Photo: Ezra Jeffrey
“Homer with the line “Ocean and mother Tethys, the becoming of gods” has said that everything is the offspring of flowing and motion.”
-Socrates, Plato’s Theaetetus
We’ll get to “flowing and motion” shortly. But first: pride.
Certain dominant religious traditions in the West of the last two millennia have lent the concept of pride a foul flavor that still persists in most of our moral tastes to some degree.
And, in many ways, the categorization of pride as a sin—as the sin, or the first sin, the root of all other sins, in many branches of at least Christian theology—makes quite a bit of sense.
A small collection of famous expressions of this general attitude include:
“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
-Proverbs, Old Testament
“Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.”
-St. Vincent de Paul
“With pride, there are many curses. With humility, there come many blessings.”
-Ezra Taft Benson
“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”
“Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves.”
And, my personal favorite:
“The tyrant is a child of pride
Who drinks from his great sickening cup
Recklessness and vanity
Until from his high crest headlong
He plummets to the dust of hope.”
-Chorus, Oedipus Rex, Sophocles, tr. Fitts and Fitzgerald
The collated gist of these sentiments seems to be this:
Pride is deceptive, and (therefore) has bad results.
Pride means something like “thinking well of oneself.” Thinking well of oneself feels good. The pleasure of feeling good is seductive, and—unlike with something like food—we have no natural limit on our “stomach” for pride that the material shape of internal organs provides.
Our appetite for pride can grow essentially infinitely. In doing so it can block from our awareness all evidence that might contradict it, and deepen our egoic roots to the point where they have no realistic chance of ever being dug up.
The fact that every human being has limitations makes the unbounded growth of pride inevitably self-deceptive. Pride obscures our clarity of vision towards ourselves, and by extension our view of others. And even if we do manage to maintain some degree of clarity in our perception, such as Snow White’s stepmother’s mirror grants her, the fundamentally comparative nature of pride cannot help but produce the pain of envy when we encounter people who plainly exceed us in some domain that our pride includes. (For instance, “beauty.”)
Pride is, in addition, highly likely to alienate the affections of those around us, and justifiedly so.
But perhaps most importantly: a radically proud disposition eliminates all possibility for growth and learning. Pride binds us with complacent stagnation; it obstructs the soul’s natural flourishing, the kind of accelerated and semi-boundless personal evolution that should be a human’s greatest blessing.
In summary: pride obstructs the progression of true skill, drives away our friends, distorts our vision of reality, and, to the extent that we do somehow manage to maintain any degree of clear sight, it instills agonizing hatred and envy.
This would all point us pretty directly to chugging the antivenom of humility with all the enthusiasm we can muster, were it not for the fact that pride is the primary thing holding our lives together.
How precisely it does that we will explore below.
The three ingredients of pride are “perception,” “good,” and “self.”
The element of reality that we intuitively perceive as most important tends to be the cluster of semi-material flux known as the “self.”
“Most important” simply means deserving of the most attention. The thing called the “self” tends to take up more awareness, more concern and focus and care than anything else in our lives.
(This may be one of the many reasons for certain wisdom traditions’ emphasis on selfless service—such practices can help to balance out this universal tendency.)
Even if you don’t consciously believe that the self is the most important sliver of existence—if you’ve had a realization, or been persuaded, that you are one part of a greater whole, and that pouring your attention out into others is the truest way to act—
You still must, functionally, treat the self as the most important part of life, because it’s the only vehicle through which you can impact or see the world around you. Not only does all service flow directly and exclusively through the self; the self’s senses, both external and internal, are also the only means we have of perceiving those “others” we wish to serve.
If you care about anything, that care has to transfer first and foremost into devotion to the self, into its capacities and actions. A musician might play for sheer love of his audience; as a result he has to pour devoted attention into developing the muscular memory of his body. A warrior might be utterly devoted to protecting those she loves; as a result, she has to continuously train her body and mind so that she can defend her loved ones effectively.
The self is our main area of concern and attention even, and perhaps especially, if we care about others, or don’t consider ourselves to be fundamentally distinct from them.
The human mind possesses a visceral system of categories. A central distinction in this system we can call that of “good/bad.”
(“Pleasant/unpleasant,” “beautiful/ugly,” or “desirable/undesirable” are some other terms that could be used—but if we shake off the merely moral meaning of “good/bad,” I think it serves as the simplest and more comprehensive set of terms for our categorical core.)
