Friday, January 13, 2012

Is pride a virtue or a vice?

Sometimes language fails us. We have a word "pride" that clearly has both positive and negative associations, so much so that it has been held to be both the crown of virtues and the queen of vices. Reduced to a word, we can then be led to either reject it or exalt it, both of which options seem inadequate. Ideally we would develop two clear terms: one to represent pride as a vice, the other pride as a virtue.

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.


  1. 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.

    I totally agree. Self-loathing has become the distinguishing characteristic of western civilisation. And the roots of this go back a long way. At least as far as Rousseau, and you could argue as far as Voltaire. Although it really started to blossom after the First World War.

    The death of western civilisation has been a long, slow but inexorable process.

  2. It strikes me that the very qualities that allowed western civilisation to dominate the globe by the end of the 19th century are the very qualities that have doomed it.

    The key to the dynamism of the west has been scepticism. Scepticism has allowed us to adopt better ways of doing things. Technology, capitalism and industrialisation would scarcely have been possible in a society that didn’t question things. But scepticism leads to cynicism and disillusionment.

    So the west may have contained the seeds of its own destruction all along.

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  4. If I can comment on your point in a round about way. Nietzsche in "On the Genealogy of Morals" refers to the "Bad Conscious" or "slave morality" of Christianity as a key cause of guilt in Western society. His idea is that by celebrating the gentle lamb over the eagle predator Christian culture celebrates weakness over strength which condemns us to mediocre lives without risk as well as a heightened sense of guilt. He refers to the Christian ethic which creates and inner war or turmoil within us, ie our spirit versus flesh, our desire for mastery over submission etc. The intensity of this conflict then goes onto create a feeling of resentment, which can then only be either internalised or turned outwards. When turned inwards it manifests as guilt, when turned outwards it typically manifests as resentment towards others higher in the hierarchy, ie the “master”. As the master is seen as lacking the inherent virtues and thereby true nobility of the “slave”, and who also by his instinctual or indulgent/sinful actions creates suffering for others on earth.

    All of this can be seen as a potential case against Christianity as being a major cause of a possibly harmful guilt in modern society. However, Nietzsche doesn't stop with this, he also associates Western "bad conscious" as being created by the Greeks. Specifically with the elevation by Socrates of the concept of virtue, justice and particularly reason.

    Within the Greek thinking the battle is not between our instinct to sin and the spirit but between the battle of reason and ignorance/instinct/untruth. In early Greek culture the myths showed unreflective aristocratic Gods and hero's engaging in proud acts, damaging in their consequences, and stemming from turbulence, folly, delusion or ignorance. Under Socrates a person’s ignorance, or unreflective acts, becomes their greatest sin, "Virtue is knowledge, man sins only from ignorance". Meaning knowledge is the means through which our instincts and turbulent nature may be mastered, as well as elevating the seeking of knowledge into a moral requirement.

    In this way Science can be seen as the attempt by man to conquer nature through reason and thereby eliminate sin. Man must be vigilant to increase his understanding of the world, put this understanding through the realm of reason and truth, and elevate this understanding over his instincts, in order to achieve true elevated personhood or nobility. This creates the war of mind versus heart etc, which is another cause of internal conflict or "bad conscious". Guilt comes from not apprehending the dictates of reason, rather than not resisting sin.

    So what is the significance of this? Without getting into whether guilt is a good thing for society or not, and clearly Western society has shown itself dynamic , innovative and morally rich, all of which has contributed to its success. I believe that according to Nietzsche, and assuming you accept the argument, its a mistake to see the current issues of guilt in western society as being primarily caused by Christianity, as an alternative strong cause is named.

    I believe, however, that his argument against Christianity is an overstatement. Christianity requires humility, as opposed to pride, and not debasement. If you go to a Church you'll see people full of pride, purpose and certainty because they know that they're walking in the path of God. I suspect that Western guilt really applies to the most secular as they have walked away from the path and don’t experience the relief of their internal difficulties given by God. Consequently they are left with only the sense of internal turmoil and no obvious way to assuage it.

  5. Christianity requires humility, as opposed to pride, and not debasement.

    Jesse, I don't think this is an adequate formulation. Christianity requires a certain kind of humility as opposed to a certain kind of pride.

    We have to be very careful here because these are loaded terms - they carry a heavy weight of meaning. If you were to think to yourself "I want to be a good Christian and everyone is telling me that to be a good Christian I have to cultivate humility in all its senses and avoid pride in all its manifestations" then you would end up with a very strangely twisted personality.

    Christians sometimes aren't very wise in these matters. I remember once at university a couple of men decided to come and preach a Christian message to the students. They did so wearing nothing but nappies and sucking on dummies. Why? Because of a Bible passage in which we are supposed to be like children.

