Something in the news reminded me of the ancient dynamics of hubris and Nemesis. Which reminded me that I used to write about those dynamics and their fusion in a rare pathology called the hubris-nemesis complex. Which reminded me that I wrote a few pages once about the space-time-action orientations of leaders who have hubris-nemesis mentalities. Which meant I should go find those pages and add them to the accumulation here, for the sake of advancing STA analysis.
The pages are from a think-piece I wrote a couple decades ago — Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex: A Concept for Leadership Analysis (RAND, 1994). Though I sometimes muse that it may be one of my better ideas, I've raised it only once before at this blog, in a 2010 post about millenarian mindsets (here).
So a little background about Greek mythology and modern resonances may be in order first, before getting to the pages about STA.
Dynamics of hubris and Nemesis — their fusion in a hubris-nemesis complex
Hubris is the pretension to be godlike — the capital sin of pride. It is most evident in a vain self-exalting leader who arrogates all power and glory to himself, believing he has the ability and the right to get away with whatever he wants, even if it means violating accepted norms of conduct. While self-adoring Narcissus was not such a leader, his story provides the classic mythical example — and the basis for the modern psychoanalytic concept of narcissism as a kind of hubris.
Nemesis was the Greek goddess of divine vengeance and retribution. If the gods became angry that some mortal was exceeding his fate, she could intervene in human affairs to restore equilibrium. She could be devastating against hubris — including that of Narcissus, whom you may recall she turned into a flower.
These ancient terms seldom surface these days, but the classic dynamic — hubris attracting Nemesis, in a kind of cosmic tit-for-tat — remains contemporary. Thus the parallel proverb, “Pride comes before the fall,” has been applied to leaders like Richard Nixon, the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, and Saddam Hussein — to name a few historical examples. As examples of nemesis, I’d mention Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Malcolm X, and Osama bin Laden.
That’s the classic dynamic. But what I noticed while learning about this is that some leaders embody and enact both parts. These leaders not only have hubris, but also want to play the role of Nemesis against some other actor that they accuse of being the one guilty of hubris. In other words, they have a hubris-nemesis complex.
In this pathology, the two forces, which normally contradict one another, become unified in a rare, invigorating, all-consuming, charismatic fusion that generates enormous energy and ambition. To be as powerful as such a leader’s hubris requires, he must act like a god among his people; he must possess total power at home and project himself around the globe. To play Nemesis, he must defy and assail an outside power, typically the United States. Thus, the two forces justify and feed on each other.
The list of leaders that, I’d say, exemplify this rare complex includes Adolph Hitler and Fidel Castro. A broader discussion might include a few Western government or corporate leaders who, besides having arrogant vainglorious appetites for power, have shown themselves to be set on relentless vengeance against some great force that they think is too powerful. Here at home, hubris and nemesis behaviors show up constantly on partisan radio and TV talk-shows, particularly those with hard-right conservative hosts, some of whom seem to have low-grade hubris-nemesis complexes of their own. The marvelous literary archetypes for the complex are Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
STA orientations of hubris-nemesis leaders
As for the space-time-action orientations of hubris-nemesis leaders, here is the excerpt from Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex: A Concept for Leadership Analysis (1994, pp. 33-36):
Mindfield Analysis and the Hubris-Nemesis Complex
In a leader with a hubris-nemesis complex, the space-time-action layer is bound to assume an unusual configuration, regardless of the ideological or other value orientations that he may hold. The following description is adapted from a study on Castro (Gonzalez and Ronfeldt, 1986), and will not apply to all hubris-nemesis leaders. But it helps illustrate the many patterns of thought and action that fit under mindframe analysis.
Space Orientation. Leaders with a hubris-nemesis complex see themselves as larger than life, as embodying the revolution, the state, the nation, or other force they represent, as being awesome enough to act on a world stage, as able to extend and imprint their identity far beyond their physical presence, and as deserving to treat other people and objects as extensions of themselves. Having a strong ego, a hubris-nemesis leader sees himself (narcissistically?) as the most important object in his political horizons — and his horizons are global.
Believing he deserves recognition as a world-class actor, he uses events to project himself onto the world stage, seeking the limelight and commanding attention. He may even wonder whether his country is a good enough stage to deserve his leadership. At the same time, he may lead a visibly unpretentious, nonindulgent personal lifestyle, perhaps avoiding the materialism he may associate with the hubristic decadence of the chosen enemy.
He craves independence, and an independent identity, for himself and his nation. He may try to be everywhere at once, getting into every domain, including indulging in the personal micromanagement of minor issues. He seeks to cross boundaries and break barriers and is intolerant of any built around him.
The objects that matter most are those that affect his power and his struggle against the chosen enemy. He is constantly attentive to external centers, hierarchies, and balances of power. He interprets successes and failures, opportunities and constraints, in terms of large spatial reference factors (e.g., the “system”). He wants to move large pieces (e.g., “the people”) on a large stage.
