The pitfalls of arrogance and pride

Part 4

Imagine a continuum of pride, with extreme arrogance at one end and abject humility at the other. I’ll be examining this continuum in this and the next several columns. 

As examples of arrogance proliferate, the continuum is being continually extended further in that direction. But the other end, that of humility, is shrinking, as examples of abject humility become harder to find — humility is out of fashion, and those who aspire to humility don’t trumpet it. 

The continuum-of -pride idea owes to my interactions with the Old Order Amish whom I visited for several years for my book “Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish.” By my subjects I was taught! The main lesson: For the Amish, pride is the greatest enemy. 

Most non-Amish don’t find pride to be that bad. For us, as St. Augustine wrote, pride is “the love of one’s own excellence,” a positive self-regard for our better qualities.

But the Amish regard pride as humankind’s sacrilegious attempt to rival God.  In their view, for an individual to assert that he or she is in control of their life is more than naïve, it is a mistake that heightens their risk of damnation. 

The Amish fear pride as insidious and endlessly seductive — very like the Devil — and try in many ways to avoid succumbing to its lures. The plainness and simplicity of their clothing, dwelling places, transports and behaviors are deliberate attempts to prevent the sort of individual display that reflects a belief that he or she is better than someone else. 

To put pride’s temptations out of reach, the Amish have rules that we find odd, such as prohibitions against owning a television, car, motorized tractor or other equipment that utilizes electricity or connects them to the state’s electrical grid or road network. They also wear clothes that have no pockets in the pants — nowhere to put your stuff! — because after all, it is difficult to be proud of what you don’t have.

What the Amish strive for is gelassenheit, a combination of humility, devotion, righteous living and yielding to God’s will. 

Humility was at the center of their lives when the Amish first came to America in the Colonial period. Back then, their reverence for humility was similar to that of their neighbors, and not remarkable. In the 19th century, though, among their neighbors, belief in humility as a desirable personal goal began to erode. Now it has almost completely fallen out of favor among us non-Amish.

For most of us, humility connotes weakness and undue timidity. We deride displays of humility as faked emotion. Not so, the Amish. Believing that they are yielding to God’s will, accepting all the ups, downs and twists of fate that occur on their paths from life to death, the Amish can more easily come near being truly humble and stamping out pride. 

Meanwhile, our larger culture has embraced, as a bedrock tenet, the need to champion every opportunity to encourage self-pride. 

We all took part in expanding the boundaries of pride. I certainly did. Case in point: the difference in pedagogy between my (now grown) sons’ years of attending grade schools and my own grade schooling. 

My parents praised my academic prowess mostly when they saw my report card; they didn’t high-five me each night for completing my homework. But when I became a parent, I cheered each of my sons’ steps along the way, hoping thereby to assist them toward pride in their own work and successful advancement. I also got with the program because as a writer I understood viscerally the need for such praise for performance.

Reasonable pride isn’t such a bad thing. These days I run the risk of further stoking such fires because I’ve become a too-generous dispenser of compliments, although that’s a practice I consider no more perilous than over-tipping in a restaurant. 

As a senior citizen, I’ve become more acutely aware of how continuously the world beats down most of the populace; I’ve seen too many writers and would-be writers be crushed by criticism that never celebrates the good parts of their work while being quotably vicious about the not-so-good parts. 

What about you? I’ll bet that you know, as well as I do, that there is absolutely no benefit to you or to others in keeping under wraps your admiration in others’ behavior and accomplishments, even if that stokes their pride.  

But excessive pride in oneself is a different matter. As the Amish understand all too well, when pride in oneself increases out of proportion to reality, it not only becomes arrogance, but it extinguishes all possibility of humility, and thereby becomes dangerous to the rest of us.  


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks.  He lives in Salisbury.