by Donald De Marco
Pride as Good or Bad
Like cholesterol, there are two kinds of pride: one good, one bad. With good pride, a person can be justified in exulting over the fact that he is a Catholic, for example. He can be justly proud of his family, his country, his neighborhood, etc. The key term here is “justified”. Good pride implies the inclusion of justice.
Now justice is a proper correlation between two things. A parent can be proud of his child when his child’s life conforms to a standard of moral excellence. A coach can be proud of his team when the players train hard, play with enthusiasm, and show good sportsmanship. An artist can be proud of his work when it is done well. Pride, in the good sense, is fully justified when someone or something conforms to a good standard.
We might hasten to add that this standard of excellence may be generously and lovingly applied, as when parents express pride over the crayon squiggles their youngsters make in their coloring books.
Bad pride operates wholly outside of the realm of justice. It is the desire, sometimes hunger, for recognition, status, honors, and adulation that are undeserved. Here is where the element of injustice enters the picture. Saint Thomas Aquinas referred to this kind of pride as the attempt to achieve a “perverse excellence”.
Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus is the portrait of a composer of moderate ability, Antonio Salieri, who lusts after the kind of adulation that is reserved for only a truly great composer. Salieri recognizes the greatness of the young Wolfgang Mozart, but knows that he can never emulate him. He plans to murder his adversary, but not before he extracts from him a glorious Requiem. He will then perform this composition at Mozart’s funeral as his own creation and win, at last, the glory that his pride so ardently craves.
Salieri’s plans go awry. He suffers a mental and emotional breakdown and is sent to an asylum where he goes around in his wheelchair forgiving his fellow inmates of the “sin” of mediocrity. Even in his madness, he retains his pride, though it is given a different form of expression, this time presuming that he has the power to forgive others for a condition that only he imagines to be a sin.
Bad Pride as a Deadly Sin
The tragic decline of Salieri, in Shaffer’s play, indicates exactly why pride is not only deadly, but the most deadly of the Deadly Sins. Because of his pride, Salieri was envious of Mozart, who received the kind of honor that Salieri would never deserve. This envy immediately led to anger, as the cascade of Deadly Sins continued its onward rush. What soon followed were treachery and deceit. Pride, if left unchecked, can consume a person entirely. It is a deadly disposition whose inner dynamic points toward self-destruction.
On a far less dramatic note, we know how pride operates in our everyday lives. A proud student believes he deserves an A. When he receives a B, he is angered. But his anger leads to envy when he learns that a certain classmate received a coveted A. This combination of pride, anger, and envy can ruin a friendship and bring on a great deal of unnecessary misery. Pride precedes a fall. More to the point, it is the blueprint for personal and social dissolution.
Pride, because it views the self and its relationships to others unrealistically, has a blinding effect that can lead to personal disgrace, as the poet Alexander Pope observes:
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
When the weak head with strongest bias rules
Is pride, the never failing vice of fools.
Pride as Difficult to Diagnose
Bad pride is unjust, unrealistic, foolish, and self-defeating. Yet it clings to people and is extremely difficult to eradicate. The main reason that pride is so difficult to remove is that it is difficult to diagnose. It lurks in close proximity to a number of positive attributes, such as self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, individuality, and even creativity. Pride can easily masquerade as a virtue.
An additional factor that makes pride difficult to diagnose is that it is intimately bound up with our self-consciousness. We look out at the world from the unique standpoint of self-consciousness. It is unique for each individual because only he views things from this perspective, this center of subjectivity. He views everything else, to one degree or another, as objects, things that are outside of him. Therefore, he tends to be biased about his self-importance. What happens to him is supremely important; what happens to others is purely incidental. If he buys a lottery ticket, he wants no one other than himself to win. This bias toward the self makes it difficult to adhere to the Golden Rule that obliges us to treat others as we would have them treat us.
Love is the great power that breaks down the barriers between subjectivity and objectivity so that we can see the other not as an object, but as another subject, another self. Love, therefore, is a conqueror of pride.
By remaining locked in one’s subjectivity, a person fails to realize the nature of his true self. This is why G. K. Chesterton has remarked that “self-consciousness destroys self-realization”. We are more than centers of self-consciousness believing that we are more important than we really are. Pride shields us from seeing that others are equally important, that we are not “islands”, as John Donne averred, but “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.
Pride as Difficult to Eradicate
John Henry Cardinal Newman struggled mightily against pride. His words “Lead Thou me on!”, which he used repeatedly in his poem “The Pillar of the Cloud”, were an exhortation for God, the center of reality, to lead him beyond his own confining self-centeredness. Pride cannot be cured solely from within. It requires help from beyond:
Lead Thou me on!
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
Pride is a sin against the light and a stubborn cleaving to self. It cannot be removed by a mere action or a simple act of the will. It is so easy to become proud of our alleged humility.
Pride as Easy to Recognize in Others
Erasmus writes about an occasion when Plato entertained some friends, including Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes, as was his custom, arrived dirty and disheveled. Having spotted a richly ornamented couch in the room, Diogenes proceeded to trample upon it while shouting, “I trample upon the pride of Plato!” The wise pupil of Socrates mildly replied, “But with greater pride, Diogenes!”
“The proud hate pride in others”, wrote Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanac. We see the pride of others with 20/20 vision, while being blind to its presence in ourselves. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye”, Christ asked, “but not notice the log that is in your own?” (Lk 6:41-42; Mt 7:3-5)
These Gospel words are indeed humbling because they warn us that our pride and our preoccupation with denouncing it in others can make us seem rather ridiculous. If we want a glimpse of our own pride, we can see it mirrored in the look of another.
It is a most startling conundrum that we human beings, who were created out of nothing, are afflicted with pride as the deadliest of our inclinations. We had no hand in our creation and cannot credit ourselves for any of the gifts we have. Realistically, our lives should be marked by gratitude rather than marred by pride.
Bad pride is a very poor substitute for good pride, as we see. Conversely, good pride may be an antidote for bad pride. We can take quiet pride in the good things we do without looking for applause. We can be proud without being obnoxious. We can praise others for the good they do without any trace of envy. If we live according to the spirit of good pride, we will be taking a major step toward at least reducing the bad variety that we harbor in our hearts.
If, as Chesterton has said, “Pride is the falsification of fact by the introduction of self”, then perhaps pride’s opposite, humility, is the verification of fact by the transcendence of self. This transcendence refers to the person who recognizes that there are more important things to do in life than seek praise and that all glory belongs to God.
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy of Saint Jerome’s University, Ontario, and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Mater Ecclesiae College. Dr. DeMarco is well-known as a writer for Catholic publications, and for his numerous books, including The Many Faces of Virtue.
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