The Forgotten Vice (Eerdmans, 2014)

[1] Professor Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s 2014 book, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice, builds upon the spirit of her 2009 text, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies. An initial take-away in both texts, is that in life, as in driving, a functional relationship exists between our rearview mirror and our windshield. The past and the present must inform each other. For DeYoung, looking back at our past contemplative histories (for instance, in the context of spiritual and pastoral advice from early Egyptian ascetic communities, or the Desert Fathers) assists us looking forward to the cause and remedy of the moral and spiritual quandaries we experience today.

[2] DeYoung’s writing suggests a creative and insightful mind—one dedicated to the twin necessities of historical and moral rigor. In this serious scholarly effort she hopes to provide a vademecum for meeting the existential need for moral clarity in the complexities of personal, interpersonal and socio-institutional life.

[3] In chapters one and two, DeYoung assesses glory as a virtue, and asks whether and when glory is beneficial. Drawing from an early, practical concern for moral and existential enrichment and flourishing, DeYoung turns for advice to the Desert Fathers, to St. Augustine and to the medieval period (in particular, Thomas Aquinas). From the fourth to the twenty-first centuries, vainglory (interesting for its absence as a term in contemporary public discourse on virtue ethics), has proven to be a particularly trenchant vice. DeYoung explains the history of vainglory, beginning with an emphasis on how glory is alloyed in the matrix of personal vanity.

[4] In chapter three, the author explores the connection between vainglory and its moral rootedness in pride and fear, adding additional clarity in Chapter Four about the ancillary vices that contribute to establishing vainglory as one of the seven ‘capital vices’ (the author chooses this phrase over the classical reference to the seven ‘deadly sins’). In Chapter Five, DeYoung traces how moral degeneration takes place within a yearning for applause and adulation at the expense of one’s true self and one’s relationships to God and to the world. Chapters Six and Seven focus on the spiritual remedies of the Desert Fathers (among other theological luminaries) which clearly suggest a grace-centered vision of the Christian walk, whereby the goodness of glory is connected through a Christological commitment to the human being’s gratitude to God, the giver of life. In a twenty-first century “celebrity-crazed, image-obsessed, marketing-saturated contemporary America,” society faces the rigorous challenge of learning how to use gifts well, and not to see them as end stations for our own self-amplification.

[5] Glory can be good and useful. To make this case, DeYoung recalls Aquinas’ “fellowship of eternal happiness” in the affirmation of one’s friends and associates; just so, Aristotle clearly indicates that good friendships develop when we wish the best for others. Glory is a moral good in the mutual affirmation of friendship, whereby we elevate others as a sign of self-respect and other-recognition. Glorifying others is connected to human flourishing, and to the irreplaceability of the value of our shared humanity. But what happens when I seek glory as an end in itself, perhaps even at risk of my own well-being or that of others?

[6] DeYoung posits the excess of healthy glory at that classical triad whereby relationship between oneself, God and other human beings, becomes disordered through a slippage in the original virtue. Vainglory is not the Hegelian antithesis of glory, which would be a misreading of DeYoung’s aim. Rather, the author suggests that a subtle albeit ultimately pervasive slippage transpires at the root of moral well-being. The slippage to vainglory is more akin to Nietzsche’s interpretation of the “transvaluation” of value itself, whereby the original aspiration toward healthy glory is substituted (not by the opposite of the original value) but by the corrosion of original intent toward the value. This is where life can go “morally awry.”

[7] One of the abiding lessons from the text is what DeYoung designates the ‘mockery of virtue,’ when the slippage from an original virtue can result in a human being whose moral code is diminished into a self-protective moral veneer—perhaps of pity that conceals itself in empathy, or self-aggrandizement that is concealed by patient suffering. Like Caravaggio’s painting of Narcissus at the Source, vainglory is akin to Ovid’s tale of the boy who falls in love with his own reflection. The tenebroso of the painting captures the moment when the boy begins to slip into the water; his saturated self-love is the source of his own ruin, reminiscent of the danger of self-consumption evident in both Augustinian concupiscence and Luther’s in curvatum se.

[8] Motives do matter, even if we are unaware how thoroughly we substitute the divinely prescribed order for one of our own making. DeYoung summarizes vainglory as a troika of disordered acknowledgment, approval and affirmation. In less distilled form, vainglory is a humanly manufactured moral composite of misaligned love of self, a displacement of the true affections of those closest to us by subscribing to a heightened self-objectification for an approving albeit amorphous public, and a recurring effort to win acceptance of our own self-displacement. Consider the public debate on the ubiquitous “selfie stick,” and you’ll see what DeYoung has in mind. Recently banned from major theme parks, selfie sticks are two-foot long rods that attach to iPhones and like devices, and are held aloft from the person repeatedly snapping their own image.

[9] The weekend I read DeYoung’s text, my daughter and I took a hike in the Cascade Mountains. We had just ascended the top of a small peak when a group of apparent friends tromped to the top of the mountain toward us. Selfie sticks unsheathed, they proceeded to snap their images in quiet adoration, uploaded the images to the cloud for sharing, and paced back down the same hill. Is this a case of the superfluous activity DeYoung has in mind, unaware of the grandeur of the vista on the horizon before them? A bald eagle crossed the ridge line, banked, and vanished below. DeYoung has a point about vainglory; there is something lamentable in how such a vacuous vice takes up so much space in the world.

[10] DeYoung’s text and thoughtfully constructed arguments, are applicable and accessible to a general audience, but the book speaks directly to those who stand within and value the Christian moral tradition. Ultimately, this latter group is the most immediate audience to whom DeYoung is aspiring to start a conversation. The last two chapters, which explore remedy and community, also ask whether vainglory is a “crossover” vice, capable of being seen as corrosive even to those whose value systems do not include a Christological or theocentric commitment, but who nevertheless care about authenticity, autonomy and gratitude. Her response to this question reveals an author who is committed to public theology in the constructive lineage of David Tracy’s call for theological revisionism, or Ricoeur’s philosophical examination of solidarity in Oneself as Another, or Wendy Farley’s reconfiguration of theodicy in Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion. This is a text within the guild of Christian ethics that seeks a hearing in a wider public and to a general readership who care about how the past informs the present.

Michael Reid Trice

Michael Reid Trice, Ph.D, is Assistant Dean of Ecumenical and Religious Dialogue and Assistant Professor of Ethics and Constructive Theology at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry.