Steps of pride

In 1124, the French monk Bernard of Clairvaux published his first work, On the Steps of Humility and Pride. Bernard had been asked to put into writing a series of talks he had given on the topic of humility,  but the finished product ended up discussing pride as much as humility. He explained:

You are perhaps saying, brother Geoffrey, that I have done something different from what you asked and I promised, and instead of writing about the steps of humility I have written about the steps of pride. I reply, “I can teach only what I have learned. I did not think I could fittingly describe the steps up when I know more about going down than going up.”

Unsurprisingly, Bernard’s insight is as relevant today as it was nearly 1,000 years ago. Here are his twelve steps of pride with portions of the exposition.¹

  1. Curiosity. You see a monk of whom you had thought well up to now. Wherever he stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander. His head is lifted. His ears are alert. . . . He has grown careless about his own behavior. He wastes his curiosity on other people. . . . And truly, O man, if you concentrate hard on the state you are in it will be surprising if you have time for anything else.
  2. Light-mindedness. For the monk who instead of concentrating on himself looks curiously at others, trying to judge who is his superior and who is his inferior, will see things to envy in others and things to mock. Thus it is that the light-minded follow their roving eyes and, no longer pinned down by proper responsibility, are now swept up to the heights by pride, now cast down into the depths by envy. . . . He displays these changes of mood in his speech: Now his words are few and grudging; now numerous and trivial; now he is laughing; now he is depressed; but there is never any reason for his mood.
  3. Foolish merriment. The proud always want to be happy and to avoid sadness . . . . Anything that shows him his own vileness and the excellence of others checks his curiosity; but on the contrary, he is always ready to notice anything which makes him seem to excel. He uses his curiosity to perceive how he excels others, and he always deceives himself so that he avoids sadness and he can go on being happy.
  4. Boasting. When vanity has begun to swell the bladder and enlarge it, it makes a bigger hole for the wind to escape. . . . His opinions fly about. His words tumble over one another. He butts in before he is asked. He does not answer other people’s questions. He asks the questions himself and he answers them, and he cuts off anyone who tries to speak. . . . He may say something edifying, but that is not his intention. He does not care for you to teach, or to learn from you what he himself does not know, but that others should know how much he knows.
  5. Trying to be different.  When a man has been boasting that he is superior to others it is galling to him not to outdo them in performance, so as to make it obvious that he is more advanced than they are. . . . He acts not so as to live better but so as to seem to triumph, so that he can say, “I am not as other men” (Lk 18:11). . . . He is very anxious to perform his own special exercises and lazy about. . . . But [the simple-minded] do not see his motive and by canonizing the wretch they confirm him in his error (Lk 18;11).
  6. Arrogance. He believes the praise he hears. He is complacent about what he does. He does not give a thought to his intentions. He puts that from his mind when he accepts what others think of him. He believes that he knows more than everybody about everything else, but when they praise him he believes them rather than his own conscience.
  7. Presumption. He who thinks himself superior to others, how can he not presume more for himself than others? At meetings he must sit in the most important place. In discussions he speaks first. . . . What he himself has not done or ordained he considers not to have been done right, or to be arranged displeasingly. . . . But since he is so eager to offer his services and rushes at things rather than taking thought before he acts, he is bound to make mistakes sometimes. . . . So when he is accused of a fault he adds to his sins rather than giving them up. If you see someone answering back when he is reprimanded you will know that he has fallen to the eighth step of pride, which is self-justification.
  8. Self-justification. There are many ways of making excuses for sin. One person will say, “I did not do it.” Another will say, “I did it, but it was the right thing to do.” Another will admit that it was wrong but say, “It was not very wrong.” Another will concede that it was very wrong, but he will say, “I meant well.” If he is forced to admit that he did not mean well, he will say as happened in the case of Adam and Eve that someone else persuaded him to do it.
  9. Insincere confession. An earthen vessel is tested by fire, and tribulation makes it clear who is really penitent. A real penitent does not shrink from the labor of doing penance, but whatever hateful task is imposed on him for his sin he patiently embraces without complaint. If obedience forces him to what is hard and goes against his wishes, and even if he suffers reproach he has not deserved, he bears it without flagging, so that he shows that he stands on the fourth step of humility. But he whose confession is all pretense, when he is tested by one little punishment cannot simulate humility or hide the fact that he has been pretending up to now. He complains and murmurs and grows angry and proves . . . that he has sunk to ninth step of pride which, as we said, can rightly be called insincere confession.
  10. Rebellion. The divine mercy may look on such a man and inspire him to do what is very difficult for him, to submit without a word to the judgment of the community. But if his response is to frown and be insolent, by his rebellion he falls lower and to a more desperate state . . . and he who before secretly despised his brothers in his arrogance now openly shows by his disobedience that he despises his superiors.

    For you must know that all the steps I have divided into twelve can be put into three groups. In the first six there is contempt for one’s brothers. In the next four there is contempt for one’s superiors. In the remaining two pride comes to a head in contempt for God.

  11. Freedom to sin. Then he begins to travel roads which seem good to men (Prov 14:12; 16:25) and, unless God blocks his way (Hos 2:6), he will come at their end to the depths of hell, that is, contempt for God. . . . When he stands there, the monk who recognizes and fears no superior and who has no brothers whom he may respect enjoys doing what he wants the more safely as he does it the more freely; and he does things which in the monastery fear or shame would have held him back from doing. . . . Like someone entering a river, he does not plunge, but goes step by step into the torrent of vices.
  12. Habitual sin. And after he finds that his first sins go unpunished by the terrible judgment of God (Heb 10:27), he freely seeks to enjoy again the pleasures he has experienced. Habit binds him as desire revives, and conscience slumbers. The wretched man is dragged into the depths of evil (Prov 18:3) and handed over captive to the tyranny of the vices as though to be swallowed up in the whirlpool of fleshly desires; and he forgets the fear of God and his own reason. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God” (Psa 13:1).

¹Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Writings (trans. by G. R. Evans), The Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press (1987), 99-143.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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