I came across the following GRE question:

The adjective "Faustian", derived from the German legend of Faust, the protagonist whose pride and vanity lead to his doom, has come to denote acts involving human ___ which lead eventually to ___.

  1. Blank (1) : caprice, vileness, hubris

  2. Blank (2) : despondency, nemesis, annihilation

My answer was hubris and annihilation. However the correct answers given were hubris and nemesis, yielding:

The adjective "Faustian", derived from the German legend of Faust, the protagonist whose pride and vanity lead to his doom, has come to denote acts involving human hubris which lead eventually to nemesis.

Why does the word nemesis make sense in the context? Is the usage even correct?


Ordinarily, I would also go for "annihilation" in the second blank. But it seems the question wants us to pair up "hubris" and "nemesis" in particular. Which also makes sense.

In the Greek tragedies, "Nemesis" plays the role of official punisher of "hubris" (arrogance before the gods). And in Greek mythology, "Nemesis" is also the spirit tasked with the punishment of people who commit "hubris."

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    In Marlowe's Faust, he does indeed meet his Nemesis, albeit off-stage, but in Goethe's Faust he manages to avoid it and goes to heaven instead. If they are trying to pair up hubris and nemesis, Faust is a poor example. – Roaring Fish Jun 6 '12 at 12:09

Nemesis is defined as a source of ruin in Wordnik and Free Dictionary. Its usage conveys the sense of "hubris leading to ruin", so it fits.

Annihilation, on the other hand, is more powerful than nemesis and ruin. People talk of annihilation of a sect or a race.

EDIT (thanks to TimLymington's comment): This question seems to be more a test of Greek mythology than English vocabulary. According to Wikipedia, Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris. As such it is difficult to solve this question convincingly without the knowledge of the myth involved.

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  • but is this the correct usage of the word? – OckhamsRazor Jun 6 '12 at 10:16
  • @OckhamsRazor: It is probably correct usage (it is in dictionary), but "Nemesis" very frequently means "formidable enemy", because of this it sounds unusual. It is possible that certain computer game was responsible for that. – SigTerm Jun 6 '12 at 10:24
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    If the definition of nemesis is a source of ruin, should we infer that "hubris leading to a source of ruin" has the same meaning as "hubris leading to ruin"? (Source of the Nile is the same as the Nile?) I don't like any of the choices in the GRE question, but @OckhamsRazor's choice "annihilation" seems to me better than the official answer "nemesis". "Ruin" certainly sounds more appropriate than the offered choices. – Dilip Sarwate Jun 6 '12 at 10:44
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    I agree with @Dilip: terrible question, lousy answer – the GRE question, I mean; this ELU question was a good one, as is Shyam's answer :^) – J.R. Jun 6 '12 at 10:46
  • @DilipSarwate: Definitely "ruin" is the best choice that's not there; but from "annihilation" and "nemesis" I have no clear winners: "annihilation" is too strong to be used here, I'd say. – Bravo Jun 6 '12 at 12:42

Both words are suitable for the sentence. The noun annihilation sounds better to your ears but the earlier part of the sentence already mention that his pride and vanity lead to his doom.

I think the exam is not testing for words that fit the best but what word explains best the adjective Faustian.

Hubris (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) brings about nemesis (downfall, destruction, vengeance).

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The usage is okay. It looks a little odd because nemesis usually has an article or possessive preceding it - "I am your nemesis", "he met his nemesis", "the nemesis he feared" or similar. In this case, we are expected to derive 'human' as the victim of nemesis.

Whether it is a good word or not is a different matter. Nemesis is (was) the Roman version of the Greek goddess of vengeance, whose role was to punish wrongdoing. It is used to label the agent of someone's downfall, or the unavoidable consequences of foolish action. In the sentence in your example, it looks like a pleonasm - '...lead eventually to [the thing that will lead to destruction]'

If it is any consolation, I too would have gone for 'annihilation' in that question as Faust did indeed get annihilated, at least in the Marlowe version. I suspect 'nemesis' may have been chosen because it echoes 'hubris' rather than for precision of meaning.

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  • I wonder if this question was designed and constructed to determine which test-takers knew that nemesis had a meaning other than archrival. I still don't like the question, though, as I think annihilation is too plausible. Then again, maybe that's why it's on the practice exam, to reveal this trick of using a word that seems like a bad fit, when its secondary meaning in fact makes it the "best" answer. – J.R. Jun 6 '12 at 11:12
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    Actually Nemesis was the Greek goddess. The Roman version was called Pax-Nemesis or Invidia. – Andrew Leach Jun 6 '12 at 12:10
  • I thought Invidia was Envy? The origin of the word 'envy', even. The Roman Mesomedes wrote 'Hymn to Nemesis', and I believe Hadrian minted coins with Nemesis on them. – Roaring Fish Jun 6 '12 at 12:30

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