In ancient Greece, hubris (ancient Greek ὕβρις) referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. The term had a strong sexual connotation, and the shame reflected on the perpetrator as well. It was most evident in the public and private actions of the powerful and rich. The word was also used to describe actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws, especially in Greek tragedy, resulting in the protagonist's downfall.
Hubris, though not specifically defined, was a legal term and was considered a crime in classical Athens. It was also considered the greatest crime of the ancient Greek world. The category of acts constituting hubris for the ancient Greeks apparently broadened from the original specific reference to mutilation of a corpse, or a humiliation of a defeated foe, or irreverent "outrageous treatment" in general. It often resulted in fatal retribution or Nemesis. Atë, ancient Greek for "ruin, folly, delusion," is the action performed by the hero, usually because of his/her hubris, or great pride, that leads to his/her death or downfall.
One example of hubris occurs in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, while on the road to Thebes, Oedipus meets King Laius of Thebes who is unknown to him as his biological father. Oedipus kills King Laius in a dispute over which of them has the right of way, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that Oedipus is destined to murder his own father. Icarus, flying too close to the sun despite warning, has been interpreted by ancient authors as hubris, leading to swift retribution.
In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance; it is often associated with a lack of humility, not always with the lack of knowledge. An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in the Greek world. The proverb "pride goes before a fall" is thought to sum up the modern definition of hubris. It is also referred to as "pride that blinds", as it often causes someone accused of hubris to act in foolish ways that belie common sense. More recently, in his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, historian Ian Kershaw uses both 'hubris' and 'nemesis' as titles. The first volume, 'Hubris', describes Hitler's early life and rise to power. The second, 'Nemesis', gives details of Hitler's role in the Second World War, and concludes with his fall and suicide in 1945.
Examples of hubris are often found in fiction, most famously in Paradise Lost, John Milton's depiction of the biblical Lucifer. Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein manifests hubris in his attempt to become a great scientist by creating life, but eventually regrets this previous desire. Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus portrays the titular character as a scholar whose arrogance and pride compel him to sign a deal with the devil, and retain his haughtiness until his death and damnation, despite the fact that he could have easily repented had he chosen so.