Praise for our “hubristic” modern times

  • Pride: Vice or Virtue?

Pride derives from ‘prodesse’, Latin for ‘be useful’. Like embarrassment, shame, and guilt, pride is a self-conscious emotion that is strongly influenced by sociocultural norms and values.

Pride as a vice

On the one hand, pride is seen as a vice, and, on the other, as a virtue.

Pride as a vice is close to hubris or vanity. In Ancient Greece, hubris meant to defile or denigrate the gods, or to place oneself above them, and led to destruction or nemesis. Today, hubris denotes an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, or accomplishments, especially if accompanied by haughtiness or arrogance. By definition, hubris is out of touch with reality, promoting conflict, enmity, and prejudice against out-group members.

Vanity is similar to hubris, but refers to an inflated sense of one’s image or appeal in the eyes of others. Vanity derives from ‘vanitas’, Latin for ‘emptiness’, ‘falseness’, ‘futility’, or ‘foolishness’. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the phrase ‘vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas’ is usually rendered as ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, and refers not to vanity as such but to the transience and futility of earthly goods and pursuits and, by extension, of life itself. In the arts, a vanitas, often a painting with prominent symbols of mortality such as a skull, burning candles, or wilting flowers, invites us to reflect on our mortality and live with a greater sense of perspective. Vainglory is an archaic synonym for vanity, but originally meant ‘to boast in vain’, that is, groundlessly.

Many religions look upon pride, hubris, or vanity as self-idolatry. In the Christian tradition, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. More than that, it is the original and most unforgivable sin, for it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell out of Heaven and became Satan. Pride is the sin most hated by God because it gives rise to all the other sins, because it blinds us to truth and reason, and because it removes us from God and religion. Just as in the Greek tradition, pride leads to destruction. ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall’ (Proverbs 16:18). Thus, in art, pride is sometimes symbolized by a figure of death—or else by Narcissus, a peacock, or a naked woman attending to her hair with comb and mirror.

Pride as a virtue

As a virtue, pride is, in the words of St Augustine, ‘the love of one’s own excellence’. More prosaically, pride is the satisfaction or pleasure or exhilaration or vindication that arises from the egosyntonic choices or actions of the self or another, or of a whole group of people—as, for example, with national pride or gay pride. By ‘egosyntonic’ I mean that the choices or actions must be consistent with the person’s self-image and needs and goals. Because the success or status belongs to the self or is associated with the self, it leads to pride rather than admiration, tolerance, indifference, or envy. If pride is ‘the love of one’s own excellence’, the opposite of pride is shame. Just as shame can in itself be shameful, so pride can in itself be a source of pride.

‘Shame’ derives from ‘to cover’, and often manifests itself as a covering gesture over the brow and eyes, a downcast gaze, and a slack posture. In contrast, pride manifests itself as an expanded or inflated posture with arms raised or rested on the hips, together with a lifted chin and small smile. This stance has even been observed in congenitally blind individuals, suggesting that it is innate rather than learned or copied. Pride and its accompanying stance serve as a signal of acceptance, belonging, ownership, or status. But aside from functioning as a social signal, pride promotes more of the same kind of choices and actions that led to it, and is associated with greater self-respect, self-confidence, productivity, creativity, and altruism.

Proper pride vs. false pride

So, on the one hand, pride is associated with falseness, blindness, conceit, and arrogance, while on the other it is associated with elation, self-confidence, productivity, creativity, and altruism. Proper pride is clearly adaptive, but what can explain false or hubristic pride? People prone to false pride often lack in self-esteem. Lacking in self-esteem, hubris may be the only kind of pride that they can express, with the aim of deceiving others and themselves that they too are worthy of respect and admiration. Yes, their ‘pride’ is a con or a shortcut, but it makes them feel better and it pulls them through—if only for now.

Aristotle on proper pride

Aristotle wrote most insightfully on proper pride, or ‘greatness of soul’ (megalopsuchia). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that a person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things.

Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them; for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish or silly.

If he is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate.

For he who is worthy of little and thinks himself worthy of little is temperate, but not proud; for pride implies greatness, as beauty implies a goodsized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful.

On the other hand, if he thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them, he is hubristic or vain; and if he thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, he is pusillanimous. Hubris and pusillanimity are vices, whereas pride and temperance are virtues because (by definition) they reflect the truth about a person’s state and potentials. In Aristotelian speak, whereas the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness, and therefore virtuous. So, for Aristotle, it is not just an excess of pride that is a vice, but also a deficiency of pride.

Aristotle goes on to paint a very flattering picture of the proud person. He says that a proud person is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honor, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. A proud person is moderately pleased to accept great honors conferred by good people, but utterly despises honors from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. In sum, says Aristotle, pride is a crown of the virtues; it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.

True, the proud person is liable to disdain and to despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, to meet their ego or emotional needs). The proud person may be supercilious towards the great and the good, but he is always unassuming towards the middle classes; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.

Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honor, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honor or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.

In conclusion, proper pride and false pride may look like each other, but one is a crown of the virtues and the other the mother of sin. The trouble is, of course, distinguishing between them.

  • An allegory of artistic choice in times of trouble
    Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel

by Koenraad Jonckheere

In the second half of the sixteenth century in the Low Countries,
depictions of the Tower of Babel flourished. Composing an important
subcategory of landscape paintings, the bulk of these canvases and panels
have been interpreted as moralizing pictures – in other words, as
allegories of or comments on the vice of hubris.1 This may come as no
surprise. The story of the megalomaniacal tower project is told in chapter
11 of the book of Genesis. According to Genesis, little had happened on
earth since the creation of the world. Adam and Eve had taken a bite of
the apple, Cain had murdered Abel and God had flooded the earth
because the people had turned to wrongdoing. Noah and the animals
escaped the flood. Immediately after these well-known stories came the
tale of the Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel, in other words, is the first
of the many attempts by mankind to touch the divine by means of its
creative talent, in this case architecture. No idols had yet been made. It
was the building itself that was idolatrous: the first human attempt to
challenge God’s creation. In early Judaic-Christian tradition, Nimrod, who
was mentioned in chapter 10 of the book of Genesis as the son of Kus and
who was said to be the ‘first mighty ruler on earth’, was credited with the
idea of building the tower. This reading (or misreading) of the Bible was
based on Flavius Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, book I, chapter 4.2 Nimrod,
who became a kind of personification of the hubris associated with the
blasphemous building project, appears in many a depiction of the subject
from the late Middle Ages onwards (figs. 15-17).3
Pieter Bruegel’s (1525-1569) Tower of Babel (1563) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, on the other hand, has rarely been
considered to be a depiction of hubris.4 On the contrary, it has given rise to
a plethora of interpretations, ranging from a forthright comment on the
political upheaval of his age to an intricate discussion on the state of the
arts in the Low Countries in 1563. These analyses of Bruegel’s panel have
focused on anything but the biblical theme. Contemporary politics in
particular were considered to be a source of inspiration for the artist by
several art historians.5 In this specific understanding of the visual
narrative, Nimrod, standing in the foreground, is equated with Philip II,
while the tower is considered to be an allegory of the king’s unbridled
arrogance and ambition. Others, such as Margaret Carroll, have explained
Bruegel’s iconography as a metaphor of Antwerp as a contemporary,
religious Babylon.6 In doing so, Carroll built on Gibson’s idea that Bruegel
showed the congruous cooperation of the Babylonian people before God

punished them by confounding their speech.7 The foregrounding of the
harmonious building process (which was actually an old topos, as we will
see) emphasized the lost unity of the Church, according to Gibson.
Fundamental for this explanation is the idea that the harbor and the
Brabantine town next to the tower are references to Antwerp. However,
since there are no further, explicit clues linking Bruegel’s cityscape with the
wealthy city on the river Scheldt, it is questionable whether this
identification actually holds true. On the other hand, instead of
straightforwardly identifying the city as Antwerp, it might be worthwhile to
let the subtle references to the ‘capital of capitalism’ be what they are:
subtle references, for it is precisely these refined hints that allow for an
open discussion and a trade of values among beholders, as we will see.
Suggestions often make a stronger case than forthright facts, since they
create doubt and unsolvable questions. Woodall’s interesting description of
analogies between mid-sixteenth-century Antwerp and Babel make
absolutely clear how obvious yet intangible such iconographic hints were.8
In yet another line of reasoning, the panel is considered to be a
statement on antiquity and the vernacular.9 Crucial for the arguments
raised in these studies is the premise that the tower is a reference to the
Colosseum, visited by Bruegel around 1553 and known in the Netherlands
through prints published by Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570) (fig. 1). Recently

