Friday, August 19, 2011

Pride: Always Bad?

by CWK

Pride -- is it always bad? Is it, as Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, the great and quintessential sin? Or, is it sometimes good? Sometimes even healthy? Get ready -- cause I'm going to argue that what we sometimes consider pride can be healthy.

First, we need to get some idea of what pride actually is. Pride is a plastic term in our culture: much used, but mostly undefined. Pride is sometimes used in a positive sense. This version of pride refers to proper self-confidence, and even self-congratulation. It is a state of mind wherein we can, with reason, hold our heads high. Leaders as diverse as Margaret Thatcher and Bear Bryant have spoken positively of pride in this sense as a kind of informed and proper dignity which flows from virtuous action. This kind of pride comes from and leads to self-respect. This kind of pride is not a vice, and not really a virtue. It is our thoughts about ourselves which result from virtue.

Now, let's turn to the negative versions of pride: those version of pride which are certainly vices.

First, pride sometimes means: overly lofty thoughts about ourselves. This is a wrong opinion about ourselves --- wrong, in that it is too high.  Mary from Pride and Prejudice puts it well:

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.

Pride often concerns my opinion about me. This is the tendency to think too highly of ourselves, and our strengths, and thus, be overconfident. The word over is very important. Thus, pride comes before a fall. Thus, every season on American Idol, a slew of people arrive who cannot sing, and yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, think they can sing. This version of pride leads people to go where they should not go, and attempt things they should not attempt. This is bad, and this is a vice.

We can see now why it is so difficult to talk about pride. The same word sometimes refers to proper confidence, and sometimes overconfidence.

Moving on to second negative connotation with respect to pride -- pride sometimes means: preoccupation with ourselves. This version of pride is evidenced by a steady nauseating stream of "I." We've all been confronted with individuals who had only one subject of every sentence, "I." This is also bad.

The third negative connotation of pride involves irrational autonomy -- an overly independent mindset, "I'll do it on my own, without any help." This version of pride seeks independence from God and friend. This version of pride is the opposite of prayer, and a preview of Hell, "Away from me..." This is very bad.

Now, due to the three negative connotations of pride, some define pride as any confidence in ourselves, any thought about ourselves, or any concern about ourselves, or any autonomy. C.S. Lewis does -- or at least comes close -- in Mere Christianity, "It's best not to think about ourselves at all."

An aside -- Lewis' discussion of pride is one of the weaker sections of Mere Christianity. I hate to say it, because I love Lewis, and he saved my life as a college student -- but, that's not even the weakest section of that book. The section on the atonement is weaker. The approach to apologetics at the beginning of the book is also weak.

Back to pride -- it is important to remember that virtue consists in walking the fine line between extremes. In general, I agree with Aristotle's approach to virtue: virtue is the golden mean. Virtue is steering in the middle of the extremism of vice on either side. So, when it comes to pride, it's best not to think of it as an evil floating in space, i.e. an evil extreme on one side without an opposite evil on the other.

For example -- it's possible for a person to think too highly of themselves; it's also possible for a person to think too lowly of themselves. It's possible for a person to think too much about themselves; it's also possible of a person to think too little about themselves and their own health, future, and so on. It's possible to be so wary of pride that we rush to the other extreme of total self-renunciation. Pride is an evil, but it's not the only evil. Jesus called us to deny ourselves, but he also called us to take care of ourselves, "I send you out as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpent and innocent as doves."

So, the Christian antidote to overconfidence is not "no confidence." The Christian antidote to overconfidence (all those overly lofty opinions of ourselves) is "right estimation" of ourselves (Romans 12.3). This includes a sober, honest, sincere evaluation of ourselves: our strengths, weaknesses, gifts, and so on. There is a right and good confidence in our genuine -- not imaginary -- gifts and strengths. It's not virtuous for Lebron James to go around saying he stinks at basketball. Nor would it have been virtuous for Mozart to conceive of himself as a second rate musician. When pride appears as overconfidence, it must be resisted by seeking the golden mean of "right estimation."

We could say similar things about occupation with self and autonomy. Yes, these things can become vices, if followed to the extreme. Yet, they are not vices in themselves. There is a right and good occupation with our selves, "Keep close watch on yourselves and all the flock (Acts 20.28)." There is a right and good autonomy from, for instance, one's parents: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife (Genesis 2.24)."

So, is pride always bad? When it appears as extreme vices (and vices always appear as extremes) -- yes, indeed. However, these extremes are forms of things which are, in themselves, not bad. So, confidence, estimating our gifts, thinking about ourselves, and autonomy can be good. These things, kept in the golden mean, are right and healthy.

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