This is post 2 of 2 on the vice of “vainglory,” which I am using in the “morality chapter” of my forthcoming book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis to illustrate the great precision and practicality of the medieval tradition of moral teaching. Part 1 is here.
Lewis recognized this temptation in its peculiarly potent academic form in a 1930 letter (a mere year pre-conversion, and we can hear his conviction of his own sin here) to his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves:
“The old doctrine is quite true you know – that one must attribute everything to the grace of God, and nothing to oneself. Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. . . . I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realize I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me. I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit – and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked.”
And all the academics said, “Ouch!”
But we may object (especially the academics – we never stop objecting to all sorts of things): “What’s wrong with a little vainglory here and there?” This objection contains a truth, which De Young, following Aquinas, admits: Humans have a natural desire to be known—and especially for their goodness to be known. And Aquinas believed goodness by its nature tends to communicate itself to others. We can see this in God too. It is a natural effect of goodness to be known. So glory can be a good—can even, perhaps, be pursued in licit ways—of course recognizing, as Johann Sebastian Bach famously did, that even as we enjoy with a justifiable pride the fruit of our gifts and disciplines, the ultimate source of all good – and this the ultimate and most appropriate recipient of all glory – is God. Soli Deo Gloria!
But the problem lies in that “vain” dimension of vainglory—the falseness, the unworthiness of what is receiving glory. Again, the vainglorious person does not care at all whether what he or she is seeking glory for is inherently good or worthy of that glory. In fact, the first impulse of vainglory is to paint one’s face, turn the footlights up a little brighter, “gild the lily” of one’s accomplishments. The result is a pattern of falsehood – of out-and-out lying. De Young puts it like this: When we are subject to vainglory, we fall into patterns of “falseness, hiddenness, staging, embellishment.” Human life is 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 other people. This will require that we are acknowledged for who we truly are, not things we are pretending to be. The false display of vainglory blocks the true self-disclosure necessary for love. In sum, “Vainglory as self-display undercuts self-communication necessary to human friendship and love for God.” That’s a big deal.
On top of all of this, like all the capital vices, vainglory is the fountainhead of many other sins and psychological problems—different ones at different stages of our spiritual journey: boasting, hypocrisy (pretending to good qualities we don’t actually have), love of novelties (to have the latest and greatest gew-gaw in order to produce amazement in our audience—of course nobody in this “iAge” has that problem!). Fakery, falsity, exaggeration, excessive defensiveness, and so much more.
Finally, this vice is a slippery snake: it sneaks up on us so quietly while we think we are just acting within the bounds of healthy self-acceptance. De Young reminds us that the tradition teaches even the chaste and appropriate acceptance of limited glory for what is truly good in one’s character can transmute, by concentrating too much on display, into vainglory. An unhealthy attention to “publicity” erodes the ability to value the actual virtue that one was trying initially to display, so that gradually we sacrifice our integrity, compromise our view of what is truly valuable. (A Hollywood species of this is “Believing your own press releases.”)
There is much complexity here—complexity of objects, ends, and audience: all of this (De Young tells us) Aquinas deals with in an intricate “taxonomy of vainglory.” He talks about false, relative, and real goods (sorting out those that are worthy and those that are unworthy of glory). He distinguishes between glory received that steels us to further perseverance in virtue (encouragement and acknowledgement from the body of Christ is a good and necessary thing!), and glory that tips us toward too much attention-seeking. He deals with the question of audience: Do we see God as our primary audience, or do we seek a wide (maximum publicity) audience; or—as in the case of Cassian’s young monk—are we most comfortable with a self-indulgent “audience of one”?
All of these aspects of the syndrome of vainglory are dangerous, but are we aware of the deepest danger – the place where vainglory tips over into that most pernicious of vices: spiritual pride? For vainglory and pride are similar in this way: the better you become, the more virtuous, the more susceptible you now are to turning in on yourself and glorying in what you’ve achieved. Again, here is Lewis channeling this Western Christian tradition of moral understanding, in his 1930 letter to Greeves:
“During my afternoon ‘meditations’, – which I at least attempt quite regularly now – I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character. Sitting by, watching the rising thoughts to break their necks as they pop up, one learns to know the sort of thoughts that do come. [This is pure desert fathers language: the identification of “thoughts” as the problem, the use of battle language – all this is in Evagrius and other writers in the desert tradition.] And, will you believe it, one out of every three is a thought of self-admiration: when everything else fails, having had its neck broken, up comes the thought ‘What an admirable fellow I am to have broken their necks!’ . . . It’s like fighting the hydra (you remember, when you cut off one head another grew). There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self admiration.” [Letters, 879; ck volume and date]
I hope this brief excursion into some of the byways of vainglory has suggested an important resource: if you recognize in your life a syndrome of vainglory, or spiritual pride, or indeed any of the other “capital vices,” and you want to deal with it, then an excellent place to go is to authors in the tradition that stretches from the desert fathers, through Augustine, to the scholastics of the 12th and 13th centuries—and in particular, to that great medieval scholastic, Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas, drawing equally on Augustine and the desert tradition – and in fact in De Malo most often on Gregory the Great, who synthesized those two – dealt with vainglory and the other capital vices with a precision and a practicality that can carry us beyond modern Christian platitudes to real understanding, and real change, in our moral lives. Of course, ultimately we get nowhere (as Aquinas, following Augustine, said again and again) without grace. But grace does not rule out intelligent, rational understanding of our moral predicament, nor effortful application of disciplines (some even ascetic – see the monasticism chapter) to our raggedly unrighteous condition.
 Though you’ll find some stuff on vainglory in the Summa Theologica, don’t go there for the really juicy material. That is to be found in his De Malo. A good edition, which I had the privilege of using at a Calvin Summer Seminar under De Young and Baylor’s Robert Kruschwitz, is On Evil, ed. Brian Davies, tr. Richard Regan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
- C S Lewis as medieval moral philosopher – a snippet from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)