Augustine regarded pride as the archetypal sin, the sin from which all other sins proceed as from a root. To him it was no accident that, in the Bible, the Book of Genesis saw the pride of Adam and Eve as bringing about their fall from God's grace. Pride casts its mist of fascination or attraction or influence over everything, seeking to corrupt even what is in itself good. There is no one who escapes the pressure of its often-subtle temptations.
In a number of his writings, Augustine saw the sin of pride at work in history - in the Roman Empire, in the exaggerations of Manicheanism, and in persons in authority within the government and the Church. In his Confessions, he is not slow to identify pride in his previous years. For example, during his adolescence Augustine found Scripture inaccessible. Compared with the writing of Cicero, whose texts inspired him to embark on a quest for wisdom, the Latin version of Scripture available to him struck him as being crude and unlearned.
In actual truth, it was a poor translation but, at the time, Augustine could not see that it was his pride which prevented him from appreciating Scripture. Only with virtues such as humility would he be able to see what stood between him and the texts. Years later he did admit publicly that his pride had restricted his access to Scripture. He wrote, “I was not in any state to be able to enter its mysteries, or to bow my head to climb its steps.” [Confessions, III, 1]
Augustine also saw that, once readers enter a text with the proper attitudes and dispositions, the possibility for further growth in the requisite virtues opens expansively: “The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them. I disdained to be a little beginner. I was puffed up with pride, and incorrectly considered myself a mature adult.” [Confessions, III, 1
In order to accept the Bible, Augustine needed at least the beginnings of humility; after all, he was about to accept something he did not understand. His pride had once demanded that he attain truth by his own effort, but now he understood that “we were too weak to discover the truth by pure reasoning.” [Confessions, VI, 5] Augustine had a long and arduous road to travel, but his first steps involved not only obedience to Scripture but also transformation in virtue, however weak, which was the precondition for accepting Scripture.
Humility is a key virtue in Augustinian enquiry, both a precondition for all learning and an end to which enquiry aims. The humility with which Augustine accepted Scripture was absent in the mind-set of Manicheanism, and it is largely for this reason that his relationship with that sect ultimately failed Rather than calling their students to humility, the Manichees promised instant success in a total story accessible even to beginners.
In fact, where Augustine's pride prevented him from accepting the Bible, it had positively motivated him to join the Manichees: “[The very pride that kept me from the Scriptures] explains why I fell in with men proud of their slick talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious. His disappointment with the Manichees suggested that humility was prerequisite for philosophical understanding. Looking back on his life at a later date, he could rightly acknowledge that the Manichees could never have satisfied him because of their inherent pride.
While another school, that of the Neo-Platonists, advanced Augustine further than the Manichees had done, they too failed to complete the course because they lacked humility. Because it obstructed his journey, Augustine's sinfulness helped him to realize that the goal of philosophical and moral enquiry lay not in the attainment of knowledge but in the transformation of the life of the inquirer.
Even when he became intellectually certain about God (i.e., an intellectual conversion), Augustine still had his ambition and lust as obstacles. He later wrote: “I was astonished to find that already I loved you...But I was not stable in the enjoyment of my God. I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away from you by my weight...I was in no kind of doubt to whom I should attach myself, but was not yet in a state to be able to do that." [Confessions, VII, 17]
The Platonists did not counsel moral conversion, so his progress was once again frustrated. Only after discovering a humble mediator and teacher in the person of Jesus Christ could Augustine appropriate the virtues necessary for apprehension of truth: “To possess my God, the humble Jesus, I was not yet humble enough. I did not know what his weakness was meant to teach." [Confessions, VII, 18] Disillusioned even with the Neo-Platonists, Augustine turned with greater intensity to Scripture, especially the letters of Paul.
He saw there the same truths he had learned from the Platonists, enriched by an attitude of reverence and humility: “I began reading and found that all the truth I had read in the Platonists was stated here together with the commendation of your grace, so that he who sees should ‘not boast as if he had not received' both what he sees and also the power to see.” [Confessions, VII, 21]
With humble reverence and awe, Augustine suddenly comprehended Scripture; the simplicity that once deterred him now began to fascinate him. He soon identified the main difference between Christianity and Neo-Platonism: where the latter saw “what the goal is but not how to get there,” the former knew “the way which leads to the home of bliss, not merely as an end to be perceived but as a realm to live in.” [Confessions, VII, 20]
This distinction became so evident for Augustine that he realized that even someone without his intellectual background – the “unlearned” of the Scriptures, who storm the doors of heaven - could travel the path recommended by Scripture to arrive securely at the goal: “So also the person who from a distance cannot yet see, nevertheless walks along the path by which he may come and see and hold you.” [Confessions, VII, 21]
Augustine now saw that humility, and not pride, led to the transformation of life and spiritual identity. He saw pride as the soul’s delight in replacing God’s power with its own desire for power. The prideful soul is not content with its God-given place in the universe, but wants more power, recognition or possessions. “Pride hates a fellowship of equality under God, and seeks to impose its own dominion on fellow humans, in place of God’s rule” (City of God 19.12). AN2328