Pride comes before a fall

By Legal Eagle

Writing a post for Jim Belshaw on things that make me proud got me thinking about pride more generally.

In religious tradition, pride is not viewed as a good thing. For example, Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Of course, pride is also one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

But I think pride has negative and positive aspects. I was trying to struggle through this on my own, and then I discovered that Aristotle got there first over 2000 years ago. He distinguishes between merited pride (megalopsuchia) and unmerited pride (hubris). Megalopsuchia is when a person is justly proud. He knows what he deserves and demands just that from those around him. But he is also magnanimous and generous. Hubris is when a person is undeservedly proud and arrogant, and thinks that by putting down and ill-treating another he makes himself greater. Of course, the result of hubris in the Greek tragedies was nemesis.

Two thousand years later, Nietzsche used the concept of master-slave mentality to counter what he saw as a lack of personal pride after the arrival of Christianity. He seems to have been a bit of a crazy mofo, but I’d say he was right that modern religions seem to only emphasise the negative aspects of pride, and that sometimes, pride in one’s self and others can be a good thing.

Positive aspects of pride

Pride can be a positive thing. If I have pride in myself and my work, for example, it means that I care about the quality of what I do, and how it reflects on me. It’s like that book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance says – if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

If I have pride in the achievements of others, it means I appreciate their efforts and care about what they do. So when a friend wins an award, or my daughter draws a really good picture, it’s good to feel proud.

I also think some measure of pride is necessary to make “the Golden Rule” work (ie, do unto others as you would have them do to you). If you have no respect for yourself, you may also lack respect for others. In order to love others fully, you have to love yourself.

Also, when responding to compliments, I have decided it’s better to accept them gracefully than to demur. I always used to say, “Oh no, I’m no good” or something like that, but it makes the person who gives you compliment feel a bit snubbed. In fact, people who routinely put themselves down make me feel frustrated, and I don’t want to give them compliments any more.  So now I say, “Thank you” and accept compliments.

Negative aspects of pride

Pride can also be a profoundly negative thing, especially where a person thinks their own interests are more important that the interests of anyone else, or that they know better than anyone else. That kind of pride is not magnanimous, but selfish.

Pride can lead to terrible consequences. Pride may prevent people from apologising when they really ought to do so.

Pride can be counterproductive. I think of people I know who are unwilling to accept help. This can be incredibly frustrating. There’s a kind of “I can do it myself” attitude – which is admirable in some senses, but sometimes we have to admit that we need help.

Pride can cause awful crimes like honour killings, where family members kill their own flesh and blood to preserve the “pride” of the family.

Arrogance and pride may lead a person to exclude the views of others and thinking that they are superior because of their class, ethnicity, religion, nationality or some other characteristic. And when you start to think that another group of people are inferior, there is a risk that you fail to think of them as human any more.


I once came up with a theory that arrogance is directly proportional to insecurity. People who are arrogant do not want to hear the views of others or acknowledge others because if they listen to others, they might have to concede that they might be wrong. If one is secure in one’s beliefs, one is able to listen to the points of views of others, and to learn from them where relevant.

Similarly, people don’t want to admit that they need help because it might expose the fact that they are vulnerable, or that they cannot do everything.

Overconfidence or arrogance can lead to a fall, as the Proverbs say. If you think you know everything, you’re not as likely to check over your work, or to listen to the views of others.

True pride is being open-minded enough to listen to the views of others and incorporate them into your own.  I think we need more than one word to refer to pride – because there are different kinds – a positive kind, and a negative kind. Sometimes it’s good to be proud of yourself or proud of others, because it means that you care about what you do, and what others do. But when it leads to a closed mind, it is not a positive thing.


  1. Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Can a better classicist than I confirm/deny my suspicion that hubris is a term as old as Homer, but megalopsuchia isn’t? What does this say about the Greek/Hellenic mind?

    And on sins that are virtues….

    One of the programming gods, Larry Wall (the original perl author) talks of 3 sins as virtues in programmers: (taken from early editions of the "Camel Book")

    Laziness – The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don’t have to answer so many questions about it. Hence, the first great virtue of a programmer.

