A Primer on Pride
Why does Lewis see Pride as the greatest sin, “the utmost evil,” in comparison with which “unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that are mere fleabites”? (p. 110). How does he define Pride and its opposite, Humility? What effect does Pride have on one’s relation to other people, to oneself, and to God? What is the relationship between Pride and the other vices? Lewis cites other Christian teachers who share his perspective but does not name them. Who might he be thinking of?
Fleabites? Yes, fleabites. Other vices including unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and so on, are mere “fleabites” – tiny, little offenses in comparison to pride. Why? Lewis gives three reasons for labeling pride as the supreme defect. First, because the devil became the devil by pride. Second, because pride is the cause of every other vice. Third, because pride is the complete anti-God (and anti-others) state of mind. Pride is severely disordered love for self. Think Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy. When it comes to the vices, then, pride is at the very center. As Lewis says, it is “the essential vice, the utmost evil.”
I’m pretty sure Lewis says somewhere that pride is like bad breath: everyone knows you have it except yourself. I know for a fact he says in Mere Christianity that there is “no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.”
Pride is always competitive; it always enjoys power; it always fosters enmity between us and others and between us and God. Indeed, “as long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people.” Pride can even “smuggle” its way into our religious life. The devil might even erect within us a “dictatorship of pride.” It’s demonic, a “spiritual cancer.”
Of course, Lewis is careful to say that taking pleasure in being praised is not pride; nor is one sinful if he or she is properly proud of his or her son, father, mother, or school, and so on. Pride is not something God forbids because his dignity is offended by it, nor is its antonym a greasy, smarmy humility.
Though we may take exception to Lewis’s views on pride, he’s in good company. As he notes other “Christian teachers” affirm what he has basically said. I bet Lewis has at least Saint Augustine and William Law in mind. Indeed, the former once confessed in his Confessions: “I scorned to be a little one and, swollen with pride, I looked upon myself as fully grown (5.9).” And the latter once wrote in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: “For you can have no greater sign of a more confirmed pride, than when you think that you are humble enough” (Chapter xvi).
Indeed! People who are truly humble do not recognize it. They are not thinking of themselves or others at all. They are too busy enjoying life to do so, says Lewis.
If we would cultivate this kind of genuine humility, we must first recognize our pride. That’s the first step. We must take off that “fancy-dress.” On the other hand, as Lewis affirmed, if we think we are not conceited, we are very conceited indeed. This reminds me of 1 John 1:8 – “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Lord, help us to know ourselves.
Dr. David K. Naugle is chair and professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University where he has worked for 21 years in both administrative and academic capacities. He earned a Th.D. in systematic theology, and a Ph.D. in humanities with concentrations in philosophy and English literature. Dr. Naugle is the author of Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), which was selected by Christianity Today magazine as the 2003 book of the year in the theology and ethics. He is on the “Creative Council” (Board) of Art House, Dallas, and has a forthcoming volume titled Philosophy: A Student’s Guide due out Sept. 2012 (Crossway).