Vol I No. 7
Daily Thought

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas: Pride

by William J. Martin


Thomas Aquinas: Pride, Summa: II, ii. 162, 1.

It would appear that Pride is not a sin.

On the Contrary: Pride or superb is so called because a man thereby aims higher [supra] than he is; wherefore Isidore says (Etym. x): A man is said to be proud, because he wishes to appear above (super) what he really is; for he who wishes to overstep beyond what he is, is proud. Now right reason requires that every man’s will should tend to that which is proportionate to him. Therefore it is evident that pride denotes something opposed to right reason, and this shows it to have the character of sin, because according to Dionysius (Div. Nom. iv, 4), the soul’s evil is to be opposed to reason. Therefore it is evident that pride is a sin.

Pride is expressed when a man seeks to exceed the limitations of his own being, knowing, and loving. Man is a limited being and thus should seek, through reason, to understand the finite contours of his being. His being is created, made, molded, and fashioned by Another. And thus he ought to learn that he is derivative and dependent upon Another for his existence and its perpetuation. Only the pride-riddled man fails to acknowledge his small and potentially insignificant being in relation to God’s large and perfect Being. Furthermore, man should learn that his knowledge is imperfect. That he is he born in ignorance or not-knowing ought to be self-evident, since he spends most of his days attempting to come to possess a knowledge that is beyond his natural state and must be discovered outside of himself. Only the pride-riddled man thinks that he knows what he does not or thinks that his knowledge is sufficient when there is so much more to know. In addition, man should become aware of his failure to love his fellow man. In all sorts of ways man does not love his brother, and mostly for reasons of pride. Because a man thinks himself to be above and beyond his peers, he is possessed by prideful hubris, and is thus most unlikely to benefit from the being, knowing, and loving that others can furnish him.

Reply to Objection 1. Superbia may be understood in two ways. First, as overpassing [supergreditur] the rule of reason, and in this sense we say that it is a sin.

Right reason teaches a man not to over-reach the powers of reason. Thus a man should not use his reason to overstep the created bounds of reason’s vision and understanding. If he does, he is proud because he is forgetful of the finite and uncertain nature of his conclusions. Thus a man who desires to know as God knows exceeds human reason’s ability. Man cannot know good and evil so that he is moved by the one and free of the other. Man is not God.

Secondly, it may simply denominate super-abundance; in which sense any super-abundant thing may be called pride: and it is thus that God promises pride as significant of super-abundant good. Hence a gloss on Jerome on the same passage (Isaiah 61. 6) says that “there is a good and evil pride”; or a sinful pride which God resists, and a pride that denotes the glory which He bestows.

There is a kind of pride that may be found in the gift that God gives out of His superabundant mercy. So pride may be found in the the unearned Grace and Mercy that comes to man over and above his natural desserts. So a man might take pride in the Grace that overcomes his sinful nature and restores him to fellowship with his Maker. 

Reply to Objection 2. Reason has the direction of those things for which man has a natural appetite; so that if the appetite wander from the rule of reason, whether by excess or by default, it will be sinful, as is the case with the appetite for food which man  desires naturally. Now pride is the appetite for excellence in excess of right reason. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiv, 13) that pride is the desire for inordinate exaltation: and hence it is that, as he asserts (De Civ. Dei xiv, 13; xix, 12), pride imitates God inordinately: for it hath equality of fellowship under Him, and wishes to usurp His dominion over our fellow-creatures.

The proud desires excessive exaltation over his fellow man. He uses his reason to imagine that he should be above and not on a level with his neighbor. He treats his neighbor as less because he thinks himself to be more. He thus fails to love his neighbor as himself. And thus he cannot possibly receive the gifts that his neighbor has, and that he needs, because he is blinded by his own imagined superior difference.

Reply to Objection 3. Pride is directly opposed to the virtue of humility, which, in a way, is concerned about the same matter as magnanimity, as stated above. Hence the vice opposed to pride by default is akin to the vice of pusillanimity, which is opposed by default to magnanimity. For just as it belongs to magnanimity to urge the mind to great things against despair, so it belongs to humility to withdraw the mind from the inordinate desire of great things against presumption. Now pusillanimity, if we take it for a deficiency in pursuing great things, is properly opposed to magnanimity by default; but if we take it for the mind’s attachment to things beneath what is becoming to a man, it is opposed to humility by default; since each proceeds from a smallness of mind.

Pusillanimity, faintheartedness, or cowardice is the vice at the extreme opposite of Pride. Like pride it is opposed to magnanimity. It is not large-hearted by fainthearted. It is not urged on to great things by reason of fear. Thus it despairs. Humility lies as the virtue between these two extreme vices. Humility is fearful of God in so far as it does not seek to usurp His authority and power. Humility is fearful of God in so far as it does not seek to fail in its created vocation and calling. Pusillanimity is opposed to humility because it reveals a smallness of mind that does not measure up to an ability that humility will find in Grace.  

To become acclimated to humility a man must bear the burden of his own sinful pride, and look to its true nature as it bears down upon his soul. Pride weighs a man down into a center that falls progressively down into the earth. His love is his weight, and the proud man bears about a heaviness that counterbalances the stirrings of a self that becomes light only in so far as it loses itself. But the proud man who repents and desires to made new can become light by reason of courage, magnanimity, and humility. From humility and with courage he will desire the movements of the magnanimous Spirit of God, and so his vice will be translated into virtue by reason of desire.