Monday, June 4, 2012

Reflections on The Nature of Human Evil, Part II: Pride

Of all the endemic and destructive human impulses, pride is probably the most difficult to control and the most central to the tendency towards evil.  It is a formidable barrier to almost every aspect of human growth.

I think that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding this subject, so much so that I'm quite sure that I do not even remotely have it straight myself.  But I do think that I might contribute some ideas towards clearing up the topic that perhaps the reader may not yet have encountered.

Firstly, one should really begin such a discussion by attempting to define as clearly as possible what he is talking about.  Unfortunately, as with virtue and with 'quality,' some of the most important notions seem to be the most difficult to define clearly, and as the whole confusion surrounding the topic of pride would suggest, that seems to be the case here as well.  So, as a very precise but bad definition would seem to be much more misleading than a clear discussion about an imprecisely defined term, I will choose the latter course.  This seems to me a most useful approach in such circumstances, and the more I use it the more I like it.

Nevertheless, a little sketch of the idea of pride here at the beginning would be useful, and a helpful clue to begin cutting through the haze can I think be found by dissecting a certain confusion about the topic that I think arises out of a sloppy use of language which leads to inaccurate thinking.  It is often thought that there must be a sort of 'balance' of pride.  Too little pride, and one lacks confidence or 'manliness.'  To much and one is an arrogant jerk.

Actually, I think that this is all wrong, as hopefully I will show in just a moment.  But what is basically going on here, I think, is that a great number of flavors of things and many various sentiments are being lumped under the single heading of pride.  The English language is using a single word to describe many things.  For example, 'pride' in one's country could also be called patriotism or nationalism.  But I do not think that this is pride per se.  Likewise, I think that there are many other tangled strands of thought here which I am unable to name or describe quite as well, but are being lumped together as 'pride' and actually are perfectly harmless or even positive things.

I think that it is not quite correct to think of pride as a sentiment even if language tends to treat it primarily that way, though pride can certainly manifest itself in many forms of sentiment.  The fact that we may call these sentiments 'prideful' should illustrate.  If pride is a sentiment, then a 'prideful sentiment' would seem a somewhat redundant thing to say.  I suppose the particular sentiment in question could be a combination of the sentiment of pride itself and some other sentiment and this phrase would still make sense, but it would seem to be a more reasonable or meaningful thing to say if pride were actually something else which was informing or shaping or being reflected in the sentiment.  I would think that pride is more a pattern of thought or of seeing the world, or perhaps a quality of character like virtue, but which belonged to the opposite class of things as virtue -- whatever one might call virtue's inverse.

Actual, real pride is, I think, always bad.  There is no balance to be had with it, and none should be attempted nor any compromise with it struck.  Real, true pride cares only for itself; it is its own center, its own joy and a cancer to everything else.  Unfortunately, it is ubiquitous with the human condition, and I suspect that this tangling and confusion with other issues is a sort of nefarious form of protection or a defense mechanism.  By creating this tangle with positive points of character, the man pursuing virtue often finds himself led either to quash things of himself which are good, or else to incidentally encourage pride while trying to build up something different.  I suppose that this is somewhat to be expected, as pride is so connected with self that it would naturally tangle itself up in anything else which referred to the self.  But it still seems nefarious to me.

Hopefully, I can demonstrate a bit of what I mean in all of this to the reader's satisfaction with a few illustrations and discussion.


Pride can manifest itself in ways which are very difficult to recognize.  One of the more interesting examples is the quality of shyness.

This is one of those qualities that most people would initially associate with a 'deficit' of pride -- an example of the 'balance' error.  They would suggest that the shy person needs more encouragement and confidence, so that he will have the courage to express himself more freely and would lose his anxieties and find more enjoyment in the company of others.

Not so.

I would posit that if indeed this were the case with a person, and that person were sufficiently encouraged so that he did begin to voice himself more freely, in general his acquaintances would not find themselves presented with a newly confident and well-adjusted individual where the timid little mouse had been.  Rather, he would turn out to be an obnoxious, excessively talkative jerk, and probably astonishingly self-absorbed.  As the pride took on a new flavor in its outward appearance, its would become recognizable, and they would wish that they had not encouraged him.

