• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Magnanimity

Magnanimity, in rather the modern than the classical sense, is a virtue to which we’ve grown unaccustomed. It’s a virtue, long sought though seldom attained, of which, these days, the people have no deep knowledge, and the politicians, no real use.


Neither citizen nor elected official, private man nor public actor, shows the least interest in the utility of its cultivation, the fragrance of its sense, or the beauty of its use. None awaits, as he doubtless should, the generous fruits to which, eventually, so fertile but slow-growing a virtue gives birth. None is so patient as to bide his time and feel, at last, the bounty of this word’s spirit fill the latitude of his life. A plant whose pedals are at first unforthcoming, all are impatient of its delicate growth. None suffers quietly the obstinacy of its bloom, and most seek other pastures for readier crops.


Too often, instead, magnanimity is abandoned in the helplessness of its infancy, the germinal state out of which, without daily attention and solicitous care, it can’t hope fully to sprout and gracefully to mature.


Frustrated by so fruitless a situation, and convinced that fine virtues are completely passé, our angry nation of gardeners go about the frenzied business to which, with a crazed momentum, they’re blindly committed. They sow with bitterness their petty, dark fields and expect a swift bounty to greet them in return. They tend to their small plots, drawn by the shrinking boundaries of enmity and bias, beneath which acrid soil rests, and vitriol rumbles. When eventually the time for harvest arrives, they reap the empty vices by which their hungry souls will be little contented, and even less adequately nourished and sustained.


As I mentioned above, I speak not of magnanimity in the classical sense, or that to which, in his great Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle so long ago introduced us. When compared with our own, the Stagirite’s understanding of the word was quite different and somewhat startling. Literally, in his thinking, to be magnanimous was to be possessed of a “great soul” or distinguished by an enlarged psyche. It was elegantly to bifurcate, at no point other than the famous “golden mean” of which he was so persistent in reminding us, the two undesirable alternatives toward which one might errantly list: pusillanimity on the one side, and vanity on the other.


As a student of Plato, Aristotle wasn’t one lightly to treat of the soul, or to dismiss the ethereal notion as some kind of sophistic, imaginary whim with which to entertain a paying audience, or divert a credulous crowd. Rather, he held the soul in a place of relentless philosophical scrutiny and profound moral esteem. After all of his biological inquiries, his cosmological meditations, and the experiments in physics by which his fleeting hours were consumed, he returned to his study of the soul at the close of every day. For him, the soul’s perfection was a man’s highest aim, a goal from which it would be not only an act of grave unwisdom, but indefensible impiety to stray.


In the current age, a time over which coarse materialism reigns and spiritless tedium is ascendant, we no longer regard very highly the soul. Indeed, we’ve almost fully reversed the order of Plato’s priorities with which, despite their glaring points of departure, Aristotle generally concurred. Plato held nothing to be so contemptible as the body, of whose mere existence, he was only grudgingly convinced. He satisfied himself, instead, with an exuberant reverence for the unseen and immortal spirit, that gossamer entity in which all reality ultimately rested.


In our own epoch, one as innocent of philosophy as uninterested in introspection, the reversal of this relationship is all but complete. The soul, for most of us, exists nowhere outside the imagination, a realm encompassed by a narrowing fence. Every day, it suffers a diminution in scope, while the genius of humanity lessens the length of its reach.


Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, given our small conception of the spirit and our general repudiation of the sanctity of the soul, that magnanimity isn’t a virtue toward which we’re easily inclined.


Fortunately for us, the amended and updated definition of the term, magnanimous is better able to accommodate the blinkered narrowness of our modern view. We needn’t bother ourselves with attaining to so grand a sublimity and so wide a perspective as that employed by Plato and bequeathed to his brilliant alumnus, Aristotle. We need not even accept the reality of the soul and the natural superiority it enjoys over the earth-bound body to move closer to an understanding of magnanimity in the current age.


Magnanimity, once shorn of all that ineffable talk of “soul”, might be defined less poetically as follows: it is, overall, a resistance to pettiness—to all things base, vulgar, contemptible, shallow, and mean. It’s a refusal to deign to those low, crude, and sordid things to which a loftier spirit would never in its wildest dreams stoop. It’s the maintenance, despite the howling winds and changing opinions often felt at so distant a height, of an elevated, confident, and towering posture, an erect and tall stance around which not even an entire legion of Lilliputians could succeed in tossing a rope.


