This is a vainglorious age. Politicians primp and pretend. Celebrities pose for the paparazzi. The masses post selfies, counting friends and followers on social media.
In an era of shameless self-promotion, modesty seems corny and humility appears antique. The term “vainglory” is a quaint relic from a medieval catalog of sins. But there is wisdom in ancient warnings against vainglorious desire.
The vainglorious seek fame for futile and empty things. When notoriety is detached from virtue, vainglory appears. The vainglorious obsess about how others perceive them. They seek attention for its own sake. Vainglory occurs when shameful deeds are flaunted and false praise inflates the ego. We succumb to it when self-esteem becomes narcissistic self-infatuation.
Rebecca DeYoung, a scholar from Calvin College, will speak at Fresno Pacific University this week on the topic of her book “Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice.” DeYoung will appear along with Kent Dunnington from Biola University who will examine the virtue of humility.
DeYoung sees vainglory as a “ubiquitous human temptation.” The Kardashians and Trumps give us contemporary examples. But we are all susceptible to the lust for fame.
Facebook fuels this desire. But there is nothing new under the sun. Vainglory is condemned in the Bible. And the ancient fathers of the Christian church warned that prayer and preaching can be vainglorious.
DeYoung grounds her account in Christian tradition. Christians should give glory to God and not insist upon it for themselves. DeYoung explains, “approval of others is not ultimate.” Christians glorify God as the ultimate ground of value.
One need not be a Christian to understand that fame fades while virtue endures. The ancient Greeks warned against doing things for the sake of appearances. The French philosopher Voltaire explained that vainglory was petty ambition exhibited in pompous displays. He described the vainglorious as being content with a “splendid littleness.”
Pretentious pompousness does not prove our worth. Human dignity does not depend upon fickle opinion or ostentatious exhibition.
But we often cannot help ourselves. We want to share our triumphs with others. And soon we are bragging and boasting. DeYoung warns about “the vainglory slide.” Adulation is addictive. The ego loves applause. It is easily flattered. It wants to be stroked. And so we succumb to the insidious desire for attention.
Vainglorious people often want the glory without the grit—they want acclaim without achievement. They boast about things they have never done. They exaggerate and embellish. Lying and hypocrisy often accompany vainglory.
Vainglorious bragging can become spiteful and mean. When his unfounded boasts are corrected, the braggart bristles and blusters. He blames others for exposing his false achievement. He puffs himself up in self-defense or lashes out in anger.
Vainglory can also, I think, undermine empathy. Last week Michele Borba spoke about her insightful book “Unselfie,” at a conference sponsored by Fresno State’s Bonner Center for Character Education. Borba argues that the “selfie” culture encourages narcissism and undermines empathy.
Borba’s solution is to focus less on ourselves and more on others. We need to turn the camera around and put other people in the center. Empathy deflates the vainglorious ego. It reminds us that we all suffer, that no one is perfect, and that we are all mortal. It teaches us modesty, patience, kindness and care. By giving our attention to others, we learn not to insist upon ourselves.
The opposite of vainglory is a kind of humble authenticity. Humility keeps the self in proper perspective. We are born naked and dependent. We end up as food for worms. In between we can achieve some limited good. But every conquest is contingent. Our successes depends upon good luck and supportive friends.
Humility acknowledges finitude. The vainglorious are obsessed with themselves. But the most glorious human achievement remains a splendid littleness. Our bodies and our selfies will eventually turn to dust.
We live better when we extend our gaze beyond ourselves. For Christians this means looking upward toward God. For others, the extended gaze looks outward toward suffering others, who need our care. Or we might discover humility as we stare in wonder at the starry vault above.
Our lives are fragile. Our triumphs are temporary. And vainglory is a puff of pride blowing against a cosmic wind.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala
Vice, Vainglory and Humility
- Kent Dunnington, Biola University; Rebecca DeYoung, Calvin College; Andrew Fiala, Fresno State
- 4:30-6:30 p.m. March 22-23, Fresno Pacific University North Hall 123 (seminary chapel)