Magnanimity and Christianity

One of my favorite parts of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the description in IV.3 of the virtue of “pride” or, in other translations, “magnanimity.” And because I teach at The Catholic University of America, reading this section with my classes nearly always prompts a spirited debate–for, as my students assure me, pride is incompatible with Christianity.

During class, I try to stay detached and above the fray: in an introductory philosophy class, it is often better for the students to debate the question themselves than to simply listen to me lecture. Here, however, I will take a position on the issue: not only is there a place for the virtue of magnanimity within Christianity, mutatis mutandis, but Christianity actually expands the reach of the virtue, making it possible to achieve this excellence even as a so-called “ordinary” person.

What is this virtue? It is, in short, a sort of personal nobility. The virtue of magnanimity or pride is having a correct judgment of oneself as being worthy of great honors because–and this is the crucial point–one possesses all the important human virtues. Magnanimity is thus a special virtue that you can only achieve once you have achieved all the others. Aristotle describes it as “a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and is not found without them” (trans. David Ross). Being courageous or temperate is good–but having a true and correct assessment of and disposition toward the honors paid to these virtues is an additional human excellence.

For example, you would want a police officer to act bravely, to run into a burning building to save a child, as do the officers in the recent film End of Watch. Such behavior is the human excellence (virtue) that is courage. But it would also be fitting for a police officer to accept an award for his brave conduct, and also to behave with a proper level of dignity in receiving the award. You would not be impressed if a police officer were to suddenly break out into his personal version of “The Robot” or “The Dougie” onstage immediately after receiving a medal of commendation from the mayor. The officer should, rather, appear with nobility–neither abashed, nor unduly elated. That is the virtue of magnanimity.

In the Aristotelian account, the virtue manifests itself in some other intriguing ways: a desire to give help to others rather than to receive it, an openness in one’s feelings of hate and love, a refusal to engage in gossip or complaint, and so on.  Aristotle even notes that many people associate the virtue with particular behavioral characteristics: “A slow step is thought proper to the proud man, a deep voice, and a level utterance.” It is sometimes said that many of these manifestations of magnanimity are specific to Aristotle’s historical context, but I remain unconvinced by the criticism. It is noble now, as it was then, to avoid gossip, to give help readily while asking for nothing in return, to have a certain steadiness that does not allow for excess admiration or excess detestation. I’ll readily grant that one can be magnanimous without a deep voice–but only if one speaks in a higher voice naturally, and not out of excessive fear or excitement.

Many of my students, however, find little to like in the virtue of magnanimity from a Christian perspective. The magnanimous man is, as they tell me, “full of himself.” He is proud, whereas Jesus is humble and washes people’s feet. The magnanimous man doesn’t like to receive help, unlike Jesus and the mendicant religious orders in the Roman Catholic church. Jesus is nice to everyone, even nasty people, whereas the magnanimous man is open in his dislike of you . . .  if he even bothers to dislike you.

In John 12:3-8, Mary anoints Jesus with expens...

John 12:3-8 (Photo credit: Wonderlane)

However, many of these objections depend on a certain selective reading of the New Testament. A fuller reading of the Scriptures shows that Jesus is often quite open in his disdain of the Pharisees. He is willing to receive honors, to have his own feet anointed with costly oil. He gives a whole lot more help than he receives.

But all Scriptural ping-pong aside, my students have identified an important question: is it ever appropriate for a Christian to think well of himself, to be “proud”? Or, to put the question differently, did Christianity “ruin” or somehow eliminate the virtue of magnanimity? Has Christianity exposed the virtue as fraudulent, as nothing but a “splendid vice”? Is the central message of Christianity that man has no claim to any sort of pride?

Or is it rather, as I would like to suggest, that Christianity is more of a corrective of pride or magnanimity than an elimination of it? Perhaps man’s problem is not so much pride as it is inordinate pride: pride in the wrong things, in the wrong measure. For there is a new sort of “pride” made possible by what Christianity reveals about the dignity of the human person. C.S. Lewis expressed this thought in a pithy way when he once remarked that one could look up at a falling bomb and say, “Pooh! You’re only a bomb. I’m an immortal soul!” In The Weight of Glory, Lewis takes this line of thought even further, for Christianity does not just promise immortality, but more properly, divinization: the human being is, through Christ, made capable of in some way sharing in the life of God.  As Lewis puts it:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

In other words, Christianity does not cancel out the virtue of magnanimity, but rather adjusts it. Christianity, in revealing the immortality of the human person, does indeed cause perishable, earthly honors to lose some of their luster. But it also shows that every human person, merely by being a human person, is involved in a great undertaking, and could perhaps receive great honors in the future. It is good to allow an awareness of this truth to color human existence. Such an awareness of one’s nobility–a nobility given as a gift from God–is the virtue of magnanimity, renewed and perfected by grace.

I will leave you, then, with a beautiful description of magnanimity written by the theologian Jordan Aumann in his book Spiritual Theology:

“The virtue of magnanimity presupposes a noble and lofty soul. It is often described as greatness of soul or nobility of character. Magnanimous persons are a superior type of person. They are never envious, they are not rivals of others, and they do not feel humiliated or embarrassed by the good of others. They are calm and leisurely in their actions; they do not give themselves to many activities, but only to those of greater importance.

They are truthful, sincere, somewhat reserved in speech, and a loyal friend. They never lie, but they speak their mind without being concerned about the opinion of others. They are open and frank, and never imprudent or hypocritical. They are objective in their friendships, and yet do not close their eyes to the defects of their friends. They are never excessive in their admiration of other people, nor attached to anything. They look primarily to virtue and to that which is noble.

The petty affections or disagreements that cause so many difficulties in social life mean nothing to them. If they are injured by others, they quickly forget and forgive. They are not overjoyed at the praise and applause of others, nor are they saddened at the criticism they may receive from others. They do not complain about the things they lack, but they learn to do without. This virtue presupposes a high degree of perfection in the other virtues.”

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