    Impatience – The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don’t just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to. Hence, the second great virtue of a programmer.

    Hubris – Excessive pride, the sort of thing Zeus zaps you for. Also the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won’t want to say bad things about. Hence, the third great virtue of a programmer.

  2. Ken N
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    A fellow I used to work with talked of earned arrogance, which is quite rare but acceptable.
    So the behavior is not the problem but rather whether you are entitled to display it.
    Perhaps false humility is as unpleasant.

  3. Posted July 10, 2009 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    “Earned” arrogance is a misnomer. Arrogance by definition is an EXAGGERATED sense of your own significance or abilities. How does even spectacular prior achievement give you the right to overvalue your actual worth at a later time?

  4. Ken N
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Nah, I’m not going to argue about meanings of words.
    My point was that accomplishments, experience and those good things can earn you the right to behave with somewhat more confidence that otherwise.
    And often confidence in your rightness is necessary if you are to convince others and achieve what you are on about.
    Paul Keating ” Y’know it might be a good idea to make a few changes – only if the rest of you think it’s a good idea, of course”.

  5. Posted July 10, 2009 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    When I was growing up in Catholic New Zealand, any hint of pride was squashed, and humility was the virtue we were meant to cultivate. And it disgusts me, false humility. Arrogance disgusts me too, but genuine pride in achievement fills me with joy. The pride of a graduate after the ceremony, the pride of a parent watching their child achieve something new, the pride that someone can take in a garment they’ve made that has been admired, the pride that a novelist takes in their new book, or a painter at a new show.
    All earned. But the other kind of pride, the pride in what you are rather than what you’ve done, is the kind of pride that we were warned about and that can easily slide into hubris, I think.

    I once wrote an editorial on pride for a Gay and Lesbian newsletter in New Zealand. A young man wearing a T-shirt with GAY printed across it had been heavied and almost assaulted in daylight in the city – he was ‘rescued’ by two passing policewomen. 🙂 Some of the older men felt that he’d ‘brought it on himself’, and I found that kind of victim-blaming offensive. But it’s all a balancing act, humility/pride/hubris. Interesting discussion.

  6. Jacques Chester
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Ah, Dave beat me to it.

    I love the programming sins!

    They’re virtues, actually. Programming sins probably include swiftness, heroic effort and charity to managers.

  7. Posted July 10, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]
    * Swiftness isn’t a sin if it is the result of long careful design and effort building up a library. Using a code generator you’ve written is a good example.(See Laziness)
    * Heroic effort – again, ok if you want to do something YOUR way (aka properly) in the time a manager wants a quick’n’dirty.
    * Charity to managers: Agreed totally. Some deserve respect, but then it isn’t charity.

    I suppose all commentators so far are advocates of “moral relativism”. Can we name any “sins” that don’t have an upside under different circumstances?

    Hypocrisy might be one.

  8. Posted July 10, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    What M-H said. I honestly think (even allowing for the fact that he could get pretty weird at times) that this is what Nietzsche was having a go at Christianity about when he was talking about the master-slave morality. You finish up in a perverse situation where people who’ve worked bloody hard for something, and/or have spectacular amounts of talent, playing the false humility game.

    I remember seeing an interview over here with a man who’d won the VC, and it was clear the interviewer expected him to get into the false humility thing (which is also very British, btw), but he refused to play the game, letting it be known that he was proud of himself, his unit and his country. He also managed to convey that while under enemy fire he was absolutely scared spitless and that bravery does not mean a lack of fear, but the ability to overcome that fear. I felt like cheering by the time he’d finished speaking, if only to see the expression on the interviewer’s face — it looked like she’d had the rug pulled right out from under her.

  9. Posted July 10, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    I guess that makes the devil the Bastard Operator From Hell.*

  10. Posted July 11, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Overconfidence or arrogance can lead to a fall

    Yeah true. Learned that one the hard way. Painful but very good for you. There’s always a bit of a struggle between one’s own view of one’s self and things generally and the views of others. If you’re too wrapped up in your own mind’s eye it can lead to hubris, if you’re too deferential to the views of others it can make you hopelessly ineffective. Cue: George W Bush and Jimmy Carter respectively.

