In a quickly-deleted tweet last June, a prominent Catholic priest responded to our nation’s annual season of LGBTQ celebrations by asking: “If we’re celebrating Pride this month, what sin are we celebrating next month?” On a superficial level, this was a very silly question; after all, if earnest critics desire to associate LGBTQ Pride celebrations with one of the seven deadly sins, surely lust would be the more appropriate candidate. But on a much deeper level, this sloppy critique betrayed a profound blindness to commonplace equivocation of what the term “pride” can signify. For although “pride” in one sense certainly corresponds to vice and sin, there are equally legitimate senses in which “pride” can correspond to nothing other than glory and a crowning virtue. Moreover, and for precisely the same reason, it follows that a certain form of pride is nothing less than the virtuous response to unjust oppression and discrimination. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to embark on an exploration of the philosophical and theological tradition surrounding these issues, in order to arrive at a better foundation for reflecting on modern “pride” movements in general, and LGBTQ Pride specifically.
I. Aquinas on Pride
The first equivocation is acknowledged explicitly by Thomas Aquinas, in his reflection on the vice of pride [Latin: superbia] in the Summa Theologica. Here Aquinas replies to an objection, in his usual manner, by acknowledging a distinction: “Pride [superbia] may be understood in two ways. First, as overpassing [supergreditur] the rule of reason, and in this sense we say that it is a sin. Secondly, it may simply denominate “super-abundance”; in which sense any super-abundant thing may be called pride: and it is thus that God promises pride as significant of super-abundant good. Hence a gloss of Jerome on the same passage (Isaiah 61:6) says that “there is a good and an evil pride”; or “a sinful pride which God resists, and a pride that denotes the glory which He bestows.” It may also be replied that pride there signifies abundance of those things in which men may take pride.” (Summa II.2, Q.162, A.1, Reply to Objection 1) It is in this last sense, for example, that parents rightly take pride in the goodness of their children.
Shortly after this, in his reply to a subsequent objection, Aquinas discusses the complex relationship that exists between a deeply entangled set of virtues and vices: the vice of pride, which is opposed to the virtue of humility; and the virtue of magnanimity (being “great-souled”), which is opposed to the vice of pusillanimity (being “small-souled”). He locates the link between these vice-virtue pairs in the fact that both humility and magnanimity are, in a certain sense, fundamentally concerned with the same matter: “Humility restrains the appetite from aiming at great things against right reason: while magnanimity urges the mind to great things in accord with right reason. Hence… they concur in this, that each is according to right reason.” (Summa II.2, Q.161, A.1, Reply to Objection 3)
And therefore: “just as it belongs to magnanimity to urge the mind to great things against despair, so it belongs to humility to withdraw the mind from the inordinate desire of great things against presumption.” But because of the deep connection between these things, we can conclude that each virtue is opposed (in different ways) to both vices – and similarly each vice is opposed to both virtues. Thus Aquinas notes that the vice of pusillanimity is primarily opposed to the virtue of magnanimity, but in another way it is opposed to the virtue of humility; and “in the same way, on the other hand, pride [superbia] may be opposed by excess, both to magnanimity and humility, from different points of view: to humility, inasmuch as it scorns subjection, to magnanimity, inasmuch as it tends to great things inordinately.” (Summa II.2, Q.162, A.1, Reply to Objection 3)
That pride is opposed to the virtue of humility is hardly surprising. But the significance of the secondary opposition between pride and magnanimity cannot be overstated, for one simple reason that drives us directly into the heart of the second equivocation: the fact that magnanimity itself is sometimes called by another name: proper pride.
