Literature grapples with the question of how and where human beings fit in the scheme of things and how they should best live. Philosophers, religious thinkers, and writers in the Western tradition have seen the human being in an intermediary position between divine beings and lower animals. The ethical teachings of religion and philosophy and their offshoots of drama and literature have emphasized piety: conducting oneself within the proper sphere of human action and in proper relation with fellow human beings. Exceeding those bounds upward would be to aspire to be a god; exceeding those bounds downward would be to become a beast. In this ethical scheme, pride, understood negatively as an overly high opinion of oneself, figured as a principal human flaw in societies in which divine and human authority were well established. It kept human beings in their place and subjects in order. “Pride goes before a fall,” teaches one famous Hebrew proverb, representative of the cautionary warnings against human overreaching so richly documented in the tradition of the medieval De casibus, Giovanni Boccaccio’s chronicles of the fall of great men. Besides the Judeo-Christian tradition, other great religions of the world—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism—seem to have their own variant against the sin of pride, suggesting a universal bias against any action that places self-love before universal love, the basis of most religious systems. At the same time, despite these constraints on mortal aspiration, early heroic societies worshipped human excellence, especially in the form of military prowess.
Honor in these ancient and medieval warrior societies was achieved through physical strength, skill, and the courage to die in battle for one’s cause. Pride, as an excessive regard for honor, became a focal point in the great epic poems of Homer, who, in particular, was able to capture the psychological drama of heroes acting as human beings with virtues and flaws in situations of crisis. Because of his superior qualities, the Homeric hero was more easily prone to exhibit hubris, roughly translated as excessive pride—as though one is greater than the gods—often expressed through violent acts. A prime example is Achilles in The Iliad, the Greek warrior in the Trojan War, considered to be the first tragic hero in literature. This epic poem explores the consequences of its principal conflict of egos between the Greek commander Agamemnon and Achilles, his greatest warrior, in which both behave in hubristic ways, resulting ultimately in increased harm and death to many on their side. Flaunting his power, Agamemnon shames Achilles publicly by forcing Achilles to deliver to him Briseis, the maiden he has claimed for his own. Despite his righteous anger, Achilles’ decision to withdraw from battle cripples the Greek army and causes thousandfold pains on his comrades, notably his best friend, Patroclus, who, mistaken for Achilles, is killed by the Trojan commander Hector.
Despite his worthy qualities of military prowess, capacity for compassion, and understanding of the human condition, Achilles, in his wrath, commits what is to the Greeks an intolerable insult: the outrageous treatment of slain Hector of dragging the dead body behind his chariot for 12 days before returning it to the Trojans. As in the epic, pride figures importantly in Greek drama, which further explored the ambivalent qualities of the tragic hero in powerful ways. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King explores the religious and social function of myth by examining this Greek hero as an archetype of the scapegoat and the usurping son, centered on the theme of hubris. A close comparison of an oral version of the myth with Sophocles’ dramatic interpretation amplifies not only the tragic vision by which the culture grappled with the limitations of human life but also the playwright’s aesthetic achievement: to get the audience, in Aristotle’s words, both to pity and fear Oedipus’s tragic situation. After hearing the oracle predict that the plague upon his city will not lift until the murderer of his predecessor is punished, Oedipus, king of Thebes, initiates a methodical investigation of the death of the king, only to find out in his role as responsible ruler that he himself is culpable for the murder. This discovery reveals the key irony of Oedipus’s hubristic actions as a young man: his decision to evade a horrible prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother only leads him to fulfill it. This very human response reveals an irrational double-mindedness. If he believed the oracle to be true, he should have also believed that it was futile to evade it. Instead, Oedipus hubristically tries to evade the oracle but proceeds so carelessly—reflective of youth’s delusion of invincibility—that he does precisely what he should have forbidden to himself: kill an older man his father’s age, let alone kill anyone, and marry someone his mother’s age. Through his past and present actions, Oedipus gravely transgresses the Delphic oracle’s prescriptions for virtuous life: “Know thyself ” and “Nothing in excess.”
