Asking someone who scribbles for a living to meditate on the deadly sin of pride is like asking an alcoholic to name his poison. The danger isn’t that he’ll fail to answer. It’s rather that he might never shut up.
As the preceding columns in this series on the capital vices have shown, all of us are susceptible to all the Deadlies in different degrees, and no single occupation corners the market on any one of them. Still, I doubt that any author, living or dead, ever sat before a blank screen or page without knowing the sound — and sometimes the bite — of that most terrible of serpents, pride.
Leaving our mark
The burning drive to leave a mark on one’s world, even if only in the disappearing ink of the Internet, ploughs up just the sort of soil in which pride readily takes root. The Internet itself, especially the blogosphere, then fertilizes the results more wildly than any other medium could. To push one’s words into the public square under today’s circumstances is to know intimately just how gray is the area between promoting one’s message, worthy though it may be, and promoting oneself.
This is even true of writers for websites like The Catholic Thing and other Christian venues. Generally speaking, people who think the Church a good thing will praise our work — whereas those who hate it will find plenty to mock and scorn. Even so, getting laughed at in some of the best places doesn’t let any of us off the hook of pride.
The line between what’s good for the work and what’s good for its author remains uncomfortably blurred. Any book or other literary work today, no matter which side it’s on, is measured for success in exactly the same intrinsically self-regarding way — in Internet hits, media appearances and that all-important totem that did not exist 20 years ago, the “Amazon number.”
And what’s true for authors is true for everyone else these days. All of us face the same problem of distinguishing what must be done to build the Kingdom from what must be done to build the Kingdom of Me.
Does the diligent student work harder than anyone else in class to develop God-given talents — or because he wants to be godlike in academic prowess over others? Does the zealous volunteer labor selflessly for the good of the hospital or school — or does she work to burnish the image of herself as top charity dog?
Or consider the enormous role of “social networking,” meaning life lived online — a world in which the constant updating and promotion and image-building of oneself is not only socially acceptable, but the necessary norm. Has there ever been a bigger labyrinth than the Internet for the sin of excessive self-regard to hide?
Faced with contemporary questions like these, it helps to remember that pride has been regarded by most Christian thinkers as the deadliest of all vices.
“Pride is the first sin, the source of all other sins, and the worst sin,” says St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly, and many other authorities agree.
In Hieronymus Bosch’s 1485 portrayal of pride, a young woman preens about her new bonnet — unaware that the mirror is being held by a demon. Stealth appears common to all forms of Superbia, which is why we are not as viscerally aware of it as of lust, or gluttony, or anger. But that only adds to the lethality.
Our awareness of the sin of pride is further diminished by the fact that “obedience” as such is now regarded by many enlightened people as questionable. We barely recognize any more that the “authority problems” of Lucifer, Eve and Adam are cautionary tales, not portraits of role models.
Many Western Catholics even go so far as to ask whether the Church has the authority to be the Church. So dulled are our modern senses to the rattle of this sin that we rarely recognize such “dissent,” as it is politely called, for what it is.
It’s not all about us
So how, given the ways of this world that are so congenial to it, can any of us hope to avoid pride — and the rest of the serpentine pack to which we’ve grown habituated?
In his valuable book, “The Seven Deadly Sins Today,” which I’ve quoted elsewhere in this series, the late Henry Fairlie offers an especially helpful answer by rephrasing the question. He boils down pride to “an assertion of self-sufficiency — a denial of one’s need for community with others, which is in fact a form of selfishness, since it is always accompanied by a refusal of one’s obligation of community with others.”
Pride, in other words, is all about us — and as such the only inoculation against it is to make our lives all about others instead.
That is why the corresponding virtue to this deadliest vice — charity — involves what pride does not: other people. And, ultimately, it reverses Satan’s ultimate non serviam , the refusal of dependency on and obedience to God himself. It is only in moving outward that the incessant clamoring narcissist in all of us gets left behind. The goal for all of us, whatever we do, is to say not “I have made this because I am so clever,” but rather “I made this thanks to gifts given me to share with you.”
To correct something that Jean-Paul Sartre once got exactly backward, hell isn’t other people. It’s one person alone in a room — with a serpent. Pride may indeed top the list of Deadlies. But in the constant motion away from oneself and toward the good of the other, we may finally find the antidote for them all.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things and author of “The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism” (Ignatius Press, $13.95). This column is adapted from a series that originally appeared on The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org).
Pride Quotes (sidebar)
“Pride dies 20 minutes after death.”
— St. Francis de Sales
“You must ask God to give you power to fight against the sin of pride, which is your greatest enemy — the root of all that is evil, and the failure of all that is good. For God resists the proud.”
— St. Vincent de Paul
“When pride comes, disgrace comes; but with the humble is wisdom.”
— Proverbs 11:2
“Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.”
— Thomas Merton
“This is the [Christian] message: Do not follow the way of pride but rather that of humility. Go against the tide: Do not listen to the interested and persuasive voices that today are peddling on many sides models of life marked by arrogance and violence, by oppression and success at any cost, by appearances and by having at the expense of being.”
— Pope Benedict XVI in a September 2007 homily addressed to young people in Loreto, Italy