Pride as a vice
The Christian tradition tends to emphasise the idea of pride as a vice. It is listed as one of the seven deadly sins, and St Gregory considered it the queen of vices. We are told:
In almost every list, pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris, is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others.
That's a serious condemnation of pride. But it needs to be remembered that something very specific is being referred to here. Pride as the original deadly sin is understood by St Gregory to be,
that frame of mind in which a man, through the love of his own worth, aims to withdraw himself from subjection to Almighty God, and sets at naught the commands of superiors. It is a species of contempt of God and of those who bear his commission. Regarded in this way, it is of course mortal sin of a most heinous sort. Indeed St. Thomas rates it in this sense as one of the blackest of sins. By it the creature refuses to stay within his essential orbit; he turns his back upon God, not through weakness or ignorance, but solely because in his self-exaltation he is minded not to submit. His attitude has something Satanic in it, and is probably not often verified in human beings.
Most religions are opposed to a state of being in which we are so full of self that nothing else penetrates. The kind of pride described by St Gregory is even worse: it is a lack of humility before God motivated not by blind egoism but by a knowing self-exaltation.
The condemnation of this kind of pride is not unique to Christianity. The ancient world recognised as fatal character flaw in otherwise great men an overreaching pride, one that offended the gods and which brought about one's downfall. Even in Old English there is a term "overmod" which seems to mean something very similar to "hubris" or "overreaching pride".
Understanding the Ancient Greek concept of "hubris" helps us to understand some of the early Christian approaches to virtue and vice:
In ancient Greek, hubris referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser...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 fall.
Hubris...was also considered the greatest crime of ancient Greek society. 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 or heroine, usually because of his or her hubris, or great pride, that leads to his or her death or down-fall.
There seems to be much in the New Testament which cautions against hubris. To act from a position of power to inflict harm on others is something that the New Testament writers emphasised as a wrong, stressing instead the idea of self-controlled, merciful, benevolent action not motivated by an assertion of power.
So is the lesson then that "God hates pride as the root of all evil"? I think that's an unfortunate message to derive from this, as it strongly condemns not only the negative but also the positive connotations of the word pride. As I suggested earlier, it's a pity that we can't convey the negative associations with a particular term like hubris, or vainglory or vanity or narcissism.
Pride as a virtue
The positive side of pride has been described as follows:
With a positive connotation, pride refers to a satisfied sense of attachment toward one's own or another's choices and actions, or toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, or a fulfilled feeling of belonging.
Imagine a man who sets out to build a house. He shows great diligence, skill and perseverance and when the job is done, and done well, he has a momentary feeling of pride in his achievement. This is pride that is aroused by having worked hard and well to fulfil a useful task. Is that a deadly sin? I don't see why we should treat it as such - not unless it leads to a vain, closed-off egotism.
Imagine too a boy who is at an age at which he is developing his self-identity. He becomes interested in the life of his forebears and what they achieved and feels a sense of pride in family - one which helps to motivate him to develop the positive qualities that will enable him to contribute positively to the life of his family.
Perhaps too this boy starts to identify with his community, and he feels a sense of pride in the higher achievements of his community. This might help to bring him to a particular love for the great works of art and architecture that are part of his tradition; it might help to motivate him to uphold the standards achieved within the life of the community; it might also lead him to a closer sense of belonging and connectedness to a particular community. A deadly sin? Surely not.
This boy might also feel a sense of masculine pride, one which might make him feel ashamed to act weakly or contemptibly or basely.
Aristotle felt that pride was the crown of the virtues because added to other virtues it strengthened them. But Aristotle was careful to distinguish pride from hubris which he thought aimed:
to cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater
Again, note the connection to certain New Testament themes, such as the distinction between justice and revenge, an opposition to achieving superiority by mistreating or disregarding others, a lack of mercy etc. Perhaps the classical and the biblical are not always as far apart as we think.
Anyway, here is the question that has to be asked. In contemporary Christian culture is it more important, to get the balance right, to emphasise the positive connotations of pride or the negative ones? I'm happy to hear the arguments of those who believe otherwise, but it seems to me that it's more important right now in our demoralised, alienated and guilt-ridden Western societies to emphasise the positive aspects of pride, the ones which belong to a healthy and fully-developed personality.