Ancient pride, Christian humility

(Cross-posted at the Intellectual Humility blog)

It’s not often that you see a revaluation of values, in which a new virtue is introduced (tolerance?), an old virtue dies (chastity?), a vice becomes a virtue (meekness?), or a virtue becomes a vice. This post is about the fourth kind of transformation. In Homeric Greek culture, and also in the Hellenistic culture of Plato and Aristotle, pride was a virtue. This is not to say that vanity or arrogance were virtues — they weren’t — but appropriate or due or fitting pride was a virtue.

In Aristotle this is especially clear, as for him every virtue is a mean between vices. Pride is thus the virtue of esteeming oneself to the extent one deserves; it falls between arrogance and humility. This version of pride is not like modern self-respect, insofar as in contemporary culture we take it for granted that everyone deserves respect simply in virtue of their humanity. It’s also not honor accorded because of one’s blood, rank, or birth. Pride in Aristotle’s ethics is an appropriate positive valuation of one’s one merits and accomplishments. It thus comes on a sliding scale, depending on the degree of one’s merits and accomplishments. Some people have little pride; some have little to be proud of.

Along comes Christianity. Pride becomes a sin, and humility is elevated to a virtue. Pride is an abomination, while self-abnegation is treasured. Jesus, ostensibly a god, washes the feet of his disciples and allows himself to be crucified like a common criminal. Pride’s star falls so low that it is eventually labeled the only unforgivable sin.

christ washes feet

As Nietzsche was fond of pointing out, modern western morality is an incongruous patchwork — a veritable palimpsest — of ancient and christian moralities. For this reason, the modern concept of humility (including modern intellectual humility) is like a burlap sack with a rabid monkey and a hungry cobra sewn inside.

We, who are neither ancient nor christian, have to make something of this chaos. My and my colleagues’ approach in our current work is normatively guided, though we think we can operationalize intellectual humility well enough to test for it empirically. The normativity of our approach has two main aspects. First, we are only willing to call something intellectual humility if it would actually be generally useful in the search for truth. So, for instance, always thinking (or saying, or making as if to say) what others say is not intellectual humility, nor is studiously ignoring what others say. Second, we are willing to call something intellectual humility only if it is admirable. This allows that the person with intellectual humility might not admire or even notice her own intellectual humility, but that at least some of those who do notice it would be right to admire it. Our test of behavioral intellectual humility relies on both of these normative points. More later…

11 thoughts on “Ancient pride, Christian humility

  1. But ‘pride’ understood as the vrtue by Aristotle and ‘pride’ understood as the sin by Xian history aren’t univocal. Its not a transformation, but a replacement with another thing sporting the same name. Nor is pride primarily an intellectual character trait for either of these two traditions.

    • Thanks, Kevin, that sounds right. I’m a sucker for Nietzsche, so I couldn;t help using the phrase ‘revaluation of values,’ but I think the point still remains that what Aristotle understood by pride would count as a vice in Christian ethics, and that the humility espoused by Jesus would have looked like a vice to Aristotle.

      The intellectual bit is on my mind because I’m working on a project on intellectual humility with some colleagues. (link:

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  3. “what Aristotle understood by pride would count as a vice in Christian ethics, and that the humility espoused by Jesus would have looked like a vice to Aristotle.” – I’d be interested to hear why you believe that. Aristotle: “the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them”; so Jesus: “a man who is worthy of great things should not think himself worthy of great things”? Where do you think Jesus ever taught that?

    • Thanks for your comment, David.

      As you know, I’m sure, the Bible is not written in the philosophical style where definitions are provided and argued for. Nevertheless, there are relevant passages. Pride is explicitly discussed in only three places in the New Testament: Mark 7:22, I John 2:16, and I Timothy 3:6. In all three, it’s clearly a bad thing; indeed, in the Timothy passage, falling into pride is compared with Satan’s fall.

      That might not be decisive. Consider in turn the New Testament passages on humility: Matthew 18:4, Matthew 23:12, Luke 14:11, Luke 18:14, Acts 20:19, Philippians 2:8, Colossians 2:18-23, Colossians 3:12, James 4:6-10, and I Peter 5:5-6. In all of these passages, humility has a positive valence, and in some it’s even contrasted invidiously with pride.

