Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Human Pride & False Humility

The Human Condition


“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
Proverbs 16:18

In the realm of human behaviour, human understanding, and human failings, in the history of western civilization pride has long been called the greatest of sins, and it is viewed this way by those who take the long view, who by experience, observation and understanding come to see it this way, not bypassing reason or the historical record. In the compulsive pursuit of money and power, pride is a constant companion.

For example, C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (1952) writes:
It is Pride–the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers. Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy. (108)
Nowhere are enemies more readily and easily made than in the political arena. In this stage of the powerful, pride takes on a particular role. The politician preens for the cameras, at times with mock outrage, at times with mock sadness, finding himself caught up in his own performance, having long lost his sense of duty and responsibility—having actually denied its validity and importance. When pride takes on such a form that only the self is venerated, the spectacle is miserable to behold.

This, alas, plays out daily to predictable results. The pursuit of power is a never-ending one, the appetite for it, once whetted, never satisfied or satiated. A proud man can never feel satisfied or a sense of accomplishment, especially in the presence of other proud men. It is more than likely that such men would find each other’s company, and in no way pleasant, in the lower levels of Dante’s nine concentric circles that form his view of Inferno (or Hell), part of his trilogy that includes Purgatorio (Purgatoryand Paradiso (Paradise).

I would recommend that everyone read all of the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), if only to understand a Christian point of view of crime, punishment, justice and redemption. It is important not to focus only on Inferno but to also read till the concluding canto of Paradiso, the last of the 14,233 lines that make up the narrative. Contained within its words, there is beauty and joy, a counterpoint to power and pride and its many forms.

Which raises the idea of false humility, sometimes found among the outwardly religious or pious who have been placed in positions of leadership. Its purpose is similar to that of pride, chiefly, to draw attention to the person, to show how humble he is, when in reality his is a desire for attention and praise and flattery. He is far from the ideal, finding the right balance between superiority and inferiority, if it is to be reached, in not discussing (or raising up) self at all.

Few, it appears, can achieve this state of being, which is not to say that this is not a laudable goal worthy of a lifetime of pursuit; any gain is a good and worthy one. This pursuit, so to speak, is one that is beyond a person’s natural abilities, beyond a person making a conscious effort. Such is what Rabbi Louis Jacobs [1920–2006] writes in “Humility in Judaism,” excerpted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion (1995):
On the deeper level, the notion is found, especially in Hasidism, that humility is not the mere absence of pride. Rather it consists not so much in thinking little of oneself as in not thinking of oneself at all. When the Hasidim and other Jewish mystics speak of annihilation of selfhood, they are not thinking of a conscious effort of the will. To try to nullify the self by calling attention to it is bound to end in failure. Instead, the mystics tend to suggest, the mind should be encouraged to overlook entirely all considerations of both inferiority and superiority.
What a wonderful and edifying thought. A healthy self-respect combined with a healthy respect for others, including those in authority, leads to the right balance of forces that drive humans one way or another. It is neither desirable to think yourself better than others, nor is desirable to debase yourself lower than others. A society, group, people or nation that lives like this, seeing themselves as superior and others are inferior, is not only a pride-filled one, but also an immoral one.

Such brings me to the idea of dignity, and explains one of the differences between dignity and pride; the latter is about competition and power and looking down on others, the former about a healthy respect, both for self and for others, and seeing a worthiness in all, because they are made in the image of God. Dignity brings people together; pride tears people apart. This explains why Proverbs puts pride and destruction in the same sentence.