The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 7. Pride

Article by   December 2014
Now as we conclude our series, we come at last to the vice of Pride, "the Great Sin" as C.S. Lewis calls it, and as the Christian tradition has consistently taught. It is both the first and the last of sins: the mother which gives birth to all the others, but which, when grown to its full stature, can supersede, even devour the others, and last long after they have been subdued. It is the mother of all other sins because Pride is, at its root, self-love, or rather, inordinate self-love. There is an appropriate self-love that in fact acts as a check on other vices, particularly sensual ones, in which we recognize ourselves as a creature and servant of God, and in due regard for our Maker and the task to which He has called us, seek health and well-being, and seek to pursue excellence of body, mind, and soul.  

In pride, however, we cease to love ourselves as creatures of our Creator and begin to love ourselves as creators, as masters rather than servants. We have noted that the deadliness of Sloth, or acedia, consists in its being an apathy toward God, in which, unwilling to endure the blinding light of His presence, we shuffle slowly away toward the darkness. But Pride is deadlier still, for it is not a mere lack of love toward God, but an active hostility.  As Aquinas says, whereas in other sins,  "man turns away from God, either through ignorance or through weakness, or through desire for any other good whatever," pride "denotes aversion from God simply through being unwilling to be subject to God and His rule. Hence Boethius says that 'while all vices flee from God, pride alone withstands God'" (ST IIaIIae Q. 162 a. 6 resp.).  

In loving ourselves as ultimate goods rather than proximate goods, in seeking to be self-sufficient as our own masters, we turn away from the good to which God calls us in favor of all manner of evils. In loving ourselves, we decide that we should feel free to gratify our desires, and no one else should be able to tell us what limits to set upon them, so we give ourselves up to Lust and Gluttony. In loving ourselves, we try to carve out a private space for ourselves, hoarding up worldly goods and titles in order to become self-sufficient, and so succumb to Greed. In loving ourselves, we can't abide the thought or sight of God or the tasks he calls us to and so slide away from him toward the nothingness in the vice of Sloth. In loving ourselves, we crave honor for ourselves and resent that any of it should be shared with others, so we burn with Envy at their success. In loving ourselves, we cannot abide that any should dare to dishonor us and take from us the respect and dignity that is our due, and so we lash out in Wrath.  So "Pride is the beginning of all sins" (Sirach 10:15; Aquinas, ST IIaIIae Q. 162 a. 7); it gives birth to and nourishes every other vice. [1]

At the same time, though, as Pride grows and matures, it can sometimes put to death these vices, while growing ever stronger itself. C.S. Lewis insightfully remarks on this in Mere Christianity: "Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy's Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity--that is, by Pride." [2]  Accordingly, Pride can remain, and even take deeper root, even as its daughters are systematically uprooted. 

This leads us to a disturbing thought: that in all that we have said thus far about our disposition to the various vices in a digital age, the ways that our internet and smartphones and immersion in media conspire to generate habits of Lust, Gluttony, Envy, and all the rest, those of us least disposed to these various vices might yet be in the grip of the greatest vice of all. I myself, sitting here patiently and insightfully analyzing how people get caught up in the temptations of Facebook and Pinterest and Youtube, am in great danger of saying, "And of course all that sort of frivolous attention-seeking and novelty-chasing and idle link-grazing is beneath me; I know better than that sort of thing." Of course, it need not be so; mature virtue can, in its own way, look down on immature vices. But this is part of what makes pride so deadly: its ability to disguise itself as a semblance of virtue. This is particularly so when we consider carefully the relation of vanity and Pride.

