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Hildebrand, Hollywood, and Pride

6:00:00 AMRose Deemer

Pride, as it is commonly understood, is the root of all evils, a truth which Christianity wholeheartedly affirms. Following the Christian tradition, Dietrich von Hildebrand examines this deadly sin in his Transformation in Christ, describing the various types of pride as they are exhibited in the person. In an attempt to make these descriptions even more immediate and tangible to a modern audience, I thought it would be interesting to present a fictional character from a contemporary film or TV series for each type of pride which Hildebrand describes.

First to be discussed is the deadliest form of pride, which Hildebrand calls “satanic pride.” This pride causes a person to “[know] one kind of satisfaction only: the glorification of self” (126). Consequently, the person recognizes values but misunderstands them, for “while he is aware of that...sovereignty inherent in values, he fails to see...their objective significance independent of any utilitarian or decorative ‘use’ in the service of an ego”  (126). The satanically prideful man also tends to abuse his freedom, “[committing] this or that action...as a mere confirmation and exercise of his independence…” (128). Thus, this satanic pride “engenders a hatred of values, a combative opposition...ultimately, to God” (127).

A prime example of this satanic pride is James Moriarty from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and specifically in the BBC series Sherlock.  The arch-enemy of Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty strives maniacally for self-glorification by misappropriation of values and abuse of his freedom. He creates elaborate puzzles for Sherlock to solve, with the time limit of a ticking bomb strapped to an innocent victim. He weaves an elaborate web of crimes by which he has Sherlock falsely denounced, simply to flaunt his genius. And, in a very literal way, Moriarty misappropriates value as having only a “decorative ‘use’ in the service of [his] ego”; he breaks into the crown jewels exhibit at the Tower of London and is found sitting on the royal throne, crown on head and scepter in hand. Clearly, James Moriarty is a man whose egomania knows no bounds.

The second kind of pride which Hildebrand distinguishes afflicts people with otherwise orderly lives, who have true value-responses and strive for the good. These people, however, “shun confrontation with a personal God; they evade the full avowal of their creaturely status…” (130). They are able to submit to values, but not to a personal God. This avoidance stems from the fact that things such as values and “impersonal Absolute[s]” (13), as they would like God to be, can be “face[d] as ‘equal partners’…[for] it is only in our confrontation with a personal God that we become fully aware of our condition as creatures…” (130-31). This rejection of creaturely status under a person God, so common to atheists, pantheists, and I would argue even deists, characterizes Hildebrand’s second type of pride.
Oddly enough, a great example of this type of pride is Moriarty’s archenemy, Sherlock Holmes. Although in Doyle’s stories Sherlock seems to believe in God, it is a vague and impersonal belief. In Sherlock, this ambiguous image of the great detective as a deist of some sort is continued, as Sherlock fights evil and upholds the good without any apparent acknowledgement of a personal Deity. Sherlock brings criminals to justice, defends the innocent, acknowledges the existence of truth, lives a (mostly) moral life, and (particularly in Doyle’s stories) even occasionally mentions God in a way which indicates that he believes in Him. Into the realm of personal submission to a personal Creator, however, he does not step.

Hildebrand’s third type of pride is that of “self-complacency”. The self-complacent man does not struggle with the demand which values place on him. Rather, he wishes to use his submission to them to adorn his personality and his image before others. Unlike the satanically prideful man, he is not hostile towards God, but “would insinuate himself with God, and bask in the sunshine of his dignity before God….[he desires to] stand confirmed and glorious in the face of his fellow men, of himself, and even of God” (142).

Self-complacency is particularly evident in Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and particularly in the 1995 A&E miniseries. Lady Catherine is the epitome of aristocratic respectability, and makes sure that everyone knows it. She undertakes many charitable works, all of which she uses as a means of self-glorification, and discusses the gratitude of their recipients at length with her guests. Lady Catherine desires, as Hildebrand describes, “to stand confirmed and glorious in the face of [her] fellow men”, and flaunts her good works unabashedly to everyone around her.

Hildebrand’s final type of pride is that of “haughtiness”, which “refers, not to a perverse attitude to value, but to a repugnance against submission to other persons...The haughty man will find it intolerable to feel dependent on other persons, to serve others...and above all to suffer ...humiliation” (148). Characterized by an inordinate desire for self-sufficiency, this pride involves a denial of one’s true dependence on God and others. Further, the haughty man is excessively concerned with maintaining his personal dignity and his honor. This haughtiness leads him to a hardness of heart and a distaste for both the giving and the receiving of compassion.

When considering haughtiness, I immediately thought of Javert, the police inspector from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and the 2012 movie adaption of the same name. Obsessed with justice, Javert pursues the parole-breaking yet repentant ex-convict Jean Valjean for decades. Compassion is all but unknown to Javert. (Spoiler alert!) When his life is spared by Valjean, he can’t bear the humiliation of his dependence on the mercy of his enemy and therefore commits suicide: a tragic proof of the deadliness of pride in any form.

Moriarty, Sherlock, Lady Catherine, Javert...these four very different characters each portray, in their own way, an element of Hildebrand’s discourse on the degrees and types of pride. Since they’re fictional characters, however, it’s easy to fall into the trap of attributing their flaws to be, like them, fictional. In reality, however, the sin of pride is more real than any one of them. One of the reasons that these fictional characters exist (so to speak) is to reveal to us that very real flaw which is hidden, in one form or another, within all of us.

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