Most Influential Essay

December 31, 2003 | 20 comments
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Without question, the following essay has shaped my world view more than any other. I’ve spent so much time turning the ideas in my head that I can no longer tell where they stop and where mine began.

One of my favorite priesthood or Institute lessons is to pass copies to everyone in the class, read it, then lead a discussion. It never fails to make an impact. Several people have later told me it changed their whole perspective on life, as it did mine. I strongly recommend doing the same thing for your class or family. Here’s the slightly condensed version I hand out. The full version is here.

The Great Sin
from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Today I come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals. There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off? The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is the Pride is essentially competitive — is competitive by its very nature — while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. The sexual impulse may drive two men into competition if they both want the same girl. But that is only by accident; they might just as likely have wanted two different girls. But a proud man will take your girl from you, not because he wants her, but just to prove to himself that he is a better man than you. Greed may drive men into competition if there is not enough to go round; but the proud man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power. Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.

Take it with money. Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house, better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point. What is it that makes a man with 10,000 pounds a year anxious to get 20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. 10,000 pounds will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride C the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers. What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often frigid. It is Pride. What is it that makes a political leader or a whole nation go on and on, demanding more and more? Pride again. Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.

The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity — it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.

In God you come up against some-thing which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that — and, therefore, know your-self as nothing in comparison — you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshiping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellowmen. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good — above all, that we are better than someone else — I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether. It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity — that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride — just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Before leaving this subject I must guard against some possible misunderstandings:

(1) Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says “Well done,” are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, “I have pleased him; all is well,” to thinking, “What a fine person I must be to have done it.” The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a childlike and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says “Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals — or my artistic conscience — or the traditions of my family — or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.” In this way really thoroughgoing Pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves “curing” a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity; better the frying-pan than the fire.

(2) We say in English that a man is “proud” of his son, or his father, or his school, or regiment, and it may be asked whether “pride” in this sense is a sin. I think it depends on what, exactly, we mean by “proud of.” Very often, in such sentences, the phrase “is proud of” means “has a warm-hearted admiration for.” Such an admiration is, of course, very far from being a sin. But it might, perhaps, mean that the person in question gives himself airs on the ground of his distinguished father, or because he belongs to a famous regiment. This would, clearly, be a fault; but even then, it would be better than being proud simply of himself. To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.

(3) We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that humility is some-thing He demands as due to His own dignity — as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity. The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble — delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off — getting rid of the false self, with all its “Look at me” and “Aren’t I a good boy?” and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in the desert.

(4) Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

20 Responses to Most Influential Essay

  1. Matt Evans on December 31, 2003 at 3:16 am

    A couple of notes:

    Mormons believe pride is not the worst sin, it is the universal sin, the sin that afflicts everyone. It is the gateway sin — the sin that fosters most other sins. Pride is also the primary source of contention, family fracture, social disunity and unhappiness. Pride is the chief obstacle to Zion.

    (Because pride must compare and compete to survive, when we set aside our pride — refuse to compete or compare — we help others do the same thing. It’s a virtuous cycle.)

  2. Clark Goble on December 31, 2003 at 3:56 am

    What a great question. Our favorite essay.

    My favorite the past few years has definitely been Elder Oaks’ “Scripture Reading and Revelation”
    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1995.htm/ensign%20january%201995.htm/scripture%20reading%20and%20revelation.htm

    I’ve also really loved his talk “The Power to Become” which is rather relevant to several of the threads here.
    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/2000.htm/ensign%20november%202000.htm/the%20challenge%20to%20become.htm

    I’d have to say that the overall essays that influenced by worldview the most would be Richard Feynman’s _Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman_.

    Other’s would be Kimball’s “The False Gods We Worship” and then a talk by Elder Ashton’s I can’t seem to locate on how what appears a blessing may be a curse and vice versa.

    BTW – I wonder how influenced by this essay of Lewis’ President Benson was when he gave his fantastic talk on pride.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on December 31, 2003 at 9:44 am

    A truly great essay. Contra Matt, I wonder if pride isn’t also, in fact, the worst sin as well as the universal sin, since one may legitimately view certain heinous sins like murder as themselves species of pride. But regardless, it is a vital piece of spiritual writing.

    I can’t identify a favorite C.S. Lewis essay, because his entire book The Great Divorce overshadows everything else he wrote, in my mind. To be honest, I’m not how much I agree with Lewis’s vision in that book. But it is much a powerful, comprehensive, and striking take on the whole issue of salvation, and I read it at such a crucial moment in my life (when I was about two months into the mission field), that I adore it regardless of my theological quibbles with it. I cannot help but think that, overall, it might be the truest, most important thing Lewis ever wrote.

    Though, if we’re talking as Clark said about “overall essays that influenced [our] worldview,” Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality would have to take first place for me.

