Pride Is the Absence of Humility, Love and Truth

Pride poisons reason because the proud refuse to see what they don’t want to see.

‘Covering Eyes’
‘Covering Eyes’ (photo: sirtravelalot / Shutterstock)

There is a world of difference between wisdom and cleverness. In fact, truth be told, there is much more than a world of difference between them because what separates wisdom and cleverness can become the abyss that separates heaven from hell. The devil is much cleverer than we are but few would consider making an eternal enemy of God an act of wisdom. 

This understanding of the difference between wisdom and cleverness was evident in The Hobbit in which we are told by the narrator that “goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted” and that they “make no beautiful things, but … many clever ones”:

It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. 

There is much of Tolkien’s own philosophy embedded in the narrator’s evident disdain for the cleverness of goblins. For Tolkien, echoing the view of the great Greek philosophers, the good, the true and the beautiful are inextricably interwoven. In Christian terms their unity and inseparability is itself a reflection of the Trinity, who is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty. This being so, those who are “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted” will not make good, true or beautiful things. The fact that goblins make “clever” things indicates that intelligence is not a guarantor of goodness, nor is it necessarily a means of finding the truth. Intelligence can be used in the service of cruelty or wickedness, or in the weaving of lies, or in the service of a host of other sins. In the absence of virtue and wisdom, intelligence becomes a servant of evil. It is poisoned. 

Tolkien’s understanding of cleverness was echoed by his great friend, C. S. Lewis. In his book, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis analyses various philosophies which are wrong-headed. Those who have poisoned their own intellects through their adherence to the cynical spirit of the age are known as the “Clevers.” They are as proud of their own cynical cleverness as they are disdainful of traditional wisdom. 

If cleverness is not the same as wisdom, nor is it the same as reason, which must be understood in terms of its being the objective end of all bona fide truth-seeking and also, at the same time, the subjective means by which such truth-seeking is carried out. Objectively speaking, Reason is the Logos; it is God himself. True reason thus has both its source and its end in the divine. 

If this is so, how can the use of reason lead to so much wrong-headedness? The answer is that wrong-headedness is always connected to wrong-heartedness. It is pride, the absence of love, which poisons the intellectual faculties, thereby preventing reason from serving its purpose of pursuing objective truth. 

Technically speaking, using the language of the theologians, pride is the absence of humility. It is, however, also the absence of love because true love is inseparable from humility. Love, in the true understanding of the thing itself, is the sacrificing of ourselves for the other. This requires putting ourselves second or last so that the other can be put first. Such acts of self-sacrifice, of dying so that others might live, are possible only for humble souls. Pride, the absence of humility, puts itself first. It sacrifices others to the self. 

Pride prevents reason because the proud refuse to see what they don’t want to see. They explain it away, often through a descent into cynicism. Since the proud only see what they want to see, pride is inseparable from prejudice. In The Last Battle the dwarves are unable to see the spiritual reality which is staring them in the face because they will not be “taken in.” The problem is that those who won’t be “taken in” by others are unable to be taken out of themselves. They are enslaved to themselves, sinking and shriveling into the darkness of the gollumized ego, which gets smaller in direct proportion that it thinks it is bigger than everything else. 

Since true philosophy is, as its name denotes, a love of wisdom, we can see that wisdom is inseparable from love. One must love wisdom in order to attain it. One must be humble. One must put oneself at the service of that which is bigger than ourselves.

And this brings us to faith. 

The humble mind, which is in love with wisdom and which pursues authentic truth with unprejudiced reason, will be moved to an acceptance of metaphysical realities beyond the limitations of the mind’s own ken. 

In conclusion, we can do no better than to return to the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas who illustrates how pure reason, i.e., reason that is not intoxicated with pride, leads to faith. In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas shows that humility leads to a sense of gratitude, which is necessary for the opening of the eyes in wonder. Seeing with eyes wide open and wide awake in wonder, we are moved to the contemplation which is necessary for the dilation of the mind into the fullness of the real. This is why faith, reason and the love of wisdom are as inseparable as the good, true and beautiful, or the way, truth and life, or the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.