II. Aristotle on Magnanimity
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle famously explains how every virtue is “the mean” between two extremes, both of which are vices: one extreme is excessive, the other is deficient, and virtue is located between them in “the middle”. Thus Aristotle asserts in Ethics Book II.7 that: “With regard to honour and dishonour the mean is proper pride [Greek: μεγαλοψυχία], the excess is known as a sort of empty vanity, and the deficiency is undue humility [Greek: μικροψυχία].” (trans. David Ross: Oxford University Press, 1925)
Here we see the virtue [μεγαλοψυχία] translated by David Ross as “proper pride”, although it could also be translated as “magnanimity” or “greatness of soul”. In the same way, the deficient vice [μικροψυχία] is translated as “undue humility”, although it could also be translated as “pusillanimity” or “smallness of soul”. There are naturally costs and benefits to any given translation, and thus different translators select different preferences. For this reason, in the quotations of Aristotle that follow, I will alternate between two different translations of the Greek (David Ross and Robert Crisp), in order to capture a broader sense of the Greek than a single translation could provide. It is noteworthy, however, that David Ross’ translation has the remarkable benefit of manifesting that elusive secondary opposition between humility and pusillanimity (understood as an excessive humility), and again between the vice of pride (understood as an excessive greatness of soul) and magnanimity. But both translations are correct, and ultimately refer to the same virtue no matter what name it is given.
In his reflection on the virtue of magnanimity, in Book IV.3 of the Ethics, Aristotle observes that: “A person is thought to be great-souled [μεγαλοψυχία, magnanimous] if he thinks himself worthy of great things – and is indeed worthy of them… someone who thinks himself worthy of great things when he is not is vain… someone who thinks himself worthy of lesser things than he is worthy of, however, is small-souled [μικροψυχία, pusillanimous]; whether he is in fact either worthy of great things or ordinary things, or even when he is worthy of small things but thinks himself worthy of yet smaller ones.” “The great-souled person, then, is an extreme with regard to the grandness of his claims, but a mean with regard to their correctness; for he reckons his worth in accordance with his real merit, while the others are excessive and deficient.” (trans. Robert Crisp: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Strikingly, Aristotle observes that “the unduly humble [μικροψυχία] man, being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves, and seems to have something bad about him from the fact that he does not think himself worthy of good things, and seems also not to know himself; else he would have desired the things he was worthy of, since these were good.” (trans. David Ross) He continues, “Nevertheless these people are thought to be not so much foolish as timid. But their view of themselves seems to make them even worse, because each sort of person aims at what is in accordance with his own worth, and these people abstain from noble actions and projects, and similarly from external goods, because they feel unworthy of them.” (trans. Robert Crisp) Vain people, who wrongly deem themselves worthy of great things, “are fools and ignorant of themselves… But undue humility is more opposed to pride [μεγαλοψυχία] than vanity is; for it is both commoner and worse.” (trans. David Ross)
Aristotle teaches, however, that magnanimity is not attained merely through one’s correct estimation of the honor that he is worthy of: “the person who is worthy of little and thinks himself to be such is temperate, but not great-souled; for greatness of soul implies grandness of scale”. (trans. Robert Crisp) Thus it is only by being worthy of truly great things, and correctly claiming this honor for oneself, that one can possess the virtue of magnanimity. For “honor is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered. Pride [μεγαλοψυχία], then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them.” (trans. David Ross) “This is why it is hard to be truly great-souled, since it is not possible without a noble and good character.” (trans. Robert Crisp) “Such, then, is the proud man; the man who falls short of him is unduly humble, and the man who goes beyond him is vain.” (trans. David Ross)
This conclusion merits prolonged reflection. For indeed, to the Christian accustomed to thinking of pride exclusively as a vice, it might be surprising to speak of pride as also being a virtue in itself – much less as a crown of the virtues! But when magnanimity is understood as proper pride, as claiming great honor in accord with reason, then we can begin to see that there is no contradiction: for not only is the Aristotelian virtue of pride [μεγαλοψυχία] not synonymous with the Thomistic vice of pride [superbia], but indeed they are opposed to one another, as we saw that Aquinas himself acknowledged in the Summa. The great-souled man takes pride in the great honors and glory that is due to him, and yet he does not overpass the rule of reason in doing so: rather, he judges his worth in accordance with his real merit.