  4. lyle on December 31, 2003 at 1:40 pm

    1. President Benson’s talk on Pride. I think I’ll take up the challenge and compare the Benson/Lewis talks. It might already have been done…I remember an LDS symposium on Lewis a few years back.
    2. Someone’s talk on how the Book of Mormon (Benson again?) needs to spread via the talents of indiv members, i.e. arts, sciences, etc.
    3. Unger’s refinement of Weber’s protestant ethic, dealing with those that work for utilitarian, calling or transformational reasons. It’s either in Politics: The Central Texts or Knowledge and Politics.

  5. dp on December 31, 2003 at 7:23 pm

    This is interesting as President Benson’s talk “Beware of Pride” http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1989.htm/ensign%20may%201989.htm/beware%20of%20pride.htm is a personal favourite. He quotes Lewis from the above essay, so it is interesting to see source in its entirety.

    I have also enjoyed Elder McConkie’s “Open Letter to Honest Truth Seekers”, available here: http://www.geocities.com/cumorah/talks/mcc.html

    Numerous others spring to mind, though for the most part they are ‘behaviour shaping’ as opposed to ‘worldview shaping’.

    Finally, thanks to Lyle for reminding me of President Bensons “Cleansing the Inner Vessel” here: http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1986.htm/ensign%20may%201986%20.htm/cleansing%20the%20inner%20vessel.htm
    and “Flooding the Earth With the Book of Mormon” which really shaped my attitude towards the Book of Mormon in missionary work. http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1988.htm/ensign%20november%201988.htm/flooding%20the%20earth%20with%20the%20book%20of%20mormon.htm

  6. Matt Evans on January 1, 2004 at 9:01 am

    I’ve heard that President Benson’s pride talk was spurred by his wife’s reading Mere Christianity in a book club that year. She’d really like the Great Sin and gave it to him to read. It’s clear he was influenced by Mere Christianity, as he borrows several conceptual and structural elements.

  7. Kristine on January 1, 2004 at 10:33 pm

    This is a tangent, at best, but I find it interesting that most of these comments equate sermons and essays. Technically, an essay is a rather different form than a sermon (or a conference talk)–most definitions of the essay as a genre require a certain open-endedness that can be lacking in sermons. To use a reductionist shorthand, essays are supposed to ask questions while sermons are supposed to provide answers. _Mere Christianity_ occupies an interesting middle ground, since most of the chapters in it were originally delivered as radio addresses and maintain their colloquial tone.

    There are, of course, some really great Mormon essays–Gene England’s for instance, and I’m wondering if they haven’t been mentioned because the initial comments got us started down a fairly “official” track, or because essays (more strictly defined) don’t offer certain conclusions or obvious prescriptions, and as a group we Mormons tend to like our lessons neatly packaged. What say ye?

    For my part, I’d cite Eugene England’s “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” Laurel Ulrich’s “Lusterware,” the Lectures on Faith (essays? sermons?), Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” Mills’ “On Liberty,” Eloise Bell’s satiric “The Meeting,” Truman Madsen’s “Joseph Smith and the Sources of Divine Love” from _Four Essays on Love_ (good grief, this could go on a long time!) as central to the formation of my worldview. And, lest the clucking of orthodox tongues become deafening, I’ll note also President Kimball’s sermons on idol worship and the one on Mormon arts, Chieko Okazaki’s “Opening the Door to Christ,” and Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews.

    If you held a gun to my head and made me pick just one, it would probably be “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.”

  8. Kristine on January 1, 2004 at 10:35 pm

    Clark,

    My dad’s a physics professor. He used to read us bedtime stories from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” (!)

  9. Clark Goble on January 1, 2004 at 11:30 pm

    Not the ones about his rakish ways I hope, Krisitne!

  10. Greg on January 2, 2004 at 4:27 am

    Some of my favorites “religious” essays are James’s “The Will to Believe”; Scott Abbott’s “Will We Find Zion or Make it?”; and Jim Faulconer’s “Scripture as Incarnation.” It’s more of a sermon really, but I’d also include Hugh B. Brown’s “A Final Testimony.”

  11. Clark Goble on January 2, 2004 at 4:36 am

    One of the first things I read by Jim was a collection of thoughts based upon Bowman’s _Hebrew Thought Compared With Greek_. I still have it stored away somewhere. I must admit that it really quite revolutionized how I thought about the scriptures. It enabled me to take quite a few thoughts that were mainly lurking in my subconscious and be able to explain them in a fairly cogent fashion. Even though the ideas weren’t necessarily his own, it is one of my more read essays. (He also was of great help in encouraging me to read Heidegger and Derrida of whom I was largely ignorant at the time. I probably looked a tad pretentious walking around with _Being and Time_ but it really did coalesce a lot of things I’d already thought about. I know find that Peirce does a better job explaining them, but I came to them via that essay and then later readings in Derrida and Heidegger)

    Not really an essay but more of a demonstration, but Derrida’s short work “Tympan” still is one of the most influential works of literature/philosophy I’ve read. (It’s definitely a work that’s hard to pin into a category)

    As for Kristine’s technical point about essays, I don’t know if I can think of any essays that fit that category. I must admit that the best conference talks to me do raise more questions than answers. But perhaps they are more “applied questions” as I immediately think about all sorts of questions after reading them. That’s why I mentioned the talks I did. I reread Kimball’s “The False Gods We Worship” and it still raises tons of questions – especially in light of the never ending discussion on consecration elsewhere here.