Stephanie Porras, who made a good argument for such an interpretation,
also introduced the concept of translatio (as defined by Christopher
Wood), arguing that Bruegel was commenting on a contemporary debate
on local and Roman antiquities.10 James Bloom similarly emphasized the
confusion of local and Roman antiquities and the vernacular, reading the
painting’s narrative as a metaphor of a Babylonic confounding of the visual
arts in the sixteenth century.11
However insightful and tempting these complex analyses of the
iconography might be, the significance of Bruegel’s 1563 Tower of Babel is
also much more straightforward, it being a comment on – or rather a
question about – the role, necessity and nature of architectural edifices. In
the end, the depiction of the Tower of Babel is the depiction of an
ambitious building project more than anything else. Indeed, there are
references to Roman and local antiquities, but they were linked to an
iconography that was not value-free in the Netherlands in the 1560s, since
the Babel metaphor was used frequently in religious discourse on art and
In this chapter I will first summarize the contemporary and widespread debate on man-made objects, in particular religious edifices, in
order to argue that Bruegel linked his work to the discourse on local and
Roman antiquity and the vernacular. In doing so, he phrased an allegorical
question about the form, the nature and the desirability of art and
architecture for religious purposes, a debate that was omnipresent in
Antwerp in the second half of the sixteenth century. As such, Bruegel
appears to have invited his audience to trade values between art,
architecture and religion.13 Particularly in Bruegel’s 1563 Tower of Babel in
Vienna, in which the artists blends the iconographical tradition with
contemporary disputes, this ‘societal bidding’ is apparent. In other words,
Bruegel’s visual syntax seems to be constructed is such a way that it invited
people to exchange symbolic values on poignant contemporary debates.
Babylon, Iconoclasm and a contemporary debate
While the Tower of Babel might have been the first controversial attempt
to build a gigantic skyscraper, it certainly was not the last. In the age of
Reformation, the Mediaeval Romanesque and Gothic towers and
campanile were considered to be Towers of Babel by many a Reformer:
‘the heretics [i.e., papists] shout that a Christian congregation is false if a
stone temple with a long Babylonic Tower is absent’, according to the
166th of Petrus Bloccius’s Two hundred heresies of the Catholic Church
(published in 1567).14 Bloccius (c. 1540-c. 1582) was a Brabantine theologian
who had studied in Leuven and Bologna. In the 1550s he converted to
Protestantism, and he positioned himself as an independent polemicist in
the 1560s and ’70s. In his magnum opus, Two hundred heresies, Bloccius
argued that ‘a nice field, wood or mountain is a more beautiful church
than the popish murder-dens, which are dungeons’.15 ‘[A]s a man who
enters a brothel would be slandered and ill-famed, comparably no one
must go into a papist church’.16 To many a Reformer, it was far better to
preach in the open air, as shown in paintings made around 1565-1566 by

Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-1597) (fig. 2), Bruegel and so many others;17
it was better to baptize in the nearest river than in these papist ‘murder
dens’. After all, St. John the Baptist did not preach in the temple. This
notion was omnipresent. Another influential and reformatory text used
the same idiom and metaphors to question the Catholic Church: ‘Christ
was born in a woodshed and has no place in the guesthouse’.18 Johannes
Anasthasius Veluanus (c. 1520-c. 1570), the author of the text, maintained
that it was against the scriptures that the alleged heirs of St. Peter (the
popes) claimed wealth, an empire even, as if they were meant to reign
over worldly goods. Veluanus, like Bloccius, argued that churches in the
first centuries A.D. were simple houses and stables.19 Only under the reign
of Constantine had Christians started to build huge temples for prayer,
Veluanus went on, but (St.) Augustine already considered these edifices
‘un-Godly’. According to Veluanus, these temples, which were devoted to
saints in later ages, became iamerlicke moirtkuyl (dreadful murder dens), a
metaphor based on Matthew 21:13. These comments, which stem from
Calvin’s and other Reformers’ teachings, were common in the religious
debates in the Netherlands in the 1560s. The Church of Christendom was
supposed to be a spiritual edifice in which there was no place for wealth or
ambition. The building was used as metaphor for the community and vice
Bloccius and Veluanus were no lone rangers. In many a pamphlet and
in several prints, the same idea was put forward, albeit in a less imperative

voice. The Eglise de Christ (fig. 3), for instance, is an etching that appeared
around 1570, which shows a church being destroyed by popish villains.20 In
the meantime, les enfants de dieu (the children of God) walk out of a
temple on the right-hand side into the open field. The print shows the
destruction of the Church, in an allegorical and in a literal sense. Both the
building and the religious community of the Church are on the verge of
collapse. Neither Christ nor his apostles were wealthy, Reformers of all
confessions repeated time and again. Nor did He preach in majestic
temples, for indeed, ‘Christ and his apostles preferred to preach in the
open field or in the street, rather than in idolatrous temples’.21
An illustration in the Discours oft corte enarratie, op die beroovinghe der
catholycker kercken (fig. 4), a translation of Claude des Sainctes’s Discours
sur le saccagement des églises catholiques par les hérétiques anciens et
nouveaux calvinistes (1562) published in Dutch in 1567, foregrounds the
same iconographic themes.22 Here, too, a church and the Church are under
attack. In the distance, a ‘Babylonic’ tower is falling down. Yet another
example of the destruction of The Church/a church is to be found in
Richard Verstegen’s (1550-1640) famous account of the cruelties (fig. 5) of
his age.23 It shows the Iconoclasm of 1566 – but in this portrayal, together
with the images of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints, the church itself is

being smashed. Again, the architectural edifice is part of the problem. Not
only are the popish idols under attack, but the church is too. It is being
demolished as if it were an idol.
All these examples built on iconographic formats, developed in the
Low Countries in the 1520s by such artists as Bernard van Orley, a
convicted Lutheran, to whom the invention of a drawing entitled Allegory
on the vices of the Catholic Church in the Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam,
is attributed (fig. 6). In the background, the Church is embattled, both as
an institution and as an idolatrous building.24
Yet another print, published in the early 1580s (fig. 7), again shows a
building. It reminds us of Philips Galle’s (1537-1612) famous engraving after
Bruegel of the good shepherd (1565).25 A ruin of a poor man’s sheep shed is

again being plundered by popish rogues, while Christ as the good
shepherd is leaving it. The metaphor questioned religious greed and
unbridled ambition. It was a strong allegory, and it was used and copied in
many prints and paintings (fig. 8). No wonder that Bloccius’s 80th heresy
was that ‘the heretics [i.e., papists] turn their temples into stables and
barns, for all kinds of animals are to be found in them’.26 Possibly, it was
this line of reasoning and this kind of imagery that led Cornelis van Dalem
(1530-1573), one of the most prominent Protestant painters of the second
half of the sixteenth century in Antwerp, to depict his Landscape with a
church ruin (fig. 9).27 While the painting can be read as, for instance, a
comment on poverty, it is not too hard to imagine Van Dalem’s work also
being a remark on the decline of the Catholic Church (both as a

community and as a building) – and as an allegory on the new branches of
the Christian faith that grew out of an old, dead trunk (a metaphor based
on Josiah 11:1). After all, the imagery of Van Dalem’s painting clearly refers
to imagery that was used in satirical prints and thus was distributed in
large quantities throughout the Netherlands, particularly in Antwerp.
Bloccius’s claim that ‘the heretics [i.e., papists] shout that a Christian
congregation is false if a stone temple with a long Babylonic Tower is
absent’ also helps to explain the popularity of the Tower of Babel, in
particular in Pieter Bruegel’s version from 1563 (fig. 10).28 While many in
recent decades have studied this panel extensively, as mentioned, part of
its message has been overlooked.
‘God does not live in temples made by human hands’29
Bloccius, of course, was not the only one to condemn and abandon the
idea of a majestic church as the ‘house of God’. He was not the first, nor
the last, to raise the issue of architecture. It was an old and widespread
criticism of Roman Catholicism, disseminated in the sixteenth century

