Hubris, Stories, and That Which Might Exist

I’m intrigued by that which:

  • Exists within this universe
  • Exists beyond
  • Might exist

I’ve talked about “that which exists within this universe,” what we’ve been learning about it, and why science doesn’t upset me. I’ve talked about it a lot.

Basically, I’m a Christian and a Catholic. I think truth matters.

Faith is in part a pursuit of truth. Science is a pursuit of truth. As Pope Leo XIII said, “truth cannot contradict truth.” Sometimes we learn something new, but I really don’t see that as a problem.

I’ve talked about what the Nicene Creed calls ‘invisible,’ too. Which isn’t church-speak for electromagnetic phenomena outside visible spectrum. And that’s not quite another topic.

John Tenniel's Cheshire Cat illustration for Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' (1865)But I’ve written precious little about stuff that might exist. And why I don’t see a problem with being a Christian and enjoying stories. Or writing them.

So that’s what I’ll be talking about today: along with hubris, Homer, a hurricane and whatever else comes to mind.


Aiming High

A commonplace book. From the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. (17th century)
(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Someone’s notebook, containing poems. (Mid-17th century))

I was probably 11 or 12 years old when I thought about what I should do with my life. Or maybe 13 or 14.

I’d be more certain about when that was if I’d kept a diary. But I didn’t, apart from a brief attempt several years later.

After writing a few entries, I read a bit of what I’d written; and noticed that I’d been feeling very, very angry at the time.

That was an unpleasant experience, one that didn’t seem worth repeating, so I filed keeping a diary under ideas that sound good but don’t work. Not for me, at any rate. And that’s another topic.

I’m not sure when that ‘what do I want to do’ moment happened, but I know where it was. I was in 818 10th Street South’s back yard, near the house, facing east. That’s the house I grew up in. The neighborhood’s a parking lot for Minnesota State University Moorhead these days.

Anyway, I knew that I wanted to do something that would be noteworthy and remembered. Hubris? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I’ll get back to that.

Legacies

Walls of Troy VII's acropolis. (ca. 1200 BC)There were the culturally-normative things, of course: become a star athlete, set a record of some sort; start a highly-successful business; get elected President of the United States.

I don’t remember even thinking about the first option.

I’m a cripple, handicapped, or whatever the current euphemism is. I could and can walk well enough. Running was possible, although none too effective or graceful.

And jumping — there was the time a high school gym instructor insisted that I could and must jump a hurdle. Which I did, and that’s a story for another day.

In any case, I realized that world-famous record holders don’t stay famous for long. Either someone sets a new record, or the sport fades from fashion.

So much for sports.

Storytellers

Quintano Media's photo of New York City's Times Square New Year's Eve celebration. (2020)What about commercial or political success? Best-case scenario, I could become the next Henry Ford or Andrew Jackson.

But again, the fame wouldn’t last. Sooner or later, my industry or country would be filed away in humanity’s archives.

So much for culturally-normative things.

I started going through achievements that folks remembered over significant spans of time: and that still mattered. It’s a short list.

I finally picked Homer’s two famous stories: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Granted, very few folks understand ancient Greek these days. And the epic poem’s pretty much off my culture’s radar.

But the stories? Even folks who hadn’t read translations of Homer’s epics had read or seen adaptations of them. Or knew about the Iliad and Odyssey.

So I decided that I wanted to be the next Homer.

A few years later I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘ring’ trilogy, and realized that my era’s great work had already been written. My opinion. But I think I’m right.

Still later, I started running across academic assertions that Homer hadn’t composed the Iliad and Odyssey. And that Homer wasn’t a real person.1

My favorite, and I’m still not sure whether it’s a joke or if someone really said it, is that Homer didn’t compose those epic poems. They’d been made up by someone living in Homer’s day — who just happened to be named Homer.

Smudged Footnotes

Me, Brian H. Gill, on St. Patrick's Day. (2021)Wondering ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ is, I gather, normal for someone who’s around 12 years old.

I don’t know how many kids think about lasting legacies, and go back a couple three millennia before finding a role model.

But as I said last week, I’m not normal.

As for thinking that a legacy isn’t “lasting” unless it outlives its civilization of origin: both my parents were librarians, among other things. My father, at least, was no more prone to silent reserve than I am.

Their awareness extended beyond current fads, fears and foibles.

I didn’t know all that much about humanity’s long story at the time, but I had some notion as to the ease with which the most illustrious personages became smudged footnotes in the annals of antiquity.


Hubris and Mount St. Helens

Rocky Kolberg's view of the Mount St. Helens mushroom cloud, taken 35 miles from the eruption. (May 18, 1980)
(From Rocky Kolberg, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Make no mistake. Humanity is hot stuff.

“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness….”
(Genesis 1:26)

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
“Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.
“You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
put all things at his feet….”
(Psalms 8:57)

We’re still made in God’s image, with the authority and power that comes with our nature.

The writer who said ‘now that we control the forces of nature’ wasn’t entirely wrong.

We really do rule the things of this world.

But “little less than a god” isn’t “God.”

Although we’ve been learning to control previously-unknown forces of nature, when Mount St. Helens exploded, the best we could do was try staying out of the way. And collect data.

Weather Control: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

1947 Hurricane Eight's storm track.Weather control looked like a practical possibility in my youth.

Meteorology was changing from a study of yesterday’s weather into a reliable predictive science. Researchers had even been testing weather control technology.

