Category Archives: Personal Ethics

In Search of Nobility (5): Magnanimity

This fifth post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Let’s be honest – magnanimity is just not a widely-used word these days. Coming to English from two Latin words, magna (great) and anima (soul), the word as it used to be used – in that older and more civilized age when true nobility had real value – sometimes signified a valiant character, but more literally and appropriately “great-souled.” But what does that mean?

One source puts it this way:

The lofty character portrayed in Bk. iv of the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. The great-souled man is of a distinguished situation, worthy of great things, ‘an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, but a mean in respect of the rightness of them’, perfectly virtuous, good at conferring benefits but ashamed of receiving them, neither humble nor vain. The combination involves proper pride or magnanimity.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

To cite further from Aristotle, “Now a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much; he who claims much without deserving it is foolish, but no one of moral excellence is foolish or senseless.” As always true in ethics, the Virtue comes in the middle of two Vices – which in this case are the Vice of Excess called Vanity and the Vice of Defect called False Humility.

Viewed this way, the aspect of Nobility called Magnanimity has to do with a person being worthy. But worthy of what? Again, Aristotle:

‘Worthy’ is a term of relation: it denotes having a claim to goods external to oneself. Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods, and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honor, for honor is clearly the greatest of external goods. Therefore the great-souled man is he who has the right disposition in relation to honors and disgraces.

Nicomachean Ethics IV

Cicero writes that the magnanimous spirit is

generally seen in two things. One lies in disdain for things external, in the conviction that a man should admire, should choose, should pursue nothing except what is honorable and seemly, and should yield to no man, nor to agitation of the spirit, nor to fortune. The second thing is that you should, in the spirit I have described, do deeds which are great, certainly, but above all beneficial, and you should vigorously undertake difficult and laborious tasks which endanger both life itself and much that concerns life.

On Duties I.66

But what of those equal-and-opposite Vices, Vanity and False Humility, against which the magnanimous aspect of Nobility must always strive? Aristotle makes it clear that “honor is the prize of virtue, and the tribute that we pay to the good” and also that “greatness of soul is impossible without moral nobility” (Ethics IV).

That which our sources call magnanimity, “greatness of soul,” is manifestly not a vain or haughty desire for the accolades of others. Again, Cicero:

A true and wise greatness of spirit judges that deeds and not glory [the public accolades of others forming the basis of one’s self-estimation] are the basis of the honorableness that nature most seeks. It prefers not to seem pre-eminent but to be so: he who is carried by the foolishness of the ignorant mob should not be counted a great man”

On Duties I.65

But at the same time as greatness of soul is not vanity, it is also not false humility. For, going back to an earlier citation above, the quality of magnanimity belongs to the person who claims much because he deserves much, and, to repeat something else just recently cited, this deserving exists solely on the grounds of moral goodness. The Vice of Deficiency here, False Humility, consists in such a high degree of self-abnegation that one fails even to accept honors earned, not gratuitously or speciously offered.

This aspect of Nobility, then, magnanimity or “greatness of soul,” accomplishes, like the other aspects our definition from Webster’s 1828 mentions, the grasping, seizing, and catching of the very difficult middle ground between the sort of ungodly pride that forgets one’s place and leads to a fall and a quite different kind of pride (here = loftiness of soul) that disdains merly external praises and rewards because all it cares about is the honor which naturally attaches to a relentless quest for moral excellence.

In Search of Nobility (4): Generosity

This fourth post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Etymologically, generous is related to the Latin verb meaning “to give, beget,” and the Latin noun meaning “race, class, kind.” At one time, it was simply assumed culturally that a noble person would be a more-than-average giving person: this was just part of what it meant to be born “noble.” (Ironic, then, that today’s “noble” class – where “noble,” in that characteristically Modern cynical mode, is just a stand in for “the rich and famous,” are increasingly viewed with suspicion as greedy hoarders and manipulators, via their fantastic wealth, of the supposedly “democratic” political system.)

To again refer to Aristotle’s idea of the virtuous mean, an actually generous person would be the one who can size up a given situation and “give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time.”  Far from being some squishy-minded, possibly guilt-induced unmoderated giving, the actually generous person recognizes real needs and ensures he won’t have little to give in those circumstances because he’s already given too much in inappropriate ways.

As Aristotle puts it in Book IV of his Ethics: “In crediting people with [Generosity] their resources must be taken into account; for the [generousness] of a gift does not depend on its amount, but on the disposition of the giver, and a [generous] disposition gives according to its substance.”

