Pride & Humility: Lent 2022

At top: the personification of Pride, riding a lion, Book of Hours, in Latin, France, Poitiers, ca. 1475, Illuminated by Robinet Testard. MS now at the Morgan Library.

Some of the vices you will know are not a real temptation for you, or some of the virtues come without too much pain. That’s not the case today. For today, I introduce the traditional Queen of the Vices, Pride—though for each and every one of us, it’s not really an introduction, because we are all deeply familiar with the Queen even if we call her by different names. I also delve down to the foundation of the life of virtue, the salt of the virtues themselves, that keeps every other virtue and gift from corrupting into a source of division or self-righteousness, humility. 

The day this episode airs is Ash Wednesday, which makes today a wonderfully appropriate day to talk about our first virtue and vice pairing, humility and pride. For pride denies that we are mortal, that our bodies return to ash and dust; while humility affirms our dependence and need and general dustiness. 

Ok, wow. That’s a lot of pressure. Let’s slow down and approach them one at a time. In this series, we will look at the vice first, then, in traditional fashion, its “remedy,” the virtue. And a repeated warning: this is for you and me. This is not to identify your friends and enemies, unless they ask for your help in doing so. 

Pride is the desire for excellence in excess of right reason, teaches Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, in City of God, writes that “pride imitates God inordinately: for it hath equality of fellowship under him, and wishes to usurp his dominion over our fellow-creatures” (Augustine, Civitate Dei xiv, 13, xix, 12). We are meant to imitate God, to follow Christ. Pride comes when we attempt to imitate God in his authority, when we forget who we are as created, limited creatures. And pride was considered the queen of the virtues, because most sins arise from pride, that self-deception about one’s place, power, and importance.

All this sounds bad, but how does that translate into our daily lives? This is where our medieval friends can help us. First: pride refuses to subject itself to anything. It denies that it serves anything or anyone but itself. This is a problem because we are all, in fact, subject to God as his children. Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae: “the root of pride is found to consist in man not being, in some way, subject to God and his rule” ( If you’re an American, like myself, you’re likely cringing at this repeated word subject. It’s too… monarchical. Ugh. But this is the truth: When we do not acknowledge that we are subject to anything or anyone, we are incapable of learning or any kind of transformation. Pride is the opposite of learning. How so? To learn, you must first acknowledge that someone else, a teacher, book, trainer, friend, partner, child—possesses some kind of knowledge or craft that you do not, and that you cannot hope to acquire without help. So you submit or subject yourself to that person or text; you pay attention to what they say, and you emulate them. 

Pride also makes someone esteem themselves as greater than they are in actuality, and use whatever means they can to place themselves in the best possible light. A much later teacher in the virtues, our good friend Jane Austen, writes, “how quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” (Persuasion). Similarly, Aquinas writes, “A man is ready to believe what he desires very much” (ST II-II.162.3.ad.2). Pride is a kind of twisted self-love, and entails an uncanny ability to mold interpretations of events, facts, and feelings to fit the desire to understand yourself as in charge, as better than someone else, or as really good at something you’re really not. Medieval penitential texts called this presumption. The medieval manual Jacob’s Well describes presumption:

“looking after reverence, to sit above, to speak first, to have the words out of another man’s mouth, to take worship of the world, passing all other; deeming thyself stronger, wiser, hardier, worthier, than another; in believing thyself better than thou art; in not giving others credit or taking credit to thyself that really belongs to another. The grace of fortune, of goodness, of prosperity, of virtues, that thou hast of God, thou thinkest that thou hast them of God for thy good works, and that thou hast well deserved them. Or else the love, worship, or riches, which thou hast of God, thou thinkest that thou hast them of thy good governance and wits, and not God…Proud of your might and your service, proud of your bearing and your working, proud of your honesty and your generosity and your good conditions, of your dress, your wit and eloquence, your intelligence and understanding.”

