Unpacking Pride

I’ve been quoting an excerpt from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in which he describes precisely how Lucifer wished to be “like God” and so fell from grace:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

What exactly does this mean? It is a very Thomistic statement, and the language could do with some elaboration for a contemporary audience.

His Last End

An end is a goal. It is the intended conclusion or outcome of an action, or the use or purpose or action of an object.

This sense of the word is retained in the phrase “to what end?”

The end of a coffee machine is to make coffee. The end of drinking the coffee is enjoyment, stimulation, quenching of thirst, or social connection.

The last end is the ultimate purpose or action. When it comes to human beings, our last end is something we have been trying to figure out for millennia, usually through philosophy and religion.

In orthodox Christianity the last end of humanity is to know and to love God.

Beatitude

Aquinas tells us what he means by beatitude in a section dealing with the beatitude (or blessedness) of God:

nothing else is understood to be meant by the term beatitude than the perfect good of an intellectual nature; which is capable of knowing that it has a sufficiency of the good which it possesses, to which it is competent that good or ill may befall, and which can control its own actions.

Trying to explain Aquinas using Aquinas is a bit recursive, so lets quickly note that “the perfect good of” means a perfected, complete state of being. “An intellectual nature” means a being with intellectual faculties, ie. “capable of knowing”. “Competent” just means suitable or fitting.

In other words, beatitude for a human means our most perfect and fulfilled state of being, a state in which we lack nothing that is good for us. This includes knowing that we lack nothing that is good for us.

This is paradise. To want for nothing, and have no doubts about being in true paradise.

The Virtue of His Own Nature

“Nature” here means essence. When we say something is “not in my nature” we are describing ourselves in our most intimate and essential being. Forget “mother nature”, this nature is the essence of who and what you are.

“Virtue” is a little tricky. We use the phrase “by virtue of” to mean “because of” or “caused by”. Virtue comes from the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. A virtuous man is, in a manner of speaking, a manly man. In other words, to be virtuous is to have all the qualities of an ideal human being.

But the term can be applied to anything. The virtue of a knife is its ability to cut things. the virtue of a coffee machine is its capacity to make good coffee. So when we say “by virtue of”, we mean “thanks to this quality”.

Defining Pride

Paraphrasing Aquinas our own pride consists in desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

Thanks to our quick dip into Thomistic terminology we can say that pride means wanting our most complete state of perfection to be something that can be attained through our own qualities.

The orthodox Christian idea of perfection cannot be attained without God. To know and love God requires a relationship with God that is beyond our natural capacities. So perfection, paradise, cannot be attained through our own qualities.

The Irony of Pride’s Perfection

The irony is that our pride causes us to settle for a much lesser perfection. Hence Milton’s Lucifer deciding it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

While we still desire happiness, insisting that we attain it by ourselves immediately lowers our aim. Our last end becomes whatever trace of perfection we can strive for, though in reality it mostly devolves into endless striving.

In pride, our last end of beatitude becomes a distant promise of perfection towards which we can only ever struggle in the hope that we will find it fulfilling.

In other words, our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers. This is the dismal paradise that our feeble nature built, and the only consolation is the impression that we built it all by ourselves, and the hope that things will get better before the end.

As God said to Jeremiah:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Yet the promise of the Gospel is that God is ready with his grace at every moment to restore His relationship with us, to bring us to a blessed state entirely beyond our own nature and capacity.

The only obstacle is the one we ourselves present, in our recusant desire to do it on our own, for ourselves, and in our own way.

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4 thoughts on “Unpacking Pride

  1. Got hooked some YA fiction that turned out Christian, and thought it would be a fitting format to explore a response to your posts on self, pride, and sin.

    Your Dad is loading up the car for the annual interstate family trip to your grandparents’. The thing is, this year school’s breaking up. Your best friend’s throwing a party while their olds are in Bali, and it might also be your last chance to meet that person you suspect you’ve been trading secret locker-notes with all year.

    Mum’s not impressed when you tell her. “But you always look forward to this, and you always have such a great time when you get there.”

    Dad finishes tying down the roof rack and joins in. “Grandma and Grandpa also look forward to all of us visiting. You don’t want to disappoint them, do you?”

