Are you guilty of vainglory? I know I am!

Folks, if you want to see whether Aquinas’s (and other medieval) moral philosophy is useful for Protestants today, then you should check out Rebecca De Young’s book Glittering Vices. Dr. De Young will lead the seminar on the seven deadly sins I will be attending at Calvin College next month.

This morning I had the pleasure to hear Dr. De Young present a paper on the vice of vainglory. I (and not just I, but at least one other person I spoke with) was both enlightened and convicted (in a constructive way) by what I heard. I DO talk about myself too much. I DO, even in this blog, self-present in vainglorious ways. There ARE remedies (though Dr. De Young didn’t get to them in this paper).

Here are my scratched-down, piecemeal notes on that session, minus the handout she provided for us: [For further notes I took on the conference, of a more general nature, see this post.]

From “Spin” to Silence: Aquinas and Cassian on the Vice of Vainglory

Rebecca Konyndyk De Young, Calvin College

Vainglory was contracted into pride after Thomas (certainly by the typical list of 7 deadlies in the 20th/21st c.)

Today pride and vanity often used synonymously.

Before (including in Aquinas), they were separated, helpfully. Vainglory had to do with excessive desire for others’ attention and approval. Pride might also include a power dimension, over other people. [she noted other distinctions I didn’t catch.] We lose a range of explanation if we drop the distinction.

John Cassian and Aquinas compared—will help us explain the distinction, and the relationship to offspring vices. There is a power in having a name for this perennial vice.

Reference to falsity and fear as well as to pride.

Different faces of vainglory present problems at various stages of our spiritual journey.

Vainglory as self-display undercuts self-communication necessary to human friendship and love for God.

It’s a big deal!

Set of definitions on our sheet, 2nd page, to help us.

Glory: “clear knowledge with praise,” and “manifest goodness.” This is the triple-A vice: attention, approval, acknowledgment.

Can glory be considered a good, pursued in licit ways? Aquinas: humans have a natural desire to be known. Interesting. Especially for their goodness to be known. He thinks goodness by its nature tends to commjunicate itself to others. We can see this in God too. It is a natural effect of goodness to be known. So glory can be good.

So, vainglory?

Caveats on the above: the VAIN variety involves emptiness, something that fails to achieve its end (in vain).

So first, one’s GOODNESS should be known. Aquinas argues: given that the source of all goodness is God, all human glory must also be referred to God.

So taxonomy of vainglory: objects, ends of one’s glory, and further complications of audience. She’s done this on p. 2 of the handout. They do “Gaston’s song” in Beauty and the Beast. They need to find every form of vainglory in this taxonomy in that song.

So first: objects of glory. (1) False goods: only ostensibly or apparently have goodness. Aquinas mentions cases in which the agent lacks the quality she presents herself as having: cosmetic industry, fishing stories, etc. He doesn’t mention cases in which the object lacks the goodness it is presented as having. The audience will perceive the object as worthy of glory/good: everything from bad tattoos/piercings to Augustine doing bad things in order to please his audience.

(2) Relative goods, not to the point where we should seek glory for them: temporal, changeable. Beauty is a shallow good. A respectable academic c.v. is on the respectable end of the spectrum. But none of this worthy.

Now, REAL goods that are worthy of glory

(see the sheet for the laying out of this taxonomy)

Even genuine goods, even infused virtues can be directed to the glory of the self (Sounds like spiritual pride). Cassian identifies these as particularly pernicious and difficult. Cassian: vainglory undercuts even your progress in other virtues.

Also the glory of God: if you take a worthy good and direct it to God, you can do it directly or indirectly. In this case glory is morally necessary for habituation! If you are a community leader, you are a moral example to others. You must be imitable.

Receiving glory for one’s good deeds helps one persevere in virtue. This can easily tip toward too much attention-seeking. But encouragement and acknowledgment from the body of X is a good/necessary thing.


Is God your primary audience? A few others? A wide (maximum publicity) audience?

Cassian: we always have an internal audience, step back, watch ourselves. That’s one thing Cassian talks about b/c he is doing the desert hermitage thing. You can still engage in vainglory as fantasy in those cases!

Respect as quality of judgment: if audience has bad judgment . . .

Aquinas: how do you rely on human approval? There are many cases in which we excessively seek approval, but it doesn’t cause us to sin. But there are cases in which it does cause this: excessive type II.

