Like cholesterol, there are two kinds of pride: one good, one bad.
Now justice is a proper correlation between two things. A parent can be proud of his child when his child's life conforms to a standard of moral excellence. A coach can be proud of his team when the players train hard, play with enthusiasm, and show good sportsmanship. An artist can be proud of his work when it is done well. Pride, in the good sense, is fully justified when someone or something conforms to a good standard.
We might hasten to add that this standard of excellence may be generously and lovingly applied as when parents express pride over the crayon squiggles their youngsters make in their coloring book.
Bad pride operates wholly outside of the realm of justice. It is the desire, sometimes hunger, for recognition, status, honors, and adulation that are undeserved. Here is where the element of injustice enters the picture. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to this kind of pride as the attempt to achieve a "perverse excellence."
Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus, is the portrait of a composer of moderate ability, Antonio Salieri, who lusts after the kind of adulation that is reserved for only a truly great composer. Salieri recognizes the greatness of the young Wolfgang Mozart, but knows that he can never emulate him. He plans to murder his adversary, but not before he extracts from him a glorious Requiem. He will then perform this composition at Mozart's funeral as his own creation and win, at last, the glory that his pride so ardently craves.
Salieri's plans go awry. He suffers a mental and emotional breakdown and is sent to an asylum where he goes around in his wheelchair forgiving his fellow inmates of the "sin" of mediocrity. Even in his madness, he retains his pride, though it is given a different form of expression, this time presuming that he has the power to forgive others for a condition that only he imagines to be a sin.
The tragic decline of Salieri, in Shaffer's play, indicates exactly why pride is not only deadly, but the most deadly of the Deadly Sins. Because of his pride, Salieri was envious of Mozart, who received the kind of honor that Salieri would never deserve. This envy immediately led to anger, as the cascade of Deadly Sins continued its onward rush. What soon followed were treachery and deceit. Pride, if left unchecked can consume a person entirely. It is a deadly disposition whose inner dynamic points toward self-destruction.
Bad pride is unjust, unrealistic, foolish, and self-defeating. Yet it clings to people and is extremely difficult to eradicate. The main reason that pride is so difficult to remove is that it is difficult to diagnose. It lurks in close proximity to a number of positive attributes, such as self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, individuality, and even creativity. Pride can easily masquerade as a virtue.
Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman struggled mightily against pride. His words "Lead Thou me on!" which he use repeatedly in his poem, "The Pillar of the Cloud," were an exhortation for God, the center of reality, to lead him beyond his own confining self-centeredness. Pride cannot be cured solely from within. It requires help from beyond:
Pride is a sin against the light and a stubborn cleaving to self. It cannot be removed by a mere action or a simple act of the will. It is so easy to become proud of our alleged humility.
Erasmus writes about an occasion when Plato entertained some friends, including Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes, as was his custom, arrived dirty and disheveled. Having spotted a richly ornamented couch in the room, Diogenes proceeded to trample upon it while shouting, "I trample upon the pride of Plato!" The wise pupil of Socrates mildly replied, "But with greater pride, Diogenes!"
"The proud hate pride – in others," wrote Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard's Almanac. We see the pride of others with 20/20 vision, while being blind to its presence in ourselves. "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye," Christ asked, "but not notice the log that is in your own?" (Lk. 6:41-42; Mt. 7: 3-5).
Donald DeMarco. "Pride." Lay Witness (Nov/Dec, 2010): 11.
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.
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