The Seven Deadly Sins: Vanity

This post is the second in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

In his depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins, Hieronymus Bosch gets pride — and by extension, vanity — exactly right.  A woman stands at the wardrobe fixing her veil.  Her rosary seems to lie unused on the floor, because she esteems herself as not needing divine help.  Most damning of all, it is a demon (similarly veiled) that holds the mirror facilitating her self-focus.  Rightly did Chesterton quip that “the wickedest work in this world is symbolized not by a wine glass but by a looking-glass.”

Boschpride

Most lists of the Seven Deadly Sins have pride as the first.  However, Saint Thomas Aquinas, following the lead of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, regarded pride not as one of the seven proper but as a more general vice animating the others. In its place vanity heads the top of the list.  The two vices look a lot alike.  Precisely because vanity is the first of its seven lieutenants, it bears a great resemblance to pride.  So to get a handle on vanity, we should first take a look at pride.

Pride is the inordinate desire for excellence — “the appetite for excellence in excess of right reason,” Thomas says.  Notice: we are supposed to desire excellence. God has created us for it.  Problem is, pride twists this desire out of shape.  Thus Satan desired to have his greatness independent of God.  Adam and Eve tried to become like God on their own terms.  Wanting to be like God was not the problem, but the grasping for it themselves.  “Pride imitates God inordinately,” says Saint Augustine.   Pride is thus also an inordinate esteem of oneself — inordinate because contrary to the truth.  “Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making the truth the test,” Chesterton said.

The antidote to pride is humility, which is not so much a lowly estimation of oneself as an honest one, in accord with the truth.  The humble man still desires excellence, as he ought.  But he does so with a realistic understanding of his limitations, flaws, and absolute need for divine assistance.  He knows how to put down the mirror and pick up the rosary.  God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Jas 4:6).  He resists the proud because they want everything without Him.  He gives grace to the humble because…well, because they allow Him to.

Now the first vice to proceed from pride is vanity.  It is really the outward manifestation of pride’s interior rot.  Geoffrey Chaucer saw them as two expressions of pride: “one of them is within the heart of man and the other is without.”  If pride is the inordinate estimation of oneself intellectually, vanity is the inordinate desire for external glory.

Again, an inordinate desire.  It is not wrong to desire glory. There would be something wrong with an athlete who did not long for the glory that comes from sports.  And something wrong with the Christian who does not desire the glory that God has bestowed and promised.  Vanity, however, is the redirection of this good desire to empty – vain – things.  It leads us to desire the wrong kind of glory (e.g. mere human praise) or to desire it wrongly (e.g. when we do not deserve it). The Greek word for “vanity” literally means “empty glory.”  For that is precisely what the vain person does: he hankers after praise and glory that is passing and therefore empty.

Thus the vain person views all reality through the lens of self-promotion.  He worries about how he appears to others, what they think, what they say about him, and so on.  He lives not his own life but a life chained to the world’s approval.  Vanity enslaves us to human respect (What will they say?) and leads to the little (or not so little) lies we tell to look good. It is not a new vice, of course, but our technological culture seems to multiply its opportunities.  How often do we chase after the empty glory that social media promises? How often do we fall into the immodesty that it makes possible?

Vanity can distort even the spiritual life.  It can twist prayer from contemplation and praise of Him to simply thinking about ourselves in His presence.  And that excessive focus on our sinfulness to the neglect of God’s mercy…it might masquerade as humility, but it is really another work of vanity, another way of turning things back to…ourselves.

One virtue that battles against vanity is modesty – which seeks proper decorum and comportment, and keeps us from pushing ourselves forward, calling attention to ourselves, and seeking counterfeit glory.  But the virtue that really counters vanity’s influence is magnanimity – the “greatness of soul” that prompts us to desire great things in virtue.  Magnanimity seeks the glory for which we are created.  Vanity settles for false honors and empty glory, for the praises and accolades of this world, for the applause of the crowd today that means nothing tomorrow.  Magnanimity strives after the greatness promised us.  In this way, magnanimity keeps our natural instinct for glory on the right path, directing it to the One Who alone bestows true glory.

Next week: envy