The Problem of Pride (and the Comforts of Hell)

“For Satan flaming with unquenched desire
Forms his own Hell and kindles his own Fire . . .”

Daniel Defoe, The Political History of the Devil (1726)

Satan fell from heaven because he was proud, because he resented a being that was—or that in Satan’s view pretended to be—superior to himself.  Satan resented God, whom he regarded as an arrogant and tyrannical angel, and because he was himself an arrogant and tyrannical angel, Satan resolved to take God’s place on heaven’s throne.

“His pride
Had cast him out from heaven, with all his host
Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equaled the most High.”* 

You will notice that Satan’s pride has two aspects: the first is Satan’s envious desire to make himself the equal of his superior, God; the second is Satan’s tyrannical desire to make himself the superior of his equals, the other angels.  Satan is therefore a rebel and a tyrant, this last word to be understood in the ancient Greek sense of usurper.  Like so many rebel leaders who have followed in his footsteps, Satan launched his war against “tyranny” in order “to set himself in glory above his peers.”

You will also notice that Satan’s fall from Heaven into Hell was not a punishment for pride.  It was, instead, a natural and necessary consequence intrinsic to his being prideful.  To reject the hierarchy of Heaven is to exile oneself, instantly and automatically, from the Kingdom of God.  This is why Milton said it was Satan’s pride that cast him out from heaven.  This is why Defoe said it was Satan’s “unquenched desire” that formed and kindled Hell.

Hell is a dismal, run-down, stinking slum, but the altogether sufficient compensation of Hell, so far as Satan is concerned, is that Hell does not hurt his pride. Here in the stygian gloom, his pride is not piqued by a superior being to whom he is not equal, or by equal beings to whom he is not superior.  In this sense, Hell is a very comfortable place. Thus Satan says,

“Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”*

The “we” of this line is a royal we, since Satan’s pride combines envy of beings who are superior and contempt for beings who are equal.  Had Satan’s army prevailed in the War in Heaven, he would not have run the erstwhile Kingdom of God as a demonic democracy.  In Hell he is an autocrat and the rebel angels are his slaves.

* * * * *

The word “pride” seems to have entered English with the Norman conquest, when the new overlords of England described themselves as prud.  The word meant valiant in French, but among the defeated Anglo Saxons, who thought less highly of Norman valor, prud came to mean stuck up, haughty, or proud in the pejorative sense of that word.  The English word pride has ever since been saddled with an equivocal meaning, sometimes meaning a just appreciation of one’s own merits and accomplishments, and at other times meaning excessive and outrageous self-esteem.

The problem of pride is that not all humans are equally estimable, either in their persons or in their particular accomplishments, that the self-esteem of individuals is very often excessive and outrageous, and that the esteem granted by others is very often niggardly and grudging or misplaced.  By the barbarian standards of the dark ages, those Norman warriors had, for instance, earned the right to a certain amount of esteem for having conquered England, and while it is certainly possible that the conquering Normans claimed more prud than they deserved, it is no less possible that the conquered Anglo Saxons were unjustly stinting, niggardly and grudging in their esteem.

We sometimes specify an outrageous claim to the esteem of others with the phrase “overweening pride.”  In Middle English, to ween is to think or suppose, and the word is still used by persons with a wont for archaism.  Here, for instance, is an apt example from the nineteenth-century folklorist Richard Harris Barham.

“Never, I ween,
Was a prouder seen,
Read of in books, or dreamt of in dreams,
Than the Cardinal Lord Archbishop of Rheims!”**

Overweening pride is, therefore, thinking too highly of one’s self, whether of one’s person or of one’s particular accomplishments, and this overweening pride is what most people think of when they think of the problem of pride.  That most people think of the overweening pride of the haughty and arrogant snob is, however, part of the problem of pride, since it is very often pride in ourselves that causes us to denounce overweening pride in others.

