Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Vainglory (the First Prince)

~~  "Unless a man war against the love of human glory he does not perceive its baneful power, for though it be easy for anyone not to desire praise as long as one does not get it, it is difficult not to take pleasure in it, when it is given."  --St Augustine  ~~

"Good job, son (daughter/brother/sister/husband/wife/friend)!"

"You are amazing!"

"You did so well on that!"

"You're the greatest!"

Oh, this one is insidious.  I think I will coin a phrase here by saying that Vainglory is the firstborn of Pride (the Queen Mother).  It really looks like Pride wearing its most ostentatious suit of clothes.  It is also the one that is initially hard to parse and really define as a vice-- but it is vital to do so.  It can be difficult to see where the actual vice begins... because we all have it happening nearly constantly within us.

~~  "While other vices find their abode in the servants of the devil, vainglory finds a place even in the servants of Christ."   --St John Chrysostom  ~~

My initial concern about delving into all of these vices/sins was that it may not be "healthy" to focus so keenly on such things.  My rational brain, though, pushed that aside with the reasonable notion that it is actually a very good way to root out the bad stuff, so to speak.  It turns out that is at least partially true.  Before one can "root out" something, it has to be found and identified... and therein lies the tough part.  I am definitely finding these things in me.  Oh, I knew before that they were there... I just hadn't really (really!) shined such a bright light on all of them.  I have been thinking about Vainglory for weeks now-- and I keep finding new ways to apply it to myself (and others).

We all want praise.  It is a very deeply entrenched part of the human development process.  We use praise in raising (conditioning) children, and that practice continues throughout life, until we find ourselves in many ways addicted to it.  I can say with complete authority that people would often prefer recognition/praise to other types of rewards.  Bottom line: it just feels good to have someone heap praise and compliments on you.  Is this bad in and of itself?  I really do not think so.  Why, then, is Vainglory considered a "sin" or a "vice?"  Because, I believe, it "spoils" us, so to speak.  Instead of feeling happy and fulfilled because of the thing we did to earn the praise, it starts to become all about the praise itself.

The bible is full of admonitions against seeking praise for its own sake.  A well known passage from Matthew's Gospel 6: 1-6) illustrates the point well:

“(Jesus said) Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.  When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.  When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."

Speaking as one who has already admitted to being afflicted by it, I see it as an empty and potentially dangerous pleasure in praise from other people.  Empty because it is not concerned with the results of the work, but simply the praise.  Dangerous because it can take over the whole spiritual/emotional house right under our noses.  Thomas Aquinas tells us, quite rightly, that a virtuous deed loses its power to merit God's favor if it is done only for the sake of Vainglory.  It renders us presumptuous and too self-confident and therefore gradually allows for our inward goods to leak away.

            ~~  "Vainglory enters secretly, and robs us insensibly of all our inward possessions."  
                                                           --St John Chrysostom  ~~

In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas ranked Vainglory among the capital sins/vices because it is prolific of other sins/vices, such as disobedience, boastfulness, hypocrisy, contentiousness, discord, and more.  That takes us back to the real "definition" of a vice or sin: that it takes us away from virtue and leads us into bad spiritual/emotional "neighborhoods."

Motive is key here.   A fairly good analogy would be a person who works at a job that they do not really like and from which they get no true satisfaction.  Why do they continue to do the job?  They do it for the paycheck.  So, now, why do we do a thing?  In asking yourself that about any number of things you have done, or do, see how many times you answer: "because I wanted praise" (note: this exercise requires brutal self-honesty).   It is important to note here that Christianity teaches that it is not necessarily morally wrong to seek honor and praise in due moderation and with the proper motive.

Aristotle used examples of feigned bravery and fortitude because a man thinks he is more likely to be uplifted before other men if he seems to be daring or brave.  Not to say that we all lie, pretend, and do everything because of Vainglory-- that is demonstrably not the case.  There are many honest and altruistic motives out there, just not nearly enough, I must say.

Motives.  Look at some artists of bygone eras-- their talents were used to produce works that glorified God.  They were extremely humble and insistent in saying that God gave them the gift and that the thing was done for His glory alone.  Think of the architecture... the paintings and sculptures.  All of society saw these things and knew they were from and for God Almighty.  It strengthened the faith and culture of everyone, and it kept humility as something to be cultivated and practiced with great energy.