III. Magnanimity and Christian Revelation
As mentioned above, it is notable that Aristotle views magnanimity as something remarkably difficult to obtain. This is because, in the first place, virtue in general is difficult to obtain: “it is hard to be good, because in each case it is hard to find the middle point” (Ethics II.9, trans. Robert Crisp). But again the difficulty is compounded in this case: for magnanimity requires taking pride in great honors that have been merited, and thus true magnanimity cannot exist without first having great virtue in the soul, according to which great honor is merited and can thus be claimed in accord with the rule of reason. Thus also, again: “the person who is worthy of little and thinks himself to be such is temperate, but not great-souled; for greatness of soul implies grandness of scale” (Book IV.3, trans. Robert Crisp).
And yet at the same time, Aristotle makes a notable concession: “there is a state similarly related to proper pride [μεγαλοψυχία], being concerned with small honours while that is concerned with great. For it is possible to desire honour as one ought, and more than one ought, and less” (Book II.7, trans. David Ross). Although this lesser virtue has no special name according to Aristotle, it is nevertheless clearly akin to magnanimity, since it enables a person to judge their worth in accord with their real merit. It seems correct, therefore, to conclude that this nameless virtue can also be called “proper pride” in a broader sense: in terms of simply desiring honor as one ought, regardless of how great or small that honor may be, even when grandness of scale (and thus true magnanimity in the strict sense) is lacking.
But this is not where our reflection on magnanimity ends, for Christian revelation provides us with a new foundation to approach magnanimity: no longer exclusively in terms of great honor due to great personal virtue, but also in terms of great honor due to the greatness of our human dignity, on account of our nature as persons created in the image of the triune God.1 Thus when Aquinas discusses the virtue of magnanimity, he similarly observes that: “There is in man something great which he possesses through the gift of God… Accordingly magnanimity makes a man deem himself worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts he holds from God”. (Summa II.2, Q.129, A.3, Reply to Objection 4) It follows from this that true magnanimity – in a qualified but very real sense – is a virtue that lies within the grasp of every person who bears the inherent gift of a truly great dignity in their soul, and rightly claims this for themselves.
In the same passage, Aquinas also helpfully explains why claiming to be worthy of great things, in the right way, does not conflict with the virtue of humility. For although man recognizes that he is worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts he holds from God, at the same time he also recognizes that there is “something defective which accrues to him through the weakness of nature”, and thus “humility makes a man think little of himself in consideration of his own deficiency, and magnanimity makes him despise others insofar as they fall away from God’s gifts… Yet humility makes us honor others and esteem them better than ourselves, insofar as we see some of God’s gifts in them.” “It is therefore evident that magnanimity and humility are not contrary to one another, although they seem to tend in contrary directions, because they proceed according to different considerations.” (Summa II.2, Q.129, A.3, Reply to Objection 4)
IV. Taking Pride
Having thus surveyed the complexities involved in understanding the term pride both as a vice [superbia] and as a virtue [μεγαλοψυχία], it is time to return to the beginning and apply some part of these reflections to the complex question of LGBTQ Pride. It should by now be obvious (if it was not already) that it is certainly possible to legitimately take pride in something without automatically falling victim to the vice of pride. This is perhaps best exemplified by the concept of cultural or national pride (here we might think of “American Pride” or “Latino Pride” or “Irish Pride”) which in proper measure is conducive to the virtue of patriotism (and can also take on an excessive form that might be called the vice of nationalism). Or we might consider smaller movements like Nurse Pride, which is clearly intended to support members of a community that does not ordinarily receive sufficient honor and recognition in society. And we certainly cannot fail to reflect on the long history of oppression that gave rise to the movement of Black Pride, with its goal of combating racism, celebrating black history, and honoring black culture. But how should we understand the celebration of LGBTQ Pride?
