The Wordsmith

Hubris Syndrome, a Sickness of Heads of State

From Trump to Putin to Erdogan, many political leaders are suffering from a pathology whose symptoms include the feeling of being omnipotent.
© Sylvie Serprix

This term has been a media mainstay for several years. We read and heard it countless times during Donald Trump’s presidency from 2017 to 2021, and it has regularly reappeared since Russian president Vladimir Putin sent his armies into Ukraine in February 2022. The word is “hubris.” In Ancient Greece, hybris described extravagance and pride – traits that the gods despised, at least among humans. It is also used to refer to transgressive acts such as rape, and is the opposite of logos, meaning temperance and reason.

Nowadays, we draw on this concept to describe dysfunctional behavior characterized by a feeling of omnipotence and excessive self-confidence. In the past, we would have instead used the word “megalomania.” This syndrome has struck many political leaders, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Bachar al-Assad in Syria. Opponents of French president Emmanuel Macron, who often have a scant sense of moderation themselves, are quick to tar him with the same brush.

This form of egomania appears to be so common among men in power – although women seem to be relatively spared – that we could legitimately refer to it as a sickness of heads of state. David Owen, the former British secretary of state for foreign affairs, even wrote a book about it: The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power (2012). He listed 14 symptoms that can be used to diagnose this pathology, including narcissism, arrogance, impulsivity, a refusal of any criticism, a feeling of invincibility, and a desire to go down in history.

Louis XIV named himself the Sun King; Bonaparte crowned himself emperor in 1804; he was followed by his nephew Louis-Napoléon in 1852 and, more than a century later, by Central African president Jean-Bedel Bokassa in 1977. Needless to say, many historical figures have been led astray by power. What’s more, this “intoxication of power” stretches beyond the world of politics. In the corporate world, it is not rare to see people who have lost all grip on reality and who nurture excessive self-confidence while believing that they control everything around them. Carlos Ghosn, the former CEO of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi group whose delusions of grandeur seemed limitless, has paid a heavy price. But other titans of industry such as the all-consumingly ambitious Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, seem to go from strength to strength.

In the French press, the term hubris regularly appears in environmental articles condemning humanity’s destructive pride with regard to the natural world. In a more mundane way, this syndrome also hangs over us all on a daily basis. Many of us have noticed a change in a friend or colleague following a promotion. “He’s getting a big head,” or “he’s getting too big for his britches,” may often be heard in passing.

Fortunately, the consequences of such psychological transformations are generally minor among mere mortals. The same cannot be said for the threat posed by a head of state who feels that their power is unlimited. What are we to do with Putin, who believes that he is saving “holy Russia” from what he claims are the scourges of Nazis and Western homosexuals? Can we negotiate and make him see sense? Unfortunately not, according to psychiatrists, as the Russian president’s paranoia makes him impervious to any rational argument.

“All power without control leads to madness,” wrote French philosopher Alain in his 1952 book Politique. In Greek mythology, things end particularly badly for characters struck by hybris. Think of Prometheus, renowned for stealing the sacred fire of Olympus as a gift to humanity. He was chained to a rock and had his liver pecked out by an eagle every day. It grew back each night, and this punishment continued forever. Or Icarus, who gained the power of flight thanks to wings of feathers and wax made by his father Daedalus. He flew too close to the sun, his wings melted, and he fell to his death in the sea. In both legends, the moral of the story is clear: Humans should know their place and avoid competing with the gods. Today’s egotistical, power-drunk autocrats would do well to study the classics!


Article published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.