C. S. Lewis: Humility Is the Most Important Virtue

What’s the best virtue? What’s the worst sin? Why?

According to C. S. Lewis, humility is the most important Christian virtue. Its opposite—pride—is the greatest sin. In his classic book, Mere Christianity, Lewis explains why pride is so dangerous.

Keep reading for a brief discussion of humility and pride from Lewis’s perspective, along with an explanation of the difference between pride and self-esteem, as understood by psychologists.

C. S. Lewis on Humility

According to C. S. Lewis, humility is the recognition of a modest position in the world, especially when faced with the infinite superiority of God. Out of all the Christian virtues, Lewis considers humility to be the most important. Humility is the opposite of arrogance and pride—and the opposite of satisfaction in one’s own achievements, importance, or capacities. Lewis considers pride the worst sin of all. He offers two reasons why pride is so destructive.

1. Pride turns you away from other people. Lewis argues that when you seek to put yourself above others, their achievements contradict your high opinion of yourself, resulting in jealousy, resentment, and a loss of self-esteem. This makes it harder to be benevolent toward others. Therefore, pride becomes an obstacle to the Christian commitment to treat others with charity and love. Pride will leave you isolated and destroy the natural bonds of community, friendship, and family.

2. Pride turns you away from God. Recall that being virtuous requires submitting yourself to the moral law of a superior being. The more arrogant you are in your own sense of right and wrong, the less capable you are of submitting to that higher power. Therefore pride turns you away from your relationship with God, and consequently away from the source of your virtue. Lewis argues that pride is the worst sin because it has the power to undermine all your virtues.

What Is the Difference Between Pride and Self-Esteem?

Most psychologists recognize that it’s important to have a healthy love and respect for yourself, which is sometimes called “pride.” However, they also recognize destructive forms of high self-regard, which they often refer to as arrogance, narcissism, or vanity. This raises a difficult question: How are we supposed to tell the difference between arrogance and self-esteem? Psychologists offer four key distinctions

1. Difference in purpose. Some psychologists argue that the distinction between pride and self-esteem lies in motivation. When you hold an inflated sense of self to cover up low self-esteem or make yourself feel superior to others, this is arrogance as opposed to self-esteem, and it pushes you away from other people. The desire for superiority is the part of pride that Lewis considers most toxic to your virtue, as surrendering to God requires recognition of your inferiority when faced with the divine.

2. Difference in proportion. Some explanations distinguish between self-esteem and arrogance by measuring quantity: Self-regard is good in small amounts, but becomes a problem once you acquire an immoderate or excessive amount of it. 

3. Difference in source. Some maintain that the difference between arrogance and self-esteem lies not in how highly you esteem yourself, but in how you understand the underlying source of your positive qualities. Healthy self-esteem comes from recognizing effort, whereas unhealthy arrogance comes from belief in consistent, internal qualities. For example, saying you won a race because you practiced is self-esteem, but claiming to have won because you’re just amazing is arrogance.

4. Difference in consequences. Psychologists also differentiate healthy self-esteem, which is linked to empathy and positive reactions toward others, from arrogance, which is linked to lower empathy and increased hostility toward others. This confirms Lewis’s argument that pride drives you away from others and undermines your virtues. 
C. S. Lewis: Humility Is the Most Important Virtue

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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