Whenever you have a great gift, which quite honestly is each of us in the surpassing beauty of our createdness, there is great risk of pride, whether that gift is something interior or exterior to yourself. You start to believe that what you have, you generated yourself, or that what you have, you received from God due to your own merits. 

Are we never then, to take pride in a job well-done, in hard work, in our appearance when we look nice, in a thought hard-fought-for on a page of writing? There is such a thing as good pride, as we know through experience and through these writers. Again, medieval folks help us here to discern bad pride from good pride. Thomas Aquinas helps us here: bad pride in our achievements or belongings overpasses the rule of reason. We overrate our excellence, or treasure it more than another person’s similar excellence. Good pride in accomplishments can become bad pride when it includes ingratitude or unawareness about the help you’ve received.

Another hint is that you don’t merely value the hard work well-done, you treasure your singularity in it. There’s an element of comparison present that goes beyond appreciation for the good, beautiful, and worthy. There’s sometimes scorn or anger or ostentatiousness, an eye towards the responses of others. The philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung notes “which audience we seek approval and applause from yields telltale clues about our motives” (Glittering Vices, 51). This outward looking desire for approval and appreciation was traditionally called vainglory, a word that I don’t know if I’ve ever heard used without irony. All of these have roots in originally good impulses, to celebrate the good we do and see and are given. But we wield it as confirmation of our worth, even our superiority. DeYoung writes, “Vainglory provides a cheap substitute for true fulfillment of the human desire to be profoundly known by another person—to be known by name, for who we truly are—and to be loved just that way” (59).

Vainglory is closely related to arrogance because they both thrive upon comparison. While vainglory relies on praise from others that makes one feel above everyone, arrogance twists available evidence to the same end: one’s own perceived superiority in methods, in knowledge, in character. Craig Boyd writes, “Conceit does not measure its own value by the opinions of others because it sees their opinions as worthless. Rather, we compare ourselves to others in ways that inevitably favor ourselves over them…others become the means to our own value not because they have valuable opinions but because they themselves are less valuable than we are” (Boyd, Virtues & Their Vices, 252). 

Do you feel like you’re just getting beat while you’re down? I do writing this. It’s hard to say these things aloud, to feel that level of extreme cringe recognizing yourself in some of this. Perhaps you’re even feeling some contempt for yourself. So let’s go now to Pride’s remedy, humility, in this ancient tradition. We are locked in a war of overvaluing and undervaluing overselves, between pride and self-contempt. Both are wrong. And humility is the middle way, though it has been deeply misunderstood throughout the years. 

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote the most popular account of humility in The Steps of Humility and Pride. Geoffrey Chaucer translates Bernard’s definition into his English in The Parson’s Tale, the final work of The Canterbury Tales: “humility, or meekness…is a virtue through which a man hath truthful knowledge of himself, and holdeth of himself no price nor dainty, as in regard of what he deserves, considering ever his frailty” (lines 475-476).

Humility is appropriate self-esteem, accurate self-judgment, true self-knowledge. Humility lives in the tension that we are God’s beloved children, wonderfully made, richly endowed with gifts and beauty—and that we are mortal, created from the dust, limited in our powers of intellect and strength, failing, needy in every regard. Practicing humility does not consist of hypocritical groveling, or hiding your gifts. It aligns with honesty. The reason why humility often sounds harsher than it really is, is that in reality, it is so much harder for us to acknowledge our failures and limitations than our strengths and victories. We are always drawn to imagine ourselves as more gifted, powerful, and deserving—or at least more righteous and justified in our behavior—than we are in reality. If pride is that little voice which excuses all your behavior as justified, humility is the voice which persistently seeks to learn—am I really? Is that truthful? 

