Glory and Vainglory

by

In the introduction to her book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung says something about her early Christian sources that clearly applies to her own work as well. She writes, “[M]any past thinkers who analyzed the vice of vainglory did so for medicinal purposes. Like medical researchers, they wanted to know what it was and how it worked in order to better find remedies and cures for it.” The analogy of the medical researcher fits DeYoung well, since her study of the forgotten vice manages to be scholarly without losing sight of its relevance to practitioners. She presents her sources’ views critically, but also grants them credibility.

Another way to characterize DeYoung’s work would be to say that she is both “looking at” the Christian tradition of moral philosophy as it relates to the particular vice of vainglory and “looking along” the same tradition as someone who is participant in and defined by it. This dual dynamic of objective and subjective modes of knowing is what C.S. Lewis described in “Meditation on a Toolshed,” and DeYoung models how both modes of knowing can be performed Christianly. For Christian thinkers faced with the dilemma of writing in an objective mode with their faith latent or writing subjectively from within their faith and limiting their audience to their co-religionists, I would suggest they should consider DeYoung’s work as a sketch of a third way in need of further exploration and development.

But about those who are primarily interested in her subject, that is, the vice of vainglory? What does DeYoung have to say to them? In her first two chapters, she explores traditional definitions of vainglory and its variations. The word itself is a slippery one, a translation of the Greek term cenodoxia, which literally means “empty glory.” DeYoung’s first chapter is devoted largely to explaining “glory” to a modern audience that tends to have a tenuous grasp of the concept and even then only as it applies to God, without any positive picture of human glory. As DeYoung makes clear, for the early Christians “glory” meant something much more tangible, having to do with the display of goodness and the honor and fame that attended visible, recognized excellence.

In transitioning to the “vain” half of “vain-glory,” DeYoung focus on a double-meaning inherent in the word itself, since vainglory is used to describe two almost diametrically opposed ways of sinning with respect to glory. The first is to glory in vain or empty things, either in goodnesses we do not really possess but merely feign or appear to possess or in things that are not truly glorious but merely showy trifles like possessions or petty personal distinctions. The second is to glory vainly, by finding our worth and identity in our own glory, so that it serves no higher purpose than self-promotion and points to nothing beyond ourselves.

DeYoung has an easy time locating instances of both species of vainglory in the target-rich environment of modern America’s celebrity-obsessed, consumer culture, alternately frivolous and workaholic. On the one hand, “posing” and passing ourselves off as having all sorts of goodness we don’t really have is a pervasive in the semi-virtual space defined by real life plus social media. Furthermore, even when we represent ourselves truthfully, we still manage to find glory in things of little intrinsic value or lasting goodness. On the other hand, the glory-hogs of the meritocracy and the achievement culture are giving the honor cultures of the ancient past a run for their money in terms of status-obsession and striving after worldly recognition for its own sake, without reference to anything beyond the ego. DeYoung provides several examples of this latter problem from her own life in academia, where the competition for celebrity professor status or even lesser forms of recognition can be all-consuming.

In the remainder of the book, DeYoung tackles a variety of related topics to this core definition of vainglory. She discusses the relationship of vainglory to other vices, those from which it can grow and those which it will cultivate in turn. For readers interested in the general medieval picture of vices and virtues, this will be an interesting discussion, as will her chapters on hypocrisy and the relatively obscure virtue of magnanimity. She also considers vainglory’s roots in more psychological terms as growing out of both pride, as we promote our own importance and excellence, and fear, as we prop ourselves up in an attempt to escape the pain of rejection.

In her final chapters, DeYoung turns to the consideration of the remedies and cures for vainglory, which she describes as strategies of resistances. She considers the examples of the Desert Fathers regarding when it is best to avoid attention for one’s goodness in order to avoid the temptation to find greater satisfaction in one’s goodness than in one’s dependence upon God’s grace. She also discusses the practices of silence and solitude that characterized the lives of the Desert Fathers and how those practices can be incorporated into our modern lives as a countermeasure to the cultural bias towards vainglory. Ultimately, her cure for vainglory treads surprisingly familiar territory as she offers the redirection of glory to God as the final solution to the vice of glorying in ourselves.

The most remarkable (or perhaps “glorious”) aspect of DeYoung’s work is the way it straddles the line between a scholarly treatise on a topic of ancient and medieval philosophy and a devotional for modern Christians. Her substantive discussion is clearly and concisely written with adequate analysis of her sources and attempts to situate their insights in contemporary issues. The remedies and cures which she offers for vainglory are somehow less satisfying or innovative than her diagnosis. One struggles, for example, to clearly picture how glory is to be effectively and non-hypocritically directed from the human subject to God (where does “Tebowing” fit into the vainglory calculus?). But overall, readers will find this slim volume historically and theologically informed and practically helpful.

Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark lives in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sarah. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2011 with a degree in Classics, he earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee. He now works in his family’s fourth-generation scrap metal recycling business. Charlie is a founding editor of Fare Forward and chairman of its board of directors.