“The description of the proud or magnanimous man [in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics] is very interesting as showing the difference between pagan and Christian ethics…”. — Bertrand Russell.
SUMMARY: Pride to Aristotle was a virtue, and a means to happiness, but to Christians, it is a sin, and a means to unhappiness.
(About a 7 minute read)
In Judaism, pride is called the root of all evil, a valuation that seems in part to have been carried over into Christianity, for Christians regard pride as the first and foremost of the Seven Deadly Sins.
In Catholicism, the Seven Deadly Sins are not to be confused with “Mortal Sins” — they do not automatically damn you to hell if you fail to repent of them before death, but they are pretty much bad enough anyway.
In contrast to the Jewish and Christian views, pride was an actual virtue to Aristotle. Which of course, raises the question, “Why did Aristotle think pride was a virtue?”
I think the first thing to understand about Aristotle is that, for him, the goal of life was happiness (Greek: eudaimonia).
Today, most of us think of happiness as all but synonymous with pleasure. We often say something “made us happy” when we mean something gave us pleasure, whether that be physical or emotional pleasure. But “happiness” or eudaimonia in Aristotle’s view is not to be confused with pleasure. To be sure, it can be pleasurable to be happy, but those pleasures are a product of happiness, rather than happiness being a product of those pleasures.
Eudaimonia literally means to have a good guardian spirit. That is, a spirit that will keep you healthy, happy, and prosperous. But perhaps the best way to think of it in this context is as “well-being” or even “self-flourishing”. In the latter sense, it hints at the concept of being true to yourself or authentic, since being true to yourself is arguably the best way to pursue self-fulfillment and flourishing.
How does one attain to eudaimonia? For Aristotle, the answer is by cultivating virtues. Put differently, eudaimonia ultimately comes from within us, rather than from without — a view that seems somewhat opposed to today’s popular pursuit of happiness in external things, such as fancy cars and passionate lovers.
As he put it, “Happiness does not consist in pastimes and amusements, but in virtuous activities.” So while he does recognize to some extent that happiness is a product of externals (i.e. “activities”), it is ultimately a product of our virtues. Giving to charity, for instance, cannot make us eudaimonious unless giving is an expression of some virtue, such as generosity.
That might seem a bit strange at first, but try thinking of it this way: If you gave to charity, but did not do it out of generosity — but perhaps in order to keep up with the Jones’s charitable contributions — would you really be happy about it?
For Aristotle, then, eudaimonia is the ultimate goal of life, and the means to it is through cultivating virtues. Beyond that, virtues are a middle way, or Golden Mean, between extremes. Namely, the extremes of “excess” and “deficiency”.
Which brings us to Aristotle’s most controversial virtue, pride. Pride is the mean between vanity or arrogance on the one hand, and humility on the other. That is, vanity is an excess of pride, and humility is a deficiency of pride. To be either vain or humble is to Aristotle, a moral flaw.
In modern terms, that perhaps can be thought of as “too much self-esteem, the right amount of self-esteem, and too little self-esteem”. But what makes things too much, the right amount, and too little?
Here, the crucial factor is whether or not you deserve what you claim to deserve. For instance, if you claim to deserve more than you actually do deserve, then you are vain. If you claim to deserve less than you actually do deserve, then you are humble. Only if you claim to deserve what you actually do deserve are you proud — or again in modern terms, do you have the appropriate amount of self-esteem.
Now Aristotle’s views contrast with Christianity, but not always as sharply as you might think. The classification of pride as one of the seven deadly sins originated with a Desert Father named Evagrius Ponticus. He made a list of eight evil thoughts, and his pupil John Cassian then brought the classification to Europe.
In Ponticus’s classification, pride is sometimes listed as “self-overestimatation”. As such, it is similar to what Aristotle calls “vanity”.
In Christianity, the problem with pride is variously described as cutting someone off from God’s grace, as ascribing to oneself qualities and accomplishments that ought to be ascribed to God, or as over-valuing oneself. It is, of course, a wholly negative thing.
As for humility, it seems to me that the concept is popularly understood by Christians to be a virtue that consists in claiming less than one deserves. That, of course, would appall Aristotle, who certainly did not consider such a thing a virtue.
However, that’s only the popular understanding of humility. Some notable Christians define humility quite differently. Saint Bernard, for instance, thought of humility as being realistic in our self-estimates, and C. S. Lewis condemned the notion that humility was to be found in claiming less than one deserved.
Looked at as Bernard would have, humility is compatible with the Aristotelian notion that pride consists in realistically claiming for oneself what one deserves, and only what one deserves.
Yet, despite how some notable Christians have understood the term, the Christian masses seem more inclined to understand it as claiming less than one deserves. That was one reason Nietzsche referred to Christian morals as a “slave morality”. To Nietzsche, a master would claim what they deserved, but a slave would be inclined or forced to claim less than he or she deserved.
Nietzsche might have been onto something. Early Christianity, with exceptions, did not penetrate the Grecco-Roman world via the upper classes, but rather via the lower classes. It was not originally a religion of the rich, but a religion of the poor and the enslaved. In contrast, Aristotle was clearly a man either of the upper class of his time, or who self-identified with the upper class of his time.
In sum, pride in Christianity is a sin, but in Aristotle a virtue. However, there are notable Christians who define the terms “pride” and “humility” in ways that more or less bring their thinking into line with Aristotle’s.