The word “humility” is used confusingly in our society. We watch professional athletes say things like “I’m so humbled” when we saw them taunt their opponents earlier; or politicians speak proudly of their “humble origins” and turn around the next minute and sell out to corporate or party interests. It’s no wonder we often associate the word with false humility, with hypocrisy. This is because we often confuse humility with outward action or circumstance. But more accurately, humility is a kind of cognitive and affective habit that influences every part of our actions and way of being in the word. In other words, it consists of both a heart-attitude and a mind-attitude that reflexively seeks to remember one’s own spiritual, moral, and physical dependence on God, on other people, even on circumstance. No one is self-made. 

How do we cultivate humility? What does that even look like? Many of the penitential manuals offer us something that seems awful and medieval in the worst way: they try to tell us about the gift of fear. Ew. No thanks. Such a doctrine has been poorly applied over the centuries. Think the Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, used to frighten college freshmen in rhetoric composition classes for time immemorial. Think Jacob’s Well with its oozy pits, which says “think! But thou amend thee, he shall damn thee in endless pain!” Or: “thou art a sack of dung”! I think—I hope—one of the gifts of our culture is that we as a church are getting better at not hating the bodies that God created good, and also trusting that Jesus loves us and does not actually think we are a sack of dung.

But I also stigmatize fear; I am afraid of my own fear. Julian of Norwich helps me to more reflectively consider the gift of fear and its use as weapon against pride. She notices four kinds of “dread.” And while these dreads may serve some limited purpose, they are not truly gifts, nor are they ultimately holy. The only dread that truly pleases God, she writes, is “reverent dread.” She describes it as “soft” and paradoxically, the more you have it, the less you feel hampered by it. This dread we may better understand as awe or deep respect. Julian sees it as what one naturally feels and owes to the Lord of Creation, the majestic Father of Lights. It’s probably like the feeling one would have around a blue whale, or an active volcano. Careful, careful, we say in adoration, rejoicing in the giant power we witness, suddenly aware of our smallness and our fragility. And our awareness of that smallness and fragility leads us to embrace our Father Protector. Julian understands this reverent dread as a path towards the habitual practice of humility. She writes:

All dreads other than reverent dread that are proferred to us, though they come under color of holiness, they are not so true…That dread that maketh us hastily to flee from all that is not good and fall into our lord’s breast, as the child into the mother’s bosom, with all our intent and all our mind—knowing our feebleness and our great need, knowing his everlasting goodness and his blissful love, only seeking him for salvation, cleaving to him with secure trust—that dread that bringeth us into this working, it is kind and gracious and good and true. (73.27-34)

Remember, you are God’s children, weak, limited, frail, and beloved by this indescribable, ultimate Holy Presence. Such reverent dread does not prevent us from approaching the Presence, but helps us to seek God and reminds us with knowledge of who we are and who God is. 

Medieval people understood children as the ultimate exemplar of humility. For children, unlike the prideful, are eager to learn, eager to soak in knowledge, unafraid of their ignorance but persisting in discovery and submitting to their teachers. Children also show us holy pride, a pride without comparing or denigrating others, true delight in their handiwork. My preschooler, in great delight, shows me his name that he has worked so, so hard to write. Clumsy letters march down the side of the page, and he is proud that he has labored so hard and produced this work. I, his mother, am so proud of him. The work goes up on the fridge, to rejoice over. And the next minute he asks for help working on his ABCs or unfortunately for me, perhaps wiping his bottom. Because he has written his name, he does not take it for mastery of the world, or rest on his laurels, or that he’s a superior four-year-old. 

This, too, is why humility is understood as the root, alongside charity, of all the other virtues. Thomas Aquinas writes that if the life of virtue were a building, humility would be the foundation, sunk into the ground and providing stability for each other virtue (ST II-II 161.5.ad 2). All other virtues are built upon acknowledgment that you, by yourself, are not the master of the universe, that you are not perfect but are needy, limited, and loved. For without this acknowledgment, anything good you do can easily become a source of superiority over others. Who hasn’t seen this happen in real time, either in yourself or in a close friend or family member? 

