Criminal Hubris: It Gets Them Every TIME

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Search for the term “criminal hubris” and chances are you won’t find anything (except, hopefully, this woeful column). We know what a criminal is. We know what hubris is. But there is no definition of “criminal hubris.”

Yet there is, and it’s staring at us right in the face. Metaphorically, it’s all around us. Cinematographically, it resides on the screens we watch. Its roots, however, lie within the body of literature – both philosophical and dramatic – we ought to be most familiar with.

Whether as a metaphor for real-life, a character in a story, or an actual crime, “criminal hubris” is easy to spot (if you’ve got a trained eye), hard to avoid (if you’re arrogant), and, best of all, wonderful to watch (because it hoists offenders with their own petard quite regularly).

Before I reveal the “7 Steps of Criminal Hubris” let’s explore the origins of “hubris” and offer a few (hopefully) recognizable examples.

As with all things, hubris begins with the Greeks. In this case (and in many other cases), we start with Aristotle, specifically with Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Written in 360 BC, Rhetoric, has long been the introductory standard for all aspiring orators.

Aristotle refers to “hubris” as “insolence,” which itself is one of the three forms of “slighting” (the other two being “contempt” and “spite”).

Rhetoric defines insolence (thus, hubris) as “doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to yourself, or because anything has happened to yourself, but simply for the pleasure involved… The cause of the pleasure thus enjoyed by the insolent man is that he thinks himself greatly superior to others when ill-treating them. That is why youths and rich men are insolent; they think themselves superior when they show insolence.”

Notice how Aristotle mentions only “youths” and “rich men,” not “criminals.” Part of the reason for this is that, in Ancient Greece, hubris, in legal terms, was assumed to be a crime; hence, only criminals commit hubris.

In this sense, and in most literature, hubris leads to the crime. With “criminal hubris,” however, it leads to an ultimately self-defeating (though not necessarily illegal) arrogant act long after the actual crime was committed.

Perhaps the most obvious example of “criminal hubris” is the movie White Heat. If you haven’t ever watched this classic 1949 film, you should. In it, James Cagney plays the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett. Hubris, among other things, highlights his psychosis. And in the end, he is hoisted with an almost literal petard. (If you know the double entendre behind Shakespeare’s use of the phrase, you’ll get the joke. I’m too polite to reveal it here.)

Speaking of Shakespeare, he definitely took a page from the playbook of his Greek predecessors and liberally employed hubris throughout his works (albeit not the “criminal hubris” with which I am referring to). Indeed, Prince Hamlet speaks the phrase “Hoist with his own petard” in Act 3, Scene 4 of Hamlet.

Now, Hamlet, although he did display a classic form of hubris, is more noted for his annoying procrastination. Perhaps Macbeth stands as the best specimen to exhibit Shakespearean hubris. In Act 3, Scene 1, “the Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and future King of Scotland” Macbeth boldly asserts, “There is none but he / whose being I do fear; and under him / My genius is rebuk’d, as, it is said, / Mark Antony’s was by Caesar.”

For those looking for a modern kid-friendly (and humorous) example, watch Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove. In this 2000 movie, Kuzco (the Emperor voiced by David Spade) demonstrates the art of hubris (and its lamentable consequences) repeatedly. In fact, lest you think hubris is limited to tragedies, The Emperor’s New Groove shows how it can be employed with delightful precision in comedies.

Let’s move from the catharsis of dramatic hubris and get back to the subject. “Criminal hubris” can only happen once the felon has gotten away with the unlawful deed. It occurs because the lawbreaker feels his genius has been ignored (which is sort of what you want, anyway, if you want to get away with a crime, but that’s the irony of hubris).

Here’s how it works:

  1. Mastermind criminal pulls off the greatest heist ever.
  2. Everyone knows about it, but can’t believe it is possible to pull off.
  3. As a result, everyone comes up with bizarre theories to explain it.
  4. The mastermind criminal gets increasingly frustrated because they’re all giving other suspects credit for his mastermind crime.
  5. Finally, he reaches a point where he can’t take it anymore, so he (anonymously but publicly) reveals how he did it, believing he’s too smart to be found out and arrested.
  6. Investigators use this public admission to track him down and arrest him.
  7. Mastermind criminal remains aloof, despite the cuffs, insisting no one can take away the fact that only he was able to pull it off.

Aristotle, in a very plain and obvious way, did explain the reasoning behind “criminal hubris” when he adds this to his definition of insolence: “A man expects to be specially respected by his inferiors in birth, in capacity, in goodness, and generally in anything in which he is much their superior.”

This attitude lures the criminal to the need to reveal how smart he was in pulling off his caper (i.e., Stage 5 above). In the movies, it happens in every James Bond movie when the villain succumbs to a time-consuming monologue where he brags about how he tricked the British spy (and the world). Of course, this delay gives 007 the seconds he needs to escape from the trap and defeat the bad guy.

In real life, you might consider O.J. Simpsons’ 2006 book If I Did It, supposedly detailing how he might have murdered of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Stupid move, because when he lost his civil suit to the Goldman family, they won the rights to the book and re-released it in 2007 with a changed title: I Did It: Confessions of the Killer.

Imagine, if after winning the Superbowl or World Series, the victorious team later issued a video showing how they rigged their campaign by filming the other team’s practices, stealing signs from their opponents, or deflating their footballs. Do you think that would be an example of criminal hubris? Or did you miss that?

Maybe it’s TIME to be on the lookout for real-life examples of Stage 5 of Criminal Hubris so we can get the satisfaction of Stage 6.

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