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The Sin of Pride

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I like Dr. Jordan Peterson. I have watched almost all of his YouTube videos, and listened to many of his interviews. I even have a ticket to one of his upcoming events.  He explains complex religious and psychological concepts in a way that is intellectually satisfying. Often these are truths that I believed but could not explain how or why. His explorations of Carl Jung and ancient literature—closely paralleling the work of Joseph Campbell—make reading more enjoyable and exciting. He helps make learning easier for students. There is no higher praise I can think of to offer a professor.

His prominence, however, does not make him infallible. In his applications of ancient archetypal truths to modern contexts—a difficult task for even the wisest among us—Peterson has mischaracterized the arguments for White Nationalism, and collective identity in general. It is a fairly typical criticism of collective identity, and so it is worth looking at a demonstrative quotation with a magnifying glass.

In one recent instance, Dr. Peterson was presented with the following quote from Dr. Ricardo Duchesne:

Individualism is a unique attribute of European peoples. It has been exported to some degree to other nations, but in my view, it is not something that comes to them naturally. So you can’t play the game of ‘we’re all individuals.’ We have to affirm and be proud of our ethnic identity and heritage to preserve the West’s curious individualism.

In response to Duchesne, Peterson had the following to say:

Look, the Medieval Europeans identified seven deadly sins for a reason. And one of them was “pride.” I do believe that for a variety of reasons that aren’t obvious, the West has got some things right. We’ve got the sovereignty of the individual right. That’s the most fundamental thing we’ve got right. We’ve articulated that in a remarkable way, not only theologically, philosophically, in our body of laws, in our societies, and one of the consequences of that as it’s had its effect on the rest of the world is that everyone is getting richer quite fast. And that’s a really good thing.

Okay, having said that, am I proud of that? I didn’t do that. What the hell. Pride: what’s that? That’s not the right response. How about responsibility for that, how would that be? You’re part of this great and unlikely set of propositions, this strange set of propositions that says that in some ineffable manner, the poorest person is as valuable as the king. How the hell did we figure that out? It’s an impossible thing to think, and yet that’s the bedrock of our legal system.

That’s nothing to be proud of, it’s something to tremble before, to take on as an ethical burden, and not to wave a flag for how wonderful you are that you happen to have the same skin color as some of the people who thought that up. It’s not the right response.

Peterson concludes by characterizing right-wingers as essentially pointing their fingers at the cumulative accomplishments of Western Civilization, especially of the cities of Europe and saying: “Look what we’ve done.” “No,” he says, “it’s not you who did that.”

Pride is, indeed, a Christian sin, but are all expressions of “pride” inherently sinful? If not, is Duchesne guilty of advocating the sinful variety? Peterson himself was clear-sighted enough to distinguish between the superficially similar words “meekness” and “weakness,” on the question of how the meek could inherit the earth. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between “pride” generally and its sinful varieties.

Consider the following example: A father watches his son perform well at school or in a sports game, or when he stands up for himself. Afterwards, the father tells his son “I’m proud of you.”

Is this a sin? As Jordan Peterson noted, the father was not responsible for his son’s actions: the son performed them, not him. But the father is not claiming responsibility for the son’s actions. Something else entirely is going on. What the father is expressing when he says “I’m proud of you” is a sense of shared identity. It says something like “the actions you performed make me proud to be related to you.” It is an expression of appreciation, and simultaneously an acknowledgment of a being on the same team.

By extension, it is conceivable to imagine how a father might even be proud of his son’s teammate’s play, despite that teammate not being his own child. This is possible because the boys are on the same team, and are representatives of that team. It would not be conceivable, however, for the father to be “proud” of the opposing team’s children. He might be impressed, but not proud.

“Pride” in this sense is a sense of joy derived from association, and an act of deepening association. It is not necessarily a claim to credit or responsibility for accomplishments.

This does not mean that we can’t derive pride from association with ourselves. By this, I mean crediting our past selves with our present success: ‘I’ did this. Perhaps you scored very well on a test, after your past self studied very hard, or perhaps you won the big game for your team after your past self put in hundreds of hours of practice.

