the opposition that you will face.” He advised, “Don’t give in, don’t back down.”

That is standard fare for graduation speeches. Indeed, unrelenting self-assertion helped President Trump get elected. Persistence and tenacity are virtues. But the same disposition can become the vice of obstinacy.

Much depends upon the righteousness of your cause. But in general, obstinate self-assertion brings the powerful to ruin. At least, that is the lesson of the great tragedies. The drama unfolding in Washington could be written by Sophocles or Shakespeare.

Political tragedy is a microcosm, a fascinating display of the common human affliction. We see our own foibles reflected in the flaws of the powerful. The perennial lesson is that we are all subject to tyrannical moods. We push more than we yield. And we arrogantly cling to our own ignorance.


The tragic chorus reminds us that human power is uncanny and strange. Our power creates the conditions for our own downfall. The more powerful we appear, the more blind and lame we become.

The problem is hubris, that fancy Greek word for arrogant pride. Hubris, the chorus explains, gives birth to tyrants. And tyrannical power begets hubris. Relentless pride, wanton ignorance, and unbridled ambition are the source of folly and crime. Shakespeare’s Macbeth warned, “vaulting ambition” overleaps itself. As the Bible put it, pride goeth before the fall.

Even a blind man can see that. In the Greek tragedies the blind prophet Tiresias makes the point. Everyone makes mistakes, he said. But good men yield when they are wrong. And they make amends.

The ancient tragedies also show that the cover-up is worse than the crime. A tyrant does not concede his failures. He never admits he is wrong. He lies and denies. And he blames the messenger for bad news.

The problem is power without restraint. As Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One solution is a system of legal checks and balances. The law can prevent abuses of power. But virtue requires self-restraint.

It also helps to reflect upon the nature of power and ambition. Shakespeare provides a clue, suggesting in Hamlet that the substance of ambition is the shadow of a dream. Power inflames desire and our sense of entitlement. The more we get, the more we want. But political power is ephemeral. It is nothing but the opinion of others.

The game of power requires a constant effort to keep the hot air blowing in your own preferred direction. And when the winds shift, as they always do, the tyrant rants and howls like old King Lear raving on the heath.

Pride makes us stubborn and irrational. The young prince in Antigone warned his father against being inflexible and unreasonable. He suggested that his father should relent—and listen and learn. King Creon, of course, ignores this advice. The family is destroyed. And the desolate king learns too late the lesson of moderation.


Tragedies also show that wisdom can be found in unexpected places—in the voices of the powerless. Throughout Western literature, powerful men routinely ignore and degrade women. They do not listen to the blind or the young. In Shakespeare, the fool offers insight. In Greek tragedy, it is the chorus of the people who provide the voice of conscience.

Here, then, is a source of hope. Normal people—lowly, hard-working, ordinary people—possess a kind of wisdom and virtue that the powerful seem to lack. We, the people, can learn from observing the tempests of political life a lesson of how not to live. We ought to discover that “wisdom is the supreme part of happiness” as Sophocles explains. It is in modesty, decency, hard work, and caring relationships that happiness is found.

The powerful fret and strut for their hour upon the stage—and then are heard no more. What’s left is a tale seemingly told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Those immortal lines are Shakespeare’s. His poetry has lingered, as have the works of Sophocles. And here is another source of hope. Empires rise and fall. But beauty and wisdom endure.

Loyalty and Tragedy in Politics

Trump campaign is like Greek tragedy

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2016

  • Loyalty is a virtue that can become a vice
  • Loyalty should not be mechanical, bigoted, or provincial
  • Donald Trump pledged loyalty to the GOP

Rival Republican candidates pledged to support the party’s nominee, even if it was Donald Trump. But some Republicans are thinking of jumping ship.

GOP 2016 TrumpTrump has complained that his loyalty has not been reciprocated. He warned of riots if the party were to deny him the nomination. Will those Republicans who denounced Trump in recent weeks remain loyal?

It seems that we are witnessing a Greek tragedy in which conflicting loyalties generate pathos, pity and fear. The current morality play points to the perennial ethical question of loyalty and its value.

In tragedy, the hero proudly declares her loyalty in opposition to some other person’s cause. Each side becomes recalcitrant. Violence looms. The crisis is resolved with the downfall of the characters, and in some cases the demise of the political establishment itself.

Loyalty is a double-edged sword. Committing to something gives meaning and purpose to existence. Our loyalties shape our lives. But dogmatic loyalty is as dangerous as treachery.

Consider the problem of the loyal gangster. Sincere loyalty is not praiseworthy when the cause is a bad one, even though we understand the power of gangland loyalty.

We also empathize with the faithful wife who stands by her man despite his philandering. We appreciate the love of a devoted father who protects a criminal child. And we recognize a kind of virtue in the steadfast soldier whose loyalty is abused by immoral armies and iniquitous empires.

Loyalty leads to moral disaster when people support causes that they should abandon. Mechanical fidelity is not really loyalty. Loyalty requires intentional commitment and ongoing reflection. It is not praiseworthy to go along with traditional allegiances because of inertia. Habitual loyalty is unworthy of a thinking person.


Unthinking loyalty is a kind of bigotry. Loyalists can be blinded by their allegiance, biased against those who have other loyalties. For that reason, loyalty often seems to be an old-fashioned virtue incompatible with democratic values and the idea of toleration.

Loyalty becomes bigoted when combined with stubborn pride, what the Greeks called hubris. Loyal persons identify with the object of their allegiance. When the team does well, we feel proud. But when our party is attacked, we take it personally. Wounded pride easily becomes indignant and sometimes violent.

About a hundred years ago, the American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote a book extolling loyalty as devotion that gives form to life. In fidelity to a cause, Royce said, life becomes real, solid, and active. An individual without loyalties would be a blank, apathetic shadow.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why people can be seduced by false or evil causes. We want to belong to something beyond ourselves. In some cases, the content of the cause is less important than the longing for loyalty. Royce suggested that the cure for intolerant loyalty is to respect other people’s loyalties. He celebrated the idea of loyalty to loyalty itself.

One of Royce’s students, Alain Locke, extended this analysis further. Locke is an important African American philosopher, known as the philosophical father of the Harlem Renaissance. It is easy to imagine, with African American history in mind, how loyalty is connected to racism by way of so-called “race loyalty.”

Locke distinguished proper loyalty from unjustifiable prejudice. He wanted “value loyalty” without “value bigotry.” Locke dreamed of a pluralistic commitment to values that was not dogmatic or intolerant. He wanted us to overcome sectarian fanaticism and narrow provincialism by calling for a cosmopolitan sort of loyalty to loyalty.

Nearly a century later, Locke’s pluralistic paradise has yet to be created. Racial division still plagues us. Our loyalties remain provincial. Hubris haunts our politics. And bigotry divides us.

A better understanding of loyalty could help. Human beings need loyalty. But loyalty is not a stand-alone virtue. It is connected to all of the rest of our values. Those values transcend party affiliation and the temporary allegiances of political expedience.

Loyalty must be tempered by justice, moderation, and wisdom. Loyalty provides a rudder through changing seas. But misplaced loyalty can be an anchor that inhibits critical thinking and common sense. And sometimes it is wiser to abandon ship than to remain loyal to a lost cause.

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