Monday, January 23, 2012

Positive pride

One of the mistakes we can make is to reduce the good or the bad to single words which don't capture the complexity of moral worth.

An obvious example, and one which I've discussed previously, is the word pride. It's not possible to describe pride as either good or bad as it can be either depending on what exactly the word pride is being used to describe.

There are clearly positive forms of pride. For instance, pride is often associated with a warmth of love, as when we take pride in our children, our spouse or our people. Pride, in this sense, is a healthy sign of attachment - it would not be a virtue to be so cold or alienated or denatured that we were incapable of feeling it.

Pride can also be positive when it is a matter of not wanting to be bested. That's particularly true, I believe, for boys or young men - it is an aspect of a healthy competitive spirit that helps boys and young men to push forward their development. Even the dislike boys have of being bested by girls has a logical purpose: given that women tend not to have romantic feelings toward men they feel superior to, it makes sense for boys developing toward manhood not to want to be bested by their female counterparts.

Pride can be positive, or negative, in another sense: when it comes to wanting to hold to standards. For instance, if we take a pride in our appearance it can be positive (if it means not falling into slovenliness) or negative (if it becomes narcissistic or vain). If our pride in holding to standards helps us resist taking part in base actions that is positive; it can be negative, though, in other contexts, e.g. a woman who has an aristocratic standard and who therefore won't engage in ordinary work (snobbery?).

It's the same when it comes to communal pride. If we take pride in the history of our family, or in the beauty of our local surrounds, or in our national culture then we can be motivated to work to hold to the best of these things.

Miles Franklin was a well-known Australian author of the 1900s. She was on the left, but even so she was critical of some of the debasement of Western culture. Just after WWII she wrote a hostile review of a book by a much more radical woman, Christina Stead. She accused Stead of "writing a handbook on whores," one which depicted women "without shame or pride" - note how shamelessness is associated here with a lack of pride. Miles Franklin also tells the story in this book review of how two feminist men in 1920s America tried to persuade her to join their "free love" circle. They didn't get far because Miles Franklin was revolted by the idea of men describing themselves as feminists. She wrote:

[Floyd] and Charlie announced to me the glad tidings that they were feminists. I was so uninstructed that distaste awakened in me. It seemed to me that the word was related to feminine, and for a man to be feminine was to be effeminate, and utterly obnoxious to me, reared where men were men.

This is a more indirect example, but it does suggest the connection between a pride in her national culture and holding to positive standards (in this case, of masculinity).

Religious traditions have tended to emphasise the negative aspects of pride. That makes sense for two reasons. First, it is common for religious traditions to identify too strong an egoistic sense of self as a barrier to being receptive to the spiritual. Second, there is a sense in many human cultures that an overweening pride, (or hubris), when directed against the divine, leads to man's downfall.

There is a more specific understanding of this second negative aspect of pride. Let's say that man is confronted with a reality that has been determined for him, one in which important aspects of his being and his place within a larger order have already been cast without his choice. How does a man respond to this? If he is humble before God he might well accept his place in a larger order oriented toward the good. But if he, from a pride in his own capacity to make things as he will, is not humble but rebellious, then the given reality with all its predetermined distinctions will feel like a restriction, an impediment to his liberty.

This, it seems to me, is at least part of what the Christian tradition is criticising when it comes to pride; it can be seen in the story of Satan, of Adam and of Babel.

Proph at Collapse:The Blog has written a post on this theme:

reality itself is radically unfree: man's species, sex, race, nationality, time and circumstances of birth, and the authorities to which he is subject, to name just a few, are all determined for him without his consent or even his notice. In him, determinism reigns. With a strong sense of the sacred, this lack of freedom becomes understandable and rationalizable: through his participation in the sacred (for instance, by religious ritualism), man understands himself to be part of a rational order oriented toward the good. In other words, the sacred allows man to experience the authority of the order of being as legitimate. Without a sense of the sacred, reality becomes meaningless, senseless, and incomprehensible; the human condition becomes one not of citizenship and duty but of imprisonment and injustice. Rebellion against that order results, with predictable consequences.

I find this particularly interesting as it relates to trends we see in modern society. Clearly there are liberals who do fail to understand themselves as being "part of a rational order oriented toward the good" and who therefore reject predetermined aspects of being such as sex, race, nationality, forms of authority etc. At the same time, there is a risk that those who do understand themselves to be part of a rational order then become overly compliant toward all aspects of hierarchy or given conditions of life, leading to unnecessary injustices or inequalities. And the focus of the modern world (and the modern churches) often seems to be on an exaggerated attempt to demonstrate that one has not committed this error.

There is an irony, too, in that a hubristic pride before God can lead to a loss of the positive pride in belonging to a social order oriented toward the good - including the warmth of love that is associated with given forms of social distinctions, such as being a man or woman, father or son, Frenchman or Japanese etc.

However, although the churches do have reasons for criticising certain expressions of pride, it would be a gross mistake if they regarded pride as always a vice and never a virtue. That's not a reasonable position to take. It should be possible for churches to go beyond a single word and to explain in some depth how best to understand qualities like pride.


  1. Many leftists don't like traditional notions of shame, if only shame could be done away with we would be free etc. This idea is echoed in other quarters as well. There's barely a blog page by MRA's that doesn't denigrate the use of "shaming language", for instance.

    So we want pride as a positive virtue, but who's pride? Traditional pride, individual pride, multicultural pride, gay pride etc. The word has the potential to be endlessly flexible and self justifying in a society that has and upholds differing standards.

    "Where's your shame?" we might say to the obnoxious person talking overly loudly and making a scene on the bus. However, such a statement would likely be followed by a retort, "How dare you insult me?" meaning how dare you insult my pride. Fun.

  2. So we want pride as a positive virtue, but whose pride?

    Good point. I suppose the real concern here is that we can potentially feel pride in something that is not a good or healthy aspect of life. In theory, perhaps, a prostitute might feel pride in what she does.

    I don't know how to answer this, except to say that a feeling of pride is not sufficient to justify a particular behaviour or association. You can't say "Because I am proud of X, therefore X must be good". X needs to be justified as good on other grounds.

  3. Nice post. Sometimes I truly think that liberals suffer from spiritual autism and cannot comprehend nor seek reality and the truth.

  4. And may even suffer of incomprehension towards God and the universe (is that even biblical?).

  5. It would be interesting. How can a human fall into such beliefs and set of mind? Is it the extent of depravity of human nature? Something else? Are some humans destined for hell, separation from God and darkness and others not? Why are they like this?