Moreover, an actually generous person does not give to be noticed, to receive accolades for their philanthropy, for he does not expect anything in return for his generosity. This is most of the point: he already has far more than he himself needs, so what better, more humane way to dispose of the rest than to give to others who have real needs?

Thus does that elevation of soul Webster referenced make it possible for the noble person to rise above mere sensory reports of “needs,” determine what are and aren’t  real needs, and give appropriately to alleviate those. He “catches, seizes, holds onto” an accurate understanding of need and what he himself can properly do about it.

One may see from the careful unpacking of the terms above that nobility’s face of generosity may actually require significant adjustments of attitude and perception for those committed to various “hardline” dichotomous political perspectives.

The well-off person who give out of a sense of guilt over his excessively lavish lifestyle or out of a desire (however suppressed) to be seen giving is in no wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting “the “Vice of Excess,” specifically that of Prodigality, which consists in wasting one’s resources on ignoble pursuits, and in the process ruining one’s own soul. This is only one reason why our great Western tradition is packed full of warnings against immoderate acquisition of money and goods: such vicious activity has brought down not only vast numbers of individuals, but also whole cultures.

On the other hand, neither is the well-off person who grotesquely fantasize that his prosperity is due to his having pulled himself up by his own bootstraps – so get your lazy hands off my stuff and go get a job! – in any wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting the “Vice of Deficiency,” specifically that of Meanness, which is “fall[ing] short in giving and go[ing] to excess in getting.” Priding himself on his fantastic “work ethic,” this sort of person may, paradoxically, fall short of true nobility exactly to the degree that he is proud of his own achievements and exceedingly jealous to ensure that others do not manage to “steal” one red cent from him.

In short, the aspect of Nobility that we call generosity is, like the rest of nobility, not an easy thing to seek or find, nor, having found it, will it necessarily be easy to keep.

In Search of Nobility (3): Bravery

This third post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Having noted that the verb “comprehend” here doesn’t only mean “understand,” but something more along the lines of “to completely lay hold of, to grasp, snatch, seize, catch,” we will look at the first quality that Webster says nobility comprehends:

The classical philosopher of ethics par excellence is, of course, Aristotle, to whom, outside of the Bible, we ought to direct inquiries about virtuous qualities. Aristotle presents the idea that virtue is always a mean between extremes. The extreme on one side involves a deficiency or defect in the virtuous quality sought, while the extreme on the other side involves an excess of the virtuous quality sought. What does Aristotle tell us about bravery, the first thing that Webster says the noble elevation of soul comprehends?

For one thing, bravery is not the absence of fear. Rather, bravery is the ability to deal with fear appropriately rather than being mastered by it.

Aristotle has it that a brave man should fear the loss of his good reputation. On the other hand, not fearing poverty while one wastes his wealth is not brave at all, but just stupid. Likewise, there’s not a hint of bravery in resisting pleasurable temptations (since the prospect of pleasure doesn’t produce fear), but there is a great deal of bravery in withstanding painful circumstances to the point of achieving the final goal of Virtue. Specifically, bravery must be understood as being oriented toward justice, for as the Roman philosopher-orator Cicero put it:

“…if the loftiness of spirit that reveals itself amid danger and toil is empty of justice, if it fights not for the common safety but for its own advantages, it is a vice. It is not merely unvirtuous; it is rather a savagery which repels all civilized feelings. Therefore the Stoics define courage well when they call it the virtue which fights on behalf of fairness. For that reason, no one has won praise who has pursued the glory of courage by treachery and cunning; for nothing can be honorable from which justice is absent.”

On Duties, (I.63)

A bit later he continues:

A brave and great spirit is in general seen in two things. One lies in disdain for things external, in the conviction that a man should admire, should choose, should pursue nothing except what is honorable and seemly, and should yield to no man, nor to agitation of the spirit, nor to fortune. The second thing is that you should in the spirit I have described, do deeds which are great, certainly, but above all beneficial, and you should vigorously undertake difficult and laborious tasks which endanger both life itself and much that concerns life.

On Duties, I.66

This said, nevertheless, like Aristotle before him, Cicero holds that nobility of soul steers a middle course between recklessness and cowardice:

We must never purposely avoid danger so as to appear cowardly and fearful, yet we must avoid exposing ourselves pointlessly to risk. Nothing can be stupider than that. When confronting danger, therefore, we should copy the doctor, whose custom it is to treat mild illnesses mildly, though he is forced to apply riskier, double-edged, remedies to more serious illnesses.