It’s not only a hushed willingness to forgive the offenses of another, often lower person from whom, perhaps, an injury was administered or an insult uttered. No—more than that, it’s an ardent eagerness to overlook each and every one of said opponent’s churlish misdeeds. It relishes nothing more than doing so, and is always eager to offer its forgiveness at the drop of a hat. It resents not its peccant neighbor (and the many other, yet unnamed sins for which he’s doubtless responsible!) for resentment is ugly and unbecoming of grandeur. Resentment is but a folly of the passions, and magnanimity admits only of elegance and reason. While the magnanimous person’s memory might be long, his forgiveness is swift, and his grace, avid.


He treats as equal all those by whom he’s surrounded, even while believing in the superiority of his own worth. He thinks himself inimitable, and can think of no evidence by which so fine an intuition might be disproved. Yet, that said, he’ll never flatter himself, hawk his own value, nor raise his esteem at the cost of debasing that of a friend. He’ll never alienate the common fellow with whom, one day to the next, he so delights in conversing, in whose society he finds such boundless and constant pleasure.


Admittedly, he has the mind of an aristocrat—sober, dignified, equanimous, and pure—but the heart of a democrat. The former is a sturdily-built house of genius and the latter, a cozy and crackling hearth. It’s a fluttering organ by which, like all his fellow men, a common form is enlivened and a shared body warmed. In him, inter-breeding has reached its apogee. He is, in a word, a mixed constitution—a being in which the diverse polities gladly intermix.


The greatness of which, in his own right, he’s completely assured permits the goodness with which he treats all other people. Magnanimity bestows this gift of “good treatment” with very little discrimination, and even less hesitation, and asks in return for neither recognition, fealty, nor applause. With an open hand, it dispenses with goodness, simply because it’s a great thing to do. It is, in a word, great because it’s good, and it works without rest to elevate others to a similarly lofty standard.


Magnanimity, I think, is all of these things and, as one might expect, more. So great a term, after all, is never wanting for examples. It is, among so many other things, the tacit nobility that one evinces in a glance, and a single glance alone. So brief but comprehensive a look need not be further explained. Neither discussion nor debate need follow such an ethereal and unspoken truth. One voiceless look at such a noble person, one mute observation of such a tranquil mien, and the great feature loudly declares itself. No intermediary is needed, for the message is direct and clearly grasped.


Magnanimity communicates itself in silence. It can be read on the face, but never felt on the ear. It announces itself, rather, by the way in which the chin is worn—that most revealing appendage by which the face is adorned. As is customary of all souls, however—be they great or small—magnanimity is mostly detected in the eyes. They be the windows, after all, behind which our essence lingers. One sees in a set of magnanimous eyes refulgence and depth, luminosity and meaning.


Finally, the magnanimous character is distinguished, perhaps most of all, by a generosity of mind. What do I mean by so cloudy yet sweet a phrase? What message hides behind so dulcet a string of words? I mean, above all, a liberality of decorum, a breadth of acceptance, a latitude of opinion, a tolerance of shortcomings, a hospitality to diversity, a joy of intercourse, a delight in exchange, a celerity to understanding, an avidity to forgiveness, and a charity of spirit that welcomes, with lenience, all types of emotions and embraces, with empathy, every kind of feeling to which our brethren might give voice, of which ungenerous minds would be intolerant.


The generous mind, its opposite, would do no such thing. It alone can make a heaven of hell, though never the reverse. Great souls, after all, deserve Empyrean residency; to the damp shades of Tartarus, they’ll never descend. That, we know, is the place in which pusillanimity rests, and the domain over which proud vanity is king.


Let us not follow these mean qualities to that cold underworld, that dark place where animosity and pettiness linger, and grudges and imprecations shower. Let us not degrade and lower, but love and exalt ourselves in such a way as to be in agreement with the potential greatness of our soul. Greatness, after all, is the only size with which our spirit feels comfortable—so large is its magnitude, and so broad its width. Let us endeavor, in all ways, to traverse so immeasurable a vista, and delight in the flowers we pluck along the way.

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