Vanity, all is vanity – the precision of a medieval concept


Continuing work on the “morality chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I come now to an illustration of the great precision and practicality of the medieval tradition of moral teaching. This is post 1 of 2 on the vice of “vainglory.” Post 2 is here.

In setting up this medieval section of the chapter, I’ve talked about the absence of objective value/truth in our modern reality, and Lewis’s recovery of that objective value from classical and medieval sources. I’ve also talked about how virtue gets taught in stories in the Middle Ages. But these are not the only things—maybe not even the most valuable things—we can learn from the characteristic “moral fabric” of the medieval world. For as I came to discover a few years ago in a wonderful summer seminar at Calvin College, that tradition contains riches of precision, practicality, and passion that can equip us for tremendous progress in our moral lives.

This came to me as a thunderclap out of the clear blue sky. I was born in 1963 and came of age in the 1970s. I didn’t even like the word “responsibility,” let alone anything that cramped my freedom to self-express, to enjoy the good things of the world. It has been easy for me to write the “getting earthy” chapter about enjoying God’s beauty and the “getting passionate” chapter about the emotional riches of medieval faith. Those are natural values not only of my coming-of-age but also of my entering the charismatic movement in the 1980s. But this stuff about moral correction and transformation is a whole different deal. It confronts me quite uncomfortably with the ways in which my character has been deformed by my roots in the “me generation.”

The scene was the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar of summer 2010, a gathering of scholars in philosophy, theology, and literature to discover and discuss this particular part of the medieval moral tradition. As we gathered around this material through the sultry summer days, reading late into the evenings and rejoining the group each morning, most of us reported the same thing: at every turn we found both illumination and conviction. Sure, Aquinas was doing a bit too much ‘sorting out and tidying up’ for our tastes—some of his distinctions and structures of thought about sin felt forced to us. But what a powerful analysis overall, and what light he shed on our behavior and our tendencies, and on the dynamics of God’s grace as he weans us from these foul habits of the “capital vices”! As Lewis’s friend Charles Williams had discovered with Dante, so was I now with Aquinas (and his sources Evagrius, Cassian, and Gregory): “Why, that’s just what I feel!” And at the same time: “Yes, I’m guilty of this, and now I understand it better.” You might think this would feel oppressive, this daily anatomization of our own sinful hearts, under the floodlights of the tradition. But it was not. It was strengthening, even exhilarating: We felt contemporaneous with the tradition.

Worth noticing here is the precision of the medieval tradition of the seven capital vices. (The same can be said of the seven cardinal virtues.) Medieval moral teaching was no blunt instrument. Think of the incisiveness and the fine-grained moral analysis of Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and you’ve got the idea: that book reflects the precision of the medieval tradition of moral teaching from which Lewis was drawing. In his inaugural address as the Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, the Oxford don reflected wryly on how counterintuitive this medieval precision is for most modern folks (including, I would hazard, most evangelicals): Lewis was making the case that we have completely lost touch with the richness of the medieval period in the Western tradition. So blinded have we become by the Enlightenment caricature of the Middle Ages as a time of unremitting intellectual and moral darkness that we cannot see the evidence in front of our faces.

Here he is: “Only last summer a young gentleman whom I had the honor of examining described Thomas Wyatt [a sixteenth-century English poet] as ‘the first man who scrambled ashore out of the great, dark surging sea of the Middle Ages.’” (One can imagine the face the great medievalist made at this point in his delivery.) “This was interesting,” he continued, “because it showed how a stereotyped image can obliterate a man’s own experience. Nearly all the medieval texts which the syllabus had required him to study had in reality led him into formal gardens where every passion was subdued to a ceremonial and every problem of conduct was dovetailed into a complex and rigid moral theology.”[1]

Vainglory – precision about pride

How “formal” and “complex” the garden of medieval moral teaching actually was (we’ll leave “rigid” aside for now) can be seen in the nuances of the traditional teaching about vainglory. Vainglory has become subsumed under “pride” in today’s standard list of seven deadly sins (“seven capital vices” is better language because each is a pattern (vice) not a single act (sin), and each is also a fountainhead of many other sins (“capital” means “head”). But it was a valuable and distinct part of the tradition from such desert fathers as Evagrius and John Cassian to Aquinas himself.

