Running on Pride: The Vice of Superbia

Several summers ago, I started training with my running buddy. She was entering high school and was growing in the sport. I had been running for years but had lost much of the drive that animated my early days of running. That summer, we were buoyed by our enthusiasm for the sport and were edified by a shared commitment to work hard. I watched as she grew stronger almost daily, and I grew stronger, too. After workouts we would often exclaim, “I can’t believe we just did that!” We were elated to see improvements and wanted to get the best out of ourselves.

Pride and Superbia

There is a certain kind of pride which is not a vice. It is a feeling of pleasure in a job well done, or satisfaction with one’s own good choices. We can experience it toward ourselves, the way my running buddy and I did that summer, or toward others, the way parents often do toward their children. Maybe pride is not the best word for this feeling, but it is the word we often use.

However, there is a second kind of pride that is a vice. It is destabilizing and damaging to our communities, and it makes us less teachable. It is called superbia—arrogance, or the vice of pride—and it is everywhere in competitive sports.

If you spend enough time around competitive athletics, you will have experienced the vice of pride, or superbia. It is an inordinate desire for one’s own excellence, or an inflated sense of self (1). Likely, you will have experienced superbia so much that you almost fail to notice it anymore. Athletics, in broad strokes, has a culture of bragging and self-aggrandizement, which is sometimes called “marketing” and is other times disguised as self-belief. It often seems like athletic social media is a bunch of people shouting their achievements past each other, bragging in direct or subtle ways, and, admittedly, this is probably part of what we enjoy about sports—the self-congratulatory brazenness of it all. It is entertaining.

But pride need not be a sign of big aspirations, or of a great athlete. I have met extraordinarily gifted athletes who are forgetful of their own accomplishments, who lose graciously, and who stand at the finish lines of races and sincerely congratulate their competitors. I have also met middle schoolers of average talent with such big heads that it is hard for them to re-enter the school bus on the way home from track meets. You can aspire greatly while holding your achievements lightly. You can also be sub-par or average yet driven by conceit.

Why Choose Humility?

But if pride in an athlete can be entertaining to watch, why should we want athletes to be humble? 

1. Incurvatus In Se.

There is an expression in Latin—homo incurvatus in se—humanity as ‘curved in on itself.’ This was a phrase coined by Martin Luther, which captures what we act like when we build our lives around our pride. We ‘turn in on ourselves’ like human commas, becoming so preoccupied with our own desires and interests that we are unable to see anything past them.

Obviously, Luther was not speaking literally when he introduced the phrase, such that we all transform into hunchbacks. (Although, this would make the error really easy to spot.) But there is truth to the idea that our pride crowds out the possibility of a life spent looking outward—seeing and loving the people around you, responding to their needs, and considering ideas other than your own. If you are proud, your self-importance curves you inward—incurvatus in se.

So, the first reason to address your pride is this: Having an inflated sense of self closes you off from the richness of life beyond yourself and your accomplishments. For runners, who profess to value community, pride impedes us from genuinely supporting one another.

2. Pride Makes You Less Teachable.

In elementary school, I would show my parents my essays, and if they located mistakes or suggested changes, I would cry. I basically just wanted them to tell me my essays were already good. (They were not good.) If I had more humility, I would have been better positioned to accept critiques and to profit from their help. The same is true of running. Nothing shuts the door on constructive feedback quite like pride. A proud person finds her personal frailties unbearable.

3. Sports Form Character.

People love to talk about the character-forming potential of athletics when it concerns good character traits, like perseverance, courage, and integrity. But if we are willing to believe that athletics is a good avenue to practice the virtues, we should consider the vices—such as pride—that are also reinforced in sports. The qualities we practice in running are bound to appear in other areas of our lives and relationships.

For pride, character formation is a particularly pressing point for two reasons. First, the Scholastic tradition describes pride as the root of all the other vices (2). If you have an inflated sense of self, this gives way to other defects of character—such as vanity, envy, and sloth. In guarding against pride, such as by practicing humility, you become less vulnerable to a whole host of bad qualities. Second, pride justifies a number of ills we are currently trying to address as a society, such as prejudice against those who are different from us. Growing in humility positions you to listen better and see the value of other people. It makes you more teachable and less ‘curved in on yourself.’

Final Thoughts

Admittedly, it is plausible to think that superbia has driven some great performances. It would be super motivating to step on the starting line of a race and to have your value wrapped up in how you perform, or to be governed by an outsized preoccupation with your own success. Superbia may sometimes be performance-enhancing while we are in our sneakers, and as I said earlier, it can be entertaining to watch. But we wear other shoes. We are not just runners, and superbia is not a quality we want in the rest of our lives, even if it were to profit us narrowly in terms of performance outcomes.

Call for Comments

  • Have you at some point felt superbia in yourself and your athletics? Would you be willing to share an example of when you identified this in yourself?
  • And, have you also felt a more natural and healthy pride? How do the two differ for you, and how are you able to tell what is a healthy versus unhealthy pride?

