Some Ancient Lessons in Humility

Throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Herodotus’s The Histories, there exists a general lack of humility concerning one’s own fortune that eventually results in a reversal of fortune for that individual. Whether the lack of humility, which for the purpose of this essay will be more or less equated with pride or hubris, pertains to gifts of fortune or talent, the individual who lacks humility bears some punishment as a result. Specifically, this notion is illustrated in “Niobe,” “Arachne,” and “Narcissus and Echo” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and in Book 1of The Histories with the story of Lydian King Croesus. While an individual may possess some goods that provide them a fortunate existence (e.g. talents, material wealth, a good birth, etc.), these stories imply that these cannot be taken as goods without qualification; instead, they must be accompanied by humility. Specifically, without a sense of humility, these goods prove unhelpful in providing those who possess them with a good life, in fact, they actively contribute to their downfall. In this essay, I will analyze the aforementioned stories with respect to humility (or a lack thereof) in the stories. By illustrating how a lack of humility is conjoined with an eventual reversal of fortune, I hope to back my claim that there is an underlying lesson present throughout these stories that goods of fortune must be accompanied by a sense of humility.

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Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the water.

In the story of “Narcissus and Echo,” we follow a boy by the name of Narcissus whose beauty causes him to be suitored after by hordes of people, from men to girls to nymphs. Narcissus, because of his beauty, had a “heart [that] was so hard and proud in [his] soft and slender body,  / that none of the lusty men or languishing girls could / approach him” (3.353-354). Narcissus’s pride in his beauty is evident; it causes him to reject all suitors, including the second eponymous character of the novel, the nymph Echo. Narcissus’s lack of humility also manifests in his mockery of his suitors: “Not only Echo, the other nymphs of the waves and / mountains / incurred Narcissus’ mockery; so did his male / companions” (3.402-404). This quote specifically illustrates Narcissus’s hubristic attitude toward his beauty; rejecting suitors would be an understandable course of action for any unmarried person, but actively scorning those in pursuit of one’s hand in marriage simply on account of their attempting to do so indicates an absence of humility. His mockery provokes a scorned admirer to “‘pray Narcissus may fall in love and / never obtain his desire!’ [This] prayer was just and Nemesis heard it” (3.404-406). The phrase that the “prayer was just” indicates that Narcissus deserves punishment for his hubris and mockery, since the prayer came from an admirer whom Narcissus had previously mocked. Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, who is also considered to be the punisher of pride and arrogance among mortals according to the glossary, presumably enacts his punishment after hearing the suitor’s prayer, as Narcissus becomes “[b]lindly rapt with desire for himself” (706, 3.424). Soon after, he suffers a heartache too great for him to bear and yearns for death. It becomes clear, then, that the determinant in Narcissus’s reversal of fortune is his lack of humility and concomitant prideful actions. Narcissus’s beauty would have continually provided good fortune had it been accompanied by humility; instead, his beauty leads to great emotional turmoil and his ultimate demise.

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Minerva attacking Arachne.

While Narcissus takes pride in his beauty, Arachne’s pride is in her weaving, a talent that no other human being can match. Minerva, as the goddess of skill, initially begrudges Arachne for claiming to “equal herself in working with wool,” and declares that no “mortal shall scoff at [her] power / unpunished” (6.4-6). As illustrated by the above passage, Arachne maintains a certain degree of insolent pride in her skill, but she displays even greater and more blatant arrogance later in the text. For example, “[w]hatever [Arachne] did, you would know Minerva had / taught her. / Arachne herself, in indignant pride, denied such a debt” (6.22-24).  Here, it is stated that Arachne, while in a state of pride, denies being bestowed the skill of weaving by Minerva, an especially self-celebratory claim considering that Minerva is the goddess of skill. When Arachne subsequently holds a contest to prove her supremacy in weaving, Minerva, disguised as an old woman, gives her the opportunity to “yield the palm to Minerva, and humbly crave her / forgiveness / for boasting so rashly” because “the goddess will surely forgive if [she] ask[s] her” (6.32-34). Arachne then berates Minerva, still disguised as an old woman, in a display of incredible hubris; the fact that Arachne takes such offense to the mere suggestion of humility adequately illustrates her lack of it. Moreover, even after Minerva reveals herself, Arachne refuses to withdraw, and “[i]n her crass determination / to win, she fell to her ruin” (6.50-51). In other words, Arachne’s instant refusal to humble herself in the face of circumstances that demand it directly leads to her downfall. Arachne’s talent, while praiseworthy in itself, does not elicit a life of good fortune for Arachne because it is tainted by her hubris. Arachne could have counted on a happier future had she embraced her talent with humble deference to the gods, but instead “[she]’ll hang suspended forever… and practise [sic] her former art in the web of a spider” (6.137-145).

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Niobe and the slaughter of her fourteen children.

