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J R Soc Med. 2007 February; 100(2): 63.
PMCID: PMC1791000

Hubris and Nemesis in heads of government

By couching the discussion of Blair and Bush in terms of hubris and nemesis, Lord Owen1 has avoided the pitfall of diagnosis from afar while still highlighting serious problems with the two world leaders (JRSM November 2006). He does dip his toe into psychodynamics citing Freud and Justin Frank, but, by and large, he sticks to discussing behaviour and its relation to hubris and power.

As a politician, Lord Owen is qualified to discuss the political leaders he has encountered. As a physician, should he be making medical judgments on political leaders? Simon Wessely has questions about this and about whether or not psychiatrists should venture beyond the consulting room.2

Should psychiatrists limit their judgments to patients they have examined? The American Psychiatric Association says ‘yes’ and Dr Wessely cites data to support that view. But the question remains, can psychiatrists and neuroscientists, with the help of philosophers, provide useful insights that contribute to the understanding of leaders and their followers?

I believe that we should try. We should bring whatever scientific data there may be to counter ideology, blind faith and the intoxicating effects of power. It is true hubris often comes with power. Even though we do not have a psychiatric diagnosis for hubris, it is a psychological entity and as such should potentially be understood by science, as are other psychological phenomena.

We do not diagnose those that we have not personally examined and we cannot diagnose an entire population, but perhaps we can bring clinical and scientific insights to help understand destructive behaviour

As scientists and clinicians, we too must guard against hubris. Hopefully our colleagues will help us with that. JRMS should be applauded for exploring the issue.


Competing interests None declared.


1. Owen D. Hubris and Nemesis in Heads of Government. J R Soc Med 2006;99:548 -51 [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Wessely S. Commentary on Hubris and Nemesis in Heads of Government. J R Soc Med 2006. ;99:552 -3 [PubMed]

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press