To anyone who’s read Ayn Rand or a few other capitalistic books; you might be aware of how touchy some of us can get around the world “selfish”. Ayn Rand wrote a book even titled “The Virtue of Selfishness”. A virtue, not a vice.
Christians can have an extra disagreement with these kinds of phrases since so much Scripture is around sharing and caring. Generally thought of as the epitome of selflessness. In reference to this, I came across this passage this morning:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4
See how Paul equates “selfishness” with “empty conceit“? My other translation uses the term contentiousness, or being quarrelsome. Normally you wouldn’t see these two words being equated so I thought it worth looking up the greek words themselves.
The term Selfishness in this verse was eritheia, meaning “desire to put one’s self forward, a partisan and fractious spirit which does not disdain low arts”. The commentary available also stated that this word was only found in before New Testament times in Aristotle’s works, where it denoted “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means”. So the word means selfishness at the expense of others. Which is usually useless, as real selfishness promotes others.
Long lasting personal gain can really only be had by assisting in others. That is what capitalists refer to when they refer to “selfishness”. We certainly aren’t promoting “low arts”. Capitalism promotes selfishness in the sense a person realizes that only by helping others can he really help himself. The Baker bakes bread for others in order to make a living. The Glazier fixes the broken window of the Baker out of selfishness. Personally there isn’t really a good word to differentiate between caring selfishness and eritheia selfishness, or the desire to put yourself first at the expense of others. Selfishness is virtuous only when it is putting others first, which in an economic and spiritual sense is the epitome of selfishness. You gain wealth by serving, you get to Heaven by submitting and putting Christ first. The good works that display the Gospel in our lives are helping others over ourselves; yet in the process we help ourselves. Selfishness is a virtue, but not when it is empty conceit, or as Paul wrote “kenodoxia”.
The “empty conceit” or “contentiousness” that Paul wrote about, almost like it was equal to “selfishness” is the word kenodoxia. Which means vain glory, or empty pride. Vain opinion or error. Vain meaning useless, empty, or overrated. So how is kenodoxia like eritheia? How is empty conceit like selfishness? Isn’t eritheia really vain selfishness? It’s putting yourself forward at the expense of others, which hurts them and rarely helps you in the long wrong. But where does vain selfishness come from? Why do we act one way when it will hurt us in the long wrong? Misinformation? Lying to ourselves? I’m going to make the wide claim here that it comes from empty pride, kenodoxia. If we esteem ourselves higher than we should, we think ourselves worth more than we are, and thus probably think we are helping others more than we are. Or, if we are really egotistical, we value ourselves so highly that we think others aren’t worth the help, that only by helping ourselves at their expense is the world really being made better. Talk about a self-inflated ego, talk about being kenodoxia.
So how are they related? It seems simple, kenodoxia is referring to our mentality while eritheia refers to our actions. Acting out by putting yourself forward in a fractious, or low art manner requires a self-inflated egotistical mentality, a kenodoxia. We need to rid ourselves of our kenodoxia mentality in order to not act in such a eritheia manner.
How do we do this? Paul thinks it’s simple: “do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Simply, but others first even if you don’t understand why. Care for others first and you will be cared for. Act now, and your mentality will be fixed eventually. Don’t worry about trying to change your mentality while still acting within it. You need to act outside of it, and your mentality will follow.
Let’s say good-bye to kenodoxia, eritheia and vain selfishness and hello to selfishness and caring for others.