Terry D. Cooper’s Sin, Pride & Self-Acceptance was referenced by David Brooks in a recent New York Times op-ed. In it Cooper addresses the problem of original sin as it has been treated in psychology and theology. He asks the question about whether or not original sin–that is, elemental human nature–is fundamentally about innate self-interest or self-hatred. In other words, is the base level of human waywardness pride or insecurity? Psychoanalysts have said that Calvinist understandings of human pride as the basic human sin misunderstands a deeper level of human insecurity. We puff up because, deep down, we are cowering. Conversely, pride is the word used in the scriptures, and early thinkers like Augustine have said that original sin is the replacing of God as center, in exchange for complete reliance on self; and that therapeutic talk about self-acceptance is a bit naive.  More than that, though, Cooper seems to be saying that the answer to this question about original sin has huge implications on lived experience–how you raise your kids, how you approach problematic relationships, how your therapist talks to you. Mapping a historical conversation between Augustine and Freud, Calvin and Jung, Niebuhr and Carl Rogers, he shows not only that this particular identity question is a very old one, but one in which theology and psychology have a lot of common concerns to contribute.

Cooper’s own thesis comes from looking particularly into the work of a psychoanalyst named Karen Horney (who we’ve talked about before). She comes from the perspective that pride and self-contempt could be seen as two sides of the same coin, that not only is their insecurity rooted in pride, but that there is also pride rooted in insecurity. Horney’s starting point for identity is her notion of “basic anxiety,” the “feeling a child has of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world.” Humans beings develop one of three neurotic trends to alleviate that anxiety–which we have covered before in David Brooks’ piece. These are interpersonal neuroses, but Horney goes deeper than this to talk about the intrapersonal conflicts we have within ourselves, namely that we have idealized self in our minds. This is our intrapsychic anxiety–that we long to be that which we can never be–and get pretty good at convincing ourselves we can. In doing this, Cooper shows the pride in our anxieties–the grasping at an unreachable fruit, a pseudo-self we cannot be. Pay particular mind to what Horney does with the word “arrogate”–and how it serves as the ego’s perfect reversal of the notion of Christian imputation:

This idealized self…is an image of what we should be, must be or ought to be, in order to be acceptable. The idealized self-image is born out of the imagination and is quite impossible to actualize. It is a romanticized portrait built on exaggerated self-expectations. The idealized self stands above the traffic of everyday reality, exalted and endowed with what seems like unlimited power and significance. It attempts to find a solution to the conflicts of life by escaping through the imagination.

Trying to live within the idealized self’s restrictive, rigid conception of life always involves enormous denial. We begin to avoid aspects of our own experience that do not conform to our elevated image of ideal personhood. Horney refers to this as self-alienation, which means roughly the same thing as Rogerian incongruence. We gradually become a stranger to ourselves. The actual self, consisting of real feelings and experience, becomes twisted, distorted and stretched into the mold of the “appropriate” self. This censorship activitiy has the end result of self-estrangement and ignorance of our real needs, desires and dispositions toward life. The neurotic trick, of course, is to somehow maintain the pseudo-image. We must falsify reality and discard all disturbing evidence to the contrary:

“Roughly speaking, a person builds up an idealized image of himself because he cannot tolerate himself as he actually is. The image apparently counteracts this calamity; but having placed himself on a pedestal, he can tolerate his real self still less and starts to rage against it, to despise himself and to chafe under the yoke of his own unattainable demands upon himself. He wavers then between self-adoration and self-contempt, between his idealized image and his despised image, with no solid middle ground to fall back on.”

The specific features of the idealized self vary from person to person, depending on the particular structure of the personality. For some, power may be the dominant factor. For others, beauty, intelligence, saintliness, or patience may be the governing factors in the creation of the idealized self. The extent to which the idealized image is unrealistic determines the level of arrogance necessary. Interestingly, Horney points out that the word arrogance comes from arrogate, which means to attribute to ourselves qualities that we do not have. These traits may be potentialities but they are not actualities. So obviously, the more extravagant the idealized self, the more we must arrogate pretentious qualities.

The overwhelming amount of psychic energy necessary to maintain an inflated self depletes the energy needed to achieve our actual potential. The more exaggerated the self-claims, the more likely the outside evidence discounts the idealized image. Thus, an intrapsychic scrambling process is necessarily involved in maintaing the pseudo-self. As Horney points out, we do not need much confirmation for qualities about which we feel sure. But false claims about ourselves do leave us feeling defensive and touchy (130-131).