    It’s not such a big deal, you say. You’d rather hang with your mates this year rather than endure the usual bum-breaking car ride. There’s always next year. Wrong move. The knives come out.

    Dad asks why you’re being so lazy and selfish, putting your friends – some of whom have serious discipline problems, in his opinion – before your own family. You should know better.

    Mum says this isn’t you at all, that you know you’ll have a better time on the trip than staying home. She (and Dad, though he expresses it strangely) just want what’s best for you.

    As they start talking consequences – last chance to see Grandpa and Grandma, allowance money, the Wi-Fi password – you think about outcomes.

    Maybe you relent, do the right thing, and eat your feelings with double helpings of Grandma’s shepherd’s pie. Or you stand your ground, and eventually witness cops bust your BFF’s place as your crush hooks up with the school captain.

    Maybe the opposite transpires. Resentment as Grandpa insults all your foreign-born schoolmates, versus promises to roll a summer romance into uni.

    Whatever happens, fifteen years later in your cubicle – perhaps reading HR’s peppy email about the restructure they have to have – you realise that power will always want what’s best for you EXCEPT the part of you that resists it. In that case, it will attack your rebellious streak’s choice, judgement, and even its existence. Though they would never say it, your parents want the ten-year-old happy to jump in the car, not the extra six years that want to stay behind. That one needs to go.

    Sure, we could surrender to perfection, allowing God to draw us closer, rather than be slaves to our own pride. We could not build with our own hands perfection better than what submission could bring, but a perfection intolerant of rebellion is not perfect.

    Perhaps it is better to serve in hell than to reign in heaven.

    • “power will always want what’s best for you EXCEPT the part of you that resists it.”

      Great line!

      But regarding the direction of your comment, rest assured that I’m cringing at the idea of a family holiday as an analog for divine authority. “The kingdom of heaven is like a teenaged road-trip with your parents when you’d rather be partying with your friends.”

      Nonetheless, I bridle as much as anyone at being ‘managed’, and I take special delight in rejecting or repudiating attempts to shoehorn religious authority into worldly coercion. So while I can’t agree with your conclusion, I am firm on the point that submission will not lose anything of value, and perfection cannot be lacking, by definition.

      However, that doesn’t mean I don’t still fear the loss of control, nor feel the allure of independence, as you depict so evocatively. In fact, given that I can sympathise with your feelings on the matter, perhaps that explains why I prefer impersonal depictions of selflessness, so that they can’t be contaminated by the pain and drama of human relationships?

      I don’t even like to use the language of submission and surrender, as it still implies to me a measure of control that doesn’t exist.

  2. Your discussion about “his last end” reminded me of this opinion piece in the New York Times from the other day.

    As you describe it, it would seem that “last end” could be described as ‘purpose’.

    And on a related note, your discussion of “our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers….” reminded me of the paper discussed in the above piece about whether it is possible that we are actually living inside a computer simulation.

    http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.pdf

    In Buddhism, enlightenment is ‘realized’ rather than attained. Similarly, St. John of the Cross did not attain Thomistic perfection of the soul as much as he simply ‘realized’ it. One has to travel through a ‘dark night’ journeying to union with God, only to realize that once all desires have been released, that the soul was unified with God all along. The very concept that there is an “own nature” is thus an illusion. It is this very sense that there is an “own self” that In the Thomistic sense causes us so much misery. At least by way of John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila, the very idea that we can do anything “on our own” is an illusion itself.

    Or so it would seem to me.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Purpose and end point to the same thing, though end usually has more objective connotations than purpose, which originally denotes a mental state. That is, we can say that to have a purpose is to have an end in mind. I think end is a better translation of telos than purpose. Theologically it’s also less anthropomorphic, even though we could say that our telos is part of God’s purpose for us.

      Regarding enlightenment, I try to retain the integrity of the systems that I’m comparing, even though I agree that they seem to merge at the deepest levels of each.

      Buddhism has its two levels or two truths, and there’s the paradox of delusion and enlightenment being real from the deluded perspective but not from the enlightened perspective.

      The same paradox exists in Christianity, but doesn’t seem to be at the forefront. I’ve found traces of it in bits of theology and metaphysics, and moreso in the visions and writings of mystics, such as Christ’s words to Catherine of Siena “You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS.”

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