  12. cooper on January 2, 2004 at 5:15 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed the essay. Yes, it brought to mind the Benson talk. The “Power to Become” is also a great talk on the subject also and yes, relevant to several threads.

    One point I have often pondered on wealth is what are they chasing? The pride of being first is certainly the big draw. But I also think that somewhere in the chase for wealth it becomes a replacement for the truth. What the grossly over rich person is seeking is that feeling of completeness not found in material wealth. Are they accepting a quasi-substitute from Satan while still feeling the inner yearnings for the real thing? Why does one gain ultimate success and then “cash out” only to do the same thing again? Is it just busy work, the pride – gotta be first at everything drive – or the replacement theory?

    By the real thing I mean the truth of the atonement/gospel. Does the spirit continually try to draw them to the completeness of the truth and they keep missing the mark through misunderstanding? We are all born with the light of Christ. Kind of like a beacon calling us to “remember”. Is it that quest that gets confused or manipulated by the adversary so well?
    Has anyone else out there pondered this as a possibility?

  13. lyle on January 2, 2004 at 12:37 pm

    Oh…i also forgot:

    Frédérick Bastiat, “The Law,” which despite being hyped by reactionary groups like IHS/Heritage fndtn/LI, etc (untrue, but somewhat funny in a michael moore way)[which is itself only somewhat funny], and being overly simplistic, was a Pres. Benson favorite (cheap appeal to authority).

  14. Matt Evans on January 2, 2004 at 12:51 pm

    Hi Russell,

    I think you’re right that murder, and many other sins, are ultimately species of pride. But I’ve taken my cue from the Book of Mormon, where Jacob taught that pride is a lesser sin. In Jacob 2:20-21 he ascribes the evils of wealth he outlined in verses 12-19 to “abominable” pride. Then in verse 22 he says he’d “rejoice” were pride their only sin. Alas, he could not rejoice because they were guilty of a “grosser crime,” whoredoms. It seems to me that this perspective emasculates Lewis’s ideas about pride’s role in the heirarchy of concerns.

    Thinking you’re better than others is ugly; acting on that thought is worse.

  15. Brent on January 4, 2004 at 10:37 pm

    President Hunter’s short discourse at the April 1994 General Conference entitled “What Manner of Men Ought Ye to Be?” is one of my all-time favorites.

  16. Davis Bell on January 5, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    It seems that the longer version of Lewis’ essay is the same as the shorter version. Where can I find it in full?

  17. Matt Evans on January 5, 2004 at 11:37 pm

    Hi Davis,

    The essay linked above is the unabridged version (so is the HTML version in the post itself). My “slightly condensed” version only removed a few dozen words, and may first appear identical to the other.

  18. Scott on January 6, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    One of my favorite essays–and one which I’ve passed along to many friends, for whom it quickly became one of their favorite essays–is Jim Faulconer’s “Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation.” As a call to reflection and repentance, it’s been influential to me and others in my circle of acquaitance. A lot of good has come from that little article.

    Scott

  19. Russell Arben Fox on January 7, 2004 at 12:30 pm

    I agree strongly with Scott. Our co-blogger Jim won’t toot his own horn, so allow me to do so for him: “Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation” (which you can find here: http://jamesfaulconer.byu.edu/selfimag.htm) is a great and wise LDS sermon, one which unpretentiously challenges one of the most insidious forms that pride takes within the Church–and all of modern society, really–today, and which just as unpretentiously follows through on the consequences of the only real alternative. Like High Nibley’s powerful and provocative “Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free,” reading this essay is really an act of liberation: you always knew in your heart that there was something somewhat false about all this motivational and self-improvement talk in stake leadership meetings, but you just couldn’t put your finger on what it was! I (and I’m sure many, many others) owe Jim a great debt for getting these ideas down on paper.

    Incidentally, I encountered the essay while in Korea on my mission; it had been sent by my then-companion’s older brother (one of Jim’s students) to my companion, who promptly skimmed it and then threw it away. “This guy just doesn’t like that some people know how to get ahead,” was his comment, if I remember correctly. I retrieved it from the trash can, read it, and wept. Many months later, upon my return to BYU, I snuck into a faculty meeting and scanned the crowd, asking people to help me identify Jim Faulconer. When I finally met him, I rather embarassingly, full of typical RM emotionality, told him how much his essay had meant to me. He probably doesn’t remember the encounter, but I do.

  20. Grasshopper on January 7, 2004 at 4:03 pm

    Catherine Thomas makes some similar points in “The Doer of Our Deeds” ( http://www.byui.edu/Ricks/employee/WIGHTMANG/doer_of_deeds.htm ).