What is magnanimity? What the ancient philosophers can teach us about the deeper meaning of words, ethics, and the virtues

Keeping up with the Presidential race over that last few months, I get the pessimistic feeling that much of America and perhaps the entire Western world continues to erode in a sense of what are the virtues that are essential to upholding the freedom and liberties that we hold dear.  We seem to value and promote above all else elements such as wealth, presence, competence, and theatrical performance even if these values are accompanied by tremendous flaws such as lack of truthfulness, lack of self control, self-aggrandizement, and arrogance.  Many philosophers and leaders, both ancient and modern, have long argued that without some sense of morality, our experiments in relative freedom, a recent and modern phenomenon when put on a history of the world timeline replete with oppressive dictatorships and empires, will not long hold. Margaret Thatcher stated that, “…without a moral basis, such a society would not long endure.”  This was a sentiment that was shared by American founders and Presidents such as John Adams, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

The core of our values and the foundations that we lay in our educational systems seem to have descended into basic memorization and understanding of facts rather than a focused effort to build the mind and the character. If there is any attempt at defining values, virtues, and individual character, it is shibboleths of “respect and tolerance” as those that are chief among them (which can be fine things, but I believe there are far more important virtues that our children should learn and develop that truly defines character), meanwhile a significant strand of society pays lip service to these values but continues to be enamored with material success and conflates it as a proxy for virtue or leadership. Over time, I intend to write a series on what defines the various virtues, pulling on threads across multiple sources, from Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the Bible, as well as more modern philosophers who hail primarily from the classical liberal tradition most predominant in 18th and 19th Century Britain.

The idea first occurred to me recently as I was reading Aristotle’s description on magnanimity as one of his virtues in Nicomachean Ethics, a book which I would firmly place in the category of “Great Books” that I mention above. This has long been a word that I was fond of using as a more high-minded sounding word in place of generosity. The reality is that the term encompasses much more than the singular definition of generosity, a deeper meaning of which I was ignorant of until recently. It would seem that my confusion and requirement to become an autodidact to learn words and their meaning is an anecdotal  indictment on society at large – we are losing our understanding of the richness of the vocabulary that is available to us and the variety that those words afford to us to more richly describe situations through our written and verbal stories. Only the bare minimum in vocabulary, writing, and speaking skills are stressed in our education systems of today. Magnanimity is one small personal anecdote. Long one of my favorite words, I failed to understand its full measure.  Judging by the graph below, all of the English-speaking polity is also failing to understand its full value, be being completely ignorant that the word exists in the first place. I suspect that many words would fit this same trendline, and I think we have lost something valuable in society with the loss of powerful and full of meaning words. The remedy would be a broader emphasis on the part of our education systems and parenting to promote the production of good and virtuous citizens of high character and with the ability to think, write, and speak with confidence and dexterity. This would necessarily involved learning the art of high-minded thinking, greatness, approaching a problem or a belief and being able to fully write or speak to it, and striving and getting validation on how their character is developing. In this vein, learning from the Great Books would be an essential component of such an education. Whether this approach is for the secular or the spiritual realm, I believe this sort of rigor in training our children and training ourselves is warranted.


That is quite enough moralizing and lamenting on the decline of vocabulary and understanding of virtues. Now to get to the purpose of the post – the richness of the way in which Aristotle defines magnanimous as a virtue. With each virtue, Aristotle defines the optimum value as a mean between extremes. In the case of magnanimity, the deficient extreme state would be pusillanimity and the extreme positive state would be vanity. Magnanimity itself is explained as something that we might associate with being noble or high-minded. Indeed, many translations of Ethics describes this section using these terms rather than magnanimity. While generosity can be a subset of magnanimity, the two are not perfect synonyms in all occasions. Indeed, magnanimity as defined by Aristotle may be something that is far more powerful in describing a certain individual trait than generosity on its own could never achieve.  Magnanimity is one of few virtues described by Aristotle, so one would expect it to be an expansive word that encompasses some form of greatness. Indeed, the Greek word from which magnanimity comes from is megalopsucheia, which translates into ‘‘greatness of soul.” This inherently includes great generosity as one plank, but it is also covers such issues as how one responds to honors and praise and how one grants honors and praise. In this sense, a magnanimous person willingly accepts honors from their fellow-man and bestows them with matters that are in fact great, magnificent, and truly worthy of honor and praise. One might say that a magnanimous person is even somewhat driven by achievement in great things, and does not eschew honor as a motivation for doing so.