In his essay on Pride, C.S. Lewis insightfully notes that vanity, which we readily identify as a form of pride, is actually a relatively innocuous, immature form of pride, however irritating it can be to see.  I noted in an earlier installment that Envy is not yet so corrupt as Greed, because the envious person has not yet turned fully in upon himself; he still judges himself relative to others, rather than seeking self-sufficiency. Likewise, the vain person is obviously well along the road of self-love that grows into Pride, but is still beset with insecurities. Most of modern advertising panders to these insecurities and seek to flatter our vanity, and our digital media have made it far easier for all of us to obsessively monitor our popularity metrics.  No longer must we rely on subjective qualitative assessments of how well-liked and esteemed we are; we can monitor how many followers we have, how many comments, how many likes, how many repins; we can pore over our blog stats and revel in the thought that 200 people read our last post (not pausing to consider that, if our own browsing habits are any indication, maybe a tenth of those "hits" really read the post). Bunyan himself could not have dreamt up a better "vanity fair" than the internet has become.  

And yet, as Lewis says, vanity "shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you." For bloggers like me who have spent years trying to avoid that vanity trap, telling ourselves that we write to explore ideas worth exploring, and we won't be bothered whether few or many ever read them, Lewis's next lines are jarring: 
[The proud man] says 'Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like a young girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals--or my artistic conscience--or the traditions of my family--or, in a word, because I'm That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They're nothing to me' [3]
From this description, it should be clear that Pride, at least, is not a particularly distinctive feature of our digital age, at least in its digital component. Pride, as the most inward and spiritual of all sins, is a habit of the heart and mind far more than the body, and is relatively unaffected by our new media of communication and sociality. To be sure, as we noted in our discussion of Greed, the fact that the digital world enables us each to stake out a little realm of our own, where we are the star, of which we are the dictator, where we may express ourselves entirely as we wish, and no one will stop us, this naturally gratifies Greed and encourages Pride--the false sense of self-sufficiency, the desire to be as gods. 

But more broadly, the vice of Pride is deeply inscribed into the rhetoric and values of our modern consumer culture. "Have it Your Way," Burger King declares, aptly summing up the ethos of the age. You are free to make your own choices, to have your own values, to think your own thoughts, to do what is right in your own eyes, to "be your own person," as nearly every Disney movie of recent decades has encouraged us. You are, in short, independent. While obviously there is a kind of independence that is the fruit of maturity, and many of the freedoms we enjoy are genuine goods, we should not be slow to hear the whisper of the Serpent in these modern slogans: "you will be like God."  If pride is, as Aquinas said, that by which "a man aims higher than he is" (ST IIaIIae Q. 162 a. 1 resp.), by denying his radical dependence upon God, and thus turning away from God "simply through being unwilling to be subject to God and His rule," then perhaps Pride is the great sin of our age.

Thankfully, just as Pride can give birth to every other kind of sin, so the remedy for pride--cultivating a sense of our radical dependence upon God, and a profound gratitude for it--can begin to free us from all the others. Remembering that we have been bought with a price, we will be ashamed to lose ourselves in the fleshly desires of Lust and Gluttony, and will be filled instead with a contentment at the good gifts that God showers upon his children. Resting securely upon God, we will be freed from the quest to be secure in our own possessions, abandoning the insatiable hunger of Greed, and the obsessive comparisons of Envy. Recognizing that we are literally nothing without God and His grace, we will shudder at the thought of turning away from him in Sloth toward the nothingness of idle diversions. Knowing that He is the Judge and He will protect His children, we will let go of the Wrath that seeks to settle very score and avenge every affront. 

Finally, this sense of radical dependence actually holds the secret for resolving our earlier dilemma--how to distinguish mature virtue from the Pride that congratulates itself on being too good for the pettier virtues. In recognizing our dependence upon God, we don't necessarily think less of ourselves, rather we think of ourselves less.[4] We do not waste much time assessing how well we have overcome various vices, but simply fix our eyes on Jesus and start focusing on the next vices that need to be overcome--remembering that this side of glory, Pride will always be one of them. 

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com

Notes:

[1] This is not to say that every instance of every other vice is born out of pride, except perhaps in some abstract and indirect sense; every other kind of vice can arise from pride.
[2] CS Lewis, 'The Great Sin', from Mere Christianity 
[3] Lewis, 'The Great Sin'
[4] This pithy saying is often attributed to C.S. Lewis, though he never used those exact words. The point is made well in both Screwtape Letters, pp. 70-73 and 'The Great Sin'
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