Vainglory and pride were not, the tradition assures us, the same thing. Not only the ancient desert fathers but also the High Medieval (1000 – 1300) Aquinas made a series of useful distinctions between the two – which have been obliterated by their conflation in to the single term “pride.”

Much of the difference can be found in the meaning of the little root “vain” (“vanity” is another form of this term). When we indulge in the vice of pride we really want to be better than anyone else. In fact, there are things that we do and are that may be worthy of pride in the positive sense. But when we indulge vainglory, we don’t care whether we are good at something – we just want to be perceived as good. In other words, it is a particularly flashy and empty form of pride. It is all about display, fame, the adulation of the masses. At its center it is hollow, because all that display hides the fact that the recipient is unworthy: the glory received is truly vain glory – glory in vain, glory given where there is nothing worthy of it.

In other words, vainglory differs from pride in that it usually has a dimension of outward display – it is the attempt to “show off” in front of others. I say usually, because a wonderful little story illustrates a case in which it has to do not with the actual display of a person’s supposed virtues and gifts, but the imagined display: John Cassian tells the story of young monk in the desert monastic cells of Egypt. One day the youth is daydreaming and becomes caught up in the fantasy of being made a great priest in a big city because of his tremendous progress in sanctity. As he is standing in his cell, he begins preaching to an enraptured audience in his imagination. And he becomes so impassioned that he begins actually to preach out loud. Before long an older monk wanders by and hears what is going on. He stands at the door until the sermon is over, then knocks. The younger monk, sensing he had been caught, blushes and asks, “How long have you been standing there?” Replies the elder sensitively, “I only arrived when you were dismissing the catechumens.”

So usually, but not always, vainglory involves an audience. And usually it involves a disproportion between the glory given and the good which is being lauded. But sometimes the thing lauded is indeed worthy – it is just that the glory given is misplaced. For example: I am born with an athlete’s body. I’ve got “all the right genes.” As I grow up, I excel in sports. And I love the attention and adulation this gets me. Well, what is wrong with that? Just this: Yes, I have trained and improved my skills. There really are elements in my athletic performance that come from my hard work and discipline. But ultimately, who gave me the gifts that I have? And to whom, therefore, does at least part of the glory rightfully go? To God. So inasmuch as I boast and preen and strut, directing all attention to myself, that much is the glory “in vain” – because it is not being directed to the proper object.

A mere moment’s thought will raise for most readers countless examples of vainglory in the contemporary entertainment industry. But we academics and knowledge workers, especially, need to look “at home” before we point the finger. Rebecca Konyndyk De Young, in her incisive and edifying survey of the so-called “seven deadly sin” tradition, Glittering Vices, reminds us of the case of Augustine. The great North African theologian, whose presence spread across medieval faith like a great gold-threaded mantle, reflected in his Confessions on the vainglory that marred his life before God got hold of him. In his career as a rhetorician, he remembered bitterly, he had been nothing but a “vendor of words.”

The syndrome went way back to Augustine’s boyhood, when he had stolen pears from a farmer’s pear tree not because he wanted the fruit, but because he wanted to impress his friends. His grown-up career, he now lamented, had only given him more and greater opportunities to indulge this vice. “The same desire for approval,” De Young recounts, “drove Augustine to excel in school and become an accomplished rhetorician. Even then, however, he was more concerned that his speeches in the law courts had the proper style and erudition to win him applause than that they conveyed truth, even when human lives hung in the balance.”[2]

[1] Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University press, 1969), p. 2.

[2] De Young, Glittering Vices, 61, drawing from Augustine, Confessions, i.XVIII.

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