“Pride cometh before the fall.”
That was the comment a family member made to me when I was reminiscing with someone else about my youth and the times shared with a dead person at his funeral. The subject was how “awesome I had been when I was young, and how much my son loved my stories, so much so that he did not mind if I was his teacher at school – it was not embarrassing for him at all.” The person I was speaking to agreed that the deceased had always admired that about me – my stories and personality. Then my family member (in-law, thankfully) said:
“What was that again? Pride cometh before the fall?”
My answer was as quick as it was clear:
“And I am still falling.”
“Yeah,” she replied, rolling her eyes.
My friend, who was actually the mother of one of my best friends said:
“He has always been like this.” Then she let out a hearty laugh.
I am not sure what my family member was going for with that comment. Perhaps it was that she wanted to be part of a conversation that was clearly not including her. My in-laws have known me for fourteen years, most of my friends for twenty. Nevertheless, I thought of the comment for a while – well, I am still thinking about it – and realized the problem. Let us quote the verse of which this individual was probably thinking:
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)
I prefer the Latin:
Contritionem praecedit superbia et ante ruinam exaltatur spiritus.
Overbearing pride (hubris) shall precede contrition and before ruin an exalted spirit.
Fascinating, is it not? It is not pride that brings the fall, but the overstepping of pride into hubris or, as the verse says, overbearing pride. Now, here is the trick. Pride is not bad. One can be proud of his/her accomplishments.
Let’s try the Ancient Greek:
Πρὸ συντριβῆς ἡγεῖται ὕβρις, πρὸ δὲ πτώματος κακοφροσύνη.
Hubris (I was right) is made to come before the crushing, and before the falling (associated with epilepsy, interestingly enough) an accumulation of bad deeds (folly, basically).
There is only one thing I dislike more than lazy translation: lazy quoting.
The pride that both the A. Greek and the Latin speak of is ‘overbearing pride.’ To the Greeks, this kind of pride brought on nemesis, in other words, righteous anger. To the Romans, the equivalent punishment to their overbearing pride was the bringing on of contrition, that is, the crushing of the soul and the body with the things pride has made truth when not so. I am certain that thinking myself good enough so that my son does not feel shame to call me father and teacher does not qualify for this overbearing pride. Considering my response, however – and I am terrible at responses on the spot – the verse becomes even clearer.
When does this fall take place?
“I am still falling,” I said. In the moment I answered like Apollodorus (the Gift of Apollo was his name). When Apollodorus’ friends were making fun of him, thinking him crazy for being a philosopher and not making money, he replied ἐγὠ μέντοι ὑμας οὐκ οἵομαι άλλ΄ εὐ οἰδα (Plato Symp. 173.2-3). “You think it, I however, know it well.” I know it well too. I am in a state of fallness. I drank my hemlock, like a good boy. Yet are we not all fallen? Man is in a fallen state, this individual and I both believe this as a product of our religion. I am down, perhaps if you think you are not so yourself, you should help me become risen as well – those of us who are still fallen and are not, unlike you, it would seem, enlightened. Instead, the comment made was not geared towards enlightenment, it was a pun. A pun on my fallen state from an individual who thought herself too far above me to make any other comment. Now that sounds like overbearing pride to me. Hold the hemlock for a second.
I really like the second half of that verse. Let us recall it in the three languages:
…and an haughty spirit before a fall.
…et ante ruinam exaltatur spiritus.
…πρὸ δὲ πτώματος κακοφροσύνη.
The conjunction ‘and’ is inseparable, all three languages use it (and, et, δὲ). That alone should tell us that those who do not quote the verse as a whole are missing out on something.
What could it be?
Well, that the fall only happens after one suffers of a haughty/exalted/badly-accumulated spirit. It is the spirit who thinks itself above others that causes the body to fall. As the Greek suggests, it is not a matter of if, but of when. Πτώματος is the fall provoked by the gods (nemesis) due to our κακοφροσύνη, not much different than epilepsy to the Greeks – of course, to them it was just the falling caused by pride, something that would annoy G. Julius Caesar quite a bit. Kακοφροσύνη is in direct opposition to συμφροςὐνη, which means to act wisely or to ‘act with wisdom’ – aka moderation. The opposite literally meant to ‘act with bad wisdom.’ Bad wisdom indeed, to quote scripture to give weight to words that would otherwise be absolutely empty but must be spoken nonetheless in order to bring ease to an exalted spirit.
Well, no. That is the answer. You are not better than me. I am not superbus, I am not hubristic, I am simply proud of the fact that I am a good enough father that my son won’t feel ashamed of me if I have to teach him and his friends in a classroom setting. Further, if we are all fallen, must we not learn to rise on the things we have been given? Are we forever to remain fallen? I don’t think so. Whether we have been cast into this world by god or by our parents alone, we were born to nothing, and it is up to us to use Good Wisdom in order to rise to something. Pride, the good kind, is not so much a tool of destruction as it is the rope by which we can pull ourselves out of this mud-pond that is life.
Besides. It is a funeral, we are supposed to tell stories and remind ourselves of the fools we were when the person now deceased came into our lives and made things run in a different direction. We are supposed to remember the dead, through the effect he or she had in our lives. Perhaps next time I will be able to answer that destruction happens in two stages to the religious. Overbearing pride brings about a destruction of the body, an exalted soul the fall of the spirit. Perhaps next time I won’t feel like I have to smile while explaining to others why my in-laws are the reason the word Bad-Wisdom exists at all.
No worries. I will drink my hemlock now.