Question: Did President Ezra Taft Benson's General Conference address, "Beware of Pride," plagiarize from C.S. Lewis' chapter on pride in Mere Christianity?

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Question: Did President Ezra Taft Benson's General Conference address, "Beware of Pride," plagiarize from C.S. Lewis' chapter on pride in Mere Christianity?

The superficial similarities of the talk and the chapter do not indicate plagiarism when one considers the finer points of what each was trying to say

Some claim that President Ezra Taft Benson's famous General Conference address, "Beware of Pride," [1] was plagiarized from C.S. Lewis' chapter on pride in Mere Christianity. [2]

The superficial similarities of the talk and the chapter do not indicate plagiarism when one considers the finer points of what each was trying to say. Lewis is one of the most prolific modern authors regarding theological virtues; any expansive treatment of pride could hardly help bumping up against his phrasing, especially since he himself was borrowing from older sources. President Benson could certainly have sourced more of the statements in his talk, but for the most part he used concepts that were in the "public domain," and not unique to any one source. The more one reads both Lewis' chapter and President Benson's talk, the more one may be struck by their differences, not their similarities. Anyone curious is encouraged to read both, in the confidence that the fair-minded reader will not conclude plagiarism.

There is some commonality between the talk and Lewis' chapter, but there are no grounds for calling it plagiarism

There is some commonality between the talk and Lewis' chapter, but there are no grounds for calling it plagiarism. The talk and the chapter are, in many points, very different conceptually and both borrow from other, earlier, widely-known sources. In making this accusation, critics must have either not fully understood the talk and the chapter, or are deliberately obscuring differences and claiming correlations when it is obvious there is none.

Lewis even begins his discussion of pride with the acknowledgment that "according to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride." (Mere Christianity, 1996 Touchstone edition, p. 109). Lewis did not make any more specific attribution than that, but he was not plagiarizing, despite borrowing from Aquinas [3] and Augustine [4] just as the critics say Benson borrowed from Lewis. Indeed, one could make just as good of a case that Benson was borrowing from Aquinas, Augustine, and other earlier Christian apologists instead of Lewis. These ideas on pride have been so widely considered by so many that it isn't very meaningful to call it plagiarism, any more than one would be a plagiarist for explaining the laws of gravity without citation to a specific physicist.

To show the clear differences between the chapter, it is helpful to analyze each purported instance of "plagiarism" put forward by the critics:

Pride is the Ultimate Vice

Lewis: "The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride." (p. 109)

Benson: "Pride is the universal sin, the great vice."

These statements are not completely equivalent, and it's not as though Lewis is the only one pre-Benson to have identified pride with superlatives. Augustine, for instance: "Pride is the beginning of sin" (The City of God, Book 14, Chapter 13) and "of all these evils pride is the origin and head" (The City of God, Book 14, Chapter 3). Aquinas: "Wherefore pride, like a universal vice, is not counted along with the others, but is reckoned as the 'queen of them all' (Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 84, Article 4). President Benson more closely follows Aquinas than Lewis.

Competitive Nature of Pride

Lewis: "Pride is essentially competitive--is competitive by is very nature . . .” (p. 109)

". . . Pride is essentially competitive in a way that other vices are not." (p. 110)

"Pride is competitive by its very nature." (p. 110)

“Once the element of competition has gone, pride is gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not.” (p. 110)

Benson: "Pride is essentially competitive in nature. . . .

Our will in competition to God’s will allows desires, appetites, and passions to go unbridled."

President Benson may well have been channeling Lewis' phraseology here, but that's not conclusive--it's not as though it's a stunningly outlandish insight that pride is competitive. The Bible and Book of Mormon both convey the same concept often, in such phrases as the "proud and lofty," and the identification of societal stratification with the low point of the Nephite "pride cycle."

Moreover, when Lewis' chapter focuses nearly exclusively on how pride pits man against man. President Benson speaks of that aspect only briefly; he focuses more on how man's pride pits him against God. He uses the term "competition" ONLY as regards man's will in competition with God's. When President Benson moves on to pride's feeling competitive with other men, he does so by fully attributing Lewis' line about comparisons.

The Proud See Themselves Being Above Others/The Proud Also Look From the Bottom Up

Lewis: "A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you." (p.111) “When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom.” (p. 112)

Benson: “Most of us consider pride to be a sin of those on the top, such as the rich and the learned, looking down at the rest of us.” “There is, however, a more common ailment among us and that is pride from the bottom looking up.”

