Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us.
Thus from Mary Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is not a helpful distinction for the conversation into which she interjects it, but it is a true one.
Vanity VS Pride
Someone asked me whether, in my last post, I confused pride and vanity. I don’t think so, though I see why it might have seemed that way. Pride and vanity look similar from the outside, but inside, they are completely different. The insecurities and motives of each vice make them nearly impossible for one person to feel at the same time. Let’s look at vanity first.
Alcibiades and vanity
Alcibiades was a beloved pupil of Socrates, a favorite son of Athens, and an infamous betrayer of many peoples.
His conduct displayed many great inconsistencies and variations, not unnaturally, in accordance with the many and wonderful vicissitudes of his fortunes; but among the many strong passions of his real character, the one most prevailing of all was his ambition and desire of superiority.
~Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades
From this quote, we might not be able to pin-point whether Alcibiades exhibited vanity or pride. Ambition and the desire to be superior are symptoms of both. But the key is the first part: “great inconsistencies and variations”.
Alcibiades was motivated by vanity. He was beautiful, brilliant, and brave, and he spoke with the cutest lisp you could imagine. His greatness was recognized from when he was young, and everyone wanted to gain his favor. How could he resist all the presents and flattery offered by the greatest men of the age?
Socrates the philosopher also saw his greatness, but he tried to pull Alcibiades away from thinking of it. Socrates saw that, by concentrating on himself, Alcibiades would never use his talents to their full potential. His young friend would be ruined by the distractions of those shallower than himself.
Unfortunately, Socrates could not cure Alcibiades of the idea that his self-worth lay in attracting as many people to himself as possible. He wasn’t happy until everyone loved him, or seemed to love him. He couldn’t see himself as good unless everyone around him was repeating it to him.
His downfall lay in that vanity. When his own people turned from him, he betrayed them to their enemies. When those enemies weren’t as fawning as he’d hoped, he betrayed them, too. This motivation for the praise and good opinion of others made him do evil things. And that is why vanity cannot make us happy.
Alexander and pride
Alexander was in a better state to avoid vanity; literally a better state. Athens was an direct democracy, where the opinions of others could either bring you into the highest type of success or banish you from the city. Macedon, on the other hand, was a monarchy, and Alexander was the crown prince. His opinion was one of the few that mattered.
When Alexander showed potential for greatness, his father King Philip brought Aristotle to teach him. He learned everything of the intellectual life, at the side of one of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. He came to the ways of a truly rational human being, and he thrived in them. He saw how much better it made him than other people. And so pride grew.
Pride places your own opinions, especially your opinions about yourself, above those of anyone else. As we heard from Thomas Aquinas in the last post, pride is the “inordinate desire of one’s own excellence”. Many of Plutarch’s anecdotes show that Alexander measured himself, not by the opinions of others, but by what he believed a virtuous man would do. Since he wished to see himself as virtuous, he did nothing that he would consider base:
But Alexander, esteeming it more kingly to govern himself than to conquer his enemies, sought no intimacy with any one of them [captive women], nor indeed with any other women before marriage, except Barsine.
~Plutarch’s Life of Alexander
While it is a step towards virtue and one’s own excellence, the proud man ultimately places all judgment in himself. As we saw last week, pride leads to a complete condemnation of love. It’s a situation to be pitied.
Both vanity and pride stem from the same insecurity: that we are not worthy of love. We all want something tangible by which we can measure our self-worth. If it’s measurable, we think we’ve found a way to control it. The difference between these two vices is where we might place that worth.
As we saw with Alcibiades, the vain person places his self-worth in what others think of him. That is how the vice of vanity is related to the adjective “vain” meaning “useless”. It is useless to care excessively about what others think of us. In the end, we can’t control what they think, and vanity locks us into a cycle of trying to please everyone, which, we all profess, we can’t do. So we end up dissatisfied with ourselves, and we blame the world.
Like Alexander, when we are proud, we place our self-worth in our own opinion of ourselves. We have high, often noble ideals which we expect ourselves to live up to. Because we are so great, we reason that the ideals ought to be completely obtainable. When the world proves we can’t reach them, nothing will satisfy.
Which brings us to last week’s post: How do vain people and prideful people differ where love is concerned?
When a vain person is sad, he wants people to tell him he is loved. That other people think well of him.
When a proud person is sad, he usually finds that love isn’t enough. He wants to know he’s lovable, that he’s worthy of love. Whether he gets the love he deserves or not depends on the people around him, and that doesn’t concern him as much. Just so long as he can believe he deserves it.
Where Alcibiades would cater to his admirers, Alexander would disdain them. Alcibiades was a chameleon, changing who he was and how he acted to better please the crowd. Alexander, on the other hand, had his own ideas of how to be. He wanted to be worthy of love, but in the end that meant he didn’t accept the love of others.
If they loved him, it was probably for the wrong reason anyways, since they were all comparatively bad judges of character. If they didn’t love him, it showed how unworthy they were of his notice. He saw himself as the best of men, closest to achieving his ideals. Since he was most worthy of love, he made himself the measure of all other men.