There are, in fact, two types of pride, which I will call haughty pride and resentful pride.  Haughty pride is found in persons with an overweening pride in their social position; resentful pride is found in persons with an overweening pride in themselves.  Satan is evidently given to resentful pride since he is not overly proud of his status as an archangel, but rather resents his equality with the other archangels and the superior status of God.  Haughty pride is, no doubt, a sin, but resentful pride is a greater sin because resentful pride makes a man (or an archangel) an enemy of society.  The snob who feels haughty pride is always a friend of the social order that gives him the status of which he is so inordinately proud.  He is a conservative, if you like.  Resentful pride, on the other hand, makes a man (or archangel) into a revolutionary.

* * * * *

“His political notions were those of an acrimonious and surly republican . . .”

“It is been observed, that they who most loudly clamor for liberty do not most liberally grant it.”***

These lines are from Samuel Johnson and refer to the poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost and elegist of Satan’s pride, rebellion and fall. Milton was himself, according to Johnson, a proud and unruly man, and it was Milton’s resentful pride that made him a puritan in religion, a republican in politics, and a revolutionary enemy of the social order.  Like his antihero Satan, Milton denounced anyone who was placed above him as an impostor, and therefore rebelled against their unjust rule.  In Johnson’s words,

“Milton’s republicanism was, I am afraid, founded in an envious hatred of greatness, and a sullen desire of independence; in petulance, impatient of control, and prideful distain of superiority.  He hated monarchs in the state, and prelates in the church; for he hated all whom he was required to obey.”***

This of course goes some way to explain the vivid vitality of Satan’s character in Paradise Lost, since Milton, although unquestionably Christian, had first-hand subjective knowledge of the seething resentment that is essential to the satanic mind. Like his antihero Satan, Milton’s resentful pride combined envy of beings who were superior and contempt for beings who were equal.

* * * * *

Very few of us think that we ourselves are proud.  We will confess to, even jest about, our covetousness, our lust, our envy, our anger, our sloth.  But pride is a sin we see only in others.

Individuals have, from time to time, confided to me that they are “a bit of a snob,” but this was always with the tacit understanding that they meant they were, in fact, superior people.  A confessed “food snob” was not, for instance, telling me that he was a pretentious impostor who greatly inflated the value of his food knowledge.  He was in fact telling me that he was not a snob, but was rather the fully entitled possessor of superior food knowledge.

The pride we see in others is normally haughty pride.  This means the pride we feel in ourselves, although very seldom recognize as pride, is the resentful pride of Satan.  Like Satan, my pride is hurt by what I see as the snooty, snobby self-importance of clowns who are set over me, and the pain is amplified by the seedy lowlifes, losers and bums with whom I am forced to stand, shoulder to shoulder, on the same level.

If it is not checked by moral discernment, this Satanic pride will of course make me a revolutionary enemy of the social order because that social order hurts my Satanic pride.  If it is not checked by moral discernment, this Satanic pride will also send me, as it sent my infamous archetype, to a Hell of my own making.  This Hell will be a dismal, run-down, stinking slum, but the altogether sufficient compensation of Hell, for me as it was for Satan, is that Hell will be a comfort to my pride.

*) John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
**) Richard Harris Barham, The Jackdaw of Rheims (1837)
***) Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets (1779)

13 thoughts on “The Problem of Pride (and the Comforts of Hell)

      • I would say that pride might be the cause of unforgiveness, but that the two are not identical. My understanding of the cardinal sins is not that they are the worst sins, but that they are the primary or basic sins that give rise to any number of secondary sins. Pride tends to make us uncharitable, and I would say that unforgiveness is a type of uncharitableness.

    • Agreed. But maybe not too proud….

      Seriously though, this is a wise and immensely valuable post. Thank you.

  1. Modern people know pride but they don’t know gratitude. I would not therefore say that I am “proud to be an American,” but that I am grateful for the Constitution and disdainful of how much my fellow countrymen have abandoned or abused it.

