"Pride in their port, defiance in their eye, I see the lords of humankind pass by," wrote Oliver Goldsmith. By 'port' he meant of course 'deportment', the strut. Yes, it's highly visible. But there's good and bad pride. The good kind is just self-respect; a person could be proud in the way that, say, a horse is proud: it doesn’t crawl around cringing; it expresses its true nature with dignity. The bad kind is exaggerated self-esteem; this kind, because it is based on nothing, verges towards vanity (which literally means 'emptiness'). Pride (the bad kind) is listed as the first and chief of the 'seven deadly sins'.
Thomas Merton gave us this story by Chuang Tzu (Chinese, 3rd century B.C.): “Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole was fishing in Pu river. The Prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors with a formal document: ‘We hereby appoint you Prime Minister.’ Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole. Still watching Pu river, he said, ‘I am told there is a sacred tortoise, offered and canonised three thousand years ago, venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk, in a precious shrine on an altar in the Temple. What do you think: is it better to give up one’s life and leave a sacred shell as an object of cult in a cloud of incense three thousand years, or better to live as a plain turtle dragging its tail in the mud?’ ‘For the turtle,’ said the Vice-Chancellor, ‘better to live and drag its tail in the mud!’ ‘Go home!’ said Chuang Tzu. ‘Leave me here to drag my tail in the mud!’”
A turtle dragging its tail in the mud has more self-respect (good pride) than the one that relies on status or marks of honour or fancy dress. Sadly, the disciples of Jesus in every age, are not resistant to this. The great 4th-century Doctor of the Church, St John Chrysostom was conscious of the order in which the apostles are listed in the gospel. "Observe," he wrote, " that he does not place them according to their dignity; for to me John would seem to be greater not only than the others, but even than his brother." Great eminence in the Church doesn’t prevent a man from being silly at times. Jesus had explicitly said, "Do not take your seat in the place of honour," and "the last shall be first and the first last" (Luke 13:30).
In the gospels, many of the images used by Jesus speak of littleness (the mustard seed, yeast, the grain of wheat). Everything has tiny beginnings - that is to say, everything real. But in the world of advertising and entertainment, things have to create a big splash to get our attention. It’s an indication of their unreality. Real things grow from tiny seeds.
As the French say: a lot of noise, with little to show for it - beaucoup de bruit, peu de fruit. In Aesop’s fable a fly sat on the axle of a chariot and said, “What a dust I’m raising!” As we grow up we develop skills of concealment, but the ego is all the more efficient for being able to work in secret. It becomes secret even from oneself. Then there ensues a lifetime of comparing and competing and trying to look bigger than we are. Exhausting! It’s only someone very conscious of being small who struggles to look big. A snippet of dialogue I once heard brings out all the complexity of the ego, “Don’t be making yourself so big - you’re not that small!”
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This saying occurs no fewer than four times in the gospels (Luke 14:11 and 18:14; Matthew 18:4 and 23:12). It’s rather like the piece of wisdom I heard on the street, “Don’t be making yourself so big - you’re not that small!” It’s like economic inflation, when money has less and less value because of repetitive price increases. The ‘price increases’ in this case are when I think and talk above myself. The more common word for it is ‘vanity’. In Latin these two words - inflatus and vanus - mean the same thing: empty.