      Do you think there’s some kind of ambiguity in all of these passages, that someone the pride being condemned doesn’t involve thinking oneself worthy of great things? Perhaps the NT is just very pessimistic: no one can have Aristotelian pride because no one is worthy of great things (and so everyone who thinks him or herself worthy of great things is wrong). I suppose that’s a way out, but it saddles the NT with a pretty miserable moral anthropology.

  4. I think the NT certainly implies a rather different moral (or philosophical) anthropology than what you find in Aristotle. But not a miserable one! I would think of Pascal in this context who especially – and quite justly – emphasized both the greatness and the lowliness of man. (Even your pal Nietzche could do that, even if with rather different particular assessments of the substance of each – assessments rooted, btw, in metaphysical claims.) You find the same in the NT (and the OT). Perhaps the most obvious difference informing the Christian view of man and of culture is the fact of immortality. Jesus still calls for greatness, but man does not live by bread (or by earthly honors) alone. He insists that we should store up treasure in heaven – which is something far greater than anything desired by the man possessing Aristotle’s virtue of pride.

    Where pride is explicitly discussed in the NT, as Kevin pointed out, we may have the same name, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same concept. And in reality, it’s not even the same name. To take just the three passages you mention: Mark 7 has ‘hyperephania’ (pride, arrogance, haughtiness); 1John 2: ‘alazoneia’ (empty braggart talk); 1 Timothy 3: ‘tuphotheis’ (puffed up). Obviously none of these is a match for Aristotle’s ‘megalopsychia.’ And obviously the NT terms would seem to be much better matches for Aristotle’s vice being vain (‘chaunos’), the defect-by-excess counterpart of ‘megalopsychia.’

    • Thanks for the etymology lesson, David. That’s very helpful.

      I’d prefer not to bring in the OT, since it seems pretty clear that the emphasis on meekness, humility, and lack of pride reaches a distinctly new pitch in the NT — especially in Paul’s missives.

      I take it that, in the NT, one is not supposed to “aim at greatness” directly, in the sense of striving proudly to get the best thing possible (which happens to be an eternal, rather than a mundane, reward). Such greatness is supposed to be a by-product of the thing one actually strives for, which is humility (among other things).

      • Hmmm… That’s an interesting way to put it. I think that a key point to remember when reading the NT is Jesus’ saying that by remaining in his word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Freedom, truth, fullness of life: those are clearly the ultimate aims set for man in the NT. Setting aside the particular claim about Jesus himself, these are perfectly Aristotelian commitments: the intellect is the highest part of man’s nature, and there cannot possibly be any kind of human greatness that neglects cultivation of the intellect, and cultivation of the intellect aims at divine contemplation, contemplation of God. And certainly I see no reason to think that Aristotle would want to reject the usefulness of Socratic humility in approaching the truth, and more generally the perfectly obvious need to avoid hubris in grasping one’s epistemic situation. (See the beginning of Met. II, for example.) So it is really quite misleading to talk about the ultimate aims of the Christian as ‘by-products’ and the real aim as (among other things) humility. That is a very un-Aristotelian way to understand things.

  5. “Perhaps the NT is just very pessimistic: no one can have Aristotelian pride because no one is worthy of great things (and so everyone who thinks him or herself worthy of great things is wrong).” Mark, perhaps I can explain your mistake here a little more clearly: Jesus introduced a supernatural vocation of divine adoption as the final end of man. Since it is a supernatural vocation, requiring grace for its achievement, it is true that no one is (naturally) worthy of such a great thing. But obviously, vis-à-vis an Aristotelian perspective, this is the opposite of a pessimistic view of man and his end, and equally obviously it does not destroy the reality and greatness of natural virtues, even if our view of these must be adjusted in light of the ‘euangelion,’ the divine revelation of the ultimate destiny of man.

    • Thanks again, David. I imagine we’re going to find it hard to agree here. I’ll just say that, if one can’t bring oneself to take seriously the idea of eternal life and a divine vocation, then the pursuit of supernatural rewards ends up looking at best quixotic.

      • And again, Mark, I have to emphasize to you the importance of *truth* here. It is not primarily a question of what one can bring oneself to take seriously (or, perhaps more truthfully, what one *chooses* to take seriously); it is a question of what is in fact the truth. You need to take seriously, so that you can *understand*, the logical coherence of a given position, you need to actually understand its conceptual articulation, *before* you can make any kind of serious, meaningful assessment of whether the position is in fact true.

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