As always, the answer will depend on how you define your terms. For if you approach LGBTQ Pride as fundamentally a celebration of sexual license, your conclusions will be different from those who approach it as fundamentally a celebration of increased social recognition of the basic human dignity of LGBTQ persons, and especially as a commemoration of the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising. If your perception of Pride parades is inseparable from unconscionable public displays of graphic sexuality, your conclusions will be very different from those whose experience of Pride parades is closely tied to public chanting of “Stonewall means fight back” (echoing the historical origin of these parades precisely as protests against unjust discrimination and harsh treatment of LGBTQ persons) – to say nothing of those who experienced Pride parades during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when tens of thousands of men were being radically abandoned by their families and left to die alone. And indeed, if you define LGBTQ “culture” as something purely sexual, your conclusions will inevitably be different from the person who defends Larry Kramer’s vision that: “The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual.”
But it is not the purpose of this essay to persuade you toward one specific vision of these things. Nor is the purpose to demonstrate that the Pride movement has historical roots that could be identified as inherently praiseworthy and redeemable; much less is it intended to defend every aspect of modern Pride parades, as if they were somehow immune from critique, or never contained elements that are manifestly contrary to traditional Christan ethics.2 The purpose is simply to draw attention to the indisputable fact that, no matter how we ultimately judge the modern phenomenon of LGBTQ Pride, human dignity does demand a radical honor that is owed equally to all persons – and that, by reflecting on this fact in light of the virtue of magnanimity, it becomes very easy to understand why the experience of pride as virtue resonates naturally and deeply throughout communities and within individuals who have experienced shame for their existence, who have been tempted to view basic human dignity as an honor that they do not deserve, or who have been told that they are unworthy of being loved and unworthy of being saved.
In Book II.9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, when Aristotle reflects on the difficulty of attaining “the mean” (i.e. virtue) without falling into the vices of either excess or deficiency, he concludes by observing that: “we must also consider the things toward which we as individuals are particularly prone. For we each have different natural tendencies… And we should drag ourselves in the opposite direction, because we shall arrive at the mean by holding far off from where we would miss the mark, just as people do when straightening warped pieces of wood.” (trans. Robert Crisp) Thus it follows that the virtuous course of action, for anyone who finds themselves prone toward being “small-souled” or “unduly humble”, is to combat their vice by pressing toward the opposite extreme. “So much, then, is plain, that the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.” (trans. David Ross)
The logical conclusion of this exploration should not be surprising, but perhaps it should be clearly summarized and formally stated. For historically oppressed minorities, for social minorities of any sort who are combating an internalized sense of lacking equal dignity, and indeed for anyone who is ever tempted to view themselves as unworthy of being loved by God or by any other human person: proper pride is the appropriate and virtuous response. For failure to internalize proper pride is nothing other than a rejection of the virtue that “urges the mind to great things in accord with right reason”, and through that very refusal to become the small-souled person who “being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves.”
1 To be more precise, it should be noted that honor due to human dignity is ultimately reducible to the Aristotelian notion of honor due to virtue, even if it not one’s own personal virtue. For Aquinas explains: “To honor a person is to recognize him as having virtue, wherefore virtue alone is the due cause of a person being honored. Now it is to be observed that a person may be honored not only for his own virtue, but also for another’s: thus princes and prelates, although they be wicked, are honored as standing in God’s place, and as representing the community over which they are placed… So too, is a fool honored if he stand in God’s place or represent the whole community: and in the same way parents and masters should be honored, on account of their having a share of the dignity of God Who is the Father and Lord of all.” (Summa II.2, Q.63, A.3, Answer) Thus also, by the very same logic: every created human person, on account of their being an image-bearer of the triune God, is to be honored due to their having a share in the dignity of God.
2 By way of parallel reflection, however, it is fruitful for Christians to ask ourselves how we respond to the large segments of our culture that engage in drunken debauchery on Mardi Gras, or Saint Patrick’s Day. Do we respond by condemning those celebrations outright, and refusing to participate due to fear of being associated with sinful behavior? Do we distance ourselves from any mention of Irish Pride, because of the drunken sins of many who embrace it? Or do we make distinctions, patiently draw attention to the praiseworthy and redeemable origin of the celebration, and seek ways to celebrate the good without approving the bad?