Example of the ability to reflect on our own behavior in solitude, w/out ostensible audience, shows up in Cassian: story of younger monk in desert cells of Egypt caught up in fantasy of being made great priest in city b/c of his progress in sanctity. He is imagining this, standing in his cell preaching to an enraptured audience in his imagination. He begins actually to preach out loud. Brother wanders by, older, hears what’s going on. He stands at door until sermon is over, then knocks. Sensing he had been caught. Younger asks “How long you standing there?” Older: “I only arrived when you were dismissing the catechumens.”

Now some ways in which this is a valuable tool, and how to extend it.

Striking feature: despite connection with goodness, you can glory over nothing, or anything.

Offspring vices: boasting, hypocrisy (pretending to good qualities not had), love of novelties (the familiar phenomenon of using/having/doing the latest, greatest thing to produce amazement in one’s audience).

Boasting, hypocrisy involve deception, self-deception. And surely the novelties thing is useful today for analyzing consumer culture.

Fakery, falsity, exaggeration, excessive defensiveness often involved.

But one of the most interesting categories is when we have goodness that is worthy of goodness. But directing these to our own glory and not God is the focus of Cassian’s critique of fellow Christian monks. See the quote sheet in the handout. Second-to-last. Note the layers, infinite regress in that and the third-to-last quotation (in the first section). So Christians just as subject to this vice!

Vainglory and pride similar in this way: the better you become, more virtuous, the more susceptible to turning in on yourself and glorying in what you’ve achieved.

Now extending the tradition. Many cases these two vices (v and pride) go hand in hand. It is DISPLAY of the supposed or real virtue that is the distinguisher—and it leads to falsity, pretense, fakery for the sake of getting glory. So by concentrating too much on display, the person erodes the ability to value the virtue that one was trying initially to display. Gradually one will sacrifice one’s integrity, compromise one’s view of what is truly valuable.

This would also explain why uncertainty, bad judgment show up in Aquinas’s treatment of this vice.

Vainglory can take root in fear, inadequacy, defensiveness, self-protectiveness as well as strutting, boasting sense of superiority. [c/f her treatment of envy in Glittering Vices, I note!] Human approval still one’s end. Classic example of v’s fearful face is Augustine’s life story. See the Aug quotes on the sheet.

Propensity to falseness, hiddenness, staging, embellishment, when we are subject to vainglory. Human life properly lived best in community with others. So here in this life and in the next, our proper end is to be in fellowship with God and others. This will require we are acknowledged for who we truly are, not things we are staging, etc. This blocks the true knowledge of us necessary for love.

Lastly, when vainglory becomes habitual, the agent can easily “live into” his/her persona. This is a worry behind stage acting (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park). Also the way the moral life begins: we are trying to live into virtues we don’t have. Within a life of perpetual deception, it can be difficult for the agent to see herself: if you project an image long enough, it begins to feel like the truth. Whether an audience of many others or not, she has turned fantasy into reality, turned herself from insight into her own character. Self deception, self distortion. And this is required for self-examination, confession, which are required for spiritual growth!

Remedies: we can ask in the Q&A (see her outline).

A range of insights, a powerful diagnostic tool are found in vainglory.

2 responses to “Are you guilty of vainglory? I know I am!

  1. DeYoung’s chapter on envy in her book Glittering Vices is also worthy of reflection. Envy is a sort of “mirror twin” to pride, as you say, but it also has at its root a pathological sense of personal inadequacy that vainglory doesn’t always share (though it does sometimes). The person who envies derives his or her self-worth from a kind of calculus of comparison–which is often quite accurate. The envier knows where he or she stands in a particular field or public measure of excellence. And he or she knows that others stand higher, which goads them severely. The comparison to others leaves them feeling inadequate and therefore to some degree worthless.

    Then the envier becomes obsessed, with (1) improving their own “ranking” and often also (2) taking the demonstrably superior person “down a peg or two.” The example DeYoung uses is Salieri, in the movie Amadeus.

    And to answer your question: Yes, I did have that glow which, as soon as you notice it, disappears in a puff of pride!

  2. I know my own worst vice to be vanity. Freud would say that I didn’t get enough attention from my parents or something like that. It is certainly an adolescent vice, or even childish. Pride and vainglory certainly beset priests – or any ordained – as you probably know. Can you get a roomful of priests together without that insidious boasting of what each has accomplished,how their last sermon was better than anyone else’s, and certainly a gathering of clergy will always be tainted with envy, the mirror twin to pride!

    So ae you all walking around after the lecture with shamefacedness, meekness and a lovely glow of humility?

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