    Edward de Bono wrote that intelligent people often make lousy thinkers. The reason being that if you’re smart you’re well used to being correct. You kow the answers in class at school etc. Someone who is less gifted, or impeded some other way, knows they are often wrong and therefore learns to stop and think before speaking. Intelligent people in debate often react emotionally to an issue and then use their intellectual firepower to defend their emotional disposition rather than considering the issue objectively. Learning to assimilate the criticisms of others is probably one of the most essential things you can ever learn.

    I’m still trying.

  11. Posted July 11, 2009 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    He seems to have been a bit of a crazy mofo,

    Nietzsche had syphillis hence the insanity. A lot of people tend to think he’s nuts because of his somewhat, um, experimental approach to writing philsophy. But as Hannah Arendt pointed out correctly most of his mature work is a thought experiment. He understood early on that very few people would get him, and he was a poet, so I guess he thought bugger it I’ll be creative.

    His advocacy of the so-called ‘m,aster’ morality I think was a direct response to the rise of democracy which he’s often thought to’ve been opposed to. Give he was such a Grecophile I have my doubts about that. But the Greeks had an ethos of self-control which was at the centre of their political culture. The will to command that Nietzsche advocated (and the Nazis failed to understand and also fetishized) was not really about commanding others but commanding one’s self.

    In Christianity everyone is subject to a Higher Power which concerns itself not just with compliance with law but also correct thought and feeling. One is not in command of one’s self. One is the site of battle between the forces of good and evil. One can always blame the devil.

    The Nazis some of whom were enthsuastic about Nietzsche were exactly what he was talking about when he outlined ‘slave’ morality. And for this reason I think Martin Heidegger should be regarded as second rate. Having read Nietzche so extensively. Having read Zaratrhustra where we are asked: when 5 of you unite why does a sixth always have to die? How could he not understand what the Nazis were really on about?

    A question his pupil and lover Hannah Arendt asked when forced by circumstance to abandon traditional philosophy and become instead what she termed a ‘political theorist’. Funnily enough it’s still Heidegger who gets taught at university not Arendt so much. Wonder why that is?

    Given that Western culture is now in the grips of a cult of evasion in which everything from prozac to pornography is to blame for various nastiness, given also that there’s an inevitable reaction against this, I wonder if the time hasn’t come from a resurgence of the ethics of the Greeks: the command of self. As Aristotle said of pride and of other things, it’s not the quality itself which is good or evil it’s the dose of it. A little wine is good for your health. A lot is bad.

    Given my hangover this morning I reckon something Ovid said about moderation applies.

  12. Posted July 11, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    He also managed to convey that while under enemy fire he was absolutely scared spitless and that bravery does not mean a lack of fear, but the ability to overcome that fear.

    No lack of fear means you are either crazy or stupid or a brick. 🙂

    I don’t like false humility but I do prefer it to the self-aggrandizement that seems de rigeur these days. If I read about one more Diva Pop mediocrity crapping on about how unique they are, how they’re changing the culture or some such…

    Well let’s just say that Kevin Kachadourian might come in handy. 🙂

  13. Aimee
    Posted July 11, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    On the subject of false humility, I always remember the extremely ‘umble Uriah Heep in David Copperfield – and what a skin-crawlingly repulsive character he was. But then that reminds me of how Jasper Fforde “explained” he came to be like that in, um, i think it was the Well of Lost Plots, and it just makes me laugh.

    I only recently read some Nietzche and, apart from the crazy mofo hubris, what struck me most was how very readable and beautiful his prose was. I wish I could have written some of those lines.

    On the subject of virtues and vice, i quote Shakespeare:

    For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
    But to the earth some special good doth give.
    Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use
    Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
    Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
    And vice sometime by action dignified.

  14. Posted July 12, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Tasty quote Aimee. Nietzsche still holds the record for the youngest tenured professor in German history. His first book The Birth of Tragedy containing a then outrageous argument along with some wild but apt generalizations and some very cheeky speculation did not please the Establishment.

    So he said two things: I quit! And: you think that’s crazy? You ain’t seen crazy yet.

    I heard the word said” God is dead,
    He hath died of his pity for Man.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *