Aristotle on True Aristocracy

Is pride a virtue or a vice? Before deciding upon this question, it is important to define ‘pride’ and to distinguish it from other, related feelings.

According to the philosopher Aristotle, a person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things. If he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things, he is not proud but temperate.

On the other hand, if a person thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them, he is vain; and if he thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, he is pusillanimous. Vanity and pusillanimity are vices, whereas pride and temperance are virtues because (by definition) they reflect the truth about a person’s state and potentials. In Aristotelian speak, whereas the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness, and so virtuous.

Aristotle goes on to paint a very flattering picture of the proud person. He says that a proud person is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honour, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. A proud person is moderately pleased to accept great honours conferred by good people, but he utterly despises honours from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. In sum, says Aristotle, pride is a crown of the virtues; it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.

True, the proud person is liable to disdain and to despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, mostly to meet their ego/emotional needs). Although the proud person is dignified towards the great and the good, he is unassuming towards the middle classes; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.

Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar. —Nicomachean Ethics, Bk IV

In short, be proud of your pride. Give it a free rein. Let it work for you. And if you must still think that pride is a vice, what you cannot deny is that Aristotle is an astute psychologist who, in discussing pride, also gave us our archetype of the aristocrat.

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