On Duties, I,82

What we should take away from all of this is that the noble soul is the one that is able to grasp, seize, catch, and hold onto boldness in the face of fear where that boldness has a correct motivation, a correct manner of application, and a correct final goal.

A tall order, indeed – which is why nobility requires elevation of soul. Those who remain stuck in the immediacy of the senses can’t rise above the deliverances of those senses to attain that which is higher and more meaningful: in this case, bravery.

In Search of Nobility (2): “That Elevation of Soul Which Comprehends…”

In the introductory post I noted that nobility in our times tends to be simply identified with concepts of social hierarchy expressed in terms of titles and possessions and cultural influence. Nobility, indeed, gets represented time and again to us as inherently arbitrary and tending toward abusiveness. I concluded the post with the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary definition of nobility, which interestingly proceeds differently from modern definitions by placing the social hierarchy view in subordination to a much older and more universal definition. Namely, nobility is:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

I’d like to focus throughout the next few posts on the phrase “elevation of soul, which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnanimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.” This is a packed definition, and one that, as far as I can tell surveying the cultural wasteland in which the very idea of nobility has become a base swear word, if not a simply incomprehensible word, needs to be fleshed out.

“That Elevation of Soul…”

The classical tradition, Christian no less than pagan, holds that the human being consists of body and soul, and that soul, that which animates body, possesses a priority at least of dignity. Though Christian faith does not debase the body or life in the physical world, it nevertheless teaches that the body and life in the physical world are not to be our primary concerns. In this context, to speak of nobility as a quality involving elevation of soul conveys profound meaning.

For what exactly is the soul to be elevated above? Above, says the tradition, the temporary and changing appearances of things, which collectively try to seize control of our faculty of judgment with the immediate, seemingly undeniable perceptions of sense experience. “Looks can be deceiving,” says Lady Wisdom – but she always has to contend with Lady Sensuality’s contrary maxim “Seeing is believing.” Knowledge does begin in our sensory experiences, which is precisely why we can get so easily mired in the dictates of our senses, finding it difficult to discriminate and evaluate and prudentially interpolate.

Yet such an ability to transcend the immediate deliverances of the senses is, according to Webster, the quintessential definition of nobility.

“…Which Comprehends…”

Nobility consists of an elevation of soul “which comprehends…” – but what does that key term, “comprehend,” mean? Probably the most common connotation is “understand,” which would mean that nobility is an elevation of soul that understands or has a mental grasp of the following five predicates of the definition. While this is not false, it’s too mundane in this time in which we all routinely confuse possessing information with being formed by wisdom.

So if we push further back, consulting etymology, we find that the word “comprehend” reaches us from the Latin com + prehendere, which together mean ” to completely lay hold of, to grasp, snatch, seize, catch.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Nobility, far from having anything whatsoever to do with the generally vain frippery of titles and status, attaches to a soul that has raised itself up to higher things – and grasped, snatched, seized, and caught them. It’s the same word used in Livy in a story describing how the assassins of the king of Rome were arrested by the guards, stopped in their tracks and held for examination and application of judgment.

All that certainly changes one’s mental picture of nobility, doesn’t it?

Next up, Webster’s list of qualities that nobility “comprehends.”

In Search of Nobility (1)

From time to time as a teacher of classical literature, I’ve tried to get students to engage with the idea of nobility as it appears in most of the Greek and Roman texts we read. Almost without exception I have found that the word nobility means very little to the modern student – almost as if I was asking them to say something really meaningful about the word humbug or jabberwock or razzamatazz.

Almost without exception I have found that upon asking students reading classical literature to describe the idea of nobility, they cannot come up with anything other than standard, modern dictionary definitions that call up vague, connotatively displeasing notions of snobbish “upper class” people who more often than not prey upon the lowly ordinary people and so must, from time to time, be subjected to revolutions that show them just how fundamentally useless aristocracy really is.

This spectacularly limited horizon regarding the word nobility recently prompted me to do some quick dictionary work of my own, which produced a very interesting result that I now share with you.

