The Christian tradition has sometimes designated pride as the chief of human sins, and humility, therefore, as a very important virtue. We have come in for a lot of criticism on this account, and the character of the criticism is this: when people deny their dignity, thinking themselves to be worthless sinners and incapable of doing any good, they risk believing themselves, thus making themselves actually as wretched and worthless as they think they are.
As Charles Taylor notes, we are fundamentally self-evaluating animals, so that what we think we are, and repeatedly tell ourselves we are, has a tendency to end up proving true. This is also a theme of cognitive therapy. Of course, this “negative” thinking doesn’t work all by itself, but coordinates with other human functions: if we think we’re scum, we’re more apt to act like scum, and thus to develop scummy habits, which tend to verify our low opinion of ourselves. Also, self-abasing thoughts are likely to lead to feelings of shame and impotence, and these feelings, in which we perceive with our gut what miserable specimens we are, lead to more negative thinking and discouraged behavior, thus creating a whole mutually reinforcing team of self-sapping psychological functions. By thinking of ourselves in humble terms (so goes the criticism), we shape ourselves, in the words of Bernard Steinberg, for “social paralysis, infantile dependency, and obsequious obedience,” not to speak of self-disrespect. But if self-interpretation is tantamount, almost, to self-creation, then to think that humility is a human virtue—a state of human excellence that we ought to pursue—is a kind of racial suicide.
Children of the EnlightenmentSome medieval Christian devotional books seem vulnerable to this criticism. For example, in The Ladder of Perfection, an English book from the 1300s, Walter Hilton says, First, it behoveth thee to have humility on this manner: thou shalt in thy will and in thy feeling judge thyself unfitting to dwell among men and unworthy to serve God in conversation with His servants and as unprofitable to thy Christian brethren, wanting both skill and power to fulfil any good works of active life in help of thy neighbour, as other men and women do. And, therefore, as a wretch and an outcast and refuse of all men art shut up in a house alone, that thou shouldst not grieve nor offend man or woman by thy bad example, seeing thou canst not profit them by any well-doing (chapter 15, section 1).As children of the age of Self-Esteem, our gut reaction to such recommendations is to dismiss them out of hand as shameful and disgustingly destructive. The way to happiness and fulfillment is to affirm myself, to love myself, and to busy myself with satisfying my needs for affirmation and love. Pico della Mirandola, the Renaissance philosopher, also reacted against the Hilton kind of self-perception in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. Pico stresses God’s gift of the self-creative powers of the human race. God speaks: We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.Humility can’t be the same as contrition because Jesus Christ is our paradigm of humility, and being sinless he has no need of contrition.This power of self-choosing, unique among creatures, already suggests a reason for pride in human nature; but then, suggests Pico, wouldn’t it be a shame to use this beautiful and awesome power to make ourselves like cattle and hogs, whose highest pleasure is eating and copulating?We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic—thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice—may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits. Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.Of course, it’s compatible with a high view of our basic human and individual nature to criticize ourselves for falling short. That’s compatible with, and even implied by, pride. Pico implies the criticism in his Oration when he chides us for wasting our precious choice on brutishness. Such selective self-criticism seems to be the special job of the virtue of contrition. Humility can’t be the same as contrition because Jesus Christ is our paradigm of humility, and being sinless he has no need of contrition. But maybe it’s a mistake to think of humility as any kind of self-criticism or self-evaluation at all.
The Vices of PrideThe New Testament is critical of what we might call the vices of pride. When Paul, in Philippians 2, commends humility, he contrasts it with “rivalry” and “conceit” (Philippians 2:3). When Jesus criticizes the sons of Zebedee for seeking special places of power and honor at his right hand in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:20–28), the kind of pride he has in mind is domination, the desire and pleasure of lording it over other people. Their asking is also presumptuous and arrogant, arrogating to themselves a right or privilege that they don’t possess. When Jesus criticizes the “hypocrites” for showing off their almsgiving and the piety of their prayers (Matthew 6:1–6), the vices of pride he has in mind are vanity and pretentiousness. Vanity and pretentiousness are deformities of our dispositions for calling forth love and respect.When he criticizes the Pharisee whose prayer in the Temple includes supercilious remarks about the moral laxity of the tax collector at the back of the room (Luke 18:9–14), the Pharisee’s vice is self-righteousness. When the apostle Paul criticizes (Galatians 3:10–14) those who insist on basing their righteousness before God on their own actions (“works”), he is criticizing their vice of hyper-autonomy—the vice of wanting to be self-made and not dependent. When the apostle James criticizes those who, in church, show partiality to the wealthy and well dressed, to the neglect of the poor and shabby (James 2:1–13), their vice of pride is snobbishness. Mark the evangelist (Mark 15:10) reports that Pilate saw that in delivering Jesus up to be crucified, the chief priests were moved by envy. Apparently, they saw Jesus’s importance as a teacher as a threat to their own, and felt they needed to put him down. Envy looks up, as it were, in dismay at the apparently successful rival, while its obverse twin, invidious pride, looks down in satisfaction at the apparently failing rival.Others’ attitudes, then, are an area of fundamental human need, a requirement for our wellbeing and proper development.It seems that the New Testament is critical, not of all kinds of pride—perhaps not of the kind that Pico commends—but specifically of the vices of pride; and in endorsing humility as a virtue, is certainly not endorsing the kind of self-disparagement that Walter Hilton recommends. But if humility is not a disparaging self-assessment, what kind is it? What kind of self-assessment is the opposite of the vices of pride? Let us approach this question by getting clearer about the nature of the vices of pride. I suggest that the vices of pride, of which there are a dozen or so distinguishable kinds, can be arranged into four groups:
- The prides of empty self-display (vanity and pretentiousness);
- The prides of distorted agency (selfish ambition, domination, and hyper-autonomy);
- The prides of corrupt entitlement (arrogance and presumption);
- The prides of invidious comparison (conceit, snobbery, self-righteousness, invidious pride, and envy).