by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
It may be discouraging to note, but the list of seven deadly sins originally included even more than seven options. The list of eight or nine likely functioned more like a “top ten” list of the most common human character flaws. The early Christian communities who invented the list incorporated it into a larger project—the aim of a virtuous and well-lived life of full integrity. Achieving that goal meant overcoming obstacles within ourselves with both grace and discipline. As they articulated and diagnosed these habitually disordered desires, the (in)famous list was born. The “capital vices” named allegiances to self and stuff over more lasting, self-transcendent goods, including flourishing relationships with each other. Rooting out these vices meant greater freedom to pursue a life of virtue.
The longer list of vices included something called vainglory. That’s an unfamiliar term to most of us nowadays. But it names something that still has a lot of traction in both our personal and political lives. Why was vainglory on the list of vices, and what kind of threat did it pose to personal and communal character?
Not to be confused with pride, which was a vice focused on one’s superiority, vainglory’s focus was on attention and approval from others. Pride focuses on status, while vainglory is about the show. “Glory” describes cases of goodness that were manifested publicly or somehow on display. A glorious sunset or musical performance counts as goodness that is “shown and known”—and appreciated and applauded as such. The trouble begins when such attention and appreciation becomes excessive, or we grow too attached to it. Being noticed, and noticed for the right things, or making sure that you are signaling the right things or presenting yourself in the right way, can preoccupy our thoughts, shape our desires, and constrain how we carefully curate our public image and the actions we are willing to take.
NCAA coach John Wooden famously said that character is who you are when no one else is looking. It takes integrity to stay true to what is good and right in all circumstances. Being out of the public eye, with the accountability it affords, can bring certain kinds of temptation (lust, gluttony, stealing). But the vice of vainglory makes clear that being in the public eye can bring a different set of temptations to our doorstep. One pop star, whose elaborate outfits and wildly choreographed videos were sensational by any standard, describes herself as a “master of the art of fame.” In more comic form, Gaston, the buff buffoon of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, shows us a character who needs the crowd of fawning onlookers to reassure him of his likeability. Before we scoff at those who parade around or patronize the local tavern hoping for some easy acclaim, though, we might consider the ways we craft our own public image—with embellished resumes and framed credentials on the wall, cars and homes, and clothes that reflect the respectable image of success we hope to signal, and attention-dominating conversations that revolve around what we know, what we think, and what we feel. What happens when we start to believe in our own spin? Vainglory can take an arrogant form—showing off our own goodness when we deem it worthy of the limelight. But vainglory can also take a fearful form—when shame or concern for others’ disapproval ratings leads us to conceal what we really are and project a masked version of ourselves instead. Sometimes we don’t feel up to public scrutiny, or we want to avoid shame, or we are sure we will score too low in on the public opinion poll. Before we step out of the door in the morning, we make sure that we have assumed whatever armor or cosmetic artistry or assumed superhero costume we need before we face our public. Who doesn’t want a favorable audience, or even just a few people to affirm our likeability? What if our sense of our worthiness depends on it?
Americans seem to prize authenticity and being the genuine article. Our egalitarian, ‘hard-won by hard-work’ cultural ideals shine through here. We are direct and open, plain-speaking people of our word who do not put on airs. At the same time, we love a good show: the Superbowl, the Blue Angels, fireworks on the 4th of July, New York City lights, the Oscars, Las Vegas, Broadway.
Politics seems caught somewhere in the middle. Democracy thrives only when the people trust their representatives’ integrity, when the rule of law applies transparently, and when the work of the free press advances dialogue and debate, rather than rhetorically showcasing one side. Gerald R. Ford stepped into the presidency at a moment when our nation needed integrity. An honest leader who needed neither wild applause nor careful coverups helped heal our national spirit. Glory at its best is found when genuine goodness meets genuine acknowledgment of it. Political leadership at its best is found when those who serve the public good, sometimes at cost to themselves, are championed, supported, and rallied around as those most fit to lead. If self-serving spin-masters get the biggest rallies and the most sensational headlines, then vainglory turns into a vicious spiral and damages us all. By contrast, a virtuous circle is also possible—when integrity is recognized and rewarded, good people are encouraged to participate in public service, for the good of us all.
The presidency always involves public presentation. But America continues to need political leaders who see beyond image-management to the worthy work that does not always see the light of day, win approving headlines, or guarantee a name that goes down in history. To be driven by vainglorious motives cheapens public office and turns it astray from authentic service of the common good. Knowing this danger, what might those in the public eye do?
Again, perhaps we can learn a lesson from the inventors of the list of vices. They recommended a community of accountability—those who could see through you and help you see yourself truly. And they recommended time away from the limelight, to regain your self-possession and a sense of what’s right. Humility and honesty are the pathway to integrity, a pathway still open to those who seek public office. If the American people are to be a good audience, they must recognize the value of good character and affirm it with their public support.
- How important is it that virtue resist drawing attention to itself? How can that habit be best cultivated?
- What does Matthew 7 teach us about the problem of vainglory?
- What’s the relationship between vainglory and honor?
- What, exactly, is glory, and where does the desire for it come from?