References

  1. Thomas Aquinas. Summa TheologiaeII.162.2.
  2. Thomas Aquinas. Summa TheologiaeII.162.2.
Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 10 comments

  1. Philippe Boutros

    Excellent article — so nice to see a philosopher in this sport. To your questions:

    *Have you at some point felt superbia in yourself and your athletics? Would you be willing to share an example of when you identified this in yourself?*
    Whenever I do something bigger, tougher, scarier than normal — and think about how to one-up it. Strava comes to mind.

    *And, have you also felt a more natural and healthy pride? How do the two differ for you, and how are you able to tell what is a healthy versus unhealthy pride?*
    When I notice incremental improvements and feel glad to see them (e.g., the same route dropping by 5s/mile consistently over several weeks). When I feel comfortable in my own body, confident in my abilities, and grateful that there’s challenges out there I don’t think I can take on.

    Superbia is fleeting, and healthy pride is a rock solid foundation. When I think back to old hard runs that I could do much better now but still feel pride — that feels healthy, especially when it doesn’t involve external validation.

    Thanks for the wonderful article!

  2. James Wray

    Great article and thanks so much for the terminology to make this distinction! I wonder if there is concrete evidence that superbia is performance-enhancing? I’m always incredulous when I watch NFL players engage in over-the-top celebrations of, e.g., contributing to a single tackle, which is of course just the job that they are being paid (millions) to do, only to be consequently late getting back to the line for the next play. Maybe that’s an example of “incurvatus in se,” in that they’re ignoring how their actions affect their teammates. So maybe any narrow value that superbia does have, would apply more to individual than to team sports? I also feel like it must be less effective over longer (ultra) distances, maybe just because I can’t personally imagine sustaining an inflated sense of pride for many hours at a time — something humbling inevitably happens at some point. ;-P

    1. Sabrina

      James, I love that thought. I think there are problematic kinds of pride at a collective level–like jingoism at the political level. But I think you are right about being on a team guarding against pride in certain ways because you have to think of others. Love it.

  3. John Vanderpot

    I still remember the night, nearly 30 years ago now, outside of Iowa City, Iowa, when the (then) undisputed greatest wrestler to ever live sat off by himself in the bleachers diligently taking notes during a JV match…all I could think was the humility of this man!

  4. Tim Jordan

    Why not use the word “conceit”? Superbia is simply a latin word (and Italian) for Pride and can mean pride in both the negative and the positive sense. For example “Superbia” is the name chosen for a Manchester based LGBTQ+ organisation promoting the rights and dignity of that community. Clearly it was highjacked by theologians to mean one of the seven deadly sins, a conceit in itself, and it has to be said that your article reads more like a theological statement than a philosophical enquiry. The only thing missing is the word “sin”. Some sections of the religious world think homosexuality is a sin and death should be the punishment. What is your position on “Gay Pride”?
    Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to any religious organisation.

    1. Sabrina Little

      Hey, Tim! Thanks for your comment. Yes, there are good kinds of pride and bad kinds of pride, so I started off by clarifying that I don’t mean the good kind, such as for family and in a Pride community like you mention. That would be celebration of a community in ways that encourage dignity as you helpfully described. Conceit is also a good word for what I’m talking about. Thanks for that. Another word is arrogance. I chose superbia because there is a virtue and vice tradition stemming from the classical tradition that used that word, and I write in that tradition. I like to think of the emperor, Tarquin the Superbus, from 495 BCE. He was called the Superbus because of his superbia–his inflated sense of himself or arrogance–and he gained the throne through murdering family members. And you are right about the theological appropriations of these terms. Part of that is because those who were literate in the Medieval time period were religious. Part of it is because religious folk were invested in the question of character. In a much longer piece, I would have expanded on the “Final Thoughts” section because I was thinking of Aristotle (prior to the Judeo-Christian tradition) there. He thought you needed to be (for lack of a better word) proud enough to aspire to good character. Being weak-souled on the other hand seemed the greater problem for him. I appreciate the comment, and thanks for reading.

  5. Jason

    I always look forward to your articles…and learn/grow from each and every one! Please, please compile them into a book one day!

    As a runner, I am content to stay toward the front end of the mid pack. I enjoy setting and achieving goals that are meaningful to me (new distance, tougher course, faster time, etc) and will share those successes with my close running friends. I try to stay within the realm of “pride” rather than drift into “superbia” but I think it’s a thin line and I’m sure we all cross it without intending to do so.

    As a HS coach, I think the struggle is even harder. There is obviously pride in the success of *my* athletes, but at what point do I conflate their individual success with my own sense of worth as a coach? It’s an important question because my goal as a coach is to not only make them the best runners they can be, and win races, but also instill a healthy love of the sport and create a positive atmosphere for personal growth and community. Those goals are often in conflict in ways similar to what you’re describing. Tough, but important questions! Thank you as always for raising them!

  6. Nelson

    Greetings from your old home state of Texas, Sabrina. I have done some races with you and have seen you in person at other times, and I have always been inspired by your humbleness. Thanks for sharing how you got there with those of us who are still struggling.

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