This simple set of two categories informs all action, speech, thought, and to some extent even feeling, in the sphere of human experience. Some people even go so far as to say that none of our other categories have any meaning or importance apart from their relevance to this one.
When choosing specific experiences, behaviors, directions of attention, or anything else, these categories of good/bad—regardless of whether we consciously bring them to mind—serve as important underlying principles for every decision. The quality of “good” lends a weight to experiential life; good and bad act as attractive and repulsive forces for the phenomena we interact with, both within and without.
Described from a slightly different angle: the human soul is made up of desire, and all desire seems to be for things that we sense to be, somehow—even if in a very strange, dubious, or roundabout way—”good.”
good + self:
If “good” is one of our main aims, and “self” is one of our main concerns, then—effectively—a principle or at least immediate goal of individual humans, however unconscious that goal may be, would be to have a “good self.”
This is the reason for the pleasure we feel when we perceive ourselves to be good in any aspect or domain, and especially in whatever areas we consider to carry the most consequence.
The pleasurable perception of the self as good is pride.
If we perceive a failure, a deficiency, an element of “not good” in ourselves—this pains us. We want to correct it; we want to change. The qualities and patterns we consider to be good, by contrast, we want to keep.
Whatever parts of ourselves we want to hold onto, we wish to preserve because they are somehow good. Pride is what holds the stable parts of the self together; and the desire behind pride is what drives us towards any and all improvement.
This, then, is the problem of pride:
The desire to think well of ourselves is responsible for preserving all positive qualities, as well as developing more positive qualities and correcting negative ones;
But the very same desire, as discussed earlier, also leads directly to the mistaken preservation of negative qualities, and prevents us from developing better ones.
The best solution I’m aware of to this problem resides in an oddly metaphysical location.
“Among those who are anxious about the nature of things, some are of the opinion… that everything is always moving, and others that nothing ever moves; and some that everything comes to be and perishes, and others that nothing ever comes to be or perishes.”
-Xenophon, Memorabilia (tr. Amy Bonnette)
One of the greatest ongoing metaphysical debates between philosophers has been the question of the primacy of “Being” and “Becoming.”
Some things seem to move and change (like water), with specific forms coming into being and then dying or vanishing (like specific waves in the ocean, or species, or individual people). Some things seem to be quite stable (like rocks, or at least physical laws).
The question of which of these two qualities of existence is more fundamental may be an abstract and useless inquiry (though it does have some implications for the existence and nature of divinity, which carries some importance).
But the distinction itself proves extremely relevant and useful for human life. Being and becoming serve as two vital aspects of our daily experience—two interconnected lenses through which we can look at, and deal with, everything that arises.
To illustrate their relationship: let’s say you have a dragon made of multi-colored light, and the dragon flies through a silk screen. As it flies through, silk-thin cross-sections of its rainbow body will become visible on the screen.
It would be equally fair to say that the dragon is made up of these cross-sections, as well as that each of the cross-sections is made of “dragon.”
This, at least at the level of our common-sense perception, is the relationship between being and becoming. You can say that being is made of becoming (because everything in the world does seem to change), and you can just as honestly say that becoming is made of being, because being by definition includes everything that is.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil tells his demon nephew that “the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” If we allow ourselves to consider the possible truth of statements from fictional devils, this idea can help to illuminate some crucial elements of the situation we find ourselves in:
Time is becoming; but, temporally, the quality of Being shows up most obviously in two or three places. First, it appears in the infinitesimal point called the present. And second, it appears in the totality that contains everything, including all of time, as well as (to a lesser extent) in discrete segments of time.
With a view to the thing we call the “self”—we are clearly in a state of both being and becoming. But our ideas, beliefs, and individual thoughts all tend to hold the more static quality of “being.” Of course beliefs can change; but they change from one specific thing to another.
This fact is the root of the problem of pride. We desire to be good, and this desire prevents us from becoming good.
The almost blindingly simple, though not necessarily easy, solution to this problem would be to root our pride exclusively in becoming rather than in being.
If we take pride in becoming better, in any domain whatsoever, rather than in whatever necessarily flawed state or skill we happen to have currently attained, then not only can we take truly endless delight in our soul’s activity throughout our lives without obstructing its growth—we can also tap into an effectively infinite fuel source for personal evolution.