throughout northern Europe by John Calvin (1509-1564), amongst others.30
Moreover, the critique was almost as old as the Church itself and posed
fundamental questions to many a believer: what is the status of man-made
objects (including architecture) and what role are these to play in religion?
Bloccius’s and Veluanus’s remarks, in other words, summarize one of the
most common and old critiques of (Catholic) devotional practices.31
The first problem with buildings – and certainly ambitious buildings –
for religious purposes was the interference (or supposed interference)
between the physical and the spiritual. As Carlos Eire, Helmut Feld,
Giuseppe Scavizzi and several others have aptly demonstrated in recent
decades, all parties actually agreed on the fact that the ultimate truth –
i.e., God in Christianity – lay beyond the realm of the physical world.32
However, the different factions substantially disagreed on the role art and
architecture played in this discussion.33 According to Calvin, art and
architecture created the impression that the spiritual could be or could be
made tangible, while Catholics argued that it was but a means to get in
touch with the spiritual, just like the Bible (as an object). The focus of this
whole discussion lay on the depiction of God himself, but extended to all
that was made by human hands. Of course, images of all sorts, and
certainly the ones placed on altars, were the most problematic man-made
objects – but at times, religious buildings were hardly less controversial, as
Bloccius’s text makes absolutely clear; he repeatedly fulminated, ‘God
does not live in temples made by human hands!’34 Of course, this is a
simplification of a very complex and old theological debate. However, it is
important to realize that the polemicists and preachers of the different
factions at the time communicated precisely these straightforward
arguments, making abstraction of all the nuances.
Thus, like in all previous iconoclastic eras in Christianity, the focus of
the debates of the 1560s lay, to a large extent, on two core problems: the

first was the ‘made by human hands’ notion and the second was the
materiality, the physicality of all that was used for religious purposes:
religious vessels, imagery, books and obviously the church buildings.35
While Karlstadt von Bodenstein in the early sixteenth century only
condemned the idols placed in the ‘house of God’ (Matthew 21:13),36 half a
century later Bloccius and his contemporaries, as we have seen,
discredited the buildings as also being idolatrous: ‘for the temples were
houses first; only afterwards they built high towers with improper
materials’.37 Or, as Calvin said in his commentaries on the book of
Psalms,38 ‘God does not dwell in temples made by hands.’
As briefly mentioned, these comments on the use of man-made objects
or structures for religious purposes were definitely not new in the sixteenth
century. In two recent interesting studies on Iconoclasm, Alain Besançon
and Thomas Noble even make a link between Platonic art theories on the
one hand and the Byzantine and Carolingian image theories on the other.39
David Freedberg, in turn, showed that these disputations from the eighth
and ninth centuries found their way into the sixteenth-century theological
discussions on art in the Low Countries.40 The wave of Iconoclasm that
struck Byzantium in that era urged theologians to formulate complex
theories of imagery and its use, pro and contra. One of the common

denominators of the whole debate was the status of ‘art’ and architecture
since, in the end, they were all man-made objects consisting of mere stone
and wood. Divinity, after all, was un-representable, un-evocable even, and
it was certainly impossible to create it with human hands out of dead
materials. Not even the most talented sculptor, painter or architect was
able to equate God’s creation, according to the critics. Iconophile writers,
such as St. John of Damascus (676-749), opposed this critique by arguing,
You see that the law and everything it commanded and all our own
practices are meant to sanctify the work of our hands, leading us
through matter to the invisible God. Now the law and its ordinances
were a shadow of the image that was to come, that is, our true worship,
which itself is the image of the good things yet to happen. These good
things are the heavenly Jerusalem not fashioned with hands, or
corruptible manner (…).41
In other words, although corrupted by nature, art and architecture are a
means to get in touch with the divine.
The Libri Carolini (c. 793), composed by Theodulf of Orléans (c. 750/760-
821) and other theologians on the initiative of Charlemagne and as a
response to writers such as St. John of Damascus and the Acta of the
second counsel of Nicaea, picked up the discourse on the status and use of
imagery and – to some extent – church architecture in Christianity. The
Church in the West, in that era, was not particularly fond of imagery for
devotional use and quite radically declined the new Byzantine imagetheology. One of the most important arguments to resist the use of painting
and sculpture within the Church was, again, the fact that they were but
man-made objects in plain stone or wood.42 Comparably, Theodulf argued
that the famous metaphor ‘house of God’ (Matthew 21:13) was to be
understood in a purely spiritual sense, rather than literal. According to the
same line of reasoning, the church is also a man-made object in plain stone
or wood. Theodulf, to make his point, referred to Rome as the new Babylon,
an idea he had picked up from St. Augustine. In the 1500s, Rome as the new
Babylon would become a common comparison again.43
In the literature on the image debates in the Low Countries,
architecture was left out of the discussion, while it was strongly
intertwined with the religious discourse on art since early Christianity.
Generally, the arguments were articulated in complex Latin texts, but
certainly in the second half of the sixteenth century the arguments were
published in the vernacular too, turning it into a societal debate.44
Moreover, the crux of the matter was – it will be clear – simple. First, all
that is made by human hands is physical and thus not spiritual, as
Calvinists, such as Bloccius, would argue. Therefore man-made objects
could not constitute the ultimate reality, which is spiritual and divine.
Second, since human hands made these objects, they were corrupt by
nature. Man, after all, is full of sin. The church – the building, that is –
which had become the most ambitious, human attempt to evoke the divine
on earth in the late Middle Ages (a literal effort to build the ‘house of God’),
was troublesome as a consequence. Many a Protestant, including Bloccius,

considered churches to be idolatrous and blasphemous. It may therefore
come as no surprise that in the age of Iconoclasm in the Netherlands,
satirical and other prints depicting the destruction of the Church buildings
were published and many Reformers questioned the form and function of
the existing churches, both in a literal and in an allegorical sense.
Thus, while both Protestant church architecture and the use of
imagery in devotional practice has been the focus of much research in
recent years, part of the problem seems to have been ignored. Indeed,
iconolatry was highly problematic in the second half of the sixteenth
century in the Low Countries, but hardly less troublesome were the
buildings themselves, since these were all manufactured objects used for
religious purposes. This ‘architectural idolatry’, as one could call it, has
been overlooked in recent studies.45 The cleansing of the church went
further than the destruction of idols, as one can read in contemporary
descriptions.46 Rarely were the buildings themselves actually destroyed,
but they did provoke many a discussion. In the end, the ambition of the
Reformers was to return to the origins of Christianity. Majestic temples,
with their ‘Babylonic’ towers, were not to be part of this. They were not
mentioned in the Bible nor did the first Christians use them, as Bloccius,
Veluanus and other claimed in unison. The Church was supposed to be a
‘spiritual’ construct, not an idolatrous edifice.
The Tower of Babel
Since the early Renaissance, artists in northern Europe were well aware of
the discussions on materiality and the ‘made by human hands’ concept, as
argued elsewhere.47 Jean Foucquet’s famous miniature of the construction
of Salomon’s temple in Jerusalem (fig. 11) – represented as a Gothic
cathedral – already clearly emphasized the manual labor invested in these
buildings, and a manuscript picture Bible in the Bibliothèque Nationale de
France without hesitation links the manufacturing of the Babylonic tower
to idolatry, as Michael Camille observed.48 Maarten van Heemskerck’s
famous Seven wonders of the world print series, too, is a significant
example of the importance attached to the awareness of the ‘humanity’
and physicality of buildings and objects. Van Heemskerck drew the
designs around 1570. They were engraved by Galle and published in 1572
(fig. 12).49 In the series, Van Heemskerck systematically emphasizes the
materials of the objects and in doing so stressed the fact that these pagan
‘idols’ and temples were man-made artifacts. Moreover, he foregrounded
the Artes Mechanicae needed for the constructions rather than the Artes
Liberales. Given the ambition of artists, certainly Romanists, to uplift
painting to a liberal art, this choice seems peculiar.50 In the context of the
religious debates of the 1560s and ’70s, however, the iconography does
make sense. Van Heemskerck simply shows what these pagan edifices
were: impressive man-made stone objects. He anticipated religious
criticism for this work.
In another print made after a design by Van Heemskerck, the
connection between the Tower of Babel and idolatry is visualized even
more strongly.51 In the series De loop des werelds (The course of the world)

