You are trying to escape your shame with pride

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Pride is considered not just a deadly sin but the worst deadly sin, and Scott Alexander has always been confused about this:

In his Book of Ratings, Lore Sjoberg asks pretty much the same question I would:

I’m not sure how pride works. Do you go to hell for saying “this is a pretty tasty three-bean salad I’ve made, if I do say so myself,” or do you have to say “why, I bet this is a better three-bean salad than GOD could make”? And what about self-esteem? My high school counselors were always pushing self-esteem on me. Were they pawns of the Adversary?

I’ve been watching Avatar: The Last Airbender recently, and Uncle Iroh said something that helped pride click for me:

You are trying to escape your shame with pride. But pride is not the opposite of shame. Pride is the source of shame, the other side of the same coin. It is deep humility that opposes both of them.

If I had to choose the exact passage of Lewis’ that this reminded me of, it would be the one where one of the blessed is trying to convince one of the damned to stay in Heaven, and the damned soul keeps thinking up all of these worries — for example, that as a damned spirit it’s grown ghastly and transparent, and finally the blessed soul asks “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

What I’m getting from Uncle Iroh’s quote is that pride and shame are both about obsessing over yourself and your status — in the one case how great you are, in the other case how lowly you are. What he’s calling humility is thinking about something outside yourself; devoting your life to some purpose other than self-promotion.

But the spirit in Lewis’ book never answers the question, and I’m not sure what the answer is. How do you go about trying to think of something that’s not yourself? If you think “Okay, gotta get to Heaven, so I’ll start thinking about Jesus”, you’re focusing on how to get yourself to Heaven. If you think “I wanna be a nice person, so I’ll give to charity”, you’re thinking about how to make yourself nicer. I wonder to what degree this is what the Protestants mean when they say that salvation is entirely by grace: you can’t get there from here, if you’re thinking entirely about yourself there’s no way to bootstrap yourself to thinking about other things.

Am I reading this at a level of philosophical sophistication greater than that in the text itself? I don’t think so. Lewis starts off with some boring straw men (the passage with the liberal clergystrawman was particularly grating) but then he does a commendably good job of examining the hardest possible cases for his theory of self-absorbedness. One of the damned souls is a mother whose son died when he was young; the mother spent the rest of her life mourning the son in the worst possible ways: refusing to do anything happy or fun, telling all her living children they could never live up to the dead son’s example, chiding anyone who acted happy as being insensitive to her misery. And so she went to Hell. It sounds harsh to send someone to Hell for being excessively sad that their son died, but Lewis did a good job showing how what looked like caring about another person (the son) was really self-absorbedness: trying to prove to everyone how righteous and sensitive she was and give herself an entitled position as the Poor Grieving Mother. She had built an identity as a Wronged and Bereaved Person, and she continued mourning not out of love for her son but in order to protect that identity. Lewis’ mantra that you have to shed your identities in order to become enlightened blessed was a constant theme, and the mother went to Hell not for loving her son but for loving her identity as the Wronged and Bereaved Person, which was in a way a sort of pride.

I interviewed at another psychiatric hospital yesterday, and we were discussing some of the cases there, and one thing that struck me was the similarity of Lewis’ idea of pride to the psychological idea of the defense mechanism. You have something bad happen to you — some threat to your self-esteem — and instead of rolling with it and saying “Yeah, I guess I’m not quite as great as I thought” you come up with some narrative that preserves your self-esteem. One of Lewis’ characters in Divorce is a good example: he was a poet, he wasn’t successful right away, so he decided he was a soul too pure for this world and that everyone else saw his inherent goodness and envied him and was in a conspiracy against him and that’s why they were mean to him. Or when some of the damned first found themselves in Hell, instead of admitting they had made a mistake they told themselves that because they had their freedom there and didn’t have to worship God, it was the real Heaven, and the people in the place above who said they were in Heaven were just deluded goody-goodies trying to sound better than everyone else. Or another guy who had known a criminal in life, found the (repentant) criminal in Heaven, and then went back to Hell in a huff because going to Heaven would legitimize the system that said a criminal got better treatment than upstanding law-abiding citizens like himself. It helps clarify an idea I wrote in another article, that “people aren’t just seeking status, they’re seeking the ability to believe that they have status.”

In Lewis’ Hell, the reason people don’t choose to go to Heaven even though the gates are open is that they’d have to abandon their defense mechanisms. They’d have to admit that there’s no conspiracy of jealous people against them and maybe they just weren’t that good a poet. Or that they’re in Hell because they were bad people, not because Hell is super awesome.

It has nothing to do with making good three-bean salads. Lewis’ Hell is full of people who are too proud to admit they were wrong.

I think I’m good at admitting I’m wrong in philosophical debates, but The Great Divorce made me realize how terrible I am at it in my personal life and in my quarrels. Once I had a good idea what pride was and what to look for, it was depressingly easy to find it in myself.


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    I really hope C. S. Lewis is not the sole authority in charge of my afterlife. I’m pretty egotistical, even when I appear to be humble.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Gaikokumaniakku: Probably not Lewis in charge of your after life…more likely you. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce is a fascinating read.

  3. Dismal Farmer says:

    St Thomas says Pride is seeking excellence (in achievement or status) in excess of good reason. So an example would be something like refusing to step aside to let someone more skilled complete an important task (or show you how to do it). Pride is a refusal to recognize that one must recognize that one’s capacity to enforce order through action is bounded by reality. (The ultimate order possible within reality is basically “God”, though not with all the substance (in the Aristotelian sense) of the Xian God.)

    This is obviously why Pride is the worst sin. Refusing to accept that one is limited by reality and that therefore one’s actions purporting to do “good” must be subject to reason is obviously always going to lead to disaster of some sort. You can’t just go around claiming what you are doing is “good” just because you feel like it without any regard to the real consequences. (Well, people do that all the time and it always ends badly.)

    As always, Scott Alexander’s pride in his ability to determine the intellectual content of something prevents him from actually understanding the reality of what Lewis is saying. Because Alexander won’t consider the idea that Lewis is smarter than him.

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