But a modified hurricane made a U-turn in 1947, and the Black Hills Flood of 1972 started with a storm that had been seeded.

The last I heard, at least one analysis says that energy released by the 1947 experiment couldn’t have turned Hurricane Eight. And courts ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence to connect cloud seeding and the Black Hills disaster.2

Even so, I think an apparent moratorium on weather control field testing was prudent.

So what, if anything, does a wayward hurricane and an exploding mountain have to do with hubris?

Not much, actually. What I had in mind was our attitude.

Cautionary Tales

Paul Manship's Prometheus sculpture for Rockefeller Center (New York City) lower plaza. (1934) Photo by Balon Greyjoy. (2013)
(From Balon Greyjoy, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Prometheus sculpture for Rockefeller Center’s lower plaza. (Paul Manship, 1934))

Science fiction movie poster collage: 'The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,' 'The Fly' (1958), 'The Brain That Wouldn't Die,' 'Cosmic Monsters.'Hubris is dignity on steroids, self-confidence above and beyond the call of reason.

Ancient Greeks saw hubris as an offense against the natural order, and told stories, cautionary tales, showing why it was a bad idea.

Oedipus tried sidestepping the Delphic oracle’s prediction: that he’d kill his father and sleep with his mother. And ended up doing both, blinding himself in the process.

Prometheus crossed the line by stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans.

Then there’s Icarus, who not only tried to fly, but flew too close to the sun.

It’s been a long time since I heard variations on the ‘if God had meant man to fly’ joke, and I’m drifting off topic.

Or maybe not so much.

Prometheus, Zeus and a Preacher-Man

Studio Foglio's Mr. Squibbs, used w/o permission.Although dramatic conventions have changed as millennia rolled by, cautionary tales still warn against “tampering with things man was not supposed to know.”

Or, in the “Prometheus Bound” scenario, smuggling contraband technology to mortals.

Prometheus “…I sought the fount of fire in hollow reed
Hid privily, a measureless resource
For man, and mighty teacher of all arts.
This is the crime that I must expiate
Hung here in chains, nailed ‘neath the open sky. Ha! Ha!…”
(“Prometheus Bound,” Aeschylus (ca. 430 BC) via The Internet Classics Archive, MIT)

Dr. James Xavier: “I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.”
Dr. Sam Brant: “My dear friend, only the gods see everything.”
Dr. James Xavier: “My dear doctor, I’m closing in on the gods.”
(“X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” (1963), via IMDB.com)

As I see it, there’s a moral to both stories.

Since “Prometheus Bound” begins and ends with humanity’s benefactor enduring the wrath of Zeus, I figure Aeschylus was saying either ‘don’t mess with Zeus,’ or maybe ‘don’t play with fire.’ but that doesn’t make sense. Not to me.

“X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” in contrast, doesn’t depict direct divine vengeance.

Dr. James Xavier, it seems, tells a revivalist evangelical — evangelical revivalist? Never mind — that he’s starting to see things at the edge of the universe. The preacher-man quotes Matthew 5:29, whereupon Dr. Xavier gouges his own eyes out.3

So, what does this all mean?

If I thought “Prometheus Bound” and “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” were all there is to Western culture and Christian philosophy, then I might write off both as bad ideas.

I don’t, so I won’t; And now I’ve definitely drifted off-topic.


Homer, Pride and Me

Gustave Dore's illustration for Poe's 'The Raven.' (1884))I’ve decided to have something new ready each Saturday morning and I lost track of time this week, so I’ll slap down a few ideas and call it a day.

Hubris, feeling that I’m the biggest thing since sliced bread, is a bad idea.

Assuming that I’m not the biggest thing since whatever, that is.

That’s pride, and that’s a sin. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1866)

But note that the sort of pride that’s sinful is the “hubris” variety.

Pretending that I’m a miserable wretch, fit only for eternity’s ashcan, us also a bad idea.

Like everyone else, I’m made “in the image of God.” And, like all of God’s creation, and like each of us, I am basically “very good.” Very basically. The first of us put personal preference above God’s will, a monumentally bad idea. But God didn’t change our nature. We’re wounded, but not corrupted. (Genesis 1:27, 31, 3:1-19; Catechism, 31, 299, 355-361, 374-379, 398, 400-–406, 405, 1701-1707, 1949)

If all that sounds familiar, it should. I’ve said pretty much the same thing rather often.

Let’s see, what else? Hubris. Pride. Sin. Right!

Sin is something that offends reason, truth, “right conscience” — and God. (Catechism, 1849-1851)

Now, about wanting to be the next Homer.

If I felt that I deserved it, then I’d have problems. I didn’t, and don’t, so I’m not overly concerned about emulating Icarus.

As to whether or not telling stories is okay, I’m quite sure that it is. But discussing why I think so, and what Tolkien said about fairy stories — that will wait for another day.

And so will my explanation for why I’m shifting focus onto “that which might exist.”

Meanwhile, here are the usual links to what I’ve already written:


1 Some guy who’s more famous than me, and poems some scholars say he didn’t write:

2 I’ve talked about weather control before, and probably will again:

3 Cautionary tales and/or making sense:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Hubris, Stories, and That Which Might Exist

  1. Thank you very much for this wonderful refresher, Mr. Gill. 😀

Thanks for taking time to comment!