Do you worry over what others think of you? Do you sometimes say or do things to draw attention to yourself? Do you replay conversations in your mind, wondering if you left the right impression? If so, you might be struggling with the vice known as vainglory.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “glory” denotes someone’s excellence being known and approved by others. He explains that there is nothing wrong with others recognizing our good qualities and deeds. In fact, seeking to live in a way that inspires others to give glory to God and to pursue a more virtuous life is good. Jesus Himself said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”(Mt. 5:16).
However, seeking human praise for its own sake is sinful. Such a person wants glory for himself more than he wants glory for God. He wants to receive the praise of men, which is a vain glory that is empty, fickle, and often off the mark. Aquinas explains that the glory we seek can be vain in one of three ways.
Symptoms of Vanity
First, it is vain to seek praise for something that is not truly praiseworthy. Of course, this would include seeking praise for sinful acts. The college student, for example, who hopes to gain respect from his peers for his drunkenness, his sexual exploits, or his cheating on an exam is pursuing not true, but vain glory.
Yet even devout Christians are susceptible to this vice when they plan their lives around the standards of happiness and success set up by the world. For example, a part of us might hope to gain respect from old friends and family members for having a successful career, wearing the latest fashions, having children succeed in school, living in a nice home, etc. These are not evil pursuits in themselves, but they can distract us from pursuing Christian ideals such as charity, generosity, simplicity, and humility. If these worldly pursuits hinder us from living a truly praiseworthy life-a life of virtue and holiness-then we may be seeking the vain glory of this world more than the glory of God.
Second, it is sinful to seek glory from people whose judgment is not sound. Most of us desire the approval of our bosses, parents, spouses, or friends. And this is natural. If, however, these people do not truly understand what a good, virtuous life is, we likely will be disappointed, frustrated, or misled. To seek their recognition would be pursuing vainglory, for they are not able to judge what is truly praiseworthy. They sometimes will praise the wrong things, and they will fail to recognize what is most noble in life. They might even look down upon aspects of our Christian life. Therefore, instead of seeking the approval of worldly men, we should seek the praise of Christ-and by extension, His faithful followers who judge by His standards, not the world’s.
God’s Glory or One’s Own Glory?
Third, seeking glory is sinful if in one’s heart, one desires human praise more than God’s praise. Do we do virtuous deeds out of love for God and neighbor? Or is there a part of us wanting to be noticed and esteemed by others? For example, a parish catechist might pour her heart into her ministry partly because she loves the praise she receives from the pastor and her fellow parishioners for her good work. Similarly, Catholic parents might arrive at Mass early and train their kids to behave well during the liturgy, not just for the good of their children’s spiritual development, but also because they like the attention they receive (“What a beautiful Catholic family!”). To the extent that we do good deeds in order to draw attention to ourselves and not to God, to that extent we suffer from vainglory.
Similarly, when it comes to devotional practices, Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 6:1).
This teaching challenges us to examine how pure our motives are when we practice our faith. Do we worship God and serve the Church purely out of selfless love for God, or is there a part of us selfishly seeking to receive attention and praise from men? Often, our motives are quite mixed. We may give time and money to the parish, but is there something within us hoping that others will notice our generosity? We may take time for prayer because we love the Lord, but is there a part of us also hoping our friends, our spiritual director, or the people we serve will notice and think better of us? We may practice mortifications such as fasting, but is there a part of us wanting to appear more devout than others?
If we perform righteous deeds in order to receive human recognition, we spoil the gift we could have given to God. We might receive applause here on earth, but Jesus says we will not receive a reward in heaven. On the other hand, the soul that desires to keep his piety hidden is the one who draws down the praise of the angels and saints. The soul that prays, fasts, and makes charitable contributions out of pure love of God-without seeking human praise-is the one who will be rewarded by the heavenly Father.
A Capital Vice
According to Aquinas, vainglory is a capital vice, meaning that it is a weakness that gives birth to many other vices. When our hearts are set on gaining the praise of men, we are likely to develop several other faults along the way. For example, we may seek to win people’s attention through self promotion in our words. In conversation, we might drop certain people’s names, point out our achievements, or exaggerate our successes with the hopes of having others esteem us highly (“He must be important”). Aquinas calls this vice boasting. We also might tend to throw ourselves into the center of attention through eccentric behavior, or by being “in the know” about the latest news or gossip, or by having the latest technology. Aquinas calls this fruit of vainglory love of novelties.
Hypocrisy also is a great danger for the vain person. The Greek word translated “hypocrite” means “actor” or “pretender.”It is used in the New Testament to describe someone who, like an actor on stage, is concerned about projecting a certain character to his audience and pretending to be something he is not. Driven by his desire to receive praise from men, the hypocrite is more worried about giving the impression that he does good deeds than actually doing good deeds for their own sake.
The vain person also is more likely to fall into divisive actions in his attempt to show he is not inferior to others. Aquinas lists four such vices that breed divisiveness in one’s intellect, will, speech, and deeds. First is the intellectual vice of obstinacy: “by which a man is too much attached to his own opinion,” such that he is unwilling to accept another opinion that might be better. Second is a vice related to the will called contention, which is an unwillingness to give up one’s own will and concur with others. The third vice is related to speech and is called contention, whereby a man likes to be argumentative, or as Aquinas says, “quarrels noisily with another.” Fourth is disobedience: by which “a man refuses to carry out the command of his superiors.” Each of these smaller vices flows from the capital vice of vainglory. They support a man’s vain drive to have others think that he is superior to others.
One last point: Magnanimity (treated in last issue’s reflection) and vainglory are directly opposed to each other. The vain person is more concerned about receiving the praise of men than he is about living a truly praiseworthy life, whereas the magnanimous person seeks to do good and live an honorable life, even if he is never noticed. Such a virtuous man can be confident that even if no one on earth notices his righteous deeds, his heavenly Father sees and will reward him (see Mt. 6:4).
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 132,Art. 5.lw “If we perform righteous deeds in order to receive human recognition, we spoil the gift we could have given to God.”