nine triumphal chariots are depicted. The series, which appeared in 1564, is
based on the chariots used in the Antwerp Besnijdenisprocessie
(Circumcision procession) of 1561 and allegorically depicts various types of
human behavior, ranging from war to peace. The third print shows
Superbia or pride (fig. 13), which is a result of Opulentia (Wealth) and leads
to Invidia (Envy). In the print, pride is visually linked to the iconolatry of
antiquity and the Tower of Babel. The hubris of building a Babylonic edifice
was thus equated with the erection of a monumental idol on a pedestal.
The interest in materials and manufacturing, as displayed in Van
Heemskerck’s prints, are a fine example of what I am about to say about
Bruegel’s 1563 Tower of Babel, for the visual narrative of this rare
iconography is based on the same principles.52 Particularly in Antwerp,
where throughout the sixteenth century the kerkfabriek of Our Lady’s
Church (which had become a Cathedral in 1559) had the ambition to build
an even bigger church, and the focus on the manufacturing was
significant. On the 1565 Virgilius Bononiensis map of Antwerp, the
unfinished choir is still discernible. Antwerp’s main church, in other
words, was a work in progress at the time.53
Indeed, from manuscript illuminations of the late Middle Ages to the
depictions of the theme in the sixteenth century, what was foregrounded
was the building process: man molding the stones. In other words, the
paintings are not solely about the architectural edifice, but to a great
extent about the manufacturing as well. The stereotypical iconography of
the Tower of Babel questions man’s ambition to build, to make, to
construct. The book of hours by the Bedford Master (fig. 14), Gerard
Horenbout’s Grimani Breviary (fig. 15) or the miniature in Du cas des nobles
hommes et femmes in Glasgow (fig. 16) may serve as cases in point.

Moreover, the one thing that is actually brand new in Bruegel’s
iconography is the fact that the tower is carved from a rock (fig. 10).54 Prior
to Bruegel, it seems that the tower was always depicted as being built from
the ground up with stone blocks. This iconographic feature – which was
stressed by Bruegel, since he did depict it in the center of the painting –
makes quite a difference in the context of the mid-sixteenth-century
debate on art and architecture as sketched above. By using this
iconographic novelty, Bruegel adds another dimension to traditional
allusions to ‘made by human hands’, which were ever-present in the
sixteenth-century image debates and in the depictions of Babylonic
edifices, such as Bruegel’s Tower and Van Heemskerck’s Wonders of the
World. The idolatrous tower is carved from rock, by which it completely
becomes a sculpted idol, made of mere stone. In other words, not only did
Bruegel foreground the traditional human activity (made by human
hands), but he also stressed the materiality of the object (mere stone). As
demonstrated above and on other occasions, precisely the human
molding of the material object was proof of the ungodliness of objects and
edifices in the age of Iconoclasm, far more than their actual shape.55 ‘One
cannot turn stone or wood into something holy’, to quote Bloccius again.56
That was precisely the distinction drawn between Catholic and Calvinist

views on church buildings (or temples, as they were called). For Calvinists,
the church was mainly a ‘body of people, rather than a physical
structure’.57 The building itself was merely a place to assemble. For
Catholics, the church was a sacred space.58 Protestants would ask, how
could a human edifice be turned into a sacred ‘object’?
Thus, with the insertion of the rock, another reference was made to
the contemporary debate sketched above. Moreover, it was a reference to
the hubris associated with art and architecture since antiquity.59 Art and
architecture, in the end, challenged God’s creation.60
The innovation proved to be successful in the following decades, for
painters like Lucas van Valckenborch and Joos de Momper (1564-1635)
built on Bruegel’s example.61 Stepping into his footsteps, they
foregrounded the rock out of which the building was carved, and

occasionally added a church or an idol, completely turning the edifice into
an idolatrous object. Hendrik III van Cleve (fig. 17) even went so far as to
introduce a servant presenting Nimrod with a piece of cloth depicting the
tower. The kneeling workman strongly echoes the St. Veronica topos (fig.
18). He is thus presenting an idolatrous image to the king, instead of the
Vera Icon.
62 Hans Belting showed how this particular image served as an
important ‘icon’ since late antiquity precisely because it was ‘not made by
human hands’.
Incidentally, the idea of ‘idolatry’ was strongly reinforced by Bruegel
through the ‘idolatrous’ behavior of the workmen in the foreground of his
work. This was an iconographic rarity as well, if not a novelty. In the
above-named examples of the iconography (figs. 14, 15 and 16) Nimrod
visits the yard while the workmen build on. In Bruegel’s version, the

workers stop and fall on their knees for their sovereign. They do not work
for God. They venerate their monarch. Again, within the context of the
image debates of the 1560s and ’70s, this makes a remarkable difference.
The physical veneration of persons and objects was the ultimate proof (to
Protestants) of their idolatrous nature. This physical veneration itself was
considered to be blasphemous. According to Reformed polemicists and
theologians, one was expected to bow or kneel for God alone. Physically
showing respect to man-made, material objects was utterly ridiculous. In
the arguments for and against proskynesis and other kinds of physical
worship, activists and theologians, particularly Catholics, systematically
compared the veneration of images to the respect one was to show (or
not) to his or her king.63 Again, this was an ancient discussion; one already
finds the comparison in the writings of the iconophile St. John of
Damascus.64 It constantly reoccured in the Middle Ages65 and in the
sixteenth century it was picked up in the discussions between the
prominent theologians Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486-1541),
Hiëronymus Emser (1478-1527) and Johannes Eck (1486-1543).66 Other
polemicists in northern Europe, including the ones in the Netherlands in
the 1560s, followed suit. Martinus Duncanus (1506-1590), Francois

Richardot (1507-1574), Renatus Benedictus (1521-1608), Petrus Bloccius,
Johannes Anastasius Veluanus, Johannes Molanus (1533-1585) and others
all devoted many paragraphs or chapters to the issue.67
However, the graving of the rock and the kneeling of the workmen are
not the only features that link the iconography to contemporary debates.
The tower is a combination of a Colosseum-like structure with a generic
Romanesque architecture – the kind of architecture that one can find in
many places north of the Alps, for instance at Mont Saint-Michel in
Normandy or closer to Brussels in Tournai.68 Moreover, in many a painting
in the Northern Renaissance, one finds this kind of architecture, featuring
strong abutments and blind arcades with double windows and oculi as
well. In the back of the central panel of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, for
instance, or on the left wing of Quentin Matsys’s (1466-1530) Kinshiptriptych (fig. 19), a similar kind of generic Romanesque architecture is