This brings up a philosophical problem however. Heraclitus once said that a man cannot step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. But identity is a matter of sameness, and it is not practical to endlessly differentiate between categories to the point that action becomes impossible. The logic of rejecting pride on the grounds that “we didn’t build that” would apply to the individual even when you did build that, because an individual human being is not actually a coherent entity. We simply say that he is the same person for the sake of simplicity and pragmatism.

So we take pride in our own actions, because the relationship between our former self and our present self is sufficient to justify a sense of ownership.

What about the relationship between father and son? What about grandfather and grandson? Or even between two team members? Their relationship is deeper than the happenstance of sharing the same complexion, or last name. There are lineages of genetics, experience, and traditions interwoven together that constitute a heritage that we are given by previous generations and that we bestow upon subsequent ones. These lineages form a coherent identity that we can take on as a mantle or a mask, and which grants us partial ownership in the collective outcome. If my team wins, and I played well, then I have a right to be proud of my team, even though I did not win it alone. If United States Marines won a hard victory in unlikely odds, and if I went through the rigorous training of becoming a US Marine, then I actually have a right to take pride in the accomplishments of Marines of the past . . . not as myself, but as the identity which I have earned: a Marine.

If I participate in my civilization, then I have some small right to take pride in its accomplishments as a member of that team, even if some of those accomplishments were made before I joined.

Needless to say, this can be taken too far, but the possibility of abuse is no reason to dismiss every manifestation of rightly taking responsibility for a success in which we played some role.

But this misses the greater argument that Duchesne is making. A father feeling pride in his son is not primarily taking credit for his son’s actions; it is a deep, emotional acknowledgment of the bond shared between the two. It establishes a mutuality of care between them, building a foundation for why each should care about the opinion of the other (which is also the necessary ground for feeling ashamed of one another). It builds the honor group by attributing honor to another within your group, or by claiming honor before others within the group.

This is a pride of conjoining the individual to the group. In theological terms, this is the marriage of the individual to the church. Pride of this sort is not only not a sin, but is the building block of humility and godliness, which may ultimately lead to healthy and earned self-respect. It is a pride that identifies with others, including your ancestors whose expectations you hope to live up to, and with your descendants whom you might impress or embarrass. Rejecting this sort of pride—the sort which identifies with others—is the rejection of the external, social pressures that help check our weaknesses and improve upon our strengths.

This is what is meant when we are enjoined to “take pride in our work.” It means we are to demonstrate our moral nature in the quality and effort of our labor. Who would hear that we should “take pride in our work,” and interpret it as an encouragement to be proud of our work, no matter the quality?

This is not to say that Peterson is absolutely wrong, however. There is a sin of pride, but it is not the sin of identifying too heavily with others.

Borrowed from the ancient Greek crime of hubris—arrogance in the face of the Gods—the sin of pride is the sin of Lucifer, who sought to be worshipped as a god himself. In its essence, it is the sin of thinking that you are good enough on your own, that you don’t need a god or other people. Perhaps you think you are God. Perhaps you believe you are better than everyone else, or perhaps you simply cannot stand to be dependent upon others, even if they are better. Your pride won’t allow it.

But this is not even remotely similar to Duchesne’s injunction to “affirm and be proud of our ethnic identity and heritage.” In its mechanics, it is very nearly a polar opposite. Morally speaking, the two senses of “pride” are polar opposites.

Call it the difference between “taking pride” and “being proud,” or call it the difference between “pride” and “hubris.” However we choose to think about it, there is a distinction to be remembered between the sinful form of pride and the ordinary, healthy, even moral variety.

Even Tim McGraw seems to think this is intuitively clear, when he sings “let yourself feel the pride but always stay humble and kind.”

It would be simplistic to dismiss all forms of individualism as hubristic, as we have inherited a tradition from our ancestors and law-givers of the past which values individualism. But it should be remembered that sinful pride is not an excess in group-think, but the exact opposite. Hubris is a sin of excessive individualism. Even excessive pride in one’s group is a sin of projecting one’s own delusional, hubristic ego onto the group as a whole. It is not taking pride in one’s ancestry but being proud of yourself.

