Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pride and Humility

Lenten reflections drawing on C.S. Lewis and Fulton Sheen

            I have a booklet of daily Lenten reflections that include excerpts from various works by C.S. Lewis.  A recent reflection was on pride and humility, taken from the "The Great Sin" chapter in Mere Christianity.  I wanted to think more about these two concepts, and I find the things that both Lewis and Fulton Sheen say about them (Sheen in "The Infinity of Littleness," one of the chapters in Life is Worth Living) pretty interesting.  Just thinking and comparing is basically what I'm doing here.  I'm not being very original.

            What exactly is pride?  What exactly is humility?  Just as importantly, what are they not?  I think sometimes it does help to understand what something is by also understanding what it isn't.  One example is that pride is not taking pleasure in being praised, as long as the pleasure is from the fact that you have pleased someone else, and not about yourself (Lewis 106).  Lewis states, "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" (p 106).  In contrast, humility is not refusing praise, and is not denying that statements of praise are false.  In fact, these acts of false humility are actually pride.  Sheen gives an example that if after being complimented on his telecast, he replied that "it was nothing" and he only prepared three minutes for it, that would be pride, because it implies "Just think how of what the show would be if I spent four minutes preparing for it" (42). 

            Lewis states that pride is "competitive by its very nature" (p 104) in that it comes not only from having something, but having more of it than someone else, or doing something better than something else.  Sheen seems to agree, stating, "Pride is an admission of weakness; it secretly fears all competition and dreads all rivals" (p 44).  Lewis also states, "Pride is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God" (p 105).  He explains that a prideful person refuses to acknowledge something superior to himself, and therefore cannot know God without being able to acknowledge him as superior.  Similarly, Sheen states, "If we are filled with our own importance, then we can never be filled with anything outside ourselves" (p 40).  For this reason, humility is necessary for getting to know God: "Humility is the condition of discovering the Infinite Truth and Love...
No man discovers anything big unless he makes himself small.  If he magnifies his ego to infinity, he will learn nothing, for there is nothing bigger than the infinite.  If he reduces his ego to zero and is no longer proud and conceited, then   he will discover everything big, even bigger than himself.  His world begins to be infinite.  In order to discover truth, goodness and justice, and God, one must be very humble" (p 40).

            Lewis mentions how pride is different from self respect.  I think he means that it comes out of an excessive perversion of self-respect.  Sheen states, "Pride is inordinate self-love" (p 43).  Many evils are perversions of good things.  So it could also be inordinate self-respect, or maybe an improper recognition of it.  Lewis mentions that sometimes a person might use pride disguised as self-respect to conquer other vices by the fact that they are beneath his dignity.  "The devil laughs," he says:
 He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would  be 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, contentment, or even common sense (p 106).
While (I think) I understand his point, I am caught on what seems to be a complete prohibition against using the concept of self respect or dignity to avoid a vice or a sin.  What confuses me is that numerous sins are things that we should avoid because they truly are contrary to our dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God.  I do not think that any recognition of this fact is automatically and inherently an act of pride.  It probably would depend on whether the motive is obedience or competition.  Thinking back to where Lewis says that pride is competitive, if the motive is simply to be better than others, then that would be pride.  On the other hand, if the motive is obedience to God's laws, then that would be humility, "the virtue that tells us the truth about ourselves, that is, how we stand, not in the eyes of men, but before God" (Sheen 41). 

            Toward the end of Lewis's chapter comes the part that my reflection booklet quoted.  He explains that God does not forbid pride and demand our humility for his own good, but for ours.  Humility is necessary for us to get to know God, and that pride hinders our ability to be open to Him.  "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 got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are" (Lewis 107) [I had to quote that.  I found the ending hilarious].

            Sheen ends his chapter by talking about the "greatest act of humility this world ever knew" (p 44).  It's obvious to us what he means, but he begins with an interesting analogy of a person becoming a dog, "that gives a faint idea of something that actually happened.  Think of God becoming man... He would not forgo the companionship of men, but would become a victim to their abuse, their misunderstanding, their scorn, and their cruelties." I really like how he doesn't stop at what pride is and what humility is and tell us why we need to be humble.  He reminds us just how humble God was willing to be for our sake.  

Here's a link to Fulton Sheen's talk, "The Infinity of Littleness"
You can listen for free, the website just wants you to register.

The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. C.S. Lewis
Life is Worth Living. Fulton J. Sheen.
(Yea, I know those aren't proper citations. I'm being lazy.)

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