Humility can also be misunderstood or misapplied because it has, in the past, been a virtue abused by those in power, commanded by those in charge to those beneath them, laying like a heavy burden on women, on people of color, on actual children. But surprisingly, medieval people can help us here as well. For they understood that our lot in life partially determines what kinds of vices are challenges for us, and what kind of virtues are especially difficult. Pride, as the queen of the vices, is a struggle for everyone. But someone in a position of power or wealth is going to be more easily led into the snares of pride, because it’s easier for that person to forget their dependence, their littleness, their true need. Medieval literature, like Dante’s Inferno or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales have countless examples of lords, cardinals, and bishops as models of corrupt pride. So while historically, humility has been heavily demanded of women, or people of color, in reality the far greater risk of pride was to the white men at the pinnacle of the patriarchal society. History certainly speaks clearly in retrospect. 

We might cast this risk for pride into these terms: if I’m considered successful in my field, or in authority over people at my job, or reasonably comfortable in regards to money, or if historically my ancestors have been in a position that rules over other people, I should consider myself at particular risk of pride and in need of extra awareness and practice of humility. This list includes many Americans. It’s almost as if you discovered that your family carries a gene that makes you prone to cancer. You would certainly go to the doctor on a more regular basis, ask more questions, wear sunscreen, and so on. You would live with a different awareness of risk and healthy choices. You would stop some habits, and start others.

The worst part of medieval humility is its insistence on the disgusting, filthy nature of humanity. Many medieval authors call upon you to despise yourself, to recognize the foul seed from whence you came. It’s not that we are not often horrible. Look no further than the annals of history or how you last handled yourself arguing with your spouse or a friend. But overemphasizing this aspect of ourselves can lead to great damage. We must hold together our failures with our beloved createdness to truly know ourselves. And what they’ve got right is that we cannot live in illusion about our capacity for misuse of power and gift. We are creatures of the symphony, of the gothic cathedrals, of brain surgery, and creatures that bomb other countries and abandon children and let the poor starve. Everyone likes to think they would have been the person to hide Jewish people under the floorboards during the Holocaust, or would have recognized the true evil of slavery in the Antebellum South. Humility knows better; it recognizes there’s no guarantees we would have done the right thing.

What are practices that help us to learn how to be humble? Asking is the first thing. Our desires must be transformed, because no one particularly wants to be humble, to really know oneself and be known in all the nitty-gritty of life. As in all the virtues, we need teachers. We soak our minds in Jesus, the most humble one, and his life and death. We also have Mary to teach us humility. 

Julian of Norwich instructs us to know in your bones, and repeat to yourself over and over, that you are God’s beloved child, irrespective of what you’ve done in your life.

The medieval penitential manuals wisely advise readers to practice silence and restraint in your speech, (and I would add—particularly online). This advice is clearly situational, and does not mean to be permanently silent, or that keeping one’s thoughts to oneself is a virtue. But it means carefully considering ideas, events, and actions before commenting or arguing about them. The medieval writers often quote Proverbs 18: “he that answers before he hears shows himself to be a fool and worthy of confusion.” And unfortunately, especially online, speed and aggression in speech is valued over slow, measured response. Humility calls us to resist our own hot takes.

I’m working on saying thank you for all the little things as well as the big. To echo St. Paul, humility asks us, with both seriousness and joy, what do you have that you have not received? Rejoice in your victories, while acknowledging the help you have been given.

Another tip that the medievals advise is to practice confession. If you follow a tradition of Christianity that has sacramental confession, do that. If you do not, practice confession to trusted friends, spouses, or mentors. To confess some of your ugliest thoughts frees you from their power. 

Admitting where we have been wrong, whether in confession or in personal apology, is a big deal and very good for cultivating humility.

Genuinely praise other people, without guile or angling to get your own compliment back or to be better liked. Recognize excellence in others. This practice habituates us into seeing the goodness of God’s creation.

Next week we will think about love and envy. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman.

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