Pride, or self-esteem, often seen in relation to others or the divine, is necessarily an ambivalent concept. In ancient Greek moral thought there is a very strong presence of negatively evaluated terms for emotions or dispositions similar to pride, arrogance or »thinking (or talking) big« (mega phronein/legein). These may be held to be bad and dangerous because they offended the gods by exceeding mortal limits or, more frequently, because they had disruptive consequences. In particular they might constitute, or lead directly to, hybris, which in its full form covered both the disposition to over-value worth of the self in relation to others and deliberate behaviour that inflicted dishonour on others.
On the other hand, it is surprisingly difficult to find equivalent terms in Greek discourse for »pride« as a pleasurable emotion resulting from a positive evaluation of qualities, achievements or events in which one believes one has a personal connection; in modern analysis this can be seen as the opposite of shame. The expressions for »thinking big« can represent a positive idea of showing pride in something, but do so relatively rarely. Greek philosophers were interested in ideals of self-esteem, but did not have a term precisely for the emotion of positive pride. Plato connected self-esteem with honour, by locating ego-ideals, shame and the desire for honour or victory in the area of thought, feelings and dispositions in the area which he labels the »spirited part« (thumoeides). Aristotle’s discussion of emotions in the Rhetoric analysed shame (aidos, aischune), but did not identify a contrary emotion for the positive evaluation of the self. In the Ethics he insists that »self-love« (philautia) can be an admirable disposition when it is the approval by a good man for his pursuit of the good and the noble, rather than the bad man’s pursuit of his selfish pleasures; but this was not a term in general use at the time; and his character ideal of the »magnanimous man« (megalopsychos) is defined as one who has the correct attitudes to honours and dishonours, resulting from his just assessment of his own worth.
This talk will explore the intimate connection between »negative pride« seen as overvaluation of one’s own status and its harmful consequences on the honour of others; the relative lack of interest in Greek moral thought in the idea of an emotion of »positive pride«; and the emphasis on the virtuous reciprocity of the performance of benevolent actions in exchange for honour. All this may reveal a greater centrality in their social behaviour and moral language of ideas of honour and shame rather than those of duty and guilt, and a tendency to condemn excessive pride for its impact on others rather than as a sin against the divine.
Nick Fisher is Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at Cardiff University. He studied in Oxford and received his Ph. D. for the thesis The Concept of Hybris in Greece from Homer to the Fourth Century BC. Since 1970 he has been teaching at the Cardiff School of History and Archaeology. His research interests are political, social and cultural history of ancient Greece; political and social practices in classical Athens and Sparta; and slavery in Greece and Rome. His publications include: Aeschines: Against Timarchos, translated, with introduction and commentary (2001); Slavery in Classical Greece (1993); HYBRIS. A Study in the Values of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greece (1992).