Bruegel thus blended an iconic edifice of antiquity with an ancient but
northern vernacular idiom. Paraphrasing and slightly modifying Matt
Kavaler’s concept of the ‘Renaissance Gothic’, one could argue that in the
Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel constructed a ‘Romanesque Renaissance’.69
He constructed a tower out of local antiquities to resemble the Colosseum,
Rome’s most impressive relic of antiquity. It thus refers to building history
north and south of the Alps. The tower is not an antique structure in a
Brabantine town, as for instance Margret Carroll maintained.70 It is an
explicitly local edifice modeled after an antique prototype. Wittily, Bruegel
even introduced a Romanesque alternative for the ‘classical orders’ as
pilasters on the abutments (fig. 10). In doing so, he subtly referred to the
remarks his master Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) made in his
influential Serlio-translation.71 For, in these Generale reglen der
architectvren (General rules of architecture), Coecke indeed acknowledged
that ‘therefore some take samples from the Ancients and others from our
[architecture]. One is also allowed to blend the boorish [boerse] manner
with the Doric, the Ionic and sometimes the Corinthian’.72
Thus, besides subtle references to contemporary debates on iconolatry,
Bruegel’s Tower of Babel of 1563 also included some references to humanist
issues. What did they have in common? Plenty of studies in recent years
(including this volume) have demonstrated that sixteenth-century artists
did not take the Italian Renaissance and its reception of antiquity for
granted.73 Bruegel in particular has been promoted as a painter who
questioned the alleged supremacy of the Florentine-Roman maniera by
proposing a more local reading of antiquity, guided by an Erasmian and
rhetorician’s focus on the vernacular.74 Yet, as has become clear, Jan
Gossaert (1478-1532), Michiel Coxie (1499-1592), Maarten van Heemskerck
(1498-1574), Lambert Lombard (1505-1566), Willem Key (c. 1515-1568) and
others made analogous enquiries into the nature of art, albeit in a different
idiom.75 However, Bruegel was one of the few in Antwerp whose style and
subject matter was not only considered to be an artistic choice but a
political or religious statement as well. Or, as Manfred Sellink (following
Walter Gibson and David Freedberg76) wrote in his recent monograph on
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, many scholars seem to have been preoccupied
with his religious and political affiliations. According to Sellink (and I
agree), ‘Art and cultural historians have been remarkably eager in the last
century to interpret a relatively small number of paintings as representing
a diversity of opinions on the part of the painter: both for and against
Spanish authorities, both for and against the Catholic Church or some
combination thereof’.77 Indeed, many sources and arguments were used
and introduced into the discussion, but bizarrely, Bruegel’s art was rarely
linked to a discussion that was, without doubt, fundamental for him and
his fellow painters, namely the Bilderfrage of the 1550s and 1560s.78 These
image debates, which eventually lead to the Beeldenstorm, the repression
under Alva and the Revolt, were vital for artists since they interrogated the
legitimacy of art in general and religious art in particular. For most artists in
sixteenth-century Antwerp – including Bruegel – the debates and the
Iconoclasm challenged their core business, their income and their future.79
It is highly improbable that artists were not interested in the matter. The

question therefore is not if the artists were aware of the controversies and
its implications. The question is whether they implemented in their art
some of the arguments raised by the different factions. Moreover, did they
take a stance? If not, the observation that Bruegel scholarship is
preoccupied with his religious and political affiliations (undoubtedly
stemming from Van Mander’s comments on his life80) is actually proof of
Bruegel’s aims: highlighting possibilities. Bruegel’s oeuvre differs from the
oeuvres of his Antwerp contemporaries discussed above, in that he
explicitly linked the question on antiquity to religious issues.81 The moral
questions that he raises refer to both humanist concerns and religious
turmoil. Did he conceive them as inextricable?
Indeed, as we have seen, the visual narrative in Bruegel’s 1563 Tower of
Babel was a blend of local and Roman antiquities combined with manifest
references to age-old arguments forwarded in debates on idolatry and
Iconoclasm. Shining through is the exegetical interpretation of hubris. The
iconography of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1563 Tower of Babel thus blends
three of the most prominent discussions of the second half of the
sixteenth century in Antwerp, at least for artists: disputes on Roman and
local antiquities, on the Bilderfrage and on the hubris inherent to
(religious) art, the colossal shape of the tower being an extrapolation of
it.82 The artist, after all, creates a mimesis of God’s creation and from time
to time tries to emulate it.
In the history of sixteenth-century Netherlandish art, and Antwerp art
in particular, these topics have only been studied separately, but they were
actually closely entangled. The Tower of Babel, whilst hinting at a
discourse on iconolatry, is not purely antique or ‘vernacular’ nor Reformed
or Catholic. The artifact is a blend of conflicting yet entangled traditions: a
Babylonic confusion of different (visual) narratives and related image
theologies. As such it can be read as an allegory of artistic choice in times
of trouble.

To conclude
In his De Catechizandis Rudibus, St. Augustine at a certain point talks about
the conversion of ‘those people whose intellect was trained by questions on
the major issues’.83 He considers them to be the real scholars and argues
that they require special attention, at least if one would want to convert
them. Intellectually they tend to be vain, he wrote. The plain and dense text
in the Bible might even bore them. For that reason, it is important to
challenge them with complex allegorical exegeses.
The chance that Bruegel actually knew of St. Augustine’s remarks is
rather small, I believe, but that is not the point I am trying to make. Bruegel,
living in a rhetorician’s culture in which the quaestio or question played a
seminal role, seems to have formulated an allegorical question rather than
a clear-cut political or religious stance, actually quite in line with
Augustine’s suggestions.84 Brilliantly, he entwined a myriad of associative
qualities in the visual narrative, hinting at divergent but entangled
controversial issues. He refrained from taking a position, though. Instead,
Bruegel made sure that the iconography appealed to a beholder who was
primed by contemporary debates on the nature of Babylonic towers,
religious edifices and multifaceted antiquity. Thus, instead of explicitly
visualizing judgments on the political and religious turmoil of his age, as
Bruegel literature so often maintains, Bruegel more likely phrased
quaestiones disputata in a humanist, a rhetorician’s and, more broadly, an
academic tradition.85 As such, the Tower of Babel served as the ultimate
incentive for humanist discourse, since it posed the initial question; in this
case a question on the relation between architecture, idolatry and Roman
and local antiquity.86 That is, an allegorical question about the choices that
he and his fellow Antwerp painters had to make in an age of fierce debates
on the nature and validity of art and architecture. The subtle blend of
suggestive references to contemporary debates in the Netherlands,
particularly in the city of Antwerp, invited the beholders to partake in the
discourse. In sum: while the object itself did not trade values, it invited – or,
more accurately, obliged – people to do so… and it still does.

“Roofstaat”: het smerige koloniale verleden van Nederland



  • Amsterdam Slavery Heritage Guide

As part of the research project Mapping Slavery (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), the Amsterdam Slavery Heritage Guide was published in 2014. On June 28, 2018 LM Publishers published an extended second edition.

Never before has a single guide listed so many locations in Amsterdam which were directly or indirectly connected to Dutch slavery heritage. This 138-page bilingual guide gives an account of the Amsterdam slavery heritage based on extensive research in more than a hundred locations. Dienke Hondius was one of the authors closely involved in its creation.

The locations testify to Dutch involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC) and slave trade and slavery in South East Asia and South Africa at the hands of Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). A number of Amsterdam families and businesses had links with both the VOC and WIC.

Discover slavery heritage by yourself
The guide is meant for anyone with an interest in history, slavery heritage and stories about the city, enabling one to travel back and forth in time between the seventeenth century and the present. One discovers how some locations were directly – and others more obliquely – connected to slavery trade and the heritage of slavery. As there is no set route to follow, one can start walking (or cycling) at any of the locations on the map. On each page locations are numbered for reference on the accompanying map.

