Here is an excerpt from Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. It is the chapter called The Great Sin, and it is about pride. Every time I read this I get a fresh view of what pride, or “spiritual cancer” as he calls it, is and how far the cancer is advancing in my own soul. It is a great analysis of something no one is free of, and points toward a way free of it.
Again, I have highlighted sections for discussion/thought.
Now I come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals. There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it in ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.
The vice I am talking about is pride, or self-conceit: and the virtue opposite it, in Christian morals, is called humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, that I warned you that the center of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now we have come to the center. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison. It was through Pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
If Christians are right, it is pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people, and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see things that are above you.
That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with pride can say that they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshiping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how he approves of them and thinks them for better than ordinary people. That is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to him and get out of it a pound’s worth of pride towards their fellow men. I suppose it was one of those people Christ was thinking about when he said that some would preach about him and cast out devils in his name, only to be told at the end of the world that he had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.
It is a terrible thing that the worst of all vices can smuggle itself into the very center of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly.
Before leaving this subject I must guard against some possible misconceptions:
1.) Pleasure in being praised is not pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, “Well done,” are please and ought to be. For here the pleasure likes not in what you are but in the fact that you have please someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. 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. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a childlike and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical pride comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so far the right reason, namely, because we care incomparably more what God thinks. But the proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says, “Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals – or my artistic conscience – or the traditions of my family – or, in a word, because I Am That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.” In this way real thoroughgoing pride may act as a check on vanity.
2.) We may say in English that a man is “proud” of his son, or his father, or his school, or regiment, and it may be asked whether “pride” in this sense is a sin. I think it depends on what, exactly, we mean by “proud of.” Very often, in such sentences, the phrase “is proud of” means “has a warm-hearted admiration for.” Such an admiration is, of course, very far from being a sin. But it might, perhaps, mean that the person in question gives himself airs on the ground of his distinguished father, or because he belongs to a famous regiment. This would, clearly, be a fault, but even then, it would be better than being proud simply of himself. To love an admire anything outside of yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin, though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.
3.) We must not think pride is something God forbids because he is offended at it, or that humility is something he demands as due to his own dignity – as if God himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about his dignity. The point is, he wants you to know him; he wants to give you himself. And he and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with him you will, in fact, be humble – delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which as made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible; trying to take of a lot of silly, ugly, fancy dress in which we gave all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself; if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy dress off – getting rid of the false self, with all its “look at me” and “aren’t I a good boy?” and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
4.) Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.