Peterson was actually spot on in his description of how we ought to relate to the traditions that we inherit—with awe, humility, and a sense of duty, so that we might earn the gift that has already been given to us. But he is wrong to reject pride in, and identification with, this wonderful inheritance. Ultimately, the traditions of the West—including its individualism—can only be saved by claiming ownership and responsibility for them, that is to say, affirming and taking pride in our ethnic identity and heritage. Elsewhere, Peterson describes this as taking on the sins of the world, and it is the fantastic weight of this purpose and meaning that makes enduring the suffering of being worthwhile. The world is as it is because people like me have made it so. That is an enormous burden, and is nothing to gloat about, but is a work to identify with and to take pride in.

Otherwise it won’t get done.

There is defensible ground in both Duchesne’s and Peterson’s position, but there is none in Peterson’s interpretation of Duchesne. While excessive group-think may lead to laziness—or “sloth”—it is not in any danger at all of the sin of pride. Between the two, it is Peterson’s heavily emphasized individualism that holds the greatest potential for hubris, and with it, swift-following nemesis. In our case, that will most likely be Islam, or the Chinese, or some other collective-minded nation whose group-splintering, house-dividing intellectuals are not allowed to shatter the shared spirit of their own nation.

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11 Comments

  1. James Beckley
    Posted April 25, 2018 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    You call out an important point that both Peterson and Robertson suggest but don’t directly state. One of them refers to an “ethical burden,” the other to “duty,” and you name them- first, to protect, and second, to develop. Between these you might add, to promote. As men, our sole social purpose is to protect and promote our genetic and cultural inheritances, and if capable, to develop them. Only to the extent that we accept these responsibilities and act accordingly as individuals are we entitled to the social honors that inspire true pride.
    There’s a letter by Franklin to his daughter on the Absurdity of Inherited Honors that explores a similar idea:

    “Honour, worthily obtain’d, is in its nature a personal Thing, and incommunicable to any but those who had some share in obtaining it… Honour does not descend, but ascends. If a man from his Learning, his wisdom, or his Valour, is promoted… his Parents are immediately entitled to all the same Ceremonies of Respect from the People… on the supposition that it must have been owing to the… good Example afforded him by his Parents, that he was rendered capable of serving the Publick.

    “This ascending Honour is therefore useful to the State, as it encourages Parents to give their Children a good and virtuous Education. But the descending Honour, to Posterity who could have no share in obtaining it, is not only groundless and absurd, but often hurtful to that Posterity, since it is apt to make them proud, disdaining to be employ’d in useful Arts, and thence falling into Poverty, and all the Meanness, Servility, and Wretchedness attending to it.”

    Peterson is right. Our religious tradition and traditional wisdom that warn against false pride are right. Unearned pride is theft in two directions. Most men need to be given the opportunity to earn pride by protecting or promoting something greater than themselves. A smaller class capable of organizing great masses earns their pride by creating such opportunities, and a still smaller portion expands and develops our inheritances further. Unearned pride is a deadly sin for the reasons Franklin stated. Only when and if we pass on our civilization and genes intact to the next generation are we entitled to honors and a share of the pride earned by our people.

  2. Lemur
    Posted April 24, 2018 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    As the Fascist thinker Gentile understood, at the centre of the “I’ there is a “we”, a core derived from systems of meaning and belonging that are prior to, and supervene upon the individual. That’s all you need to blow Peterson’s interpretation of the so-called sin of pride out the water. He’s merely uncritically assuming the axioms of modern transactional society and imputing their arbitrary standards to group systems of becoming.

  3. Vagrant Rightist
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Well on balance, I don’t particularly like Peterson. I find him to be a mixture of some ‘lite’ insightful thinking, some willfully ignorant thinking, some truly ignorant thinking, self-deception and also a peddler of outright lies at times. Sorry, but we are only as strong as our weakest links.

