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Pride: Vice or Virtue?

There are in fact two types or pride.

[Article revised on 2 May 2020.]

Source: Wikicommons

Like embarrassment, shame, and guilt, pride is a reflexive emotion (an emotion about the self) 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 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. Because it is out of touch with the truth, hubris promotes injustice, conflict, and enmity.

Vanity is similar to hubris, but refers more specifically to an inflated sense of ourselves in the eyes of others. Vanity derives from the Latin vanitas, ‘emptiness’, ‘falseness’, ‘foolishness’. In Ecclesiastes, the phrase vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas is usually rendered as ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, with ‘vanity’ in this case referring not to empty pride, but to the transience and futility of earthly goods and cares, and, by extension, of human life itself. In the arts, a vanitas—often a painting with prominent symbols of death and mortality such as a skull, wilting flowers, or burning candles—invites us to broaden our perspectives by meditating upon the brevity and precarity of our lives.

Many religious traditions 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 [Latin, ‘Light-maker’] 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 [sic.] haughty spirit before a fall.’ 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 mirror and comb.

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, or vindication that arises from having our self-image confirmed, either directly, or indirectly through others—for example, through one of our children or students, or one of our in-groups (national pride, gay pride, black pride…).

If pride is ‘the love of one’s own excellence’, the opposite of pride is shame. Shame derives from the Proto-Indo-European for ‘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—a stance that can also serve as a signal of status, belonging, or ownership. The proud stance 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 led to it, and is closely linked with constructs like self-respect, self-reliance, productivity, creativity, and altruism.

So, on the one hand, pride is the most blinding and unforgiveable of sins, but, on the other, it is a vector of virtue. I suggest that there are in fact two types of pride: proper pride, and false or hubristic pride. How can false pride be explained? People who are prone to false pride lack self-esteem, and their hubris is their way of convincing themselves and others that they too are worthy of respect and admiration. Even if their posturing is hollow, it does do the trick—at least for now.

Aristotle wrote insightfully on proper pride, or what he called megalopsuchia (‘greatness of soul’). In the Nicomachean Ethics, he tells us that people are proud if they both are and think themselves 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 people both are and think themselves to be worthy of small things, they are 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 good-sized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful.’

In contrast, people who think themselves worthy of more than they warrant are not proud but hubristic or vain; while people who think themselves worthy of less than they warrant are pusillanimous. Unlike hubris and pusillanimity, which are vicious, pride and temperance accord with the truth, and are therefore virtuous.

Aristotle, who was writing long before the Christian era, goes on to paint a very flattering—and to Christian and modern sensibilities, deeply provocative—picture of pride. Proud people, he explains, are avid of their just deserts and in particular of honour, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. They are moderately pleased to accept great honours conferred by good people, but utterly despise honours from casual people and on trifling grounds. As people who deserve more are better, properly proud people are good, and, as they are good, they are 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 proud people are liable to disdain and despise, but as they think rightly, they do so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, to meet their ego needs). Proud people may be contemptuous towards the great and the good, but are 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 of great and notable ones.

Aristotle then shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive:

[The proud person] 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.