But of course, this kind of thing rarely happens this way, because the diagnosis of the problem is completely wrong.  Shy people rarely ever undergo such a transformation.  If they do ever become more talkative and confident, it is usually for very different reasons.

I should my begin my explanation with a slight clarification.  Shyness is not the same as merely being given to quietness.  Shyness is an inappropriate quietness, such that when polite or appropriate behavior requires one to speak, one nevertheless 'shies' away from speaking and refuses.  The reason shy people do not speak when it is appropriate is because they are afraid to speak, and the reason they are afraid is because they fear losing esteem in the eyes of others.  Their pride -- and an inability to control their pride -- causes them to behave in a way that they clearly know to be wrong.

The case of insecurity is similar.  Many insecure people are also shy, but some are not.  Insecure people often express a lack of faith in themselves, and annoy their acquaintances with a constant need for reassurance.  Again, people often diagnose this condition as a lack of confidence or pride.  But notice the inconsistency -- the insecure person considers himself useless and not really worthwhile, yet he seems to think everything is 'his fault,' and that others are constantly thinking bad things about him, as if he were the very center of the universe.  In truth, if he were really of no account, he would not be significant enough to affect much of anything, and nobody would bother thinking about him at all.

The insecure person is obsessed with himself and his standing with other people, to the point of creating a pathology of character.  In this light, his case is little different from either the shy person or the arrogant jerk himself.  The insecure person lets his petty issues of pride get in the way of his being a good person, so that he often becomes a useless liability to those he cares about.  When his 'friends' are in need, oftentimes he is so paralyzed by his own fear of failure and need of their approval that they can get nothing from him.  They wind up shouldering the burden of dealing with his frail ego on top their own problems, comforting him rather than the other way around.

What the shy person and the insecure person alike need is not a dose of pride, but of humility.  They are all manifestations of the same disease, and require the same medicine.  Shy people generally overcome their shortcoming – which I hope the reader now agrees with me is a shortcoming -- by becoming comfortable with themselves.  They are 'cured' by gaining the self-control to accept the fact of their own imperfection and learning to behave themselves accordingly, taking whatever resulting 'embarrassment' comes their way in stride.

The insecure person is usually best served by putting himself and his 'issues' aside long enough to develop a proficiency at something, at which point he hopefully learns that he is a better person by learning to deal with things, whatever they are, well or poorly, just so long as they wind up in the rear-view mirror.  Both must accept the fact that they are not going to be accepted by everybody.  Arrogant people generally just have to be humiliated by some situation, so that they, too, just learn to deal with it.

Again, virtue shows up as a kind of self-control.


As further evidence of my thesis, I point to what may have until now seemed a rather strange juxtaposition of Far-Eastern culture -- the very cultures known for a strong prevalence of 'shyness' are also known for their consummate observance of 'saving face.'

Actually, I think a lot about these cultures might be understood in connection with the issues of pride and shyness and the structure of family.  I don't think it explains everything; certainly it is a complex situation with a great number of complex dynamics and influences at work, and certainly it is always a mistake to think that 'everybody is the same,' but I do think a good deal can be understood by looking at how family might influence personality and instigate or reinforce certain tendencies.

At least among Chinese -- I can't really say anything about the others, as I don't know much about them -- the way the family is structured is very different from the West.  At least up until about 70 years ago, it seems to have followed one model, while after the coming of communism it seems to follow a sort of hybrid model with the West.  The Chinese model is structured vertically, in a lineage from father to son, stretching back into antiquity, while the Western model is more 'nuclear,' with households sending their offspring to form new nuclear households when they start new families.

In the West, 'grandpa' is considered part of 'extended family,' who gets visited every now and then, and maybe stays with the family when he gets too old to take care of himself. But in ancient China and up until the early 20th century, he was very literally the head of the household pretty much until he died.  Most people know that women spent their lives more or less as chattels in what a Westerner would probably consider a somewhat stunted existence, yes, but most people don't think about the fact that most men spent their lives under the shadow of their father in a situation which most Westerners would also consider rather restrictive.

