What exactly is Pride?
The First Spiritual Sin
This mountain is by nature such that, down below, the start is always hard, yet hurts far less the more one rises up.
We begin today by examining the first of the deadly sins. Before we explain what pride is, we must distinguish it as either a spiritual sin or a carnal sin. St. Thomas explains that these are two ways the 7 capital sins can be understood. He then moves onto explain that spiritual sins are worse than those that are carnal. Recently Pope Francis made this comment and many reacted. Do not consider the Pope’s statement to imply that any of the 7 Deadly sins are less than deadly because some are worse than others. Rather, there is a type of hierarchy that is understood here within the realm of sin. Spiritual sins are worse, not necessarily as they manifest in particular acts that are either venial or mortal. Rather spiritual sins are worse in the sense that they obscure something deeply dignified within man, which is called the rational appetite.
The rational appetite or the will of man is what makes humans different from animals. Man is an “agent of truth” in whose vocation is to magnify the Logos. Simply: while sensual (carnal) pleasures are a part of man’s shared experience with animals, the spiritual pleasures of man are more fundamental to his dignity.
In this regard, Pride is the first sin that seeks spiritual or rational pleasure. Now consider it this way: the first sin. Adam and Eve’s original sin was to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This was not a tree of carnal pleasure as some cultural presentations have seemed to characterize it. Rather, the tree’s object was a type of knowledge. Think about it - how often do you get pleasure from hearing gossip, or being in the “know.” What of the effect that comes from honors, or even the imaginings of power and money? Have you ever fantasized about harming someone who has harmed you? Are you ever excited by distractions that lead you away from God’s will? All of these are spiritual sins - they are a type of movement of our will, of our reason that gives us pleasure in things that simply are not good.
When Adam and Eve ate from the this tree, the sin was not in growing in knowledge, but rather approaching knowledge in the wrong way. God, who is the author of all truth, alone has the prerogative to define good from evil, true from untrue. Adam and Eve were not satisfied with only being discoverers and surrenderers of truth. They wanted to appropriate the same Divine Prerogative of the Divine Mind for themselves - they wanted to eat from a Tree only God could. Thus, truth submits itself, they thought, to my will, my choosing. Truth becomes “mine.” Relativism was born.
But can we say that pride was relativism? Not really. Relativism is simply a manifestation of pride. What exactly is pride then? Lets turn to the master
Pride is so called because a man thereby aims higher than he is…
St. Thomas Aquinas
The sin is simple - we think of ourselves as greater than we truly are. This does not mean that the solution to pride is to think lesser than we are. That would actually be a type of pride too. Why? Because we are still taking it upon ourselves to define our own worth beyond what is actually true. We place ourselves in a judgment seat over the world, over others, over ourselves and pronounce judgment. Thus a timid, excessive self-deprecatory approach to our own dignity is nonetheless still an action in our spirit where we define the truth.
Why is this important for us to reflect on? Too often we externalize the sins - we imagine them according to behavior. But Spiritual Sins in particular are movements of the will in regard to knowledge and truth. That is to say acts of pride can camouflage themselves behind external actions that are popularly considered humble. If our awareness doesn’t dive into the depths of the movement of our own intellect, and its sense of entitlement about defining truth around our lofty judgment-seat, then we will remain enslaved to this pernicious sin that is active in every other sin we commit daily.
What was Dante’s solution to this sin in purgatory? He gave heavy rocks for sinners to carry. This was to ground them in the earth (which is the etymological meaning of the term humility). Humility means to be grounded in reality. Sometimes reality is heavy when it doesn’t match up to our lofty desires. However, whatever God envisions, I promise you, will always be better than our vision. Ours is a wasteland, His is paradise.
For many of us, when we think of truth we think of theological, doctrinal, dogmatic, scientific, and philosophical truths. This is all good and well. But there is another category worth considering: personal truths. What I mean here is examining honestly before your confession: “What did I actually say, and why did I actually say it?” When in a conflict do we exaggerate and retell the story of our woes making others look worse than we are, and us better than we were? Surrendering to the truth is not just something we do when it comes to abstract or doctrinal matters - its a way of life. Consider gaslighting for a moment. Consider deception. Consider gossip. All these things treat the truth as if its entirely up to our will how we handle it, twist it, define it. In a certain sense the narrative we have of others and ourselves is closer to us, more often than moral doctrines and dogmatic matters. Can we be trusted to discern these higher truths if we cannot be truthful to ourselves and others?
My hope here is not to berate any of us. But to expose the ugly face of what pride actually is. Sadly its in the author of this article, and in many was, likely worse than in you. But its nonetheless something we are all born addicted to. If we can begin by at least admitting that, we have now named it - become aware of it - and its losing its power already.
What are some big-rocks that will bring you back to earth? Perhaps these heavy rocks will help us see more fully the incredible truth about God - that He is God, and we are not. Perhaps this can become something of Good News! And perhaps it will lead us to a way of life that gives us peace. When we look to the personal truths and truths of our faith without the Divine responsibility of existentially defining such realities, we will live lightly, joyfully. But so long as we carry the notion that truth itself is something we must invent each day, we will be burdened by a simple disconnect from reality, from ourselves, from others, and from God.
Now humility properly regards the subjection of man to God, as stated above. Hence pride properly regards lack of this subjection, in so far as a man raises himself above that which is appointed to him according to the Divine rule or measure…
St. Thomas Aquinas