First up was the online Merriam-Webster’s, which told me this:

1: the quality or state of being noble in character, quality, or rank

2: the body of persons forming the noble class in a country or state ARISTOCRACY

Next I tried that amazing, little-questioned go-to source for this debased age that confuses rapid access of information with possession of wisdom, Wikipedia, which has this to say:

Nobility is a social class normally ranked immediately below royalty and found in some societies that have a formal aristocracy. Nobility has often been an estate of the realm that possessed more acknowledged privilege and higher social status than most other classes in society. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles or may be largely honorary (e.g., precedence), and vary by country and era. Membership in the nobility, including rights and responsibilities, is typically hereditary.

Finally I turned to Dictionary.com, which offers this:

1. the noble class or the body of nobles in a country.

2. (in Britain) the peerage.

3. the state or quality of being noble.

4. nobleness of mind, character, or spirit;

5. exalted moral excellence.grandeur or magnificence.

6. noble birth or rank.

Lastly I tried Collins Dictionary online, which produced this very similar result:

 SINGULAR NOUN [with singular or plural verb]

The nobility of a society are all the people who have titles and belong to a high social class.Synonyms: aristocracy, lords, elite, nobles   More Synonyms of nobility

2. UNCOUNTABLE NOUN

A person’s nobility is their noble character and behaviour. [formal]

What these searches confirmed was what I knew from experience with students: the definition of nobility has, by the vapid reductionisms of “Social Studies” classes, the caricatures of popular media, and the “just the facts” denotations of popular dictionaries been just about wholly restricted to a mere designator of an arbitrary social class, meaningful only in societies that believe in such intolerant notions as a really-existing hierarchy of goods, the necessity of good people providing examples for others to imitate, and an actually definable thing called human nature which is capable of aspiring to excellence or sinking down below the level of base animalism.

Yet, since I began with the Merriam-Webster dictionary, watch what I found when I turned to the once-upon-a-time much-cited 1828 Webster’s:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

2. Antiquity of family; descent from noble ancestors; distinction by blood, usually joined with riches.

3. The qualities which constitute distinction of rank in civil society, according to the customs or laws of the country; that eminence or dignity which a man derives from birth or title conferred, and which places him in an order above common men. In Great Britain, nobility is extended to five ranks, those of duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron.

4. The persons collectively who enjoy rank above commoners; the peerage; as the English nobility; French, German, Russian nobility

What do you notice as you look over the entries I’ve reproduced here? What I immediately noticed was that the newer dictionaries prioritize the merely functional class-designator, which is driven solely by artificial badges like titles and privilege while the older definition (1828) priorities a set of high-minded – that is elevated – qualities of character. While this definition does appear in several of the other sources I cited, it is lower than the merely social, class-designator one.

You know, the only one that I’ve said most of my students have any familiarity with as they try to read ancient literature chock-full of high-minded ideals that seem, pretty literally, like unintelligible gibberish to the modern, merely functionality-oriented mind.

Needless to say, I find this phenomenon – the debasement of the definition of nobility quite alarming. In this short series I’ll try to recover some bits and pieces of the older, more humane definition of nobility, in the hopes that you will find it useful in your own thinking about matters of the human condition, the problems that ail our society, and what may possibly be done to work on restoring the real excellence of motivations and deeds that has been grievously lost in our time.

True Economics: Nothing to Excess

“For as a body bred to a good habit requires nothing exquisite either in clothes or food, so a sound man and a sound household keep themselves up with a small matter. Riches ought to be proportioned to the use we have of them; for he that scrapes together a great deal, making use of but little, is not independent; for if he wants them not, it is folly in him to make provision for things which he does not desire; or if he does desire them, and restrains his enjoyment out of sordidness, he is miserable.”

– Plutarch, The Comparison of Aristides with Marcus Cato

Sorrowful Abundance

Everybody knows about that C.S. Lewis quote in which he says that you should always read a certain proportion of older books to newer books because the older ones do not share your biases and will thus likely help you see even seemingly familiar things in a different light.

This will be my first installment of a probably irregular series that will illustrate the truth of Lewis’s dictum. For my first outing, I’ve chosen the following quote from the poet Hesiod, a contemporary of the Homer who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hesiod writes:

“It is good to take from what is available, but sorrow to the heart to be wanting what is not available. I suggest you reflect on this.” (Works and Days, 364)

I believe that this is a principle we can’t easily understand, for our technology has created an artificial world in which nearly anything is available just whenever we want it.

Pause and think about that and you’ll see what I mean. Want a certain fruit or vegetable that, in terms of the climate you live in and the present time of year shouldn’t be available? No problem! Just hop in the car and go down to your favorite grocery store and get that thing and bring it back and bon appetit!