From their own point of view, certainly this was a normal aspect of life, but to a Westerner the Chinese man is in something of a developmental predicament.  As a grown man he occupies a world somewhere between adolescence and adulthood.  He has a wife, perhaps more than one, and is fathering children, and he also probably works to support the household.  But he has little real authority or responsibility, which rests with his own father, and will not be passed on to him until he is perhaps forty or fifty years old.

This also creates a conflict of authority in terms of raising children.  The father has limited authority over them and is not altogether responsible for them because he is not the head of the house.  But to the grandfather, they aren't really so much 'his' children.  The women, as chattels, don't have much authority, either.  So, the children tend to occupy what would appear to a Westerner something of a void.

The modern Chinese family model is something of a thrown-together affair, with many of the same problems, except that in most respects they are considerably worse.  Adult children don't generally live with their parents after they are married, so in that respect they are more like Western households.  On the other hand, young children are often sent off to be raised by their grandparents until they are school-age, and even where they are not, the residue of elder domination of younger generations remains.  The older generation tends to interfere strongly in the decisions of their children's families long after they have 'left home.'  This tendency is strongly reinforced by the tradition of guanxi, which I'll discuss later. 

When all is said and done, under both regimes the authority of the parent of young children, especially as disciplinarian, is heavily undermined.  I would not be the first to observe that young Chinese children have a strong tendency to be 'spoiled.'  One of the more important consequences of this situation, at least as it seems to me, is that it appears to reliably produce two extremes of personality -- one aggressively meddling and tyrannical, and the other extremely timid and shy.  The dynamics of Chinese society tends to be dominated by the interaction of these two personalities, with the tyrannical sort perpetually vying and fighting with one another for domination and its spoils, and the mousy sort scurrying about just trying not to get stepped on.


The system of guanxi is both an extension of these tendencies and a reinforcement of them.  Guanxi, 'officially,' if anything about it can be said to be official, is a sort of all-encompassing system of relations between people and the social expectations that attend them.  It is a very common word, possibly because it is always at the front of the mind.  One often will hear people use the phrase 'mei guanxi.'  If asked for a translation, most Chinese would respond that it means 'no problem.'  But that is not really what it means, as attempting to use it in a sentence in the same way will prove completely wrong.  It would be closer to say something like 'Don't worry.  I'm not going to try to destroy your relationships with other people and ruin your life over this.'  Maybe that's a little strong, but it will get a Western mind closer to the actual idea.

The person trying to successfully navigate Chinese society must keep his mind focused on guanxi.  The tyrant must keep his allies with him and in line, and remain vigilant against other tyrants trying to unseat him.  The mouse must keep the tyrants and the other mice happy so that he isn't squashed or nibbled to death.  To many Westerners it must sound kind of like being in high-school, except that your life pretty much depends on how popular you are.

Which is to say that it is a sort of childish, society-wide self-obsession.  If many Chinese appear inescapably shy or insecure to Westerners, it is probably because they can never become comfortable with themselves.  Not to obsess over one's self and one's status practically amounts to suicide.  Many Chinese who immigrate to the West express a sentiment along the lines of 'Thank God!  No more guanxi!' and proceed to live happy lives in relative insignificance and obscurity, having cared very little about whatever program of study got them into their adoptive country and with no real ambitions of actual achievement.  They are just happy to escape the stress of that mess.

It is easy to think of the enforcement of this system as being perpetrated by the proud, oppressive, vicious tyrants against the 'good,' weak and timid mice, as well as everybody else.  But actually both groups are responsible, and both are proud, vicious, oppressive and weak.  Obsession with self and status is practically a requirement for survival, such that both groups are actually struggling with pride, just manifested in different ways.  Both groups are vicious, the tyrants openly and actively, the mice in their participation in guanxi and the neglect of their weaker fellows as a matter of self-interest.  Both groups participate in 'oppression,' the tyrants actively and openly, the mice in appeasement of the tyrants.  And both are weak, neither able to control themselves.

On the other hand, they are up against a very powerful confluence of circumstances which must be very difficult to break and beyond any individual's control.  Westerners have the meliorating influences of the sovereign family and individualism on their side.  The tyrannical and insecure attitudes of childhood have forces of parental discipline working against them to temper their influence.  A spirit of individualism allows Westerners to freely associate and disagree without destroying one another.  But the Chinese standing against pride, status-mongering and petty viciousness stands alone against a hostile world.

