[Article updated 18 September 2017]
Pride derives from the Latin prodesse, ‘be useful’. Like embarrassment, shame, and guilt, pride is a reflexive (self-referring) emotion that is strongly influenced by sociocultural norms and values.
Historically, pride has been conceived both as vice and virtue. Pride as vice is close to hubris or vanity. In Ancient Greece, people could be accused of hubris if they placed themselves above the gods or defiled or denigrated them. Many Ancient Greeks believed that hubris led to destruction or nemesis. Today, hubris has come to denote an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, or accomplishments, especially when accompanied by haughtiness or arrogance. As it is out of touch with the truth, hubris promotes injustice, conflict, and enmity.
Vanity is similar to hubris, but refers to an inflated sense of self in the eyes of others. Vanity derives from the Latin vanitas, ‘emptiness’, ‘falseness’, or ‘foolishness’. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the phrase vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas is usually rendered as ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, and refers not to vanity as such but to the transience and futility of earthly goods and pursuits, and, by extension, of human life itself. In the arts, a vanitas—often a painting with prominent symbols of mortality such as a skull, burning candles, or wilting flowers—invites us to broaden our perspectives by reflecting upon the brevity and fragility of our life. Vainglory is an archaic synonym for vanity, but originally meant ‘to boast in vain’, that is, to boast groundlessly.
Many religions look upon pride, hubris, and vanity as self-idolatry. In the Christian tradition, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. More than that, it is the original and most unforgiveable sin, for it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell from Heaven. Pride is the sin most hated by God because it bears all the other sins, blinds us to truth and reason, and removes us from God and His religion. Just as in the Greek tradition, pride leads to nemesis: ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.’ Thus, in art, pride is sometimes symbolized by a figure of death—or else by Narcissus, a peacock, or a naked woman attending to her hair with comb and mirror.
As a virtue, pride is, in the words of Albertanus of Brescia, ‘the love of one’s own excellence’. More prosaically, pride is the satisfaction, pleasure, exhilaration, or vindication that arises from having our self-image confirmed, either directly through ourselves or indirectly through others—for example, through one of our children or students, or through one of our in-groups (national pride, gay pride, black pride...). The direct or indirect confirmation of someone else’s self-image, but not ours, does not lead to pride but to admiration, toleration, indifference, or envy.
If pride is ‘the love of one’s own excellence’, the inverse of pride is shame. ‘Shame’ derives from ‘to cover’, and is often expressed by a covering gesture over the brow and eyes, a downcast gaze, and a slack posture. Pride in contrast is usually expressed by an expanded or inflated posture with arms raised or rested on the hips, a lifted chin, and a small smile. This proud stance serves as a signal of status, belonging, acceptance, or ownership. It has been observed across different cultures and even in congenitally blind people, indicating that it is innate rather than learnt or imitated. Being in itself a source of pride, pride promotes more of the kind of actions that ignited it, and is associated with self-respect, self-reliance, productivity, creativity, and altruism.
So, on the one hand, pride is the most blinding and unforgivable of sins, and on the other it is a vector of self-realization. I suggest that there are in fact two types of pride: proper pride, which is the virtue, and false or hubristic pride, which is the vice. Proper pride is clearly adaptive, but how can false pride be explained? People who are prone to false pride lack self-esteem, and their hubris is their way of convincing others and themselves that they too are worthy of respect and admiration. Their ‘pride’ may be a scam or shortcut, but it does do the trick—if at least for now.
Aristotle wrote insightfully on proper pride, or ‘greatness of soul’ (megalopsuchia). In the Nicomachean Ethics, he tells us that a person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things.
Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them; for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish or silly.
If he is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate.
For he who is worthy of little and thinks himself worthy of little is temperate, but not proud; for pride implies greatness, as beauty implies a goodsized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful.
On the other hand, if he thinks himself worthy of more than he is worthy of, he is hubristic or vain; and if he thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, he is pusillanimous. Hubris and pusillanimity are vices, whereas pride and temperance are virtues because (by definition) they reflect the truth about a person’s state and potentials. In Aristotelian speak, whereas the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness and therefore virtuous.
Aristotle, who was writing long before the Christian era, goes on to paint a very flattering—and to Christian and modern sensibilities, provocative—picture of the proud person. A proud person is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honour, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. He is moderately pleased to accept great honours conferred by good people, but utterly despises honours from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. Pride, says Aristotle, is a crown of the virtues: it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.
Aristotle recognizes that the proud person is liable to disdain and despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, to meet their ego needs). The proud person may be supercilious towards the great and the good, but he is always unassuming towards ordinary people; ‘for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people it is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.’
Again, it is characteristic of the proud person not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be [the author] of few deeds, but great and notable ones.
Aristotle then shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive.
He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, i.e. to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.