“Glorious men,” wrote the philosopher Francis Bacon, “are the scorn of wise men, the admiration of fools, the idols of parasites, and the slaves of their own vaunts.” The subject of his essay was vainglory, an old-fashioned word that describes the desire to be noticed and praised.
As vices go, vainglory sounds as quaint as a Victorian buttonhook. Yet it’s as vexing a problem today as when the church fathers included it among the deadly sins (as a subset of Pride). In Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Eerdmans), Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College, provides an exceedingly relevant and fascinating examination of a concept we ought to rescue from obsolescence.
The book begins with helpful definitions. Vain, the more familiar half of the word, simply means empty. DeYoung calls upon medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, from whom the book draws heavily, to define glory as goodness made “apparent and manifest in its splendor” or, more concisely, “goodness that is displayed.”
The manifesting of goodness, DeYoung writes, is “necessary and beneficial to human flourishing.” Indeed, the very nature of goodness, according to Aquinas, is to “communicate itself”—or, as DeYoung puts it, to radiate outward. Goodness rightly asks for recognition.
Christians are particularly susceptible to vainglory. After all, we are a people who strive both to make goodness manifest and to recognize it where it appears. The danger comes when we’re tempted to replace a desire for good with a desire for the applause that naturally follows.
Thus, DeYoung writes, as with all foundational human desires, vainglory’s “deep appeal drives us to seek attention in many disordered ways.” Whether cultivated inwardly by pride or fear, or fed externally by others’ high expectations, the pursuit of praise (rather than the good at its root) readily becomes a powerful habit. The vainglorious person might begin innocently, rightfully earning honor for some praiseworthy quality or accomplishment. But before long, the thirst for applause and recognition becomes overpowering. It’s not hard to think of politicians, athletes, and musicians who started out with pure motives but eventually fell prey to vainglory.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Karen Swallow Prior