It can't be easy being Chinese.


I have posited that insecurity is actually an outward manifestation of pride which often goes unrecognized.  But following this train of thought would seem to lead to a rather odd corollary.  If confidence is the opposite of insecurity, and humility the opposite of pride, a sort of argument from symmetry would suggest that confidence is actually the outward manifestation of humility.

Does this make any sense?  Actually, I think it does.

The insecure person finds everyday life debilitating because, like all prideful people, he is in the constant habit of placing himself at the center of his thoughts.  With the worst of such people it is very nearly impossible to have a meaningful conversation, because for such a person there can never be a conversation about anything other than himself.  One might ostensibly be talking about almost any subject under the sun, but in the insecure person's mind, every comment will somehow be connected back to his perception of himself.  Practically anything could be construed as an insult or somehow destructive to his self-image.  Every statement made will be strenuously analyzed for some tenuous connection back to some issue of his own standing.  Outright criticism of anything is impossible for him to handle, because it can never be an objective criticism of an idea or an event, but must always be personalized.  Likewise, the most mildly challenging of circumstances instantly bring out his fear of being revealed as a failure.

The confident person is able to cope so supremely well with reality not because he is some superhuman, ultra-competent demigod, but precisely because he is not doing any of this.  He has, by some means or another, flipped the pride-switch to 'off.'  He can talk comfortably about almost anything, because for him, statements can actually be just what they are, and can mean just what they are stated to mean.  He can think about and respond to the situation at hand because he is able to stop thinking about himself.  Neither his failures nor his successes 'get to him,' because he has stopped compulsively connecting them to his self-image.  Life can finally just be life, because his self has been forgotten, and is no longer getting in the way of things.

I witnessed what I think is a very interesting demonstration of this about a month ago when getting some  repair work done on my car.  I had a problem with the alignment, and had to take it to a specialist with whom I had never done business before.  When I walked into the office, the interior was dark and old, but extremely tidy and clean.  The middle-aged proprietor was standing there, leaning against a pole with his arms crossed.  I asked him how much for an alignment, and he quoted me a price, using as few words as possible.  His 'vibe' was extremely nervous and uncomfortable, though you would think he'd been through just this scenario hundreds or thousands of times in his lifetime.

I pulled my car into the garage, and he started looking it over.  In a few minutes, he returned to me and started relaying his diagnosis.  But this time, he was open and excited.  He went from uptight and utterly laconic to positively effusive, gesturing very expressively as he talked, his eyes wide with energy.  He actually acted like someone you might want to approach and have a conversation with.

What happened?  He became comfortable.   He was talking about cars now, apparently a favorite subject.  He was too excited to think about himself, so he forgot to.  He could become friendly and open without worrying about what I might think.


My wife informs me that one of the highest ideals of Buddhism is achieving 'emptiness' of the self:

"How much suffering and fear, and
How many harmful things are in existence?
If all arises from clinging to the "I",
What should I do with this great demon?"


I don't know if this is exactly the same idea, but it appears to be fairly close.  Pride would seem a good fit to the description 'the great demon 'I'.

If this thinking is generally correct, perhaps I might venture that the beginnings of a definition of pride should not be so much concerned with the notion of thinking particularly well of one's self, as it is usually taken, but more generally a compulsive dwelling of one's awareness on issues of self, whatever the content of the thought.  Achieving humility, then, and displaying confidence would seem to be best secured by 'emptying the self of the self',' or forgetting one's self, or at the very least allowing one's own petty issues as little room in his mind as possible.

So, maybe the best advice is to 'get rid of your self.'  Apparently, you're better off without it.

1 comment:

  1. This was brutal to read, since the "shy" and "insecure" person filled with pride has often been me. Even though I recognized some of the symptoms 20 years ago, changing hasn't been easy.

    You are correct about the symptoms, you are correct about the diagnosis, and you are correct about the "humility" cure.

    How you know this, I don't know.

    Thank you. This is something I need to hear over and over again.


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