Of all vices, nobody is completely free of pride. Yet strangely, people never ever think that they’re prideful; they can only recognize pride in others. In Christianity, pride is the central evil, far more wicked than anger, greed, etc. One’s own pride is always clashing with the pride of others—there isn’t enough “space” for everyone to be prideful. Pride, by its very nature, is competitive—for example, people are proud of being richer than their neighbors, not of being rich.
Lewis suggests that although sexual or violent sins might seem worse or more sensational, the worst sin of all is often very normal and petty-seeming: pride. Lewis has already laid much of the groundwork for this chapter in Book Two, where he argued that Satan’s great sin, and Adam and Eve’s “original sin” was the desire to stand above God.
Because pride is a competitive emotion, it interferes with our ability to know God. God, by definition, is immeasurably superior to humanity. Proud people find it difficult to recognize God’s power because they’re so overcome with love for their own beauty, intelligence, wealth, etc. Many of the prideful people who claim to worship God are really worshipping “an imaginary God”—and this imaginary God praises them for being better than other people.
As the most basic level, pride is a form of infatuation with oneself—prideful people believe themselves better than others in some capacity. Lewis introduces the frightening possibility that there are people who believe they’re worshipping God, but are actually being seduced by the Devil (or, effectively, “worshipping” themselves).
So how do we know that we worship the real God and not, in our prideful ignorance, an imaginary God? Lewis proposes a simple test: whenever we think that our religious beliefs make us better than other people, “we are being acted on by the devil.” If, however, our beliefs make us feel small and insignificant, then we know the true God.
Lewis celebrates the virtue of humility—the exact opposite of pride. To contemplate God, the most powerful being in the universe, you must accept your own inferiority. Thus, if you think about “God” and feel big and powerful, you’re not really thinking of God at all.
Lewis makes a few qualifying remarks about pride. First, there is nothing inherently prideful or sinful about being happy when someone praises you. The problem arises when people who receive praise begin to believe that they are more worthy of praise than other people. Second, it’s important to distinguish between being “proud” of someone else and feeling arrogant pride for oneself. Often, when people say they’re “proud” of their children or friends, they just mean that they feel a “warm-hearted admiration.” Sometimes, though, people are irrationally proud of belonging to a famous family or club—and this form of pride is, indeed, a sin.
The word “pride” has been used in many different senses, so it’s necessary for Lewis to clarify exactly what he means when he says that pride is sinful. The final sense in which he defines pride here—a sense of superiority because of belonging to a group—could be applied to patriots and those who are fanatically loyal to their state government (an especially relevant definition, given that Mere Christianity was written during World War II and published at the dawn of the Cold War).
Third, it’s important to realize that pride isn’t a sin because it “offends” God or makes him jealous. God wants humans to worship him, not because he needs praise, but because he wants humans to achieve salvation. Fourth and finally, humble people aren’t necessarily meek or self-deprecating. Usually, humble people are just cheerful and normal-seeming, and take a genuine interest in other people. To become humble, we must begin by recognizing that we are proud. “If you think you are not conceited,” Lewis closes, “you are very conceited indeed.”
A common cliché about humility is that one must be self-deprecating or shy to be humble. In fact, humility means nothing of the kind. One need not deny one’s own talent or abilities to be humble; the point is to deny that one’s talent is one’s own achievement (since, in truth, God “gives” people their talent and abilities). One reason that pride is so deadly is that it’s invisible—many people are prideful, but few people think they are.