Preview of 2nd edition



  • Hubris: The Psychological and Spiritual Roots of a Universal Affliction

    by Michael DeWilde

The topic of hubris in business and among businesspersons has been taken up in earnest at least since Richard Roll’s celebrated article laying out the argument for a ―hubris hypothesis‖ in 1986. In the twenty-five years since, the management literature has looked at the consequences of hubris (Argyris, 1992; Bodolica & Spraggon, 2011; Carson, 2003; Hiller and Hambrick, 1997), the sources (Kroll, et al, 2000; Ford, 2006; Roll, 1986), its relationship to other negative phenomena (Hiller & Hambrick, 2005) and its institutionalization (Singh, 2008). My aim in this paper is to revisit hubris in the business world, first through the lenses provided by a few of the cognitive, neurological and psychological sciences, which themselves have undergone a revolution of sorts in the past twenty-five years relative to discoveries made possible by fMRI machines, genetics, field work; and secondly with reference, albeit briefly, to teachings from two
great wisdom traditions. I will support my claim that hubris is at least as great a challenge as greed by giving a few examples of where and how I think that is true, and providing some analysis of the sort of hubris in evidence with reference to these sciences. I will also support my
claim that hubris is the antithesis of wisdom; therefore, we ought to be especially concerned to
understand hubris as well as we can. Lastly, I invoke two short teachings from Christianity and
Buddhism as their perennial insight into the nature of hubris dovetails nicely with what the
sciences, to which I refer, have found. While my method is largely integrative and speculative, I
also draw on fourteen years experience as an executive consultant to provide an illustration or
two of the phenomena of hubris among not only senior and corporate executives, but, as my title
indicates, among rank and file managers who well-represent the universality of this particular
Hubris as the Root Cause of Many Current Managerial and Leadership Problems
I begin by making the claim that hubris, as much if not more than greed, is at the root of
many of our current managerial and leadership problems. In doing so, I have in mind an
unfortunately long list of examples of hubris in leaders and managers, expressed by a shared
tendency toward unfounded certainty and arrogance about one’s own prowess and about one’s
own wisdom, leading to an inability or unwillingness to listen (Argyris, 1992; DeWilde, 2010;
Kurtzman, 2010; Sedikides, et al, 2008). I will share only a few such examples due to space
constraints, but in the hopes that the reader will infer the scope of the problem.
Hubris and Psychopathy
First on my list is Bernie Madoff. I understand that he might be pointed to instead as the
very worst example of apparent Wall Street greed, but consider the observations of one of his
most eloquent commentators, the financial journalist Diane Henriques. In an interview
concerning her book on Madoff, The Wizard of Lies, Henriques (2011) argued that even more
than greed it was hubris that was Madoff’s major flaw, his Achilles heel. In an interview on
National Public Radio with Fresh Air host Terri Gross, Henriques said that in her jailhouse
conversations with Madoff, she noticed that he could not bring himself to acknowledge his own
failings, even going so far as to say that he decided to end his Ponzi scheme himself because he
was ―tired of it,‖ not necessarily because he was found out or was wracked with guilt (Henriques
qtd. to T. Gross, NPR, April 26, 2011, my italics). Gross goes on to ask Henriques if she thinks
Madoff is a special case, i.e., a psychopath or a sociopath, someone who, while dangerous, is
nonetheless rare and in being so reassures us that most of those who hold some aspect of the
public financial trust are fortunately not like that. Henriques qualified her response by
disavowing armchair psychology, but was adamant that Madoff represents not psychopathology,
but rather is an example of someone who falls along a spectrum; more extreme, maybe, but not
rare (T. Gross, NPR, April 26, 2011).
Whether or not Madoff is a psychopath, most especially in the way that noted
psychologist Robert Hare (1993) defines that term, is a question for further research, which has
been called for by Boddy and others (Boddy, JBE 2011; Boddy, 2011; Hare & Babiak, 2007). If
in fact Madoff is a psychopath, then the literature on hubris will need to expand to consider two
probably distinct categories of hubristic behavior. One, exemplified by people like Madoff,
comprising a small yet significant (and significantly dangerous) percentage, will be those
afflicted by psychopathy. The psychological roots of this smaller group will be different than the
psychology of the larger group, as Hare and Babiak (2007) have already addressed in their book
Snakes in Suits. They theorize that there may be as many as 100,000 psychopaths in New York
City alone, and that financial and governmental organizations present an irresistible target for
their brand of charming, clever behavior, grounded though it is in utterly ruthless self-interest
that demonstrates no discernible ability to empathize or bond with other human beings. In his
new book Driven to Lead, which is aimed at a management audience, Harvard Business School
professor Paul Lawrence (2010) picks up on this aspect of Hare’s work and argues that there is in
fact a neurological basis for understanding psychopathic behavior (Lawrence refers to them
mostly as ―people without conscience‖) that underlies the hubris one sees in some managers and
leaders (p. 72). The defect is genetic and resides in the limbic area of the brain, the part that is
responsible for emotions and emotional input to other parts of the brain (Lawrence, 2011, p. 41).
When that is not functioning, or is severely weakened, people afflicted in such a manner simply
cannot feel what others are feeling, cannot imagine that their actions many cause harm to others
or that they themselves should feel any distress about the harm they do cause (Lawrence, 2011,
pg. 41). Lawrence (2011) is convinced that the numbers of psychopaths among executives and
leaders has increased dramatically in the past two decades and strongly suggests it would be wise
for the rest of us to begin testing procedures for business and governmental leaders that would
begin to limit access to power for those who clearly and scientifically demonstrate psychopathic
tendencies or traits (p.41). This is a somewhat shocking suggestion, and highly controversial, of
course, but if it can be shown conclusively that some of the more glaring and destructive hubris
we witness in our business leaders is due to psychopathy, then surely it would be unwise to
ignore that behavior (Lawrence, 2011). From Lawrence’s point of view, it is not a matter of
involuntarily subjecting the population to this sort of testing, but rather arguing that if any one
business student or person desires to control vast resources or wield considerable power through
business, the rest of us have a vested interest in that person’s psychological make-up. It is at
base a utilitarian argument and, given the consequences and the emerging neurological science,
may be one we are going to hear more often.
Hubris and Self-Deception
Yet, I also claim that hubris is a universal affliction, not necessarily reserved for those
who are emotionally and empathetically stunted due to unfortunate genetic mutations or injury.
This second category of hubris is marked by psychological and evolutionary traits common to us
all, however much they may differ by degree. This second category, and further evidence that
hubris plays as much of a role in destructive business outcomes as greed, includes people like
Joe Cassano, A.I.G. Financial Products manager for several years running up to the financial
crisis of 2008. Cassano has been described by the author Michael Lewis (2009) as ―The Man
Who Crashed the World.‖ Fair assessment or not, what does seem to be true is that Cassano was
not greedy in the usual Wall Street sense, but instead was afflicted with hubris that was
compensatory for his shortcomings.
By all accounts Cassnao had more of his own money invested in A.I.G. F.P. than anyone
else in the firm, and his lone status concern seemed to be ―his place in the global financial order‖
(Lewis, 2009, p. 137). In other words, Cassano’s interest was in proving he belonged and that he
had gotten the best of those who were in most other ways his ―social betters‖ (Lewis, 2009, p.
137). He was portrayed as ―someone who didn’t fully understand all the calculations and whose
judgment was clouded by his insecurity…‖ and who became ―…a cartoon despot‖ (Lewis, 2009,
p. 136). Cassano’s problem, at root, was hubris connected to a delusionary sense of ownership
that A.I.G.F.P. was ―his,‖ that no one else could or should make decisions on its behalf, and
whose style was to bully to get his way (Lewis, 2009). Hubris in this manifestation has as its
source two other characteristics noted in the literature, those of anagnosis: ―a lack of knowledge
that creates in us the inability to make sense of how everything fits together to form the big
picture,‖ and harmartia: ―the inability to get outside our own limited perspective‖ (Ford, 2006,
p.481). But here too we can go a little deeper than prior commentary on sources of hubris,
thanks to the sciences. I mentioned above that there might be evolutionary reasons, or at least
traces of reasons, for the continuation of hubris even though it seems to be such a destructive
flaw in us. Two possible candidates have emerged from primatology and from evolutionary
psychology and biology to help explain what we see by way of these behaviors, and those are the
phenomena of self-deception and hierarchy.
Why might Cassano, like the rest of us albeit to a greater degree, be beholden to selfdeception when he might just as well realize that he is of course bound by a limited perspective
and could, with an appropriate act of will, be able to overcome that limitation? The answer, and
one business students and managers are unfortunately too seldom introduced to, has its origins in
Robert Trivers seminal work on the biological bases of relationships. Trivers (1976) argues that
we are almost always in conflict in relationships because we look to serve our greatest ―love‖ –
our self and the biological compulsion to propagate that ―self‖—while at the very same time
