Sense and Nonsense: Power and Pride

Walking across the campus to class, I saw a panel truck parked on the street with a sticker on the tailgate that read: “The Power of Pride.” Below the words was a red, white, and blue patriotic banner with stars on it.

The phrase struck me. It contains many paradoxes. Pride can be a dangerous power, just as power can be a dangerous title to pride. The term “power” can be a translation of the words potestas or capacitas. It refers to the ability by which we can do something. I have the “power” or the potential to pitch a ball game because I have hands and arms. But I am not a good pitcher unless I have control and strength and have acquired the habit of pitching. The capacity to pitch needs to be perfected by the craft of pitching before I am designated by that noble name “pitcher.” Likewise, I have a mind and therefore the power to think. There is nothing wrong with a tomato lacking the power to pitch, or a rabbit not being able to think. But something is wrong with a man taking no effort to develop his arms and hands for some skill, or making no effort to think clearly about the things that are.

The word “power” can also have political, even Machiavellian, overtones. Power means the coercive capacity that belongs to legitimate authority. It can also mean this coercive capacity without any definable legitimate use. The infamous phrase of Lord Acton, that “power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely,” implies that abidingly good use of political power is rare. Power as such is a good thing. But—like anything else—it can be used badly. Plato reminded us in the sixth book of The Republic that all virtues can be perverted if we do not use them for the good.

What about pride? Any dictionary tells us that the word can have a good and a dubious meaning. It can mean “inordinate self-esteem.” But it can also mean “justified self-respect” or “delight coming from some deed or possession.” We are supposed to be “proud” of our country, job, city, and children. The use of the word “pride” for both a company and a herd of lions, I suspect, is related—they are obviously noble and powerful beasts.

 

Yet pride is also the worst of the sins, the root of all the others. In this sense, “the power of pride” has a more sobering, ominous meaning. Pride here means the sin of Lucifer, the powerful but fallen angel. Pride is located in the mind and will, not just in physical force. But the power of pride in this spiritual sense explains the terrible energy and cleverness that we find in the forces of evil. It is an abiding mystery within Christianity that such energy and subtlety manifest themselves in those persons and movements that go counter to the rule of what is virtuous.

Pride means the deliberately chosen effort to substitute our own unbounded definition of what is good and evil for those definitions found in reason and revelation. Socrates said that “it is never right to do wrong.” Those who attack Socrates and Christ, who affirmed the same thing, recognize that they must undermine this principle to change the definition of what is evil to what is good.

When we commit ourselves in thought and act to carry out our chosen definition of good and evil, both in our personal and public life, we become resentful and anxious. We strive to eliminate any residual claims against the validity of our own definitions. This resentfulness is the primary source of the “power of pride.” It is, in this sense, first a spiritual power before it is a physical or coercive power.

Once pride is both a spiritual and a physical power used wrongly, it can only be opposed in two ways: by suffering evil that we can no longer resist, or through the use of reasoned power. Pride retains its power until recognized for what it is: a claim on the part of man for the status of the divinity.

Fr. James V. Schall

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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