In today’s Seven Deadlies session, we were talking about the sin of Pride and its near relative, Vainglory. As part of this, we read a chunk of Prudentius, and a couple of questions from Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. During the discussion of Vainglory, I mentioned that Aquinas was writing in a pre-mass media culture, and that this particular sin was ubiquitous in our 21st-C. American culture.
At this point, a student asked if entertainers were vainglorious by definition. I thought it was an interesting question, and broached the topic of the Kardashians and other folks who seem not only to want to be famous, but to do so without any remarkable merit of their own. And from there, we moved to the issue (issue-in-law?) of Kanye West. The same student said that he didn’t think Mr. West wanted to be famous as an end-in-itself (We had mentioned that accruing glory as an unsought side effect of disinterested virtuous behavior was fine, and even a plus in the very long view.). “I think he’s trying to make a change in the world,” he said.
I noted that it could be a mixed bag, and another student pointed out that one of Mr. West’s self-selected personas is “Yeezus.” (His album of the same title also contains the track “I Am A God“.) That seemed to settle things dispositively, at least as far as the class was concerned.
From there, we moved to other aspects of our culture. A lot of our students do sports, so we talked about the cultural change in regard to trash talk, and how Muhammad Ali was something of a bright line separating the attitudes of one era from that of another. And while we noted that some of the distaste for Ali’s braggadocio was undoubtedly due to the fact that he was an African-American man saying these things, some part of it was also due to the prior cultural codes of sportsmanship. (We didn’t get into the idea of those codes themselves being class-derived in important respects, but there’s only so much time in the day.) These days, we noted, while we still expect players to play for the name on the front of the jersey rather than the one on the back (an expectation seen more in the breach), we also have a much higher tolerance for trash talk and self-aggrandizement, to wit, Vainglory.
“Now of course,” I said, “You might reply that if you don’t do these things, you won’t get noticed in this world.” But think back on Castle of Perseverance [which we read last week]. Mankind throws in his lot with the World for much of the play, but is that what he’s supposed to be doing? If you’re a Christian, is this the world about which you’re supposed to be worrying?” Headshakes.
Then a little later, we mentioned that Aquinas lists Praesumptio novitatum, literally “presumption of novelties”, but translated in our text as eccentricity, as a daughter sin of Vainglory. The desire to be the most fashionable, the desire to stand out and be cooler than those around you — these are modern specimens of that sin, and (as I realized in my lecture prep last night) more or less the definition of hipsterism.
So, are Williamsburg and Park Slope the new Sodom and Gomorrah? Only time will tell, I guess, but entertaining as the thought may be, what really pleased me was that for a little over an hour in a nondescript classroom in Mondoville, some kids found out that maybe the Middle Ages aren’t that far from here after all. Soli Deo Gloria… but give an assist to Aquinas.