This one is really just silly. Lewis and President Benson aren't making the same point at all; the only commonality is the word "bottom." The key distinction is between "top-down" pride, or thinking others inferior to you in every way, and "bottom-up" pride, or hating others for their superior qualities or situation. Lewis' chapter is exclusively about "top-down" pride. There is no hint of the concept of "bottom-up" pride. On the other hand, President Benson's talk gives "bottom-up" pride a lot more emphasis than "top-down;" the latter is mentioned chiefly to set up the "bottom-up" concept.

When the critic tries to compare Lewis' statement, "When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom," (p. 112) with Benson's, "There is, however, a more common ailment among us and that is pride from the bottom looking up," it's frankly ridiculous. Lewis was using "bottom" to mean the low point of moral worth and spiritual danger experienced by those deeply guilty of top-down pride. President Benson was speaking of the completely distinct concept of bottom-up pride. In fact, President Benson really only speaks of top-down pride in order to set up the concept of bottom-up pride. There's no connection between those two lines at all except the word "bottom." It's a spurious criticism, and indicates that the author is grasping at any plausible-sounding similarity rather than seriously comparing the talk with Lewis' chapter.

Moreover, Lewis' evaluation of the prideful man reaching bottom when he no longer cares about praise from others is clearly borrowed from Augustine: "And if some, with a vanity monstrous in proportion to its rarity, have become enamored of themselves because they can be stimulated and excited by no emotion, moved or bent by no affection, such persons rather lose all humanity than obtain true tranquility." (Augustine, The City of God, Book 14, Chapter 9). Lewis didn't include an attribution, and I doubt he thought he needed to--these ideas have gone around the block many times.

Pride Equals Enmity

Lewis: "Pride always means enmity--it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God." (p.111)

Benson: "The central feature of pride is enmity--enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowman."

“Our enmity toward God takes on many labels, such as rebellion, hard-heartedness, stiff-neckedness, unrepentant, puffed up, easily offended, and sign seekers.”

“Another major portion of this very prevalent sin of pride is enmity toward our fellowmen.”

Both are borrowing from Romans 8:7 by way of other teachers. I don't think that a concept so prevalent in Christian thought can be said to be the intellectual property of Lewis. The critics' list of all of President Benson's mentions of the word "enmity" is probably meant to enhance the perception that the word was borrowed from Lewis. It was not. The second and third quotes from President Benson have no analogue at all in Lewis' chapter.

Pride and Self-Value

Lewis: "You value other people enough to want them to look at you." (p. 112)

Benson: "The proud depend upon the world to tell them whether they have value or not."

Here again, the author clearly hasn't grappled with the concepts being presented and is only trying to build a case on superficial similarities. Lewis is describing the difference between pride and vanity, and stating that one is NOT really proud if he still cares for others' opinions; he is merely vain. Benson is saying nearly the opposite, that a hallmark of pride is an inordinate concern for the opinion of others. Curious method of plagiarism!

Pride vs. Humility

Lewis: "The virtue opposite to it [pride], in Christian morals, is called Humility." (p. 109)

“ . . . if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which had made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible . . .” (p. 114)

Benson: "The antidote for pride is humility . . . "

“Choose to be humble. God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble or we can be compelled to be humble.”

This is another flippant and superficial comparison. What exactly else, besides humility, could President Benson have said was the opposite of pride? Lewis isn't the originator of the concept that humility is pride's antidote.

The two second quotes have really nothing in common, either--Lewis was inviting an individual conversion and communion with God, and President Benson was threatening consequences if the whole church didn't humble itself. They have nothing in common aside from the notion that humility is necessary.

Pride Not Admitted in Self

Lewis: "There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves." (pp. 108-09)

Benson: "Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves."

There is only conceptual similarity here, not wording. Moreover, conceptual overlap is unavoidable because denial is inherent to the very concept of pride: pride means holding a false belief about one's own merit. So the act of realizing that the belief is false--admitting one's own pride--also destroys the existence of the false belief and therefore the pride itself. It's not plagiarism to explain an inherent component of the definition, even if someone else has famously done so before you.


Notes

  1. Ezra Taft Benson, "Beware of Pride," Ensign May 1989. [1]
  2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. [2]
  3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 84. [3]
  4. Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book 14. [4]


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims