The Few, the Proud, the Damned

One way I teach my students to work with language is by showing them how to play with it — just as a psych professor teaches future therapists and ex-wives how to play with people’s minds. Sometimes I combine the methods proper to both disciplines — for instance, when I keep a straight face explaining to my classes the following little known facts about the English language:
  • The proper pronunciation of “comeuppance” hews close to its medieval French cognate. Hence, it’s “kom-ooh-PAHNS.”
  • “Misled” is scientific jargon dating from World War II, and is correctly pronounced as “MY-zeld.”
  • The word “moustache” derives originally from “mustard,” which used to get caught in the hair of the upper lip, before the invention of hot dog buns.
  • Pig Latin was developed by oppressed Roman swineherds, as a code their masters couldn’t understand.
  • “Gullible” isn’t in the dictionary.
  • All of the above will appear in questions on the final.
It’s amazing what you can get away with thanks to the authority conferred by a Ph.D. – and, more importantly, a lectern.
The deadly sin I’m addressing this week offers similar opportunities for creative verbal nonsense. In fact, there are so many different meanings and emotional nuances that go with the simple word “pride,” that you might well despair out of making a sin of the thing. It’s as if we can’t decide what we think Pride means, so we use it almost randomly — the way college students employ the specific, historical adjective/noun “fascist” to describe everything from professors who mark off for grammar, to pants that fit too tightly. (Want to have fun at a campus coffee shop? As you’re leaving, raise your voice and finish your final sentence with this phrase: “I just think that’s really fascist — in the negative sense.” Make your way calmly but quickly to the exit, before all those heads explode.)
A mother holding her newborn is invariably called “proud,” just as her child is always “adorable.” Now, if you wanted to get pedantic, you could parse all that and ask: “Does mama really partake in the deadly sin that goaded Lucifer to rebellion? Do we really ‘adore’ her child? Then why aren’t we kneeling and swinging incense in front of him?” There’s a word for people whose advanced education drives them to say things like this around women pale from labor. That word rhymes with “fast moles.”
The Marines, who call themselves “the few” and “the proud,” clearly mean something different from the principle of angelic insubordination. Can you really imagine Lucifer and his angels submitting to Basic Training — with St. Michael as their drill sergeant barking insults and giving them female nicknames — responding “Saint, yes Saint,” like a scene from Kubrick’s Preternatural Jacket? The “pride” a warrior takes in obeying legitimate orders is clearly a horse of a different feather.
Then there’s Black Pride. Gay Pride. White Pride. Each of those combinations, I’ll venture, gives the reader a different feeling. Some Yale conservatives in the 1990s, too clever by half, responded to the school’s Gay Pride initiative by printing up t-shirts that went through each of the other deadlies — as in “Gay Envy,” “Gay Sloth,” et cetera. I’m not sure what point they were trying to make, and I pity the SAT-champion who drew the short straw and had to walk around all week in a shirt that read, “Gay Lust.” Indeed, there are so many Gay Pride events across the country that the very word “pride” has begun to take on that association. Perhaps our grandchildren, hearing the story of Satan’s fall, will think he stormed out of Heaven in a hissy-fit provoked by “creative differences.”
St. Thomas Aquinas found himself so flummoxed by the different meanings the mind can give to Pride that he broke the concept down into usable pieces. There’s Superbia, the outsized, metastasizing self-love and willfulness we associate with two-year-olds and Lucifer. St. Thomas saw this dark tendency in the soul as the root of every evil, so he removed it from the list of the Seven Deadly Sins, sequestering it in a category all its own, under 24-hour lockdown.
Then comes Magnanimitas, or greatness of soul — which we display when accepting proportionate praise for a job well done, and which drives us to strive after greatness. (For instance: Q: “Those shoes are so great!” A: “They better be — they cost me a month’s salary.”) Refusing to take any credit for good deeds we’ve done, to gratefully acknowledge our natural gifts, or to graciously accept a compliment can turn someone who misunderstands humility into a cringing, obsequious toady — the sort of Christian one would gladly feed to the lions, except he might make the lions sick. St. Thomas’s term for this condition was Pusillanimity, smallness of soul. It’s as widely prized among many modern Christians as its sickly ethical sister, Misguided Compassion.
It’s hard for the human race — we’ve fallen, and we can’t get up — to strike the healthy balance between an honest awareness of the good we have achieved and the temptation to preen and strut over gifts we have received. When we do that, we’re caught up in a sin the great Dominican called Vana Gloria, or Vainglory. We are literally proud of nothing. It is this tendency St. Thomas listed as one of the seven capital sins, and he no doubt saw plenty of it in his day — feudal lords who vaunted the lands they had inherited as if they’d laid the tectonic plates themselves, ladies whose fleeting beauty turned them into tyrants, and mystics who used their revelations as a means of wielding power or making money. In other words, nothing has changed in 700 years.
C. S. Lewis did the best job of defining humility when he summed it up as honesty applied to the self. Anything that distorts our intellectual apprehension, or gut response, to our own nature and moral state is dangerous. It is truth that sets us free, not smarmy self-deprecation or hype-driven self-esteem. All the rest is manipulation, even if we’re only doing it to ourselves. And as the Irish priests used to tell the boys, “Leave yourselves alone! Don’t you know your body is a temple?”

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

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