attempting to convince those we are in relationship with that serving our own interests is not our
primary motivation:
If… deceit is fundamental to animal communication, then there must be strong selection
to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception,
rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray… the deception being
practiced. (Trivers, 1976, qtd. in Pinker, 2002, p. 263)
This passage has been used before to make various points, but here I want to say this insight
from Trivers is nothing less than one of the keys to wisdom itself, insofar as it will help
managers and leaders who are aware of it develop one necessary and deep, abiding perspective
on not only who they are, but also who are their peers and co-workers. If ―knowing thyself‖ is as
important to business persons as it is to philosophers,—and given their role in the world it ought
to be—then understanding that we are not necessarily evolved to see or practice ever more
accurately what the ―truth‖ is when it comes to human motivation or presentation can help us
devise both attitudes and safeguards relative to the tendency for misapprehension.
Hubris is the certain conviction that I am right—that I am smarter, more moral, more
competent, etc., than others—and one of its most unnerving features is not, as some of the
literature has held, that it is solely a willful and conscious self-aggrandizement or a reaction to an
unreflective environment, but that it is based upon a millions of years of adaptation strategy. This
assertion is borne out by studies showing that, in the psychologist’s Steven Pinker’s (2002)
words, ―self-deception is among the deepest roots of human strife and folly…all parties assess
themselves to be wiser, abler and nobler than they really are and each can sincerely believe that
logic and evidence are on his side…‖ (p. 264). Recent experiments with human subjects
conducted by researchers like Jonathan Haidt (2006) in psychology, Dan Ariely (2008) in
behavioral economics, and Brendan Nyhan (2010) in political science demonstrate a strong
tendency, for example, in all of us to hold fast to convictions even in the face of irrefutable
evidence—i.e. facts—proving that the convictions are wrong. Nyhan (2010) based upon his
research into attempts to correct misapprehensions, has coined the term ―the backfire effect,‖
which describes his observations that among certain targeted ideological groups the attempt to
correct a false impression actually ―increases misperceptions among the group in question‖
(Nyhan, 2010, p. 2).
As Mark Twain said, ―It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what
you know for sure that just ain’t so‖ (qtd. in Nyhan, 2010, p. 2). This certainty, and pride in it, is
a central hallmark of hubris, which seems counterintuitive at best, irrational at worst, and yet
persists. Why? Because evolution has selected for self-deception in some cases for the
following reason: if we ourselves are not convinced of the position we are taking, then that
position is unlikely to move others to take it as well. And in some cases—instances in parenting,
romantic encounters, trading in the expectations market, and advertising, for example—really
believing one’s own ―misleading truths,‖ as Kant might say, is highly effective in promoting
one’s own ends, though inflated it is a particularly virulent source for hubris (Pinker, 2002).
What this means is that we cannot simply implore people to be honest, either with themselves or
us, when we think it is obvious that they are being less than honest. For good evolutionary
reasons it may not be apparent at all to the person in question. In cases where this is true
wisdom will not fall from ethical imperatives; it will emerge from a better understanding of how
we are.
Hubris and Hierarchy
Hierarchy is also a candidate for an evolutionary source of hubris. Commentators have
occasionally observed that business leaders who are uncritical in their acceptance of praise from
peers or employees are more easily led to hubris, and that is surely true, but what I want to note
here is that a hierarchical structure is a prerequisite to this occurring. Hierarchical structures, and
the loyalty and deference upon which they depend, are found in our closet cousins, the higher
primates, where they are often forged by physical strength and physical violence. And despite
all the recent talk about flat structures, our corporations, universities, religious institutions and
politics show that for majority percentages of the population deference to an authority persists as
an organizing principle. Humans do not countenance brute force to crown their leaders, or
certainly not nearly as much as in the past, but we still do admire certain character traits that lead
to a position of dominance. Confidence, competence, charisma, intelligence, and appearance,
among others, are expressions of fitness for leadership. But as uncritical or unmediated praise
for these attributes builds, and an uncritical acceptance of them encourages an overestimation of
one’s own tactical maneuvers, fortitude, charm, successes (real or imagined), and even a nominal
virtue like generosity (the ability to grant favors), hubris is the likely result (Billett & Qian, 2008;
Hayward & Hambrick, 1997; Treviño, et al, 2007).
In a properly ordered hierarchy, the deference paid is well earned because the leader
provides protection, stability, guidance, mentoring, and even, at their best, wisdom. In
psychoanalytic terms, they may even become the repository of healthy transference (Ket de
Vries, 2003; Maccoby, 2004). But when deference, or respectful dependency, is translated as
ontological superiority and hubris results, the consequences can be even worse than instability or
unfair distribution of resources; the results can by tyranny, exploitation, and dehumanization. S.
Desai, et al (2011) have tentatively shown that as compensation for executives grows
exponentially beyond their co-workers they, the executives, become meaner in their relationships
with them. There may be an evolutionary antecedent to this as well, in that influential
primatologist Frans de Waal (2006) in his important book on the origins of morality itself
proposes that in the primate world the sense of how others should behave is essentially
egocentric, and if deviated from dominant individuals impose harsh penalties on more
subordinate ones. Of course human morality is much more evolved and complicated, and we can
and do devise controls that limit the expression of unfair punitive measures, but looking at the
ways hierarchy evolves and how it may contribute to hubris in managers is a line of inquiry that
deserves more attention. Treviño, et al (2007) have echoes of this in their findings that senior
managers in organizations have a generally rosier picture of ethics in the organization than
lower-level employees do, a not surprising finding in that among humans in organizations, as in
true among higher primates, higher-ranking managers, especially those prone to hubris, can mete
out disadvantages in ways that can appear, and too often are, random or whimsical (Desai, et al,
2011; Ford, 2006; Kets de Vries, 2003).
Beyond Madoff and Cassano
It would be easy—too easy, in fact—to go on. One might point to Paul Ingrassia’s
(2010) portrayal of General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner in the book Crash Course. When a GM
executive showed Wagoner the 2004 National Geographic story titled ―The End of Cheap Oil‖
as a way to suggest that GM was ―relying too heavily on trucks and SUVs, Wagoner retorted that
the same faulty thinking had made GM the last company in Detroit to cash in on the truck boom
and he wasn’t about to repeat that mistake‖ (Ingrassia, 2010, p. 156). Here, of course, greed and
hubris are conjoined, but a stubborn refusal to consider reasonable evidence to the contrary of
one’s own opinion (hubris) may, ironically, actually have impaired whatever potentially greedy
impulses or aspirations Wagoner had for himself and GM. The desire not to be wrong once again
trumps rational self-interest (Hiller and Hambrick, 2005; Kroll, et al, 2000).
Or consider former British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward, who announced to NBC
News shortly after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that while he was sorry this had happened,
no one wanted it over more than he did, because ―I’d like my life back‖ (NBC Today, 30 May,
2010, 0:12-0:14). However intended, the remark was a nihilistic, disdainful, self-absorbed
characteristic of hubris. Among those in the national media, I would also include Brian
Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America. BofA has garnered some bad press recently regarding
some its customer-alienating fees and practices. Referring to that bad, but in most eyes fair,
press, Moynihan said to a gathering of BofA employees, ―I, like you, get a little incensed when
you think about how much good all of you do, whether it’s volunteer hours, charitable giving we
do, serving clients and customers well,‖ he said to employees last week, according to a
Bloomberg report. ―You ought to think a little about that before you start yelling at us‖ (Reeves,
These are famous examples, but I am claiming the tendency is universal, though its
expression is varies widely. More common examples of hubristic behavior are well known
among the rank and file and, from my own work with over one-hundred managers, executives
and leaders, I offer these as representative samples: a disconcerting tendency on the part of a
manger to repeatedly take credit for work that is not his; a manager who is completely selfsatisfied with his managerial style and refuses to develop or respond to requests based upon
innovation; leaders who keep information, profits, and opportunities excessively to themselves;
and executives who take revenge on subordinates who are successful. To respond well to these
and other challenges that regularly confront those in business, it is not enough to dismiss the
behavior as simply greedy or, as some, rather remarkably do, ―normal‖ if unappealing. And it
may strike some as beside the point to argue that hubris is as much if not more in evidence than
greed as we look at the failings among managers in business, given the fallout of both. But of
course it does matter what diagnosis we give to various ills, insomuch as these failings will
require a proper diagnosis before the appropriate therapy can commence.
Greed seeks to fill a vacuum, to satiate what cannot be satiated, to strip others of their just
