The Other Guys  (2010)
2010 Sony Pictures. Directed by Adam McKay
Background: Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson play the two hottest cops in New York (the name of the characters are irrelevant, since they are basically playing Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson at their most typecast selves). They’ll wreak havoc and destroy anything in their path just to get at the perpetrators. Here they are responding to a high-profile robbery.

Themes: Hubris, pride.

Teaching tips:

“Hubris” is a somewhat technical word for a kind of destructive, foolish pride. It is not the pride of the incompetent or the mediocre, but of someone who is highly competent, but let themselves get carried away by an inflated perception of their capacities. In so doing, they ruin themselves and cause their own downfall.

It seemed to be of extreme importance (even a sort of “original sin”) for the Greeks, and it is often found at the origin of their most tragic myths, sometimes spanning many generations.

Such sinful pride could manifest itself in a number of ways. First, an individual would praise their own qualities over those of the gods. As Edith Hamilton says (in Mythology), when telling the story of queen Cassiopeia, “An absolute certain way in those days to draw down on one a wretched fate was to claim superiority in anything over any deity; nevertheless people were perpetually doing so.” (Cassiopeia had boasted that she was more beautiful than the daughter of sea-god Nereus.) It’s a bit like overcelebrating in sports.

Some went even further, and tried to make the gods look like fools, thus causing their own demise. The worst case is probably Tantalus‘, who tried to feed his own sons to the gods, cooked and all  (yech!) The twin giants Otus and Ephialtes, tried to best the gods many times. They were spared when they tried to scale Mount Olympus by piling up some mountains, but when they tried to capture Artemis, the goddess of the hunt tricked the brothers into spearing each other to their deaths.

A human being would also show this “hubris” when choosing a course of action that, in the eyes of those not blinded by such pride, clearly overreached that individual’s (and most humans’) abilities. The paradigmatic case is that of the young Phaeton, son of Helios, the Sun. Phaeton convinced the Sun to let him ride his flaming chariot once, and nearly burned the entire world. Jupiter had to destroy both chariot and rider, to prevent all life from being destroyed.

(Sometimes this “hubris” also involves a sadistic excess in violence. It is another important meaning–implied, for example, in Tantalus’ crime–though not illustrated by this clip.)

Present-day students of philosophy may find it somewhat difficult to relate to the Greeks’ condemnation of hubris. The prevailing moral slogans, on the other hand, identify limits with a sort of weakness of spirit, or with self-imposed psychological barriers, which we must bring down in order to succeed in life. This is why I like this particular clip: it shows the consequences of disregarding objective limitations in such a blatant way that it is impossible not to see the point. It can help bring to the fore the relevance of this ancient moral notion.

And here’s one more possible avenue for reflection: Of the contemporary literary traditions, the one that most consistently continues to bring up the danger of hubris (especially in its third meaning) is science fiction. From its early beginnings (think of doctors Frankenstein and Moreau, Skynet or the Umbrella Corporation) it hasn’t stopped warning us about the dangers of disregarding the potentially disastrous consequences of our acts, simply by telling stories of people who consistently do so–enough to do a whole series on hubris and technology. (But do we ever listen?)

Questions for discussion:

  • Identify an ancient tragedy or myth in which the presence of hubris plays an important part in the plot. Explain its importance in the story.
  • Identify a modern or contemporary story (play, novel, movie) in which the presence of hubris plays an important part in the plot. Explain its importance in the story.
  • How is the notion of hubris (and its negative implications) relevant to present day issues?
  • Compare the criticism of hubris implied in these stories (which encourage us to be aware of our limitations)  with such slogans as “there are no limits,” “the limits are only in your mind,” “be all that you can be.” Is one of these views wrong? Is there a way to strike a balance between both?
  • Try to specify the conditions under which you’d say an action qualifies as a hubris-motivated transgression, and the conditions under which an action could be say to be legitimately “pushing back” the limits.

Also see:

  • An interesting discussion could follow from analyzing the story of the Tower of Babel using the concept of hubris.
Please leave a comment (below) or send us a note! If you send further ideas on how to use a specific clip, we’ll move them to the body of the article.