The queen of Thebes, Niobe, who had known of Arachne and her fate, possesses a similarly unrelenting hubris. Niobe’s blessings are the following: a father (Tantalus) who feasted with the gods, Jove as her grandfather, status as the queen of Thebes, material wealth, divine-like physical beauty, seven daughters, and seven sons. According to the work, Niobe “would have been / known  / as the happiest mother on earth, if only she had not / thought it / herself” (6. 154-157). I take the phrase “had not thought it herself” to mean if she had “not recognized her good fortune,” meaning had she possessed a sense of humility. Yet, Niobe not only boasts of the fact that she is “undeniably blessed,” but also hubristically claims she is “far too important a person for fortune’s changes to harm [her]” (6. 192-195). Niobe’s claim to significance, especially when conjoined with her claim to be more blessed than the Titan Latona, exemplifies her pride in her good fortune. And although Niobe previously knew the story of Arachne and her fate, she does not heed its lesson that one should be helpful: “her compatriot’s ugly fate hadn’t served as a warning / to show the gods that she knew her place and to speak of / them humbly” (6.150-152). Latona tasks Apollo with punishing Niobe for her brazen pride; first, he slays all seven of her sons, which causes Niobe, still implacable in her pride, to claim that she “in [her] grief [has] more than [Latona] in [Latona’s] joy”; then, after Niobe’s bold rejection of misfortune, Apollo slays her seven daughters, causing Niobe to finally submit to the affliction (6. 283). It’s eminently apparent how, even in her good fortune, Niobe’s lack of humility causes her suffering. In claiming that not even fortune, and by extension, divine will, could overturn her fortune, she challenges the omnipotence of the gods and consequently faces their wrath. The case of Niobe substantiates my claim that individuals, when they possess a myriad of “goods,” must possess a sense of humility in order for their “goods” to be considered truly good; otherwise, these goods actively sow the destruction of those who enjoy them. Several stories in Ovid’s  Metamorphoses illustrate how these purported goods are only good to the extent that they are accompanied by humility and thus entail a truly good life.  

In Herodotus’s The Histories, we witness a more complex good-fortune/humility relationship than we do in Metamorphoses. The aforementioned stories by Ovid follow, more or less, the same general format: an individual possesses some good (e.g. beauty, wealth, skill, etc.), the individual takes pride in their good, he or she acts in a prideful manner, and the individual’s (general) good fortune is reversed through some form of punishment that is usually administered by a divinity. Herotodus’ telling of the story of Croesus presents a similar lesson in a more complex narrative. Briefly, his story is as follows: Croesus, the first Lydian king to subdue the Greeks, possessed vast amounts of material treasures. He was visited by Solon of Athens who claims that Croesus cannot be considered happy until his entire life has played out, causing Croesus to dismiss Solon. Croesus’s son is killed on a hunting trip. Croesus receives a vague (and misleading) prophecy on conquest, which leads to his capture and the conquest of Sardis. While facing death, he has an epiphany regarding his conversation with Solon on good fortune; Cyrus (and Apollo) save Croesus after he voices this epiphany, and Croesus is made to counsel Cyrus (1.27-88). Herodotus’s story of Croesus differs from Ovid’s stories in that Croesus undergoes two reversals of fortune. Croesus’s fortune goes from good to bad to good again, as opposed to the strict fall from good fortune that Ovid’s characters suffer. Similarly, Croesus is not presented as a two-dimensional character incapable of reform like Ovid’s characters are.

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Solon of Athens before Croesus.

When Croesus is visited by Solon of Athens, he attempts to show off his vast treasures and expects Solon to agree that because of his wealth, he must be considered happy. Rebuking  Croesus’ claim, Solon states that “it is impossible for a mere mortal to have all the blessings at the same time… no person is self-sufficient… it is necessary to… see how it will turn out, because the god offers prosperity to men, but then destroys them utterly and completely” (1.32). Evidently, Croesus’s inquiry into the quality of his happiness was merely meant to satiate his hubris – Croesus had expected  Solon to rubber-stamp his claim that he was the happiest because he was proud of his fortune and wanted others to praise him for it. This is why, when Solon disagrees, Croesus “dismissed him as of no account” (1.32). Yet, after an incredible reversal of fortune sealed by a twofold misinterpretation of a prophecy on account of his overconfidence (a byproduct of his hubris), Solon’s wisdom finally resonates with Croesus. While on top of the lit pyre, Croesus’s mind turned to Solon’s belief  that “no one who is still alive is happy, and it occurred to him how divinely inspired Solon had been to say that”(1.85) He realizes that Solon’s “words applied to the whole of mankind – and particularly to those who thought themselves well off – just as much as they did to him” (1.86). Croesus ultimately recognizes the importance of humility in the face of fortune and that he, like everyone else, is susceptible to misfortune. He is humbled and duly recompensed as a result when he is granted prosperity as a counsel to Cyrus instead of being burned alive. Croesus’s successful atonement for his pride through a change in attitude amidst his suffering contrasts with Ovid’s characters, whose attitudes are inflexible. Croesus reasons to humility, an act that saves him from devastation, whereas  Niobe, Narcissus, and Arachne narrow-mindedly move away from it, acts that cause their destruction.

In each of these ancient stories, we witness individuals who enjoy many of the goods in life – wealth, good birth, talent – but because they lack a sense of humility, these goods fail to provide them with a happy life. In fact, the pride that stems from their possession of the goods actively hurts the individuals who possess them. Evidently, these goods cannot be taken as goods without qualification, their inner worth is contingent upon whether they are accompanied by humility. These stories paint humility as the ultimate good because while it may not be considered a good of fortune, it makes these goods of fortune truly good and successful in providing their owners with a happy life. While Ovid and Herodotus illustrate this point using different narrative patterns and through characters varying in dynamism, it’s clear that both authors intended for their readers to extract a general lesson of humility in the face of good fortune. To truly lead a successful life is to possess goods of fortune and humility.

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