This article, the second in a series of reflections on the seven deadly sins, first appearedin Notre Dame Business fall/Winter 2007

A Bastion of Pride

An Essay by Lawrence S. Cunningham

Around the year 1124 A.D., Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) composed a treatise for monks titled The Steps of Humility and Pride. His intended monastic audience probably expected an expansion of the famous passage in the Rule of Saint Benedict, which dealt with the steps of humility. What they got, in fact, was more a treatise on pride because, as Bernard wrote somewhat whimsically at the end of his tract, he knew more of pride than humility. It is a curiously wonderful work in which Bernard sets out the sources and cultivation of pride.


He lists, among other things, the dangers of inordinate curiosity, idle chatter and senseless foolishness and laughter, trying to be different, considering oneself holier than others, self-justification, minimizing one's sin in confession, rebellion against authority.

Some of these common faults that Bernard found so dangerous seem oddly trivial to the contemporary person. While it is true that “curiosity killed the cat,” we prize curiosity as a first step toward creativity and invention. Nor do we always condemn a little foolishness in a person (as in, “I was just fooling around.”). Yet to the medieval monastic mind, traits such as curiosity or foolishness were understood in a very specific manner: tendencies in a person that were self-centered and self-driven in a way that failed to honor human limits. They were early symptoms of pride.

What is quite clear in Bernard's writings and the long tradition that comes before him is that pride is always something to be understood in a negative fashion. Pride was regarded with special horror because it was the sin of the rebellious angel of light who became known to us as Lucifer or Satan. It was commonly argued that pride was the fountainhead of all other sin and the term was usually employed to condemn someone. Warnings about pride, in fact, took on the character of the proverbial. In the 17th century, for example, the common charge leveled against the Jansenist nuns of the abbey of Port Royal in France was that though they were “pure as angels,” they were also as “proud as devils.”

The English word pride is a good old Anglo-Saxon word and it is not universally used in a pejorative sense. While it is true that the dictionary indicates that the first meaning of the word is taken to mean a “high (and possibly excessively high) estimation of one's own worth or ability,” and secondarily as arrogance or haughtiness, it is also quite rightly used to indicate what is the best in a person, place or thing. We would not fault someone for advertising a particular cheese as the “pride of Wisconsin ,” and we certainly hear in my part of the country a lot of talk about “Irish Pride,” just as we write songs with lyrics like “I'm proud to be an American.”

The more benign understanding of pride in the sense described above is not the subject of this essay. My concern is to understand the seriousness with which pride is understood in the Catholic tradition as the fountainhead of other sin. Such a consideration might serve as a reminder in a more general sense about how pride can be destructive of humans and of human community.

We might take as our beginning point an observation made by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. My index to that work indicates nearly 30 places where he discusses pride. In one short discussion, Thomas says that virtue can develop from pride even, albeit, accidentally. He thought that when a proud person was somehow disabused of pride, the positive character of self-knowledge about one's limitations—that is, humility—comes to the fore.

What Thomas had in mind, I think, was the quality the ancient Greeks called hubris. Although the Greeks typically understood hubris to be the public performance of shameful behavior simply for the sake of doing it (at least that is what Aristotle took hubris to be), hubris has acquired the added meaning of that overweening self-confidence of someone who acted in a way that brought about his or her destruction by coming to a knowledge of some awful truth hitherto hidden. Perhaps there is an allusion in that understanding to the theme found in Proverbs which says that “pride goes before a fall.”

In the kind of pride that manifests itself in unreflective self-confidence and an absolutely certain contentment with one's own intelligence and judgment, we find disaster waiting, as a quick perusal of the daily newspapers attests. How often do we read of a political figure who is so confident in his own judgment that cautionary warnings are looked upon as “going soft”? How many corporate heads are so enamored of their own genius that telltale warning signs are ignored or salutary advice is deemed unworthy of a hearing? Even worse are those instances where individuals, pumped up with indications of their infallibility, not only resist caution but mock those who offer it. To inherent pride, they add ungodly pleasure in the misfortune accruing to those who are perceived as suckers or dimwits and who do not enjoy the wit and cleverness of the self-certain person. This kind of pride manifests itself as arrogance and when the arrogant stumble, we take some unseemly delight in watching them fall.

How did the Christian tradition come to regard pride so negatively? Why has Lucifer—the angelic Bearer of Light—become the paradigmatic figure of pride? Surely, part of the answer is to be found in the fact that the proud person is totally committed to the self or, to say it another way, the proud person stands outside the community of others totally reliant on the self. Such total autonomy, of course, admits no reliance on or communion with another (hence, love is bracketed from one's experience) and, in its extreme form, cannot allow for the “fear of the Lord,” which the Scriptures describe as the beginning of wisdom. That total confidence in the self is caught perfectly in Lucifer's cry of non serviam!—I will not serve!

There is an ancient but powerful shorthand description of sinfulness in Christian theology that is often attributed to Martin Luther: incurvatus in se—turned in upon the self. It is also a perfect description of pride. A spirit of unreflective self-sufficiency turns a person into an impregnable bastion of self-love that admits of no entrance to another, much less to God. The opposite of pride is humility. In no sense is humility to be taken as that kind of false humility that one sees in some self-loving athlete or actor who pretends that he is not God's gift to humanity but really believes that he is. That kind of faux humility is a staple item of acceptance speeches at the annual Academy Awards show. We all have a nose for insincerity and almost inevitably we find it to have a bad odor.

Humility is the most attractive of virtues that understands one is not totally self-sufficient; that one depends on the encouragement of others and on their love; that one is free enough to ask for the help and counsel of others; that one is able to be grateful. Indeed, the most wonderful offspring of humility is gratitude—the capacity to thank someone or to thank many. Not to be able to be grateful is an apt description of the one who is proud. Put simply, the proud person is an ingrate.

By contrast, the authentically humble person is most attractive. It is well to remember that the root meaning of humility comes from the Latin word for the earth (humus). The humble person is an “earthy” person and is to be carefully distinguished from the humiliated person—someone who is driven into the ground. The proud person, by contrast, sees nothing beyond his own self. Jesus tells a story about a rich person who, happy about the abundance of his crops, tears down his barns to build bigger ones. When these new barns are filled and ample goods laid up for many years, he says to himself, “Take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Lk 12:16-20).

The British Dominican, Timothy Radcliffe, in a wonderful little book titled, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, notes that in that parable the pronoun “I” is used 11 times while God's response begins with the simple harsh word “fool.” God breaks in to shatter the narcissistic prison walls of the rich man's “stupid self-centeredness” telling him that this very night his soul will be demanded of him. Radcliffe uses that Gospel parable to illustrate a point about how for a Christian, there must be a way of shifting from “I” to “we.” To be imprisoned in the “I” is to be numbered among the proud; to be able to say “we” is to be fully human.

—Lawrence S. Cunningham is O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Other articles in this series:

Some Peaceful thoughts on anger
Smoldering Envy


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