Pride and the delusion of self

Seeing parallels between religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism depends on a familiarity with the themes expressed in their mystical and esoteric writings.

For example, it is thought by many that Buddhism denies the existence of a soul and that it aims at a nihilistic destruction of the psychological self.

Likewise, many believe that Christianity focuses on heavenly rewards for earthly virtue, through a peculiar filial relationship with a supernatural being, mediated by arcane, seemingly arbitrary laws or commandments.

The reality is that Buddhism and Christianity are neither the same, nor are they entirely different.

But after many years of reading the commonalities have come to the fore, and the differences seem much less significant. I don’t spend time worrying about how reincarnation can be reconciled with the Christian afterlife, because in terms of my own practice these questions are not significant.

What are significant are things like the Christian perspective on pride in relation to the Buddhist perspective on the illusory nature of the self.

Here’s one of my favourite passages on pride, from the 4th Century ascetic monk, John Cassian:

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.

What he’s describing is the fall of Lucifer, who was the greatest of the angels but succumbed to pride and so fell from heaven.

Cassian describes the sin of pride in terms of Lucifer’s false belief that attributed his own greatness to himself rather than to God. Cassian goes on in the context of the subsequent fall of man:

For while he believed that by the freedom of his will and by his own efforts he could obtain the glory of Deity, he actually lost that glory which he already possessed through the free gift of the Creator.

The logic of pride and the fall is the same. It is a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and self-sufficiency. Cassian draws on scripture to demonstrate the contrast between pride and the corresponding remedy of humility:

For the one says, “I will ascend into heaven;” the other, “My soul was brought low even to the ground.” The one says, “And I will be like the most High;” the other, “Though He was in the form of God, yet He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”

Finally, Cassian describes how we can overcome pride:

And so we can escape the snare of this most evil spirit, if in the case of every virtue in which we feel that we make progress, we say these words of the Apostle: “Not I, but the grace of God with me,” and “by the grace of God I am what I am;” and “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

That last line is especially significant, as it undermines the freedom of the will and sense of agency that are themselves the greatest symptom of our pride.

This is where I see a direct parallel with Buddhist teaching on the nature of the self. An important part of this teaching is that our sense of self and our cherished identity are a delusion that we take for real. Enlightenment amounts in part to seeing that these selfish thoughts and impressions are not substantial, that there is no self who sits in control of our will and actions.

This is what “puffed up” means in Cassian’s words. Pride is an inflation of our sense of self, til it obscures the reality of our total dependence on God.

The problem with the Christian teaching on pride is that we often interpret it in very limited, human terms. We think pride is just about arrogance, and selfishness is about being inconsiderate of others.

But taken to their extreme we see both in the nature of the fall and in the remedy that pride is much more profound than this. On a spiritual level, pride is a mistaken belief in the primacy and power of our own will. Or to put it more strongly, it is a sense of ownership and control over our will, when in truth “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Christianity is predominantly a devotional religion, focusing on the individual relationship with God. Yet in the depths of this relationship the mystics report a sense of their own negation in God’s love. That is, they experience a union with God that totally changes their own sense of self and agency.

Buddhism is not typically a devotional religion. Instead it focuses on this experience of the negation of the self, without attempting to express in devotional terms the reality into which the self is subsumed.

But in both cases, the obstacle to this insight is the delusion of control, of will, of self-sufficiency. Buddhists will not talk of it in terms of pride and humility, and Christians will not talk of it in terms of self and no-self. Nonetheless it is my belief that they are speaking of the same thing.

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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.