Magnanimity and the Call to Greatness

In an earlier post, I contrasted Aristotelian pride with Confucian humility as the crown of the virtues. I also clarified that Aristotle does not advocate unjustified pride or arrogance any more than Confucius does. In describing Aristotle’s views in Nicomachean Ethics, I used Martin Ostwald’s English translation of μεγαλοψυχία (pronounced megalopsychia). While this word is typically translated into English as “magnanimity,” Ostwald prefers “high-mindedness” because the modern connotations of magnanimity don’t capture the “pride and confident self-respect” implied by the original Greek. In today’s post, I will reconsider magnanimity in the classical sense that communicates the “greatness of soul” inferred by Aristotle.

AristotleAristotle explains that a magnanimous man believes he deserves great things such as honor and respect because he really does deserve them. He is great both in the sense that he has obtained a fullness of virtue and in the sense that he possesses wealth, power, and influence. His abundant resources allow him to do much more good for others than they could do for him. While he willingly accepts legitimate honors bestowed by noble men, he has no interest in arrogantly displaying his superiority among ordinary people. In fact, he is self-effacing and unassuming among them. It is only in the presence of distinguished, influential men that he speaks openly of his accomplishments. Nonetheless, he is always more concerned with promoting truth and virtue than he is with impressing other people.

Aristotle’s magnanimous man spends his life doing extraordinary things, even risking his life when courage calls. One reason he’s capable of achieving greatness is that he does not squander his time or energy on trivial things. He never holds grudges, spreads gossip, or pays attention to small annoyances. Since he focuses his attention on the rare actions that are worthy of great honor, the magnanimous man is not in a hurry to fill his life with lesser accomplishments. He is never overly anxious or distracted by petty concerns. He is slow to act and deliberate in his choice of words.

Of course Aristotle’s ideal of magnanimity clashes a bit with our modern sensibilities. He sounds like someone who’s out of touch with reality, like a guy who has never done the dishes or mowed his front lawn. But before we reject such an ideal altogether, let’s consider how we might adapt at least some aspects of magnanimity today.

Aristotle emphasizes that magnanimity (or high-mindedness) is the golden mean between vanity and small-mindedness. While the vain man desires greater praise and recognition than he deserves, the small-minded man turns away from honors that he genuinely merits. Even worse, however, is the tendency of the small-minded man to shun wealth and power and to avoid performing noble deeds because he doesn’t consider himself worthy.

Surprisingly, Aristotle suggests that small-mindedness is a worse vice than vanity and that it’s much more common. When I examine my own character flaws, I’m usually more aware of my vanity. I care too much about what other people think of me. But as I reflect more honestly, I recognize that one of my biggest concerns is that I don’t want to come across as vain and prideful. If I’m honest with myself, this tendency to appear less than what I am (in order to impress others with my modesty), is often displayed as false humility or small-mindedness.

It seems evident that small-mindedness can prevent us from responding to the call to greatness. Each one of us possesses unique gifts that we’re capable of developing in the service of others. These gifts constitute our personal call to greatness or to magnanimity. We ought to strive for nothing more and nothing less. If I pretend that I am called to someone else’s greatness, to someone else’s honor, I’m vain. But if I for any reason refuse to accept my personal call to greatness (and the honors associated with this call), I’m suffering from a debilitating form of small-mindedness.

One of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s favorite themes is that each individual must discover and embrace his or her personal calling in life. Each person “has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion…. He inclines to do something which is easy to him, and good when it is done, but which no other man can do. He has no rival. For the more truly he consults his own powers, the more difference will his work exhibit from the work of any other. His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers.…Every man has this call of the power to do some[thing] unique, and no man has any other call….”

When we find the courage to respond to our personal call to greatness, we’re capable of achieving magnanimity. Because we’re no longer competing with someone else’s greatness or for someone else’s honor, we’re free to pursue our own path with less anxiety, less vanity, and well-deserved praise.