“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” This comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it articulates what results man achieves by his works.
Pride, a vexing sin to all mankind, is fascinating. Like a shapeshifter it is capable of changing shape and size to fit the occasion, and comes in various strains.
In this article, we’re looking at one of it’s subtler forms, so subtle that many who fall under it’s spell are unaware of anything wrong. Unlike Hubris, when Pride reaches critical mass, Vanity is smaller and daintier with fewer people seeing it as a “real sin.”
Despite it’s foppish and friendly appearance, Vanity is a starting point down the road of haughty destruction. Vanity defined, is an emptiness or shallowness of meaning, and implies being proud of trifling and empty things.
The danger of the Vanity sin is that it truly weakens the stuffing of a man. It causes him to covet the flattery of others, purposing every action for acknowledgement and praise. The vain man requires the praise and flattery of others to feel good about himself because within he doesn’t have the true self-confidence to know his own value and self-worth.
In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Jane, the sister of Elizabeth Bennet says, “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.”
For the sake of our vanity, appeasing the desire for worth that we cannot provide ourselves, how many sins do we commit? How much wrong is done over this seemingly simple desire for recognition?
Within the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, we find these essential Vanities of life, things that we look for meaning in, to prove our worth to ourselves and the world.
And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also was striving after the wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:17-18
Knowledge is a worthy goal, the pursuit of wisdom in encouraged throughout the scriptures. Yet, we can learn everything and still miss the most important thing of all.
Universities and colleges are filled with the brightest and smartest the world has to offer. They study and gain insight into the concepts many of us couldn’t begin to comprehend. What does this merit them? When life ends, and their theories are replaced by the next brilliant philosopher what have they gained?
You can study and learn the secrets of the earth, but the earth will pass away. History is thrilling and insightful to apply to the lives of men and women today, but eventually you become a forgotten part of it. For those who realize this, who read to the end of the book, it can become depressing. It is not a question of if, but when. The most insightful of professors will, if he is honest, admit that his work will become irrelevant.
Being proud of your intellect, your wisdom, is an empty boast at the end.
Then I said to myself, ‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall to me. Why then have I been extremely wise? So I said to myself, ‘This too is vanity.’ For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die.’ Ecclesiastes 2:16-17
I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.’ And behold, it too was futility.” Ecclesiastes 2:1
It may seem odd to be proud of pleasure, but consider it. There may be some you encounter who are quite proud of not merely the folly they engage in, but the comforts they pursue in life.
There are two forms of pleasure: The first is simply the creature comforts that men strive for in life. Having the best car with leather seats, the big house with a swimming pool, a hot girlfriend who makes everyone’s heads turn. These aren’t inherently bad things, and can be the rewards of doing the right thing, but are not an end in themselves.
To find your pride, your stuffing, in what you have is the surest way to lose what matters to you most. If your identity is based on others and objects that make you comfortable and look good to others, it’s empty praise that will eventually lose luster.
It is this pleasure that softens and removes the man from man, as he becomes unable to fathom life without them.
In The Purpose of Man: Designed to Worship by AW Tozer, the author makes a poignant, if dark, observation on the pursuit of pleasure: “What does a man do when life offers him no more pleasure? Some have answered this emptiness by suicide, a tragic end of a life the never found the real purpose of existence.”
The second form of pleasure is the more aligned with Hedonism, denying yourself nothing, and enjoying whatever might satisfy your desires. This can be done without dark intent, rationalized as the reward for all your hard work.
This is readily apparent in the person who spends much of their time playing video games, while not bad alone, when they base their lives on who has the highest score in the game, or brags about how many hours they spent playing through the weekend, it is again a vanity.
This too leaves a man seeking praise for little. He tries to find honor and life that what gives him happiness and satisfaction now, but it never really fulfills him.
Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 2:18-19
Work…the vanguard of the diligent, the holy grail of our worldly virtue. From a young age we find ourselves indoctrinated to believe that if you work hard, everything else will fall into place. The advice is not bad on its own, and the Proverbs say, “A man diligent in his work shall stand before kings.” However, when that work takes a outsized portion of our lives, it becomes a problem.
Work, like anything good, can turn into a villain if not set to its proper place. When we focus our lives, our importance, our identities in something like our work we set ourselves up for disappointment and disillusion.
Our work is temporary, it is not eternal and regardless how much you do it cannot outlive you. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings is an epic piece of great fiction, but it will not outlive life. It may someday, be relegated to the same place as the Epic of Gilgamesh, an artful insightful legend that few read or remember.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “Cities Thrones and Powers” in which he compares the work of mankind’s empires to the flowers of the field. Both will eventually fall though neither acknowledges it. The final verse highlights that even as we die, we vainly presume that what we’ve done will continue.
“So Time that is o’er-kind
To all that be,
Ordains us e’en as blind,
As bold as she:
That in our very death,
And burial sure,
Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,
See how our works endure!”
Eventually we will die, leaving the results of our labors to someone else. Someone, who may be a fool and undeserving. Life may reward being hard working, but death doesn’t care.
A Literal Example
Pride and Prejudice, not only articulates and distinguishes the Pride in Mr. Darcy, but contrasts it with vanity. In the story, Vanity is embodied by the Reverend Mr. Collins, the heir of the Bennet estate and a failed suitor to Elizabeth Bennet.
Ms. Austen paints a colorful image of a man who is filled with self importance, taking Pride in things that have nothing of true merit to justify the veneration given. His description is as follows from the book:
“[M]ingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his rights as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.”
This relation of Mr. Collins is not simply as an additional foil for the characters of Ms. Austen’s story, but serves to highlight a character trait we often hold within our interactions with others.
All this being said, not every vain utterance or action seems to us as vain. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is importance and value. What we are saying seems eminently important and epochal to us, but to anyone else appears as empty as the pizza box from Friday night.
It is this, that the Preacher is getting to in Ecclesiastes. It is not that work, wisdom and pleasure are all pointless here and now, they have their place. However, they are not eternal. In the grand scheme of eternity they lack merit. Upon our death, they become devoid of any great meaning or importance we have placed upon them.
At the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher reveals the truth of the matter. The solution to our vanities, to the emptiness of life that we continue to fill with the meaningless:
The conclusion, when all has been heard is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgement, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:13-14