The Greatest Sin: PRIDE

The Great Sin by C.S. Lewis

Today I come to that  part  of Christian  morals where they differ most sharply  from  all  other morals.  There is one vice of which no man in  the world  is  free;  which  every one  in the world loathes  when he sees it in someone  else; and  of  which  hardly any  people, except  Christians,  ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice.  And at the same time I have very seldom  met anyone, who was not  a Christian, who showed  the slightest mercy  to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which We are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.

The vice I  am  talking  of  is Pride or Self-Conceit: and  the  virtue opposite to  it, in Christian morals,  is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned  you  that the centre of Christian morals  did not lie there. Well,  now, we have come to the  centre.

According to Christian  teachers,  the essential  vice, the utmost  evil, is Pride.  Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and  all that, are mere flea bites  in comparison:  it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.  Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment  ago  that the more pride one had, the more one  disliked pride  in others. In fact, if you  want to find out how  proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike  it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any  notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?”  The point it that each person’s  pride  is  in  competition with every  one else’s pride. It is  because I wanted to be the big noise at  the party that I am  so annoyed at someone else  being  the  big noise. Two of a trade never  agree.  Now what  you  want  to  get  clear  is that  Pride  is essentially  competitive- it’s competitive by its very nature-while the  other vices  are competitive only, so to speak, by accident Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are  proud of being  rich,  or clever,  or good-looking, but they are not  They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than  others.  If  every  one  else  became  equally  rich,  or  clever, or good-looking there  would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of  competition has gone, pride has gone. That is  why I  say  that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other  vices are not. The sexual  impulse may drive two men into competition if they both want the same girl. But that is only  by accident; they might  just as  likely  have wanted two different girls. But a proud man  will take your girl from you,  not because  he wants her, but  just to prove to himself  that he is a better  man than you. Greed may drive men into competition if there is  not enough to go  round; but the proud  man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power. Nearly all those evils in  the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.

Take it with money. Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house, better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point. What is it that makes a man with £10,000 a year anxious to get £20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. £10,000 will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. 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.  What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid. It is Pride. What is it that makes a political leader or a whole nation go on and on, demanding more and more? Pride again.

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.

The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may  sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people  or unchaste people.  But Pride always means enmity-it is  enmity.  And not only enmity  between man and man, but enmity to God.

In  God  you  come  up against  something  which  is in every  respect   immeasurably  superior  to  yourself.  Unless  you  know  God  as  that-and, therefore, know yourself as nothing  in comparison-  you do  not know God at all.  As  long as  you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking  down on  things and people: and, of  course, as  long  as  you  are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

That  raises a terrible question. How is it that people  who are  quite obviously  eaten up with Pride  can  say they believe in God  and appear  to themselves very  religious? I am afraid it  means they  are  worshipping an imaginary God.  They  theoretically admit themselves  to be  nothing  in the presence of this phantom God,  but are really all  the time imagining how He approves  of them and thinks them  far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility  to  Him  and get  out  of it  a pound’s worth of Pride towards  their  fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap.

Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel  that we are good-above all,  that we are better than someone else-I think we may  be  sure that we are  being acted on,  not by  God, but by the devil.  The  real test of being  in the presence  of  God is that you  either forget about  yourself altogether  or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

It is a terrible thing  that  the worst of  all  the vices  can smuggle itself  into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other,  and  less bad, vices  come from the devil working on us  through our animal nature. But  this does  not come through our animal nature  at all It comes direct from Hell. It is  purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, 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. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste  and brave and self-con trolled provided, all the time,  he is setting  up in you the Dictatorship of Pride-just as he would be quite content  to see your chilblains cured if he was  allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual  cancer:  it eats up  the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Before  leaving  this  subject  I  must  guard  against  some possible misunderstandings:

(1)  Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back  for doing a lesson well, the woman  whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says “Well done,” are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the  fact  that you  have  pleased someone you wanted (and rightly  wanted)  to  please. The trouble  begins when you pass from thinking,  “I have  pleased  him;  all is well,” to thinking, “What a fine person I must be to have done it.” The more you  delight in  yourself and the less you delight in the  praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and  do not care about the praise  at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity,  though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad  and most  pardonable  sort.  The  vain  person  wants praise, applause, admiration, too much  and  is always  angling for  it. It is a fault,  but a childlike and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It 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.  Of course, it is very right,  and often our duty,  not to  care what people think of us, if we do  so  for the right reason; namely, because we care  so incomparably  more what God  thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason  for not  caring. He says “Why should I care for  the  applause  of  that rabble  as  if their  opinion  were  worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am  I the sort of man to blush  with pleasure at a  compliment like some  chit of a 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.” In this  way real  thoroughgoing Pride may act  as a check on vanity;  for, as I  said a  moment ago, the  devil  loves “curing”  a  small fault by giving you a great  one. We must try not  to  be vain, but we must  never call  in our Pride  to  cure our vanity; better the frying-pan than the fire.

(2) We say in English that a man is “proud” of  his son, or his father, or his school, or  regiment,  and it may  be  asked whether “pride” in  this sense  is a sin. I think it depends on what, exactly, we mean by “proud of.” Very  often,  in  such  sentences, the phrase  “is  proud of” means  “has  a warm-hearted admiration for.” Such  an  admiration  is, of  course, very far from being a sin. But it  might,  perhaps, mean that the  person in question gives  himself airs on the ground of his distinguished father, or because he belongs to a famous  regiment. This would,  clearly,  be a fault;  but  even then,  it would  be better than being proud simply  of  himself. To love and admire  anything  outside  yourself  is to  take  one step away  from  utter spiritual ruin;  though we  shall not be  well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.

(3)  We  must not  think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that  Humilityis something He  demands as due to His own dignity-as if God Himself  was  proud. He is not in the  least worried about His  dignity. The  point is,  He wants you to know  Him; wants to give  you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch  with  Him  you will, in fact, be  humble-delightedly humble,  feeling the  infinite relief of having for once got rid of all  the silly nonsense about  your  own dignity  which  has  made you restless  and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment  possible: trying to take off a lot  of  silly, ugly, fancy-dress  in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about  like the  little idiots we  are. I wish  I had  got a bit further with humility myself: if  I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off-getting rid of the false self, with all its “Look at me” and  “Aren’t  I a good  boy?”  and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it,  even for  a moment, is like a drink of cold water  to  a man in  a desert.

(4) Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he  will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person,  who is always telling you that, of course, he is  nobody.  Probably all you will  think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you  said  to him. If you do dislike him  it will be because you feel  a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility:  he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone  would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step.  The  first step is to realise  that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At  least,  nothing whatever  can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

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2 Responses to The Greatest Sin: PRIDE

  1. unusual says:

    Amazing website & writing skills. You my friend have TALENT!

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