desserts by taking too much of something for oneself and to do so in the name of reward or
ruthlessness. It is a sign of what both Augustine and the Buddha would regard as improperly
ordered desire, a craving for the wrong things, i.e., temporal rather than lasting pleasures.
Managers afflicted by greed long for something they feel they lack, and at its base is insecurity.
Hubris shares some of these traits, but is also marked by profound narcissism, a sense that the
rules do not apply, and that one can do no wrong (a Midas touch) and that therefore one does not
have to listen. I italicize this last part for two reasons: 1) it does not get emphasized enough in
the literature on hubris, and 2) it stands in direct contrast to all recent studies on how leaders in
organizations become successful, i.e., that getting one’s ego out of the way and listening and
responding to what was being said to them was at the heart of their evolution from struggling
managers to respected and effective leaders (Hayward, et al, 2006; Kurtzman, 2010).
Hubris as Antithesis to Wisdom
I began the paper by making the large claim that hubris, as much if not more than greed,
is at the root of many of our current managerial and leadership problem. I’ve attempted to
demonstrate how and why that might be true, though we still need to address what may be the
most significant source of hubris, narcissism and I will do that below. I turn now to the second
large claim I make, which is that hubris is the antithesis of wisdom. Hubris is as big an obstacle
as any to managers and business students actually achieving practical wisdom. Accounting for
hubris by way of psychopathy, self-deception, and hierarchy helps explain its prevalence and
persistence, but if these factors were completely determinative—if this were the sum total of our
evolved morality and psychology—there would be no room to talk about wisdom at all. But they
are not, and fortunately there is. But another question occurs: is ―wisdom‖ really what managers
and business students are aiming at? How does ―wisdom,‖ so lofty and ethereal, enter the
business conversation at all? Isn’t wisdom the province of philosophy, or religion, maybe art?
Don’t philosophy and religion offer perennial truths about the nature of human wisdom and
folly, while psychology and related sciences offer only tentative and temporal conclusions, help
along the way?
To explore that objection, let us turn our attention to the consideration of narcissism as
one more recognized and especially stubborn source of hubris (Kets de Vries, 2003; Kroll, et al,
It is certainly not the case that philosophy or religion has ignored narcissism, and we’ll end the
paper with brief reference to two wisdom traditions that have deep teachings on the cultivation of
humility, but again if we are at all serious that managers should ―know themselves‖ and those
they work with (Moberg, 2007), the current literature generated by psychology will likely be a
great aid to that end.
If narcissism is described by ―an overbearing sense of grandiosity, and need for
admiration,‖ and if it is prevalent as a source of hubris, then mangers have every reason to be
utterly concerned with understanding and responding to it as it surfaces in both themselves and
others. So where do we look to understand how it comes about, which is the understanding
required to develop the wisdom to appropriately and effectively address it? The surface
presentation of a narcissist is usually understood by psychology as compensatory, the result of
some deep wound to the real self, leading the narcissist to create a false self that may be only
vaguely aware of any real self and its damage (Johnson, 1994). The manager who is dealing
with narcissism that contributes to hubris needs the wisdom to know that this presentation of a
false self runs deep and will not be responsive to threats or remedies based on, for example,
behaviorist models. Beyond some basic awareness of what is happening at a psychological level
with those to whom the manager leads, or reports, she must also seek the wisdom to understand
her own responses to the behavior she is witnessing. In both cases—her own and with the
narcissist—the road to developing the wise response is long, difficult and filled with missteps.
That is very much in the nature of things, as I have suggested above, and exactly why hubris is a
universal affliction and not just reserved for some special segment of the population. The
ultimate irony in approaching managing from this point of view would be to ascribe wisdom to
one’s self based upon psychological or neurological findings that only lead us back to humility.
So wisdom is paradoxical: it needs immense and disparate sources of knowledge and
information; yet, wisdom must hold conclusions lightly—it must act, as managers must, with
confidence borne of knowledge and humility borne of ignorance. Wisdom must seek to cultivate
the deepest reaches of authenticity while keeping an alert eye out for the narcissism that comes
of high self-regard.
The Aristotelian line about wisdom, which Barry Schwartz and Sharpe (2010) boil down
to the overarching theme of ―doing the right thing in the right way to the right person at the right
time‖ retains its intuitive appeal, but is only useful as an orientation point from which managers
and leaders might ask further questions about its meaning. Robert Sternberg (1998) helps us by
offering a more detailed perspective when he writes that wisdom is ―the tacit knowledge that lets
a person balance two sets of things. First, wise people are able to balance their own needs, the
needs of others, and the needs of persons or things beyond the immediate interaction… Second,
wise people are able to balance three responses to situations: adaptation…to the
environment…shaping (changing the environment), and selection (choosing to move to a new
environment‖ (qtd. in Haidt, 2006, p. 152). Coming to be wise in this way is predicated upon a
rich and varied life story from which appropriate lessons are drawn. At the heart of this
approach to wisdom, I would attest, would be a profound humility in the face of ambiguity that
nonetheless recognizes the need to choose, to act, and to take responsibility for both. In other
words, we must be tempered by experience, and that experience, if it be truly of the world and
even more importantly of our ―selves‖ as agents, actors, and deeply layered beings whose own
nature is often conflicted, will lead us to what those free from narcissism have known so well,
and that is that there can be more than one ―truth‖ in a given situation, and being comfortable
with that ambiguity is the hallmark of a mature—and potentially wise—individual.
Conclusion: Addressing Hubris with Two Wisdom Traditions
Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have argued, in the last twenty-five years, that
religion is an evolutionary and cultural adaptation to help keep order, suppress some of our more
base instincts and impulses, and create lasting communities (Haidt, 2006; Lehrer, 2010; Wilson,
1975). It is not transcendent in origins, but grounded in natural needs or reasonable goals. One
of those needs is to check selfish or self-absorbed behavior, like hubris, which threatens the life
of the community, and look to wisdom teachings that can be seen, at least by some, as a survival
guide to this world, not the next. The false self, the narcissistic self that would make of itself a
god, that would set itself apart from natural truths about social dependencies and conventional
rules about the respect owed to others, is prey to hubris and a danger to us all. Teachings from
Buddhism and Christianity, for all their differences, share a commitment to overcoming this false
self, exposing it for the insecure and anxious creature it is, and setting a course for wisdom that,
in our context, would relieve managers and leaders of the burden of creating an even larger false
self than most of us are wont to do.
Buddhism speaks to narcissism, this unholy fixation on a false self that leaves no room
for authentic being or relationship with others. The narcissist is finally a coward, someone who
spends most of his life keeping any and all unpleasant truths at bay. Narcissism, says the
Buddhist, covers over our existential dilemmas, our questions of meaning, insubstantiality and
death, and substitutes for them a false sense of completeness, wholeness (Epstein, 1995). As
antidote to hubris, the Buddha, consistent with modern scientific findings about the self, gently
teaches that we are of two, or three, or more ―minds‖ about ourselves precisely because there is
no one inherent consciousness that is eternally true above all others.
As little as we know about the brain, we do know that it is in continual conversation with
itself, region to region, checking and balancing the impulses and inputs in feedback loops that
the best computer would envy. We are not the fixed or static beings that hubris pretends we are.
Jonathan Haidt (2006) recommends meditation as one of the very best ways to check and change
ourselves, and that is corroborated by more studies than I can list here. Meditation, in nonsectarian form, is being offered at institutions all over the world—including business schools—
and it will work to offset the sources of hubris by instructing us in the ways of our minds, a
humbling course of study if ever there was one.
Finally, I will end by suggesting that along with what the sciences are teaching us to be
true about human nature, we do well to remember the stories culture has left us with also. The
Tower of Babel story, for example. As a brief reminder, the Tower was being built to celebrate
the power and achievements of Man, an exaltation of what Man could achieve if he spoke a
common language and recognized a common purpose. The Tower would reach the heavens and
those atop it might be as God was. According to the story, God saw this as hubris and not only
destroyed the Tower, but scattered the people and gave them different languages to speak, so that
they would be unified no more. The clearest message is that if one attempts to usurp the powers
of God one will be humbled, so better to seek humility proactively, to make of it a virtue in life.
As this generation of businesspersons, leaders, and masters of the universe seeks to build a
globalized world, which language will they choose? One that seeks humility and stewardship, or
one that speaks to self-deception, dominant hierarchy and narcissism? All of us have an
evolutionary interest in the answer.

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