  2. As I say in the post, the meaning of the word pride is equivocal. But the dominant meaning until very recently was that pride is a sin. It is unfortunate that we have no handy words that signify just self-esteem and satisfaction in work well done. We could also use a handy word to denote “pride” of membership. When it comes to national “pride,” I suppose patriotism will do. In our present loathsome moment, we need a word that signifies the absence of any inclination to grovel and apologize for one’s family, class, nation, religion or race. Perhaps the word loyalty is sufficient. Pride in this case is simply the steadfast resolve not to take orders from people who hate and wish to humiliate you.

    With respect to the Constitution, I think we have learned that good government requires good men as governors, and that the form of government is relatively unimportant. It is better to live in a monarchy governed by a good king than to live in a republic governed by scoundrels. I think we have learned that the Constitution cannot protect us against ourselves, and that there can be no restoration of the Constitution until there is a restoration of republican virtue and an extirpation of scoundrels.

  3. Your last two grafs are astounding. I mean the whole article is but the last two grafs especially. I was expecting you to make a point about “pride month” and you didn’t–at least not directly–but reading these two grafs and considering the reality of what “pride month” is about–it fits perfectly.

    • I think we can say that “pride” is today nearly synonymous with resentment and the revolutionary desire to overturn the natural order of things. Any group that nowadays announces its “pride” is in fact demanding more social support for its fragile self-esteem, and very often threatening anyone who doesn’t respond to that demand. I don’t wish to in any way aggravate the misery of people with abnormal sexual desires, but cannot really picture a world in which they have been placed on a level with the the desire that leads to conception. This is not the only example of resentful pride, though, since resentful pride seems to be our natural response to a sense of our own inferiority. With very rare exceptions, we are all more or less inferior, and we must all, therefore, deal with our inferiority in one way or another. One is to blame the “system” and try to burn that “system” down. The other is to let go of status anxiety and enjoy the gifts God has set aside for people like you. Tom just described this second way of dealing with inferiority as gratitude.

  4. Brilliant, JM, thanks.

    I know exactly what you mean when you say that the post “went in an unexpected direction and opened my eyes to things I had not clearly seen before.” That happens to me all the time with Orthosphere posts, and indeed with my responses to our valuable commenters. It is just amazing what you can find out when you start doing your best to think clearly enough to put your thoughts into intelligible text.

    “Wait a minute. If this, then that. But if that, then this other altogether unexpected thing. And if that unexpected thing, then, whoa, O my gosh, who’d a thunk it?” That’s how it goes.

    I should be interested to learn then what you might discover in the process of expressing your present understanding of forgiveness, that then changes your understanding. I’ve given forgiveness a lot of thought in that way, prompted by Charles Williams, and learned a lot. But your genius differs subtly and gloriously from mine, and I am sure we would all benefit from your insights into that topic.

    It matters to me because while I know forgiveness is crucial to my own salvation, I find it incredibly hard. Probably because I don’t really understand how to do it. So.

    No pressure!

    • BTW, thanks for the aetymology on ween. Shall now go and try to plumb its relation to wit and wot.

      Updated: no apparent relation back to the PIE. But I cannot credit the notion that the two terms were grammatically unrelated in the eyes of the PIE themselves.

      Wisdom is in the mix, too.

  5. In “Deceit, Desire, and the Novel,” Girard points out that snobbery is only possible where actual equality exists. A music snob’s taste in music is not demonstrably superior to anyone else’s so he has to put on airs. Actual aristocrats aren’t snobs because they don’t need to advertise, protect, or artificially inflate their social, status. When my wife was on the academic job market twenty years ago, the Ivy League and prestigious universities’ job hiring representatives were friendly and unproblematic. The more lowly ranked an institution was the more insufferable and rude. At one such place, one person ostentatiously read my wife’s CV as she sat there thus pointedly suggesting that he had not gotten around to bothering until then. The very rudest and unprofessional were members of a community college. Snobs are insecure.


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