Posts Tagged ‘Liberalism and Envy’

Notes on “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.”

January 24, 2016

Krom, Michael P. “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.Journal of Religious Ethics, 35.3:458-77.


This essay examines the argument by Paul Weithman in “Toward an Augustinian Liberalism” that modern liberal political theory, with its beginnings in Thomas Hobbes, should see itself as a development of Augustinian political thought. For Hobbes, pride is the source of social chaos, in that individuals compete for superiority and domination. The only peace is found when every citizen admits that he is equal to every other, and that all owe obedience to the sovereign/State that protects them all and enforces peace. Augustine, too, regards pride as the original sin, and humility is the cardinal virtue; therefore, we should be able to construct an Augustinian liberalism that can balance the need for humility with the need for legitimate exercise of control by society. Krom analyzes Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” as the epitome of virtue in contrast to Augustine’s notion of humility. The magnanimous one has justified pride, being neither vain nor self-effacing; he knows he is morally superior and superior in other ways, and in fact only acts in ways that will support and increase the honor he is due. Likewise, he is ashamed to accept favors or ask for help, since his superiority implies independence and the ability to sustain himself. However, Aristotle also acknowledges that the magnanimous person, if he is to be truly happy, most have some degree of good fortune; in fact, there are many things that he cannot control. This is part of why he shuns accepting help: to do so is to admit that he cannot control all, and is in fact weak in some way.

Augustine says that this pride, which Aristotle calls a virtue, is in fact a vice. The “magnanimous” person is not in fact independent; he is a creature of God as is every other person and thing, with whatever gifts and needs that God has given. By seeking to be independent, the pagan rebels against God and is also self-deceived.

The Hobbesian understanding of “pride” is the tendency of each individual to strive for superiority against every other. Augustine sees this not as the original pride, but as an outgrowth; first the creature declares independence from the Creator, and then begins to assert control over the rest of humanity. Thus, the pride that liberalism is concerned about is not the same sort of pride as that which most bothers Augustine. We can see this further when we look at Aquinas’ attempts to rehabilitate magnanimity and reintroduce it into Augustinian ethics. St. Thomas does this by insisting that the properly magnanimous person recognizes that his (or her) gifts all come from God, and thus is proud of those gifts only as a way to give glory to the giver. To hide his or her gifts would be to hide God’s gracious power, and thus to deny neighbors the opportunity to appreciate those gifts and praise God. The magnanimous person thus can take proper pride in the gifts, but must also be humble enough not to take credit as the author of his or her own virtue.

This would again oppose the liberalism that flows from Hobbes, and sees all claims to superiority as dangerous. To liberalism, each person can claim no superiority at all, whether from God or his or her own nature; each is perfectly equal. The magnanimous person is claiming a superiority, and even at least implicitly asserting that the rest of us should honor his or her virtue; in the Hobbesian scheme this threatens the peace since social peace is based on the notion that all must bow equally to the will of the Sovereign. Krom concludes by arguing that while this shows that liberalism is not especially consistent with Augustinianism, the Augustinian tradition can coexist with any political structure that will accept the independence of the City of God. This is in contrast to Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr   and Paul Ramsey, who argue that democratic liberalism is the best or perhaps only political structure that takes account of human sin and thus the only one that admits the Augustinian demand for humility.

MY PROJECT: I am looking at pride and humility in Kierkegaard and Augustine, to help explore Kierkegaard’s relationship to the Augustinian tradition, to see what this reveals or clarifies in Kierkegaard’s thought, and whether this offers any resources for us today.

Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy as a social force could relate to this analysis of pride in liberalism. The “age of reflection” denies all distinction except sheer numbers (Two Ages). What Krom presents as simply a description or fact of liberalism, Kierkegaard presents as a sickness; what Krom presents as a striving for equality, Kierkegaard calls “envy.” Although Kierkegaard was not a student of Aquinas, he did know his Aristotle; and while I am not aware of precise words to this effect, it is clear that he would have been drawn to this description of the “magnanimous” one who combines a realistic appraisal of his (or her) own gifts with the humility before God who is the giver of all, and also the one who judges all as equally sinful and equally loved. He repeatedly says, for example, that the simple man and the simple wise man get equally far, but the simple man knows, and the simple wise man knows that he knows or knows that he does not know (I think this is from the Postscript; these are notes so I’m working from memory). But in the Present Age, the simple wise man who admitted to being wise, even if he allowed that his wisdom did not amount to anything essential, would be set upon by the forces of envy. By contrast, a thousand arrogant fools would represent authority from numbers, while the one humble wise man is despised because he is not in the majority and therefore is wrong (and if he is distinguishing himself by admitting his is wise, he is seen as attacking the herd and set upon).   For this reason, the magnanimous person cannot openly admit or display his gifts; he must behave as the “secret agent” and teach only indirectly.

My primary interest, however, is not political, but epistemic, psychological and soteriological. How does pride distort our perception of reality? How does this lead to anxiety and the bondage of the will? How does faith restore us to something resembling our original state, so that we can again approach reality in humility and freedom?

Krom cites Hobbes as saying that it is pride that leads us to each strive to control others. Kierkegaard, in his upbuilding discourse discussing Adam, describes how before eating the fruit of knowledge Adam perceived God immediately—God was not separate or hidden, but completely present and immanent all around. In disobeying, Adam establishes himself as separate, and begins to understand how dangerous and unpredictable the world can be; so Adam seeks to control the world. Thus for Hobbes, we might say, pride leads to a desire to control others; but for Kierkegaard, pride goes further, and is the reason for the desire to control the world, including others. For Hobbes, the danger of this is that all the other people are trying to control each other, so you too could be killed or enslaved. For Kierkegaard, the danger is more immediate; you can’t control, and the more you try the more you realize the impossibility and thus the more anxiety. In the end, this attempt to assert freedom before God becomes completely unfree, as everything one does is dictated by one’s anxiety, and everything becomes self-defense. Kierkegaard further develops this notion pseudonymously in Concept of Anxiety, published the day after this discourse. There, the fear of the world becomes anxiety about possibility in general, since every possibility is the possibility to go wrong; and the more the individual tries to fight his or her way out of anxiety, the deeper he or she becomes ensnared. The only way out is outlined pseudonymously in the Fragments.