I am increasingly convinced that the essence of most—if not all—sin is pride. This thought recently re-emerged in my mind latently while reading David Sedaris’s Naked, and more explicitly in my current reading of Camus’s The Fall. I know that the idea of pride being a sin, or even the pre-eminent sin, is not new, but it has some serious implications which I’d like to explore and consider more fully. Pride is a strange and insidious thing, able to creep into the most surprising of places, often unnoticed except to the most astute of observers. Indeed, it can hide within the most virtuous-appearing motives, undetected even by the self-critical. If pride is truly so caught up in sinfulness, then the idea of human fallenness and the need for redemption comes into massive relief. Some have argued that the essence of true ethics is the principle of disinterest, or rather, the idea that some good is done for the sake of that good, rather than any self-benefit thereby derived. This idea sounds good in principle, but one must wonder whether any human has ever been able to achieve perfect disinterest even once. One will do ‘good turns’ because someone was nice, because one likes them, because that person could cause harm or benefit, for recognition, etc; in short, in reference to the self. Is not pride here lurking? It seems, then, that in this respect, pride illuminates the human need for forgiveness and salvation.
However, even here—perhaps especially here—pride causes problems. Many, if not all, people find accepting forgiveness to be very difficult. This seems paradoxical, but accepting forgiveness is just as hard as confession. Confession mortifies one’s pride; forgiveness does so again. To ask for, and to accept forgiveness is to admit one’s failure as well as one’s neediness, and to be dependent on someone else. The failure to accept forgiveness is pride: not wanting to receive, to admit one’s neediness, as that implies a level of inferiority and dependence.
It is pride which resists dependence: it wants self-sufficiency, to be autonomous (non-Kantian) and free. But in reality, pride does not want real freedom, for freedom is dangerous. Freedom demands responsibility, responsibility makes one accountable, and accountability creates guilt. Guilt damages pride: guilt is the self-confession of an imperfect being. It forces one to question whether one’s self-love is justified. It makes one, again, dependent. What pride wants is to be able to live guilt-free, by being told what to do in a manner in which violations are excusable. This is not a good context for ethics or even politics!
With the pernicious remit of pride, one can begin to understand the medieval monks’ attempts to ‘mortify the flesh’: a radical attempt to eliminate pride. Surely such an insidious problem requires a drastic solution? But even there pride lurks! Such determined attempts to be righteous, to eliminate pride, run the paradoxical risk of creating pride over one’s excessive humility. Beyond this risk, however, it is symptomatic of the type of pride noted above: the inability to accept, looking to absolve oneself, without having to subject oneself to free grace.
I do not wish to get into the question of ‘grace and works’, but merely point out in this context that the concept of grace is itself wounding to the pride. It is pride which occasions our need for redemption and is that which prevents the acceptance of it. Since humanity’s fallenness appears to be so bound up in pride, the legend of Lucifer’s fall due to pride seems to be an apt description of the state of humanity, regardless of its accuracy for celestial history.Jason M. Silverman 8 August 2008