“Pride — it gets ’em every time,” chortles Satan (Al Pacino) at the end of the 1997 film The Devil’s Advocate. Indeed, it does; of all the seven capital (“deadly”) sins, Superbia is the most flexible and the most elusive, attacking us in ways we hardly recognize.
Pride could be called “the sin of taking yourself too seriously.” Chesterton quipped that “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly,” while “Satan fell by the force of gravity.” While my definition may seem flippant, I think it captures the difference between the self-respect which objects to being ruled badly and the arrogance which objects to being ruled at all. For Pride is not merely self-interest but self-assertion. It is the sin that values self-righteousness over compassion, dignity over humility, autonomy over society. It is the sin that would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Once again, we turn to Joseph Delaney and the old Catholic Encyclopedia to learn that Pride is “the excessive love of one’s own excellence.” At its worst, “the creature refuses to stay within his essential orbit; he turns his back upon God, not through weakness or ignorance, but solely because in his self-exaltation he is minded not to submit.” Even when no intent to shake off God’s dominion exists, the sin causes us to make too much of ourselves. Because of our gifts (which, if God gave them, we deserved), we expect to be put first.
Writes St. Thomas Aquinas:
Pride [superbia] is so called because a man thereby aims higher [supra] than he is; wherefore Isidore [of Seville] says: “A man is said to be proud, because he wishes to appear above (super) what he really is” [Etymologies X.S.248]; for he who wishes to overstep beyond what he is, is proud. Now right reason requires that every man’s will should tend to that which is proportionate to him. Therefore it is evident that pride denotes something opposed to right reason, and this shows it to have the character of sin, because according to Dionysius [the Pseudo-Areopagite] (On Divine Names 4:4), “the soul’s evil is to be opposed to reason.” Therefore it is evident that pride is a sin. (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 162, A. 1 corp.)
The modern world defines pride differently. Satisfaction with one’s achievements; confidence and self-respect; consciousness of one’s own dignity; the best state of something. Excessive pride is hubris, conceit, vanity, presumption, self-importance. In ancient Greek tragedy, ῠ̔́βρις húbris invited the anger of the gods, whose vengeance would be wrought by Nemesis the Inescapable. The Pharaohs held themselves manifestations of Ra-Amon; in contrast, the Lord commanded, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7; cf. Deuteronomy 5:11). Vanity is excessive pride; vanity is also futility and worthlessness (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11).
The Tragedy of Oscar Wilde
So, being mortal, look on that last day and count a man not blessed in his life until he’s crossed life’s bounds unstruck by ruin still. (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, Epilogue)
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). The redactor of Proverbs (most likely not Solomon) didn’t have to know the King of Thebes’ tale to know that those who aren’t humble set in motion their own humiliation. In our own recent history, we’ve seen examples of bishops who built the time bombs that destroyed their own careers, particularly Theodore McCarrick. Or we may think of former SecState Hillary Clinton, who blinded herself to a quarter-century’s worth of built-up animosity and ran a Presidential campaign that took her eventual victory for granted.
One particular tale of Pride concerns Oscar Wilde:
When John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury of boxing fame, publicly accused the Irish playwright of homosexuality in February 1895, Wilde chose to privately prosecute him for libel against the advice of his friends and collaborators. Wilde was convinced his celebrated wit and reputation as a literary artist would give him his victory. However, at the trial, his torrid affair with the Marquess’ son, Lord Alfred Douglas, and a number of gay prostitutes became public knowledge. The Marquess’ acquittal bankrupted Wilde and triggered his and Douglas’ prosecution for sodomy and gross indecency in May that year.
Convicted, Wilde spent two years’ hard labor in prison, which broke his health and heart. Wilde had worn the persona of a decadent fop as a mask to hide the perch of moral rectitude from which he criticized Victorian social hypocrisy. In prison, he realized the mask had become the man: the decadence had become debasement. Out of that period came Wilde’s last two works: De Profundis (a reference to Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord”) and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Penniless and exiled in France, he converted to Catholicism shortly before his death.
