The pride of life

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In the Christian tradition pride is accorded special place as the root of all sin. The 5th Century monk John Cassian’s Institutes has an illuminating passage that details the nature and role of pride in the fall of Lucifer, and is worth quoting in full:

How by reason of pride Lucifer was turned from an archangel into a devil.

And that we may understand the power of its awful tyranny we see that that angel who, for the greatness of his splendour and beauty was termed Lucifer, was cast out of heaven for no other sin but this, and, pierced with the dart of pride, was hurled down from his grand and exalted position as an angel into hell. If then pride of heart alone was enough to cast down from heaven to earth a power that was so great and adorned with the attributes of such might, the very greatness of his fall shows us with what care we who are surrounded by the weakness of the flesh ought to be on our guard. But we can learn how to avoid the most deadly poison of this evil if we trace out the origin and causes of his fall…. For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall. On account of which being forsaken by God, whom he fancied he no longer needed, he suddenly became unstable and tottering, and discovered the weakness of his own nature, and lost the blessedness which he had enjoyed by God’s gift. And because he “loved the words of ruin,” with which he had said, “I will ascend into heaven,” and the “deceitful tongue,” with which he had said of himself, “I will be like the Most High,” and of Adam and Eve, “Ye shall be as gods,” therefore “shall God destroy him forever and pluck him out and remove him from his dwelling place and his root out of the land of the living.” Then “the just,” when they see his ruin, “shall fear, and shall laugh at him and say” (what may also be most justly aimed at those who trust that they can obtain the highest good without the protection and assistance of God): “Behold the man that made not God his helper, but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and prevailed in his vanity.”

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that we all suffer from pride: the worst if we think ourselves free of it. In his view the humble man is the one who recognises that he is proud, that the inclination to pride as a desire to be better than others is a constant temptation in our own hearts.

Yet in our society pride is not typically recognised as a vice unless it becomes a hindrance to oneself or an annoyance to others. We loathe arrogant, overbearing people, but we hate them in part because we ourselves are proud. Pride makes us all competitors for our self-approval, an approval we ourselves make contingent on our position relative to others. We find it harder to approve of ourselves when others become the centre of attention, or when their skills and abilities make us question our own worth. Conversely, the admiration and praise of others gives us the confidence to rest in self-approval.

In this sense, much of what is described as ‘low self-esteem’ is still a symptom of pride. Those who hate themselves or wallow in misery can be motivated by failure according to their own sense of pride. They want to be better than they are; they are not good enough to merit their own approval.

So convoluted is pride that people can even seem humble and modest yet be riven with a sense of self-satisfaction at their apparent virtue. We can take pride in the strangest things; what matters is not so much the object of pride as the fact that we measure ourselves relative to that object, and consider ourselves responsible and praiseworthy for achieving it.

The paradox of pride is that he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. In other words, seeking our own greatness and glory makes life heavy, ponderous, dull, and laborious. Only in humility can we enjoy the lightness and freedom of not seeking to make ourselves the centre of everything. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

One way of overcoming pride at least temporarily is to consider how the object of your pride is in fact beyond your own responsibility or credit. Whatever it is you are good at or excel at, consider that you did not give yourself the talents, the gifts, or the natural skill to excel. Not only that, you didn’t give yourself the interest, the passion, or the motivation to pursue it. Even if it is something for which you worked hard, can you really say that you are responsible for having the will to work hard, the determination to persevere, the lack of interest in other goals or distractions?

All of these things may exist in you: talents, passion, determination; but you did not put them there. You cannot take credit because you did not create yourself.

The good news is that we can take pleasure and joy and satisfaction in all these things; we just can’t take credit for them. When someone praises you for doing well, you can share in the pleasure of the thing well done, but to turn that pleasure into self-satisfaction is the beginning of delusion.

To be deluded about one’s origins, the source of one’s power, and the true subject of glory and praise is not only a terrible error, it is a denial of our own true nature and the path of our greatest happiness. This is why the proud are ultimately consigned through their own self-glorification to the misery of being like gods when they truly are not; a thin and demeaning substitute for real happiness and true glory; a pretence and hollow promise that can only end in disappointment.

Imago Dei and the basis of human dignity

My recent article on the awful truth of human dignity produced an interesting discussion, with some readers wanting to emphasise the notion of Imago Dei – the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God.  I wrote the following reply to a commenter who argued that Imago Dei is a more valid basis for the widespread sense of human dignity:

But I think few people are able to articulate ‘Imago Dei’ either. In terms of knowing something to be true intuitively, even then we ought to be able to reflect on the nature of this knowledge.

For example, the first principles of reason such as “a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way” cannot be proven, nevertheless we all know it almost intuitively. But on reflection we can find that the truth of this principle is grounded in the more fundamental behaviour of reality, i.e. “an object cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way”.

So there is a deeper basis, and when we know it our understanding is more complete.

Applying the same process to the Imago Dei, Aquinas writes: “some things are like to God first and most commonly because they exist; secondly, because they live; and thirdly because they know or understand; and these last, as Augustine says “approach so near to God in likeness, that among all creatures nothing comes nearer to Him.” It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.”

Without going into it too deeply, I think the implication is that our intellectual nature is our likeness to God.  This is in fact very closely related to my depiction of dignity. Our capacity to know and to understand is the part of us that is most like God; and one could say that my theory of dignity is merely the humbling recognition that other humans (not merely oneself) are, by nature, able to know and understand and therefore resemble God.

Yet as I said at the start, most people do not seem to have a clear understanding or even a theory of what Imago Dei means. Rather, they derive significance from this teaching at face value.  If, on the other hand, one had no knowledge of God or the Imago Dei concept, one could nonetheless become aware of the reality of the knowing human mind, and as I have shown, the humbling and awesome reality of other people’s minds; and this in itself would be a recognition of Imago Dei without the explicit religious and historical context.

This is not to say that one can have a value or an invented dignity independent of God.  Existence itself depends upon a creator, and we are indeed prone to deluding ourselves with vain concepts and ideas.  But if God has created us in his image, it is okay to inquire as to what this means, what part of us is distinctly God-like in that sense.  This knowledge enriches our understanding of the Imago Dei concept, by showing what the idea is pointing to in reality.

Personally I find it quite exciting to think that what we call ‘Imago Dei’ is a part of human nature universally recognised as somehow transcendent, spiritual, and even divine, in a variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions independent of Judaism and Christianity.  I think this may well open a path for a rapprochement between otherwise quite diverse traditions.