Any failures, as well as any successes, will provide the special joy of pride, so long as we learn from both. Our desire to think well of ourselves will nourish and encourage every conceivable type of personal progression rather than impeding it through egoic calcification. And pride will befriend, rather than antagonize, the potent practice of dynamic humility as an ally in the soul’s continuous evolution.
There are two possible flavors to the pride rooted in becoming.
One flavor is the pride of improving ourselves, or growing. The other is the pride of being improved, or being grown.
An example of the first would be available through the experience of doing deadlifts. We know that the exercise is increasing our strength; we can experience the delight of becoming stronger, regardless of how much weight we can currently put on the bar.
An example of the second would be available in the recovery period after doing deadlifts. We know that simply sitting around, eating, or sleeping is now serving to increase our strength, since the rest period after a workout is when our bodies repair and regrow our musculature.
These two different flavors or modes of becoming-based pride can combine, particularly when we have experiences that blur the line between agency and receptivity. Zen practitioners speak about one particularly beautiful form of this combination with the precept that “equanimity carries the taste of purification.” (I first heard this idea during a meditation class with Shinzen Young.)
Equanimity means something like evenness of temper; it describes the quality of taking in both painful and pleasant experiences with equal satisfaction. On the surface, equanimity would seem to require a detachment from personal experience, or a complete separation from the domain of pleasure and pain. But the Zen precept that “equanimity carries the taste of purification” shows that this is not at all the case. Though pleasure and pain may not be the sole movers of the human soul, the mind will, to some extent, flee or chase these two strange daemonia, regardless of how rigorously we train it to remain still. The most direct access point to equanimity, then, is not to fight this fact, but instead to harness it—to take pleasure in both pleasant, as well as in painful experiences. And the simplest way to do this is to taste the delight of evolving through both.
The term “purification” describes a specific type of improvement or growth. Purification consists in the release of impediments to one’s true nature, or to happiness. If we not only understand, but experientially taste, the way in which life refines our consciousness through every single experience, regardless of that experience’s superficial discomfort or comfort, then every moment acquires not merely a beautiful silver lining, but a truly golden one. We become wealthier when the market goes up or down; our position is perfectly and permanently hedged.
This practice combines the active and receptive flavors of delight in growth. We recognize the way in which life is evolving us, and we lean into and accelerate that evolution by virtue of the recognition itself.
A more modest approach would be to simply commit to learning from everything, and to consciously practice the core skills of humanity—such as concentration and balance—in everything that we do. But this approach does not differ fundamentally from the Zen approach; both are rooted in the perpetually available pleasure of growing, rather than in the inescapably violent fluctuations of any form of pride rooted in the static fragments of performance, fate, or state.
“Moreover, this at any rate you know: that those who do not think they are doing well do not experience delight, but those who believe that they are progressing beautifully, either in farming or seafaring or whatever else they chance to be working at, are delighted on the grounds that they are doing well.”
-Socrates, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, I.6, tr. Amy Bonnette
The realm of judgment tends naturally towards the perspective of “being”—of static frames of reality, or present states, rather than towards the flux of “becoming.”
This means that the practice of connecting pride to becoming is just that: a practice. While it may result naturally in a kind of habituated momentum towards the more beneficial, fruitful, and sustainable disposition, it will likely consist largely of a commitment to pry apart the faculty of pride from any static trait, and to repeatedly re-attach it to the process of becoming. In other words: the sustainable form of pride is, itself, an element of the stream of becoming, and so its attendant practice must apply to itself.
Pride holds the potential to be the deadliest obstacle to human flourishing. But it is no more ultimately undesirable than it is inescapable. Its connection to the most fundamental elements of human experience—goodness, selfhood, and perception—demands that we find skillful means for being with it, protecting against its dangers, and harnessing it for both our happiness and our growth.
It should be obvious to everyone that if we become enslaved to pride’s skilless, static form, we confine ourselves to a miserable, stagnant, and half-blind life.
But if we seek to combat pride through sheer humility, we not only bury the very vitality of our spirit—we also alienate one of our greatest possible allies in living a progressively more skillful, increasingly beautiful, and—in what may be the simplest, but I think are ultimately the truest, terms—better life.