Pride is often considered the root of all vices. Pride caused Eve to eat the fruit; pride lead Achilles to send his closest friend to his death; pride brought King Lear to insanity; pride encouraged Victor Frankenstein to create life; and Pride and Prejudice (one of my favorite books) has always left me with the reminder that pride and prejudice are both entirely wrong and should be avoided.
Then I read Aristotle. He disagrees.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics teaches us how to live the good life. He explains that the good life is the happy life and that the happy life consists of virtue, friendship, pleasure, and other goods. His definition of virtue is multi-faceted: As a very basic definition, Aristotle defines virtue (specifically moral virtue) as the mean between two vices (an excess and a defect) which a person uses practical wisdom to understand, acquire, and act on.
After intensely exploring the definition of virtue, Aristotle explores different virtues, and in book IV, chapter 3 of the Nicomachean Ethics, he discusses pride. This should come as a shock. Pride? How can pride be a virtue? After every example of the viciousness of pride, Aristotle now encourages us to be proud? Yes, he does, and, by examining the definition of this pride as well as two examples of it, we will realize that we would benefit from listening to him.
The Greek word for this kind of pride is megalopsychia, meaning great-souled (mega being “great” and psyche being soul; it can also be translated magnanimity). Instantly we recognize that this is not the pride to which we are accustomed. This pride is the mean of vanity (excess) and undue humility (deficiency). Aristotle says, “The man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things and is worthy of them.” The proud man, in Aristotle’s definition,is also good: he seeks honor, gains honor, responds appropriately to that honor because he is good.
Since this pride is so clearly unlike pride as we understand it, why does this translation use the word ‘pride’ instead of something like ‘magnanimity’? The word ‘magnanimity’ is majestic and descriptive; it is an apt translation for megalopsychia as a literal Latinization of the Greek word. However, the translation ‘pride’ is jarring; instantly we recognize that a fine line exists between the virtue of pride and the vice of pride. How do we distinguish between these two kinds of pride? Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis offer two examples.
Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice is obviously about pride. I tend to think of Austen as giving an evaluation of the vices of both pride and prejudice, demonstrating how to avoid them. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy need to be humbled, which eliminates their ill-founded prejudices. However, by examining the character arc of Mr. Darcy, we can clearly see that Austen might be demonstrating the Aristotlian virtue of pride: ] Is Darcy’s pride vicious or virtuous?
Multiple conversations in the book focus on pride and vanity, whether one is virtuous and the other is not, whether someone can be properly prideful or if pride is always a vice. Charlotte Lucas, Mary Bennet, and Darcy defend proper pride while condemning vanity, upholding Darcy as an emblem of proper pride. Initially, Darcy thinks he exemplifies proper pride, but Elizabeth condemns him for it, causing a life-changing upheaval of his ideas: he begins to make himself worthy of the pride and honor he has: he interacts with those socially below him with gentility, he willingly negotiates with his enemy for Elizabeth’s sake, and he openly acknowledges his faults. At the end of the novel, Elizabeth tells her father that Darcy “has no improper pride;” he still has pride, but he is now, as Aristotle says, the man “who thinks himself worthy of great things and is worthy of them.”
What does this pride look like for Christians? Since it can easily slip into arrogance and vanity, wouldn’t it be better for us to avoid striving for this kind of pride and only focus on humility? In some cases, yes; sometimes we must lean too far past the mean into the deficiency so that we can avoid the excess. But there is still a place for this kind of pride in the Christian walk.
The word megalopsychia is not mentioned in the New Testament. However, C.S. Lewis, in his sermon The Weight of Glory, beautifully combines the idea of megalopsychia with humility. When discussing how easily we slip from humility to vanity, he writes:
But I thought I could detect a moment — a very, very short moment — before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it was her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be.
Lewis’s “perfect humility” is not exactly Aristotle’s pride, but they can be connected. Even though we, as sinful beings, can never be perfectly good or perfectly worthy of honor on our own volition, when we do as God bids us through His grace and His Spirit, we can humbly embrace this “pride” of sorts. We can learn, as Darcy did, not to abuse the honor we receive, but to become selfless because of it, to “lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven,” to become “good in the highest degree” and to gain “greatness in every virtue.”