However, the magnanimous person is not concerned with petty matters, whether it be petty honors and praise (flattery), petty gossip, or revenge for petty wrongs done. The magnanimous person is somewhat above it all and quick to forgive. The magnanimous person is quick to assist one worthy of receiving assistance, but reluctant to ask for favors (where the generosity synonym likely derives from). The magnanimous person is honest in all matters, hiding nothing, as he is not concerned that being too honest might actually harm them in some way. The magnanimous person does not covet admiration of others but in turn does not admire much, save the truly great and magnificent.

There are other essential elements that Aristotle discusses, but the point is that this is far more expansive than a singular meaning of generosity. In fact, one may perceive some form of internal conflict and think that this definition of magnanimous steers disconcertingly far away from what we tend to correlate with generosity, which is the virtue of humility. One modern translation of Ethics, Terence Irwin, highlights this potential discord in his notes and even discusses that many Christians are uncomfortable with Aristotle’s description and find it antithetical to humility.  Echoing Irwin’s sentiments, these two virtues (humility and magnanimity) are not out of alignment in my view. Recall that the magnanimous person only receives honors that are truly worthy. Likewise, he gives honor and praise when it is deserved. If anything, the magnanimous person gladly accepts honors for a great action, fully recognizing that great actions are performed every so often in one’s lifetime, but otherwise is aloof and unconcerned with others’ praise. It is the vain person that seeks honor and praise for petty accomplishments. To further distinguish and define the essence of humility, I will echo C.S. Lewis that humility is not thinking less of oneself, but thinking less often or not entirely about oneself. Given that this definition provides plenty of scope for greatness and honor without veering into vanity, I believe that these virtues can live together in one great soul.

A bit of background context on Nicomachean Ethics is that it is essentially a quest to find the essence of human meaning, which he defines as achieving a form of happiness. However, this is not the hedonistic happiness we would associate the word with today, but more a form of achieving a fine life full of virtue that is worthy of living.  Much of the book defines the proper way to achieve happiness is to in fact be virtuous. There are no doubt hundreds of translations, but I find the following one that is very enjoyable to read and replete with useful notes for additional context:

http://www.amazon.com/Nicomachean-Ethics-Aristotle/dp/0872204642/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445982542&sr=8-1&keywords=Nicomachean+Ethics Th

The book concepts are paralleled in the thoughts of Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments in which a central theme is that man desires to be esteemed and loved by his fellow-man, and that virtuous conduct is the surest way to win fellow-man’s esteem and love. In Plato’s Republic, a key critical concept is that leaders of society should be trained in the virtues in order to develop outstanding character and that only the truly great characters are fit to lead a society. I hope to draw on many of these texts and this theme in the near future as I discuss other virtues as well as apply them to the Presidential candidates.


2 thoughts on “What is magnanimity? What the ancient philosophers can teach us about the deeper meaning of words, ethics, and the virtues

  1. Pingback: The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis – Modern Education and the Creation of “Men Without Chests” – The Gymnasium

  2. Bruce McClelland

    According to Hoover scholar, Victor Davis Hansen, a magnanimous warrior spared the life of a enemy after having the ability to kill, or disable his enemy. Hansen feels this is the true origin of the word magnanimity. Is his definition in any way at odds with your definition which seems to rely on a more modern, kindler gentler, contemporary definition? After all, in the age of Aristotle history was one of war and many philosophical terms developed by those great philosophers related to war. Any thoughts?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s