    There was a clip I came across recently of Spencer responding to Peterson’s views on the JQ, where Peterson had simply set up a childish straw man to deal with the issue. But prior to this, Peterson had given the impression that he has considered this issue and found it quite a complex and serious one. So presumably, as pressure mounted on Peterson to give a fuller response to the JQ, Peterson simply decided to lie for an easy life. I would have respected Peterson more if he had simply avoided the issue altogether if was too hot for him.

    So I’m simply not persuaded his views on pride in this case, can be taken at face value as what he really thinks. Of course I can’t read his mind and I don’t know what he really thinks, but it seems with Peterson all paths mysterious end at the usual establishment boundaries when it comes to race and ethnicity. The role of Peterson’s own intellect is simply to find novel ways of obscuring his obedience to these boundaries so it doesn’t appear he’s actually conforming to them.

    And that’s how Peterson has built his persona, as being perceived to be edgier and more challenging to power than he actually is. He may annoy some leftists and feminists (which isn’t difficult), basically he can annoy those the system permits him to without too many social costs. I find him to be an intellectual coward, with hints of charlatanism about him.

  4. Lt Col Blackwater
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Pride is bad eh? When is Peterson going on a speaking tour of Israel?

    He could tell people there that they have nothing to be proud of because their country is supported and protected by countries full of people whom most Israelis consider to be not only different but inferior to themselves.

  5. K
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I have some empathy for Peterson’s position because I always found it repulsive when people would root for a sport’s team that just happened to be in the same area. My reaction is probably worsened by the fact that they are rooting for people with no real personal connection, but also they are overwhelmingly an alien race. But Peterson is being absurd to equate something like that to taking pride in the gift provided by our ancestors. I think Johnson’s response to “undeserved pride” is highly effective simply ask Peterson, “You think it is bad to take pride in a gift?”

  6. Andy
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I wanted to point out: Unless Peterson had more to say about the quotation from Dushesne, his response is largely irrelevant. After all, Duchesne’s argument is only partly about the importance of ‘pride’ and on a charitable interpretation that part isn’t even essential. The essential point is instead that (i) other groups are not individualistic, or not to the same degree as white westerners, and therefore (ii) if we white westerners insist on pretending that everyone in the world is simply an ‘individual’, we aren’t going to be able to preserve the individualistic western societies that Peterson himself values. This might be wrong. Peterson might object that other groups really are just as individualistic, or just as capable of such individualism. (It would be pretty hard to build the case, but that would at least be relevant to the real argument.) Or he could try to convince us that, even if these other groups are not individualistic, things will work out just fine in a scenario where all of them are acting as collectivists and we act as isolated individuals–and pretend that’s what they’re doing too. (Again, it would be hard to make a reasonable case here but at least then he’d be addressing the real point.) Duschesne could make an equally powerful argument if he said nothing about ‘pride’ and simply pointed out that, given how others tend to think and behave, we have to choose between Peterson-type radical individualism and survival: if we want to survive, we have to develop a sense of racial-cultural identity and belonging and solidarity. That may or may not involve some kind of ‘pride’. Frankly I don’t care one way or the other, as long as we’re able to survive and flourish and develop in our own way. I don’t think any of this is very hard to understand. The fact that Peterson always seems to just change the topic, ignoring the most obvious and compelling arguments from right wingers, makes me think he’s not in good faith.

  7. Kilroy
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Great article, although I think it gives Peterson too much credit. He’s the past master of the psychobabble ad hominem. Thats all his attacks on nationalism ever are. He has no problem ingratiating himself with zionists for example. Everything he says about us is just empty hypocrisy.

    I would personally say that a sense of disgrace is what has motivated me to get involved with alt right politics, rather than a sense of pride, although the one is really just the corrolary of the other. Rhetorically it may also be a more effective device than talking about pride, in part because pleading for pride appears weak, and the word is easily twisted the way Peterson and thousands before him have done. White disgrace and dishonour are not only more to the point but they are attack words that people like peterson would have a harder time dealing with.