Pride is further explored through the myth of Prometheus, the Titan advocate of man, who incurs eternal punishment for his act of bringing fire to humankind. Whether Prometheus is a heroic rebel, a savior, or a hubristic overreacher is a question to ponder as one compares Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound with its later variants, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus. While Aeschylus presents a philanthropic Prometheus, disobeying the gods’ orders for the benefit of the helpless human race, Marlowe’s tragedy of Faustus plays on both the heroic and the comic tradition, turning the intellectual hero into a trickster, whose desire “to gain a deity” (1.1.65) inevitably shrinks to horseplay as, at the end of Mephistopheles’ indenture period, he himself dissolves into the void of death. Marlowe’s rebellion against God cannot succeed within the prescripted confines of a Christian morality play. In signing away his soul to Satan, Faustus reenacts Lucifer’s revolt against God, filled with “Vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires/ Blown up with high conceits engendering pride” (John Milton, Paradise Lost, 4.809), the queen of sins. Faustus’s victory is rather one of principle: opposing God to satisfy his desire for omnipotence and not backing down in the face of certain defeat. Despite the Christian lesson of the vanity of human pursuits, instructed through the increasing trivialization of his heroic endeavors, Faustus, through Marlowe’s rendering, retains his heroic status simply by undertaking the impossible. Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, however, is a self-deluded Prometheus who is as unsuccessful as Faustus without the latter’s attribution of heroic rebel. The scientist’s philanthropic endeavors to advance knowledge for humanity’s benefit—or more accurately, his solipsistic fantasies of fathering a new race—are belied by his foolish neglect of the loved ones around him, thus his inability to prevent their deaths, a direct result of his hubristic creation of a humanoid without assuming the consequent parental obligations toward him.
As many of these literary examples indicate, pride entails not only transgressions against divine authority but also infractions against fellow human beings. Jane Austen insightfully dramatizes the woes that come when pride and prejudice rule in Pride and Prejudice. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy member of the landed gentry, acquires the reputation in Hertfordshire of being a proud aristocrat when he arrogantly refuses to dance at the Netherfield ball and slights Elizabeth Bennet as being only “tolerable” (7). Her friend, Charlotte Lucas, defends Darcy’s pride by claiming that “so very fine a young man [as he], with family, fortune, every thing in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.” With her vanity wounded, Elizabeth replies, “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine” (13). After setting up this misunderstanding, Austen takes 59 chapters to bridge the gap between Darcy’s arrogance vis-à-vis Elizabeth and her prejudice against him toward reconciliation and marriage. According to Aristotle, pride is the proper mean between humility and vanity, for the rightly proud man “claims what is in accordance with his merits, while the others go to excess or fall short” (Nicomachean Ethics, book 4, 2.1123b12–14). The difficulty in this assessment lies in the numerous interpretations of merit: wealth, noble birth, and/ or personal virtue. While Charlotte believes that Darcy has a right to be proud simply because of his rank and money, the crux of the novel is that gentle birth does not always entail personal nobility. At one side of the amorous discord, though Darcy is born into the upper class, his demeanor is construed by the social circle of Hertfordshire as less than noble. At the other side, Elizabeth is born to lower gentry, but her superior “understanding” (Austen 43) in mental and moral capacities distinguishes her as a true gentlewoman above both her family of meaner understanding and haughty aristocrats like Lady Catherine. The pride and prejudice of both Darcy and Elizabeth abate when Darcy is irresistibly wooed by her personal merits and when Elizabeth comes to know Darcy as “perfectly amiable” (282), always acting in principled honor. In this manner, for both of them vanity becomes humbled and pride affirmed. As discussed above, pride, as hubris, can be a negative force disrupting social bonds and affronting the gods, fellow beings, and oneself. Pride is, nonetheless, also a positive force, affirming one’s achievements and promoting self-worth and self-contentment.
According to Aristotle, pride, as opposed to hubris, is grounded in virtue (NE, book 4, 3.1124b30). “[W]here there is a real superiority of mind,” Darcy claims, “pride will be always under good regulation” (43), and that is Darcy and Elizabeth’s path to a deep-rooted happiness rather than the mere fairy-tale assurance of “happily ever after.”
See also Browning, Robert: “My Last Duchess”; Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: Hound of the Baskervilles, The; Gaskell, Elizabeth: North and South; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: “Rappaccini’s Daughter”; Miller, Arthur: Death of a Salesman; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Murders in the Rue Morgue, The”; Roy, Arundhati: God of Small Things, The; Shakespeare, William: Henry IV, Part I; Julius Caesar; Much Ado about Nothing; Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver’s Travels; Williams, Tennessee: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.