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.