I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. … Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still. (Wilde, De Profundis)
The Year God Broke My Proud Heart
I sympathize with Wilde because of a summer day in Albuquerque in 1989 when God knocked me off my high horse. For a guy with an exceptional IQ, I’d made a lot of bad decisions and shirked a lot of responsibilities because they imposed on my freedom. Because of this, I was poor, employed in a field I hated (fast food), and had either separated from or alienated my family. Finally, having to move yet again because I’d alienated my dad’s wife with another bad decision, God forced me to take ownership of the shambles I’d made of my life.
Almost 10 years ago, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote an essay drawn from the writings of Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, “Five Hard Truths That Will Set You Free.” Of the five, three are especially pertinent here: 1) Your life is not about you; 2) You are not in control, and 3) You are not that important. These were all bitter lessons I had to learn, not just that day but over the next few years as humble pie became a staple of my diet. The first was the worst and the hardest, but the most necessary, for it requires charity.
Pride still plagues me. I still become impatient when duty as an in-home caregiver tears me away from my writing or interrupts my sleep. Writing on current events, especially within the Church, provides plenty of opportunities for sanctimonious bluster, especially in a medium where self-righteous outrage generates traffic. And recognizing your Pride as sin doesn’t mean you have an automatic increase of charity for others. I still don’t suffer fools gladly, which means I often find myself insufferable. Socrates, I think, was right: Wisdom only begins once you recognize just how little you really know.
Slavery and Humility
Δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, doulos Christou Iesou, servus Iesu Christi, is how St. Paul describes himself to the Romans: a “slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1; see also Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1). Day laborers and hired hands weren’t servi in the ancient Mediterranean world; the master owned the servant body and soul. If he freed them, they became his client, which gave the patron first claim on their services even after they’d left. The slave would die for his master, but he could also die by his master’s hand without trial. Death for slaves came on the cross.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus stresses the attitude of humility his disciples should take. In the Kingdom, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The Master washes his servants’ feet: whoever wishes to lead all must serve all. You take the lowest seat at the table to be raised to the highest: whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. Doing everything you’re commanded earns you no “brownie points”: you’ve done no more than was expected. It isn’t the rich and the proud who inherit heaven and earth but rather the poor in spirit and the meek.
Saint Paul called himself doulos Christou Iesou for the same reason the Blessed Mother called herself doulē Kyriou, “the [female] slave of the Lord” (Luke 1:38): Discipleship calls of us, not the abandonment of intellect or will, but their submission to the service (from servitium < servus) of God, especially through service to others. In submitting to God’s will, we abandon ourselves entirely to His providence, trusting that whatever we lose in this world will be recompensed a hundredfold (Matthew 19:29).
And in that slavery to God we find the freedom of weakness: Pride no longer restrains us from doing good. For nothing we can do in charity and mercy for others is beneath us.
There is so much more to speak of. I thought about Dr. Otto von Habsburg, whose burial ritual included the final boast of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors: “Otto — ein sterblicher, sündiger Mensch” (a mortal, sinful man), the admission that all boasting is futile before God. Thinking of Oscar Wilde, I remembered that someone once told me gay is supposed to be an acronym: Good As You. That’s a very low bar indeed; for we are all mortal sinners, and our equality lies precisely in that we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
And I think of Satan and all those who say “Non serviam,” those who will no sooner bow before a good God than before an evil tyrant. I think of the God-haters, angry that He did not design life and the universe according to their wishes. I think of all the people who in ways great and small say to Him, “My will be done on earth; who cares what happens in Heaven?” Of all anarchist rebellions, theirs is the most futile because the most filled with Pride.
For in the cold reaches of eternity, cut off from the Source of all good things, what cheerless comfort, what moral victory will they find in knowing that at least they did not submit?