    It's very low level Christianity - one that is repulsive and cult-like - and very much unnecessary.

    I was serious in the post about finding a better language to describe important religious concepts. Our English word "pride" is very problematic as it describes significant virtues as well as significant vices. If we say that we are against pride then we are throwing out important virtues as well as the vices. Surely we can do better.

  6. I'm not sure what the problem is. You can't achieve on earth if you're a baby or child and we're clearly called to get on with that. I agree that the "baby" stuff is ridiculous and a perversion of the scripture. The Bible is full of the purpose, happiness and joy, read pride, that comes from walking in and with the Lord.

    Do we say though I am an aristocrat by birth therefore I should be full of pride and look down on others contemptuously? No this isn't supported by the Bible and refers to a pre Christian honor system. What's the big deal with humility anyway? I find that it has many positive attributes.

  7. The problem isn't guilt, it's what you do about it. Too many Christians have adopted the socialist approach to poverty - that you cure poverty by redistributing wealth. Rather than the capitalist approach that you cure poverty by creating more wealth.

    Christianity has become riddled with socialism.

  8. Too many Socialists masquerade under it that's true. I suspect that the baby example was carried out by men, I can't imagine a women doing it, and that has more to do with Feminism than Christianity. The problem is a lot of people don't know much of the foundational knowledge so they're subject to being influenced by quack/wrong reinterpretations.

  9. His idea is that by celebrating the gentle lamb over the eagle predator...

    That's a truly horrible juxtaposition. I don't think it's fair to Christianity to set up these opposites. Christianity is not about either of these things; nor is the truly religious man about either of these things. We shouldn't be made to choose.

    There is also a major issue of language here. The New Testament was most likely written in a version of Greek (perhaps Hebrew) before being translated into Latin and then English. It is difficult to translate precisely culture specific virtue concepts between languages and then from ancient to modern times.

    For instance, the word "meek" is used in the Bible. If you want to find out exactly what this was really intended to mean you have to wade through pages of commentary on the Greek word "prautes". And the problem is that the word denotes a difficult concept that isn't easy to render into modern English in a single word.

    But it's unfortunate that the word "meek" has been used because in modern English that is generally understood to mean "weak" or "mouse-like". So if you unthinkingly read the Bible you might think you are being instructed to be weak.

    But what does the term "prautes" really mean? Does it really mean meek/weak?

    Here is one attempt to explain the term:

    The Greek word, prautes, the one to which Barclay referred, is no easier...Vincent's Word Studies of the New Testament says that "Plato opposes it to fierceness or cruelty" (vol. 1, p. 37). In The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament, Spiros Zodhiates writes:

    Prautes, according to Aristotle, is the middle standing between two extremes, getting angry without reason, and not getting angry at all. Therefore, prautes is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason. . . . [I]t is a condition of mind and heart which demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character. (p. 1209-1210)

    We can now begin to see why Barclay considered it the most untranslatable of New Testament words.

    So there are two important points here:

    a) It is recognised by Bible scholars to be difficult to translate

    b) In its Greek origins it has to do with controlling your anger - righteous anger seems to be OK, but not arbitrary fierceness. Perhaps it's similar to the idea of moderating masculine violence into being a "gentleman" rather than a "thug" - but a gentleman can still represent something authentically masculine, it can be held to be a higher, more refined form of masculinity.

  10. I'll let this go. As for the interpretation that was Nietzsche's not mine, and was not without clear justification. Your interpretation's would hold more weight if they included direct Biblical references. These glosses are lacking, and we don't have all day to make seemingly obvious points.

  11. Leon Podles is the (Catholic) author of a very impressive book called The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (1999). With painstaking research and copious footnotes, Podles pretty much demolishes Nietzsche's notion of Christianity as being innately afflicted with "slave morals".

    Podles points out that the effeminate aspects of Christianity are purely Western diseases, and even in the West they didn't cause havoc all the time. They were at their worst in the 12th century (St Bernard of Clairvaux's influence), the 19th century (Victorian sentimental slobbering about women's "divinity"), and the 20th century (militant misandry, estrogen-powered revivalist emotionalism, and the sheer shortage of men after 1914-18's massacres). In the 16th century, on the other hand, such feminising factors were seriously combatted by the Jesuits and, for that matter, the early Lutherans.

    A similarly Western Christian phenomenon is the gross under-supply of men in most Christian congregations for most of the last three centuries, Catholic and Protestant alike. (Hence the original appeal of such anti-Christian movements as Freemasonry. An old saying which Podles mentions served as a very effective Masonic recruiting slogan: "The lodge for the men, the church for the women.")

