Posted in book reviews, reflections

Henry Fairlie on pride as arrogant individualism

St. Augustine – searching for a description of sin – chose the Latin phrase In curvatus in se, meaning to be curved in on oneself. Henry Fairlie does not use the phrase in connection with the first of the seven deadly sins, “pride or superbia.” Still, the description aptly summarizes the content of  Chapter 2 of his The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame, 1978).

The meaning of pride

In our time, the word “pride” has mostly positive connotations. For example, I can say that I am very proud of my sons and their accomplishments. But Henry Fairlie rightly underscores the negative tones to the word, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an unreasonable conceit of superiority” or “an overweening opinion of one’s own qualities” (Seven Deadly Sins, p. 39). This kind of pride has nothing to do with self-esteem and much to do with arrogance.

This is consistent with the Old Testament use of the term. It is because of “pride” that the wicked person does not seek God and has “no room” in his thoughts for God (Ps. 10:4). It is with “lying lips” accompanied by “pride and contempt” that the wicked speak “arrogantly” against the righteous (Ps. 31:18). Most famous of all OT passages on pride is Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

On the other hand, the New Testament includes passages with the positive version of pride. In Romans 11:13, Paul says that he “takes pride” in his ministry among the Gentiles. Likewise, he said to the church at Corinth: “I take great pride in you” (2 Cor. 7:4a). Yet John prefers the negative meaning of the word, placing the “pride of life” in a triumvirate with the “lust of the flesh” and the “lust of the eyes” as originating not from God but from “the world” (1 John 2:16).

Narcissus sees his reflection

Henry Fairlie sees the essence of pride as self-centered  existence, noting: “In all the metaphors we have for pride – as when we say that someone gets on his high horse – there is always this element of withdrawal from others. One is satisfied with oneself; only oneself is necessary” (p. 42). Earlier, he called this attitude “a form of selfishness,” and a “refusal of one’s obligation of community with others” (p. 40). Fairlie evokes the story of Narcissus (p. 53), the young man who one day saw his reflection in a pond and immediately fell in love with himself, eventually dying since he could not tear himself away from his own image.

A culture of individualism?

Mr Fairlie – as an observer of culture – is at his best when diagnosing the ailment of modern Western society. His target is individualism run amok (p. 55):

The self-love of Pride today is more unbridled than at any other time. Nothing is set against the individual, nourished to be presumptuous and vain, to command his duty or his loyalty, except the power of the State, a power that the individual then boasts of evading…The society and culture in fact egg him on to more and greater acts of Pride, for as a self-pleasing individual he can easily be appeased by mere trifles. In reinforcing the distorted claims of the individual, our culture has both consciously and unconsciously done the bidding of commerce, and helped to destroy every institution that might have resisted it.

Thirty-four years after Fairlie wrote these words, they largely ring true, yet one wonders whether Fairlie is painting with a brush that is too broad. Is there no one on the contemporary scene modeling a higher path, one of service to others before self? It is too easy to decry our current situation as if we are something new in history, yet all ages have had their mixture of those who lived for self alongside some who lived for God and others. Sadly, to cite the names of those taking a higher path is to paint a bull’s-eye on their chest, making them targets of small-minded people who can tolerate anything in their midst except a genuine model of God’s transforming grace! It can seem easier to pull others down than to let God pull you up.


Henry Fairlie sets the stage well for the rest of The Seven Deadly Sins by examining the first sin, that of pride. The proud do not need God, at least they don’t think they do. Yet the irony is that only when we are willing to humble ourselves can we be exalted (Luke 14:11). Are we willing to let God examine our heart and life today?


Join me next Saturday as we consider Chapter 3, “Envy or Invidia,” the second deadly sin.


All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.


Photo credits

T-shirt – Curiosity

Narcissus – Nuptial Mystery


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

5 thoughts on “Henry Fairlie on pride as arrogant individualism

  1. Greg…great post. As to your closing point, Dr. Diane Langberg, several years ago, in a plenary address to the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) described what she called incarnational leadership. One of the characterizations she made was that such a leader must always be diminished before their influence can be expanded. She cited Christ moving from glory to derision, throne to stable, etc. The ability to communicate, she said, usually involved the necessity of curtailing of greater abilities such as vocabulary, to put one on a par with the one to be influenced.

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