What could be simpler? And after all, isn’t the ability to do this sort of thing regarding just about anything you want anytime you want one of the wonderful blessings of our time? I mean, can you imagine living in ancient or medieval times when, as I’ve actually seen some over-enthusiastic advocates of our culture’s superfluity day, everybody wore hair shirts and was always starving to death? No thanks! Progress has liberated us from all that sort of awful stuff, and as both Americans and American Christians, don’t we just have a birthright to this kind of prosperity?

But if we really want to call ourselves practitioners of classical education, shouldn’t we take the classical sources that underlie that mode of education much more seriously on their own terms? Shouldn’t we take C.S. Lewis’ dictum more seriously by reading the old books with an eye towards what we might learn from them rather than only towards what we can criticize them for? Read the short quote from Hesiod again:

“It is good to take from what is available, but sorrow to the heart to be wanting what is not available. I suggest you reflect on this.” (Works and Days, 364)

What might we be missing if we just quickly pass our eyes over these words on the way to checking off the box that says we have “read Hesiod” as efficiently as possible so that we can move on with our real lives? What if we were to read these words a bit more slowly and reflectively, ask what he means by each term, and then compare the total meaning to how we ourselves live?

If we were to do this, I think it would quickly become clear that unlike Hesiod, who lived in the world much more in touch with nature, we don’t readily grasp that there ought to be limits on our desires. It ought not to be the case that no matter what we desire, somebody has figured out a way to provide it for us, conveniently and attractively packaged, easily available in quantity, and cheap enough that we’ll go get it just because we want it.

We might start to see – really see – what is always right in front of us but which we constantly take for granted because we don’t tend to closely, reflectively examine perspectives on the world that are radically different from our own.

That is, we might start to really see that there are serious ethical and spiritual ramifications to the fact that we don’t live in a world where “not available” is a category that typically constrains our desires and actions. We might start to wonder whether there’s a real downside to our unbelievable superfluity of resources and the financial ability to make the most of them. And if we were really ambitious intellectually, we might start to notice some ways that the phenomenon of unmoderated desire, driven by the fantastic superfluity that has banished “not available,” has created a world ethically hostile to Christianity, not to mention the old style pagan concept of Virtue itself.

Unlike Hesiod, we’re not going to have sorrow of heart because we want what is not available. Rather the converse is true: we’re going to wind up with lots of sorrow of heart because we want all kinds of things that are available, but that shouldn’t be – and which wouldn’t be if we lived in the world governed by natural limitations rather than the constant and frantic quest to overcome them by artificial means that only encourage the development of immoderate, and sometimes even unnatural, desires.

We are absolutely and utterly awash in choices, so much so that we’re often paralyzed when trying to make seemingly simple decisions about meals, pens, shoes, cars, and dozens of other things that are just part of ordinary life and which really shouldn’t consume so much of our time and create so much anxiety. And this is even before we get to really important things like who we will associate with, how seriously we will take agreements we have made with other people when they seem to be suddenly inconvenient for us, or even where we will go to church to get our fantastically self-centered concept of our own needs met in the best way possible for our own satisfaction.

In all these ways and many more, our unbelievable plenitude, which in our unreflective moments we think ought to bring us so much joy, are in reality bringers of sorrow. Because our technology has allowed us to practically banish the old kind of want, we have each and every one of us been shaped all of our lives without any significant care for the types, qualities, and needful limitations of the other kind of want.

As Hesiod said, “I suggest [we] reflect on this.” The quote is pretty short. But like most pithy things our classical sources say, it contains a great deal more depth than the few words in which it is said at first seemed to convey.

“The Evils Which Money Brings Us”

“For if you compare all the other things from which we suffer, deaths, illlnesses, fears, desires, endurance of pains and toils, with the evils which money brings us, the latter will far outweigh the others….Let us learn to increase our self-restraint, to curb luxury, to moderate ambition, to soften anger, to regard poverty without prejudice, to practise frugality, even if many are ashamed of it, to apply to nature’s needs the remedies that are cheaply available, to curb as if in fetters unbridled hopes and a mind obsessed with the future, and to aim to acquire our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune.” – “On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa (New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005), pp. 42-44)

Considering that Seneca was here advocating what is sometimes carelessly called “vain philosophy,” a category which is then superficially set in stark contradiction to Scripture, hear the Scriptures themselves:

“For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Tim. 6:7)

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Mt. 6:34)

“People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. ” (1 Tim. 6:9-10)