    Eastern Orthodoxy has been, on the whole, blissfully free from feminisation. (Of course, it has large numbers of married priests, which helps the cause of general religious sanity.) And Orthodoxy's followers - as Podles shows - have tended to possess a far more balanced sex ratio than is all too frequent in the West. One in the eye for Nietzsche.

  12. Arthur Redding,

    Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you said it openly, that Christianity has a problem in being perceived to be a religion for women. I doubt very much that that was the original intention. So I do think it relevant to look closely at the way Christianity is presented today, to see if the current culture of Christianity really does encompass what was intended.

  13. One thing about modern feminism. It has exposed womens' integrity.

    Christianity is the perfect religion for western women. It will sacrifice a good man to pay for their sins.

  14. I think that if Western churches were actually capable of making themselves attractive to genuinely masculine men, then a great deal of the confusion in the modern West between "pride" as legitimate self-respect, versus "pride" as hubris, would simply disappear.

    Meanwhile I urge the Podles book on everyone with an interest in our plight. Already Podles, in 1999, was predicting (not least through his own, sorrowful, brief seminary experience) the explosion in homosexual villainy which would be so notorious a feature of 21st-century Catholicism.

    And let no-one perpetuate the myth that such villainy is exclusive to politically and culturally leftist religious organisations. One of the worst-kept secrets of modern Australian Catholicism is the attractiveness of conservative ritual (e.g. the pre-1969 Latin Mass) to screaming-queen types, who are far more prominent in it than their comparatively small numbers in society would indicate. Ordinary hetero men find such screaming-queen antics so revolting that they simply stay away. Outcome: whereas Latin Mass Catholic parishes are increasing in the USA and France by leaps and bounds, in Australia they've actually declined over the last decade, both in terms of congregational size and in terms of attracting priestly candidates.

  15. Christianity is the perfect religion for western women. It will sacrifice a good man to pay for their sins.

    Modern Christianity is the perfect religion for unrepentant sinners since sin itself is taken out of the equation and explained away.

    So the west may have contained the seeds of its own destruction all along.

    Get rid of the baby with the bathwater?

  16. I've heard of the Podles book and I'll read it in the fullness. The church I attend's Lead Pastor is built like a tank, and he tells women to submit and men to lead. So maybe it depends on the Church you go to.

  17. Whatever happened to the "muscular Christianity" of the 19th century? Christianity to a large degree has embraced the whining victimology of the Left but it was not always thus.

    I wonder if it was the First World War? That seems to be the point at which western civilisation lost belief in itself and started wallowing in self-pity.

    Maybe muscular Christianity was seen as part of the wicked imperialism and patriotism that so many naive people blamed for the war?

  18. Democracy has played a significant role in the decline of the West. Roger Scruton argues in his England: An Elegy that many of the traditional institutions that formed such an essential part of the England that is now gone were intended as a defence against the excesses of democracy. The House of Lords, the Church of England, the common law, the monarchy, all played a role in establishing the rule of law as a counterweight to democracy.

    The American Constitution to a considerable degree was also intended to defend citizens against the angers of too much democracy.

    Democracy has undermined respect for tradition and authority. Scruton is very interesting on the subject of authority as opposed to power.

  19. Mark Richardson wrote...

    Christianity has a problem in being perceived to be a religion for women

    The 20th century saw the emergence of secular religions (Marxism, fascism, National Socialism, Falangism, anarchism) as a challenge to Christianity. They may have played a part in attracting men away from the church. The other great secular religion, environmentalism, was also originally dominated by men.

    Other alternative religions may have played a part as well, such as occultism and the new paganist cults. While today they're dominated by men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they attracted many men away from Christianity.

  20. I'm just throwing ideas around here. There's also been the rise of the cult of the intellectual. In the 20th century it became possible to earn (if that's the right word) your living as a professional intellectual. The university is the temple of this cult. In the 19th century if you were concerned about the state of the world you'd probably become an Evangelical Christian. In the 20th century you'd become a sociologist.

    You could even argue that psychiatry is a secular religion. It has its scriptures (the DSM-IV) and it has an appeal to those of a messianic bent. It offers salvation through psychotherapy and psychiatric medication. Instead of repentance it offers Prozac. It's another secular profession that has attracted men who in an earlier age would have joined the church.

    The great damage these secular religions has done is to attract away from the churches the sort of men who would have become church leaders.

  21. ""it's more important right now in our demoralised, alienated and guilt-ridden Western societies to emphasise the positive aspects of pride""

    Well said Mark. Another reminder of why I check your blog daily.