  8. Lyle Bright
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    As part of my own project to better understand Greco-Christian traditions and the bases of Occidental cultures, I have undertaken the study of traditional Catholicism. Morally and ethically I would say that the practice of it is difficult and very demanding. That said, the ‘sin of pride’ is connected structurally, if you will, with the rest of the major sins, and when one studies the ethical tracts and the theological underpinnings of opposition to these sins one quickly understands how they are all interconnected. In order to have a position against them requires a religious orientation through which the pratitioner seeks to subjugate himself, and his lower self, to a higher force. I do not think it would be fully possible to isolate these ‘deadly sins’ and understand them as ‘deadly’ unless one did so in relation to a superior and divine power. Therefor, a conversation about the evils of pride without the more total conversation about man’s orientation to his Creator (to place it in Christian terms) is not productive.

    Pride in Catholic theology is certainly the root of errors of all sorts. However, even in ethical tracts that speak about these things there is an understanding that pride in the sense of self-respect is necessary and very good. Here is a sample from a 1909 title published by Benziger called ‘Moral Briefs’:

    “There is a pride, improperly so called, which is in accordance with all the rules of order, reason and honor. It is a sense of responsibility and dignity which every man owes himself, and which is compatable with the most sincere humility. It is a regard, an esteem for oneself, too great to allow one to stoop to anything base or mean. It is submissive to authority, acknowledges shortcomings, respects others and expects to be respected in return. It can preside with dignity, and obey with docility. Far from being a vice, it is a virtue and is only too rare in this world. It is nobility of soul which betrays itself in self-respect.”

    In my own developing view, the loss of a genuine foundation in these Greco-Christian traditions, which is to say a religious orientation that is ethical, moral and metaphysical, an entire relationship to higher metaphysical principles is altered and eventually degenerates. While Greco-Christian morality often irks — and indeed it is challenging and very very demanding of the individual — in my view it must be recovered, re-discovered, made real again.

    But I think this paragraph nicely demonstrates that one can only have a ‘genuine self-respect’ when one knows one is correctly situated morally, ethically and metaphysically. In my understanding that is the essence of Platonism which, also in my view, Catholicism more or less inhabits, somewhat similarly to a hermit crab inhabiting a borrowed shell. (This is somewhat true but not completely true of course!).

    It is necessary to have properly situated pride and it is also a sign of responsibility accepted that one act like a warrior in defense of what is valuable and important. But in order to live out of that position one would have to have genuinely understood it. In my own view, as we recover ourselves and our traditions, and become self-valuing and also responsible, we must become more clear-seeing about ‘who we are’ and what our forefathers attained and gave to us to be protected and developed.

    There are many angles from which to approach the regeneration project though. A militant and militating Greco-Christianity is the one that interests me. But there are certainly others.

  9. G L
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Another claim to take issue with is Peterson’s waffling about the equality of kings and laymen under the law. He says this inheritance is such a fantastic claim we cannot even begin to understand its origins. Ironically Ricardo Duschene in his work on the indo-Europeans shows the origin of this peculiar trait. The Indo-Europeans uniquely were ruled by bands of warriors following a successful leader, the Männerbund. If this leader proved unworthy of their trust he would be removed and a new leader chosen. This tradition can be seen in the Germanic tribes, and most particularly the Anglo-Saxons, Greece and the Roman Republic. I figure Peterson believes this trait randomly appeared in the early-modern period when the Europeans developed his beloved liberalism.

  10. Posted April 18, 2018 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    I believe that this narrows down to the essential argument about relativism and non-relativism, however, much as with dualism and non-dualism, I firmly believe that these two orientations are one and the same, when followed to their furthest end.

    Perhaps you could speak about heritage from the perspective of knowledge. One can *relate* to something that he personally understands and appreciates even if it comes from a distant or “foreign” culture, in essence approaching “appropriation” of a culture. Racial theorists often simply assumed that distant but high Civilizations were White European, because their heritage seemed more compatible with their own spiritual orientation than to exotic societies they’ve found there. But it does not necessarily have to be so. One other example could be Tesla for example – he was a Serb expatriate in America, yet many nations feel as if Tesla belongs to some collective European-Atlantic heritage. Russians, Americans or Serbs equally feel as if he was their own, simply through extension of the principle of knowledge.

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