We recently had the chance to talk with Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung about her Brazos book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College where she has taught ethics and the history of ancient and medieval philosophy for fifteen years. She specializes in research on the seven deadly sins and spiritual formation. Her books include Glittering Vices (Brazos Press, 2009), Aquinas’s Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), and a book on vainglory, forthcoming from Eerdmans in 2014. She has published other articles on virtue and vice in the Thomist, ACPQ, Medieval Philosophy and Theology, and Faith and Philosophy. She recently received the C. S. Lewis Book Prize from the University of St. Thomas Philosophy of Religion Project for Glittering Vices and the Character Project Book and Essay prize for her chapter on courage in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, edited by M. Austin and D. Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). She spent her recent sabbatical working hard on a book on the vice of sloth.
In today’s post, Rebecca talks about how to distinguish virtues and vices; how vice is different than sin; how vices and virtues are related to character; and what we can learn from studying the vices today.
How are virtues and vices distinguished? Is vice different than sin? How are vices and virtues related to character?
Virtues and vices are good and bad habits, the building blocks of our moral character. That means they are dispositional patterns of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and responding, rather than single acts. While “sin” can refer to a general condition (our sinful fallen condition), a bad habit, or a single evil act, “vice” is a more specific term, describing the cumulative “groove” our actions wear in us over time.
Virtue- and vice-talk also prompts us to probe the motives and ways of seeing the world lying behind our behavior, rather than just focusing on what others can see from the outside. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks us not just to avoid the outright actions of murder and adultery but to look inward to see how we are misshaped by wrath and lust. This is heart-level diagnostic work.
On this approach it’s not enough to ask, “Is this individual act wrong?” We also need to ask, “If I do this sort of thing regularly, what sort of person will I become?” The Christian project of becoming more faithful disciples means imitating Jesus’s character and patterning ours after his likeness (described, for example in Col. 3).
You’ve written that the discovery of vices in ourselves can be “not only illuminating but liberating.” What can we learn from studying the vices today?
Names help us notice and identify things. Sometimes we feel like we are struggling but can’t figure out why. Or we don’t realize how toxic something is until someone with more expertise or experience gives us a new lens for looking at ourselves or out world. To borrow a metaphor from John Cassian in the fourth century, studying the vices can be like getting a medical diagnosis. It can be a relief to know what’s wrong and what the roots of the disease are. Then, with the help of a wise physician, you’re better able to find the right medicine and the right regimens to help you regain your health.
For example, a new vice term like “vainglory” opens our eyes to the ways we are drawn into attention-seeking practices in life-distorting ways. Witness the recent rise in addictive social media and crazed celebrity culture. What needs and desires are we using these things to fill? Why are they such a dominant part of the fabric of our lives? How can we break free of excess here? The tradition can speak to these questions, and it gives us a name to point them out.The aim of this sort of self-examination and spiritual direction is ultimately positive and directed at your spiritual flourishing. We are asking, “How can I be well?” To answer that, we need to know what’s getting in the way, so we can replace unhealthy and damaging habits with healthy, life-giving ones.