Time Orientation. Many hubris-nemesis leaders have long historical time horizons and a strong sense of the past and the future. But they may also long to create brief, explosive, epitomizing moments (as in crises) when they can try to transform the meaning of past, present, and future and break through to a new kind of time. Indeed, they may believe that the flow of history will create opportunities for them to do this. For them, time is a weapon — to be used patiently, as well as explosively.
In having a cosmic sense of destiny, a sense of being born for some divine mission, a hubris-nemesis leader may believe he is in tune with invincible forces of history, and that he receives his inspiration and knowledge from a special, high plane of philosophy and understanding. In wanting to create a break with his nation’s past, he propounds an alluring, heroic vision of future salvation. In so doing, he glorifies his past exploits in mythic terms of struggle, sacrifice, and suffering, linking himself to past generations and heroes who shared his dreams.
He believes he has a personal, fated mission to accomplish earthshaking, revolutionary, even apocalyptic changes that assure his place in history. He gets people to believe he is destined for greatness. The long-term vision of the future may seem constructive and benevolent, but it depends on wreaking a great deal of vengeance and destruction in order to create a dramatic breakthrough to a new kind of time. This time sense may be expressed (especially in his youth) in terms of making an abrupt leap to create a new kind of future time. Or (especially later in his life) it may make him concede a need for long-term struggle in which the new future emerges incrementally from the present. Meanwhile, on a daily basis, a hubris-nemesis leader may regularly keep people waiting around the office or at gatherings until long after the scheduled time for his appearance.
Action Orientation. The hubris-nemesis complex is action-oriented; it engages a powerful need to take measures to dominate and change things, and not just talk about them. Many hubris-nemesis leaders have an extreme confidence in their ability to shape events and change the world through their personal actions. They have an inflated will to power, a sense of omnipotence and invulnerability, that encourages risk-taking. They see themselves as embodying the standards of archetypal, action-oriented heroes who can change destiny.
This is reflected in an enormous, relentless appetite for personal power, and in an exalted sense of man’s (especially his own) ability to master fate. A hubris- nemesis leader would rather rewrite the rules of the game than follow existing rules that are not to his advantage. He must lead in order to prevail; he cannot follow or take other people’s decisions for granted. He thrives on the politics of personal deeds that, in his view, set examples for others. He may want to strengthen the institutions around him, but at the same time he may act as though institutions per se are unsuited to leading the way he wants to go. He may regard institutions as being more constraint- than opportunity-oriented, and therefore as inherently lacking the energy and vision he embodies and can impart.
In actions toward the chosen enemy, he thrives on defiance and confrontation — but he is strategic and not suicidal about this. And he regards compromise and accommodation as signs of weakness — though he is not above tactical retreats and concessions. He may exaggerate any sign of threat from the chosen enemy, and prefers military and paramilitary instruments to political and diplomatic ones. The use of force and violence, when he deems it necessary, will be seen as clean and pure.
Various Combinations Possible. It may be possible to distinguish different types of hubris-nemesis leaders according to whether they are primarily space-, time-, or action-oriented. For example, a leader with a millenialist time orientation and a “megalomacho” desire to project himself into global spaces may be more likely to pose an inhumane nuclear threat than, say, a leader whose action-orientation is framed by a belief that he can achieve his goals by means of a long strategic struggle that includes confrontation but ends in negotiations.
Hubris-nemesis leaders with a strongly millenialist frame of mind may be particularly dangerous. The possession and potential use of weapons of “holy terror” may be attractive to a millenialist, since having and considering using such weapons may enable him to believe he can magnify his power and presence on the world stage and break through to a new time (cf. Rapoport, 1988). Millenarian myths may give him and his followers a sense of invulnerability, which may encourage dangerous, risky behavior (Edelman, 1971: 125).
I’d write that a bit differently today. But that’s not an important point. The key point is that this kind of analytical layout helps verify that STA — or mindframe analysis, as I was also calling it then — has something to offer. An integrative approach to analyzing space-time-action orientations as a bundle or module can tell us much more, and be more accurate, than just following an approach that emphasizes only one or two of the three orientations.
Coda: an antithesis that also helps verify STA
While hubris-nemesis leaders embody extremely expansive space-time-action dispositions, war prisoners kept in severe isolation suffer the worst compressions and deprivations across all three dimensions. At present, former Taliban captive Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl looks like a significant case of this. Decompression and recovery is bound to entail his entire space-time-action module.
As another example, consider the case of genteel British Ambassador Geoffrey Jackson. He was held in a small cell underground, with no sense of night or day, by Uruguay’s Tupamaros for eight months in 1971. He remarked afterwards that he was fortunate his guards let him have a deck of cards to play solitaire. The main function of the game, he wrote later (as I recall), was not diversion, but to confirm that the laws of probability really did still exist — an STA action orientation.