Now compare that to most modern artists-- what are their talents used for?  I ask: what would happen if the most talented musicians suddenly turned all of their talent to glorifying God?  We'll never know, but I can imagine it to be far too wonderful for words.  Our society has become so incredibly enamored with fame... the Internet, reality TV, smart phones-- all of these and more have us in a perpetual "look at me" state of mind.  In short, the very toxic Vainglory virus is in full epidemic mode.

~~  "Vain-glorious men are the scorn of the wise, the admiration of fools, the idols of parasites, and the slaves of their own vaunts."  --Francis Bacon  ~~

Yes, "slaves."  How else to describe a condition where you need to constantly act out in order to feed the demanding master (Vainglory) that is never satisfied and always needs more.  The master often makes the slave lie, cheat, steal, pretend, etc. in order to garner more of the addictive praise.  Sadly, this is ubiquitous today-- far worse than it has ever been.  Fame for me, glory for me, praise for me... those all have one common denominator: "me."  It is, at its heart, ugly and frightening to consider... and it makes us ugly, as well.  

~~  “You shall easily know a vainglorious man: his own commendation rumbles within him till he hath bulked it out, and the air of it is unsavory.”  --Thomas Adams  ~~

Once again, we find that it is easy to see what the solution is-- but ever so hard to apply it. Or, is it...?  As with most every other personal and societal ill, there will not be a grand solution brought by some wise central planners.  The real solution is, as always, that each individual look deeply inside and start working on it in there.  For me and other Christians, that process will not succeed if I try it alone.  Philippians 4: 13 applies ("I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.").  How amazing and how wonderful to realize that by seeking God's help in giving all praise and glory to God, we become much better and much stronger (and more virtuous). 

Aristotle was a very wise man, albeit a pagan.  Thank God that the mighty Thomas Aquinas recognized the wisdom and value in the Greek's work and, literally, saved it for the Western world (that is a topic you should read about, if you ever get a chance).  A salient example is Aristotle's "Magnanimous Man" (defined as high-minded; great of mind, elevated in soul; raised above what is low; of lofty and courageous spirit).  Now, this Magnanimous Man would seek and accept praise and honor, so long as he deserved it and so long as it came from people who were themselves high-minded.  He disdained any "trifling" praise from the lowly.  He held himself worthy of his exact merits; while others would either under or over estimate their own merits.  That is, to an extent, an admirable way of conducting oneself.

Aquinas accepts Aristotle's teaching on this virtue, but he prevents it from slipping into Vainglory by tempering it with the Christian doctrine of humility.  Christians believe that honor/praise is the due homage paid to worth, and it is the chief among the external goods which people can enjoy. It is okay to seek it, but only inasmuch as all worth is from God; and man, of himself, really has nothing but sin... therefore, honor and praise must be referred to God and sought only for His sake and/or for the good of others.  The result of this tempering is truth, shown in the strength of the highest Christian character.  Instead of a self-satisfied Magnanimous Man, we have someone like Saint Paul or Saint Francis of Assisi, or any number of other excellently humble persons.  Those who seek fulfillment from what and Who really matter... and who would rather be despised  by men, but loved by God.  

If we can just keep ourselves grounded in that way-- always ready to "forward" honor and praise-- then we should not have any qualms about receiving such accolades.  Fortunately, we have in our arsenal the best weapons to beat back the scourge of Vainglory: the Virtues.  For example: Faith reminds us of God and His wisdom and power and that all good comes from Him; Love looks outward and therefore keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously; Justice insists that we give credit where it is really due; and Temperance reminds us that limits must be observed in all things.  This only strengthens my habit of always praying for the Virtues.  So profoundly simple.  

Take it home, Jeremiah!

Thus says the LORD:
Let not the wise boast of his wisdom,
nor the strong boast of his strength,
nor the rich man boast of his riches;

But rather, let those who boast, boast of this,
that in their prudence they know me,
Know that I, the LORD, act with fidelity,
justice, and integrity on earth.

--Jeremiah 9:22-23 (NAB)

God bless!


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