16 thoughts on “Vanity VS Pride”
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I really enjoyed reading this. I was reading it because I was taking another look at the ‘seven heavenly virtues’ and the ‘sins’ that oppose them.
I’ve read that the idea is that one should focus practicing the virtues or will be consumed by the opposing sin.
The virtues/sins are also ranked with pride being the worst/costliest and its opposing virtue, humility, is the most lofty/important. So, I was curious how/where vanity fit into all of this. I wondered if vanity was more about coveting or jealousy or greed or is it pride? And especially, my personal question was, is it vanity if one engages in it because they are sure they will not be liked or is vanity only narcissism? In the context of your thoughts coming from Alcibiades and Alexander, I feel that I got a decent answer to think about. But now I wonder how one changes—and is humility the antidote for both vanity and pride? Is it tragic and there’s no solution for Alexander? I guess I’m wondering what is the value for someone like Alexander. What if his knowledge really is the best? Is the point to be liked? To get into ‘heaven’? It sounds like it’s to not live a pitiful loveless life. But what if one identifies as an unloved orphan? Is being humble the miracle treatment that will lead to love from others? These are the questions the above got me asking myself. And what is being humble anyway in the context of someone like Alexander?
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Thanks so much for the great questions! You’ve had me thinking. I want to answer them more particularly tonight, but in the meantime, here’s a post you inspired. 🙂 Thanks!
It is interesting… Humility is certainly the virtue that keeps pride in check. I’m not sure what the opposite of vanity would be. In some ways I want to say simplicity. Purity of motives. Concentrating on doing good things for their own sake rather than for the sake of looking good.. Developing that virtue will force us to think less of the opinions of others and more about what is good in itself.
As gratitude helps with pride, so I think charity would help with vanity. Some people will never think well of us no matter what we do. Being kind to them is a huge challenge, but it will ensure that we act well out of love rather than a desire to be loved. (I really have a harder time thinking about vanity, but your question has given me some insight. So thanks! I’ll be thinking about it more!)
Your questions about Alexander are hard. Humility is a challenge for me, and I’m still working out the kinks. One thing that it’s got me wondering (an idea I’m still developing) is whether humility is a virtue in a natural sense. I am starting to see how desirable humility is when heaven is our goal–it is the only way to accept the love and gifts God is trying to give us–but it’s much harder to desire humility in a more natural context like Alexander’s.
I’m not sure, but I think it’s true that pride can only be broken if you desire humility. You have to see it’s goodness and beauty… at least I did. Once I saw that humility could make me a truly better person, it was easier to find ways to break through pride. But it is difficult to get anywhere until you see that; if you believe your standards to be the best they can be (which is what pride is), and you don’t desire humility, nothing is going to help you get there.
So what could make humility desirable to someone like Alexander? One of the biggest pieces for me was getting to know someone whose humility inspired me. I received that humble friendship with reverence, and I marveled at how much closer we could be because of humility and vulnerability.
It makes sense; human beings are, in some sense, relational. Pride clogs up relationships with judgment. Humility frees us to accept each gift of friendship, and to respond to it with love and friendship of our own.
So I’m not sure whether humility will magically make other people love us. But it will enable us to appreciate what love is offered already, both from God and from those around us. And it will help us accept more love when it comes our way.
In Alexander, a person educated and raised to hold standards that really were better than almost anyone around him, what would humility look like? I guess a natural version of the virtue would be a willingness to always question your standards. It is an openness to virtues such as humility and vulnerability and weakness, things that, at first glance, would never be desirable. Pride made Alexander too sure of his own standards. Humility would make him constantly check his standards to be sure they were pointing up, not down.
That’s the best I’ve got so far. Does it help?
Yes, thank you very much! On “whether humility is a virtue in a natural sense, I think it is with respect to community/sociality. It’s taboo in all cultures around the world for any individual to desire to be the best and then have expectations that others cheer it. Achievement/contribution is supposed to be toward the tribe. What might not be natural is the individualism-come-loneliness that so many face in modern times, which makes the expectation that we achieve, an expectation both by others and from ourselves that makes ‘achieving’ perhaps even easier, yet harder to achieve toward the tribe i.e. it may be our modern, lonely existences that lead to achievement only for self, which creates the pride.
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Thanks for your posts. It’s always great to know where to find help in understanding grand concepts on a relatable level.
Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
All well said, and yet: Aren’t we all proud and vain (agreed: Some more, some less)? After all, don’t we all ultimately like and fall in love with people who seem to like us and who ARE like us? When I ask my siblings and friends why they fell in love with their partners they all invariably tell me sth along these lines: I realized he liked me and I started developing strong feelings for x in return! See? Being liked / feeling flattered was the turning point and basis of their ‘loving’ feelings! Isn’t it absurd to think that you are in love with sb when, in truth, you are in love with your own vanity (I.e. The blissful feeling of being adored)??? Shouldn’t love be about loving SOMEONE ELSE instead, for the qualities THEY possess, as opposed to the way they make YOU feel??? Honestly, I think Vanity, pride or both are sth we all need to put up with, nobody’s exempt. At least, some are self-aware.