The Passions: Vainglory and Pride

Proverbs 11:2 – When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.

Proverbs 16:18 – Pride goes before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the famous Greek storyteller Aesop told the following parable:

Two roosters were fiercely fighting for the mastery of the farmyard.  One at last put the other to flight.  The vanquished rooster skulked away and hid himself in a quiet corner, while the conqueror, flying up to a high wall, flapped his wings and crowed exultingly with all his might.  An Eagle sailing through the air pounced upon him and carried him off in his talons.  The vanquished rooster immediately came out of his corner, and ruled henceforth with undisputed mastery.  The moral of the story? Pride goes before destruction

Love has space to grow within us only as each of us learns to recognize and root out the passions within us.  The ancient Christian monastics in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries believed the eight passions to be eight terrible temptations.  They were obsessive emotions, attitudes, and desires that the earliest Christians believed blind us in our dealings with God, each other, and ourselves.  Roberta Bondi in her book, To Love as God Loves, says the passions are deadly because they pervert perfectly good and useful impulses which take away our freedom to love.

Today, we take a look at the last two Passions outlined by Evagrius of Pontus in the 4th century AD: Vainglory and Pride.

First, let’s take a look at Vainglory:  Vainglory is defined as “liking praise or recognition, or needing to be liked so much that our actions are determined by our need.”  People who suffer from Vainglory seek admiration from others instead of love of God and their fellow human beings.  This admiration becomes the goal of their lives.  You can probably see why Vainglory can blind us or get in the way of love, but why is it so deadly?  Vainglory leads us to believe that whatever your skills, it is essentially yourself you are selling to others.

Bondi points out that vainglory is a special passion for ministers and priests and teachers, and anyone else whose self-identity is bound up in the idea of service. It is deceptively easy to confuse being liked with having done a good job.  I meet ministers all the time whose really believe their effectiveness is directly related to whether or not people in their church actually like them. This is one derivation of vainglory.  Vainglory is at the root of a lot of burn-out as the desire for approval replaces everything – goals of your work, love of family, etc.; certainly an enormous amount of self-deception, and hence blindness, stem from vainglory.

Pride is the last of Evagrius’s eight passions. I always thought of pride as the overvaluing of myself.  I remember when my first District Superintendent introduced me to my first Bishop (Richard Looney) for the first time in my first one-on-one meeting with him, the DS said, “This is John Stephens.  He is a very talented young man and he is very proud of his humility.”  They both laughed and I laughed, then I thought – I don’t think that was a compliment.

The early monastics believed pride to be the inverse of humility. Rather than an overvaluing of self, pride manifests itself as a devaluing of others as we compare ourselves to those around us. In modern terms, it makes up an important part of envy. Its essential quality is not found in having too high an opinion of oneself so much as too low an opinion of everyone else.  Self-righteousness is one of its more obnoxious characteristics, as its sufferer looks around to make sure the people around her or him are as good as they ought to be.

One last fable today from Aesop:

There was a peacock who was very proud of his long and colorful feathers. One day he saw a crane and approaching and said, “Look, what splendid tail I have got. All the color of the rainbow are there. And your feathers, how dull and drab they are!”  Saying so the peacock spread his bright tail into a fan and began to dance. The crane saw it all and smiled. He knew that the peacock was trying to impress him in vain  Then the crane spread his large grey wings and began to fly off saying, “well Mr. Peacock follow me if you can in the skies”   The peacock remained earth bound and couldn’t fly. The crane rose high into the sky and was gone beyond the horizon in no time.

The Moral of the Story: Vainglory and Pride Blossom Bright But They Never Bear

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